By Drew Bergman
On June 8, 1966 Private First Class Avery G. Smith of Russell County was killed in action defending a column of over 150 United States soldiers from a Viet Cong ambush along Highway 13 at Ap Tau O. That road would come to be known as “Thunder Road” for all of the attacks that occurred along its path. Four months later his family was presented with his Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award the United States can bestow, for Avery’s selfless and heroic actions in defense of his column.
Two weeks ago, we looked back at Avery’s time before the war with his family. Last week we looked at what life was like for him in Vietnam. This week we will examine the events of June 8, 1966. By necessity this article contains descriptions of battlefield violence.
On August 10, 1964 the United States Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which gave President Lyndon Johnson broad powers to utilize the military in southeast Asia without a formal declaration of war by Congress.
In January of 1966 President Johnson met with the Republic of Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Cao Ky, in Hawaii to pledge continued support for Nguyen’s government. Following the meeting, Johnson set three goals for 1966: to have 60 percent of South Vietnam’s people under the control of that government, to destroy half the major bases of the communist forces, and to destroy those forces faster than the communists could recruit new ones.
In the south, near Saigon, this meant missions to remove the enemy from the provinces outside the area, missions that Robert Corbin and Richard Keesler talked about in last week’s article.
Also within 20 miles of the capitol was the Iron Triangle the men talked about, the hilly network of tunnels and traps the communists maintained.
Apart from the strategic, cultural, and symbolic importance of Saigon, the city itself was barely 50 miles southeast of Cambodia and the supply lines that ran throughout the south including the Mekong Delta and War Zones C and D.
The missions to attack and destroy these areas included the 1st taking part in Operation Abilene, a mission to disable the enemy’s ability to threaten Saigon from the east.
Following Abilene in March and April, the 1st Infantry entered War Zone C in Operation Birmingham which uncovered much in the way of enemy supplies, but little in the way of resistance, as the communist forces routinely withdrew.
Among the items recovered was the notebook of a member of the 272nd Viet Cong Regiment which revealed that the unit was to take part in a major offensive at Loc Ninh, which would in effect cut allied instillations off from Saigon along Highway 13.
General William DePuy, who had assumed command of 1st Division in March, decided to stop the assault before it began.
Operation El Paso I saw three infantry battalions move into Loc Ninh in mid-May. From there, they searched the countryside for VC. A week later intelligence reports stated that the action had delayed the attack, not cancelled it.
The following week, on June 2, 1966, General DePuy launched Operation El Paso II. Its goal was to defend along Highway 13 the key towns of Loc Ninh, An Loc, and Chon Thanh. Colonel William Brodbeck ordered Captain Ralph Sturgis and his A Troop, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry to protect An Loc, just in time for Richard Keesler to return from Bangkok and repay Avery Smith the $300 Avery had loaned him to hold him over on his leave.
On June 7th, Avery had postmarked a letter to his family. Though the letter appears lost to time, the reporting of the day indicates that it was a normal sort of letter Avery would send home.
According to his obituary, Avery often wrote home of his life. Avery had professed his faith in Jesus when he was 13 and wrote to his family telling them that he was living a Christian life and remembered his family in his prayers. The stories of Richard Keesler and Robert Corbin support that reporting in the kindest terms.
The story of June 8 begins with a letter Brother A.G. Smith received about his son in September of 1966. The author of the letter, who was unidentified, stated that “Avery was assigned to a tank up until that mission came up. When he found out the troop was moving out without him, he volunteered to ride the tank as an extra man. When they reached Bau Bong [sic], they were ambushed, and being a tanker, Avery knew that you couldn’t fight the tank if there were too many men inside it, so he volunteered to stay outside and fight. Sir, they said that Avery fought with everything that was in him.”
One of the problems with telling any story is that sometimes the details don’t always line up as neatly as you’d like. Avery was back on a tank on June 8, but according to Keesler, there hadn’t been an option on volunteering. “They took every available body that day. Everyone. Nobody stayed behind unless there was a real problem with your tank or personnel carrier.”
Nine tanks and 32 other armored vehicles, including two flamethrower units left Phu Loi for An Loc. “I was a peon; I didn’t know what we were doing. We had a destination, so we were going north, so that was all I knew,” Keesler said.
Later that afternoon, about 15 miles south of An Loc and just past the tiny village of Ap Tau O, the column, which stretched over almost two miles, came to a halt as the lead Patton tank struck an IED.
After that, two battalions of the 272nd Viet Cong regiment attacked all along the column.
“It was kind of unique,” Robert Corbin said. “Normally I rode with 2nd platoon, but they put me in driving for the executive officer that day. When the main platoon got hit, we were back working on a tank that was already down, and Captain Sturgis ordered us to stay back and not come in.”
The other vehicles which survived the initial ambush wheeled around to form up a defensive perimeter, and Avery Smith, unarmored and unprotected went outside with an M16 and a grenade launcher to do what he could.
“He wasn’t going to watch,” Keesler said. “He was going to do.”
Keesler himself was at the far end of the battle, wounded in the early goings when the personnel carrier he was machinegunning for was hit by a recoilless rifle.
“It went through the rear of the track and picked me and my machine gun up and set me down inside. I had a flak jacket on that they ordered us to wear that day, obviously they knew something was going to happen.”
By that point in the campaign none of the men would normally wear the flak jacket, they’d already been soiled with months of foul jungle sweat. Fortunately for Keesler, he followed the order to put it on. “My flak jacket was torn to shreds,” he said. “I had shrapnel in my elbow, up around and into my shoulder and side where the front and the back of the flak jacket lace together.”
The VC attacked along the full length of the column, but it wasn’t a wholly organized attack, they carried out a series of small-scale assaults against A Troop, mainly focused around trying to plant explosive devices on armored vehicles.
That was where Avery Smith stepped in. He climbed out from the dead metal of the Patton which held the bodies of his crewmates and set about holding off the Viet Cong.
“When Avery’s tank got hit it knocked out the main gun,” Corbin said. “And the tanks and personnel carriers were getting overrun with Viet Cong as they were climbing on top of the personnel carriers and tanks. That’s when he came up out of the tank and did his thing.”
As other vehicles became unable to defend themselves, Avery continued to hold back the VC, directly saving one armored personnel carrier, and continuing to provide suppressing fire and cover for others.
“We were outnumbered 10 to one,” Corbin said.
Avery took a piece of shrapnel to the face early in the battle and stayed out end exposed despite his injury. Platoon Sergeant Lanham would later recall that he had shouted to Avery to get back inside and under cover.
“I’m doing too much good out here,” Avery replied.
“The tank’s gun wasn’t going to work, so he went out to do what he could do.”
The injured Keesler wasn’t sure of Avery’s position in relation to him. “I’m sure he was behind us. They had us spaced out so that there was a tank every few vehicles.” Once they were attacked, they formed up into a Heron bone formation.
Smith continued defending his disabled tank.
Troop A was not alone in their fight. Soon after the fighting started, Air Force air strikes pounded the Viet Cong position.
“I was in the executive officer’s track with the radio, so I heard everything back and forth,” Corbin said, “whether it was from Captain Sturgis or Colonel Wayne who was above us in the helicopter. We were out of range for the artillery, but we got air support.”
However, the field commanders focused their attention on the attacking units and did battle against those, not the positions from which the 272nd would have been attacking from. By directing air and artillery against those and not the main force, the Viet Cong were able to maneuver and eventually escape the confrontation.
Late in the battle, Captain Sturgis believed the engagement to be over, but the VC had only moved again down the line to assault another position–Corbin’s.
“We had one tank, my personnel carrier, the maintenance APC, the VTR (the tank retriever), the combat engineer tank. In amongst all of this, the tank ahead of me got blown up. It killed the loader and gunner. The tank commander got blown out of there and found his way onto our track,” Corbin said.
“When we called in air support, at first they sent in those old prop jobs, and it sounded like World War II. They weren’t doing much, but then the jets came and started dropping bombs right along the highway. One pilot told us to button up. One blast almost flipped the personnel carrier over.”
Sometime later, a medic called Sorensen worked his way up and down the line, attending to Avery Smith and many other men.
The VC returned fire, striking the Patton Avery was positioned by three more times with direct mortar fire.
“I think he was hit once and then they set off a mortar round right by him and that’s what did it,” Corbin said. “If he had stayed in his tank, he might be alive today, but he went out there to get them off the other tanks.”
Toward the end of the battle, Sorensen worked his way down to the injured Keesler informing on status of his friend.
“I asked about Avery, specifically about Avery,” Keesler said. Sorensen told Keesler that Avery was gone. Keesler asked if there was anything else.
Sorensen said Avery prayed.
“Lord don’t let me suffer,” he said. And then he was gone.
After the battle, Americans found 105 dead Viet Cong and estimated at least twice as many were killed and dragged away. The Army lost 15 men, including Avery Smith, and the South Vietnamese Army lost an additional 19. The rest of A Troop made it to An Loc to continue their mission in South Vietnam.
Apart from quoted sources, this article utilized accounts recorded in “Buying Time 1965-1966” by Frank L. Jones and John Carland’s book “Stemming the Tide: May 1965 to October 1966,” both of which are available for free online at the U.S Army Center of Military History’s website, History.Army.Mil.
Next week we will look at what followed on the home front for the Smith family and Avery’s legacy.