Wednesday, October 24, 2012

With the Black Scarves at the Battle of Bong Trang


1st of the 2nd, The Black Scarf Battalion


In April 1966, Sgt. Harry Guenterberg watched Ltc Richard Prillaman tear a square of black cloth from a table in a VC hut to make a sweat rag to go around his neck. That gave the commander an idea.  American soldiers working in the tropic climate of South Vietnam often wore green towels or cloths around their neck to keep the flowing sweat under control.  Although the practice was “non-uniform” it was tolerated by leaders.  The village of Lo Go, that Prillaman and his troops had just captured, harbored a large stash of black cotton cloth, destine to be fabricated into black pajama Viet Cong uniforms.   Ltc Prillaman, commander of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, took the cloth and had it made into something useful, but distinctive.  The whole battalion would soon sport uniform black neck scarves. 
 
Someone suggested distinctive company embroidery and developed a color scheme to go with it: HHC - yellow, Company A - red, Company B - white, Company C - blue and Company D - green.  So was born the Black Scarf Battalion.  The battalion continued this tradition until they re-deployed to the United States in 1970.   (From "2nd Infantry Regiment" by Larry Grzywinski, http://www.secinfreg.org/2nd%20Infantry%20Regiment%20for%20the%20web%20site(01162015).pdf)






LTC Richard Prillaman.  Prillaman went on to command an Armor Division during the 1980s.
He retired as a  LT General.  Photo courtesy Stanley Richards.


1/2 Infantry, Black Scarf soldiers clean thier equipment after an operation. 
Photo courtesy John Johnston

 A Treasure Re-Found

Thirty one years ago I was new 2nd lieutenant getting ready to ship out to the First Infantry Division.  The "Big Red One" had a storied history from WWI, WWII and Vietnam.  I was very proud to have been assigned to that famous division. 

 Greg McMahon and Curtis Quickle, my best home town buddies, took me out for a last fling in Little Rock before I departed for Fort Riley, Kansas.  At one of our stops, I ran into a gentleman who sported a First Infantry Division pin on his cowboy hat.  Next to the division pin was a unit crest for the 1/2 Infantry  -  the battalion in the First Division where I was to be assigned! 

 I hailed him of course, and we struck up a great conversation.  John Johnston had seen combat with the 1/2 Infantry in Vietnam.  I got his address and we corresponded for several months after that.  I felt truly humble, and privileged when he gave to me the Black Scarf that he wore in Vietnam and photos of himself taken in country.

 I treasured those artifacts, but during one of my many military moves they were lost - or so I though.  I   mourned the loss of those items for many years, until they recently resurfaced when I found them tucked away in a long forgotten box. 

 This is the story of John Johnston and the Black Scarf Battalion at the Battle of Bong Trang, one of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War.
"C Company weren't culls on 25 August, 1966.  C Company and B Company were wiped out that day."

At the peak of the Vietnam monsoon season, the 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division began a routine road clearing operation.  Operation Amarillo, as it was called, was intended to remove mines and IEDs along several roads in Binh Long and Binh Duong Provinces.  Most of the clearing would occur along Highway 16 between Phuoc Vinh, the brigade base camp, south to Di An, the division headquarters.  The first two days were uneventful.  On the night of August 24th, Capt William Mullen sent out a fifteen man patrol from C Company, 1/2 Infantry.  They were to stay over overnight and listen for potential movement of enemy forces.

The next day dawned clear, a respite from the monsoons.  The patrol soon walked into the middle of a North Vietnamese base camp, that until that time had remained undetected.  As the patrol realized their mistake, they sent out an urgent call for help.  Within minutes half were dead and the survivors were fighting from abandoned NVA bunkers.  Five hundred men of the Phu Loi Battalion of the NVA army were swarming to the attack.  Only artillery fire called in on their own position by the patrol kept the enemy at bay.

Pvt. John Johnston of Little Rock, Arkansas was a baby faced 18 year old rifleman in C Company.  He, along with the remainder of C Company and a platoon of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment (1/4 Cav) loaded on one M48 tank and seven M113 armored personal carriers and sped to the rescue.  As the relief force neared a large clearing in the NVA camp, the enemey ambushed C Company. 

Photo courtesy of John Johnston
Lt James Holland, on his first combat operation as a platoon leader remembered, "When we were about 400 meters from them all hell broke loose. We deployed off the cav vehicles and we all returned fire. Our fire suppressed the VC and my company commander told me to take an A Cav and a tank, mount my platoon and go get the squad. We pulled out of the perimeter and headed for our objective. When we were about 400 hundred yards out the company and the vehicles we left were hit hard. I was ordered to return. As we turned the tank threw a track. Because it would have taken to long under those conditions to repair it we had to leave it. After destroying it we headed back in to the fight."  Lt Holland was wounded and three of his vehicle commanders were killed immediately as mortar and heavy machine gun fire tore through the column.  Casualties mounted as C Company engaged the Phu Loi Battalion. 
Lt James Holland. From:
http://www.leonflpurpleheart.org/Patriot.Holland.htm 
As the leader of Troop C's 2d Platoon, Sgt. Wilbur J. Barrow, reported, "Every time we tried to get out, we were hit by mortars and hand grenades." As the commanders fell, Barrow continued, "privates were taking command of the tracks and calling  me to ask for help. My answer to them was to pick up their wounded and take salt pills and drink water, and pray, pray, pray! There was no help for anyone.”


"We were in their base camp and they wanted in and we didn't let them."

 The fight turned into a close quarters slug fest.  Only artillery support saved Mullen's force from being overrun.  Mullen remembered later: "Until 2nd Lt Bruce Robertson, our forward observer was evacuated, he called for artillery fires on a continual bases, despite blood spurting from numerous wounds."

 Casualties continued to mount, and no one knew how long it would take for help to arrive.  Mullen recalled: "While talking on the radio, I heard someone say, 'Charlie Six.' I looked up to see Specialist Tommy Freese, the only man in his platoon who was not a casualty.  As bullets few all around, Tommy stood in the open with a 60mm mortar on one shoulder and a sack of ammunition on the other. 'Sir' he said.  'The fourth platoon is ready.  Where do you want me to shoot?' "

From: Combat Operation: Stemming the Tide - May 1965 - October 1966. 
John M. Carland, Office of the Chief of Military History, Govt Printing Office
Pvt John Johnston paints a vivid picture of the fight. "It was a bad day that burned in my mind.  24 hrs of fear despair and anger.  We shifted around all day, trench to trench.  I used lots of grenades.  There was a continuous roar.  Gunpowder and the smell of soured blood.   Powder burns on my arms from buddies weapons.   Hot rifle shells going down my collar.  Hot.  I don't know how we survived."

 Now C Company and the cavalry needed to be rescued.  The remainder of 1/2 Infantry was committed immediately and raced to the fight.  Soon, the Brigade commander had all of his battalions moving to the NVA base camp.  1/16 Infantry, 1/26 Infantry, 2/28 Infantry and the remainder of 1/4 Cavalry were moving to the sound of the guns in a hasty attack.

 Help was coming, but could Charlie Company hold out? 

Next time:  Part two http://erasgone.blogspot.com/2012/11/with-black-scarves-at-bong-trang-part-2.html

19 comments:

  1. i was with b company 1st platoon 2nd squad leader. we only had 2 squads which equaled 1 infantry squad. sgt. Rodriquez was 1st squad leader with 7 men while i had 5.

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  2. THE 1/2 and 2/2 were not originaly the 1st infantry div. two battalions of armored infantry were left behind as they could not use apc in rice paddies. they stayed behind and the 1.2 and 2/2 went from fort Devins Ma. in there place as a spec 4 machine gunner in co b. 1st platoon i left with the rest for California and a leisure cruise to beatiful Vietnam. Harry Guenterberg. 1st plat. 2nd squad co b 1/2 inf.

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    1. Mr. Guenterberg, thanks for your comment and for your service. I'm an old Infantryman, but never had the misfortune of being shot at (my service was between the wars). Even with my experiances in the 1/2 Infantry of my generation, I can never appreciate what you, John Johnston and the other men went through that day. "Duty First!"

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  3. I was in the 1/2 black scarves bravo in 1977- 1979 God bless the Big Red One.

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    1. Not in Vietnam, The Big Red One Colors came back home on March 17, 1970.. My tour Mar. 19, 1969 to Mar. 17, 1970

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  4. Sir, thank you for your service. I was a couple of years behind you and served in the 1/2 Infantry from 1981-1984

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  5. Dave Sexton here. I was a machinegunner with the squad that first made contact with the enemy. A day that will I will never forget as long as I live. GOD bless all of you and welcome home to all of you that made it.

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    1. Dave, my neighbor was in C Co during this battle as well....his name is Robert Graber....it would mean the world to me if I could help him reconnect with his friends....please feel free to contact me at ranchero67sept@gmail.com , I am currently active duty army and have been in for almost 16 years and after 4 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan I know all too well the bond that is made in combat between brothers in arms.

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  6. Dave, thanks for your comment and your service. Every veteran of Bong Trang that I have communicated with shares your feelings of that day. It was a turning point in the lives of many of the survivors in that they measure their lives from before and after August 25, 1966.

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  7. I was with the 1/4 Cav in '77 at Ft. Riley.That would explain the pride that they showed. Also the need for constant training and field exercises. I transferred out and wished I never had.

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  8. I was on point when call came in , c,co. was in trouble i was with aco we circle around the other side as a blocking force , we set up a line to were the nva were at ,there was one tank side had run in a bonker ,apc was off to the right side just wanted to let b co & cco that they were not alone E4 james holland Aco 1/2 1inf div.

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  9. My name is Raymond Davis, I have served in the Army for 16 years as of now.....I have the distinct honor of having one of the brave men who fought in this battle for a neighbor....I don't know that he would comment on here himself but it would mean the world to me and I am sure him if there was anyone reading this from Charlie Company could contact me. I would love to help him reconnect with any old friends. ....having served 4 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan myself I know all to well that the bond made in combat is one of the most sacred. Please feel free to email me at ranchero67sept@gmail.com

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  10. Mr Davis, thanks for your comment and your service. Many of the men that survived August 25th frequent a Facebook page devoted to the 1st BN, 2nd Infantry, including John Johnston and Harry Guetenberg I suggest you join that page and introduce yourself. Hopefully this link will work. https://www.facebook.com/groups/213786211704/

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  11. Dracula Alpha Kilo here.
    I also was a Black Scarve in 1966/67.
    Spec 4 Hanson

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  12. Dracula Alpha Kilo here.
    I also was a Black Scarve in 1966/67.
    Spec 4 Hanson

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  13. Anyone know spec 4 John Francis Doyle? 1/2. He was KIA in Bong Trang. He was my cousin. I served in the Gulf War. C/101. The 1/4 Cav ang 26th was with is my Guard platoon was assigned to C/101. I also was a medic in 2/102inf 71-76.

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  14. Anyone know Spec 4 John Francis Doyle 1/2? He was KIA in Bong Trang. He was my cousin. I am a Gulf War vet. My Guard platoon served with. C/101 1st ID. The 1/4 and 16th were with us also. I also served as a medic in 1971-77 in 2/102inf.

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  15. Any know Sgt Lewellyn Bragdon he fought and was injured during the Battle of Bong Trang. 1/4 Cav 26th. I have an article written about him from that day. Thanks to all serve and have served, may God bless you

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