Vietnam vets recount Easter Sunday battle 50 years ago
Tyrus Cobb and a cobra – not the helicopter variety – in Vietnam, where he served as an adviser to Vietnamese troops.(Photo: Provided by Tyrus Cobb)
About 10 years ago, Gene Humphrey and I were chatting, getting to know each other after Gene had moved his high tech company to Reno from California. After 26 years in the Army and six years in the Reagan National Security Council staff, I had returned to my hometown of Reno and helped establish the National Security Forum, which Gene had joined. Gene had left the Army Guard in Wyoming and established his own successful firm, International Test Solutions, that now supplies 160 companies with test semiconductor devices. With headquarters in Reno, ITS has offices in six foreign countries. We found that we had both been in the Army and had served multiple tours in Vietnam during the war.
During one conversation, Gene noted that he was in Vietnam in 1967 flying UH-1B and Cobra gunship helicopters in support of U.S. and Vietnamese combat forces. Gene had been with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company in Cu Chi until he was severely wounded. I told Gene that I was in the Delta region of Vietnam in my first tour at the same time, serving as an adviser to Vietnamese troops, first the Regional/Popular Force ( Ruff-Puffs ) militias, then later as deputy operations adviser to the South Vietnamese 9th Infantry Division. On hearing about my time in Nam, Gene sat up sharply, paused, then quietly said, Easter Sunday!
That immediately summoned haunting memories, for the 1967 Easter Sunday battle between the Viet Cong and the 9th ARVN (Vietnamese) Division was the most intense and bloody conflict of my tour. I recalled that U.S. advisers had persuaded the ARVN leadership to start taking one or two platoons on Eagle Flights loading up about 50 infantry troops, dropping them in an area suspected of hiding VC forces, and if a gunfight ensued, bringing in Vietnamese reinforcements on U.S. helicopters. Remember, at this time there were no U.S. and no North Vietnamese forces in the Delta region the war there was between the VC and the ARVN, the latter with American advisers like me. On this occasion, Easter Sunday 1967, the Eagle Flights proved very successful, as the insertion of the ARVN platoons turned out to be right on top of the base camps of two Viet Cong battalions. All hell broke out, and I found myself on the tactical radio nets calling for help from anywhere. The U.S. Air Force sent F4 fighter jets, and the Army immediately dispatched helicopter gunships (Cobras) from the Cu Chi (III Corps) area just to the north.
Among the first to arrive were gunships from III Corps, and they radioed in to tell the American advisers of their readiness to influence the battle and to learn more about the disposition of friendly and enemy forces. One such conversation went like this:
Sentinel 32, this is Stinger 85 … can you inform as to the location of the friendlies?
Stinger 85, this is Sentinel 32 … I regret to inform you that there are no friendlies left in the area … just VC forces. … go get them! We only learned some 40 plus years later that Stinger 85 was Gene Humphrey, and I was Sentinel 32!
All hell broke loose
Another helo pilot, Warrant Officer Ron Cone, was in Gene s company, and he posted his observations of that specific battle.
It was Easter Sunday, 1967. For Cone, a helicopter pilot stationed at an airbase in the Mekong Delta, this was supposed to be a down day a chance to catch up on some sleep. But an alarm sounded, and he found himself in a scramble to get his helicopter airborne. His Huey was part of a flight of 10, transporting an estimated 120 South Vietnamese troops and their American advisers to engage a large enemy force of Viet Cong.
Cone s helicopter was positioned in the golden two position, to the right of the lead aircraft. As the choppers started setting down in a rice paddy, all hell broke loose. The air above the landing zone suddenly became alive, saturated with a hailstorm of bullets. While being under fire wasn t unusual, this was the most intense fire Cone had ever experienced. Using a tree line along the edge of the rice paddy for cover, the VC opened up with machine guns, mortars and recoilless rifles.
Outlaw 17, a Huey piloted by Cone s good friend Jon Myhre, was shot down over the LZ. A medevac helicopter sent in to pick up Myhre and his crew was also shot down. The battle lasted 12 hours, with more than 100 jet and prop aircraft involved in the engagement.
Of the 30 helicopters that ultimately participated, three were shot down in the LZ, with a fourth downed while returning to its base. The list of casualties included four Americans killed and 12 wounded; 42 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed and 69 were wounded. The VC body count of 142 was little consolation for those who lost good friends that day.
Returning to the battle site
A few years back, Cone and five other Easter battle survivors traveled to Vietnam. Cone didn t know what to expect and didn t even know if they d be able to find the battle site. And for the experience to be the most meaningful, it was important that they be at the site on the anniversary date. With the help of the local Vietnamese, the men located the battle site, in a rural area near the village of Hoa Binh. Much to their amazement, the group discovered a compound surrounded by a 7-foot wall. Inside was a beautiful 35-foot high monument, built by their former enemy, commemorating the Battle of Easter Sunday. Around the monument were pictures in bas-relief depicting the conflict; three American helicopters were shown falling to the ground in flames and the Viet Cong soldiers who shot them down. Another showed the Viet Cong transporting their wounded soldiers away in flat-bottomed wooden boats called sampans. A plaque described the battle as a heroic victory for the Viet Cong, claiming 600 American and allied troops killed.
The actual battle lasted for two days. Finally, on Easter Sunday, the VC forces began slipping into the jungles to their base camps, some over the nearby border into Cambodia. The ARVN, with their U.S. advisers and with American gunship support, continued attacking the remnants of the VC units. One of the tactics used by the VC was to dress like Vietnamese peasants in this Delta region, which was, ironically, fairly strongly Roman Catholic. Many would be seen in sampans, as if rowing to church that day for Easter services, dressed in the conical hats, white shirts and black pajamas typical of the local Vietnamese. In the post-battle analyses, it was discovered that the two-day conflict dealt a heavy blow to the VC stronghold in the Delta, despite the casualty claims by the Vietnamese today. It was likely a major reason that Hanoi then decided to insert its own North Vietnamese troops into the region. The U.S. countered by emplacing an unusual combined Riverine force, manned half by the Navy, mainly on patrol boats plying the Mekong and Bassac Rivers, and a regiment from the Army s 9th Infantry Division.
The war dragged on for another eight years, and both Gene and I returned for more tours in country. I was assigned to the U.S. forces headquarters in Saigon in 1972-73, ultimately as a member of the American delegation responsible for the implementation of the ceasefire signed as part of the Paris Peace Accords, on January 26, 1973. I was the last American soldier back from Vietnam, on April 1, 1973. But that s another story! For now, let s just reflect on the bravery of the U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers and pilots that day, Easter Sunday, 50 years ago.
After the war, Tyrus W. Cobb taught at West Point, then joined the Reagan National Security Council staff from 1983-89 as director of Soviet and European affairs. Gene Humphrey joined the Guard and saw action in Operation Desert Storm in support of the 3rd Armored Division in the assault on Baghdad.
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