On April 10, 1970, Hill 927 was occupied by troopers of the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division. By July, the activities of the artillery and infantry of Ripcord had caught the attention of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and a long and deadly siege ensued. Ripcord was the Screaming Eagles' last chance to do significant damage to the NVA in the A Shau Valley before the division was withdrawn from Vietnam and returned to the United States.
At Ripcord, the enemy counterattacked with ferocity, using mortar and antiaircraft fire to inflict heavy causalities on the units operating there. The battle lasted four and a half months and exemplified the ultimate frustration of the Vietnam War: the inability of the American military to bring to bear its enormous resources to win on the battlefield. In the end, the 101st evacuated Ripcord, leaving the NVA in control of the battlefield. Contrary to the mantra "We won every battle but lost the war," the United States was defeated at Ripcord. Now, at last, the full story of this terrible battle can be told.
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June 02, 2003
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Excerpt from Ripcord by Keith W. Nolan
The first mortar salvo landed during the usual morning routines on the firebase. Lieutenant Colonel Andre Lucas was still inside his tactical operations center-the TOC-probably with a cup of coffee and the first cigarette of the day in hand as he checked the latest intelligence readouts from division. The ops center, encased in adjoining steel shipping containers known as conexes, each about the size of a small office, was entrenched directly below the top of the hill on the eastern side of Firebase Ripcord.
Major Herbert E. Koenigsbauer, the battalion operations officer, was crossing the small helicopter pad leveled off in front of the TOC. Responsible for base security, Koenigsbauer made the rounds first thing every morning, checking the police call, inspecting the defensive wire, generally touching base with the commanders of the two howitzer batteries on the hill and the infantry company manning the fighting positions around the perimeter.
Koenigsbauer hadn't gone thirty feet that morning when, without warning-the enemy mortar crew was too far away to be heard as it fired, and the whistling descent of the salvo was lost amid the high winds that slapped almost constantly across the firebase-he saw the first round of that first salvo hit the corner of the partially submerged TOC where a tall, two-wheeled aircraft fire extinguisher was parked in case of crashes on the helipad. Even though the command bunker's radio antennas were offset so as not to mark its exact location, the enemy had studied the firebase with binoculars well enough from the surrounding high ground to determine the location of the TOC. The big red fire extinguisher must have stood out as the perfect aiming point.
Koenigsbauer dashed back around the blast wall that protected the entranceway to the operations center as the rest of the salvo came crashing in behind him. Those first five 82mm rounds, which hit at 7:03 a.m. on July 1, 1970, according to the battalion log, barely dented the hard-packed helipad. Ears were ringing inside the command bunker, but it too had been damaged only superficially. Amid the excited exclamations of the staff officers and radiomen on duty, Lucas made an appreciative comment about all the hard work that had gone into the construction of the heavily sandbagged TOC. The battalion commander also wryly observed that if the enemy could hit the TOC with his first round, he undoubtedly had already pinpointed all the other important targets on Ripcord.
Moments later, Capt. Rembert G. Rollison, commanding D/2-506th, the company securing the perimeter, reported by radio that the base was taking automatic-weapons fire and RPGs-hard-hitting rocket-propelled grenades-from a rocky hill only seven hundred meters to the east. The hill, part of the same jungled ridgeline as the hilltop occupied by Ripcord, was separated from the firebase by a shallow draw. Rollison's grunts, surprised that the enemy would engage them in broad daylight but otherwise unintimidated by the fire, rushed to their fighting positions and excitedly returned fire with M16s, M79 grenade launchers, M60 machine guns, and a heavy, tripod-mounted .50-caliber machine gun.
There was a second infantry element on the base, SSgt. Paul E. Burkey's 3d Platoon, C/2-506th. Though the timing now seemed ironic, the platoon had been lifted up the day before in accordance with a new policy that afforded the line platoons an overnight stay on Ripcord on a rotating basis to rest, resupply, and treat the various skin diseases picked up from operating in the jungle.
In short order, the 105mm howitzers of Capt. David F. Rich's B/2-319th and the 155s of Capt. Gordon A. Baxendale's A/2-11th Field Artillery (FA), working from preplotted grids of likely enemy firing positions around the firebase, were booming in answer to the NVA. Ripcord's perimeter was a figure eight in shape; the 105s occupied the top of the higher, wider southeast half of the hill, whereas the 155 battery was set up on a narrow lower tier that rose to a bouldered knoll at the northwest end of Firebase Ripcord.
The enemy drew immensely more fire than he delivered. In addition to the howitzers, the 81mm mortar platoon from E/2-506th, the battalion support company, was pumping out rounds from its gun pits below the TOC. Air support also began to converge over Ripcord as the incoming fire was reported from battalion to brigade to division. Less than fifteen minutes into the action, a Pink Team arrived from the 2-17th Cav, the division's air cavalry squadron. Pink Teams consisted of an OH-6A light observation helicopter (LOH) from the White Platoon of its troop and a Cobra gunship from the Red Platoon.