Vietnam War Battlefields: Visiting Ben Het Special Forces Camp, Vietnam.

Vietnam War Battlefields: Visiting Ben Het Special Forces Camp, Vietnam.

Above Photo: A view of what used to be the camp and airfield in the foreground and mountains on the Cambodian/Laotian border in the distance, taken on my recent visit to Ben Het.

“An Ordeal In Dirt and Death… Ben Het at night is a scene that is at once beautiful and fascinating, weird and horrible. Dali, Goya, Bach, The Beatles, Hemingway and Zanuck would understand. Flares hang in the sky, casting milky, light purple shadows. A plane drones and circles overhead, periodically spitting streams of fiery tracers at enemy positions.”
B. Drummond Ayers, Jr.  June 30, 1969 – New York Times

Ben Het under siege. (Screenshot)

Ben Het under siege. (Screenshot)

On a recent research trip for my Vietnam War/Backpacker crossover novel BACK, I travelled through the remote tri-border area of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, visiting some almost-forgotten battlefields and camps from the Vietnam War.

One of these was the lonely US Special Forces outpost of Ben Het, which is located northwest of Kontum, Vietnam, in the Central Highlands, and very close to the Laos-Cambodian border.

The Layout of Ben Het Special Forces camp (Screenshot)

The Layout of Ben Het Special Forces camp (Screenshot)

It was the site of one of only a very few tank battles between the North Vietnamese Army and US forces during the Vietnam War, but nowadays, unless you have an experienced guide, you would never find it, as there are no signposts or other markers to denote the camp’s location.

I took an excellent guide from nearby Kontum, and travelled with him towards the Laotian border.

One of the artillery pieces at Ben Het (Screenshot)

One of the artillery pieces at Ben Het (Screenshot)

On 3 March 1969, Ben Het was made infamous when it was attacked by the North Vietnamese Army, who were unusually supported by armored vehicles, including PT-76 tanks and armoured personnel carriers, in the middle of the night.

The camp had been built in the late 1960s and consisted of a main hill and two satellite hills, on which artillery had been based. There was also an airstrip just outside the base which could usually only be used when the camp wasn’t under attack or besieged by NVA and Viet Cong troops.

The location of Ben Het, close to the tri border area of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and to major offshoots of the Ho Chi Minh Trail

The location of Ben Het, close to the tri border area of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and to major offshoots of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (Screenshot)

Ben Het was originally built keep an eye on the Ho Chi  Minh Trail, which wound through the mountains and jungles of Laos, before one main branch exited Laos into Vietnam, close to the camp.

At the time of the 1968 tank attack the camp was defended by artillery, anti-aircraft guns used as ground attack weapons, M-48 tanks and US troops, Special Forces and local Montagnards, tough local tribesmen who were helping US forces in their fight against the North Vietnamese Army.

A B-52 air strike goes in near the Cambodian border (Corbis).

A B-52 air strike goes in near the Cambodian border (© Corbis).

The camp had been relatively quiet until February 1968 when North Vietnamese guns and mortars began shelling it. It was also hit with Howitzers fired from a secret North Vietnamese gun site known as Area 609 inside nearby Cambodia, which had howitzers on rails that allowed the guns to be run back into caves shuttered with blast metal doors, to protect them from air strikes.

On 3 March 1969 the camp was attacked by ten PT-76 tanks, only the second time the NVA had deployed tanks in battle.

AN injured soldier is taken to a fist aid station at Ben Het. behind is an M-48 tank. (Screenshot)

An injured US soldier is taken to a fist aid station at Ben Het. behind is an M-48 tank. (Screenshot)

Luckily for the camp’s defenders, one tank detonated a land mine, which alerted the camp and lit up the other PT-76s attacking the base.

Flares were sent up, exposing the North Vietnamese tanks in the surrounding countryside. By sighting in on muzzle flashes from US tanks inside Ben Het, one North Vietnamese PT-76 scored a direct hit on the turret of an M-48, killing two crewmen and wounding two more.

One of the destroyed PT-76 tanks the day after the battle.

One of the destroyed North Vietnamese PT-76 tanks the day after the battle.

Another US M-48 tank, using the same technique, destroyed a North Vietnamese PT-76 tank with their second shot.

Then the battlefield came under fire from an AC-47 “Spooky” gunship, whilst thirty US air sorties were also flown in support of Ben Het that night, dropping ordnance very close to the camp to drive back the NVA attackers.

The remains of a destroyed North Vietnamese armoured Personnel Carrier the following day.

The remains of a destroyed North Vietnamese armoured Personnel Carrier the following day.

In their effort to overrun Ben Het, the NVA resorted to tear gas shortly before another assault around midnight. But the defenders held the camp without difficulty.

The battle ended at daybreak, when the wreckage of two NVA tanks and one armored personnel carrier were discovered.

Another shot of the wrecked PT-76 tank the following day.

Another shot of a wrecked PT-76 tank the following day.

At least one of the U.S. tanks, on the west hill position, was damaged in the battle.

The camp was then besieged for months by NVA soldiers and the Viet Cong, who seemed impervious to both massive B-52 strikes and the limited effectiveness of the South Vietnamese Army, who were tasked with rooting out the NVA in the surrounding countryside.

Some of Ben Het's Montagnard defenders (Screenshot).

Some of Ben Het’s Montagnard defenders (Screenshot).

During the siege the intensity of incoming artillery shells meant that US resupply aircraft couldn’t land on the airfield, but had to drop supplies into the camp from the air. On some days the NVA bombardment reached a level of two hundred shells.

On June 23 there was a serious probing attack that led to a three-hour firefight. One American was killed and a half-dozen more wounded. The NVA was estimated to have 1,500 to 2,000 troops in the immediate vicinity of the camp, and they seemed prepared for a long siege.

Screenshot of the camp during the seige

Screenshot of the camp during the siege

They also employed psychological warfare. Beginning the night following the original attack, the North Vietnamese used loudspeakers to promise destruction of the camp and its occupants, while offering safety if the defenders surrendered. The messages in English and Vietnamese were punctuated with a bombardment of sixty-five shells.

The U.S. command answered with B-52 strikes that dropped thousands of tons of high explosive bombs in the nearby mountains and jungle. Yet the NVA still didn’t give up, and developed a tactic of quickly ambushing soldiers sent in the aftermath of B-52 strikes to assess the damage on the ground.

A view of Ben Het from the other side, looking towards the Cambodian border, and across the camp and the airfield. John Stymerski ( )

A view of Ben Het looking towards Laos, across the camp and the airfield. John Stymerski ( )

Ever resourceful, the NVA also dug zig-zag trenches up to the defensive wire of the camp, even through it in places, and two freshly-dug NVA tunnel systems were discovered under the camp.

Massive amounts of B-52 ordnance was dropped in order to break the siege, strike aircraft, helicopter gunships and regular patrols couldn’t dislodge the NVA, who were sometimes shooting into the camp from positions just 300 yards away.

Incoming at Ben Het. (Screenshot).

Incoming at Ben Het. (Screenshot).

One night a lone NVA soldier engaged two American fighter-bombers, repeatedly firing on them even as they attacked the area where he was with cannon, rockets and bombs.

At the time, a US Special Forces sergeant told an American reporter: “I’ll never understand where or how Ho Chi Minh gets those kinds of men.”

The top of the Main Hill at Ben Het (Screenshot)

Blurred photo of the top of the Main Hill at Ben Het during the war. (Screenshot).

On 2 July 1969, the NVA attackers in the surrounding jungle and mountains disappeared, many of the besiegers slipping into the nearby safe havens of Laos and Cambodia, and the siege of Ben Het was officially declared over.

I have added an excellent, short (11 minute) video on You Tube where Major Mike Linnane, USA (Ret) Special Forces, describes the 1969 battle for Ben Het. I took a lot of the screen captures that accompany this article from the video.

Standing on the same hill at Ben Het today.

Me standing on the same hill at Ben Het today.

In Part 2 of this article I’ll feature photos from my visit to Ben Het and some of the war artefacts still littering the ground around the camp.

Our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.

MIA button

See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. 

And for POWs left behind in Laos:


(With thanks to John Prados’s Article in The Veteran:


© Peter Alan Lloyd

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UK: BACK Parts 1 and 2 

US: Amazon: Back Parts 1 and 2

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Twitter: @PeterAlanLloyd

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  1. Hippie Don

    thanks peter/ great article/started writing some stuff–alot throughts came back–had to stop for awhile-great pictures

    • Peter Alan Lloyd

      Thanks Don. I’ll PM you about your own experiences at Ben Het, as I’ll do a follow-up article of my modern-day visit in a couple of months’ time.

  2. Roland Reeb

    Hi. My name is Roland Reeb. I was at Ben Het during June/July 1969. We were under siege by 3 NVA regiments. I need some help finding guys who were there with me. I brought a 24 truck supply convoy into Ben Het. The camp commander got wounded in his eye and we had to medivac him out. The B-Team commander made me camp commander. I was a captain then. I was blown up one day when the NVA fired a 85mm mortar into the ammo bunker. We received word from the B-team that we would be attacked that night by the NVA. We knew about the previous attack and the tanks, so we knew the NVA would probably use tanks in the attack. Snoopy dropped flares until 8pm and they were ordered back to Saigon. Then B-52’s dropped many 1000 pounders within 500 meters of the entire camp. The NVA didn’t attack and an NVA soldier gave himself up at the front gate. He said his unit had to retreat back to the border and our artillery had wiped out 2/3rds of his regiment. We were ordered to pack up and a new A team would be coming in by choppers and we were to get aboard and return to the B-team. The war ended that day for many of us at Ben Het. Any help you can give me will be appreciated. Thanks for your video and stories. Very good. Thank you.

    • Peter Alan Lloyd

      Many thanks for this Ronald. Fascinating historical account and much appreciated.

      I hope you find some of your guys. I might know of one on Facebook and I will contact him.

    • Josh Sonju

      Roland- My father was gunner on a convoy gun truck (Snoopy’s Revenge) with the 1st platoon in the 584th Combat Engineers and was stationed in Ben Het between May/June of 1969 through 11/1969. He was in on the north hill bunker. I am currently making a documentary and I’m trying get more info of that time period and trying to track down other guys in 1st Platoon. Any help would be appreciated. Looking for his Sgt. Polaroid, Paul Swift and Andy Anderson.

  3. Joe Thomas

    Thank you, Peter; I was with the 20th Engineer Battalion- we came to Ben Het after the siege and, among other things, built 12+ “live-fight” bunkers for the Montagnard soldiers and their families. One of these was our “home” for 2 months or so- The Army got alka-seltzer tablets coated with peanut butter to take care of the rats who lived with us. I remember the ground trembling in the mess tent when the nearby 175 mm howitzers were firing. .

  4. Dutchman

    Why is it I never remember any of You people? I was the 31G40 during the siege, I remember the 299th Engineer Battalion. Can You tell me what specialized piece of Electronic hardware that was there?

  5. Ryan

    Hi Peter. I was wondering if you had a higher-quality copy of the photo you shared with the caption “The remains of a destroyed North Vietnamese armoured Personnel Carrier the following day.”. It’s an interesting photo and I can’t find it anywhere else. I would really appreciate it if you could share it.

    Thanks in advance!

    • Peter Alan Lloyd

      It’s the only copy I have, unfortunately. I can’t remember where I saw it or I would have credited the source.


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