Not the Nifty Lions

The Beast Was Out There (The 28th Infantry Black Lions and the Battle of Ong Thanh, Vietnam, October 1967) - Brig. Gen. James E. Shelton. USA (Ret.), David Maraniss

"Traditional notions of what constituted success and failure in battle are not easily applied to the conflict in Vietnam, and the Battle of Ong Thanh is no exception—in this clash, as in so many others, the confused nature of the fighting is reflected in different judgments about its outcome. But where wire service accounts reported it as a victory, accounts by many veterans of the 2-28— including Shelton—count it as a tactical defeat."


Lt. Colonel Terry Allen, son of a very highly regarded ** WW II general, took on a large group of VC regulars.  The result was a devastating defeat.  Allen was killed in the battle.  Shelton was there as a major, the S3.  The 2-28, also known as the Black Lions, was badly mauled by a tenacious enemy in an unusual stand-and-fight battle which heretofore the VC had always avoided. 


Shelton sets the stage with a short account of the history of the Black Lions, part of the famed "Big Red One."  He also brings his personal experience to the story of events as he was assigned to the Black Lions under General Hays following the very successful leadership of General DePuy, fames for the "DePuy bunkers", enfiladed and covered foxholes that were impossible to attack without heavy losses.  


Shelton is candid throughout the book and some of the details are less than savory.  Food was always a problem, hot rations being flown in by helicopter, but usually getting thoroughly rained on before being eaten, and often the troops were utterly exhausted by the time night came, so food was just a quick can of fruit.  


Malarial pills were a requirement and hated.  They were huge.  The size of a penny in diameter and about 5 pennies thick they caused stomach cramps and intense diarrhea about three hours after taking them. Usually the attack was faster than it was possible to drop ones pants but since no one wore underwear they just waited until the next rain (six or seven times a day in the rainy season) to wash them out. No one ever made it to the latrine, such as it was, and just dropped and squatted in place. "On the plus side, the consequences of taking malaria pills helped to keep the officers in infantry battalions from being too officious.  There was something leveling about the process."  A two-holer was usually constructed in the middle of the camp, but no one liked to sit there, especially when enemy snipers could shoot a few rounds there . "I imagined a telegram to my wife: 'Dear Mrs. Shelton. The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you that your husband was killed in action while hiding behind the battalion two-holer.  He was last found cringing in a pile of shit donated by himself and his fellow soldiers.' " 


Shelton noted several things when he was assigned as S3 (Battalion Operations Officer) -- he succeeded Lt. Colonel Allen who was being promoted -- to the Black Lions.  The whole division had terrible radio discipline, most communications going in the clear, rationalizing that during combat it was less confusing than the multiple codes normally required.  There was also constant "ass-chewing" over the air and in person, to such an extant everyone expected it and enjoyed it. The question was whether it was taken seriously.  Air mobile insertion and extraction operations were incredibly complex and required an intricate ballet of cooperation between multiple units, helicopters and soldiers.  Finally, there was turnover.  Because of the military's policy of one-year rotations, often units had only FNGs (Fucking New Guys) to run the show. Few experienced soldiers were left to guide the FNGs and it would take awhile to learn how to stay alive. 


The Air Force guys all thought they were doing a great job but Shelton has nothing but contempt for their close air support which often fell on the troops rather than the designated target. "I never heard of one air strike that helped while we were on offensive operations.  When we were on the defensive and were in a static position, air strikes could be of great assistance. On the other hand, when we were moving, all air strikes did was slow us down and delay the action." (84) 


The operation that spelled disaster for the Black Lions did not get off to a great start.  Despite lots of planning and overflying of the LZ, once the first troops jumped off the Hueys to secure the landing zone, and after a thorough pounding with artillery bombs and napalm, only then did they realize the elephant grass was growing in a stream bed full of water and they landed in water up to the waste.  Fortunately, it was not a hot LZ.  Next they waded slowly to the perimeter into the jungle where huge clumps of dirt loaded with red ants fell on them. The shelling had lifted colonies of ants into the jungle canopy. Soon troops were stripping down and diving under the water to relieve themselves of the biting ant stings. Then Shelton happened to look up at a weaving branch only to be almost face-to-face with a bamboo viper, a nasty little bugger.  It had survived bombing and napalm. The purpose of the operation was to set up a base and lure surrounding VC to attack them, whereupon they would bring in more troops and they were confident of a positive outcome in a large head on battle.  That was not to be. 


This is a fascinating look at Vietnam operations from the viewpoint of a battalion S3, an unusual perspective. 


** General Allen was relieved of command by General Bradley for a variety of reasons, one being his cavalier attitude that Bradley said spilled over to his troops.  Ironically, Patton defended General Terry to Eisenhower for his tenaciousness and success in battle, but after the slapping incident, Patton lost a lot of his prestige and Allen was removed.  Whether this incident was in the back of the son's mind when he made the decision to attack will never be known.