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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
See the trailer for 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.
And for POWs left behind in Laos:
(With thanks to John Prados’s Article in The Veteran: http://www.vva.org/archive/TheVeteran/2003_09/feature_dien_bien_phu.htm)
YOU TUBE LINK:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2:
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