The Attack On Firebase Mary Ann

Max Hastings’s excellent history, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, discusses one revealing engagement that took place between American and North Vietnamese forces in late March of 1971.  This action—a ferocious assault on a remote firebase named Mary Ann—merits further reflection, I think, and we will give it its due here.

After the 1968 Tet Offensive, it became clear to any objective observer that the American military campaign in Vietnam was not showing the kind of forward progress that might lead to a face-saving settlement.  By 1971, the situation had worsened.  Many units became infected with crippling morale problems, chiefly revolving around drug abuse, systemic indiscipline, and seething racial tensions.  A more honest era would have called such conditions mutinous; but this was a word that American officials would have done nearly anything to avoid using.  No one wanted to be among the last to be crippled or killed in a cause that appeared locked into a trajectory of failure. 

Some soldiers and Marines openly refused to beyond the wire to conduct patrols or set ambushes; officers and non-commissioned officers were forced to walk a fine line between following orders from their own higher-ups, and avoiding the appearance of being too enthusiastic in enforcing military discipline.  No one wanted to ask too much from the men, for fear of retribution.  It was a terrible situation for a small unit leader to be in.  Incidents of “fragging” (the murder of a leader by disgruntled troops) multiplied, and it was a rare officer indeed to failed to consider the consequences of becoming too alienated from those he was supposed to be leading.

Firebase Mary Ann (pathetically named after the commanding officer’s sister) was an outpost located at the top of a ridge in Quang Tin province, close to the border of Laos.  It was manned by soldiers of the 1/46th Infantry, C Company, which was part of the Americal Division.  The firebase was the standard assortment of bunkers and small structures ringed by barbed wire and observation posts.  In March of 1971, very few who were there wanted to be there.  The prevailing sentiment among both officers and men was to look after one’s own hide, while counting down the days until one could catch a “freedom bird” back to the States. 

It was not uncommon for men sent out on ambush to avoid engaging with enemy patrols, and to report they had seen nothing when the opposite was true.  Some patrols would openly refuse to enter certain areas where contact with the NVA seemed likely.  Within the wire, indiscipline was the rule.  Hastings reports that one of the battalion’s men died after eating a piece of plastic explosive taken from a Claymore mine; he believed that consuming it would give him a narcotic high.  One company commander, a Capt. Paul Spilberg, wrote in a letter home:

This company really is a mess…the troops sit around reading newspapers, playing cards…most of the time they don’t even carry their weapons.

In such situations, the posture of the commanding officer is determinative, for it is he who sets the tone for his unit.  At Fire Base Mary Ann, the man in charge was Lt. Col. Bill Doyle, a thirty-nine-year-old veteran with a reputation for fighting and partying hard.  But even he knew there was a limit to what he could do.  One of his companies—D Company—even refused to leave the wire unless supplied with scout dogs, air support, and a medevac helicopter.  Men posted to guard duty at night would drift off into sleep and escape punishment.  Yet beyond the wire, the NVA was probing the firebase and sighting every inch of its perimeter—which was five hundred yards in length by two hundred in width—with small arms.  Its twenty-two bunkers, made from metal shipping containers called “conexes,” were identified and marked on maps.   Steadily and surely, it drew up its plan of attack, and waited for the right moment to hit the indolent Americans with a coordinated assault.  It was later revealed that the firebase had been under enemy observation for two months.  Mary Ann housed, in all, 231 soldiers and 21 South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) personnel, and it had never been attacked before.     

On the night of March 27, base security was in the hands of Capt. Richard Knight, a twenty-four-year-old college dropout.  The record indicates that Knight was either unwilling, or unable, to convince his men to post security at their bunkers or to set Claymores and trip flares; there are reports of drunkenness (and possible drug abuse) that night, although how much is difficult to determine.  Nearly everyone was either asleep or occupied in routine.  Searchlights activated at two o’clock in the morning on March 28 revealed no movement outside the wire.  This would very shortly change, however. 

At 02:40, around fifty men from the NVA’s 409th Sapper Battalion slipped through Mary Ann’s outer perimeter, their bodies coated with grease and charcoal dust for concealment.  Wearing only shorts, and crawling on their bellies, they cut four passages through the razor wire and brought in satchel charges, grenades, and small arms.  Lacking food supplies, they had been forced to dine on wild roots in preparation for the operation.  The signal to launch the all-out attack on the sleeping Americans was a mortar barrage.  And then the attack was launched in force.  Instantly panic engulfed the base; visibility was difficult in the pitch darkness, adding to the terror and confusion.  Men caught sleeping in their bunkers were killed by grenades and explosives before they could process what was happening.  Those who were able to rouse themselves crept outside their hooches, waiting for someone to tell them what to do.  Yet no orders came.  Capt. Knight never left his bunker; he was killed when a sapper flung a bomb into it.  Lt. Col. Doyle’s command center absorbed a huge blast from a satchel charge, but he himself survived. 

It soon became clear that the attack had been carefully planned; the sappers roamed through the firebase, knowing exactly where to go and what to hit.  Most of the Americans remained in their bunkers, either from a belief that the base was under mortar attack, or because they had been provided with no other guidance.  Some who tried to get outside were gunned down by bursts from AK-47 rifles; some were immobilized by the clouds of CS gas that were everywhere; and still others were concussed or ripped apart by improvised Coke-can grenades.  One soldier thought his best chance of survival was to feign death in the open; as he held his breath, he could feel an NVA sapper rifling through his pockets, and felt him strip off his wristwatch.  Some men did fight back.  There are reports of hand-to-hand fighting in the darkness between attackers and defenders.  One West Point lieutenant named Barry McGee killed an NVA soldier with his bare hands before being cut down by rifle fire. 

No coordinated effort to defense the base was ever made, because no such plans existed.  Doyle’s command post discovered that communications had gone down, and that, with smoke shrouding the base, illumination flares adding nothing to the battlefield picture.  The ARVN troops either did nothing or ran for shelter.  A Night Hawk Huey helicopter appeared over the base at around 0325, and fired on some sappers exfiltrating through the wire, but by that time the attack had largely subsided.  Doyle was evacuated soon after with a leg wound; he was replaced by a new commanding officer and never returned to Mary Ann.  The official casualty count among the defenders was 33 dead and 83 wounded; the NVA’s casualties are unknown, but probably were comparable.  A later investigation into the matter did not paint a flattering picture–to say the least–of the American army’s behavior before or during the attack.  The official report devastatingly concluded that the NVA had simply outperformed their opponents; that leadership at Mary Anne had been slipshod and unprofessional; and that most American casualties could have been avoided, had soldiers behaved like soldiers.  The deceased Capt. Knight was found guilty of dereliction of duty.  Doyle was shipped off to a desk position, his reputation permanently tarnished.

That the base’s leadership could have allowed such laxity and indiscipline to prevail is shocking in itself; but if so, Doyle and Knight were far from alone.  The event has come to be seen as a kind of microcosm for everything that was wrong in Vietnam.  Even if the war’s ultimate futility was common knowledge, nothing can excuse the abandonment of fundamental security preparations.  At some point, military leaders must set aside fears of retribution, and show some degree of courage and professionalism in enforcing standards of discipline.  This did not happen at Firebase Mary Ann, and the consequences were death and destruction. We may extend this lesson, I think, outside the realm of military affairs to civilian matters as well. When “leaders” care more about their privileges than their responsibilities, the result is peril that leads inevitably to ruin.

There are many situations in which only the strictest measures will save a group facing a crisis.  The Greek commander Xenophon, who knew something about battlefield leadership under severe duress, recounts in his Anabasis (V.8.1) an incident in which he was accused by some of his men for excessive harshness.  Several soldiers maintained that Xenophon had physically hit them without just cause; but on direct examination of these accusers, Xenophon proved that, while he had indeed hit them, he had good reason to do so.  One man, for example, who had been assigned to carry a sick comrade, claimed the man was dead and attempted to bury him, so as to relieve himself of the burden of carrying him.  Xenophon then said these words to his men:

I admit, soldiers, that I have indeed struck men for neglect of discipline, the men who were content to be kept safe by you who marched in due order and fought wherever there was need, while they themselves would leave the ranks and run on ahead in the desire to secure plunder and to enjoy and advantage over you.  For if all of us had behaved in this way, all of us alike would have perished.  Again, when a man behaved like a weakling and refused to get up, preferring to leave himself a prey to the enemy, I did indeed strike him and use violence to compel him to go on…

My defense is simple.  If it was for his good that I punished any one, I think I should render the sort of account that parents render to sons and teachers to pupils; for that matter surgeons also burn and cut patients for their good; but if you believe it was out of wantonness that I did these things, take note that now, by the blessing of the gods, I am more confident than I was then, and that I am bolder now than then, and drink more wine, but nevertheless I strike no man—for the reason that I see you are in calm waters.  But when it is stormy weather and a high sea is running, do you not observe that even for a mere nod the lookout gets angry with the people at the prow and the helmsman angry with the people at the stern?  For in such a situation even small blunders are enough to ruin everything.  [Trans. by C.L. Brownson]   

It is when conditions are direst, that hard discipline is needed the most.  There is no other way to preserve a force’s unity and prevent disaster.  This was true when in 400 B.C. Xenophon led his army through hostile Asian territory while it was subjected to unrelenting attack day and night; and it is certainly true now.  It is a lesson condemned to be remembered and forgotten with the same ephemeral regularity as the ebb and flow of the fortunes of armies and men.     

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Read more on the conduct of campaigns in Sallust:

     

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