The Operation Junction City cordon may have prevented the Viet Cong from escaping War Zone C, had there been any there, but it most definitely didn’t prevent any VC from entering War Zone C. The initial attacks in the first few weeks fixed the outlying American battalions in place, as the VC streamed past to assault the half-finished firebases and Special Forces’ camps further into the interior of the Tay Ninh province.
One such firebase was located at Landing Zone Gold outside of Suoi Tre. Landing Zone Gold was well known to the Viet Cong due to its frequent use during Operation Attleboro a few months prior, and was littered with 82mm mortars and 122mm artillery shells rigged with pressure plates and trip wires. On 19 March, 1967, the 3rd Battalion/22nd Infantry, and 2nd Bn, 77th Artillery landed at Gold to establish a firebase to support further operations in the area.
The improvised explosive devices were the first indications that the landing zone was targeted. And though the battalions lost some men and three helicopters, the damage was not nearly what it could have been. The men of 3-22 IN dug in immediately with A company securing the west side of the perimeter and B Company securing the east (C Company was the Bde Reserve), with the three batteries of the artillery battalion in a second smaller perimeter inside. On the 20th, they were reinforced with a section of quad .50 Cal anti-aircraft guns, which were particularly useful in an anti-personnel role. It was none too soon. The 450 men of the two battalions were in place less than 36 hours before the entire 2400 strong reinforced 272nd VC Regiment descended upon them.
Just before dawn on the 21st, B Co’s squad on night ambush was itself ambushed as it returned to the firebase, as dozens, if not hundreds, of mortars and rockets landed inside the perimeter. The VC conducted a feint against the west side of the perimeter, then launched a full scale three battalion assault against B Co in the east. B Co held as the Quad 50s continually fired two guns as the other two reloaded, while the artillery battalion laid their own guns directly on advancing Vietnamese. Two other firebases joined in with a final protective and counterbattery fire, along with a flight of F-4s, with more air on the way. Nonetheless, the VC were so many that the B Co commander reported that within minutes he had enemy inside the perimeter, and close contact inside the fighting positions.
The battle turned when the VC shot down the forward air controller’s plane, then knocked out the quad .50 with a recoilless rifle. The VC surged forward, overran an entire platoon, and forced the rest back inside the perimeter. Gunners, ammo handlers, and support personnel from the artillery battalion went forward to help the infantry, but there was still hand to hand fighting inside the infantry battalion command post and medical bunker. The VC also overran a quad .50 cal, and turned it on the defenders. Fortunately, American gunners destroyed it before it could do too much damage with a well-placed high explosive round over open sights. In a last desperate attempt to slow down the Communist assault, the B Co commander requested the artillerymen fire directly into the southern and eastern perimeter with special “beehive” rounds, a modern, and much more deadly, version of the canister round used by artillerymen for centuries. When fired indirectly, the rounds had a timer which would explode and release the 8000 metal flechettes packed inside, but with the VC fifteen meters from the guns, the timers were disabled. The gunners fired cloud after cloud of flechettes into American and Vietnamese alike, though most of what was left of B Co had established a new firing line around the guns, inside the artillery perimeter.
The desperate move temporarily checked the VC assault, and bought just enough time for some reinforcements to arrive. First, A Co on the west was having its own problems with a VC battalion, especially in the north where the VC from the east had penetrated and occupied some of his fighting positions. They had lost contact with their own night ambush patrol, which unlike B Co, was almost an entire platoon. The A Co commander assumed they were dead, like B Co’s. However, this was not the case. The ambushing platoon leader recognized his predicament, and infiltrated all of his men out of the pending VC ambush, through the attacking battalion, and back into the perimeter, without losing a man. They were immediately sent to help the gunners, led by their battalion commander and future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff GEN Vessey, literally fighting for their guns. The A Co infantrymen helped hold the east and south side of the artillery perimeter and assisted what was left of B Co seal the penetration. They arrived just after the last beehive rounds were fired.
Also, 2-77 FA was tasked to support the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry on a search and destroy mission to the southwest. The 272nd commander knew of the mission, and tasked mortar and artillery fire to fix them. However, when the wounded 2-12 IN battalion commander heard the fighting to his east, and in particular the cannons firing that weren’t in support of him, he literally marched to the sound of the guns, correctly assuming the firebase was under attack.
About this time their brigade commander was above the battle in a small observer plane with a new forward air controller who began directing the dozen or so planes who had had stacked up in the sky. They were unable to drop their ordnance on the confused melee below without fear of even more friendly casualties. The first coordinated attack of F-100s dropped the infamous combination of “Snake and Nape” (two 250 lbs Mark 81 “Snakeye” general purpose bombs to ignite a 500 lb canister of napalm) directly on the eastern perimeter, and broke up a surprisingly rapid reorganized VC assault. The next few airstrikes were in support of 2-12 IN who were practically jogging into an ambush. The first men from 2-12 IN burst through the smoking woodline at 0900, after an excruciatingly difficult 4 km quick march through the thick bamboo to find the firebase in chaos. The 2-12 IN commander ordered his men to reestablish the eastern perimeter. Their subsequent counterattack ran straight into the next wave of assaulting VC, but the renewed effort by the Americans pushed them back outside the original perimeter. Nevertheless, the VC came on: the 272nd commander still had his reserve battalion and his men were so determined to kill Americans that many wounded demanded to be carried to support by fire positions to continue the fight.
Further south, the M48 tanks and M113 APC’s of 2-34 Armor carrying C Co 2-22 Infantry, had been ordered to the battle but couldn’t find a crossing over the Suoi May Ta River. For 30 minutes the tankers and mechanized infantrymen listened helplessly as scouts searched for a ford. The tankers and APC crews eventually found a spot where they could sink an M113, and drive over it. However, they could only send one vehicle across at a time.
In true cavalry fashion they arrived just as the VC were about to launch their last assault. Moving forward in a wedge, the tankers launched their own flechette rounds into the flank of the assault, as the .50 Cal’s on the commander’s cupolas of the tanks, APCs and M88 Recovery vehicles pounded away. What was left of the 272nd VC Regiment broke and ran. In one last act of defiance, the guns of Firebase Gold pounded the eastern tree line as the Viet Cong fled through. The tankers and APCs pursued for another two hours before turning back.
The American’s initiative, flexibility, tactical mobility, and firepower were clearly far superior to that of the French fifteen years before. Tranh’s search for big unit battles was proving very costly. The Battle for Firebase Gold was the single largest loss of life for the Communists up to that point in the war, to include the fights for LZs XRay and Albany 18 months previously. Though Tranh was not completely discredited, yet, Giap would not let him forget it.