1. The Battle For Cung Son Extracted

From 238th AWC Website

Throughout history, intelligence has won or lost battles. In the case of Cung Son, I don't know if our side had better intelligence, or if someone just guessed right. Whatever the case was, the VC/NVA paid a huge price for their mistake. In early June, 1971, the 238th was going on stand down for the conversion to the Cobra gunship. The only mission assignment the unit had at the time was for a standby alert team. The primary alert team was provided by the 134th AHC, so our team was on 15 minute alert. Many of our pilots were preparing to leave for other units. It's a good bet that the enemy knew what was going on. The village of Cung Son is in the Tuy Hoa river valley, about 35 miles inland from the coast. It lies in a bend in the river, and was one of the fortified villages where the population of the area had been concentrated for protection. Normally, it was defended by it's own RF/PF unit. Northwest of the village was a hill with an ARVN firebase on top. The firebase had three 105mm guns, and the sides of the hill had been cleared of all vegetation. The VC/NVA forces consisted of two Battalions that had been operating in the area for a long time. By 1971, both of these units were mostly NVA regular troops, and all of the command staff was NVA. The reason for the attack on Cung Son appears to have been an effort to discredit the fortified village program and also to capture a large number of civilians to be used as laborers. Their plan was simple, one Battalion was to attack the firebase, while the other swept into the village from the north. The NVA may also have had intelligence that the village was only lightly defended that night, but they were wrong! Some time after midnight, the 134th alert team was scrambled to go to the aid of the ARVN firebase near Cung Son. The call for help said that the firebase was under heavy attack, and in danger of being overrun. The 134th responded with one team of UH-1C gunships, and a UH-1H flare ship. Once on the scene, the 134th pilots realized that a major attack was in progress, and called for assistance. Throughout the rest of the night, and well into the next morning, gunships from both companies fought to halt the attack. Finally, with their positions being overrun, the ARVN gunners holed up in their bunkers and called in fire on top of their own positions. Using the deadly fleshette rockets, gunships fired at anything that moved, and finally drove the attackers off of the hilltop. By mid day, the battle for the firebase was over, but all three of the guns were out of action. The VC/NVA losses must have been very high, but no accurate count could be made. Some accounts say that survivors of this battalion tried to take refuge in what remained of a small village northwest of Cung Son and were wiped out by Air Force air strikes. I can't verify that account. While the battle for the firebase raged, the other VC/NVA Battalion attempted to sweep into the village itself. Their approach took them through a wooded area and they intended to cross a stream near the one bridge in that area. What they did was walk right into an "ambush" set up by an ARVN Ranger Company that had moved into the village earlier that evening. The ARVN Rangers, some of the best ARVN troops, had been on the ground for several days, and the VC/NVA had no idea that they had moved into Cung Son. I don't know for sure if the ARVN Rangers knew that this attack was coming, or if they had started moving out of the village to try to assist the firebase. I do know that the ARVN Rangers took up positions on the south bank of the stream and halted all attempts by the VC/NVA to cross the stream. At first light, a flight of slicks from the 134th picked up an RF/PF Company at Tuy Hoa city, and inserted them north of the VC/NVA in an attempt to trap the VC/NVA Battalion. Most of us had worked with RF/PF units before, and had little hope that they would perform well in such a large scale action. I was in one of the gunships escorting the slicks, and the LZ was cold until the last slick was out. Then a machine gun opened up from a tree line to the west. We made a 180 and started to make a run at the tree line until we realized that the RF/PF troops were charging the tree line at a dead run! I had never seen anything like that out of RF/PF troops before, but then this case was different. The RF/PF unit we inserted was the one normally stationed at Cung Son! They had been at Tuy Hoa for training. This was their homes under attack, and their families being threatened. With the VC/NVA Battalion trapped between the Rangers, the firebase, the river, and the RF/PFs, they had no way out. During that day, and even into the next day, VC/NVA were seen trying to swim the river to escape. Few made it. Our gunships weren't too effective in the heavily wooded area, but in the open areas, and in the river, mini-guns and fleshettes stopped many attempts to escape. In the final count, this one Battalion of VC/NVA lost about 250 men, including the Commander and his entire staff, who were found in a field headquarters area near the bridge they could never cross. No doubt the VC/NVA knew that the RF/PF unit was at Tuy Hoa for training. They also probably knew that the 238th was standing down. What their intelligence missed was the presence of the ARVN Rangers, and the dedication of the maintenance crews of both the 238th and 134th. Despite the stand down, the 238th maintenance crews kept at least two gunships in the air the entire time. They patched bullet holes, and even replaced windshields in almost record time to keep enough aircraft available. I've never been sure what defined "hero" in Viet Nam, but the efforts of those maintenance crews, and aircraft crews in this case was "heroic" to me!

Last Modified: Wednesday May 29th, 2024