This photograph showed two knocked-out PT-76 tanks in Lang Vei, taking by U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft in 1968.
The camp defenses weren’t designed to repel a tank assault. Lang Vei, situated on a small hill, had a dog-bone shaped perimeter. The camp, built under the ‘fighting camp’ concept, was surrounded by a chain link fence (to prematurely detonate RPG rounds) and a triple strand of concertina wire fifty meters wide laced with Claymore mines. Bunkers with overhead cover were constructed of sandbags and eight-by-eight timbers (a rarity in Vietnam.) All positions had good fields of fire and were mutually supporting. Each interior platoon or company position was ringed with additional wire and Claymores. Special Forces camps were designed to prevent their capture, like that at A Shau in 1966, by human wave assaults of VC or NVA coupled with an interior attack by CIDG infiltrators. The technique of prior infiltration of VC into the CIDG ranks was used in nearly every attack on a CIDG camp and was difficult to prevent where ethnic Vietnamese made up the strike force. Because of this there were no noncombatants allowed inside the camp’s perimeter and the Laotians were initially disarmed by the Mike Force.
The Mike Force patrols began to make enemy contact daily. The Mike Force and Lang Vei companies were Montagnards of different tribes with the possibility of friction between the two groups so Willoughby stationed the 161 man Mike Force outside the camp to act as an observation post about a half-mile to the west along Highway 9. The Mike Force was offered as reinforcements to the Marines fortifying Khe Sanh Village after a failed NVA attack on 22 January, because Willoughby wanted to maintain the only physical link between Lang Vei and the Marine combat base.
The Marines’ commander, COL David E. Lownds, refused and the Marines withdrew to their combat base outside of Khe Sanh. The two Marine rifle companies assigned the contingency mission of relieving a besieged Lang Vei would have to move through a village now occupied by an NVA regiment. The Marine commanders at Khe Sanh remembered the Special Forces camp at A Shau, which had asked for Marine help as it was being overrun in 1965. Help never arrived and the survivors of A Shau were forced to escape and evade capture in the jungle for several weeks. The Marines promised that wouldn’t happen at Lang Vei.
On 31 January a patrol from Lang Vei made contact with an estimated battalion of NVA near Khe Sanh village. This prompted Willoughby to strengthen his defenses by pulling two thirds of the Mike Force into the camp. The remaining Mike Force troopers remained in their observation post. A six-man Special Forces augmentation team flown in from Da Nang assisted the approximately 500 Laotians troops to refortify Old Lang Vei. The six Special Forces advisors provided food, ammunition, medical assistance, and barrier material to the Laotians.
Enemy activity around Lang Vei increased during the first week of February. The Mike Force patrols made contact daily. Willoughby knew attack was imminent when his camp received fifty rounds of 152mm artillery fire on the night of the fifth. On 6 February 1968 at 0042 hours the NVA assaulted Lang Vei. Sergeant John Early, a Mike Force platoon leader, heard NVA sappers outside the wire at 2230 that night and sent two Montagnards with bayonets to capture them for interrogation. As Early recounts the incident: “…a grenade exploded near the edge of ….(my) hole and a trip flare bathed the perimeter in whitish light. In the glow, (I) saw large numbers of the enemy rising from the ground, so many in the initial rush that they seemed to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder.” The fight for Lang Vei had begun. The Lang Vei defenders could plainly see two tanks out in the open in the light of a trip flare.
At least nine, possibly as many as thirteen, Russian-made, PT-76 light reconnaissance tanks drove up to the Lang Vei perimeter. The armor came right up to the camp’s wire. The NVA drivers casually climbed out and smoked cigarettes on the turrets before buttoning up and driving over the defensive perimeter. Standing in their cupolas the commanders gave orders to sappers cutting a hole in the wire-mesh fence. Both sides opened up at once. Lang Vei’s assistant medical specialist, SGT Nickolas Fragos, was probably the first to see the tanks. Perched in an observation tower Fragos could see two North Vietnamese soldiers kneeling calmly in front of the lead tank, trying to cut through the barbed wire barrier in front of Company 104. He radioed Willoughby, telling him, “We have tanks in our wire!” Willoughby called Early for confirmation. Early confirmed Fragos sighting by yelling, “Jesus Christ, I’ve got five tanks and a couple of hundred gooks on top of me. They’re all over the place, Get me some illumination,” into his handset.
Willoughby was in the command bunker with LTC Daniel F. Schungel, the commander of Special Forces in I Corps. Schungel was in camp as an act of diplomacy. The Laotian Lieutenant-Colonel refused to take “advice” from Willoughby, a company grade officer, so Schungel maintained a rotation of field grade Special Forces officers in Lang Vei. Tonight was his turn. The camp radio operator desperately yelled for help over the Marine artillery fire direction center frequency. He had problems convincing the Marines at Khe Sanh that Lang Vei actually had tanks attacking its perimeter. Meanwhile Schungel started organizing anti-tank teams and arming them with LAWs. Willoughby concentrated on calling in his preplanned artillery fires and an AC-47 “Spooky” flare ship for illumination.
The Hre Montagnards of the Mike Force had never seen tanks before. They attempted to hold their perimeter, but were overrun and forced to fall back. The defense of their perimeter bought Willoughby a valuable 30 minutes to further organize the defense of Lang Vei. By 0100 what was left of the Mike Force defending the east side of the camp consolidated their positions by the 81mm Mortar pit on the TOC’s east side. Artillery from Khe Sanh began to fall around the camp’s perimeter and a FAC directed F-4 Phantom and A1-E Skyraider air strikes.
Inside the perimeter the fight continued. SFC James Holt quickly killed two tanks with a 106mm recoilless rifle from the 2d CRP area on the camp’s south side. He continued firing, destroying a third tank before running out of ammunition. Despite the artillery and air support and Holt’s success with the 106, the NVA continued to advance. Special Forces NCOs fired 4.2-inch mortars at charge zero and maximum elevation into enemy held sections of the camp, but the NVA continued to overrun the perimeter of Lang Vei.
The outer perimeter fell into NVA control and by 0130 they controlled the eastside of the camp. Two tanks rolled in from the north and overran the 104 company perimeter. The survivors fell back to the 2d and 3d company rally points, exposing the 101 company flank. Two more tanks followed form the north to assault the 101st company perimeter. Unable to stop the NVA armor the CIDG broke and ran. NVA overwhelmed the north end of the camp as three more tanks and two platoons of infantry hit the 102d and 103d. The three tanks soon rolled over the 102d and 103d company areas. Surrounded CIDG survivors attempted a desperate breakout along HWY 9 to Khe Sanh, but were cut down.
Schungel’s two- man hunter-killer teams used LAWs against the PT-76s in a running man-versus-tank battle throughout the camp’s perimeter with varying effect. Some of the LAWs failed to fire. Other LAWs bounced off the glacis of the light-skinned tanks without detonating. Schungel and others, exasperated by the faulty rocket launchers, assaulted the remaining tanks with white phosphorous grenades. According to SGT Early, “in the confusion, most defenders tried to meet the tanks head-on instead of from the less protected and more vulnerable rear. Vietnamese, Montagnards and Americans fired rifle grenades, machine guns, LAWs and finally in desperation, climbed onto tank hulls, trying to pry open hatches …”
Around 0300 NVA tanks rolled on top of the TOC. The NVA controlled the entire camp except for the TOC bunker manned by eight surviving Special Forces troopers and roughly forty indigenous soldiers. The NVA called upon the defenders to surrender. Some of the LLDB and CIDG surrendered to the NVA and were summarily executed. Other SF and CIDG personnel hid in the camp and later escaped, evading capture. The survivors in the bunker requested the relief force from Khe Sanh. Marine commanders refused to comply with the contingency plan.
SFC Eugene Ashley, one of the Special Forces NCOs with the Laotians at Old Lang Vei, led four separate counterattacks on Lang Vei with a force of CIDG stragglers and Laotian troops. Ashley was wounded on the fourth attempt to relieve the TOC bunker. He received a second and fatal wound later that day and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Because there were no helicopters available, Special Forces volunteers could not mount a rescue attempt to save the remaining defenders. Fortunately the survivors made an escape at 1600 under the cover of air strikes. By 1800 the battle was over and the few survivors evacuated to Khe Sanh. Most of the 484 Bru, Hre, Vietnamese and American troops Lang Vei were either dead or captured.