Mary Ann was just another American firebase in Vietnam, a ramshackle collection of plywood, razor wire, cylindrical artillery cases, conex containers, perforated steel plate and sandbags, but the 231 men of C Company, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division, with all the creativity and hopefulness they could muster back in 1971, called it home.
Mary Ann was built to help protect Army headquarters at Da Nang, and it served as the staging area for ground operations against North Vietnamese Army men and materiel which seemed to flow down the "Oak Rose Trail" with alarming impunity. It lay atop a ridge in the western highlands of Quang Tin Province in American Military Region 1, and to the enemy it was a tempting target.
Like so many American facilities, particularly late in the war, Fire Support Base Mary Ann seemed haphazardly laid out. A rude conglomeration of 30 hootches, or living spaces, was surrounded by twenty-two steel-and-sandbag bunkers. The Battalion Tactical Operations Center, Company Command Post, a communications center, a sensor monitoring station, ammo bunkers, and a fuel storage area were excellent targets for the enemy, as were the twin 155 mm howitzers at the northwest end of the camp with their attendant fire direction center and artillery command post. There were also 22 South Vietnamese (ARVN) soldiers stationed there. They were preparing to take the firebase over, since the war was truly, finally, winding down.
Firebase Mary Ann had never been attacked, but early in the morning of March 28th, 1971, 50 sappers from the 2nd Company, 409th North Vietnamese Army Main Force Sapper Battalion infiltrated the perimeter in three-to-six man teams, and in a thick natural ground fog and a haze of CS tear gas, they laid waste to the Americans.
The initial onslaught was deadly. Well-directed 82 mm mortar fire caught many GI's asleep in their bunks. The Battalion Tactical Operations Center was the natural first point of attack, suffering three suicidal satchel charge explosions in quick succession. Concurrently, the Company Command Post was also overwhelmed, and C Company's popular commander, Captain Richard V. Knight, was killed immediately, as were Sergeant Ronald J. Becksted and PFC Michael S. Holloway, who died trying to tie a tourniquet to the leg of Staff Sergeant John C. Calhoun, who had been shot three times. Feigning death, Calhoun was shot twice more as the enemy marauded through the Command Post.
Eventually, a counter attack was mounted, but not before most of the enemy had begun to retreat back through the razor wire surrounding Mary Ann. By the time a Huey gunship arrived on the scene, equipped with a Starlight Scope for night vision, the entire camp was aflame. The helicopter's pilot, Captain Norman Hayes, had to fly higher than he normally might have because of the smoke. "We could actually see the VC/NVA in the wire," he reported. "It looked like they were trying to take people out of the wire."
At dawn, fifteen enemy bodies were found. The attack on Fire Support Base Mary Ann had lasted exactly one hour. Thirty Americans died and eighty-two were wounded.
Repercussions were serious. Colonel William S. Hathaway, the Brigade Commander, was relieved of his post. Significantly, 23rd Infantry Division Commander, Major General James L. Baldwin, also lost his job. I knew both these men personally. They were professional soldiers through and through, and undeserving of such an ignominious fate.
What happened at Mary Ann was a failure at the most basic level of soldiering. The Company had been warned by its South Vietnamese Kit Carson scout that it had been infiltrated by enemy spies posing as ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers. All electronic sensors had been pulled from the perimeter the day before the attack. Not a single ARVN soldier came to the aid of the Americans, and the enemy left their Vietnamese brothers alone throughout the assault. The Americans also took fire from the ARVN part of the compound. Mary Ann was a classic case of intelligence failure. The clues, quite simply, were never added up.
Fire Support Base Mary Ann was scheduled to be turned over to the ARVN in a matter of days. Nobody had bothered to tell the soldiers who died defending it.
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