40 yrs ago today in Vietnam

countryfarmercountryfarmer Member Posts: 4,552
edited June 2009 in US Military Veteran Forum
Killed were Sp4 David Collins, Sgt Ronnie Simpson, SSG James T Moore

I went to school with David Collins son..........

40 Years Ago: Bardstown National Guard unit attacked in Vietnam


On the east side of Bardstown's Court Square, a granite monument honors those from Nelson County who died in the Vietnam War. Three of the men listed died during one particular attack.

Many Nelson County residents have likely never heard of Fire Support Base Tomahawk or the ordeal experienced June 19, 1969, by National Guard soldiers from Bardstown's "Charlie" Battery, 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery. Others, however, know it all too well.

The community, significantly smaller 40 years ago, was already reeling from the unexpected call-up of the local National Guard unit. The Kentucky Standard reported April 18, 1968, shortly after the activation that only 12 of the 117 enlisted men in the unit were from outside Nelson County. The result was that nearly everyone here knew someone who was in Vietnam. When word came that the unit had come under heavy fire on Fire Support Base Tomahawk, locals feared the worst.

Even before the attack, the soldiers were apprehensive about being on FSB Tomahawk. They were sent there to support the 101st Airborne.

"(Tomahawk) had probably the worst reputation of any fire base I had ever heard of in South Vietnam," said Don Parrish, Bardstown, who was deployed with the unit. The base, a low hill among higher hills, was "virtually indefensible," Parrish said. Soldiers had been killed there in freak accidents, such as a bunker sliding down the hill during a rainstorm. It was almost as if the hill was jinxed, Parrish said.

"No one was happy to be there, but we did what we were told," he said.

One night during a heavy rain - heavy enough to drown out outside noise - a battalion of Vietnamese soldiers took off all their clothes so they could crawl through the 4 feet of razor wire surrounding FSB Tomahawk without getting snagged. It was about 1:45 a.m. and the American soldiers were preparing for a shift change. Guardsman Tommy Raisor was waking up Parrish to take over when the first enemy round hit.

"I felt his hand on my shoulder and heard that round at the same time, and I thought, `Oh hell,'" Parrish said.

Chaos ensued, Ronnie Hibbs, High Grove, said.

"Everything was kind of blowing up and on fire, and nobody really knew what was going on for a while," he said.

The Americans didn't realize at first the Viet Cong had infiltrated the perimeter. Then they started to see figures darting around in the dark. The battle raged on until 5:30 a.m., and the fighting was constant during those 3 1/2 hours, Parrish said.

"It seemed like a month," he said.

There was so much going on that the soldiers didn't have time to get scared, Hibbs said.

During the heat of the battle, Hibbs was running from a gun to take cover in a bunker when he was injured.

"They threw one of those satchel charges underneath me and it caught my shirt on fire," he said.

A satchel charge was a small bag of dynamite about 2 inches by 3 1/2 inches weighing a half-pound with five-second timers, according to "Sons of Bardstown," a book by the late Jim Wilson about the local Charlie Battery's call-up, battle and aftermath. The one that got Hibbs landed him in a burn unit in Japan for two months, after which he returned home.

The fighting ended the morning of June 19, 1969, perhaps because "Puff the Magic Dragon," a World War II plane with four mini-guns that could fire thousands of rounds per minute, showed up and peppered the Viet Cong with bullets until they retreated, Parrish said. Or the end might have been the result of a mistake on the part of the Viet Cong, he said. A Vietnamese prisoner the battery captured said his battalion fired a red flare, which meant retreat. They should have fired a green flare to call in backup, the prisoner said. If more Viet Cong had arrived, no Americans on Tomahawk would have survived, Parrish said.

As it was, 44 Americans were wounded and 14 were killed. Parrish isn't sure how many Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the battle, but he estimates about 100. During the entire war, 3-5 million Vietnamese were killed and close to 60,000 Americans.

Five soldiers from the local National Guard unit died from injuries they received that day. Three of them - David Collins, Jim Moore and Ronnie Simpson - were from Nelson County.

Simpson's daughter, Cheryl Lyvers, Bardstown, was born 10 days after her father was killed on FSB Tomahawk. Lyvers said she used to be bitter about never meeting her dad, but she realized harboring such feelings does no good.

"It is what it is. It happened. There's nothing you can do about it," she said.

"Do I wish he was here? Absolutely. We've missed out on a lifetime of memories."

Lyvers said her teenage children help keep their grandfather's memory alive by discussing their family's experience when the Vietnam War is taught in schools.

Parrish doesn't think the war is emphasized nearly enough in history classes. That bothers him. He was also upset when he tried to get The Moving Wall, a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to come to Bardstown to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the attack on FSB Tomahawk. He canceled it because he couldn't get enough public support to fund the $6,000 display.

"I'm disappointed that the community would begin to lose interest like this," he said. "But at the same time, here comes more generations, and I guess the average person living in Bardstown wasn't here when all this took place, so it's explainable."

Those who experienced it firsthand, either in combat or by wondering if their loved ones were OK, will never forget. Though many declined to be interviewed for this article, they didn't cite lack of interest as the reason. For some, the pain is still too fresh. Others feel guilty for not speaking out against a war that no one can quite explain.

The Vietnam War began when the United States intervened in a conflict between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Parrish and Hibbs struggle with understanding why the United States got involved. Parrish at first thought it was to stop the spread of communism, but now he thinks that reasoning was based on lies. He thinks American industry benefited from the war by manufacturing military equipment. He also thinks some military commanders put their desire for legacy ahead of the well-being of American troops.

Although he is bitter about the lies, he holds no ill will toward the people of Vietnam. Parrish, Hibbs and five other Charlie Battery veterans, all but one of whom were on Tomahawk when it was attacked, returned to Vietnam in 1995. A crew from WHAS accompanied them and won an Emmy for the resulting documentary.

"It was probably the friendliest place I've been in my life," Parrish said.

The visitors were able to experience more of the Vietnamese culture than when they were serving in the military. They also visited the site of FSB Tomahawk and another fire support base where they were stationed. It was emotional, but a good visit, Parrish said.

Hibbs said he perceived no bitterness toward Americans during the trip, and he extends the same courtesy to the Vietnamese.

"They were just doing what they were told to do about like we were doing what we were told to do," he said. "I don't know who was right in the whole deal. We were there because we had to go."

Hibbs and Parrish agree that being deployed with people they had known since childhood made serving in Vietnam easier. There were seven sets of brothers, uncles, cousins, friends and so on, Parrish said. It made a big difference in morale, as did the generally comfortable conditions the battery had in Vietnam, Hibbs and Parrish said. Compared to infantrymen, who often had to fight in the jungle in the rain, the 138th Field Artillery, who rarely saw the targets at which they shot, had it good, they said.

No public observance of the 40th anniversary of the Tomahawk attack is planned, Parrish said, because few attended the 35th anniversary ceremony. But the soldiers of Charlie Battery, 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery who served in Vietnam will get together for a reunion this fall.

Parrish said the men's efforts were recognized in Vietnam. The 101st Airborne always requested the Bardstown unit, he said.

"We were there for a very short time and our battery was determined to be the best firing battery in all of Southeast Asia," he said. Because they all knew each other, they supported each other in their efforts to improve, Parrish said.

He considers their experience a pivotal piece of Bardstown history.

"I'm very proud of our whole battalion and how we performed there," he said.

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  • dheffleydheffley Member Posts: 25,000
    edited November -1
  • countryfarmercountryfarmer Member Posts: 4,552
    edited November -1
    I've read the book "Sons of Bardstown", good read. Of course I know of several of the people mentioned in there. Still would be recommended reading if you can lay your hands on a copy.
  • 101AIRBORNE101AIRBORNE Member Posts: 1,262 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited November -1
    Thanks countryfarmer-
    I was thinking how long it has been since I left that hell hole.
    In three months it would be forty years.
    Another good read is: The Eyes of the Eagle
    by Gary A. Linderer
    Have the book and will send it to anyone interested-but I would like it back.
  • meturymetury Member Posts: 1 ✭✭
    edited November -1
    Amazing! I just finished a short story on Tomahawk, and then came across this forum.
    I was sitting at work last Friday,June 19,and was completely bored.Realizing it was the 40th anniv. of an event I was intimately involved in, I wrote a short story on the event.
    The 1st. mortar (RPG?) hit a 3/4 truck on the pad behind my bunker. I was facing south near Hiway 1. Don,t remember the rain. Do remember forming a skirmish line and advancing to the SE part of FB where the tracked guns were.We were walking on a carpet of brass as all were firing at shadows and darting figures. I hauled a wounded buddy back to the pad for medevac and was medevaced out myself shortly after.
    Never thought I'd live through the night.
    It is good someone still thinks about "The Sons of Bardstown"
    Although my platoon, 1st. Platoon, Charlie Co. 2/501, 101 Abn., took losses,it was nothing like the Guardsmen.

    When I think of it, I always come back to the guilt...We should have done a better job protecting them.It was our job, we were the "pros".

    Mark Tury
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