Complacency and confusion contributed to the March 27, 1971, disaster at Fire Support Base Mary Ann.
By Kelly Bell
Running down the hallway of the battalion tactical operations center (TOC), Captain Paul S. Spilberg charged into a cloud of tear gas just as he reached the commander's quarters. Staggering blindly back the way he had come, Spilberg made it to the north exit, crawled up the stairs and out the door into the fresh but bullet-ridden air. Forcing his eyes to focus, the shaken captain was stunned to hear the fire of AK-47s and the crash of rocket-propelled grenades from inside the base's perimeter. In amazement he watched as numerous small figures darted catlike among the spreading flames. Everywhere he looked he saw the scurrying silhouettes, who were enemy sappers feeding the chain of explosions devouring Fire Support Base Mary Ann on that afternoon in 1971.
Four days before the fatal attack, Spilberg had arrived at the FSB by helicopter. He was an old hand there, having previously served at Mary Ann as a company commander. Along with three assistants, he now had returned as a marksmanship instructor. His team had established a training course using targets on a crude rifle range set up on the FSB's southwest slope. The hill was garrisoned by Company C, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry (1-46), 196th Light Infantry Brigade, assigned to the 23rd “Americal” Infantry Division.
The battalion commander, Lt. Col. William P. Doyle, was a serious professional. Along with the Company C commander, Captain Richard V. Knight, Doyle had molded this handful of reluctant draftees into one of the better combat units still in the field in 1971. Mary Ann was in a generally quiet sector, and the soldiers atop the hill had come to regard their outpost as something of a rear echelon area rather than what it actually was — the division's most forward firebase.
On the afternoon of March 27, 1971, after the soldiers had completed their target practice, the three officers remained on the shooting range. They plinked with various weapons and talked awhile, and then Doyle and Knight headed for the mess tent. Spilberg remained behind to take a few more shots. He had only the base's mascot dog for company. The mongrel suddenly bristled and began barking and growling at something downslope that Spilberg could not locate. He had never seen the amiable mutt behave like that, but try as he might he could not detect what was agitating the animal. Finally deciding the dog must have scented a tiger or cobra, Spilberg set out after the other officers. Much later he related: “I never said anything to Doyle about that dog being on alert, but I should have known. It bothered me for years and years. It was my second tour. I should have known.”
Three hours later the American firebase was rocked from within by a series of powerful explosions. Spilberg was asleep deep inside the TOC. The structure was a sturdily reinforced, half-buried bunker, and from its interior Spilberg initially had a hard time recognizing the muffled crashes. Thinking the base was taking mortar fire, he rolled off his cot and began pulling on his boots and shirt. Before leaving the bunker, he grabbed his .45-caliber pistol from under his pillow.
One of the sappers had thrown tear gas into the TOC officers' quarters, and Colonel Doyle was trying desperately to escape his gas-filled room. As he struggled to unlatch the plywood door, a satchel charge detonated in the hallway, blowing the door from its hinges and flattening him. Picking himself up, he turned toward the door and faced a sapper wearing nothing but bush shorts, a gas mask and a full-body coating of camouflage. When the Communist drew back to hurl another satchel charge, Doyle raised his own .45 and shot him square in the chest. As the man fell backward the bomb went off, blowing him to bits and flattening Doyle a second time. Three more charges exploded in the hall before Doyle was able to dig through the rubble and leave the bunker. By then he was bleeding from fragmentation wounds in one leg and both arms. He was unable to hear through his blood-filled ears, and could barely see through gas-seared eyes.
For 45 minutes, the infiltrators sprinted throughout the firebase, expertly planting their charges among the frantic, befuddled Americans. As the assault concluded, the TOC was a towering pyre. Spilberg picked up a damaged M-16 he found on the ground. Wincing from three grenade fragments in his back, he made for Knight's company command post to see if the captain had survived. The CP was a bonfire and beginning to collapse. As he reached the crumbling entrance, Spilberg could hear ammunition exploding in the flames. He peered inside but saw only a blazing vision of hell. Somewhere within that inferno, Knight lay dead.
The company CP and battalion TOC had been the primary targets for the brilliantly executed sapper assault, and Knight was one of 30 Americans killed. On the morning of March 28, Doyle and Spilberg were among the 82 wounded GIs evacuated.
The first indicator that something bad was afoot had come on the night of March 25-26. Lieutenant Scott Bell was on patrol, on what was supposed to be his last night on the hill. As he squinted into the surrounding silent, mist-cloaked jungle, he sensed an almost tangible uneasiness in the air, and felt a primordial sense of dread that motivated him to organize one last big rat kill before his departure. Maybe that would keep his men alert.
The soldiers knew the drill. They constructed ingenious rattraps from empty C-ration cans laced with cheese and blasting caps. All night the men counted miniature explosions as squirrel-sized Asian rats died in the competition between platoons. By dawn there were 130 dead rodents laid out in neat lines in front of the CP. These were the last fireworks here for Bell and Company A. The next morning they moved out and were replaced by Captain Knight and his Charlie Company, who were transferred in from Chu Lai.
Charlie Company settled into the new position and started policing the area in preparation for a visit from the brigade commander, Colonel William Hathaway, who had been unhappy with Company A on his last inspection. Knight hurriedly set his men to work disposing of dead rats, marijuana cigarette butts, empty whiskey bottles and other such junk left behind by their predecessors. When Hathaway, accompanied by Doyle and Knight, walked the perimeter that afternoon, he was delighted with the improvement over what he had seen a week earlier. Hathaway, however, did not inspect the tactical outer wire because, he later explained, “somewhere along the line you have to put the trust in the company commander.”
But the outer defenses were not in order. As Lieutenant Jerry Sams, leader of C Company's 2nd Platoon, later explained: “The sergeant major was on everybody's ass about policing the area before the inspection, and they had my platoon out there picking paper off the wire. Those helicopters would come in and kick up all kinds of crap. I had to send the guys out two or three times, and it was one of those typical Army things where everybody's bitching and raising hell. They were accidentally setting off trip flares in the wire — all our early warning devices that would have come in mighty handy later on that night.”
Additional trip flares were triggered by the prop blast of CH-47 helicopters as they landed at and took off from the FSB. The Americans did not replace the flares. In hindsight, Hathaway thought overconfidence might have been another factor contributing to the debacle. “Charlie Company, commanded by Captain Knight, was certainly the best company in that battalion, and probably one of the best companies in this division,” Hathaway said later. “One of the problems was that they were so good they were a little contemptuous of the enemy. They were the hunters, not the hunted.”
Another cause for the false sense of security was that there had been no signs of an impending attack. Major Alva V. Hardin, the 196th Infantry Brigade's intelligence officer, later testified, “We had no intelligence to indicate there would be an attack on Mary Ann.”
The lack of listening posts outside the wire was another critical mistake. When Hathaway learned Doyle had not deployed LPs beyond the outer perimeter, he concurred. “Listening posts were not a policy,” explained Hathaway. “I considered listening posts outside the wire a hazard. I considered the danger of people getting wounded, either by defensive fires or somebody getting excited and firing on the perimeter, to be greater than the necessity for the listening post.”
Mary Ann had been constructed on the bulldozed summit of a ridge running northwest to southeast. In profile the elevation looked like the back of a camel, with the base stretching 500 meters across both humps. It was 75 meters wide between the humps, and 125 meters broad at each end. A continuous trench that was knee- to waist-deep and had 22 bunkers formed the perimeter. Inside the perimeter were 30 buildings of various styles, giving the appearance of a shantytown. The whole thing was surrounded by two belts of concertina wire.
Two dirt roads interrupted the trench and wire line of the perimeter. Doyle had tried unsuccessfully to have chain-link fencing flown in to close the openings, but higher headquarters, noting that the base was soon to be turned over to the ARVN, decided against providing construction materials for the soldiers of South Vietnam. The road openings remained.
With the 196th Infantry Brigade already scheduled for redeployment to Da Nang, Doyle had ceased all construction projects within and around Mary Ann and had started packing for the move. By March most of the base's mortars and artillery had been airlifted to nearby LZ Mildred to fire on enemy positions in that sector. By March 27, all of Mary Ann's starlight scopes and ground radars had been shipped to the rear for maintenance.
On the night of the attack, the infantry under Doyle at Mary Ann consisted of 231 Americans and 21 South Vietnamese, plus the battalion training team, battalion intelligence officer, the sergeant major, an interpreter and 22 transient soldiers from Companies A, B and D. The transient troops spending the night at the base were in no mood to remain on alert. Specialist 4 Harold Wise was one of those who had just arrived. “Thirty percent of the guys on the hill were heads,” he said later. “Marijuana, heroin, whatever you wanted. The guys in the sensor hooch next to the tactical operations center were potheads, and a lot of people congregated there to buy stuff, but unless they knew you, you didn't come in. They had locks on the door of their hooch. Nobody did it in the open. It wasn't brazen. If an officer saw somebody doing it, he'd bust the guy. Some of the officers and sergeants knew what was going on, but as long as you did your job, they didn't say anything.”
The drug problem on the base, although not as pronounced as in other areas, was still sufficient to benefit the enemy. Battery C, 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery (155mm), was aligned in battery formation atop the base's highest elevation. The infiltrators quickly destroyed both of the unit's howitzers. Staff Sergeant Easton Rowell, the chief of the firing battery, was wounded six times. He later groused, “We took a screwin' because the grunts on that hill were a bunch of potheads!”
At 0200 hours on March 28, an American searchlight crew conducted a cursory 20-minute illumination sweep of the slope outside the exit to the firing range. The hillside had been cleared of vegetation, but still was punctuated by boulders and tree stumps, all of which provided good hiding places for the small enemy. Seeing nothing unusual, the GIs shut down their light and headed for their bunker. The explosions started 10 minutes later.
The attackers were from the Main Force VC 409th Sapper Battalion. This unit was known for operating against the ARVN in Quang Nam province, and at that time was thought by out-of-date U.S. intelligence to be 15 to 20 kilometers east of Mary Ann, preparing for a major push against the South Vietnamese.
The 409th sappers were experts in their trade. With AK-47s strapped to their backs, grenades in their belts and satchel charges fastened to their chests, they wore nothing but khaki shorts and soot. They crawled silently, slowly and steadily through the jungle, using their fingertips as probes. When they detected trip flares, they used lengths of bamboo, carried in their teeth, to tie down the strikers. When they felt wires leading to Claymore mines, they used wire cutters to cut the lines. They were careful to cut only two-thirds of the way through the strands of concertina, then used their fingers to break the rest of the way through the wire silently and without shaking the large coils.
Approaching from the southwest, the infiltrators cut four big gaps through the concertina, two holes on each side of the road where it left the perimeter. They repeated the procedure 50 meters farther on, through the second barrier, although the wire there was in such a state of disrepair that many sappers simply walked across the rusty, breaking steel strands. Another 30 yards and they came to the final concertina barrier. Rather than risk having the snip of cutters heard by some alert sentry, the infiltrators simply spread a gap through the wire, tying it open with bamboo strips.
The sappers were well-rehearsed. Splitting up into three- and six-man squads in the zone between the inner wire barrier and the bunkers facing southwest, the assault teams waited until 0230 hours. Then their supporting mortars opened with accurate fire on the TOC and CP on the base's southeast side, and on the remaining U.S. mortar and artillery positions in the northwest area.
A card game in the radio room was just breaking up when the first rounds hit. The explosion hurled Wise onto his back, knocked off his glasses, broke his left arm and sprayed the front of his body head-to-foot with fragments. Using his right arm to drag himself into his hooch, he shook awake his roommate, Pfc Peter Detlef, and then hid behind his reel-to-reel tape deck as he seated himself on the floor and tried to cover the door with his M-16. When Detlef, still half asleep, tried to go through the door, another explosion blasted the door off its frame and on top of him.
As the VC had anticipated, most defenders were immobilized by confusion. One radioman never bothered to crank up his radio to report the situation, but simply rolled off his cot onto his hut's dirt floor and hid beneath his mattress until the shooting stopped.
Inside the TOC, Spc. 4 Stephen Gutosky grabbed his radio mike and reported: “Be advised, we are taking incoming at this time! Stand by and I'll see if I can get a direction on it!”
When he realized with a start that he was still inside the TOC, he shouted into his microphone: “I can't get outside to see where it's coming from! Just fire all the countermortars and counterrockets you got ASAP!”
By that point the south end of the TOC was burning from the inside after a satchel charge set off a case of white phosphorus grenades. Yet Doyle still refused to abandon his position. After ordering Gutosky to radio for helicopter gunships and illumination, the wounded colonel said, “I'm going out to see what's going on!”
Doyle did not realize how badly he was hurt. He was almost deaf and blind from tear gas, powder burns and explosion concussions. The shrapnel wounds in his arms and legs would take months to heal. Nonetheless he made it to the top of the exit steps, raised his M-16 and started to aim at a couple of infiltrators outside the bunker — but a third, unseen enemy soldier threw a grenade at him. It landed at his feet and exploded as he turned to head back inside, blowing him down the stairs.
The entire TOC was now burning. Lieutenant Edward McKay, the TOC night duty officer, started to panic in the ovenlike bunker. “We gotta get outta here!” screamed McKay.
“Not yet!” hollered Doyle.
“We're all going to die!” sobbed McKay.
Summoning his last element of strength, Doyle slapped the hysterical junior officer hard across the face and snarled, “Shut up, lieutenant!”
It was now 0251, and radio telephone operator (RTO) David Tarnay managed to raise LZ Mildred. When Spilberg heard Tarnay shouting into his microphone, he bounded back inside the blazing TOC. Grabbing a handset, he shouted to Lieutenant Thomas Schmitz at LZ Mildred: “I want artillery 50 meters out, 360 degrees around our position. On my command be prepared to fire on the firebase!”
Spilberg realized that calling down fire on his own position was likely the only way to save the surviving Americans there. Doyle next grabbed the mike and informed Schmitz they were being forced to evacuate the TOC and would temporarily lose radio contact. With Tarnay and Gutosky carrying all the radio equipment they could, and with the now-incoherent McKay slung over Tarnay's shoulder, the handful of resolute GIs made their way to the firebase aid station, where Tarnay put McKay on a cot and then tried to get a radio working.
Doyle and Spilberg left the aid station and crossed the compound to the Charlie Company CP. When they arrived they found that it too was an inferno, its sandbagged entrance collapsed.
Throughout Mary Ann, unprepared Americans were shot and blown apart by the VC sappers, who seemed to know precisely where to concentrate their assault. Later, some survivors would accuse the South Vietnamese of cooperating with the attackers. Specialist 4 Steven Webb was the only U.S. soldier who was with the base's ARVN contingent throughout the fight. Despite later rumors that ARVN troops had fired on Americans that night, Webb said he never saw it happen.
Nevertheless, suspicion and bitterness lingered. One of Knight's NCOs, Staff Sgt. John Calhoun, later remarked, “It was an inside job.”
Specialist 4 Edward L. Newton concurred. “That morning before the attack, an ARVN officer came up to our bunker and asked how we got out of the perimeter,” he recalled. “We asked him why he wanted to know. He said because he and his men wanted to go down there fishing. We thought it was kind of peculiar. We said we did not know for sure.”
The officer, who wore the insignia of a South Vietnamese first lieutenant, persisted in his questioning of the Americans until some of them told him the easiest way in and out was the south end and on the road running past the rifle range to the water point.
Specialist 5 Carl Cullers later claimed: “[I saw] an ARVN going behind the rifle range. It was more or less a joke at first. One of the cooks said, ‘Hey Cullers, there's an NVA down there,' and I said, ‘Quit joking,' and he said, ‘Wait, and I'll point him out to you.' I knew he was an ARVN by his size. He had gone out beyond the rifle range, and down the slope for about 20 minutes. I took it for granted he had gone down to defecate.”
Sergeant Andrew Olints of Company D was next to the helipad at dusk on the 27th when “an ARVN chopper came out, and fifteen of those little suckers got on,” as he later reported. “They were thrilled to death, jumping on, pushing each other. I didn't think the thing would take off, it was so overloaded. We had no idea what was coming, but in retrospect it sure looked like they did.”
Specialist 4 Gary Noller, an RTO at LZ Mildred, later wrote: “I remember an incident where a GI came to the TOC and said that an ARVN was signaling with a flashlight to someone outside the wire.” He said he went to check it out. “[i] did encounter an ARVN with a GI flashlight near the east perimeter wire,” Noller remembered. “I told him not to use it, in English, which he probably didn't understand, and then reported this to an officer. The incident was not treated seriously by the officers, but added credence as far as the GIs were concerned that some of the ARVN were not on our side.”
In one of the most dramatic events of the night, Lieutenant Barry McGee, who had been sleeping atop bunker No. 10 when the attack started, stumbled half asleep into his platoon CP with several of his men just as the enemy targeted the position. McGee was the leader of C Company's 3rd Platoon, which manned bunkers Nos. 9 through 13. As he and his men grabbed their weapons and prepared to return outside, two mortar rounds hit the bunker, half demolishing it and dislodging a heavy ceiling beam that fell on the lieutenant, seriously injuring his head. A medic dressed the wound, and after about 15 minutes the men in the platoon CP noted that the explosions outside seemed to be ending. McGee had just lurched to his feet, turned to the door and said, “All right, let's go!” when a grenade sailed through the door, exploded and blew the medic, Spc. 5 Carl Patton, back into McGee. Realizing he had lost his weapon, McGee grabbed Patton's M-16 and again headed for the door. Another satchel charge detonated on the roof, caving it in and killing 22-year-old Sergeant Warren Ritsema when a beam fell on him. The blast knocked down McGee, who again lost his weapon. He staggered to his feet and stumbled outside, incoherent with pain and frustration. When the short, stocky, powerfully built and unarmed lieutenant collided with a sapper outside the bunker, McGee wrestled him to the ground and strangled him with his bare hands. It was quite a feat for somebody already half-dead from a fractured skull. The lieutenant's corpse was later found atop the VC he had choked lifeless. Another sapper had shot McGee in the back.
At 0320, Spilberg and Doyle were at the southern end of Mary Ann, believing the attack was almost over. But then, partly obscured by the billowing smoke, another team of sappers started back up the hill, throwing grenades in all directions. Apparently searching for their own dead and wounded, the VC broke contact and withdrew when the first helicopter gunship finally arrived overhead. It was commanded by Captain Norman Hayes, Troop D, 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry. Hayes radioed LZ Mildred that he had arrived at his objective and to lift and shift the artillery fire Spilberg had earlier ordered. Mildred ceased firing except for illumination rounds. When Hayes' searchlight illuminated VC in the wire, they opened up on the gunship with small arms. As Hayes later put it, “We engaged, and I know that anything we fired on ceased firing on us.”
Hayes made repeated passes over the base, dropping grenades and strafing targets of opportunity, despite two of his guns becoming inoperative almost immediately after his arrival on station. He made repeated radio calls for additional gunships and medevacs, but by the time he ran low on fuel and had to return to Chu Lai, no additional aircraft had arrived. Because of the chaotic state of communications, the brigade and division were under the misconception that Mary Ann had been subjected to nothing more than mortaring. Hayes actually had time to return to Chu Lai, refuel, reload and repair his guns, and then fly all the way back to Mary Ann, before medical helicopters began arriving. Colonel Hathaway and Lt. Col. Richard Martin, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery, arrived with the medevacs. Spilberg was almost amused at their reaction to the devastation, later remarking: “They were in a state of shock. They had just walked into Auschwitz.”
Despite having a gutful of fragments, Spilberg at first refused to leave the base. He wanted all his wounded men taken out before him, and when Doyle told him to board a chopper he simply climbed in one door and out the other side. Not until Hathaway gave him a direct order did Spilberg finally leave. He was later awarded the Silver Star. Spilberg also recommended Doyle for a Silver Star, but Hathaway refused to endorse the nomination. He later said he was tortured by the decision, explaining, “I just felt that although he had conducted himself with a certain amount of valor, the situation had occurred because of shortcomings on his part.”
At 1600 the next day, the enemy hit the ruins of Mary Ann with 12.7mm machine gun fire, sweeping the enclosure from a ridgeline to the north. One GI was wounded in the attack. Fifteen dead sappers were collected from within the base, although blood trails indicated several dead and wounded had been dragged back into the jungle. After the debacle, however, the South Vietnamese decided they did not want to garrison Mary Ann. The FSB was closed and abandoned on April 24, 1971.
General Creighton Abrams, commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, held 23rd Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. James Baldwin responsible for the disaster, and relieved him of his command. The 23rd ID's name had been eternally tarnished three years earlier because of the My Lai massacre. Many in the U.S. Army suspected that Baldwin would not have been fired had he been in any other division.
Both Hathaway and Doyle received career-ending formal reprimands. Being blamed for the Mary Ann tragedy was a crushing blow to Doyle. He and his wife divorced soon after his release from the hospital. He remarried in April 1972 — just two weeks before receiving his letter of reprimand from Army chief of staff General William Westmoreland. Doyle cut his honeymoon short in order to make a personal but futile appeal to Westmoreland. Doyle developed a severe drinking problem, and he died of a heart attack in March 1984. He was 52. Hathaway and Spilberg were among those following his caisson to the gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. While delivering the funeral oration, Spilberg spoke for many when he referred to Doyle as “the last casualty of Firebase Mary Ann.”
This article was written by Kelly Bell and originally published in the April 2006 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
SPILBERG, PAUL STEVEN
- MAJ US ARMY
- DATE OF BIRTH: 10/19/1944
- DATE OF DEATH: 06/12/2001
- BURIED AT: SECTION 68 SITE 1068
Reviewed by: Michael Howard