Editor's Preface

Magnetic tapes have been valuable historical adjuncts for many years. Soldiers who served in Vietnam recorded quick, informal holiday messages to their families at home. Others sometimes tried to record the sounds of battle or compile a more detailed record of their experiences in the war, ranging from monotonous to horrifying. Most of the tapes were made using cassette tapes of indifferent quality and recorded on inexpensive pocket recorders. As a consequence, few have stood up to the ravages of time. But one such tape made in 1969 affords an unvarnished glimpse into an unexpected and bloody engagement fought by the Second Wolfhounds in the hostile terrain that bounds the Bo Bo Canal. This narrow waterway intersects with the Kinh Gay, a major canal leading to the Vam Co Dong River near the Cambodian border area called the Parrot’s Beak.

On July 29, 1969, The Second Wolfhounds were called upon to go to the aid of an embattled Special Forces unit operating with South Vietnamese forces at the Bo Bo Canal. Operating with fragmentary instructions and without maps and time for planning, Lieutenant Colonel Forest Rittgers, the battalion commander, was obliged to hurriedly commit two companies to the fighting. He went on the ground, in order to better control the operation, and became involved in a brutal hand-to-hand struggle with an armed enemy soldier. It was only one of the events of the day, but it earned for Rittgers the status of a legend in the Second Wolfhounds.

The tape was recorded in the hospital immediately after the events. It was his first communication with his wife, Sally. He hoped It would help reduce her anxiety about learning he had been wounded in combat.

Our original intent was to quote from the transcript of the recording in an article containing statements from other participants in the July 29 fighting. But to do so would rob the tape of its most valuable quality, a sense of immediacy. It may seem strange to describe a 36-year old tape in this fashion. But the transcription, made in 2000 by Charles C. Darrell, captured that immediacy with uncanny realism. Darrell, who in 1969 was Major Darrell and Executive Officer of the Second Wolfhounds, had to compensate for deterioration in quality of the tape and for words missed or garbled by the recording equipment originally used. The effect, when the missing words were supplied in brackets, and punctuation marks were used to indicate other erratic qualities carried by the recording, was dramatic.

In April 2006,when this web page was in preparation, Colonel Rittgers realized he could supply some of the words missed by Darrell in the earlier transcription, and he edited the transcription. A few words were also added to amplify unclear statements in the original. This is the form in which it appears here.

Later, Tales of the Wolfhounds will revisit the Bo Bo Canal fighting to tell the stories of the officers and men of Company C and Company D, some of whose names and activities are mentioned in the Rittgers transcript. These men also earned an honored place in Wolfhound history, and some of them paid the price for it with their lives.

Bad Day at Bo Bo Canal, Part I: ‘Steel Pot’ Rittgers’s Tape

The Transcript

Lt Colonel Forest Rittgers, Jr.    

Hi. I thought I'd give you news of my current discomfort. This is Thursday, 31st of July, 1969. I'm at the 21st Casualty Staging Site at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base. I take a C-141 jet out tomorrow morning for Tokyo. They'll fix up this leg. I got hit by an AK-47 bullet yesterday. I was in the toughest position I've ever been in. Right now, I've decided being an invalid is not what I want to be doing the rest of my life ... I left Cu Chi this morning at about 9:30 on the medevac flight in a Caribou — the first leg of the trip to Tokyo. The care has been excellent. I'm in good spirits. Right now, my objective is to get this leg back in shape and get the rest of me back in shape and get back to Vietnam to finish the job I set out to do.

It all started the day before yesterday, the 29th at about 12:30 in the afternoon. We received a mission to rescue a Special Forces outfit, a bunch of Vietnamese and US advisers that were surrounded ... We were alerted for this rescue mission. We moved to the objective area by helicopter. I'd been on another mission at the time and my Command and Control helicopter had to come pick me up. We had a nine-ship lift of slicks inbound to Jackson to pick up our Delta Company, commanded by Captain Kotrc. They moved down to Duc Hoa, set down and refueled at our position there.

I moved out in the C & C to the objective area, which was a good bit further to the south than anywhere we had been working before. As a matter of fact, it was so far to the south that we did not have map coverage of the area at the time. When we got into the area, there were a good deal of aircraft wandering around- helicopter gun ships, and L-19s. There seemed to be a lot of people in the area. We went back to refuel the C&C, because it was only about half full when we got it. What had happened, the Vietnamese Special Forces and US advisers had run into an NVA company and had gotten surrounded. There were a number of dead and wounded and the US advisers were still in the area, but the rest had pulled back, and we were to go in and rescue them.

Refer to the little sketch map I made ...

 

We inserted the company at LZ Delta, which is Number 2 on the sketch. Number 1 is where the casualties were. At Number 1 the surface was bomb craters, very deep. They must go down 15 or 20 feet. They were filled with water [and were] caused by B-52s, maybe with 750-pound bombs or something very large. As we landed, General Black, the Assistant Division Commander for Support, and Colonel Maddox, the Brigade Commander, were with the troops to participate in the briefing they had received by the surviving US personnel, who had pulled back to the vicinity of LZ Delta.

I either had the choice of inserting at that point or at the other end of the canal, the south end. I chose to go in at the Number 2 location because of the capability of getting a briefing from the US advisers there. Colonel Maddox took Captain Kotrc up for an airborne VR [visual reconnaissance] so he could get a good look at the area he would be moving [through]. Quite frankly nobody expected that there were any NVA still in the area. Their tactic lately had been to attack by fire and withdraw. They didn't want to fight a pitched battle. They didn't have the strength to do it.

As Delta Company moved up past 4, up past 5, up to 1, where the wounded and dead Americans were, it was uneventful, that is until they got to 1. At that point, they came under fire from the thicket to the south of there. The curly-cues that I show … along the canal and at 4 … are hedgerows -- tall, wooded, bamboo formations growing out of dirt mounds -- quite formidable obstacles. The area that the enemy appeared to be in was lightly thicketed. As soon as Delta Company made contact, we got a message from the company commander's radio operator that Captain Kotrc had been hit. The radio operator continued to relay messages to us and it seemed quite concerned that he couldn't get his Second Platoon to move up on line to assist him. The unit appeared to be stretched out from 4, 5, 1 to 6, along that line and the enemy was in the thicket to the south of there.

At that point, we put in a lot of helicopter gun ships firing rockets, 40mm cannons, mini-guns, 50 caliber and 7.62 machineguns into that area. They did a real fine job dumping fire on them. Then we heard from Delta Company's radio operator that the fire was coming in too close to them. They wanted it backed off some. We still hadn’t been unable to contact the Second Platoon, so it appeared to me that he was pretty much up there by himself with a couple of other guys. At this point, we lost communications with that radio operator. Later I was to find out that he had fallen into a bomb crater, a rather deep one, and his radio had gone under water and wouldn't work after that.

As soon as I determined that we didn’t have communications with the ground element, I had the C & C land me in the vicinity of 3. I found the Brigade Commander there. He gave me a quick briefing on what he knew of the situation out in front. Then I moved forward through Points 4 and 5 to Point 1, in hopes of policing up the US soldiers in that area and getting the business reorganized again and the attack underway.

When I got up to 1, I found Lieutenant Thompson, Platoon Leader of the Second Platoon. He was brand new to the battalion and I think that this was his first contact. All he could tell me was that the fire had come from his front from the vicinity of Position 6. He hadn't received any recently, but that's where it had come from. I determined that nothing really was being done to take the position, so I had Thompson designate a base of fire element, 5 or 6 soldiers, along the south lip of the crater at 1. Then I took Thompson, my radio operator Specialist Dollar, and got about 4 or 5 other guys to maneuver around to the right with me and come into the right flank of Position 6. As we did this, the terrain was very, very mucky. Often we went up to our armpits in swamp water and mud and other slime. The going was very, very slow. It wasn’t a very sharp tactical advance, but we did move in from that flank and got up on the forward lip of the crater there at 6. I began searching out for likely enemy positions.

There were NVA bodies all over the place, probably 6 or 8 of them, a lot of equipment and weapons, but it looked to me like everyone had either been killed or had withdrawn from the position. As I was surveying my domain, as it were, I didn't hear the bang, but suddenly my left foot and ankle went numb and I dropped to the ground and looked around and saw that Specialist Dollar and also Lieutenant Thompson had been wounded. My first thought was that a grenade had gone off, but I'd been shot, and I just didn't hear the bang. Later I was to find out it was an AK-47 and the thing really did a job on us. At least, what got me was an AK-47.

Lieutenant Thompson fell into the same spider hole that the enemy soldier was in and immediately discovered him down there and started yelling and I tried to pull him out of there and the NVA soldier kept screaming "Chieu Hoi! Chieu Hoi!" meaning that he wanted to give up and be a model supporter of the government. Well this guy was anything but a Chieu Hoi. He was armed to the teeth and had just gotten through spraying the countryside and would do the same thing again if he had a chance.

We struggled for Thompson's weapon. Everything was slimy and muddy and we couldn't hang on to anything. Thompson was trying to get his weapon in position to shoot the guy and hold the man down. I was on my belly up against the lip of the spider hole, also grabbing for the weapon. I finally got the weapon. I pointed it at the NVA soldier's head and pulled the trigger. But it didn't go off. There wasn't a round in the chamber, so I pulled the weapon away, seated a round, and again tried to shoot him in the head as he was fighting with Thompson, but this time he reached up and grabbed the muzzle of the weapon.

I was having trouble hanging on to it, my hands were so slippery. He gradually pulled the weapon down against Thompson's body and then pulled the weapon forward. This of course activated the trigger because I had my hand on the trigger and the shots were fired into Lieutenant Thompson's abdomen and groin. He toppled down on the NVA soldier but remained conscious. I got the weapon away, took my helmet off, grabbed the webbing on the inside with both hands and began smashing it down on the NVA soldier's head 15 or 20 times, at least until he stopped struggling. I imagine I finished him, because I never saw any more of him after that. I left Thompson right there in the hole with him because he had better protection there than he did up on top of the ground, but he was in a bad way. I figured that the M-16 rounds had probably gone clean through him, because of the close range at which they were fired.

I then tried to get the situation in hand there. My radio operator was wounded. Several other soldiers found other spider holes up there and threw grenades into them and blew them out. I saw a couple of cases where people went up in the explosion. All in all, I'd say there were 8 to 10 NVA soldiers right there in that position and this appeared to me to be just an outguard position. I think the main element was further on to the south in that thicket area. I got the rest of Delta Company's elements up on line so they occupied a defensive position right around 6 there at the southern lip of the crater so that they had plenty of cover and good positions from which to observe their fire in support of other elements.

Prior to the time I had set down in the helicopter, I had alerted Charlie Company back at its hard spot [Shamrock] to be prepared to reinforce Delta Company. We sent a 9 ship lift of slicks back there to pick them up, and at this time they were in the air, coming up to join in the battle. Again, the helicopter gun ships and cobras began firing great volumes of fire into the thicket area to our front. Actually, I don't see how anyone in there could have survived, but I came to find out they survived very well.

About this time, two Navy boats came up the canal as shown on the sketch. This is a large industrial canal that empties into the Saigon River – maybe the Oriental River. I'm not too sure how the Navy got into this, but they did and they had their boats up there. They wanted to get them off the boats and … Charlie Company landed in the vicinity of Point 7 and immediately moved forward and took up a line formation and prepared to assault to the southwest through the thicket. I had Delta Company laying down a heavy base of fire.

They had just received a "Dustoff" in that area - a helicopter came in and was supposed to get Lieutenant Thompson, Specialist Dollar and a few others that were wounded in that area. It was quite a job getting Thompson out of there. He was badly wounded. He was down in a hole and the area was very slimy and thicketed. It took three people just to get him out of the hole and onto a poncho and then they had to drag him to the helicopter. It must have taken 15 minutes to get him over there and the helicopter was only about 50 feet away.

We put down a heavy volume of suppressive fire while this was going on. Charlie Company moved on line and began assaulting towards the thicket. This was after we had fire from gun ships coming into the area. [Unfortunately] Charlie Company's fire [was splashing all around the Navy boats]. They had four boats, and I directed that they move the boats to the rear and get them out of the way. There just wasn't a good place to employ that company from that side because of the direction of Charlie Company's fire.

Anyway, Charlie Company moved forward in their assault, and it was the finest movement of a company of infantry that I think I've ever seen. They were all on line, everyone was firing his weapon, and they were really pouring fire into that thicketed area. That coupled with the action of the helicopter gun ships, plus the fire we were delivering from Point 6, I didn’t have any doubt in my mind that we could really sweep through there and really cream the enemy, but suddenly Charlie Company came under fire from that thicketed area and this fire temporarily halted their advance.

We backed them off and put more helicopter gun ships into the objective area and gave it a try once more, but our time was growing short. We were under direction to give up the airmobile company at 1900 because of darkness coming on. We had to finish this job and extract two companies with the same 9 ship lift. In other words, the helicopters had to make two trips back to Jackson and get all this done by 7 o'clock. It was now 10 minutes after 6 and it would be close. I recommended to the Brigade Commander that we go ahead and assault it once more and while that was going on, while the forces were through that area, I would withdraw Delta Company back to the vicinity of Position 8 and get them into a pickup zone posture and prepare to extract them while Charlie Company was still finishing up. I never got a chance to carry that out, because Charlie Company, again making a fine assault, again started receiving fire from the enemy.

At this point, the Company Commander, Captain Langaunet, was hit, wounded, and the Brigade Commander decided it would be better to extract both companies and put a lot of air strikes into the area that night and take another look at it in the morning. It was obvious that we weren’t going be able to finish the job in the time allotted. Well, actually we had completed our job. We had recovered the dead and wounded of the US Special Forces personnel who had been left in the area. But, I just didn’t like to back down from completing the job of going through that thicketed area, because I knew the enemy was in there, and I thought that's why we're here -- to find and destroy the enemy.

While Charlie Company was still engaged, I moved Delta Company back to Position 8. Rather Lieutenant Brown, one of the platoon leaders from Charlie Company who came over to help us. He was the one, really, that moved them back and got them into a PZ posture. I was having a great deal of trouble moving. I could crawl. I could move through the water okay, but I couldn't put any weight on my foot, so I was really an obstacle to them. A couple of radio operators supported me with their shoulders, doing a darn fine job.

As we got on the aircraft, I could see that the ships were taking fire from the ground. I had nine aircraft, but I had them organized into eight groups, so we could put the dead on the ninth aircraft and fly them back to Saigon. We got on the eight ships and moved out toward Fire Support Base Jackson. A couple of them had trouble getting off the ground due to ground fire, but we didn’t take any more casualties. Meanwhile, Charlie Company was fighting a rearguard action, moving as far to the east as they could toward their PZ and attempting to break contact with the enemy. As soon as we got back to Jackson, I had the aircraft sent back to pick up Charlie Company.

Then, I waited there at the Aid Station until Major Leach my S-3 came in from the C&C so I could pass a few instructions to him before I went back for treatment. The doctor checked my ankle, and he told me that it was broken. I got out what instructions I had to. The Brigade Commander came in to see me. Then, I went on a medevac ship to the 12th Evac Hospital at Cu Chi. I guess I got there about 8 o'clock or so and they took me into the emergency room, took a look at it, sent me into x-ray. I was x-rayed. I don’t know why they took a chest x-ray. Then they x-rayed the foot and ankle, took care of that, put me back in the emergency room, let me lie there. Gee, it was cold in there…. They air-conditioned the hospital, and I guess the people working in there are used to it, but when you come in soaking wet from working up a sweat in the field it gives you a chill. I lay there thinking about that while I waited for them to send me in to surgery.

Actually, I read the x-ray too. A number of people came over from the battalion to see what they could do for me. And, Dr. Soriano came in and told me that the x-ray showed that I had a broken fibula. That’s a small bone in my ankle. It is non-weight-bearing. I told him I wanted to be put into a walking cast, so I can get back to my outfit. One thing I didn't want to do was leave the battalion. He said they would do what they could. I went into surgery about 11 o'clock that night.

Soriano came in to see me next morning about 8 and told me that they’d found some other complications. The bullet, in addition to breaking the bone, had damaged some muscle in the back of the leg and he had to remove a good bit of stuff there and this would take considerable therapy and rebuilding to make it mobile again and that a walking cast just wouldn’t do it. He said that he’d directed my movement to Tokyo to get that done and that within two or three months I ought to be as good as new.

Needless to say, I was real disappointed, but I've got to take care of this thing. I’m no good to anybody if I can’ t walk on it. I'm going to do what they tell me, get plenty of exercise, rest, and come raring back. General Williamson was in to see me. General Black gave me my Purple Heart and encouraged me to come back; there would be a battalion waiting for me. Bill Ebel, who had succeeded me at Dau Tieng, succeeds me with the battalion here. It really was kind of a tearjerker to leave this morning, but I'll be back. I don't want you to worry about this ankle. Good-bye.

Copyright 2006, Forest Rittgers, Jr.

Afterword

It would be hard to improve on Charles Darrell’s words in describing his correspondence with Rittgers in 2000. In part, Darrell says:

“On 1/10/00, thirty years later, Forest Rittgers writes about the fight at the Bo Bo Canal and the aftermath. The moral imperative of self-sacrifice was so ingrained in all of us that anything less than getting ourselves killed caused feelings of guilt and failure. Colonel Rittgers has been a hero of mine for thirty years, and despite his self-criticism here, he still is.”

Darrell continued in Rittgers’s own words:

“One of my strongest recollections was of encountering the Brigade Commander, Colonel Maddox, on the ground immediately after jumping out of my command & Control helicopter to take direct control of the fighting. We called Maddox the ’ Gray Ghost’ and he was a hands-on commander, who always managed to be at the point of action in the brigade. It was reassuring to meet him and get his quick, but complete briefing. He certainly gave me the boost and confidence I needed to move out into a confusing and dangerous situation.”

Rittgers went on: “Lieutenant Thompson, the NVA soldier and I struggled for Thompson’s M-16 in the water and slime of the bomb crater. I didn’t realize it, but I had my finger on the trigger. In the slimy struggle, I shot Thompson several times. When I realized what I had done, I was so upset that I released the weapon and beat the NVA soldier to death with my steel pot. My own weapon, a .45 cal. pistol, was not loaded. In essence, I just grabbed the closest ‘weapon’ at hand and reacted out of sheer anger and frustration. Thompson was severely wounded by my action, spent several years in the hospital, lost a leg, and has a life of physical pain...”

“Lieutenant Brown of Company C took charge of evacuating us out of the operational area. He must have been one of the few officer survivors,” wrote Rittgers.

“I was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross, but it was downgraded to a Silver Star. I’m not at all sure even it was deserved. I lost two company commanders, and a number of other fine soldiers in the action, inadvertently shot one of my own officers, managed to get myself shot, was charging around with an unloaded weapon, and failed to accomplish the complete mission. Although the people we were sent in to rescue were evacuated, either dead or alive, we failed to eliminate the NVA force with which we were in contact. Not a very satisfying chain of events.”

“It is likely that someone in the battalion decided to name the patrol base that was established on August 12 ‘Patrol Base Rittgers,’ not realizing that such a practice is traditionally reserved to honor fallen comrades, permanently fallen, that is. Apparently, no one at Division caught it. However it came about, I was touched that someone thought I was worth naming something after,” Rittgers concluded.

Darrell said later, with a little smile, “I was the bozo who named the position PB Rittgers after we took it. The name was changed to PB Kotrc when Colonel Rittgers returned to the 25th Division.”

Later that year, 2000, when mostly Delta Company 2-27 Vietnam Wolfhounds honored Rittgers at a reunion in Las Vegas, they showed they still thought he was worth naming something after. Some of the same men had been with him that day in the mud and blood at Bo Bo Canal.

Copyright 2006, Howard Landon McAllister