THE COFFIN CORNER
The Cacti & The Mighty Ninth on the Cambodian Border
An FO recalls the events at Duc Lap - Fall, 1968
Don passed away on 29Jul21
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