The Battle of Kham Duc
James McLeroy and Gregory Sanders
Hellgate Press, Ashland, Oregon, 2018, 288 pages
Book Review published on: July 12, 2019
In May 1968, the remote Kham Duc Army Special Forces (SF) Camp near the Laotian border and nearby Ngok Tavak patrol base were attacked by two reinforced North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiments twenty fours before United States and North Vietnamese representatives were to meet in Paris for peace talks. The attack was a strategic gambit of North Vietnam’s master strategist Le Duan, designed to win a potentially strategic victory that would influence peace talks in Paris. Hanoi included a camera crew to record the death and capture of American defenders in amplifying the perception of the NVA’s ability to operate with impunity in the Republic of Vietnam and influence the American populace’s growing antiwar sentiment. Le Duan realized that any strategic victory would require inflicting far more American causalities than simply overrunning a remote SF camp. He would first have to convince Gen. William Westmoreland that if he did not heavily reinforce Kham Duc, it would soon be overrun by NVA forces. Le Duan expected to get Westmorland’s attention by attacking nearby Ngok Tavak.
James McLeroy and Gregory Sanders, military historians and veterans of the Vietnam Conflict, have teamed together in writing one of the finest accounts of the Vietnam conflict with Bait: The Battle of Kham Duc. McLeroy’s participation in the battle as the resident officer in charge of the covert Studies and Observation Group (SOG) Operation 35 provides a unique first-person perspective to one of the lesser known, but most significant, battles of the Vietnam conflict.
North Vietnamese’s desire to repeat the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu with American forces did not escape the attention of Westmoreland and his staff. A 1968 Central Intelligence Agency memorandum concluded that Hanoi would launch major military actions in South Vietnam just before or shortly after the opening of the Paris talks to strengthen Hanoi’s bargaining position. Westmoreland saw an opportunity to use Kham Duc as bait to lure a major NVA into the open where it would be attrite by air power.
The authors are exceptionally candid in describing numerous challenges faced by Kham Duc defenders most notably disunity of command. Marine Corps units and conventional Army units in I Corps were commanded by III Marine Amphibious Force (MAF). The Army’s 23rd Americal Division was responsible for defense of all SF camps in southern I Corps; however, neither III MAF or 23rd Americal Division had command of SF units in I Corps, they were commanded by 5th Special Forces Group located in II Corps. This would become an issue when Americal Division sent 2nd Battalion of 1/196th Infantry Brigade to reinforce Kham Duc. Lt. Col. Robert Nelson, 2nd Battalion’s commanding officer, and SF and SOG leaders got off to a bad start when Nelson announced his supreme authority over the camp and its defenders. The authors state Nelson failed in getting their assessment of the situation, did not coordinate roles and responsibilities for defending the camp, and made some tactical errors by placing regular infantrymen with no special training along with three 106 mm recoilless rifles on three indefensible observation posts.
The authors excel in providing one of the most riveting personal accounts of battle from a junior leader’s perception. Images depicting Kham Duc and Ngok Tavak’s layout, fighting positions and names of personnel manning them, and descriptive chronological order of the fight as it developed on the ground gives the reader a unique you are there perspective. Readers will feel the fear camp defenders experienced as NVA forces over run positions and enter the wire. Camp defenders realizing that they would probably not be evacuated as planned by air begin planning to escape on foot through the jungle. McLeroy describes vividly the deteriorating fight on the camp’s eastern perimeter as seemingly endless NVA attacks are reducing the number of SF and SOG, as well as their Vietnamese counterparts. McLeroy is forced to call in napalm literally on the SF camp as the NVA attempt a last, fanatical multicompany attack to break through the camp’s eastern perimeter. Napalm breaks the attack and desire of the NVA commander to continue attacking the eastern perimeter.
Camp defenders were delivered by fortuitous weather conditions permitting air evacuation and close air support. Air Force Gen. William Momyer, Westmoreland’s deputy commanding general for air, authorized the use of Grand Slam. All available aircraft were directed in supporting the Kham Duc defenders. The rapid concentration of attack aircraft combined with ideal flying conditions prevent Kham Duc from being a tactical and strategic disaster for U.S. forces.
The strength of Bait are the authors’ exceptional style of writing, extensive use of images, and personal knowledge of events in providing an authentic, up close view of combat. The authors’ extensive research of primary and secondary sources is a quality in of itself not found in majority of Vietnam battles. The authors excel in examining a battle that strategic, theater, and tactical level implications. Bait’s final two chapters, “Analysis” and “Conclusion,” provide many valuable lessons make it a must read for infantry and Special Operations leaders.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas