Thursday, November 1, 2012

With the Black Scarves at Bong Trang - Part 2

“The First Infantry Division Headquarters named it the Battle of Bong Trang, but those American soldiers who made war there will always call it 25 August.  That is the day in 1966 that my unit fought the Phu Loi Battalion. . .” William J. Mullen III
Captain William Mullen’s Charlie Company of the ½ Infantry was not technically surrounded, although fire was coming from all directions.  But Mullen was not in a defensive frame of mind.  He continued to press the attack in areas of his line and asked his Battalion Commander, Major Richard Clark, to hold off on the reinforcements so that close air support and artillery plaster the enemy.  Major Clark, who could see more of the fight unfolding from a helicopter, declined Mullen’s suggestion and hurried his A Company and B Company to the rescue.  Clark remained in the air where he could see and control the entire fight.  Troop C of the ¼ Cavalry also linked up with B Company for the race to the sound of the guns. 
C Troop of the 1/4 Cav move out on the morning of August 25
Charlie Company had been fighting for almost four hours before Captain Johannsen and B Company found their way through the tangled jungle and into the clearing.  Only the sound of firing and circling helicopters allowed Johannsen to find his way to the beleaguered Mullen.   Heavy automatic weapons fire and mortars pinned them down almost immediately.  Captain Johannsen was wounded by grenade fragments and his intelligence officer, Captain George Downs, took command.  B Company made three unsuccessful attempts to break through to Charlie Company.  Only fourteen men made that last charge.  By then, Captain Downs was wounded and the battalion communications officer, who accompanied B Company, was in command.

Eventually the C Troop of the ¼ Cavalry broke through in their tanks and APCs.  Captain Slattery of the Cavalry found dead and wounded littering the ground and that men had become separated from their platoons and squads.  Hank Stewart of the 1/4 Cav recalled, "2 tracks from C Troop had been knocked out by RPG and 57 recoilless. The crews were all dead. We took up forward positions and our one tank began firing canister into the base camp. We returned fire with .50 cal and M60s. The platoon leaders TC, Sammy Larkin was killed. Lt. Klippen shouted over the radio to "burn the piss out of those treetops".  He was killed right after that."

The 1/2 Infantry Black Scarf worn by PFC John Johnston in Vietnam
An Air Force medivac helicopter had already been shot down in the clearing, blocking the small landing space.  Slattery suggested to Mullen that the wounded be evacuated to a landing zone 400 meters to the east of the clearing.  The Cav’s APC were put into service as ambulances and began shuttling the wounded to the new landing zone.  More medivac helicopters, still landing under sporadic fire, transported them out of the fight to safety. 

Harry Guenterberg rode into the clearing with B Company about noon on August 25.  He was one of only 14 men still standing after his Company made three assaults trying to break into to assist C Company. Harry was also present at the genesis of the black scarf.   He watched Ltc Prillman 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 the idea for making a scarf for each of his soldiers from a stockpile of captured VC black cotton.   Photo courtesy Harry Guenterberg
 Five hours into the fight and still a cohesive perimeter had not been carved out of the chaos.  The Phu Loi Battalion was tenacious.  The smaller American force was just as determined, but the pressure was too great to consolidate their position.  COL Sydney Berry, the Brigade Commander was impatient.  He ordered Major Clark, the ½ Battalion Commander to take charge on the ground.  Clark and Berry’s UH-1s arrived at the landing zone almost at the same time, and they headed on foot to the clearing together.  As they huddled together to discuss their plans a blast of machine gun fire sent them sprawling.  Berry was unhurt, but Major Clark was dead with a bullet through the skull. 
Although it was a battalion level fight at that time, the Brigade Commander felt he had no other choice but to take command on the ground.  Colonel Berry later recalled that he “ran around like a crazy man getting things moving.”  Because he could no longer see the big picture, he had his Operations Officer who was orbiting in a helicopter, coordinate fire support and move reinforcements to the fight. 

The fight intensified as Berry’s other battalions arrived on the scene and entered the battle.  The 1/26 overwhelmed enemy positions on the east flank; 1/16 Infantry attacked from the west and 2/28 Infantry set up a blocking position to the north of the clearing.  As the 1/26 and the 1/16 made initial gains, Colonel Berry ordered them to shift their axis of attack to link in with Captain Mullen’s ½ Infantry who were still being “chewed to pieces.”  Mullen recalled “Captain Jim Madden, commanding B Company of the 26th, one of the first units to fight its way into our location, received a serious wound almost as soon as he reached us.  He nevertheless broke away from the medics in order to apologize to me for having to leave the fight.”

The 1/16 turned north and immediately encountered a well camouflaged bunker system with interlocking fire.  Viet Cong Heavy machine guns, recoilless rifles, mortars and small arms raked A Company.  Within minutes the commander, Captain Peter Knight, was killed and all of his platoon leaders wounded.  1/16’s attack ground to a halt, but as they reorganized the enemy in their immediate front fled from their positions.

As the 1/16 Infantry’s attack wound down, Ltc Paul Gorman commander of 1/26 Infantry, arrived in the clearing with the last of the American reinforcements.  Berry’s entire brigade was now in contact with the enemy.  As Gorman made a triumphant entry on a M48 tank, Berry climbed aboard to shake his hand.  “A machine gun opened up on us, and we unceremoniously scrambled off the tank, dashed across the clearing, and jumped into a VC trench I was using for my CP,” Berry recalled.  Berry left Gorman in command on the ground and returned to resume control of his brigade. 
Night falls quickly in the jungle.  As darkness enveloped the Americans they hunkered down and allowed artillery and a flare ship to keep the battlefield illuminated throughout the night.  The Phu Loi Battalion made no further coordinated attacks.  They were satisfied to wait for an attack in their underground bunkers and send sporadic harassing fire into the American lines.

The early morning of August 26th found Colonel Berry back on the ground at the clearing.  The enemy was still hunkered down in their bunkers.  He wanted them out of the ground where he could kill them, but did not want to send his battered troops in a frontal assault to root them out.  Too many good men had been lost the day before.  Berry and Ltc Gorman decided to call a napalm strike in the bunker system sandwiched between his 1/16 and 1/26 Infantry battalions.  The eleventh canister struck a tree and sent jellied flames across Gorman’s CP, burning a map from the scrambling commander’s hands.  "My map and radio were literally burned up," Gorman remembered, "and I got singed a bit.  I asked that they keep laying the napalm on, and they did."  Gorman watched helplessly as a later canister fell short, into the American lines.  Two Americans died and fourteen were injured in the flames. 

John Johnston recalled the incident.  "Our Air Force dropped napalm on us because some dumbass threw a red smoke grenade out when we marked our position with smoke.  When they dropped the napalm, the gooks left."  Gorman halted the air attacks.  Despite the horror of the American casualties, the napalm had done what was intended.  The Phu Loi Battalion was retreating and leaving their base camp to the 1st Brigade. 
The 1st Brigade spent the remainder of the day mopping up VC stragglers as they scoured the jungle north and east of the clearing.  Early in the day, nine men from the original lost patrol limped into the landing zone.  They had survived by hiding deep in VC bunkers with the  enemy all around them.

John Johnston lived through the twenty four hours of hell that was August 25.  Like many of the men who survived this fight, it is still burned into his psyche.  John later became the "RTO" and carried the platoon sergeant's radio.  He performed the same service for his platoon leader before he was offered a job in the Brigade mail room for his last month in country.  He turned it down ". . .because I was too proud to quit.  I told them about another guy who needed it worse than I did."  John received a Bronze Star for valor for his actions on August 25th.  His citation reads in part: 

Private First Class Johnston noticed a claymore mine set up in the path of his advancing comrades.  Realizing the imminent danger, he courageously rushed forward into a heavy barrage of mortar and automatic weapons fire and deftly disarmed the mine.  Later in the same afternoon, PFC Johnston personally led several members of his platoon in a grenade assault of Viet Cong occupied trenches and bunkers.  They were successful in routing the enemy.

John told me many years ago that "deftly disarmed the mine" meant that he laid the electrical wire across the butt of his M16 and hacked it with his bayonet!  It worked. 
18 year old PFC John Johnston (left) wears his newly won Bronze star with other veterans of Bong Trang. 
Photo Courtesy of the John Johnston
 Johnston was one of many men who were decorated for actions at Bong Trang.  Captain William Mullen and Ltc Paul Gorman were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.  Mullen, Gorman, and Berry all became general officers later in their careers.

Captain William J. Mullen III receives his Distinguished Service Cross from General William Westmoreland
during a ceremony after the battle of Bong Trang.  Probably one of the few times were a 1/2 Infantry
 black scarf was cleaned and pressed!  Photo from:
All battles come with a human cost.  For Vietnam War standards, August 25 was a murderous day.  The 1st Brigade of the First Infantry Division lost 43 killed and 248 wounded.  C and B Company of 1/2 Infantry sustained the lion's share of these losses.  Captured documents later revealed that the Phu Loi Battalion lost 171 killed at Bong Trang and their wounded filled VC medical facilities in the region.
AUTHORS NOTE:  I have one other connection to this story.  When I served with the First Infantry Division in the early 1980s, Colonel William J. Mullen III was my Brigade Commander.  Colonel Mullen was well liked and respected by his officers.  His part as a young captain in this battle so many years before, and the fact that he was a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor in precedence) was unknown to us.  He was a level headed and humble commander, who expected the best from his men.


  1. Thank you. I have heard of this. My dad was an original Black Scarf. I have that photo. I was born July 1966. And he was gone. His records are lost, but he received also was awarded the distinguished Service Cross from General Westmorland. I asked him about it once. He said he earned nothing. He was saving lives. He stared to tell me. But could not. My husband and son have been deployed. My son was in Opporation Enduring Freedom. Two campaigns. My son was in Operation New Dawn. THANK YOU for researching this. This means the world to us!! My brother came home just shy of the Gulf War. My Husband happened to find this. I have been looking for years.

  2. I was the senor Medic for C1/2 sgt Arthur (JIM)Boucher