Did The U.S. Knowingly Kill P.O.W.'s in 1970?
By Ed Johnson
Mike Gillhoolley1 for whom I have the highest respect for, once asked doesn't anybody care about our brothers still being held against their will in Southeast Asia.
I for one do care and I am ashamed that it has taken me this long to respond.
The question that Mike asked brought back many memories and the hurt that comes with them.
For many years I have tried to forget about what I did and what I saw and tried to find peace in doing for other Veterans.
But our P.O.W.s are hurting much worse than I am.
The story you are about to read is Fact! The exact dates I can't furnish because this incident happened 26 years ago.
But the operation I was involved in plays in my mind over and over again like an old movie with one exception, this movie doesn't have an ending or an explanation.
Just haunting questions.
Operation Toang Thang.
During the spring of 1970, President Nixon approved a major offensive against North Vietnam's sanctuaries in Cambodia. My unit, the 2/47 Mech. Inc. 9th Inf. Division's main A.O. (Area of Operation) was IV and III Corp, which included the Plain of Reeds.
Our unit did intelligence gathering, reconnaissance missions, river ravine operations, and with intelligence from C.I.S. (Counter Intelligence Section) conducted ambush and bushmaster operations, which consisted of several airmobile insertions in one day to find and eliminate or capture the enemy.
The 2/47 was a unique and different kind of unit.
Since President Nixon began withdrawing troops from Vietnam in early 1969, the 9th Division was one of the first to go.
But it left it's 3rd Brigade behind as security for the Delta region, that's why the 2/47 became a self-contained battalion task force with no permanent base camp.
Moving back and forth throughout VI and III Corps, under operational control of the 25th Division and the 1st Cav., along with the District Chiefs and C.I.S.
In theory, the 2/47 Battalion did not exist in Vietnam, we were expendable.
That's the reason and I'm only guessing, that my unit was never expected to return from operation Toan Thong.
At the end of April 1970 the 2/47 got it's marching orders. We had been operating in the 2nd Brigade, 25th Division's A.O., when we received orders to saddle up and head toward Tay Ninh, where we would come under control of the 1st Cavalry Division.
When we finally reached Tay Ninh the next day, we were escorted to a restricted area of the motor pool where we spent the next 24 hours doing maintenance on the tracks, cleaning weapons, and resupplying ammo and rations.
Our C.O. (Commanding Officer) told us to double up on our normal loads because they didn't have any idea when we would be resupplied again.
Sensing we were heading into a big operation and trouble, we helped ourselves to any extra weapons that the 1st Cav. left unattended.
Without warning, orders came down that we would be moving out at first light the next day.
As dawn broke, we left the gates of Tay Ninh and headed towards Cambodia. By that afternoon we had reached the border between Vietnam and Cambodia and the rumor's had been put to rest, we were going into Cambodia.
Our orders were simple, we were to locate and destroy any enemy base camps or supply depots in our assigned A.O.
Higher-up promised all the support we would need, which included air and artillery.
I think it was one of the longest night's I've ever spend in Vietnam. Everyone wrote one last letter home not knowing what to expect the next day.
Just before dawn we were all awake checking and double checking our weapons, and the tracks, everything, making sure everything worked.
We didn't need any malfunction's where we were going.
At first light, we crossed the border and headed towards Highway 7.
Suddenly we came upon an N.V.A. (North Vietnamese Army) base camp, the size of which we had never seen. It looked as if it could have been used as a training center.
There were clearings with overhead cover for people to sit, bunkers so large they could hold 6 or more men.
It went on forever, as far as one could see. There were fires burning beside the bunkers, wet laundry hanging on lines, and weapons leaning against the bunkers and trees, but the enemy was no where to be found.
It was one of the most intimidating scenes I've ever seen during my whole tour of Vietnam.
We stopped our column and reported the situation to higher-up, and were ordered to keep going, give the location, and just keep going.
As we approached Highway 7, the battalion stopped and our company, (Bravo) was ordered to separate from the rest of the battalion and operate on our own.
Now the hunt was on to locate and destroy the enemy who had just abandoned the previous base camp.
We left battalion and proceeded to a new location, and just as dusk was settling in, we found what we were looking for, or should I say they found us.
The NVA had crept up on us as we were digging in at our night position, and the firefight that followed took it's toll on both sides.
The NVA kept probing us all night long and well into the dawn. We made every attempt to get support, but there was none available, or so we were told.
Our C.O. was on the radio to the battalion commander asking for help and support, but all we were told was to hang in there.
It had looked like Bravo company was on it's own. We never received any sort of support and the rest of the battalion never came to our rescue.
Our casualties were mounting and we were losing company strength fast.
We tending to our wounded the best we could, and put the dead in body bags, and waited for the choppers to take them out.
But this didn't happen for two days.
We played tag with the enemy for almost two weeks this way, losing more and more of our men until the company was down to two thirds strength.
We were in the middle of a regiment sized base camp, which was linked to other base camps that just kept going for what seemed like miles.
There were roads, which trucks could drive down, trails, which whole companies or battalions could march, and in the middle of it all was Brave company fighting for survival.
Then suddenly orders came in from battalion to break contact and head for Highway 7, and into the Memot Rubber Plantation.
Intelligence reports said something big was there and they would give us the rest of the information once we were in.
We kept on the move agin and kept asking our C.O. where in the hell was the rest of battalion?
They, we were told, had another operation assigned to them off to our east and we would link up with them later.
As we entered the gates to the plantation, battalion gave us order's not to destroy any of the rubber trees, or engage the enemy in or around a French Villa, because this plantation was still owned by the French Government and the U.S. Government didn't want to make waves.
At only two thirds strength (about 70 men), we were ordered to operate only in squad sized elements, that way we could cover more area and harass the enemy more, and gather more intelligence for higher-up.
So, during the day we would patrol the surrounding triple canopy jungles, and at night set ambushes along the many trails and roads in the rubber plantation itself.
We set booby-traps along the trails during the day and at night we could hear the explosions and screams while on night ambushes.
Then one day our C.O. called us together and said that intelligence reports came down informing him that there was the possibility that a POW camp might be located somewhere in the jungle surrounding the plantation.
The report also mentioned that the Frenchman who ran the plantation might be using an airstrip to fly POWs up north.
Our orders changed, it was now going to be our job to locate and verify if we could, this new information.
We were to operate in platoon sized missions only, and 2nd Platoon had 18 men.
The exact date I can't remember, but 2nd Platoon entered the jungle one morning in search of the POW camp.
We had already located and verified the airstrip, but found no sign of the planes or the Frenchman.
As we cautiously made our way through the thick jungle, we began to find numerous trails and roads which tipped us off that we were near a very large base camp.
We searched the area all day, but couldn't find the camp.
We pulled out just before dusk, and set up ambushes near the area and waited until morning so we could continue our search.
We were desperate, we knew that we were on the verge of funding something very big and that every second lost could mean never finding the camp with the POWs still in place.
We radioed battalion and gave them all the information and suggested that more troops be inserted to assist in the search.
We were told that when we gathered more solid intelligence, help would be on the way.
Time was running out fast, and we were all anxious to get back into the jungle and continue our search.
We needed more evidence in order to get help.
The next morning, just before dawn, we were already making our way through the jungle, heading in the same direction of the previous day.
It was a gamble, but we followed the same trails as the day before, knowing that we could be ambushed ourselves at any second.
We shouldn't have done this, but again time was running out and there were many new footprints to follow.
It appeared that there was even more enemy activity going on than the previous day.
Suddenly the trail split up, and a smaller trail cut off to the right of the larger one. We decided to follow the smaller trail and flanked it deeper into the jungle.
We found ourselves suddenly going down hill and into what appeared to be a valley.
The jungle growth was so thick you couldn't really tell how far down we were going.
As we got to the bottom, I broke through some thick underbrush and bamboo, and there sat two NVA soldiers, sitting on top of a bunker eating.
I looked at them and they looked at me in shock. I opened up with my shotgun and saw them go down. The rest of the platoon charged forward, took up positions and we all charged forward.
We had found the base camp we had been looking for. Now to find the POWs.
We spread out searching for any clues.
We found a mess hall which could seat a whole company at one time, a bicycle factory, and a hospital.
This camp was so large it would surely take more than just 18 men to search it thoroughly.
There was a stream running right through the center of the camp, and the bunkers were spread out going up each side of the hills towards the ridges.
Suddenly there was a burst of automatic gunfire and then more, and then even more. The incoming rounds became so intense the only thing we could do was to jump into the NVA bunkers for protection.
The sound of gunfire against the valley floor was deafening to our ears. There was dirt, twigs and tree branches flying everywhere.
Even though it was quite apparent that we were outgunned, we made several attempts to fire back and let them know we wouldn't give up without one hell of a fight.
We did a check and surprisingly enough, only one guy was hit slightly in the arm. We were lucky!
Dusk was approaching fast now but we still couldn't move. We would have to wait until dark before making any attempt to get out.
We called the C.O. on the radio and gave our location, what we had found, estimate of enemy strength, and the situation we were in.
He advised us that he too, and the rest of the company were pinned down by an unknown enemy force on the edge of the jungle where we had gone in, and couldn't come to help us. But he was in contact with battalion and would advise.
Well, night had come and gone and the morning sun was coming up, and we were still in position.
Our C.O. called on the radio and informed us that battalion too was in contact with an unknown enemy force and couldn't offer any assistance. We were on our own.
Everytime we tried to move we received fire from the ridges, but the incoming fire was getting smaller.
We figured that now it was only a small guard protecting the escape of the larger size element, along with our POWs.
Towards early afternoon we made another attempt to get out, only this time we didn't receive any incoming fire.
Our battalion C.O. was making every attempt at getting us help, but he was told that because of all the contact being made from other operations inside Cambodia, we would have to wait our turn.
We were alone and if we were going to make it, we would have to do it on our own, with no help.
We had to make our move before it got dark again, so we got up and moved back up the hill in the same direction we had come from, deciding that it was the fastest way out.
Seeing that we had just survived hell on earth, nothing could or would stop us.
When we reached the outskirts of the jungle, the C.O. was there with the rest of the company.
Like us, they looked like they had been to hell and back.
We reported what we had seen, the size of the camp, and estimated enemy strength, even though we never saw them.
All this information was radioed back to Battalion Headquarters, and we told them that this camp could very well have been a camp for POWs. It was secure and large enough and extremely well camouflaged, it could never be detected from the air.
That a much larger force should be inserted and the search continued, that we found evidence that this might be some sort of headquarters unit for the NVA, and again pleaded for help to continue the search. But battalion radioed back that we must break contact at once and leave the area.
We just looked at each other and couldn't believe what we were hearing.
Again we asked for a repeat of the orders and again as before, we were told in no uncertain terms to break contact, discontinue the search and get out of the area, with no explanation.
We were told to get at least five clicks back and set up night ambushes.
But we couldn't pull back that far, so we went as far into the rubber plantation as we could, and set up night positions.
At exactly midnight, and not being warned, the earth started to rumble and tremble. The concussion from the blasts rustled through the trees and the wind hit our faces.
We all laid down and wondered what was going on. But we all knew it was a B-52 strike, right on the same area we had been in, where we had found the base camp.
We all looked at each other in surprise and couldn't figure out why on earth, with the possibility of us finding the POW camp, they would call in a B-52 strike and destroy it.
You could feel the anger building up in all of us.
The next morning battalion radioed us and told us to pack everything and be ready to move out.
Then word came and we left the plantation.
Looking back over our shoulders at the jungle.
We wondered if we had really found something or not, and if we did why would them bomb it and make us leave without letting us go back in to access the damage?
We moved to another area in the Fishhook region to continue other operations in Cambodia, and once again we found ourselves outgunned and out manned, and as before we were stuck in another regimental sized base camp fighting for our lives.
But this time we truly believed that higher-up had given up on us and that they were waiting for all of us to get killed.
We were so desperate that we even sent a letter to the President with one of our wounded, asking for help.
We don't know if that had anything to do with it or not, but soon two mechanized units from the 25th Inf. Div. Came in to help get us out and back to battalion.
But we never linked up with battalion, instead after we left Cambodia, we stayed at a firebase on the border and were told that we would link up with the rest of our battalion soon.
But soon never came, and it seemed for the next two weeks we were always behind the rest of battalion, never being able to find out what happened and why they never came to help us.
Finally, after three weeks of being moved around from firebase to firebase, including Cu Chi, we were sent to Bearcat with the Thais. That's when we finally linked up with the rest of the battalion.
When we pulled into the base camp the men from the other companies ran up to us and couldn't believe that there were only 32 men and 8 tracks left out of a whole company of 130 men and 18 tracks before the operation began.
They knew we needed help badly and almost pulled a mutiny with battalion. They were listening over the radios while we were getting chewed up, but couldn't do a thing about it.
They wanted to know what was so important on the plantation that required a B-52 strike, and did we get back in to access the damage.
They, as us, didn't understand and the question's still haunt me today.
Did someone higher-up than our battalion expect us not to make it out of there alive?
Who was battalion reporting to? Why wouldn't they let the rest of our battalion come to help us?
If they had, maybe we could have found out what the NVA were so desperately trying to protect.
Where was all the support that we were promised at the beginning of the operation? Did someone already know what was on the plantation, and they just needed us to verify it?
Was there another special team sent in at another location, and were we used as a decoy?
Why the B-52 strike? Why weren't we allowed to go back in and access the damage?
But most important I think is that one and a half months after the operation, the battalion's colors were sent back to Kansas, and the remaining men sent to different units throughout Vietnam, never to see one another again during their tours.
These are only some of the questions that need to be answered, and I hope to God that one day I'll find peace in myself when my brothers come home and thank me for at least trying.
I will never forget them,
1. Mike Gillhoolley is with the Canadian POW/MIA Information Center.
Northwest Vets Newsletter has delved into this incident!
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Copyright © 1996 Canadian POW/MIA Information Center Norman A. Todd
Chapter 41 Laurier Avenue Milton, Ontario Canada L9T 4T1 Copied with permission.