As the US involvement was winding down in Vietnam in 1971, there was still dangerous work being down by the Special Operations Forces working under the cover of MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Studies and Observations Group). This in the shadows unit was once active all South and North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos but as the war was winding down for the US, these special operators from the Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and USAF Air Commandos, their function was to mainly aid in a safe withdrawal of US forces.
But intelligence was tracking a large force of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units heading just across the DMZ only about 12 miles east of Khe Sahn. This NVA force could threaten the cities of Phu Bai, Hue and Da Nang where the majority of US troops left in the country were stationed.
In a cruel postscript to the Tet Offensive of just three years before, Khe Sanh was abandoned by the South Vietnamese. A result of their abortive and costly offensive in the spring, the ground that the Marines fought and bled so hard for was simply abandoned to the NVA.
Recon Team Kansas’ Mission: The mission to find out what was happening outside of Khe Sanh was given to Recon Team Kansas. The team consisted of three American Special Forces, 1LT Loren Hagen, and SGTs Tony Anderson and Bruce Berg and eight Montagnard tribesmen. The mission was a prisoner snatch in the middle of what was thought to be close to 10,000 NVA was a difficult one and the team decided on a course of action.
Hagen decided to land openly at an abandoned US firebase. With the NVA bound to react to them on the ground, the team would make a show of getting into a short firefight and then act like it was withdrawing out of the area by helicopter. But half of the team would remain and ambush the NVA troops sent to check out the US withdrawal and then snatch a prisoner. It was decided to beef up the team by adding three more American SF operators, SSG Klaus Bingham, and SGTs Bill Queen and William Rimondi which brought the force to a total for 14 men, six US and eight indigenous.
Recon Team Kansas landed at dusk on August 6 and Hagen immediately went about improving their positions and he deployed his men to cover the three slopes that converged on their hilltop. The NVA must have had the team under surveillance and known exactly where they were. Hagen’s men saw NVA campfire’s on the opposite ridgelines, something that was out of the ordinary for the enemy. By midnight NVA troops were probing around the bottom of the hill and shooting from all directions, trying to draw the team out. But the team held their fire and stayed quiet.
At 1 a.m. an Air Force AC-130 Spectre gunship raked the bottom of the hill with 20mm Vulcan fire and 40mm grenades. By 3 a.m. the situation became ominous. The team could hear the sound of trucks bringing troops into the area and tailgates opening. The NVA were moving large numbers of troops into attack positions. Just before dawn, more troops arrived. Just before dawn, the helicopter lift for the false extraction was taking off along with an Air Force Forward Air Control (FAC). Their arrival time was in just 30 minutes from their takeoff.
As daylight began to brighten the hill, Hagen could see large numbers of NVA completely encircling the hill. They estimated that the number of troops needed to do that was 1000. The NVA were determined to overrun the small force of SOG warriors before their air support arrived on station. Unbeknownst to the SOG men were that they had landed right near the NVA’s latest venture, a six-inch fuel pipeline that ran thru the DMZ and into South Vietnam.
This was to be vital for the upcoming 1972 Easter offensive where the NVA would deploy large amounts of armor. Elements of two NVA divisions were massing in the area, the 304th, and the 308th. More troops were pouring into the area concealed by an early morning fog. The hill would be assaulted by two regiments of NVA, about 2000 Infantry.
The Enemy Assault: The NVA had done a superb job of scouting the team’s positions. Their attack began with a well-placed RPG round that blasted the bunker of SGT Berg and the fire erupted on all sides. Anderson opened up with an M-60 machine gun at a wall of NVA that were rushing up the slope. Hagen saw the RPG impact on Berg’s position and despite an incredible amount of fire coming in all around his position, he didn’t hesitate. He yelled that he was going to Berg and made it only about 10-12 yards when NVA fire all around him cut him down, killing him instantly.
Bingham tried to crawl out from his position to reposition a Claymore mine when well-aimed NVA fire took him out with a head shot.
A Montagnard trooper, in the position below Anderson, fired several bursts but was cut down almost immediately by heavy return fire. The situation, already dangerous was becoming increasingly dire. In just the first few minutes, the team had four men dead and was in serious danger of being annihilated before the air support could arrive. Anderson as the senior man took charge.
He bolted over the hill to look for Hagen, dodging a flurry of grenades lobbed by the approaching NVA. He saw a huge group of perhaps 100 NVA Infantry coming straight up the hill. He cut loose an entire belt on the M-60.
Anderson kept up an enormous amount of fire from the M-60 as the NVA were hurling grenades at him from all angles. Miraculously, he survived and kept the NVA troops from overrunning their position. The Cobra gunships having got the call, left the Hueys and raced to the team’s rescue on the hill.
Anderson was hit by grenade fragments, finally knocking out the M-60. But he didn’t miss a beat and was firing his CAR-15 when he was hit in the elbow with small arms fire knocking him to the ground. Already peppered with grenade fragments, he kept the fire up.
The NVA had split the perimeter in two. All of the Montagnards save two were dead. Anderson grabbed them and somehow reached the hilltop where Queen, already wounded and Rimondi, the only member of the team not hit were firing furiously at the NVA. Their radio smashed by AK-47 fire and grenade fragments, Anderson was trying to reach the FAC with his hand-held survival radio. It was shot out of his hands. Rimondi tossed him his radio, the team’s last.
The NVA were now at point-blank range and the team was out of grenades. Just when the NVA were about to overrun the last of the team, the Cobra gunships arrived.
The lead gunship rained down 20mm cannon fire all around the team, decimating the NVA closest to the team members. The fighters arrived and they swept the hillside with Vulcan cannons and napalm. That crushed the NVA assault. The veteran NVA troops knew it was time to withdraw and where just seconds before they were poised to annihilate the SOG troopers, it was they who had to turn tail and run.
Finally, the Hueys arrived and the team was able to evacuate most of the dead. Anderson supervised the loading despite being wounded several times by grenade shrapnel and small arms fire. Rimondi and Queen both suffered multiple shrapnel wounds. Both Montagnards were wounded.
After Action Report: Of Recon Team Kansas’ 14 men, nine were dead and the rest wounded. The Air Force counted 185 dead NVA on the hill and at least double that amount were wounded. Despite being outnumbered more than a 100-1, the SOG troopers, with timely air support were able to throttle an NVA battalion.
Hagen was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. It was presented to his family. Anderson who took over and somehow led the men out of the maelstrom received a Distinguished Service Cross. He later accompanied the bodies of the Montagnards back home to their village for burial. Queen, Rimondi, Berg, and Bingham were awarded Silver Stars.
Hagen’s Medal of Honor citation reads:
1st Lt. Hagen distinguished himself in action while serving as the team leader of a small special reconnaissance team operating deep within enemy-held territory. At approximately 0630 hours on the morning of 7 August 1971 the small team came under a fierce assault by a superior-sized enemy force using heavy small arms, automatic weapons, mortar, and rocket fire. 1st Lt. Hagen immediately began returning small-arms fire upon the attackers and successfully led this team in repelling the first enemy onslaught. He then quickly deployed his men into more strategic defense locations before the enemy struck again in an attempt to overrun and annihilate the beleaguered team’s members. 1st Lt. Hagen repeatedly exposed himself to the enemy fire directed at him as he constantly moved about the team’s perimeter, directing fire, rallying the members, and resupplying the team with ammunition, while courageously returning small arms and hand grenade fire in a valorous attempt to repel the advancing enemy force. The courageous actions and expert leadership abilities of 1st Lt. Hagen were a great source of inspiration and instilled confidence in the team members. After observing an enemy rocket make a direct hit on and destroy 1 of the team’s bunkers, 1st Lt. Hagen moved toward the wrecked bunker in search for team members despite the fact that the enemy force now controlled the bunker area. With total disregard for his own personal safety, he crawled through the enemy fire while returning small-arms fire upon the enemy force. Undaunted by the enemy rockets and grenades impacting all around him, 1st Lt. Hagen desperately advanced upon the destroyed bunker until he was fatally wounded by enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire. With complete disregard for his personal safety, 1st Lt. Hagen’s courageous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty, at the cost of his own life, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon him and the U.S. Army.
For our readers who are aspiring to become members of the Regiment, this is a valuable learning lesson. Frequently you’ll hear during the Selection courses and the qualification rites of passage where the candidates are placed in stressful environments where they’re physically and mentally exhausted and they’re expected to think and act clearly. This mission was a great example of that. They’re proof that the system works and their courage and coolness under intense fire shows just what kind of men the Regiment is looking for.
Despite being outnumbered more than 100-1, and facing the prospect of being overrun at any second, the SOG warriors regrouped and fought their way out of an impossible situation. This is the never quit attitude and the drive to succeed against all odds.
Photos Courtesy: DOD