A classic cavalry engagement from the Vietnam War
Author’s note: Srok Dong has many of the hallmarks of a classic cavalry battle: it was a dynamic reconnaissance-in-force/route reconnaissance mission deep into enemy territory. It is also, as many ABOLC students know, not nearly as well documented as more famous armor battles. For those ABOLC students who have been tasked with this battle, I would recommend placing an overlay on a map of the area and battle-track the events just as you would in an exercise you were participating in. Hopefully, this article helps you understand it better.
On June 30th, 1966 elements of the 1st Division engaged the 271st Viet Cong regiment along Route 13 in the vicinity of Srok Dong. The main actions revolved around B and C Troops of 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry who were commanded by 1LT James P. Flores and Capt. Stephen M. Slattery, respectively. C Company 2/18 infantry provided them with infantry support. The overall commander of this force was Lieutenant Colonel Leonard L. Lewane. Later in the day, A and B Companies of the 2/18 infantry would enter the fight. The 271st Viet Cong regiment was one of three regiments of the 9th Division commanded by Senior Colonel Hoang Cam.
At the start of 1966, it is estimated that the Vietcong (VC) controlled three-quarters of the countryside in South Vietnam. Struggling to secure the countryside and defeat the North Vietnamese (NVA) and elusive VC by traditional terms, the US Army began relying on search and destroy missions to seek out and kill and large numbers of NVA and VC. Their goal was to reach a “crossover” point at which the Americans destroyed NVA and VC formations faster than they could be replenished (1, minute 13).
Within this framework fell the EL PASO Operations. In late April 1966 prisoners informed MACV that the 273rd, 271st VC and a possible NVA regiment would be conducting a major offensive in the Binh Long and Phuoc Long provinces along Route (QL) 13 (2, pg. 309). QL 13 was the primary route through the provinces, bisecting both of them on its way up to the Cambodian Border. Seeing an opportunity to blunt a major enemy offensive and further the attrition of enemy forces, the 1st Infantry Division and attached elements were sent into the region. From then on, a series of skirmishes and battles began as the two forces jostled for control of the area. This included two major engagements: one on the 8th of June, and the second on the 11th.
By June 30th the Americans had been in the Binh Long and Phuoc Long provinces for over a month. QL 13 granted American mechanized units vital freedom of maneuver throughout the region. However, they had been hampered by a destroyed bridge on QL 13. LTC Lewane’s intent on June 30 was to clear that obstacle — named Checkpoint Golden Gate — with a mobile bridge and proceed north along QL 13 to conduct a reconnaissance-in-force. He tasked two troops, B and C of 1/4 Cav, to the job. Both were equipped with a mix of M48 Pattons and M113 APCs. Attached to them was C Company 2/18 Infantry providing dismounted security as needed. It was Senior Colonel Cam’s intent was to destroy this force with his 271st Regiment and disrupt the American’s ability to move throughout the region.
While QL 13 allowed C and B Troops to bring quickly bring their heavy firepower to the fight, the terrain north of Golden Gate benefited the VC’s fighting style. Excluding the rice paddies near Srok Dong, the whole area was covered in dense vegetation. A heavy forest dominated the west side of QL 13 and the rest of the region was covered by grass up to 10 feet tall. This grass came right up to the road in places and allowed dismounted infantry to move unseen. Furthermore, streams paralleling QL 13 were too deep to ford; further restricting the American vehicles to QL 13.
VC Ambushes in South Vietnam followed a similar pattern. Each ambush was meticulously planned and violently executed. When ambushing armor their primary weapons were recoilless rifles and command-controlled mines. The mines fixed the armored formation while the recoilless rifles destroyed them (3, pg. 45–47). Small arms fire and grenades rounded out the attack. The ambush on June 30th substituted in mortar fire for the mines as a fix. The American SOP response for ambushes was to immediately put the vehicles into a herringbone formation and lay down a base of fire. This would allow the infantry to advance and break up the ambush. Heavy reliance was placed on air and artillery power to act as force multipliers (5, pg. 42).
The American plan for the day was to clear Checkpoint Golden Gate, proceed North to Checkpoint 1 where LTL 17 intersected QL 13, and then reconnoiter the routes. By 0910 the whole formation was moving across Golden Gate to Checkpoint 1 where they split up. B Troop sent a small party east along LTL 17 to scout a crossing at Checkpoint 2. They returned after finding it unfordable and the whole of B Troop proceeded towards Checkpoint 3. Meanwhile, C Troop hit Checkpoint 1, left 3rd Platoon with some infantry and 3 mortar carriers, and then proceeded west down LTL 17.
At 0938 the Lead APC in B Troop triggered the VC ambush. Initially, only the lead elements of B Troop were contacted. 800 meters behind the lead vehicle, Lt. Flores was not under fire but immediately called up to Colonel Lewane in a helicopter above. Colonel Lewane, recognizing the threat, redirected an airstrike scheduled elsewhere into the vicinity of Srok Dong. This immediately began disrupting the VC.
The VC ambush was in an L shape. The head of the ambush was slightly south of Srok Dong and stretched across both sides of the QL 13. On the east side of the road, numerous fallen logs concealed recoilless rifles that were the primary threat at the head of the ambush. The long part of the L-ambush stretched 2000 meters down the west side of the road reaching from Srok Dong to a point where they could fire on the crossroads of Checkpoint 1.
Under heavy fire at the head of the ambush, 3rd Platoon began taking casualties. Once 2nd Platoon had moved up and created a perimeter around them, 3rd Platoon returned to Checkpoint 1 with their casualties leaving only a tank and an APC. With Checkpoint 1 under too much fire to allow the dust-off helicopters to land, 3rd Platoon continued south to Golden Gate.
Concurrently, C Troop was also arriving in Checkpoint 1 and forming a perimeter. Using his initiative, Captain Slattery had ordered his Troop back to Checkpoint 1 as soon as B Troop came into contact. The effect of this was that LTC Lewane had them immediately available to relieve B Troop. On orders, CPT Slattery took 1st and 2nd Platoons up to B Troop while 3rd Platoon continued to hold Checkpoint 1. Failing comms forced CPT Slattery to leave his dismounted infantry in Checkpoint 1 with 3rd platoon (6, testimonial). Despite heavy fire, C Troop made it to the head of the ambush allowing B Troop to withdraw and reorganize at Checkpoint 1.
B troop spent approximately 40 minutes at Checkpoint 1 to clear its casualties and rearm. Tasks complete, they moved into blocking positions west of Checkpoint 1 along LTL 17 — where C Troop had been before the ambush. As the day progressed ARVN APC units reinforced B Troop and allowed them to push out a bit farther. This position was quiet until they began engaging VC retreating along the trail parallel to LTL 17 near the end of the battle.
The fighting was still intense at the head of the ambush. As the last elements of B Troop were withdrawing, the first infantry units began landing in the rice paddy to the west of QL 13 at LZ2. Eventually, the helicopters would drop A and B Companies of the 2/18 infantry there. With LZ2 being about 300 meters north of C Troop’s lead elements, the two infantry companies fought their way south to link up, clearing the area as they went. Having corralled the infantry C Troop had left, 3rd PLT, C TRP also made its way up to join the battle after B Troop cleared out of Checkpoint 1. Under mounting resistance, the VC ambush began breaking down and by 1530 it had ended. From then until 1700, the infantry swept the area while C Troop secured a perimeter around QL 13. A few fights did break out in this time, but the day had gone to the Americans. Senior Colonel Cam’s attempt to destroy the American force had failed with heavy casualties to his unit.
In an attempt to decisively destroy the VC as they fell back to Cambodia, 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry landed at LZ Blue 4.5 kilometers west of the ambush site at 1715. From LZ Blue 1/2 Infantry pushed east to crush the fleeing VC between the two American forces. The next day they linked up with elements of 1/4 Cavalry and wrapped up the major components of the battle around Srok Dong. The result was 270 VC killed and numerous weapons destroyed (6, pg. 8). 1st Squadron's actions on June 30 would later factor into the Presidential Unit Citation awarded to them for their time in the province. (4, para 15)
The first insight from this battle is the importance of LTC Lewane’s effective intelligence. He immediately recognized the threat and began diverting airstrikes, preparing the QRF, and notifying other battalion commanders who would eventually be active in the follow-on actions. LTC Lewane’s ability to quickly grasp the significance of events on the battlefield minimized the damage his own forces suffered while allowing follow on units to get into the battle quickly and maximize the damage inflicted upon the VC. CPT Slatterly also demonstrated an understanding of the tactical situation by reconsolidating at Checkpoint 1 during the early part of the battle. His actions allowed LTC Lewane to repurpose forces faster and not lose the initiative.
A second insight is the importance of tactical flexibility on the part of the company and troop commanders. Over the course of the battle, missions changed and units were frequently getting detached and reattached from one another. This tactical flexibility allowed the various units to stay agile and be used where they were needed most. Furthermore, they managed to avoid incidences of friendly fire. This is particularly notable after 2/18 Infantry dropped in North of C Troop. An unplanned addition, the prevention of fratricide was dependent upon the Troop and Company leaders quickly and accurately disseminating a common operating picture to their subordinates.
A third insight is the importance of airpower. Then as now, airpower can be decisive on the ground. And it was no different near Srok Dong. Right at the beginning of the contact, LTC Lewane diverted air assets from other strikes in support of B Troop. And those strikes continued throughout the day reaching a total of 88 (7, pg. 9). Not only did these strikes kill the enemy, but they eliminated his freedom of maneuver.
The VC’s ambush provides insights too. They had excellent control over it, the ambush was only sprung once B Troop entered their primary kill zone at the head of the L. With the long part of the L starting near Checkpoint 1, B Troop moved in sight of the ambushers for 2,000 meters without a shot being fired. Good discipline makes an effective ambush.
The final insight is for both sides. The VC always left the ambush from the same direction they came. It simplified things and made it easier for soldiers to find their way back (6, pg. 50). However, the Americans were aware of this and took full advantage of the predictability. Often they would drop artillery strikes behind the ambush knowing where the VC would fall back through. In the case of Srok Dong, 1/2 Infantry was dropped behind them at LZ Blue with the intent of crushing the enemy in a vice as they retreated west. In short, avoid predictability. But if your enemy does not, use it to your full advantage.
(1) Burns, Ken, and Lynn Novick, dirs. “The Vietnam War: Resolve.” Accessed July 19, 2019. https://www.netflix.com/title/80997770.
Ken Burns’ Series traces the entire history of the Vietnam conflict focusing on both the political elements and personal stories of those involved in all aspects of the conflict. For the paper, it provided some information on the political and strategic events of 1966.
(2) Carland, John M. Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide, May 1965 to October 1966. Washington, DC: Center of Military History United States Army, 2000. Accessed July 20, 2019. https://history.army.mil/html/books/091/91-5/CMH_Pub_91-5-B.pdfhttps.
Mr. Carland’s book looks at operations across the entirety of South Vietnam from 1965- 1966 on a unit by unit basis. For this paper, it provided some strategic context for the conflict as a whole and how the battles around Srok Dong developed.
(3) Godwin, LTC Norman A. The Viet Cong Techniques. Ft. Benning, GA: United States Army Infantry School, 1973.
LTC Godwin’s review of Viet Cong techniques looked at both their standard operating procedures and what exploitable opportunities these techniques created. It aided in the analysis of the 271st actions of June 30th and how the US Army was able to be successful against them.
(4) “History of the 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment.” Units / Tenants. Accessed July 6, 2019. https://home.army.mil/huachuca/index.php/units-tenants/b-troop/history-4th-us-cavalry-regiment.
A basic overview of the 4th Cavalry regiment from its creation to the present day. It providing information on how the 4th Cavalry regiment was recognized after the battle.
(5) Lewane, LTC Leonard L. Standing Operating Procedure. Headquarters 1st Squadron 4th Cavalry: Department of the Army, 1966.
This source lays out the basics of how LTC Lewane expected his unit to operate while they were in theater. For this paper, it allowed a better understanding of what actions C and B troops took before and during their engagements on June 30, 1966.
(6) “Combat After Action Report Operation El Paso II/III and Narrative of the Battle of Srok Dong.” Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1966.
This source was a wealth of information on the El Paso Operations and included a step-by-step walk-through of the battle near Srok Dong, its outcome, and maps. This narrative allowed for an accurate description of the action in this paper. The commanders’ testimonials at the end also enables one to understand the battle how they viewed it.
(7) Slattery, CPT Stephen M. Battle Experience. July 1966.
Captain Slattery’s account mostly looks at events happening about a week after the Srok Dong battle but includes information about the battles leading up to 9 July. His totaling of all the airstrikes flown on 30th June was used for the insights of this battle analysis.