By Phil Keith
It was quiet, but it wouldn’t be for long. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Conrad, Commanding Officer of the 2/8, and the senior officer commanding at FSB Illingworth, knew the NVA were out there. His ground surveillance radar had found them stacked up and swarming in the tree line and they would come boiling out of the jungle and attempt to overrun his undermanned and vulnerable position as soon as they felt ready. That would be just about any moment. He knew he’d get a warning though—maybe a few minutes—before the assault began. The NVA were experienced, tough, capable—and far from stupid. They’d begin by pounding the bejesus out of Conrad’s base with mortars, rockets, recoilless rifles and whatever artillery they might have been able to drag through the woods and place behind their front lines. They would soften up the Americans before blowing their bugles and charging Conrad’s works.
It was 0217, April 1, 1970. Every man on the fire base, about 220 of them, had been woken up in anticipation of an attack. Conrad had demanded that every officer and every sergeant make sure that every man was awake and alert. The “Pipsy-5” radar that Conrad and his men had deployed to scour their perimeter had picked up strong movement right before midnight, especially in the jungle area facing the southwest corner of their pitifully small berm. Conrad did not hesitate. He ordered the Cobra gunships standing by to zoom in and rake the tree lines. They unloaded salvo after salvo of rockets and ripped the foliage with their miniguns. Artillery from nearby firebases like FSB Hannas, FSB Barbara and Camp Hazard, opened up on the pre-programmed coordinates they had carefully calculated, aiming points designed to support FSB Conrad also unleashed his own .50 cal machine guns and whatever M-60’s were available and all guns poured fire directly into the trees ahead.
No response came back toward Conrad’s lines, however, and after a few minutes, the firing of the defenders slowed to a stop. Rotor blades flicked away in the night sky, their sounds becoming faint as they sped away to refuel and resupply. The throaty cannons and mortars fell silent, too. Machine gun barrels glowed in the night air, wafting the smells of warm gun oil. The grunts put their personal weapons back on “safe.” It became eerily quiet. After a few minutes the night sounds returned: crickets recommenced their chirping. A monkey screeched in the trees. Within the lines, the men began the never-ending process of wiping down and reloading their weapons. They relaxed—as much as they could given the tension swirling around them. A number of them decided to catch a few “zees.” Those who could sleep did so in place, boots on, heads resting on rucksacks or other uncomfortable, makeshift pillows.
Colonel Conrad cautiously stepped out from his TOC (Tactical Operations Center) and peered into the blackness. With an RTO (radioman) at his side he decided to walk the perimeter—again. It would be one more sweep of the interior lines, just to be sure that he and his men had done everything possible to be ready.
A thousand things were racing through Conrad’s mind. Uppermost in his thoughts was the fact that as bad as their situation had become, it was exactly what his bosses had wanted it to be. His men were being used as lures, very expensive and vulnerable lures, to draw out the NVA and get them to expose themselves. It had worked, that was for sure, and since it had, Conrad’s job had morphed into one of keeping the lures from being swallowed whole.
After his last stroll, Conrad returned to the TOC to catch a few precious moments of sleep. About an hour later, after tossing around on his cot, he was wide awake. At 0217, somewhere out in the inky blackness, he heard them: faint whistles followed by the barking of artillery. Conrad leapt from his rack and tried to race outside. Bad move: He was forced to dive back into the TOC just as sheets of steel rained down on his post. The explosions ripped the night sky apart and enveloped the entire compound in deadly shards of red-hot steel.
‘Bait…we were nothing more than bait!’ This is a refrain that is still batted around among some of the survivors of FSB Illingworth. The span of four decades has not dampened the resentment felt by men who fought there, especially those who lost friends or comrades. How accurate is that assertion? It is true enough in the strategic sense. Any soldier dangled out in front of an enemy’s lines in an effort to bring on an engagement is bait, and the troops stationed at FSB Illingworth during March and April, 1970, were, indeed, placed there to entice the NVA in the area into making an attack.
There was no question that the base at Illingworth had been placed in the path of the NVA; and, the amalgam of units that ended up at FSB Illingworth was placed there with the express purpose of egging on their opponents. The 1st Cav high command needed the enemy to reveal their strengths and positions in the local area.
Using American troops as “bait,” however, was a tactic specifically forbidden by the current ROE (Rules of Engagement) and also something that was total anathema to the Commanding General in Vietnam at the time, U. S. Army General Creighton Abrams.
It was a delicate dance. To understand the dispositions and weaponry of their opponents, the First Cavalry needed to draw out their opposite numbers and to do this; they needed to offer tempting targets. Just as with the tale of Goldilocks, however, the “porridge” could not be took hot or too cold. The NVA would not attack an outpost that had been hardened and had amassed enormous resources. They might, however, attack a fortification they felt they had at least an even chance of overwhelming.
No one wanted the Americans stationed at Illingworth to become sacrifices. The 1st Cav Division staff attempted to ensure that the defenders would have the means and the ability to meet any threat. Here, however, the plan came dangerously close to failure.”
When FSB Illingworth was attacked, April Fool’s Day, 1970, it was one of only a hundred simultaneous forays made by the NVA against the Americans and the ARVN that day, all across South Vietnam. It was, however, the most destructive and the costliest in terms of American casualties: 25 men were killed, and 58 seriously wounded. That translated to a 40% casualty rate for all men who defended the fire base.
The timing of the NVA attack was interesting: It was three days after a very similar assault the NVA made against another fire base (FSB Jay) six miles from Illingworth; and, it was one month prior to the as yet very secret start to the Cambodian Incursion. The NVA were reacting to a new strategy being deployed by the 1st Cav—a strategy that was the brainchild of Brigadier General George Casey, Sr., ADC of the 1st Cav and deputy to 1st Cav Commander, Major General Elvy Roberts.
The 1st Cav (along with the 25th Infantry) had been assigned to clear out as much of War Zone C as possible. This op area covered the territory northwest of Saigon, stretching to the Cambodian border. War Zone C was peppered with hidden NVA supply caches and criss-crossed with infiltration trails. As much of this war making capability as possible needed to be uncovered and cleared if the upcoming invasion was going to be able to steamroll across the border and slam into the NVA’s Cambodian sanctuaries.
Casey and Roberts had several daunting challenges: this was the era of Vietnamization. Americans were supposed to start winding down their combat operations and turn over prosecution of the war to their ARVN allies. Further extensive casualties were not desired or politically correct. They had a huge op area to sanitize and the resources of only one airmobile division, augmented by artillery and the 11th Armored Cavalry. There was clearly more territory to cover than manpower to do the job. Last but not least, the dry season was ending and the monsoon months were rapidly approaching. Getting the pathway to Cambodia cleared before the rains came was of paramount importance.
Casey’s plan was simple and direct: maneuver battalions were going to “bust some serious brush,” while hopping and popping all over the region. The infantry would set up “temporary” fire bases on or very near known or suspected NVA infiltration routes. The outposts were built to last only a few days and were specifically designed to irritate the NVA and get them to react. When they did, the infantry would hunker down while TACAIR and artillery blasted the newly exposed NVA assets to oblivion. That was the theory anyway.
It was a decent strategy, and it worked over all, but on a couple of occasions it also came to near disaster. The saga of FSB Illingworth and April 1st, 1970, was one of those close calls.
The collective acts of the infantry, artillery and cavalry soldiers who ended up at Illingworth would produce one Medal of Honor, two Distinguished Service Crosses, several Silver Stars, multiple Bronze Stars, scads of Army Commendation Medals, and dozens of Purple Hearts. It would also wreck several promising careers, cripple dozens of men for life, and initiate many cases of PTSD that persist until today.
There were bigger battles, more “important” battles, than the one that took place at FSB Illingworth on April 1st, 1970; but, there were few engagements—and Illingworth was one—that became perfect microcosms for what the war in Vietnam was truly like at this important stage in its twelve year history. It is the story of very brave men overcoming staggering odds and it is a narrative that deserves retelling so all Americans can understand what that war was truly like during one of its darkest days.
Portions of this article are excerpted from the book Fire Base Illingworth: An Epic True Story of Remarkable Courage Against Staggering Odds (St. Martin’s Press) by Philip Keith.
Reprinted with permission from the author and St. Martin’s Press.
PHIL KEITH is the author of Fire Base Illingworth: An Epic True Story of Remarkable Courage Against Staggering Odds a columnist for the Southampton Press, a magazine feature writer, and the author of two fiction novels.
He has a degree in History from Harvard and has done Masters work at the Naval War College and Long Island University.
After graduation from Harvard he went into the Navy and became a Naval Aviator. During three tours in Vietnam, he served with distinction and was awarded, among other decorations, the Air Medal for Gallantry, the Presidential Unit Citation and the Navy Commendation Medal. After his wartime service he rose to the rank of Commander in the Naval Reserves.
As a business executive, he worked for two Fortune 500 firms holding several senior positions in sales and marketing. He was also a COO and CEO for several technology firms specializing in the sales and marketing of high-end educational software products. In 1999 Phil was selected for the Executive in Residence Program at Long Island University’s Business Division and for the next six years taught both undergraduate and graduate courses in business at LIU, Southampton.
In 2007 Phil accepted an assignment to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence.
He serves on the Board of the Long Island Authors Group and lives in Southampton, N.Y., with his partner Laura and son Pierce.