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Kentucky Unit Gave All in Vietnam
Like so many other things about Bardstown, KY, the legend of the town’s National Guard unit looms large. The town motto, “There’s nothing small about this small town,” is apt. Abraham Lincoln once dined in Bardstown’s Old Talbott Tavern, where another visitor, the outlaw Jesse James, used a painting for target practice. The town is also said to have inspired Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”
True to its motto, the town made history of another sort during the Vietnam War. Located in the central part of the Bluegrass State, Bardstown was a peaceful community of some 6,000 residents (about half of today’s population) in the spring of 1968, when more than 100 local boys were shipped out of Fort Hood in Texas to the war in Vietnam. The Soldiers of the National Guard’s C Battery, 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery, were a close-knit bunch: By one account, there were seven sets of brothers among them, as well as cousins, uncles and other relatives.
On June 19, 1969, at Firebase Tomahawk in central Vietnam, five of those sons of Kentucky made the supreme sacrifice during a ferocious Viet Cong attack that resulted in the National Guard’s deadliest day during the war. Over a one-year tour, Bardstown lost 17 of its boys. Ultimately, the town and its surrounding area suffered one of America’s highest per capita rates of loss during the conflict.
“Bardstown would become a symbol of how deep into America the war had reached,” wrote Jim Wilson, author of the 1994 book The Sons of Bardstown: 25 Years of Vietnam in an American Town. “Few, if any, communities in this land felt the impact of the war as did the people here.”
The courageous fighting of “the boys of Bardstown” is now part of the enduring legacy of the Guard’s role in the Vietnam War, the 50th anniversary of which is being commemorated across the country this year.
The Bardstown members of C Battery were part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s call-up of Guard troops in the wake of the Tet Offensive, the coordinated attacks on strategic South Vietnamese defenses by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops beginning on the Vietnamese New Year in 1968. About 24,000 Guard troops from 88 units across the nation were part of this mobilization, including 570 from the Kentucky National Guard.
At the time, the U.S. military had a policy known as “infusion,” embedding combat Veterans with units of first-timers. In the case of C Battery, that meant replacing some of those close relations with Army Veterans in an attempt to ensure the region would not suffer a disproportionate amount of casualties. Still, in June 1969, about 90 percent of the 70 men of C Battery who were stationed on Firebase Tomahawk hailed from the Bardstown area. They shared the base with 18 Soldiers from C Company, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. Their mission: provide fire support for Fort Campbell’s “Screaming Eagles.”
When the well-trained boys from Bardstown first arrived on Firebase Tomahawk, recalls Vietnam Veteran Don Parrish, a specialist with C Battery, it seemed clear that the base was in a prime location for an enemy attack. Situated on top of a saddle-shaped hill about 19 miles south of the city of Hue, the firebase was trouble in the making. When later visited by U.S. Army Lieutenant General Harold Gregory “Hal” Moore Jr.—the Bardstown native whose book about the Battle of la Drang Valley in 1965 would be made into the film We Were Soldiers—Parrish says, “He pointed out there was no tactical reason to ever put a firebase there. He said it was the most hazardous position he’d ever seen.”
HAVOC IN THE NIGHT
In the middle of a torrentially rainy night on June 19, 1969, following several days of relative peace, that supposition was put to the test. Most of the men were asleep; a few were up watching a James Bond movie.
At 0145 hours, the assistant chief of the unit’s fire direction center (FDC) went outside to shut off the generator that charged batteries for the Soldiers’ radios. When he returned, he put his hand on the shoulder of the sleeping Parrish, the FDC chief, whose men were due to relieve their counterparts at the top of the hour.
“At that very instant,” recalls Parrish, “the first of the rounds started hitting, and we knew we were under attack.”
Under cover of night and the heavy downpour, about half of a 150-man team of Viet Cong, dressed only in loincloths and skullcaps, had breached the concertina wire surrounding the perimeter of the base. Supported by a mortar unit, they began launching satchel charges and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) into the bunkers. “We were shocked that it happened,” says Parrish, the unit’s historian. But given the precarious position of the firebase, “looking back, we should not have been so terribly surprised.”
Before the Vietnamese fighters were repelled, they wreaked utter havoc, destroying nine bunkers, the mess hall, the dining tent, an ammunition storage area, three jeeps and three howitzers.
In addition to the five Bardstown Soldiers who were killed, five Active Duty Soldiers who had been infused into the battery died. Overall, the Kentucky National Guard suffered at least 37 wounded. And there were four more KIA among the infantrymen, who reported 13 more wounded.
One of the boys from Bardstown who died that day in the jungle was a schoolmate of Parrish’s, a young man who had been one year behind him in high school.
“Of course, we were all good friends,” Parrish says. He’d signed up for the Guard on April 20, 1964, four years before Johnson’s federalization of the Guard. Parrish joined the Guard after receiving a postcard noting that he’d soon be required to register for the draft. His father had a concrete block manufacturing business, so Parrish says he wanted to spend the least time away. “Of course, I wound up spending two years away anyway,” he says.
To Parrish, the public’s opinion during the Vietnam era that young men signed up for the Guard to avoid Active Duty is hogwash. “I’ve never known anybody who joined to stay out of Vietnam,” he says.
In part due to the fact that they were such close family and friends, the boys from Bardstown worked extraordinarily well together. In fact, U.S. Army General Creighton Abrams, the senior military commander in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, is reported to have said that the 2/138th was one of the best-trained and best-maintained battalion-sized units in Vietnam, according to the 2010 book Kentucky Thunder in Vietnam: History of the 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery in the Vietnam War 1968–1969 by John M. Trowbridge, state command historian for the Kentucky National Guard.
Once stationed in country, the battery’s overwhelming success in providing cover for the Army infantry made the attack on Firebase Tomahawk a strategic imperative for the Viet Cong. That fact was confirmed by the sole enemy troop captured alive during the firefight.
“We were far more accurate and could produce faster fire,” says Parrish. “The infantry would call us before they called anybody else. We had that reputation.”
Fighting on Tomahawk lasted until 0530, at which point the remaining enemy troops responded to a red flare that indicated an order to retreat. Parrish says his unit later determined that had been a mistake: The Viet Cong had actually intended to send up a green flare, which was “supposed to be a signal for another unit to come in and finish everyone off.”
By official count, 18 Viet Cong lost their lives in the battle. But Parrish points out that an untold number outside the perimeter were likely KIA as well after the Soldiers made a radio call for close-air support from a modified C-47 gunship that was instrumental in repelling the enemy. “It’s hard to tell how many Viet Cong they killed,” Parrish says.
REBUILDING FROM RUBBLE
When the fighting ended, Parrish’s bunker proved to be the only one left standing. He had heard that RPGs would not penetrate three layers of sandbags, so the men had covered their roof accordingly.
“As it turned out, we took two direct hits, and they went through two layers of sandbags,” he recalls. “We were quite happy we went to that extra trouble.”
It has sometimes been reported that Firebase Tomahawk was “overrun” that night by enemy forces. Not so, says Brigadier General (Ret.) Julius “Bud” Berthold (pictured below), a captain at the time of the attack. Having been transferred to the XXIII Corps Artillery, he arrived on the firebase with the battalion commander the morning after the battle to survey the damage, help tend the wounded and begin the cleanup operation.
“They never gave up the hill,” Berthold says. “There was a lot of destruction and materiel scattered around the interior of [the] firebase. But the unit itself was still functioning. They were all in shock, so to speak, from having the attack take place. But they expelled all the attackers,” Berthold continues. “There were a lot [of Viet Cong] killed inside,” he says, “and there’s no telling how many others they’d taken with them.”
Parrish had been scheduled to take some R&R in Japan two days after the attack. But he argued against going, wanting desperately to stay with his men. His superiors wouldn’t hear of it. They forced him to go. Not long after the attack, C Battery was reassigned to Phu Bai Combat Base, where the war was much quieter. “C Battery had always been in the hottest regions, apparently because we were ‘just a little bit better,’ ” says Parrish. Now they could look forward to going home.
Upon the Soldiers’ October 1969 homecoming (below), there was an outpouring of emotion from the public. To the community, their sacrifices and glory were indicative of every American Soldier’s fight in Vietnam. It was a heroes’ welcome.
And over the years, the Bardstown unit’s valor in the attack on Firebase Tomahawk has been amply noted in books and articles, and on television. “We’ve had contacts with literally hundreds of organizations,” Parrish says. “It’s been an amazing experience.”
Another National Guard unit that saw combat during the same time in Vietnam—the 3rd Battalion, 197th Artillery, of the New Hampshire National Guard, based out of the mill city of Manchester—suffered significant casualties as well, including seven KIA. At one point, they asked their Guard comrades from Kentucky, only half joking, something to the effect of: “What do you do to get so much fame?”
Parrish says the boys from Bardstown have no real answer for that.
“We certainly weren’t seeking it,” he says.
A NEW WAR: GUERRILLA TACTICS
The Viet Cong was the insurgent military of the National Liberation Front, carrying out much of the dirty work of the NVA from inside the borders of South Vietnam. Its regional familiarities and ability to fight in ever-smaller units made it elusive to U.S. troops, creating a new kind of warfare using unconventional weapons and tactics that confounded American military strategists.
Many weapons such as booby traps and mines were homemade, often using the remnants of dud American bombs. North Vietnamese troops called the smaller versions of their mines “step mines” or “mosquito mines.” The Vietnamese equivalent of the so-called “toe-popper” involved filling an empty .50 cal machine-gun shell with gunpowder and scrap metal, which was capable of blowing off toes or otherwise disabling the victim.
The Viet Cong made extensive use of primitive weapons such as Punji traps—pits rigged with spikes that were often contaminated with fecal matter to cause infection. These were based on the medieval French trous-deloup, or “wolf holes”—conical pits with a wooden stake protruding up from the bottom. The pits were typically concealed by layers of wicker and soil.
North Vietnamese leadership ordered the Viet Cong and NVA in South Vietnam to avoid direct confrontation with the enemy, instructing them instead to conduct the stealth attacks and ambushes that became synonymous with the war.
To safeguard its base areas from which it trained fighters, planned strategy and stored weapons, the Viet Cong dug more than 200 miles of elaborate tunnel systems, requiring each local civilian to contribute 3 feet of digging every day.
GUARD UNITS IN THE FIGHT
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s reinstatement of the draft during the Vietnam War led to the misperception that joining the Reserve Component was a way to avoid combat. But in truth, many Guard troops—there were 13,000 Guard members in all who fought—served with honor in the conflict, including the following units. A total of 101 Army and Air Guard troops gave their lives.
• Alabama, 650th Medical Detachment (Direct Support)
• California, 1st Squadron, 18th Armored Cavalry
• Hawaii, 29th Infantry Brigade
• Idaho, 116th Engineer Battalion
• Illinois, 126th Supply and Service Company (Direct Support)
• Indiana, Company D (Ranger), 151st Infantry (it brought back 510 medals for valor and service)
• Kansas, 69th Infantry Brigade (with the Iowa National Guard’s 2/133rd Infantry)
• Kentucky, 2nd Battalion, 138the Field Artillery
• New Hampshire, 3rd Battalion, 197th Artillery
• Rhode Island, 107th Signal Company
• Vermont, 131st Engineer Company (Light Equipment)
VIETNAM WAR MILESTONES
After 100 years of colonial rule, French troops are forced to leave Vietnam. The U.S. supports the creation of a counterrevolutionary force in South Vietnam to oppose communist influence in the region.
President John F. Kennedy orders more than 3,000 military advisors and personnel to support the South Vietnamese government against the insurgent Viet Cong.
The first U.S. combat missions take place in Vietnam. Vegetation clearing commences to expose the Viet Cong’s ambush cover; this project eventually leads to the use of the chemical known as Agent Orange.
As combat intensifies, Congress signs the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Lyndon Johnson power to take action to defend Southeast Asia.
After several Viet Cong attacks, the U.S. begins the bombing campaign codenamed Operation Rolling Thunder.
After North Vietnam rejects an offer of economic aid in return for peace, Johnson increases U.S. troops in the region to 60,000.
In Operation Hastings, the largest battle of the war to date, the Marines and the South Vietnamese Army drive back North Vietnamese troops who had crossed the Demilitarized Zone.
END OF 1966
U.S. troops reached 385,000, with 6,000 Americans KIA during the year and 30,000 wounded. Over 61,000 Viet Cong have been killed to date.
JANUARY 30–31, 1968
Viet Cong troops launch the comprehensive attack known as the Tet Offensive. Urban fighting creates half a million civilian refugees. Despite heavy losses for the Viet Cong, the American public’s support of the war begins to erode.
Incoming President Richard Nixon promises to achieve “peace with honor,” authorizing the bombing of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong bases in Cambodia.
Nixon announces the immediate withdrawal of 25,000 U.S. troops. The South Vietnamese Army, followed by 30,000 U.S. troops, attack North Vietnamese supply depots in Cambodia in a campaign that leads to 10,000 Viet Cong casualties.
JANUARY 1, 1972
Two-thirds of American troops have been withdrawn, leaving 133,000 service members.
JANUARY 27, 1973
Following fitful peace talks in Paris, all parties sign a cease-fire. In all, more than 3 million Americans served in the Vietnam War, with 58,000 dead, 150,000 seriously wounded and 1,000 missing in action.
Following NVA offensives in violation of the Paris agreement, Marines and Air Force helicopters conduct a massive airlift, flying more than 1,000 American civilians out of Saigon.
The boys from Bardstown are honored by two monuments on the town’s Courthouse Square in Bardstown, KY. The Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Frankfort, KY, also commemorates the sacrifices of Guard troops who fell during the war. And thanks to the creative design of Helm Roberts, a Lexington, KY, architect and Veteran, each service member memorialized receives an individual tribute each year: A specially designed sundial casts a shadow on the name of a fallen service member on the anniversary of their death. The memorial, one of the largest granite memorials in the nation, containing 327 cut-stone panels weighing more than 215 tons, lists 1,103 names from various service branches.
Photos from Kentucky National Guard