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The Attack on Song Ong Doc
During 1969/1970, several naval units used the Advance Tactical Support Base at the mouth of the Ong Doc River (Song Ong Doc). By July 1970, RVN River Patrol Group 62 (along with Naval Advisory Group Vietnam advisors), USN River Assault Division 15, a detachment of two HAL-3 Seawolves, a Dufflebag unit, and the NSA base support unit. The base was composed of 10 AMMI pontoons (flat deck barges) lashed together and, on the shore next to the pontoons, was a raised helicopter pad and buildings for the Seawolves. The base was part of Breezy Cove a joint USN/RVN operation established in Sep 1969 and commanded by Cdr. Cyrus Christensen. The Senior Advisor to RPD-62 was Lt. Bill Dannheim who had one officer and 6 enlisted advisors assigned to him. The mission of the USN/RVN units assigned to the base was to interdict enemy movements from the U Minh forest (to the north) across the Song Ong Doc down to the lower Ca Mau peninsula where Operation Seafloat/Solid Anchor area was south of the Cua Lon River. The units were also to keep the river open for civilian waterborne traffic from the Gulf of Thailand into the province capital of Ca Mau.
RPG-62 Vietnamese crews had only been at the base since June 1969 when they arrived with 10 PBRs that had been turned over from USN RivDivs 554 in Nov '69 as part of ACTOV. Added to those were 10 more PBRs from RivDiv 572 that had been there since Sep '69. One of Cdr. Christensen's first orders was to remove all ammunition stored on the AMMI pontoons, except for ready-service ammo for base defense weapons. That arduous job meant three days of humping ammo in the hot sun down the gangplank into bunkers on the shore. After the ammo was removed, Cdr. Christensen came up with a rather remarkable base defense plan. He decided that the base was highly susceptible to surprise attack, and the only important things on the base were the men and their boats. Consequently, he ordered that if the base was attacked, the crews (USN & RVN alike) were to get to their boats and fight the enemy from the river.
Next to the base grew up a village of about 2000 that was named New Song Ong Doc. There were Regional Forces working out of the village that were supposed to help defend the base. But Cdr. Christensen doubted their effectiveness or loyalty. The base used 50 cal MGs, concussion grenades, 60 and 81 mm mortars for defense. The mortars were shot at Dufflebag sensor activations regularly. Little did the men on the base know that the increasing numbers of activations were caused by more than just "animals and wind". It was a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees.
In the late evening hours of 20 Oct 1970, the base was attacked by what was later estimated to be a VC company reinforced with heavy and medium weapons. The VC started pouring in 57 mm recoilless and mortar rounds from two directions, the north side jungle adjacent to the base and the south side free-fire area of swamps across the river. In addition, the VC were shooting 12.7 mm machine guns and small arms into the base. Rounds were landing everywhere and sank two PBRs that were tied up alongside the AMMIs. Lt. Dannheim was in the Naval Operations Center immediately calling in air support. He called for the return of two Seawolves from Seafloat, and got Black Ponies from VAL-4 scrambled. The offshore gunfire support ship USCGC Bering Strait fired 5-inch shells at points south of the river. As was pre-arranged, the crews scrambled into their boats and got the remaining PBRs and heavy river assault boats underway. When the NOC started getting hit, and fuel and ammo stores started going up, Lt. Dannheim called in a PBR and took charge of the up-river group of boats, while Lt.jg. Wahler went with the boats down river of the base. The advisors, including GMG2 Wayne Palmer, EN3 Joe Flowers and EN3 Joe Brown, along with the RVN boat crews were returning the incoming fire effectively. Some fire was received from New SOD village. While overhead the Seawolves and Black Ponies were being directed at targets further away. After about an hour, the firing tapered off and the boats started patrolling further up river just in case Charlie was planning on making a crossing. Further offshore was the supporting boat tender, USS Garrett County, LST-786. Many wounded were taken onboard the ship to be treated. Seawolves operated from the LST also. The boats refueled and rearmed from the LST from that point onward, but later boat crews lived and ate on what was left of the base, or their boats when not on patrol. The helo pad and hootches ashore had not been touched and were used by advisors for berthing.
The next morning the boats returned alongside the base with Cdr. Christensen to assess the damage. All ten AMMI pontoons had been hit and/or sunk. The buildings had for the most part all been burned from fuel fires or enemy incoming. There were two Americans KIA: GMG3 Tom McGarry age 26 of Springville, TN and RMSN John De Witt age 19 of Stockton CA. Twenty-six American and Vietnamese sailors were wounded in the attack.
Several weeks later, some of the original AMMIs with some newer armored AMMIs from Seafloat were all towed up river to Old Song Ong Doc village where operations continued until the whole operation was moved to a naval compound in Ca Mau. RAS-15 left Song Ong Doc in November to stand down as the last USN river unit turned-over to the Vietnamese Navy.
Lt. Dannheim received a Navy Cross for his actions during the attack. Several other advisors were awarded Bronze Stars and Navy Commendation Medals.
This story was contributed by: Lee Wahler.