(In Part One of the Last Stand At Lang Vei, the story ended just as the NVA began their secondary assault against the camp. This week the story is carried to its conclusion from that point using a narrative interweaved with after action reports written by Lieutenant Colonel Shungel and Captain Willoughby.)
The tanks roared through the wire and continued depressing their guns at the maximum setting firing point-blank into the trenches. Defenders not killed tried in vain to retreat the other positions, only to be cut down by barking AK-47s. And though many NVA also fell, they continued advancing taking up position in fallen positions and shrinking the defensive perimeter ever smaller as remaining anti-tank teams raised more LAW’s and have them fail to fire, or when they did, fail to penetrate.
Perhaps the only bright spot in the entire battle came when a special forces Sergeant lined up on a close cluster of tanks and fired his 106 mm recoilless rifle in rapid succession sending three of the vehicles up in flames. The 106 proved to be the only effective answer to the armor, but there were only two of them, and they were eventually abandoned. The defenses cascaded away as wherever a small portion of the camp was holding another part of it was being penetrated. Confusion reigned in the darkness as men on both sides continued battle at arms length.
A forward air controller ( FAC), and an AC 119 gunship arrived overhead. Flares spouted out the belly of the gunship illuminating the camp in an eerie orange glow where gun fire flashed streams of green and red tracer. Willoughby requested airstrikes on the road and in a ravine outside the wire where he suspected more NVA would come and in a few minutes splashes of napalm added to the artificial night spreading over the ravine and high explosive bombs slammed into the road sending a great swath of concussive waves through the operations center.
In one sector of the camp in another bunker called the team room, 4 Green Berets and 50 Vietnamese emerged after making a hasty decision to escape towards the relatively vacant looking northern perimeter. They rushed for the wire but NVA to their east quickly spotted and engaged them with automatic weapons, killing all but two Americans and 10 Vietnamese who miraculously picked their way through the barbed wire, and fled into the jungle, finally finding refuge in a river bed.
Schungel who had since left the operations center and had been outside trying to coordinate the anti-tank fire suddenly found himself cut off. With his M-16 he managed to cut down a group of five enemy, three with AK-47s and two satchel charges as he watched them creep up on the team house. Another satchel charge found its mark and the structure exploded, wounding him in the leg. He and another officer named Wilkins decided to set off for the medical bunker which already been demolished.
More enemy approach, they covered themselves under a pile of sandbags just before the NVA arrived where they could hear them conversing for several minutes. ‘We hid there during a period that the NVA, a platoon I would estimate, were stomping around in the dispensary, knocking over bottles and raising hell in general. I overheard snatches of conversation, one between a runner from battalion and a company commander (Dai Uy, Dai Doi Truong). Before daylight we ceased to hear anything from them and the people left the dispensary. ‘ Schungel who was wounded again at daybreak, and Wilkins miraculously found a lull in the battle and a vacant part of wire and escaped to find friendlies, where as he described it, he was ‘practically carried’ to the Laotian command post to receive treatment.
He had no idea that during that period, that he was hiding, a few hundred meters away, Willoughby and several others had found themselves the last bastion of resistance and prepared to endure a lengthy and particular brand of Hell.
Willoughby continued working the radio making another request for relief from Khe Sanh only to be denied again. It was approximately 0330 hrs, and he hollered to start demolishing the center’s openings. Men worked to dislodge sandbags to cover the spaces and then an entire wall of sandbags collapsed as a tank started to climb over the position. Once it reached the top of the pile it stayed there and continued blasting at any remaining resistance from other areas for about 20 minutes, then it moved off as the first satchel charges were tossed in.
By this time Willoughby, seven other Green Berets, three South Vietnamese special forces and 26 CIDG had retreated down a stairwell into a deep, dark room before the massive blasts erupted. With the exception of Khe Sanh, their link to the outside world was gone as the antenna was destroyed in the explosions. The NVA also added to the din by depositing hand grenades through the center’s concrete observation slits, and spraying blindly with their rifles. But the group held on and throughout the blasts Willoughby stayed on the radio keeping Khe Sanh appraised of the situation. He didn’t know if help would ever arrive and if it did, it might be too late. He mustered all the resolve he had left, for he realized there was no choice but to absorb whatever the enemy could throw at him, which for the next two hours involved bone- jarring satchel charges, an occasional hand grenade and shouts to surrender along with a new sound. Digging.
At 0600 hours the effort to dislodge them increased when a thermite grenade was deposited through one of the slits causing a fire in the demolished center but failing to creep down the stairwell. The same could not be said for the teargas grenades as several of them begin spewing their choking clouds down upon the group huddling and silent in the black. This was followed by more satchel charges being exploded not in the demolished part of the center but to either side and above where the final room was. The NVA were trying to speed up the holes dug by blasting their way down to them. “We are going to blow up the bunker, so give up,” the NVA shouted.
Willoughby and a few others who had gas masks passed them around, but before being reached men were starting to cough and heave violently as if on the verge of suffocation. Eyes stung and became blurry with water and all at once, for the South Vietnamese suffering with him, it became too much.
One of the South Vietnamese officers called up the stairwell announcing that he and his force would surrender. The group quickly began making its way up and started stripping themselves of weapons and equipment. A shot rang out, for some reason killing one of the CIDG. A South Vietnamese Lieutenant had second thoughts just before he exited the stairwell and came back down.
Willoughby wrote: ‘The indigenous prisoners were marched to the top of the TOC and we could hear much talking in Vietnamese. It lasted for ten or fifteen minutes. We then heard much automatic weapons fire, and assumed the prisoners had been killed. However, the next morning I saw no bodies.’
With first light filtering through windows back in MACV-Headquarters, Saigon, General William Westmoreland, overall commander of US forces in Vietnam was aghast that since learning of Lang Vei’s situation no helicopters had left their pads with a relief force. He personally ordered Khe Sanh to immediately provide units and attempts to rescue those trapped at the base began accelerating along with more coordinated airstrikes to sweep the enemy away. But not before the NVA made one final effort to dislodge Willoughby’s men and this time, almost find success.
Darkness shattered into bright light as a satchel charge successfully breached one of the walls in the room wounding several and leaving a hole 6 feet across and 4 feet high. A fragmentation grenade rolled in and exploded near Willoughby wounding him. He struggled to stay conscious as long as possible hearing good news in the form of airstrikes coming in on the camp and a radio message saying a relief force was trying to get to them. After that, sometime after 0800 hours, his body could take no more and he passed out.
Aircraft rolled in, being coordinated from the ground finding ideal targets as there were still several tanks visible and these were quickly taken out by swooping propeller driven A-1Sky Raiders. They rocketed, bombed and napalmed the fleeing NVA for hours until a sporadic calm draped itself over the base.
A relief force closest to Lang Vei consisting of approximately 100 Laotians led by Green Berets, split in two and fought its way towards the camp. One group ended up observing the quiet base while another managed to get through the wire. They linked up and engaged remaining NVA near a supply bunker and the American’s in charge fought to keep their skittish force intact as the Laotian’s kept running away.
Still on the floor of the room, Willoughby came to at around 1100 hrs and learned that the relief force was inside the camp. There was still more fire around the operations center, so he went back to work using the FAC to direct strikes to within 100 feet of his position. He also had several strafing runs take care of any remaining stragglers who might be lying in wait to engage them when they came out.
With more time drawing out, they decided to venture up the stairwell and claw their way through the rubble to assess the situation and get back into action by escaping. There was still gunfire, though not nearly as intense, being heard in the distance. What he didn’t realize was that the relief force was actually attempting its fourth penetration toward them and was still having problems keeping unity and was starting again at Lang Vei’s perimeter.
Willoughby requested bombs be placed over the entire camp except around the operations center. The air was filled with aircraft coming in at low level with guns blazing and walking bombs over different sectors until the base seemed to vanish in a huge cloud of brown smoke. When it cleared Willoughby and the rest of the men set off in one’s and two’s toward the supply bunker where they hoped the relief force would be near. They stepped over countless bodies, both friendly and NVA, inches apart as they heard the sound of jets and helicopters arriving on station awaiting orders to attack again. Willoughby who was helping carry a wounded comrade also learned Schungel was alive and had been trying to get Medevac choppers on the way.
A few minutes later the group saw their rescuers. It was Laotians with AK-47s, which caused a moment of concern and rifles start to rise before they identified themselves. A Massive Marine CH- 53 helicopter immediately descended and landed a command-and-control element while smaller UH-1 Huey’s began evacuating Willoughby and his men plus the relief force by 1630 hours.
Behind them, smoldering Lang Vei shrunk in the distance, becoming but a small part in the Tet offensive that ultimately ended in military disaster for the Communists and psychological defeat for the United States. Aboard the choppers, no one entertained such thoughts. They were alive, and that alone was the greatest victory of all.
The battle of Lang Vei saw the following losses incurred by both sides:
- 90 Killed
- 220 Wounded
- 7 tanks destroyed
- 316 Killed (7 Americans)
- 75 Wounded (11 Americans)
- 253 Captured (3 Americans)