THIS WEEK IN HISTORY
Week of August 18—24, 2019:
Sapper Attack on MACV-SOG FOB4 (CCN), August 23, 1968
American Special Forces suffered more Green Berets killed
and wounded in a single attack on August 23, 1968, than any other day in history. More than 100 sappers infiltrated the Special Forces camp situated on the southern coast of Da Nang, killing 16 Green Berets and wounding at least 48 Americans and scores of allied personnel. For their heroism, the American soldiers earned 22 awards for valor, two awarded posthumously. All American forces in the Da Nang area were warned of a pending attack, including those at the Green Berets’ Forward Operating Base Four (FOB 4). Multiple radio operators from FOB 4 acknowledged receiving messages that warned the camp was a target. The night before insurgents attacked, the I Corps Commander initiated a 24-hour curfew across Da Nang, which was “precipitated by heavy enemy activity surrounding Da Nang, moderate enemy activity in Da Nang, and a warning that as many as 1,000 sappers had [already] infiltrated the city.”1 Multiple eyewitness testimonies stated the warnings were ignored by FOB 4’s senior leaders.2
The camp’s population was higher than normal that night. The day prior, the compound’s base population swelled with dozens of Green Berets there for promotions and a meeting of all six FOB commanders.3
The NVA attackers were well-trained, highly disciplined combat engineers known as “sappers.” These elite forces were trained in reconnaissance techniques and skills such as land navigation, negotiation of natural and manmade obstacles, observation, penetration, and withdrawal.4
Some sappers infiltrated under the cover of darkness by cutting holes in the fences and barbed wire that surrounded the camp. Others waded ashore along the camp’s 300-yard shoreline.5 Dressed only in loin cloths or khaki shorts, all sappers carried AK-47 rifles, hand-thrown rocket propelled grenades, hand grenades, and homemade satchel charges.6
The coordinated attack began with mortar and heavy machine gun fire from NVA positioned on nearby Marble Mountain. Sappers on the camp threw grenades and satchel charges inside many of the plywood barracks buildings, known as “hooches.” Many sappers sprayed hooch interiors with rounds from their AK-47s. Sappers also established machine gun nests with clear lines of fire down alleys between hooches as Soldiers emerged in response.7
Chaos reigned, and the Soldiers never consolidated a unified defense of the camp. Instead, pockets formed to individually repel the insurgents on their own initiative. Men took cover where they could, many went on the offensive when they were able, and mass casualties forced nearly everyone to provide first aid to the wounded. Heroism was common that morning.
Staff Sergeant “Mandolin” Watkins quickly organized a small reaction force to repel the attack and rescue wounded Americans. At one point he and a medic carried a wounded man to the dispensary on a make-shift litter they fashioned out of a door from a destroyed hooch.8 Watkins returned to the fight, where he received several more wounds from grenade shrapnel. Despite this, he repelled numerous sappers and searched for more wounded.9
First Lieutenant Robert Blatherwick, Jr., commandeered a jeep to speedthrough the camp for the duration of the battle in search of wounded to drive to the camp’s dispensary.10 Staff Sergeant “Pigpen” Conlon searched structure by structure for wounded soldiers. As he found them, he simultaneously moved them to medical treatment while continuing to engage the enemy.11 Sergeant First Class Luis Esparza found a critically wounded American after he shot and killed three enemy sappers in the motor pool area. He carried the Soldier toward safety until he suffered a head injury of his own from a nearby grenade explosion. Esparza ignored his own wounds and stabilized his comrade’s bleeding enough to retrieve a medic and deliver him to medical treatment.12
For their heroic efforts that morning, Watkins earned the Distinguished Service Cross; Blatherwick, Conlon, Esparsa, and Captain “Chuck” Pfeifer each earned a Silver Star. In addition to these men, 17 others were recognized for the heroism: nine Soldiers earned Bronze Star medals for heroism and eight earned Army Commendation medals for heroism. At least 10 Bronze Stars were awarded posthumously to men killed in action; 65 Purple Hearts were awarded (including those to the 16 Soldiers killed in action).