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Battlefield Chronicles: Fire Base Mary Ann

Richard Nixon had campaigned in the 1968 presidential election under the slogan that he would end the war in Vietnam and bring 'peace with honor.' However, there was no plan in place to do this, and the American commitment continued for another five years. The goal of the American military effort was to gradually build up the strength and confidence of the South Vietnamese armed forces by re-equipping it with modern weapons so that they could defend their nation on their own. This policy became the cornerstone of the so-called 'Nixon Doctrine.' As applied to Vietnam, it was labeled 'Vietnamization.'

With a renewed U.S. offensive bombing campaign forcing a recalcitrant North Vietnam back to the negotiating table, with resulting progress in the Paris peace negotiations, on January 15, 1973, Nixon announced the suspension of all offensive actions against North Vietnam. This would be followed by a unilateral withdrawal of all U.S. troops. Twelve days later, on January 27, the Paris Peace Accords on "Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam" were signed, officially ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The agreement included the provision that all U.S. combat units would leave Vietnam by March 29, 1973. As an inducement for President Thieu's government to sign the agreement, Nixon had promised that the U.S. would provide financial and limited military support (in the form of airstrikes) so that the South would not be overrun. But Nixon was fighting for his political life in the growing Watergate scandal and facing an increasingly hostile Congress, which was withholding funding for the continuation of the war, and he was unable to back up his promise. Compounding the issue, many United States citizens had turned against the war, citing the length of time it had been going on, the high number of U.S. casualties, and U.S. involvement in such war crimes as the My Lai massacre.

With just a little over a month to go, American combat troops stationed throughout South Vietnam were ecstatic over the prospects of going home as they turned over their installations and war materials to the South Vietnam military. But as they did so, the NVA and Vietcong continued to wage battle, resulting in 68 Americans killed in 1973.  Thirty-three of those KIAs alone occurred in a single one-hour battle at Fire Support Base (FSB) Mary Ann.

However, before the agreement was signed and American troops began standing down, fighting the NVA and Vietcong raged on.  One battle in particular caught the eye of Americans - the siege of FSB Mary Ann on March 28, 1971.  

The firebase was strategically located to interdict the movement of enemy troops and materiel down the K-7 Corridor and the Dak Rose Trail (branches of the Ho Chi Minh trail running from Laos to the coast of South Vietnam). Originally intended to be a temporary base, it evolved into a more permanent location garrisoned by at least one company of U.S. ground forces. The base was manned by 231 American soldiers at the time of the attack. Also present on the base was a Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) artillery battery awaiting the turnover of the FSB to ARVN units.

FSB Mary Ann was similar to other U.S. firebases in South Vietnam, although it occupied a bulldozed hilltop which looked like a camel with two humps. Running northwest to southeast, the firebase stretched 500 meters across two hillsides with twenty-two bunkers. The headquarters consisted of the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and Company Command Post (CP), and was located at the south end of the camp. The northwest end of the camp consisted of an artillery position with two 155mm howitzers, the fire direction center, and the artillery command post. Surrounding the firebase was a trench system protected by concertina wire.

For months leading up to the attack, the level of enemy activity in the area had been low and contacts were infrequent. The lack of significant recent engagements, along with preparations to turn the FSB over to ARVN units and their impending return home, had given the U.S. soldiers in the area a false sense of security.

But early on the fog-shrouded morning of March 28, 1973, an estimated 50 sappers from the 2nd Company, 409th NVA Main Force Sapper Battalion, working in small squads of three to six men, stealthily crawled 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. When they reached the concertina wire, they were careful to cut only two-thirds of the way through the strands, then used their fingers to silently break the rest of the way through the wire without shaking the large coils.

To make themselves less visible, and much more difficult targets in the darkness, their bodies were covered with charcoal and grease. Strapped to their backs were AK-47s or RPG-7s, with satchel charges strapped to their chests, and hand grenades hanging from their belts.

Crouching low, the sappers cut four paths through the base's two outer concertina barriers. They took more time moving through the third barrier, which was about 20 meters from the bunker line and then fanned out along the southwest side of the line.

Following standard sapper doctrine, their attack would commence with the first mortar barrage. The first enemy 82mm mortar shells hit FSB Mary Ann at 2:30 AM, signaling the start of the ground attack. 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. The NVA had achieved the element of surprise, as American soldiers were neither prepared nor on alert.

Once through the wire, the sappers scattered toward key targets: the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) bunker and the company command post, effectively disrupting the command structure on the firebase, plus the FSB's artillery and many of the perimeter bunkers. Their attack was aided by tear gas, delivered either by sappers (using grenades) or mixed in with regular high-explosive mortar rounds as part of the bombardment. 

At about the same time (2:51 AM), the TOC radio operator requested illumination rounds from supporting artillery batteries at LZ Mildred, but did not indicate that Mary Ann was under ground attack. A captain in the TOC grabbed the radio away from the radio operator and gave orders to begin firing artillery at various coordinates around the firebase. The response was delayed because one of the three responding firebases had failed to plot supporting fire coordinates.
The south end of the TOC was burning by this time, the fire started by a satchel charge igniting a case of white phosphorus grenades located near the south bunker entrance. 

Amidst all the explosions, the NVA managed to penetrate the south side of the FSB's perimeter. By the time the American soldiers inside the bunkers had recovered from the confusion, the sappers were already inside the camp, and hit half the bunkers using satchel charges and rocket-propelled grenades. The surprise attack by the NVA had the effect of immobilizing the camp's defenders, but those who survived the initial onslaught managed to mount a resistance against their attackers.

At around 3:30 AM, the NVA disengaged and withdrew from the firebase, trying to drag their dead and wounded comrades back through the concertina wire, when a helicopter gunship finally appeared and began firing its guns at the retreating sappers.

The wounded survivors of the 1st Battalion were finally airlifted out on medevac helicopters. 

The battle for FSB Mary Ann produced disastrous results for the U.S. Army, which suffered 33 killed and 83 wounded. It was the most deadly attack on a single U.S. firebase during the Vietnam War. The NVA casualties were largely unknown, but 15 bodies were left behind in the aftermath of the attack, and blood trails and drag marks indicated that the NVA may have suffered more casualties.

Maj. Gen. James L. Baldwin, commander of the 23rd (American) Infantry Division was removed from command and received a letter of admonishment as a result of the attack on Fire Support Base Mary Ann. The Commander of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Col. William Hathaway, was removed from the promotion list for Brig. Gen. and received a letter of reprimand. The commander of 1st Battalion 46th Infantry, Lt. Col. William P. Doyle, also received a letter of reprimand. Doyle remained in service until his retirement but did not receive another promotion. He died of acute alcoholism at age 54. All three commanders received these reprimands for not having ensured that standard operating procedures were followed with regard to perimeter security at FSB Mary Ann, thus facilitating the devastatingly deadly attack.

Baldwin, Hathaway, and Doyle protested their reprimands, but they were upheld by Gen. William Westmoreland, then the Army Chief of Staff. In fact, Westmoreland and his successor as Commander in Vietnam, Gen. Creighton Abrams, wanted Baldwin reduced in rank to Brig. Gen. and for him to receive a letter of reprimand. They were overruled by Secretary of the Army Robert Froehlke, and Baldwin received the less severe letter of admonishment and no reduction in rank. Doyle was himself nominated for a Silver Star for his heroics while suffering multiple fragmentation wounds during the desperate defense of FSB Mary Ann, but his commanding officer (Hathaway) refused to endorse the nomination, considering that Doyle was partially to blame for the sapper infiltration.

On June 29, 1973, the 196th Brigade was the last combat brigade to leave Vietnam. In total, the brigade suffered 1,188 KIA, and 5,591 WIA in Vietnam.

Author's Note: Among the 33 soldiers killed at FSB Mary Ann, two were from western Michigan. Their names were Michael Holloway and Warren Ritsema. I was the Survivor Assistance Officer (SAO) for Ritsema but not the Holloway family. Yet I did share a history with the Holloway family and decided to make a visit to the funeral home in hopes of reconnecting with any Holloway that might be there. 

When I entered the funeral home and was ushered into the room where Michael's body lay, I saw an older man I recognized as Maynard Holloway. As a little boy, I lived three doors down from Maynard and his wife, Ruth. Since he was in the Army during World War II, he was not around much, but I recalled his return home after the war, and the many times I saw him afterward. For whatever reason, Maynard and Ruth ultimately divorced, and while Ruth remained a family friend, I never saw Maynard again.

When Maynard first saw me, I was wearing my class-A uniform as I had just come from work (I was a National Guard advisor while finishing up college). When he saw the uniform, a spark of anger came into his eyes. But that quickly disappeared when I told him who I was and that I was only there to offer my condolences. I realized he was reflecting the pain any American who lost a loved one would feel at a time when the vast majority of Americans felt the war had gone on too long, and for families like his that had to suffer the loss of a loved one.

I didn't even try to comfort him. He was in no mood for words like 'honorable service,' 'the ultimate sacrifice,' 'For God and Country' or any of the words I normally said at a gravesite during my SAO duties. I just let him know how sorry I was for his loss. We shook hands and I left. 

Warren Peter Ritsema, the other Western Michigan man killed at FSB Mary Ann, was assigned to me as the family's SAO. He left a young, beautiful widow named Marcia. She and Warren and his family were devout Christians. For the rest of the time I remained in Grand Rapids, I would check in with the family to see if they needed any additional help.

I was struck by one thing that I have never forgotten. At Warren's funeral service, Simon and Garfunkel's 'Bridge over Troubled Waters' was played. As I listened to the words, I understood why it was selected.

I cannot help thinking of Warren, Marcia, and his family anytime I hear that music.