March 2004Hwang Jin-soon is a former 4.2” mortar gunner with the weapons platoon, 1st Company under the 1st Armored Regiment of the Tiger Infantry Division, Vietnam. He resides in the small city of Jin-Ju, in the southern part of Korea.
THE AN KHE PASS BATTLE
The battle started as dawn broke at 04:00 hrs on April 11, 1972. When the attack began, we initially believed that the Viet Cong that mounted a surprise attack against us, however, it was later confirmed the enemy were a regular NVA special commando “Sapper Unit”, against whom we ROK troops had little experience because we had never encountered them previously.
A fateful moment was waiting for all of us at about 04:00hrs at dawn on April 11, 1972. We were in a situation where there was no way we could identify anything due to heavy fogs. A guard shouted, “There are VCs coming!”
Staff Sergeant Park Tae-kyun was desperately crying out, and immediately a huge explosive storm of claymore mines followed.
Vaguely we could see several VC advancing in front of the illumination created by the mines. Reflectively, I unlocked the percussion of the claymore, and I slowly pressed the switch, and then threw hand grenades towards the #3 guard post. At the adjacent guard post, M-16 rifles breathed heavy flames at once.
“The Prelude of the An Khe Pass Battle”
I am Hwang, Jin-soon, presently residing in the little city of Jin-Ju, southern part of Korea, Having read many of the war diaries posted by the Vietnam War veterans here in www.vietvet.co.kr website. I am not only touched by the contents but feel compelled to let others know the true stories of the sublime sacrifice of the comrades killed at an unknown valley in Vietnam 30 plus years ago. I have, therefore, decided to write a few lines about the bloody battle I had personally experienced, and in which I participated as a ROK Army PFC.
The tactical base of the 1st Armored Company of the Tiger Division was located at the pivot of the Ahn Khe Pass situated on top of the southern hill alongside route #19 that was the road between Quinon and Pleiku.
Our base was connected to Hill 638 along the ridgeline, and it was within the 270 meters from the 81mm mortar position of the weapons platoon under the 1st Company. It was the #1 guard post where I performed my security duty.
Downstairs, under my guard post, there was a mounted.60 caliber LMG; the upper bunker was used as the day and night guard post for the mortar team shifts, and was heavily surrounded with the sand bags.
The guard posts at the 1st Company’s tactical base were positioned along the 7 layer barbed wire, and there was a lookout post near the Company’s bunker. In addition, we had a jeep mounted with a 106mmm recoilless gun that belonged to the Combat Support Company and a 4.2” mortar position within the tactical base.
There was one lookout post and 36 guard posts within the 1st Company’s tactical base. On the fated day of April 11, 1972, the nightly guard shifts were deployed to all company posts under the red alert because it was thought something fishy was in the air.
I recalled that I was sent to the post at 00:00hrs. That night, the patrol sergeant informed that we would lay down an intimidating fire at 02:00hrs. Intimidating fire was a precautionary action whereby the guards at each post poured massive volumes of rifle fire towards front of the friendly positions for a certain time and at varied intervals in an attempt to deter, in advance, the temptation for the enemy from attacking.
On the dot of at 02:00hrs, every post started firing with M16s, firing towards the barbed wire entanglements. In the darkness after the intimidating fire, ROK soldiers who had little experience in encountering the NVA enemy since arriving in Vietnam would relax.
That fateful was full of humidity and the fog so heavy that we could identify nothing. As usual, the water the dripped from the fogs soaked our fatigues so that we had to wear the ponchos. Nobody thought of the possibility that the VCs could sneak under the barbed wire.
Sometime after the intimidation fires, an illumination mine was exploded at the perimeter of the #2 guard post’s front. Usually there had been no guard at the #2 post as it was located only 5 meters between the #1 post, where I was, and the #3 which was manned by PFC Hong Mun-hee.
Because of the said foggy weather, we could not determine the reason for the triggering of the illumination mine, but it was quite common for animals, from time to time, to touch the wires and set off the explosives. Therefore, PFC Hong and I thought little about the matter, but we continued to just wait and watch.
A while later again, one more illumination mine set in front of the #2 guard post’s exploded. At the same time I could see, in a split-second, an image of an animal’s hind leg. I simply guessed that it must be the puppy we were bringing up within the company, I shouted to PFC Hong at #3 guard post, “I may have to eat the damn dog up tomorrow.”
However, I heard no reflection form PFC Hong of the #3 post. Therefore, it was my judgment that the VCs tried to attack through the #3 guard post’s direction. At around 03:00hrs, the patrol sergeant Park Tae-kyun came up to the #1 guard post and asked if there were anything particular. As a report, I said there were 2 mine explosions. After listening to my report, the sergeant said to me, “Keep eye out; take care.” and kept heading for the communications trench of the #3 post.
But several minutes later, “There are VC!”
I heard the sergeant Park Tae-kyun desperately shouting, and saw several foes were running back and forth in front of the illumination mines.
I immediately exploded the claymore set at the #3 guard post, and started firing my M16 rifle towards the area in front area of the #3 post, as well as throwing hand grenades. The awakened soldiers in the barracks ran out immediately and heavy shooting kept going on.
PFC Hong ran out of the #1 post and grasped the.60 caliber LMG and started firing, and I, seeing that soldiers were put into the positions, hurriedly back to my original duty at the mortar position.
Reporting to the team chief that the VC had attacked and informed of the attack point, #3 guard post area, I launched illumination round and the H2 round at 88 degrees.
After that chaos, it became totally quiet, and the day broke. Until that time I hadn’t realized that my hand had been wounded by a claymore’s back blast fragments. I carried out first aid treatment by bandaging my wounded hand.
Every soldier was required to report his status. According to what the company commander confirmed, there were 5 enemy dead bodies. I found a VC still alive even though he was seriously eviscerated at the waist. With a momentary thought that we might obtain information from the wounded VC, I swiftly put back the eviscerated parts into the stomach and bound his wound with the bandage that had unraveled from the wound on my hand. The wound that I had on the back of my hand was the only wound any of our Company had suffered.
After morning chow we were arranging stuff at the front between the #1 and 3 guard post. It was learned that an oil tanker of the RVN Army transportation unit was attacked by the VC at a curve in the #19 Road when ROK high ranking officials were on the way to visit our unit to inspect the exploit of the last night contact with enemies.
It was such a huge explosion as enough to totally blow up the doors of the bunker located to the left of the 1st Company. In the beginning the enemy was thought to be VC, but later it was confirmed that they were the NVA regular army.
In succession all company soldiers, including the company commander of the reconnaissance company of the armored regiment, were positioned, and the reconnaissance team of the 1st Platoon of the 1st Company headed for the summit of Hill 638.
The mortar squad was under complete readiness to launch at any minute by setting at 360 degree and 270 meters. The distance from the mortar position to the pivot of Hill 638 hill was only 275 meters.
“Bang Bang Bang… !”
The minute we heard the sound of massive volume of firing, PFC Bu In-ho fell down; he must have been shot by the enemy ambush at Hill 638. The mortar squad chief was screaming, “There are A.K rifles!!” At the same time he ordered to fire. Consequently, we began to launch mortar rounds towards Hill 638. Fire was exchanged between the friendly and the enemy. All soldiers in the company base were forced to move into the bunker.
Because it was the first time that we had experienced an enemy mortar attack, we were initially confused at the fire from the enemy positions. Despite of our determination, the situation was worsening for us.
Unfortunately, all platoon leaders including the reconnaissance company commander were killed in action. Therefore, we heard that the sergeant first class was to command the entire company. It was really uncomfortable all day long. The enemy mortar attack continued.
Even though a supply chopper was approaching, it was very difficult to land due to continued enemy’s mortar shelling. In spite of our battalion observation officer’s request for artillery fire on the enemy’s mortar position, the enemy’s mortar shelling never let up. The supply helicopter was forced to drop the supplies to the both sides of the path on the way to the top of the hill after detouring around the #19 Road.
Usually the enemy didn’t launch mortar fire at night because they feared their positions might be revealed. During these intervals we could usually pick up the airlifted supplies.
While the 1st company was replenished with water and food supply, the battalion soldiers who were then advancing to the top of Hill 638, were in a terrible situation with no supplies, and suffered terribly from thirst.
While launching the mortar fire, we heard an enemy mortar round fall with a thud only 50 centimeters in front of our position. An unexploded enemy 82mm mortar round was embedded about 30 cm. The chief of the mortar squad, gunner, and the assistant gunner all said, “The God looked after all of us. Heaven saved our lives. Otherwise we all must have been died.”
as the enemy’s mortar position was not clearly exposed to us, we had to wait until the enemy suspended firing and then we hit them in turn. This continued for two weeks and we had launched more than 2,000 rounds.
Whenever the “poong ping poong~” sound of an enemy mortar fire being launched at the position set about 80 degree, was heard, I shouted, “Enemy shells are falling!” in order to let all the soldiers remaining just outside of the trench to immediately evacuate to the bunker. Right after, we could hear that the enemy mortar shells were falling with bumps about overhead. The reason I was not in the #1 post was that the mortar position had to be distant about 80 degrees and the one that the CP was situated at the #1 post where the LMG bunker was.
While our observation officer was spinning the wheel in search of enemy’s mortar positions, the friendly losses were becoming very serious. An enemy mortar round hit the ammo storage of the combat support company in the base, and eventually blew up the mortar position and claimed 5 lives, including staff sergeant Park Chang-il, the head of the 106mm recoilless gun team. He was I year senior to me while I was in the elementary school at home.
Tragically, Sergeant Park was actually on the list to return home for discharge; however, he had to join the operation just before his April 15th departure because of the urgent situation. He told me that he would convey my regards to my mom when he returned to home. He was never able to carry out his promise.
Later, ironically, I was in the situation to explain to his mom about his death. In no way I could say he was torn apart because of an enemy mortar explosion.
I was also not advised of my mom’s death until 3 months after arrival in Vietnam, right after the completion of the An Khe Operation. From time to time my heart was fully filled with deep sadness when I had to think over why Korean young men should meet their last fate here at an unknown valley far away from the lovely families.
Among the dead bodies, we could only recognized one of a sergeant of the 4.2” FDC, though his name was unknown. We recognized him because his hips were relatively bigger than those of others who were killed. His arms and legs were all torn apart, and the half body was hanged on the barbed wire 40 meters away. We all dealt with the bodies with extreme care, and they were airlifted to the 106th evacuation hospital at Quinon.
For some reasons, the body of the KIAs occurred in the combat support company and the soldiers killed while attacking the top of Hill 638, were not able to be airlifted at that time. Therefore, about 50 bodies were collected at the place near the top of the #19 Road (later, ROK’s a triumphal monument was erected at that place), for which the part of the 1st platoon and myself of the weapons platoon had to set ambush there for the sake of protection of the sacrificed comrades’ bodies.
At this very moment as I am writing this diary, I vividly feel as if I still smell the unbearable odor that was stemming from the stacked bodies 30 plus years ago, which indeed drives me to the saddest corner again. It was terribly tragic moment for all of the comrades, as I ponder over their sublime sacrifices.
Because the MEDIVAC choppers’ landing was impossible due to the enemy’s continued mortar shelling, the wounded and the casualties had to stay at the emergency room temporarily set at the LMG bunker of the 1st platoon. Medics were busy giving first aid treatment until the wounded were evacuated to the MASH.
Later, in accordance with an order from a brass officer (name and rank were unidentified) who demanded the correct coordinate of the enemy’s mortar position, Sergeant Kim in our team indicated the point. Fortunately from the moment that sergeant Kim drew the coordinate, no further enemy fire was launched from that point. For this outstanding duty, Sergeant Kim was, hopefully, decorated with Wharang merit.
A while after, we encountered enemy’s 75mm recoilless attacks launched from the right ridgeline of Hill 638. Enemy mortar attacks were somehow bearable if we were able to lay flat in the bunker. However, the direct fire from a 75mm recoilless gun is something different as they were attacking with indiscriminate firing up to 70-60 degree posts from the post set at 80 degree where I was on guard duty.
One day, around the time the combat was almost over at 11:00hrs, we were all ordered to lie down flat on the earth and open our mouths and block our ears. Even so, because my mission was that of a security guard, I could directly peep out at what happened. It was the carpet bombing by the B52, which I had never seen in my life. Two B52 bombers approached from the direction of Quinon and dropped uncountable number of bombs on to rear area of Hill 638.
Some of the bombs were identified as the HE explosives and some of them were Napalm. The napalm bombs slowly emitted silver flashing when they were fallen down and exploded with tall flames, while the HE were stirring whole world as if the biggest thunder were hitting the earth, which had made me shudder.
In addition, I was further frightened to know a fact that a bomb is capable of sweeping out within a 4 km radius. We happened to discover fragments of the bomb near the company, and found it was between 50 and 70 centimeters per piece. One big piece even exceeded 1 meter in length.
When we heard of the news that captain Lee Mu-pyo had occupied the top of Hill 638, we all cried by hugging each other. Though I was not in the situation to know exact number of loss stemmed from the bitter operation, we survivors burst into tears one more time when the sad news reached us that as many as 193 dead bodies were evacuated to the hospital. It was deadly and costly bloody fighting to take such a tiny hill.
To tell the truth, we often wonder if it was we who had really won the victory the battle at An Khe. This question must be a common one for those who participated in the bloody An Khe operation. Given the fact that we our task was to pacify the NVA communists who infiltrated South Vietnam by crossing the truce line, I am uncertainty why we should have encounter the enemy under such a conventional circumstances.
It was really boring and frightening fighting that continued for 15 days. What in the world… why were the leaders were unaware of the enemy’s situation? The damage we had faced was too big to discuss. Personally I would like to honestly indicate that in the written materials concerning the Vietnam War, there have been too many omissions and much suppression over the facts, especially on the loss status of the friendly side.
Looking at the scars on the back of my hand at this very moment, I have to recall several dozens of the combat comrades killed at war. In no way could I forget them in my entire my life. Of course, it was an invaluable experience for those survivors who had returned home safely; the brave names who sacrificed their lives for their father land will never be erased from my heart until I meet my last fate in the future.
Even in these days, when the old scenes of the bloody combat flit through my mind, I am frightened and perspire drips from my brow, thinking, “What if the enemy attacked to the direction of the #1 guard post at that time?… or had it not been the patrol sergeant at the #3 post?”
Even though a lengthy period of 31 years has already passed, the desperate cries on that day such as, “VCs are coming!” and “That is A.K rifle shooting!!” seem to be echoing around my ears as a phantom sound.
In the company, we the three soldiers from Korea were close comrades dispatched at the same period (32nd echelon under 7th shift). They are PFC Bu In-ho who was confirmed as missing after shot by the enemy. A soldier severely burnt when the ammo storage was hit and lastly me, who was injured on the back of the hand by the back blast of a claymore mine.
As one of the battle survivors resting peacefully at home, I would like to pray for those sublimely sacrificed in the battle we fought together; that they be in permanent rest and those wounded and the fellow comrades suffering from Agent Orange diseases recover as soon as possible.
Hoping the above my brief war diary has been helpful to the many concerned, I would like to conclude my writing herewith.
In front of the Battle Triumphal Monument – Mr. Choi Young-jin, Mr. Kang Gil-won and Hwang Jin-soonWe the three ex-combatants of the 1st Armored Company of the 1st Armored Battalion under the Tiger Infantry Division, who participated in the An Khe Pass Battle, revisited the former battle area after 33 years in March, 2004.We the three ex-combatants of the 1st Armored Company of the 1st Armored Battalion under the Tiger Infantry Division, who participated in the An Khe Pass Battle, revisited the former battle area after 33 years in March, 2004
There is a saying, a proverb, in our country, “Ten year is an epoch.” Even though our return after such a long period of time, more than 3 decades, might have been an unwanted return for some reasons, it was a quite enough one for three of us to be deeply touched by the surroundings regardless of our historical traces. Thanks.
Written by Hwang Jin-soon
Translated by: Jae-sung Chung