The PT-76 was an amphibious tank design developed by the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. Armed with a relatively small (for the era) 76 mm gun and intended to spearhead river crossings, it took up station with several units occupying the Warsaw Pact countries for a potential thrust into western Europe. Yet, against NATO and the Americans, thankfully, it would never be used.
Instead, it was deployed during the Vietnam War as one of a handful of tank models supplied to the North Vietnamese Army by their Soviet allies. In this environment, the mere fact that an enemy possessed a tank of any type was enough to startle many a soldier or base camp that often had to face them without any armor of their own. Additionally, if tanks could get close enough or be used at night, it was discovered that the most favored method of dealing with them, the airstrike, was rendered useless.
Such an event occurred in the battle of Lang Vei, a Special Forces camp in Quang Tri province that had the misfortune of enduring a full-on assault by several PT-76s and a mass of infantry. Here, a small group of Green Berets and the indigenous forces under their command found themselves facing a desperate last-stand scenario that culminated in a handful of them being reduced to a position a few yards in diameter, and the enemy, quite literally, on top of them while the rest of their units lay dead or taken prisoner. The following is, as accurate as possible, an account of a moment in time when, in a war by the day growing evermore unpopular, a small group of men faced death at arm’s length and through sheer will to survive, somehow overcame it.
Origins of the attack at Lang Vei began when several detachments of two divisions united after intense combat that began even before the famous Tet Offensive of January 31, 1968. These were the 24th Regiment of the 304th division, supported by the second Battalion of the 325th division, the second artillery Battalion, and most importantly the 198th Tank Battalion equipped with 22 PT 76s.
Beginning in on January 22, 1968, these units overran Khe Sanh village, and struck into Laos at the outpost of Ban Houei Sane, who radioed Lang Vei for evacuation by helicopter. Much to their dismay, however, helicopters were unavailable and the commander of the camp, with 350 of his men and their families, set off on foot through the jungle for Lang Vei, across the South Vietnamese border. This trek ended up end up converging them with thousands more refugees making their way from Khe Sanh to Lang Vei village and to within 1 kilometer of the camp to the point where the area resembled a makeshift refugee center. Even more disturbing was the news many from Khe Sanh brought. They had seen tanks being used during the attack.
Around them, throughout the entire country, the Tet Offensive exploded on January 31st, although within the camp itself nothing more than the usual nuisance shelling seemed to usher in the momentous event. Neither on the 31st, nor the days that followed it. Something wasn’t right, and the camp commander, Army Captain Frank Willoughby, had every reason to believe they were enjoying a prelude to something dire, based on a deserter who surrendered himself a few days before. If the story he told was true, thousands of NVA were already within hours of the camp, and their goal was to seize it. To counter this, all he could do was increase daytime patrols as well as nighttime ambushes to provide some sort of early warning. Any other decisions had to based on assumptions.
Taking stock of his command, he knew that unless he could maintain air support over the camp, they faced the real likelihood of being overrun. Defending forces consisted of detachment A – 101, Company C, 5th Special Forces Group personnel, along with a Montagnard CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) company, 3 rifle companies and 3 combat reconnaissance platoons of the South Vietnamese Army. They also counted a recently-arrived Mobile Strike Force company with a complement of Montagnard tribesmen and Special Forces advisors. In total, the contingent numbered 24 Americans and approximately 500 indigenous personnel.
Prior to Tet, these forces had once been responsible for a 220-square kilometer operational area around the camp. Now, save for the Mobile Strike Force patrolling, they rushed to build up defenses within the barbed wire perimeter with what they had, which lacked heavy weaponry, such as anti-tank guns.
Knowing his vulnerability, Willoughby compensated as best he could and dispersed his forces evenly, such as placing a Montagnard company backed up by a South Vietnamese recon platoon, at the northeastern flank of the camp, and another Montagnard company at the southern end, while two more of them occupied the west and an even further southern position. The idea was, if the first line started to crumble, there would be reinforcements to plug the holes.
Many loads of dirt were flung over shoulders in the ensuing days as they raced to dig new positions. Once they completed it, all they could do was wait and hope the Mobile Strike Force, which was now reporting increases in enemy contact every day and night, would provide early warning to the NVA’s main force approach and its size, and perhaps allow the base to save itself from becoming just a footnote in the steamrolling offensive
On February 6, just past afternoon, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Shungel, overall commander of Company C, flew to Lang Vei village as a diplomatic overture toward the Royal Laotian army commander now settled in amongst the refugees. He attempted to reassure them that the United States understood their position and would fully support them in future battles. The commander remained unconvinced. After his visit, Shungel decided to stay with Willoughby, and both felt the apprehension which swept over the camp as the beautiful day headed toward evening.
They were out there, masked by the immense jungle which always seemed to side in favor with the NVA. As night fell, the calm shattered at last around 2330 hours, when the whoosh of North Vietnamese artillery shells grew in sound and the defenders felt sensed the trajectories descending upon their positions. The clap of impact and the spumes of dirty brown smoke signaled the attack had begun at last. Concealed North Vietnamese forces spread out in the jungle and begin a quick, almost silent, approach to their areas of assault as explosions boomed in the narrowing distance.
In a watchtower near the sandbag reinforced Tactical Operation Center, Sergeant Nickloas Fragos looked out over the rugged terrain and focused on a sight he’d never seen before. Moving along a road known as Lang Troi and just coming out of the shadows of the jungle a few hundred yards from the southern perimeter were silhouettes of PT-76 tanks.
Sounds of clanking treads and diesel engines grew upon the barbed wire. The shelling stopped.
Two NVA were shot down as they tried to cut the wire before the tanks arrived. “Why don’t they just let the tanks roll over it?” A curious defender asked. Then they did. At 2325 hours, wire crushed and twisted in the PT-76’s suspension as 5 of them rolled forward toward the outermost positions.
Fragos’s boots hit the ground in a hurry taking him into the operation’s center, informing Willoughby, “We have tanks in the wire!” At that moment, Shungel advised Willoughby of the available assets, which sent a bark of radio calls to nearby firebases and aircraft.
Back out on the perimeter, indigenous forces fired mortars and hurled grenades, while Green Berets raised 66 mm light antitank weapons (LAWs) on their shoulders, sighted on the dark shapes and fired, only to see a massive shower of sparks and the tank’s guns belch a reply before it depressed and swung left and right firing into the defenders positions. Other LAWs simply jammed, leaving only a small number of crew-served weapons, namely three 57 mm and two 106 mm recoilless rifles, as the last hope of stopping the armor through direct fire.
The PT-76s spread out and rolled over the first line of forces, leaving survivors to the hundreds of support infantry pouring through behind them, firing from the hip and oblivious to the artillery fire starting to bleed them. The two sides closed ranks and fought close quarters. Still, it did little to stem the advance. They just kept coming, staying close behind the armored vanguard which ominously seemed to be heading to cut the camp in half.
Then, almost simultaneously, to within a minute or two of the southern breach and with the sounds and screams of battle growing ever more intense, the final act began. On the western and eastern perimeters, engines chugged and lurched forward as six tanks, followed by more hungry infantry, pushed over trees and prepared to start a secondary assault from two different directions.
And still, for Willoughby and several others, fate proved it to be only the beginning…