The Cacti & The Mighty Ninth on the Cambodian Border

An FO recalls the events at Duc Lap - Fall, 1968
Don passed away on 29Jul21

There is one small area that sums up the whole situation we encountered there. {The first photo in my Photo Gallery collection is at Coffin Corner}. We lost FO Lt Roger Fulkerson there, a C/2/35 Platoon Leader, Lt Samuel Ankney, and numerous C/2/35, E/2/35 Brothers. I was involved in the 2 most serious encounters the 2/35 had there. 

Coffin Corner was a real place located a short distance southwest of the hamlet of Duc-Lap where highway 14 ran along the base of 3 hills oriented North to South. The hills were not large enough to have a military designation nor was it a very ominous looking place on the maps we had. However, once on the ground here, it was obvious there was something important to the NVA. They seemed to favor the middle hill and took exception to anyone that ventured there. Behind those hills was the Cambodian border and an area, in Cambodia, designated by the military as Base area 704 and in the Fall of '68 held elements of the 95C, 319, 320, 325 NVA Regiments whose purpose was to lay siege to the Duc-Lap Special Forces Camp thus giving them free rein in the area. The first time I heard of Coffin Corner was from some 1/22 Infantry Guys. I knew where they were talking about without an explanation. The name just seemed to fit. C/2/35 occupied the middle hill during the 3rd week of Sept, 68. During that week a LRRP*** team was wiped out by an NVA unit killing Lt Ankney and 2 other members of the team. One team member eluded the NVA for a full day before he was rescued. On another occasion a LRRP team observed and counted a 500 man NVA unit moving into Cambodia between the first hill and the middle hill. Lt Roger Fulkerson made that a costly journey for them. On 25Sep68, the NVA attacked C/2/35 outright in the morning. They followed the men from the OP's and LP's back to the Company perimeter. They had learned the Company routine and knew part of the Company would be leaving the perimeter at another place as part of the Company was returning. They very nearly overran C/2/35 in the first couple of hours. Fulkerson dealt the deciding blow with his Artillery barrage right on the northern perimeter as it was being breached. Fulkerson was KIA by fragments from a B-40 rocket that struck a tree near his fighting position. Sadly, he never saw his handiwork which could only be described as exactly the right response, at exactly the right place and exactly the right time. Fulkerson was located very near the center of the perimeter and there was at least 6 NVA bodies around his position. The final tally was 23 NVA killed and numerous wounded. C/2/35 had 3 KIA and maybe 10 WIA. Some E/2/35 troops told me they actually ran some NVA out of the C/2/35 foxholes on the outer perimeter. I was sent to take care of Roger's personal stuff and account for his military gear. I got off the chopper at the base of the hill on Hwy 14 and there was a trail to the top of the hill from the road. An NVA soldier had climbed a tree near the trail where a large tree had fallen across it. For quite a while he made climbing over that tree a deadly proposition. Lt Bill Burdick the E/2/35 Platoon leader eventually got him.  

The next Coffin Corner encounter occurred on 30Sep68 by a Platoon from C/2/35. I was with the Platoon that day. Our objective was to move to the top of the middle hill and remain there as a reaction force for an ARVN unit operating somewhere near there. There was 31 of us with approximately 2/3 of the Platoon being FNG's with only "days" in country. I had been with C/2/35 since the 25th when we lost Fulkerson. My RTO had joined me on the 25th as punishment for getting the B/2/9 Top Shirt on his case. Things were normal and peaceful as we moved down Hwy 14 to the base of the middle hill. We stopped here and 2 men were sent up the hill to recon by fire. No one was alarmed when we heard automatic weapons fire. A second later someone yelled "Dinks" and I looked up to see approximately a half dozen RPG's streaking out of the treeline toward the road, followed by a huge number of fragmentation grenades. I ducked the RPG's right into the grenades. I got fragments in my left shoulder, right hand, and a small piece under my left eye. Then the real show started, I don't have the words to describe the intensity of the automatic weapons fire coming out of the trees at us, exposed on the road. People went down everywhere, most hit multiple times. There I was, prone on the side of Hwy 14, RTO and radio across the road behind me, down a bank which proved to be the only place one could hope to survive. The NVA were close to us on the road. I could hear them when they moved around and they had a RPD machine gun approximately 50 feet in front of me in a clump of trees. The gunner was shooting down the road covering the shallow ditch that ran along that side of the highway. On two occasions I emptied clips at him, but apparently he had someone with him that  made me regret shooting at them. On the 2nd clip I fired, his pal opened up on me and killed my CAR-15 and the company medic who was with me.  He had been wounded with grenade fragments earlier. I was trying to bandage Doc's earlier wound when he was killed. They shot him out of my hands.  He would have been 19 years old on 11Nov68. Ron Stuckey was approximately 50 feet below me on the highway. He was an RTO and had a radio on his back. I was mustering my courage to go get on his radio when they shot him in both legs and hit the radio. Sadly he bled out before anyone could get to him. Stuckey had extended his tour so he could get out of the military at the end of his extension. The other Medic had been wounded so there was no one to help treat any wounded. The NVA methodically raked the highway off and on to ensure they got everyone and kept them down. They kept missing me although they shot at me every time. Talk about lucky!!! The grass on the roadside was about 18" tall. My head was in the grass and my body was on the road. I remember seeing the stalks of grass being snipped off by bullets going by my noggin. I decided I was going to die, I hoped it didn't hurt too badly. I finally got tired of being a stationary target and made a dash across the road and down the bank I thought I had been shot at earlier, they really unloaded on me that time. They still missed. Somehow I believe that in North Vietnam, there is an old, creepy ex-NVA Soldier, maybe several, who occasionally wonder "who that guy was" that ran across Hwy 14 in front of him and his Buds, in broad daylight, and wondering if he made it?  All I can say is "Neener, Neener",  Dude...Ya MISSED!  Ya'll had your chances and I ain't coming back for a "Do-Over". 

I got my Coffin Corner "Graduation Certificate".   

submitted by Lt Don Blankin (dec)

*LRRP= Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol

Key Footnotes to Don's account:

Thanks for making this possible for me (to tell this story).  I know as Forward Observers we all felt a tremendous responsibility to protect the units we were attached to. Sometimes this wasn't possible and that made every loss "personal". The men of C/2/35 saw me as the Guy that could get the bad guys off their back and keep them in their place. Most of the guys we lost on 9/30/68 were total strangers to me and no one had any idea this mission would turn out so tragic. Their thinking was "well it must be ok or they wouldn't be sending so many un-tested people to do this. " The older guys like Stuckey and Tim Sines (the medic) expressed concern to me the morning of the mission because this area was one of those places where you just didn't fool around. The Recon guys said later on that they knew something was up with the NVA that morning because they were making a sweep behind the hills and saw a lot of evidence that the NVA were on the move. They're the ones that eventually bailed us out. The Recon point man was the guy that sent me the picture of the morning after. I've never blamed my RTO for what he did. He was a good RTO that just didn't have any experience. He was a "gun bunny" very much out of place and confused. I blame myself for that situation. Ray has never gotten over this and probably won't. He has visited me the past 2 years to talk and it torments him. He thinks everything would have been fine if he had kept the radio in my reach. That's not true, I could have made it more difficult for the NVA but they weren't going to be denied. They confronted the first gunship that showed up and shot him down. They had us behind the 8 ball and had no intentions of turning loose. The scary part for me was that I had C/5/17 Artillery standing by to fire on my location at my command, because I was sure they were going to come after us. They were a 155mm battery located near the SF camp and the instructions were "Battery 2, 1st round H.E." Thank God we never got to that. The final tally was 11 KIA, 15 WIA for us and 10 KIA, unknown WIA for them, 1,018 rounds of indirect fire and 3 gunship sorties before they relinquished and just left. Long tough day for everybody!!

16Apr2010:  ***Dick Arnold (35th) comments that the SRRPs were a "new weapon" and were the ones involved in the incidents noted

Don Blankin responds: You're right about the SRRP/LRRP. Unfortunately my recollection isn't entirely spot on. I was with A/2/35 when the situation occurred with Lt Ankney. My recollection comes mostly from what I remember from the radio transmissions. I seldom distinguished SRRPs from LRRPs as an FO my job was to provide a means of covering fire for them regardless of whether they were 1 klick or 5 klicks from the perimeter. I hated those missions because if the guys were compromised it was difficult to grasp what was going on. Also there was the issue of "are they in the right place?" It's an ugly truism that the fellows knowingly didn't always go where they were told. I struggled with this and the "C" Company guys when this method of operation started. Col. Moore mandated that all 2/35 troops were to be trained in adjusting Artillery fires, at least the ones that may be leading the missions, so there had to be some map reading included in the instruction. I very quickly learned that the map reading skills were much better than was imagined. Most of the fellows could get to where they needed to be but for various reasons didn't always end up there. Sometimes they ran out of time and just had to stop where they were, other times there was a disagreement between the team members about where they were. Even when things were like they should have been, I cringed when they started adjusting the rounds. On more than one occasion I had rounds detonate behind me because they hit the top of a tree on the way in.  Duc-Lap was tough and in the Fall of 68 I'm sure there was no place in South Vietnam more dangerous. I hate the situation we got into on 9/30. It torments me because there was such a terrible breakdown in the operation. My RTO was new and we got separated so I didn't have my radio handy. Lt Collum couldn't get the Artillery on target and there was no one to help. Most of the 2/35 guys in that Platoon were new and totally overwhelmed with the situation. My greatest discomfort is that the Company had a smudge on their reputation afterwards. I had no authority, but I felt responsible.  There was a point where someone needed to take charge and guide the ship. You can't be passive in combat and generally things won't just work out for the best. I knew this and didn't respond. Either Lt Collum or myself should have gotten mad and demanded that "you don't die here today" the soldiers wanted to do something, were willing to do whatever was needed, just weren't given guidance or direction. For my failure in that I'm truly sorry. We can't change anything now, but it's important to me that C/2/35 and the guys from that Platoon are given their just dues as good Soldiers and Loyal combatants and the failures of Lt Collum and myself shouldn't be a reflection on them.

I belonged to B/2/9 but my heart was always with C/2/35 and the Cacti Association now. I'm partially disabled now, so it's difficult for me to travel and participate or I'd be there "front and center" . Give Bill Burdick and Jake Gosa my best.  Keep the Association "Steadfast and Loyal" and you fellows enjoy each others company.

16Apr2010: Dick Arnold comments:

Thanks for the comeback. I was home when the SRRPs started but have researched them a bit. Apparently they came about because Intel thought NVA had broken down into small groups---this may have been so in Pleiku/Kontum but Duc Lap was another issue. The 1/35th seemed to use them more....some Companies would have 7-8 teams out at same time. I also agree with your contention that some were better then others...truthfully it was hard to find that many EMs with enough leadership moxie and map-reading ability...many patrols called in fake locations and such instead of going to the correct spot...most COs I have talked to hated them. There were some successes with them however...some of the EMs really took pride in leading them...just not enough to go around perhaps.   As far as your fight on 09/30....well listen Don--we all did the best we could.  No one was immune from mistakes...and that includes the EMs and the Officers. I tell guys look...sometimes no one was at fault---it was war...two groups with weapons meet and men die...that is all that needs to be said.  

19Apr2010: Pete Birrow (35th - Cacti) comments:

(Col) Bill Moore has mentioned several times that the goal for the NVA was to cut SVN in half at the easiest point, Duc Lap. What they did not plan on was us.  (The) 2/35th was the first US presence in that area since the early sixties when Schwarzkopf was there with a bunch of ARVNs. Even though we were only battalion size (and under-strength), the intel reports that came out later showed that the NVA thought we were a regiment.

20Apr2010: Don responds to request for more information:

I'll be glad to add anything I can to this effort. My remembrance of Duc-Lap actually begins with B/2/35 and hill 691. When I reported to "B" Battery, 2/9th,  this action was underway north of LZ Sabre. Lt Mike Kurtgis was their FO and Lt Roger Fulkerson was at Sabre. I was attached to  A/2/35 initially and Fulkerson spent time with me every day helping me get my feet on the ground and get the things together I needed to get into the field. On 30Sep68, there were 5 people that were unscathed after the contact. I count myself as one of those. My RTO, Raymond Wesley, was another. There was a  C/2/35 RTO (I believe was Bill Bradley) and there would be 2 more somewhere. A couple of years ago I received a phone call from a fellow named Norman Metcalf who was with C/2/35 and was there on the 30th. I have no idea who the 5th person might have been. Doc Standifer was WIA and evacuated. I don't think he returned to C/2/35. I didn't know any of the people with that Platoon, they were all very recent additions to the Company. I had only been with the Company for 5 days. I actually remember more Recon Guys than "C" Company. people. I didn't know I was part of the operation until the morning of the 30th. Tim Sines ("C" Company Medic) told me that morning the CP group was going on the operation. I was pretty much, on my own, during the contact I was separated from the CP group, didn't have my radio, and was in the open on the highway. I saw a lot of things that day, some are very clear and won't go away while some are blurred like a bad dream. I would like to hear what other people saw, heard and felt during the day and the days afterward. The only person that ever discussed this day with me was Chaplain Captain Tyson. Hopefully people will come forward and help.   

 Good Luck; Don Blankin