Vietnam Veterans Remember "Battle of Illingworth"
by U.S. Army Christopher Wilson, Fort Sill Public Affairs
April 17, 2022
Fifty-two years later, the remaining veterans and survivors of the Vietnam War Battle of Fire Support Base (FSB) Illingworth are still thankful for the lifetime granted to them by their fallen brothers.
Members of units assigned to FSB Illingworth, South Vietnam in early spring 1970 gathered at U.S. Army Fort Sill in Oklahoma on April 1, 2022 to remember one of the bloodiest days in the Vietnam War.
April 1, 2022 - A veteran of the Battle of FSB Illingworth fights back tears while fellow veteran of the battle Randall Richards reads the poem “Just a common Soldier” by A. Lawrence Vaincourt on the 52nd anniversary of the battle. (U.S. Army Christopher Wilson, Fort Sill Public Affairs)
“April first of every year is the day that everybody who was involved in any of the battles that took place in the last week of March and first day of April, it’s the ‘Thank God I'm Alive Day,’” said Randall Richards, a veteran of Illingworth. “So, to each of you, I thank you for your service. I thank you that you lived through the battles during that time, and I'm going to tell you what I have said many, many times over the years — If you lived through that, God had a reason for you living, and I hope that you have fulfilled the purpose that God had for you.”
Described by one soldier as a “hot, miserable little place,” FSB Illingworth was a small firebase constructed in a dry pond bed only five miles from the Cambodian border. It’s 219-yard perimeter consisted of claymore mines and a low earthen berm, and no concertina or barbed wire was in place. “It was trouble waiting to happen.”
Ralph Jones, right with hands on hips, surveys damage to his 8-inch mobile howitzer caused by a rocket-propelled grenade at Fire Support Base Illingworth in Vietnam April 1, 1970. (U.S. Army file photo)
Inside the perimeter was a patchwork of 215 men made up of elements from several units including B Battery, 1st Battalion, 77th Field Artillery; A Battery, 1st Battalion, 30th Field Artillery; A Battery, 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery; B Battery, 5th Battalion, 2nd Field Artillery and Companies C and E, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division.
The artillery units are current or former Fort Sill units.
On April 1, 1970, the base, named for Cpl. John James Illingworth of A Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, who was killed March 14, 1970, near Tay Ninh City, would be center of the deadliest day of the deadliest month of the Vietnam War.
Without a perimeter fence and with exposed ammunition dumps, the small firebase was ripe for an enemy attack.
At 2:18 a.m. April 1, the NVA launched the first of the mortar, rocket and recoilless rifle fire that would hammer the base for 20 minutes.
The 32nd’s Fire Direction Center (FDC) took a direct hit, killing three off duty radiomen sleeping nearby. Simultaneously, the 77th’s FDC was hit several times, killing seven.
Coming in behind the massed fires, nearly 400 soldiers from the 272nd Main Force Regiment of the 9th PAVN Division rushed the perimeter in a full-frontal assault.
“I directed over 1,000 rounds of artillery fire plus several airstrikes and dozens of gunships,” then-Capt. John Ahearn, artillery liaison officer of 1-77 FA and fire coordinator for 2-8 Cav, told VFW Magazine in 2008. “Two things in particular stand out in my mind — that everyone was on 100 percent alert thus preventing us from being overrun, and the courage of Cobra helicopter pilot Capt. Joe Hogg, who made possible communication from Illingworth during the desperate times of the battle.”
The battle eventually became too close for American artillery. Artillerymen jumped from their tracked vehicles to join the infantry on the line, but the dust from the NVA barrage was so thick it caused M-60 machineguns and M-16 rifles to jam. Soldiers then used the jammed weapons as clubs and fought hand-to-hand.
Then, about 190 rounds of the ammunition that had been stacked on base exploded. Soldiers described it as a "titanic roar," and "everyone there was lifted off the ground," according to the after-action report. The explosion left a 20-foot-deep crater and Americans and NVA alike stepped back to recover, resulting in a lull in the fighting for five to 10 minutes.
By 5 a.m., less than three hours after the first NVA rounds began rocking the base, the battle was over. Twenty-five Soldiers were killed in action including 10 from field artillery units. Another 54 Soldiers were wounded. Reports said 88 NVA were killed.
Two Soldiers were awarded Distinguished Service Crosses and one Soldier, Sgt. Peter C. Lemon, was awarded the Medal of Honor
Later in the morning, Maj. General Elvy Roberts, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division arrived by helicopter, according to reports. The general awarded a Silver Star to one deserving soldier and promised a hot meal to the survivors before telling them they would have to remain at Illingworth for one more night. Fortunately, the enemy never returned with a follow-up attack on the American position.
“When the general said that it was just like ‘man, the Army strikes again,” laughed Richards. “We were tired and hungry, but we stayed, and we would’ve fought them again if they would’ve come back.”
Mike Miller, a combat engineer who survived the battle of FSB Jay, flew into Illingworth the morning after the attack. He described the scene as complete destruction.
“I flew in there to look for three of my friends. I found them and I saw them all covered in dirt and their far away stares. As a survivor of (FSB) Jay, I knew what you had just gone through,” said Miller. “There were so many medevac birds coming in, even while there was still fire going on and as an engineer, we were the ready reaction force and we started helping carry out the wounded and the dead. This really affected me, and I want to thank all you for letting me be here.”
Ahearn closed the formal reunion with a solemn thank you to his brothers-in-arms and a reminder of the gift he said was given to them all by those they lost in the battle.
April 1, 2022 - Veterans of the Battle of Illingworth during the playing of taps at the 52nd annual reunion at Fort Still, Oklahoma. (U.S. Army Christopher Wilson, Fort Sill Public Affairs)
“I have lived a relatively prosperous life. I have three wonderful children and a wife at home who have supported me through all these years,” said Ahearn with tears in his eyes. “And the very reason for their being is that you, in one night, fought your hearts out. You fought for me, you fought for the man sitting next to you and you gave us all 52 years of life.”
Note: Minor editing without impacting facts.
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