I have attached a letter concerning Thomas Bennett that you may use as you wish. The letter was written largely from memory with references to a few notes I had from the period of Corporal Bennett's death in 1969. It is a memoir, not history, because I did not do the research of official documents that would be essential to sort out hard facts from sometimes fuzzy memory. Let me explain what prompted me to write the letter.
In November 2000, I was visiting West Virginia University, from which I had graduated and where Thomas Bennett attended before entering the Army. The letter is addressed to the President of WVU whom I knew. I encountered President Hardesty in the evening, after reading a newspaper account that day of the presentation of Corporal Bennett's Medal of Honor to the university. I told him that I recognized the events mentioned in the newspaper account and said that I had been present at the battle. Some of Corporal Bennett's family and his former company commander Garrett
Cowsert were also there when I discussed this with President Hardesty.
So that is what prompted my November 2000 letter providing some of the context for the battle in which Corporal Bennett lost his life. Recently, I again visited WVU and went to the library to review its collection on Bennett. The WVU library has about 11 inches of shelf space of documents and pictures on his childhood and military service, including my letter to President Hardesty.
My thoughts then turned to the 1st Battalion 14th Infantry Association and I believe you should have a copy of this letter to add to the unit history and the memory of Thomas Bennett.
H. Frederick Hutchinson, Jr.
16 November 2000
Mr. David Hardesty
President, West Virginia University
948 Riverview Drive
Morgantown, WV 26505
This letter is prompted by our brief conversation in the lobby of the Hotel Morgan on 3 November, when we discussed Corporal Thomas Bennett, his Medal of Honor, and WVU accepting custody of it.
I had noticed a newspaper article earlier that day with some references to the circumstances of his death. The date, place, and the mention of his unit brought back a flood of memories about that period in the Vietnam War. I did not know Corporal Bennett and did not know about the award until reading the paper in Morgantown, but I would like to share with you what I know about the events leading up to Bennett's act of heroism. The citation for the Medal of Honor properly focuses on his actions of just a few days. Perhaps some would like to know how that final day came about. Drawing upon letters to my wife, an After Action Report on Operation Greene Thunder (one of a series of operations named in honor of Nathaniel Greene of Revolutionary War fame) and some of my notes from this period, I offer this summary
of the campaign.
My military career had begun with graduation from WVU in 1955 and I went to Vietnam in July, 1968, where I was assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division and took up the duties of the S-3, or Operations Officer. That meant that the responsibility for planning the combat operations of the brigade and supervising the details of their execution fell to me. Corporal Bennett's battalion was assigned to the 3rd Brigade.
The 3rd Brigade mission was to find and destroy North Vietnamese Army units crossing our area of operations. That area stretched from Kontum in the north to Ban Me Thuot in the south, and was bounded by Pleiku on the east. The critical part of that area was to the west where South Vietnam bordered Laos and Cambodia. The NVA units came out of North Vietnam into northern Laos, proceeded south in Laos (ostensibly a neutral country) and into Cambodia (ostensibly a neutral country) and then turned east to cross our area of operations and to attack the cities on the coast. The Highlands of Vietnam never had any significant Viet Cong guerrilla infrastructure; our enemy there was the North Vietnamese Army. The terrain is mountainous and densely forested with hardwoods... not the tropical jungle many might imagine, but triple canopy virgin forests that would have been the envy of the timber barons in West Virginia in the late nineteenth century. An area of few people, and those located in the river valleys. An area rich in wildlife... monkeys, tigers, ungulates of so many varieties that new ones are still being discovered, and snakes of huge size. An exotic place, traversed by a clever and determined enemy with a well-trained and well-equipped army, and there we were with an unbelievable list of constraints on how we could protect our forces and destroy the enemy.
The military capability of the Viet Cong was largely destroyed in their Tet Offensive of early 1968, along with many of the NVA units that fought with them. As a result, our war from July until December of 1968, was characterized by sporadic and generally light contacts with the NVA reinforcements infiltrating into South Vietnam to rebuild their military capability. Our strategy and tactics were to maximize the use of our intelligence concerning the movement of NVA forces along our western border with Laos and Cambodia and we tried to anticipate where and when they would turn east to cross our area. We put small patrols out from each of the infantry companies that we strung along the border. They were supplemented by the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups and their patrolling. These were mountain tribesmen known as Montagnards (not ethnic Vietnamese) that we had hired, equipped, and trained to serve as border scouts. We infrequently encountered the NVA in anything larger than a company-sized unit and our casualties were very low for that
In December, 1968, our intelligence information indicated that another big NVA offensive was coming. The traffic down the trail from North Vietnam of battalion formations had been heavy for several months and they were pausing in Laos and Cambodia to join into regimental and division forces for training and equipping prior to crossing the border. It was a foregone conclusion that this would be an offensive timed to coincide with Tet of 1969. Ironically, a half-dozen of those NVA regiments were stationed just out of our artillery range in Cambodia and Laos for several months... even though we were not permitted to fire on them. The Johnson administration policy kept us in the war but prevented us from preempting the forces about to attack us. We had to sit, wait, and guess how and where to meet the NVA. We increased our scouting and patrolling which increased our casualty rate. By mid-December, I was certain that a division-size NVA force was in the northern part of our area with additional forces infiltrating in platoon and company size units to join them. My focus was on the Chu Pa... a large mountain mass northwest of Pleiku. I began to plan how to find, fix, and destroy the force around the Chu Pa. My plan was based on the assumption that the NVA would not strike until Tet and, therefore, we had at least 30 days to plan and execute deliberately to hold down our casualties while maximizing the destructive force we applied.
A brief comment about the terrain of the Chu Pa. My recollection is that the diameter of the base of the mountain was about 6-8 miles across, the highest of the many peaks was some 2000 feet above sea level, it was densely forested with thick undergrowth on most sides of the complex, many rocky cliffs and steep slopes, and dark under that canopy. The mountain top, in that season, was wreathed in mist and fog until mid-morning. there usually was fog around the base, especially on the two sides bounded by a river until mid-morning. It was an impressive piece of terrain even to a West Virginia Mountaineer. A poet probably would have termed it "dark and menacing", had one been there at that time.
By 10 January 1969, we had 5 US infantry battalions, 6-8 ARVN battalions, 1 Mobile Strike Force (mountain tribesmen organized into battalion units with US and Australian leadership), and 1 CIDG (mountain tribesmen organized in battalion units under US leadership) in position around the Chu Pa massif and moving slowly to make contact and find the enemy positions. Contact with NVA patrols was made immediately and slowly we began pushing them back into their base area. This is where the small units we had detected infiltrating in previous months were assembling to attack the provincial capitals of Kontum and Pleiku in the coming Tet season. For the first week or so, the NVA generally shunned contact with the US forces closing the circle and concentrated its attacks on the ARVN 42nd Infantry Division working with us.
The situation crystallized over the next week to the point that we knew there was a division size force in the Chu Pa massif of 3 NVA regiments reinforced. We had US and ARVN forces on all sides and, if the NVA chose to stand and fight, we could destroy them and break up the offensive against Kontum and Pleiku. Over a 24 hour period we put engineers to the task of clearing two nearby mountain tops and moved 12 artillery battalions within range of Chu Pa.
By the 21st of January we were putting artillery fires and air strikes against what we judged to be the battalions spread around the Chu Pa and holding our units in defensive positions. The punishment was severe enough that elements of the 24th NVA began trying to break out of the area and their movements gave us a better fix on their center of mass. We began supplementing our artillery and tactical air strikes with B-52 Arc Light raids on the 26th and continued through the 29th of January. Then, we shifted our fires and moved our 1/35th Infantry (or was it the 2/35th Infantry?) up one slope of the Chu Pa as a reconnaissance in force. It found the 66th NVA Regiment and took heavy casualties. That US battalion was pinned down in the heavy forest and steep terrain for two days and could not maneuver. We put the 1st Battalion/14th Infantry on a nearby ridge that next morning by a helicopter assault in order to take the pressure off the 1/35th and pull it out to regroup. That was when Corporal Thomas William Bennett and his unit entered the fight at Chu Pa.
My notes show that on the morning of 8 February 1969, we had found over 500 NVA dead on the ground and enough grave sites to indicate over 1000 KIA... and we were only on the fringes of the areas where their battalions were concentrated. My notes also show that in the first few hours of that morning, we fired more than 100 tons of artillery projectiles onto the mountain and that the Chu Pa was smoking like a volcano. We had been pounding the NVA in this area now for almost a month and slowly tightening the circle around them. The USAF could not meet all my requests for air strikes and MACV ordered a carrier moved from off the North Vietnam coast south to where its attack aircraft could help support us.
Picking up the story of Bennett's 1/14th Infantry Battalion, it had only minor contact with the NVA after being put onto the Chu Pa on 31 January. There was daily contact between patrols but, in terms of what was happening on the other flanks, it was light contact. As I recall, we directed the 1/14th Infantry to begin moving to contact on 6 February because it appeared the NVA were moving away from them and building up on another part of the mountain, preparing to attempt a break-out and escape the killing zone they were in. The members of the 1/14th, especially members of Company B where Corporal Bennett was serving as a Medical Corpsman, probably have recorded the details of their experiences between the 6th and 11th of February, but I have none of that at hand.
We know from Corporal Bennett's citation what happened with his platoon on the 9th and 10th and we know that he was killed on the 11th of February while serving the wounded members of his unit; serving them and his unit in a manner truly above and beyond the call of duty. His unit was withdrawn from the battle on the 15th of February 1969. According to Peaceful Patriot, a biography of Tom Bennett by Bonni McKeown, he had been killed only three weeks after he joined his unit.
In the sense that this narrative is a prelude, and establishes the context for Corporal Bennett's death, I will conclude with a postscript. Leaving some units on the Chu Pa to pursue the surviving NVA elements that had broken up into small units to exfiltrate, the 3rd Brigade moved the bulk of its US and ARVN forces to block the NVA approaches to the province capitals of Kontum and Pleiku. There were only minor contacts over the Tet holiday period.
What we had done to the NVA on the Chu Pa destroyed their capability for major action in this area for more than a year. We remained in positions to protect the provincial capitals until the 22nd of February when we terminated Operation Greene Thunder and deployed 5 US battalions south to the vicinity of Plei Me and Chu Pong massif, where we caught several NVA battalions in the open and destroyed them over a period of about two weeks in Operation Greene Tornado.
That was the rhythm of our war; find, fix and destroy the enemy. The Nixon administration eased the restrictions on air strikes and ground attacks into Cambodia and Laos in mid-1969. No longer could the NVA move through Laos and Cambodia with the ease of previous years... our air strikes against them increased dramatically. In 1970, the Administration allowed some ground attacks against NVA units marshalling in Cambodia to attack South Vietnam. Our casualties declined markedly; first due to the preemptive actions we were allowed to take across the borders and, beginning in 1970, as a result of the continuing withdrawal of combat units from the field.
In the last few years professional officers have been reexamining the conduct of the Vietnam War, with particular attention to the constraints put upon the fighting forces. For those with the interest, I recommend Dereliction of Duty by H.R. McMaster, a serving officer. It accuses the political leadership of dereliction of duty, as well as the service chiefs who should have resigned when their advice was disregarded (a quiet resignation or with fanfare... either would have been acceptable in the author's judgment). Also, I recommend A Better War by Lewis Sorely, a retired officer. It reviews General Creighton Abrams' actions in Vietnam and argues that the war was won and a political victory was within our grasp during his command. It also argues that he deserved a better war than the one he was compelled to fight as the successor to General Westmoreland in Vietnam.
I hope this has served to set Corporal Bennett's service to his country in some perspective.
Fred Hutchinson Jr.