QuarterHorse Stories

Battle of FSB Rita - 1 Nov 68 - As told by David Seal and Others


This version of the battle assembled by David H. Puckett, Sr. Honorary Sergeant Major of the Regiment


Fire Support Base Rita was positioned at the edge of the rubber plantation about 3.5 miles southwest of An Loc, some 55 miles north of Saigon and 15 miles northeast of Tay Ninh. The Cambodian border lay within four miles, to the northwest of the FSB, forming a salient known from the trace on the map as the "Fishhook." On 18 October the 1st Brigade initiated operations supported from FSB Rita to interdict enemy supplies and reinforcements moving into Vietnam from Cambodia. During the night of 31 October-1 November 1968 an enemy regiment mounted a determined assault on FSB Rita.

In a war covering an entire country and spanning more than ten years, it is inevitable that many battles are merely glossed over by the writers who find themselves charged with preserving history for future generations. If something major didn't take place, little attention was paid to recording details. It is possible that hundreds of battles could even be forgotten, and a true picture of actual battles and events would never be possible. When after action reports submitted by all elements involved in a battle tell a different story and vary in details as to what really happened, history is left with a dark hole, an unfinished chapter. If we are lucky - and haven't foolishly wasted too much time - the source we turn to in such cases are the soldiers who were at the battle. For as we all know, in a soldier's mind, no battle is insignificant when it involves themselves, their unit and their men. Time seems to have stood still whenever such events are recalled.

The battle at FSB Rita is but one example. Take a look at only a few published "official" examples. First, a Stars and Stripes report of the battle:

HEAVY RED ROCKET ASSAULT BEATEN OFF

A North Vietnamese battalion, firing deadly shoulder-aimed rockets, tried to overrun a 1st U.S. Infantry Div. fire support base 50 miles above Saigon early Friday morning. "All the NVA we could see moving outside the perimeter had rocket launchers," said 1st Lt. Gregory King, commander of Charlie Company, 1st Bn., 26th Inf. only a very few had rifles.

Red infantrymen have frequently used the Russian-made RPG launcher, which can penetrate 11 1/2 inches of steel, in attacks, but seldom so many - the Americans inside fire support base Rita said as many as 1,000 were fired at them.

The fighting lasted until dawn, when the estimated 800 Vietnamese gave up, still outside the base. They left 27 dead. American losses were 12 killed and 56 wounded.

Or, this description in The First Infantry Division in Vietnam 1965-1970 relating to the 1st Battalion, 5th Artillery (105mm):

On 1 November at Fire Support Base 'Rita', Battery B, 1st Battalion, 5th Arty and Battery C, 8th Battalion, 6th Artillery repulsed an assault by an estimated NVA Regiment. The devastating direct artillery fires prevented Fire Support Base "Rita" from being overrun.... Over 100 enemy casualties were inflicted.

Or, this account from the same book concerning the 8th Battalion, 6th Artillery (115mm SP):

In November 1968, Battery C, operating with the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry at support base 'Rita', came under intense hostile rocket and mortar as well as a fierce ground assault by an estimated NVA/VC sapper battalion. The enemy penetrated the northwest side of the perimeter, but was ultimately evicted in a two hours battle...

And last from the same source, but not least, this report on Bluespaders in the action:

At 0300 hours, on November 1st, [1968] the NVA launched a ground attack against Fire Support Base "RITA", defended by B Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, and elements of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry. The battle lasted about four hours, being supported by Tac Air, artillery, and helicopter gunships. After the battle, sweeps produced 27 dead NVA soldiers. All evidence indicated an even larger number of enemy dead were retrieved from the battlefield.

Or, this version of the battle from Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes by Edward F. Murphy:

...Helicopter gun- ships arrived at daylight. Their massed firepower finally broke the enemy attack. The NVA retreated into the jungle, pulling along their wounded. At least 328 enemy dead were later counted around FSB Rita...

Confused? Let's look at a few facts as related by the men who were there.

First the participants:

Bravo Company, 1st Bn 26th Inf, commanded by 1LT Gregory King Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 4th Cav, commanded by CPT Joseph F. Scates B Battery, 1st Bn 5th Artillery, commanded by LTC Charles Rogers C Battery, 8th Bn 6th Artillery Base Defense Commander, Major Allen Nauman, XO, Blue Spaders

Their foe:

an estimated NVA/VC Regiment/Battalion with sappers

Fire Support Rita had been manned about three months earlier to provide artillery support for ground units in their efforts to block a major infiltration route into War Zone C from Cambodia. The artillery units providing support out of Rita were six 105mm towed howitzers of B Battery, 1st Battalion, 5th Artillery, and six 155mm self-propelled howitzers of C Battery, 8th Battalion, 6th Artillery. From mid-October the FSB had been the target of daily and nightly mortar and rocket attacks. The 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry (Mech) had been providing perimeter defense for the base as well as running local patrols and search and destroy missions.

Gary Hershley, a 26th Infantry Regiment Association member who was assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry during that time, remembers being airlifted into FSB Rita a few days before Halloween to support the 1/16th, who in his words, "...had been taking quite a beating." He remembers their first day at the base being sent on a patrol to recover some of the bodies of the 1/16th that had been lost during a firefight in the surrounding jungle. He relates that his company spent the first few days constructing a perimeter of Dobol bunkers since a perimeter had never been established. Hershley recalls daily rocket and mortar fire, frequent friendly air strikes nearby, and the company's conducting short sweeps in and around the immediate area after each air attack.

As to when the 1/16th Inf left FSB Rita, Hershley states, "I don't know the exact day that the 1/16th pulled out, but they were replaced by the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry [B Troop], and I recall them being ambushed on their way in." A Quarterhorse troop was a formidible force - some twenty armored personnel carriers (ACAV), six tanks, three 4.2 inch mortars, and around 130 troopers. Once inside the perimeter, the ACAV's were strategically positioned around the perimeter to bolster the fire support base defenses.

David Seal was an M-60 machine gunner in the 1st platoon of B Trp, 1/4 Cav also remembers that greeting: "We were ambushed about a quarter mile before we got to Rita. Our platoon leader, Lt. John Walker, told us to keep our heads down and keep moving. We had no one wounded." Seal also recalls that the base was lightly probed and received mortar fire around the clock. Halloween night started out in a typical manner according to Seal: "...a few rounds came in early, but after that everything was pretty quiet. I went on guard at midnight."

It was standard operating procedure in the Quarterhorse that when a troop went on high alert for enemy action, it fired "Mad Minutes" on a random schedule to keep the enemy on their toes - and hopefully, to inflict casualties if they caught the enemy preparing to launch an attack. Immediately after such a blast was also a good time for the enemy to begin their attack as the troopers were busy reloading their weapons. That's exactly what happened: both cavalryman Seal and infantryman Hershley recall that there was a "Mad Minute" at 3:00 a.m.

Gary Hershley remembers an armored personnel carrier from the 1/4 Cav being right next to the bunker on the perimeter he shared with Johnson, a fellow Bluespader. "This was the first position to be hit that morning. The APC [ACAV] took a direct hit from an RPG...I was hit with shrapnel in the upper back/left shoulder area when the explosion occurred. Not knowing what was happening, Johnson and I jumped into our bunker...As I looked out a firing lane, flares lit up the sky, and the enemy were already inside of the wire. There was Johnson and I in a forward bunker and neither of us had a weapon. I reached out and retrieved my shotgun and ammo belt. [Just then] an enemy soldier crawled right in front of my firing lane -- I could have reached out and touched him....I emptied my shotgun into the side of this enemy soldier. Within a short time, his body was dragged away..."

1/4th Cav APC hit at FSB Rita

Nearby David Seal was just as busy, "One of our ACAV's to my left took a direct hit from either a mortar round or an RPG....Flares were popping everywhere and to me it looked like there were hundreds of NVA soldiers right at the wire. My track commander took over on the 50 cal. and I moved back to the 60 cal. A flare went off directly above our position and I saw an NVA soldier hung up in the concertina wire. I fired on him, but my 60 jammed; I yelled to my T.C. [Track Commander] who killed him with the 50."

Thanks to excellent camouflage, Hershley and Johnson's bunker had survived the initial onslaught, but their luck ran out. Hershley recalls, "I could now see NVA running all over the place....shortly thereafter we heard a "thump" as a grenade was thrown into our bunker. Johnson acted very fast and was able to immediately locate it and throw it back out." Due to all the artillery, machine gun, rifle fire and other ordnance, it is still a mystery to Hershley whether it exploded or not.

With the battle still raging, David Seal recalls the cavalrymen being ordered inside their tracks and to "button up" because it was time for the artillery to lower their tubes and fire anti-personnel rounds on and around the ACAV vehicles, and over the infantry bunkers.

Meanwhile, the cannoneers had been waging a two-pronged deadly fight inside the perimeter to protect their howitzers and to provide badly needed support. LTC Charles Rogers, [MG, Retired] the CO of the 1st Bn, 5th Arty was with his B Btry that night at Rita. With only two weeks before he relinquished command and scheduled to take a staff position at MACV, he found his unit in a battle for their lives.

"Captain Dan Settle told me the enemy had broken through the wire and was all over the position", stated LTC Rogers. "All the armored personnel carriers on the west flank had been hit by RPG's. I realized there was nothing there to stop the enemy but my battery."

Racing through the explosions, LTC Rogers discovered most of his crewmen huddled in their bunkers. He ordered them out to their positions. and gave fire commands to the crews. Although wounded three times during his dashes to the gun positions to rally his troops, he was amazed at the enemy behavior.

"I just couldn't understand it", LTC Rogers stated. "As fast as we cut them down, why here comes another row of them." That's when he decided to lower the tubes of the 105s for direct fire into the masses with the "beehive" canister rounds. Even though wounded a fourth time, Rogers continued barking orders to those around him for direct-fire, and at the same time called in air strikes to within 100 yards of the fire-base perimeter.

The crews of C Btry, 8th Bn 6th Arty had self-propelled 155 howitzers, but found their large vehicles ripe targets for the enemy RPG rounds. [As a result of this battle that it became policy to protect all tracked vehicles with chain link "RPG fences" to explode the incoming round short of its target.]

Air Force "Spooky" gun and flare ships were overhead throughout the night, providing deadly fires in and around the besieged defenders of FSB Rita. David Seal remembers that the "...NVA tried yet another attack just at daybreak, but it was over in a few minutes. " First light provided the USAF jets an opportunity to make their airstrikes more effective and low flying helicopter gunships were brought into the fray. Seal recalls that as daylight broke "...there were 6 dead NVA right in front of our position and about 25 inside the perimeter area.

Gary Hershley doesn't remember how long the fighting went on, but he does recall the firing ceased around daybreak. "There were bodies scattered throughout the perimeter. I do not recall the number of dead enemy troops within the wire. As we started to recon the interior of the perimeter, three NVA soldiers were spotted hiding behind a frontline bunker. Grenades and rifle fire soon erupted and the three were killed within minutes. I was on the chinook [CH-47 helicopter] that carried some of the wounded and the KIA back to Lai Khe. In all, there were 13 American KIA. I don't know how many of the 13 were 1/26, 1/4 Cav or artillery. We heard reports that the estimated enemy dead numbered several hundred."

Jay Antol was a Blue Spader from A Company who remembers going into FSB Rita that morning. "All of the trenches in the surrounding rubber plantation were filled up with dead bodies and dirt, and feet and arms were sticking out all over the place."

Shortly after daylight on 1 November, 1968, the fight for FSB Rita was over. While official reports list 26 or 27 enemy KIA during the battle, reports from forward air controllers and aerial observers related spotting "hundreds" of bodies of dead enemy soldiers, forming traces leading away from the scene of the battle. As stated earlier, Blue Spader Jay Antol also witnessed numerous casualties buried in hasty graves outside the perimeter.

As David Seal of the 1/4 Cav said, "...it was the scariest Halloween I have ever seen."


Firefight at Lai Theiu

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This page was last updated on 1 Oct 2006