Battle of Duc Lap

In the book 'Through the Wire' by David Savage, much is written about the battle of Duc Lap. However, David Savage has admitted that accounts of other Australians involved in the battle did not appear in his book due to book limitations.  David Savage has kindly offered the following material and in particular the account of Warrant Officer Class 2 Geoff Smith AATTV is much appreciated. Both David Savage and Geoff Smith retain copyright of the information provided below.

What follows is an account of Duc Lap written by one of the 212 Company platoon commanders, Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) Geoff Smith, a member of AATTV attached to the Pleiku MikeForce.  212 Company had four Australians - Captain David Savage -Company Commander, WO2s' Lawrie Jackson, Geoff Smith and Barry Tolley and one lone American Sergeant, John Wast.

David Savage had asked Geoff to write his recollections without any prompting and what follows was originally intended to form an epilogue to his book 'Through the Wire'.  However the editing process and word limit precluded its inclusion in the finished product - more the pity.

EPILOGUE by David Savage

When I was writing the book I tried to contact Geoff Smith and Lawrie Jackson's family concerning a couple of matters. I had no success. I had not seen Geoff since early 1969. I had attended Lawrie's funeral in 1974 and my recent efforts to contact his family had not met with any positive result.

Eventually, through unexpected sources, I succeeded in mid-1996. Lawrie's family told me that he seldom mentioned anything about his army service and they could not remember anything specific that would help me. I had located and rung Geoff a few weeks before that and asked him if he remembered me and/or Duc Lap. Geoff is a laconic person. His response over the phone was: I'll say I do. "That was the day we got out of the choppers and went up the hill and the NVA kicked our arse".

 I told him that was the one. Then I asked him if he would mind writing down his recollections and sending them to me. He said that he had a map somewhere and some articles and that he would dig them out. I did not want to throw in any clues because I wanted his recollections cold.

When I got Geoff's response I was surprised by a few things that I had not known at the time. More particularly though I was taken by some of the things he mentioned in passing. They were relevant to some of things that I had pontificated about in the latter parts of the original manuscript. Those things led to a further exchange of correspondence between us, much of it of a personal nature and/or discussing some of the detail of  particular incidents.

Naturally enough, Geoff's account did not agree with everything I had written but that was only to be expected after so many years. I had had the benefit of some documents, articles and my notebook to help refresh my memory. Even then I had, on several occasions, to go back and add something that other events had prompted me to remember.

Without Haley's and the platoon commanders' efforts outside the camp I have doubts that I would still be around; and without their efforts once inside the camp, Duc Lap would have become another NVA victory in 1968; militarily in the short term only but politically and propaganda-wise, it would have been another source of media and academic hysteria to weaken elected governments' efforts to bring the conflict to a just conclusion.

Geoff's first letter to me after so many years stands on its own. From a different perspective it said in a few pages more than I had in many. I have taken the liberty of writing some of his abbreviations out in full. Otherwise, I give the last word to Geoff Smith:

Letter to David Savage from Geoff Smith

David,

Thought I had some stuff like Duc Lap map that would help jog the memory, but it seems they've been lost over the years. Its been a long time.

As is always the case some things stick in the mind and others need some resurrecting and some are better forgotten.

Those of us who worked with Mike Force were always faced with that special enigma, would they go forward or backward, I don't think anyone can honestly say they knew at any time. Duc Lap, once inside, really only demanded that they hold the line, apart from air strikes, artillery support and other outside elements, command was restricted to that simple fact. Except for a very brief  period, that was accomplished remarkably well, far more successfully than many 30 day operations would record.

Anyway, good luck with the book, you may like to send me a copy when it comes to fruition.

Meanwhile,
Very Best Regards,
  Geoff

These are Geoff's recollections:

It started with the choppers unloading us over a small paddy field which was quite deep in places, my radio operator submerged with only his antenna sticking up out of the water, it was funny at the time. Waded out of the water a short way up the hill and started to regroup. I leant against a tree and a small piece of aircraft fell out and hit me on the head,  some start!

We got moving, I had right flank, there were comms wires laid close to the track leading toward where we were going. Ridge narrowed my platoon now on right side of ridge. Heard shots and shouting, moved forward and up to see what  was going on, saw one of ours had been shot in the neck and the Yards were moving backwards. Heard my name being called and saw  you and Tolley up against a tree surrounded by Yards and seemed to have your hands full. I think it was you who said grab the radio and get air support, anyway there was a radio lying on the track about 20 yards away. The gun ship was on our frequency and after throwing smoke etc they hosed down our front and things cooled down a bit. I then went back to my platoon, but they weren't there. Moved back to the centre then and no one was there either, so I beat a hasty retreat myself. Tolley was waiting for me as I came down the hill and together we rejoined the company.

As I recall we took up a defensive position on a hill a click or two to the North of the camp later that day. That night we watched the camp take a pounding. They had called an airstrike, part of which hit the smaller knoll and enabled the NVA to take it.

Next morning we swept around to attack the hill from the Southwest. My platoon had right flank and themove was uneventful until about 200 yards from the camp. We had halted while I radioed Tolley to see how things were going, we began taking fire from the camp, two of my platoon got flesh wounds, there was no cover and we were stationary. Almost immediately I saw a stream of people dashingtoward the camp, we followed suit.

My recollection differs from the book here , it states only a third of your company made it in to the camp initially, my platoon received only light and sporadic fire from thecamp and no mortar rounds came near us, either front or rear and all made it inside and that's a fact. That wasn't the case elsewhere apparently but I'm certain far more than a third got there. It inferred of course that a company commander and at least two platoon commanders made it to the camp, leaving their troops behind, which was patent bullshit, where did that come from? ( Note: This is a reference to a history of AATTV written by Ian McNeill and titled "The Team".

You were hit going in and we met, after setting the troops on the perimeter, in the command bunker, you told us to man the mortars in order to give the USSF5 guys a break; before that could happen a B40 rocket hit the wall up top; right among those who had gone up for some fresh air as we got inside. Jacko and I carried one guy down and tried to give him an IV but couldn't find a vein, couldn't see where he was hit and it wasn't until I felt his fluids through my trouser legs that we discovered he had been hit in the lower back; he died shortly after.

After that we went to the mortar pits ; I only stayed with them a few hours; there seemed to be more than enough 'round eyes' on them and not enough where the troops were; besides from where the mortars were it wasn't possible to see too much except to the East of South and most of our problems would come from the North and Northeast and so it proved.

The rest of that day and night was a bit of a blur, some assaults, lots of mortar and B40 rockets; attempts to get wounded out failed; choppers got hit and so on. A USSF sergeant and I were given the task of adjusting artillery supporting fire. I recall the radio was loose (not in an A frame) and as we crawled out we poked the radio with a stick in front of us while holding the handset; it's hard to do; after two attempts we couldn't get out far enough or get our heads high enough to observe anything except dust; then the radio got shot and that was the end of that. Not sure exactly but a resupply was attempted that day but most of it fell outside the perimeter and unrecoverable. It wasn't a good day for people in choppers or aircraft either. Water was already a problem and would get worse. The night was a mixture of incoming and outgoing, mortars kept illumination going and Spooky did his thing; but no night attack; we all kept expecting it. I remember we all were a bit tired, but no one even thought about sleep that night;  apart from being busy, there was this expectation of a night attack and no onethought it wouldn't happen. Things got quite tense and there were doubts about us holding out should a night attack eventuate.

The second last day, following a hectic night was the most eventful and the most critical. We had been taking incoming regularly through the night but it intensified markedly before dawn, around 4.30-5.00am I think;  it was still dark. It was around this time our mortars switched from firing mainly HE to predominantly illumination; when little things can make a difference, that decision was critical and in fairness, Barry can take credit for that. It was a morale booster for defenders who were expecting an assault before daybreak. It didn't come until around 6.00am or so. An air strike followed in no timeat all. Much of that ordnance fell close to the perimeter occasioning some friendly wounded; there were flechettes everywhere; however, the largest concentration of enemy were located in the gully that ran off the saddle between the two knolls. The air strike missed them. Some fierce fightingfollowed, the NVA took heavy casualties; it lasted,  what seemed along time, but I suppose it was less than 1/2 hour.

It was about this time the Yards on the Northeast perimeter decided to pull back (there wasn't any placeto go!) and after a lot of shouting and a few bursts over their heads, order was restored. My own view was that they had been 'spooked' more by the air strike than the NVA because they did well before that and again later when the second, and what was to be the final attack, came around 8.00am.

Reinforcements arrived around midday or a little after, and were briefed to attack the North knoll from the South. We gave supporting fire into the bunkers as best we could and an air strike supported them, but the casualties came thick and fast.The attack became bogged down and I watched several USSF guys stand up wavingtheir arms to get things going, only to be cut down where they stood. It took a long time, as you will recall, there wasn't a blade of grass on that slope and about 150 yards into the face of  bunkers was a pretty huge ask. I think only 15 NVA bodies were recovered after the knoll was taken; the cost was a hell of a lot more than that.

Soon after I got a call from our battalion commander, (who was in a chopper as I recall) he was concerned about reports of mutilation to USSF bodies. He mentioned oneUSSF sergeant in particular and fortunately (or unfortunately) I was ableto tell himthe guy had taken a burst starting at the ankle, up the leg and into the chest; he fell less than two feet from me.

Later Jacko and I loaded his and other USSF bodies on to the bonnet of a Jeep and walked by the side of it to prevent them falling off. Not very dignified but there wasn't any other way. There were bodies everywhere; had been for days; some in communications trenches, bloated and wedged in. NVA littered the perimeter almost as thick as leaves. Body counts were always suspect and I have no idea what the numbers were but it was large and the stench was around long beforethe last day.

That was Duc Lap as I can recall it; we returned to Pleiku the following day. I went to command 211 Company, till going on R-and-R in Feb and after that went to the Rangers at Duc My as Jungle Mountain Swamp Warfare advisor; some title that! Strangely, Duc Lap was the last time I was with any Aussies; had only USSF guys with 211and was the sole Aussie at Duc My.  Bit of a shame really; still that was the Team, there will never be another.

Photographs of Duc Lap with some of the 212 Company involved.
(Sourced by David Savage)


 
L to R - WO2 Geoff Smith, AATTV, Platoon Commander 212 MSF
Company; back to camera is SFC Emerick, USSF, assigned to the
 USSF team at Duc Lap but  not present during the battle (he was on
field operations near Ban Me Thuot); unidentified A Camp medic
(flown in after the battle [with mug]);  MSG Thomas Boody, USSF,
Duc Lap Team  Sergeant;  Lt   William Harp, USSF, the Duc Lap
'A' Team  commander.                                                   26 Aug 1968.

 
WO2 Lawrie Jackson, AATTV, Platoon Commander  212 MSF Company, as he  stacks 105mm shell casings after the battle of Duc Lap.                                                     26 Aug 1968

 
Chinook helicopter delivers a new3/4 ton US truck
after the battle.                                          26 Aug 1968
 

 
Left front unknown; left rear Myak Heim, Nha Trang MSF Platoon Commander; SSG E6 John Maketa, 2nd Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th MSF; SP4 E4 John Wast, USSF, Platoon Commander and Medic 212 MSF Company; on the right WO2 Geoff Smith, AATTV, Platoon Commander 212 MSF Company.                                        26 Aug 1968

 
On the left MSG Thomas Boody, USSF, Duc Lap Team Sergeant and on the right WO2 Barry Tolley, AATTV, Platoon Commander 212 MSF Company.  The limited number of helmets and flak jackets in 'A' Camp were swapped during the night and used mainly by those manning mortars at the time.

 
Captain David Savage, AATTV, Company Commander 212 MSF   Company after the battle of Duc Lap and just priorto his evacuation.                                                                    26 Aug 1968

 
 
 

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