THE TRAP IS BAITED
It was quiet, but it wouldn’t be for long. Lt. Col. Mike Conrad, commanding officer of the 2/8, and the senior officer commanding at FSB Illingworth, knew the NVA were out there. His ground surveillance radar had found them stacked up and swarming in the tree line, and they would come boiling out of the jungle and attempt to overrun his undermanned and vulnerable position as soon as they felt ready. That would be just about any moment. He knew he’d get a warning, though—maybe a few minutes—before the assault began. The NVA were experienced, tough, capable, and far from stupid. They’d begin by pounding the bejesus out of Conrad’s base with mortars, rockets, recoilless rifles, and whatever artillery they might have been able to drag through the woods and place behind their front lines. They would soften up the Americans before blowing their bugles and charging Conrad’s works.
It was 0217, April 1, 1970. Every man on the fire base, about 220 of them, had been woken up in anticipation of an attack. Conrad had demanded that every officer and every sergeant make sure that every man was awake and alert. The “Pipsy-5”1 antipersonnel radar that Conrad and his men had deployed to scour their perimeter had initially picked up strong movement right before midnight, especially in the jungle area facing the southwest corner of their pitifully small berm. Conrad did not hesitate. He ordered the Cobra gunships he had standing by to zoom in and rake the tree lines. They unloaded salvo after salvo of rockets and ripped the foliage with their miniguns. Artillery from nearby firebases like FSB Hannas, FSB St. Barbara, and Camp Hazard opened up on the preprogrammed coordinates they had carefully calculated, aiming points designed to support FSB Illingworth. Conrad also unleashed his own .50 cal machine guns and whatever M-60s were available, and all guns poured fire directly into the trees ahead.
No response came back toward Conrad’s lines, however, and after a few minutes, the firing of the defenders slowed to a stop. Rotor blades flicked away in the night sky, their sounds becoming faint as they sped away to refuel and resupply. The throaty cannons and mortars fell silent, too. Machine-gun barrels glowed, and the smell of warm gun oil wafted on the night air. The grunts put their personal weapons back on “safe.” It became eerily quiet. After a few minutes the night sounds returned. Crickets recommenced their chirping; a monkey screeched in the trees. Within the lines, the men nervously began the never-ending process of wiping down and reloading their weapons. They relaxed—as much as they could given the tension swirling around them. A number of them decided to catch a few z’s. Those who could sleep did so in place, boots on, heads resting on helmets or other equally uncomfortable, makeshift pillows.
Colonel Conrad cautiously stepped out from his TOC (tactical operations center) and peered into the blackness. With his RTO (radio telephone operator) at his side he decided to walk the perimeter—again. It would be one more sweep of the interior lines, just to be sure that he and his men had done everything humanly possible to be ready.
A thousand things were racing through Conrad’s brain. Uppermost in his thoughts was the fact that as bad as their situation had become, it was exactly what his
Praise for Fire Base Illingworth:
“A harrowing tale that centers on an exhausted, ragtag group of U.S. Army troops as they fought for their lives against a 400-man North Vietnamese Army regiment in a vicious engagement in 1970. The heart of the book is a virtually minute-by-minute description of the fighting.”
"Impressive verisimilitude and . . . moment-by-moment accuracy. A respectful account of a battle that was 'a perfect microcosm of what the Vietnam War was becoming in the early days of Vietnamization.'"
“A fascinating and detailed study of strategic intentions, operational planning, and tactical execution from a critical time period of the Vietnam War. Phil Keith has added, in dramatic detail, the personal sacrifices of brave warriors in this hellacious fight at LZ Illingworth in the late years of the Vietnam War—experiences that have not been adequately documented to date. They remain as relevant for the war fighters of today as those who endured the drama of close combat over 40 years ago. In the spirit of We Were Soldiers Once and Young, this book fittingly honors their actions for the ages—both collectively and individually.”
—Alexander S. Cochran, Professor of History, University of New Mexico; Vietnam veteran and former historical adviser to the Army Chief of Staff
"In relating the events at Fire Base Illingworth, Phil Keith has captured the essence of combat from first hand accounts of those soldiers who experienced it. The reader can sense the fear, the confusion, the bravery which hung over these men on that awful day in 1970, and which continue to haunt many of them to this day. Fire Base Illingworth can rightly take its place alongside such Vietnam War classics as Fields of Fire and We Were Soldiers Once and Young."
—Captain Thomas G. Kelley, USN (Ret.), Vietnam Veteran, Medal of Honor recipient
"A wonderful tribute to Jack Illingworth—and for all men and women who died or spilled blood in the Vietnam War. Phil Keith has done an outstanding job of researching and then recounting the heroic efforts of the ingenuity and adapting to conditions that were unforeseen or unpredictable in the "Vietnamization of the war." No matter what the grand strategy is of any conflict, it always comes down to the individual and the way individuals function and are lead. A vivid picture of how leadership is able to shape and determine victory from the inside out—this is a spectacular work that is made from the rich fabric of human brilliance (on both sides) stitched together in the way only a master storyteller can do. A must-read for anyone wanting to better understand Vietnam and how things really were on the ground—and how we ultimately left without victory."
—Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer (Ret.), New York Times bestselling author of Operation Dark Heart
"An incredible story—one in which high command deliberately sets as bait deep inside enemy territory near the Cambodian border an undermanned and inadequately fortified fire base composed of a lash-up of disparate units that had never before worked together. The result was a twentieth century Alamo waiting to happen. Philip Keith's meticulous research and powerful narrative skills are at their peak in this extraordinary story of horror and heroism in the jungles of Vietnam—a story I could not put down until I had finished it."
—Dwight Jon Zimmerman, New York Times bestselling co-author of Uncommon Valor: The Medal of Honor and the Warriors Who Earned It in Afghanistan and Iraq