Lamar Plain Story


from: AMERICAL NEWSLETTER: VIETNAM NEWS NETWORK


Twelve Men Missing


By Rick Olson

This story is about a combat event that happened in May, 1969 in the area around the fire support base named LZ Professional. It is a reconstruction of events from declassified official records as well as the personal recollections of veterans from Americal units who were involved.

Sources include Americal Division after-action reports, 1/46 Infantry daily staff journals, the Operation Lamar Plain after-action report filed by the 101st Airborne Division, Medal of Honor documentation, and an August 1993 Vietnam Magazine article titled Recon Zone Alpha written by John Hayes.

US Infantry Battalion under Siege

On May 12, 1969, the North Vietnam Army (NVA) began a major offensive throughout the Americal Division area of operations at LZ's Baldy, Center, and Professional. One of the most intense attacks occurred in the "free-fire zone" around LZ Professional patrolled by the 1/46 Infantry. The attack on LZ Professional escalated into a Tactical Emergency (TAC-E.) on May 15, 1969 when a full airmobile brigade of the 101st Airborne Division was dispatched into the area.

The 101st Airborne's, 1st Brigade brought a force of two infantry battalions, the 2nd Squadron /17th Air Cav, teams of OH-6A "Loaches" armed with 7.65 mm miniguns, AH-1G Cobras (aerial rocket artillery), a 105mm Artillery battery, a company of UH-1 Hueys, and a section of CH-47 Chinooks and a team of Air Force forward controllers.

The 1/46 Inf. battalion was placed under the operational control (OPCON) of the 101st brigade, which was in-turn OPCON to the Americal Division. May 15 became the start of a joint Americal/101st Airborne effort named Operation Lamar Plain that continued until mid-August 1969.

From May 12 to the conclusion of Operation Lamar Plain, US casualties counted to 125 US KIA, 460 US WIA, and 1 US MIA. Most of these counts were sustained in intense combat during the month of May.

The Americal units directly affected were the 1/46th Infantry companies and C Battery, 1st/14th Arty, which maintained 105mm artillery atop LZ Professional. The 101st Airborne Division units directly affected were the infantry companies of two battalions, the 1st/501st Inf. and 1st/502 Inf., a helicopter assault unit, B Troop 2nd Squadron /17th Air Cavalry.

A massive show of NVA firepower and endurance

On a moonless night, at 0220 hours on May 12, 1969, LZ Professional, defended by Co. D, 1/46 Inf. and Btry. C, 1/14 Arty, was surprise attacked an NVA sapper unit from the V-16 NVA Sapper Battalion. On the morning after the attack the remains of twenty NVA sappers killed in action were left stranded in the perimeter line barbed wire.

The LZ received a continuous barrage of incoming mortar rounds and rocket fire from a recoilless on the adjacent hill 497. The intense incoming prevented carcasses of the dead NVA from being removed from the LZ's perimeter wire. They were left to rot in the hot sun leaving a horrible smell and sight.

As the day wore on, conditions on LZ Professional had become severe. Any medical evacuation required significant air support to temporarily dowse incoming fire. Defense of the LZ required constant day and night air support, including the awesome firepower of AC-47 "Spooky" fixed wing gunships circling the hill.

The NVA also set up a substantial battery in the area immediately surrounding the LZ. An estimated 15 to 20 anti-aircraft (12.7mm) positions which were strategically placed where two or more guns could fire simultaneously against aircraft. For several days, anything airborne near the LZ would face a virtual continuous wall of salvos. As an aircraft flew over the area it would be fired at from one or more NVA guns' and when it would move out of range of one NVA gun, another would begin firing from an adjoining position, and so on.

NVA anti-aircraft firepower was so effective that in the period of just a few days, it disabled most of the B, 2/17 Air Cav unit. On one day, the damage to B, 2/17 aircraft was so severe that only one helicopter of out of 28 aircraft was reported in flying condition. (For more information about 101st Airborne aircraft damage, refer to the "Recon Zone Alpha" article mentioned above.)

Overwhelming odds for A Co. 1st/46th Inf.

At the same time that LZ Professional was under heavy fire, NVA units from the 3rd Regiment, 2nd NVA Division stunned outnumbered 1/46th Infantry line companies fighting near the firebase. A severe attack began at 0810 hours on May 13, 1969 when the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd NVA Regiment (estimated to be 250 to 300 men) engaged Co. A, 1/46th Inf. and the attached E. Co. Recon platoon, a total US force of 91 men.

The battle continued for 35 hours.

On May 13, Co. A, under the command of Captain Kern T. Dunagan, was attempting to clear a high ground area immediately north of LZ Professional when the NVA engaged. Throughout the day, Co. A took intense fire. It was able to medevac out some wounded around noon.

By 1645 hours an emergency re-supply helicopter landed in the perimeter. Its assistant pilot was shot in the head and later declared KIA. At the same time, Dunagan was knocked flat on his back and seriously wounded with a mortar fragment in the jaw.

Under this attack, Dunagan was forced to pull his men into a defense position for the night. He assured that all dead and wounded were inside of the perimeter. For the rest of that day and night, any further medical evacuations for Co. A became impossible to accomplish.

On May 14, at 0530 hours, an AC-47 "Spooky" was diverted from the defense of LZ Professional to support Co. A. It enabled a medevac mission to evacuate 1 US KIA and 13 US WIA. Dunagan's company was in still in serious trouble and faced great danger.

The enemy was reported to have behaved as if losses were unimportant. The NVA had moved in so close in proximity to Co. A that a US soldier's ability to fire at the enemy was severely restricted in order to avoid hitting comrades.

Dunagan had correctly sensed that Co. A was being attacked by a major NVA force. He realized that he must again link up with the Echo Recon platoon which had been separated from his company. He personally began walking point for the company, which was highly unusual for a company commander. He established the link-up with the recon platoon by 0930 hours.

Cpt. Dunagan was wounded for a second time by AK 47 fire while he dragged a disabled soldier to safety. Despite his inability to speak clearly because of the jaw wound, Dunagan kept calling in air strikes.

The strikes delivered napalm and 500 pound bombs on enemy positions.

Co. C attempts a futile link-up with Co. A

At 1105 hours, Co. C, 1/46 Infantry was ordered to force march to the aid of Co. A and to link-up by 1500 hours. Co. C encountered intense mortar and automatic weapons fire and took numerous casualties. At one point a platoon of Co. C got to within 20-50 meters of Co. A, but could reach no further.

Dunagan tried to move his men closer to Co. C, but the first two men were cut down in the middle of a stream bed. The blood of the fallen men turned the flowing water red for fifty meters and was clearly visible to pilots of aircraft overhead. Dunagan made still another attempt to link-up with Co. C. Another enemy position opened up and his five lead men were quickly killed.

Realizing the futility of the attempted link-up, Dunagan dropped his pack and ordered his men to crawl back into the stream bed. At 1630 hours he realized that he had left the classified cipher gun to the KY-38 secure radio set in his pack.

Dunagan instantly recognized that the entire US Army radio security could have been compromised by the loss of this equipment. Despite his wounds and without hesitation he crawled back out into an open area under intense hostile fire and recovered the cipher gun.

His company's casualties had risen to about one half of its men. The NVA continued an intense attack of mortar rounds and grenades. Co. A had to get out of its indefensible position by nightfall or risk loss of the entire unit.

At 1715 hours, Dunagan, through the Battalion Commander, LTC Underhill, made a desperate decision. He decided to utilize a smoke screen to enable his men to make a break across open rice paddies for Co. C's position 300 meters away.

Because of the intense attack that had been going on against LZ Professional, supporting artillery did not have enough HC smoke rounds on hand. It was necessary to use highly dangerous white phosphorous rounds to build up and maintain a sufficient screen.

The escape under smoke

Dunagan moved throughout his position and readied men to lighten loads and destroy any useful property. He demanded that no wounded be left behind. He gave directions and organized the men in groups around a man with a compass.

All of Co. C's machine guns were given targets off the flanks of Co. A's route of withdrawal. Gunships were directed to fire over the heads of the withdrawing company as the artillery smoke screen was laid.

It was immediately apparent there were not enough uninjured men left to carry both the wounded and the dead. Dunagan and LTC Underhill made the agonizing decision that the dead must be left.

After assuring all wounded men were assigned a carrying party and the smoke had been built up to sufficient density, Dunagan led his company out across the open rice paddy to the position of Co. C. The NVA sensed that Co. A was getting away and directed fire out across the open field. However, the smoke suppressed its effectiveness.

After almost all of the men were accounted for, it was discovered that a six man carrying party led by 1LT Tamantha (the FO) had been hit by a 155mm white phosphorous round. Upon learning of the situation, Dunagan, with complete disregard for his own life, ran back out into the rice paddy to assist in their recovery.

Dunagan found a badly wounded Sgt. Robert Tullos, a squad leader in the recon platoon, with a missing foot. He shoulder-carried Tullos back to safety, being forced to stop and rest along the way due to his own painful wounds. Upon returning with Tullos, Dunagan started to return to the rice paddy to bring back yet another missing man. He was stopped at the perimeter's edge when it was determined the man had already been recovered.

At 1815 hours, medevac missions began. The last medevac was completed by 1845 hours. The Commanding Officer of Co. C, Lt. Walter Brownlee, had to force Dunagan to get on the last medevac chopper. Still in the bush were twelve men missing in action but all presumed dead

The Battalion Commander, LTC Underhill, had to order Dunagan to the hospital for medical treatment as Dunagan did not want to leave his troops. It was later determined that Dunagan's jaw wound caused him to lose two teeth and numbed his face. His arm had bone splinters numbing his fingers and he had a hairline fracture of one of his ankles.

By the end of May 14, the field strength of the Co. A and the E-recon team had declined to a count of 47 men. On the next day, May 15, the Americal Division declared a Tactical Emergency.

Award of the Medal of Honor

Some fourteen months later, a memorandum was written documenting bits and pieces of information outlining the circumstances of what had happened with Dunagan's unit. On July 20, 1970, a letter was sent to the HQ, US Army, Pacific, from Lt. Gen. William P. Yarborough, Deputy Commander in Chief. The letter contained one sentence: "Recommend approval of award of the Medal of Honor". The award was for Cpt. Kern W. Dunagan, Commanding Officer of Alpha Co., 1st/46th Infantry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, for heroic action in May, 1969.

Witnesses to the action who were listed in the MOH

recommendation were: David A. Waltz, 1Lt, Co E, 1st/46th Inf.; Thomas N. Tamanaha, 1Lt., D Btry, 1/14th Arty; Joseph S. Dolock, 1Lt. Co. C., 1st/ 46th Inf.; Pete Gonzales, Psg.,Co. C. , 1st/ 46th Inf.; Brian P. Shaw, Sp/4, Co A., 1st/ 46th Inf.; Richard M. Belanger, Sp/4, HHC Co., 1st/ 46th Inf.; Walter W. Brownlee, 1Lt., Co. C., 1st/ 46th Inf.; and Roy J. Ginder, Major, USAF

The actions of Cpt. Dunagan were probably the most heroic of any single individual in this 1969 combat event. The predicament endured by Co. A was presumably the most severe of that endured by any unit involved in this fighting.

Many other units of the Americal and 101st Airborne also took significant casualties. Btry. C, 1/14th Artillery sustained serious losses, which reduced its ability to maintain artillery support, and necessitated its replacement on LZ Professional by Btry. B, 1/14th Artillery. The 1/501st Infantry companies were engaged in a savage day-long battle near LZ Professional on May 18th. Co. D, 1/46th took numerous losses on the perimeter of LZ Professional on May 12.

Unfortunately, all of the incidents happening to these and other units involved in May 1969 cannot be covered in this writing due to space constraints. However, their significance must not be understated.

Despite the TAC-E declaration, the insertion of an 101st Airborne force, the high US casualty counts, and the significant damage and destruction of US aircraft, this fierce combat episode was given only minor amounts of public news media coverage in 1969.

Another brigade of the 101st Airborne was engaged in the "Hamburger Hill" battle at almost the same time. The more famous "Hamburger Hill" battle had significant news coverage and some of it was very visibly negative due to high numbers of US casualties. Speculation existed that the 101st was reluctant to take additional unfavorable publicity and it discouraged or diverted news coverage of the Operation Lamar Plain story.

Perhaps, in time, we may learn even more of the background of what was happening to all of us who were involved in this intense event some 30 years ago in May 1969.

Rick Olson
Sp4, D Co. 1/46th Infantry
"Tour" Oct 68-Oct 69