The Battle of Fire Base Illingworth
By Philip Keith
Every commissioned officer in the armed forces of the United States, no matter which branch of service, will face at least one defining hour during the course of his or her tenure. It will come at a time and place not of the officer’s choosing, and it will almost always involve a momentous decision that will shape the balance of that officer’s career. For an engineering officer it might mean the invention of an innovative combat device that enhances missions or helps save lives. For the logistics expert it could be a better way to supply combat troops in the field. For the military medical specialist it could be how to get a wounded warrior to treatment faster and more safely. For the war fighter, it is that moment in time when he or she is tested in combat and lives are on the line. No matter how or where it happens, recognition, awards and future advancement will flow from that moment—or not, depending on the outcome.
Michael J. Conrad, West Point Class of ’56, had his first defining hour at a dirty, dusty, outpost in the middle of the jungle, near the Cambodian border on April 1, 1970. It was at a place called Fire Base Illingworth. Here is his story:
The young men (it was only men at that time) who graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1956 were on the cusp of a nation in profound transition. As these new second lieutenants accepted their commissions they would be marching off to careers the likes of which they could hardly have envisioned. They had come of age during the Eisenhower Years, a decade of immense prosperity, rapid global expansion, and relative peace. They faced a “cold war,” not a “hot” one, and with any luck at all, they could look forward to advancing to at least lieutenant colonel, and retiring after 20 years while still in their early forties. All in all, pretty good prospects, indeed.
Some of these graduates wanted more, of course: colonel’s silver eagles, at least, maybe even general’s stars. In order to achieve those lofty goals, something extraordinary would have to happen. Well, as they say, “Be careful what you wish for.” Sure enough, along came Vietnam.
As the ramp-up for the Vietnam War began in earnest, in 1964, the 481 members of the Class of ’56 had reached that point where their obligations to the Army had been satisfied. Those who decided to remain in the service were completing tours as senior company commanders, with the rank of captain, and some “hot runners” had even begun to don the gold oak leaves of the rank of major. For the warriors among the class, service in Vietnam, the only real war available at the time, was to be expected. The initial groups of Americans went in as advisors, and so did Mike Conrad, serving his first tour in Vietnam in 1964-65. His year “in country” was a successful one, and rewarded with assignment to a master’s program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
By late 1969, with the war dragging on (ramping up, in fact), Mike was back in Vietnam which, by then, was a vastly changed environment: the US role had morphed from an advisory one to full-scale commitment and all-out combat. This was what the warrior class had been conditioned to expect, and it was time for them to perform. Many defining hours would be offered up.
In the early months of 1970, Mike’s parent command, the famed 1st Cav, was ensconced in an area dubbed War Zone C. This roughly one-hundred square mile patch of turf, northwest of Saigon and snugged up to the Cambodian border, was a hot bed of enemy activity. The whole area of operations was honeycombed with tributaries of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail and pockmarked with hidden NVA supply bases. MGEN Elvy Roberts was in command of the 1st Cav but his deputy, for operations, was BGEN George Casey, Sr., a rising star in the Army and a very aggressive combat leader. The assignment was clear: the enemy needed to be rooted out and their supply lines disrupted. In the background, of course, and known only to the most senior officers, was the plan for the upcoming invasion of Cambodia.
The Army’s tactics heretofore had been search-and-destroy, which had required an active hunt for the enemy followed by set piece battles on favorable terrain, when possible. The results had been mixed, mostly due to the NVA’s reluctance to throw themselves wantonly on the superior guns of the Americans. General Casey, who was then on his third tour in Vietnam (and would soon assume command of the entire Division), decided to roll the dice differently. With the concurrence of General Roberts, he gathered his battalion commanders and told them they were going to “bust some serious brush.” He wanted his units to hopscotch across the region, setting up and dismantling fire support bases with alacrity. These flimsy forts would be purposely placed on top of known enemy supply routes or near suspected caches of food and ammunition. They would not be heavily fortified. The idea was to present targets too tempting for the NVA to ignore. It worked. Wherever the 1st Cav placed these minimally manned outposts, the NVA exhibited a distinct inclination to attack them. When the NVA were sufficiently tempted, and pounced, massive amounts of offsite artillery (usually at other nearby fire support bases) and TACAIR would be deployed in a concentrated effort to wipe out the attacking NVA force.
It was a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse and although the 1st Cav never lost an outpost, some of the engagements were a very near thing, indeed. Such was the case at Fire Support Base Illingworth on April Fool’s Day, 1970.
Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Mike Conrad was, at the time, commanding officer of the 2nd battalion, 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division. The 2/8 was Mike’s first major combat command. Between the four line companies assigned , a headquarters company and a recon platoon, Mike commanded about 650 men. During the months of February and March, the battalion had been engaged in a number of very serious firefights and casualties, especially in Charlie Company, had been extremely high. Nonetheless, the tempo had not let up. General Casey was encouraged by the results he was getting from his new strategy and he wanted the battalions under his control to bear down even harder and squeeze tighter.
As the month of March, 1970, drew to a close, Conrad’s Charlie Company, reduced to 85 men, was sent out on a long range scout for the NVA. After several harrowing days on patrol, Charlie inadvertently walked into the middle of a major NVA supply base. The NVA were situated in well fortified dirt-and-log bunkers, studded with automatic weapons, heavy machine guns and RPGs. Charlie, including more than two dozen “newbies” who had yet to fire a shot in anger, were instantly surrounded by six or seven times their numbers, pinned down, and fighting for their very lives. The beleaguered company commander got on the radio and called for help.
Mike Conrad sprinted for his helicopter, got in the air, jumped on the brigade frequency, and started marshalling resources to rescue his men. He called in TACAIR and artillery support; but, neither could do much good since the NVA and the Americans were intermingled. There was no way to fly in additional troops: there were no landing zones and the triple canopy jungle was far too dense for aerial insertion. Luckily, however, there was a single troop of cavalry from the 11th Armored nearby. Equally fortunate, these men were temporarily under Conrad’s operational command. Could they, by some miracle, “bust” enough jungle with their tanks and ACAVs to reach Conrad’s stranded men and pull them out? It was a desperate gamble, but one of the only plays available to Conrad, so he ordered these men to get moving.
Meanwhile, Conrad flew as close to his trapped grunts as survival would allow, constantly encouraging them and directing whatever artillery and air support he could. He tried many times to air drop supplies and ammunition. The NVA kept sending the helos away riddled with bullets, smoking, and often on fire. Only one relief mission, flown by General Casey himself, was able to get close enough to drop some badly needed water and ammunition.
Providentially, the cavalry was finally able to smash their way into the encirclement after several tense hours of punishing travel through the thick vegetation. The tanks and ACAVs pounded away at the NVA until all the surviving members of Charlie—and their dead—could be gathered up and safely extracted. It was a magnificent rescue and an inspiring tour de force, engineered by Mike Conrad’s quick thinking, tactical skill and, of course, his valiant troops.*
The tattered but unbroken remnants of Charlie (only 38 effectives) were ordered to stand down and re-group at a nearby fire base that Conrad’s men had set up in a clearing about five miles away. This temporary outpost had been christened in the name of a 20-year old PFC by the name of “Jack” Illingworth, from the 2/8’s own Alpha Company. Illingworth had perished in a nasty firefight some two weeks prior, after heroically rescuing one of his own comrades, an act for which he would receive a posthumous Silver Star.
Conrad’s battalion had carved out FB Illingworth on March 17. The brigade’s G-2 had picked the spot from intel that indicated that it would be right on top of, or at least very close to, a major NVA infiltration route. The 1st Cav was throwing down another gauntlet, daring the NVA to protect their turf, begging them to come out and fight. Conrad’s’ troops would be the bait in a carefully staged trap—at least that was the plan. If the NVA didn’t take the bait—and they didn’t always follow the desires of the US Army—Conrad would, as he had done several times already, pick up his team and their weapons and move to another spot in four or five days. He already had his next jump coordinates selected, in fact.
Then something changed. A week went by. No orders to relocate came down the line. Charlie Company, before being pounced on March 26, had recovered documents from the body of a dead NVA officer. The man was carrying detailed sketches of FB Illingworth, including where all the guns were placed, the location of the TOC, the communications tower, and all of Conrad’s firing positions. That was it, as far as Conrad was concerned, and he hopped into his command helo to go see his boss, General Casey. Casey concurred with Conrad’s imperative to move the base, but, surprisingly, General Roberts demurred. He wanted to hold tight, not only with Illingworth but also another nearby firebase, FB Jay, controlled by the 2/7. Conrad was dumbfounded; but, he had his orders.
Sure enough, in the early morning hours of March 29, FB Jay was subjected to an all out assault by the 93rd NVA Regiment. Jay had been in position for eleven days, one day less than Illingworth. The NVA pounded Jay with artillery and rockets, then executed a full combat assault with several hundred infantry. The commander at Jay, Lt. Col. Robert Hannas, was gravely wounded, losing both legs to an RPG and a mortar round. His men held, however, but only by a whisker. Fifteen GIs were killed, another 54 wounded.
Surely now, Conrad believed, Illingworth would be abandoned. Imagine Conrad’s incredulity when, the next day, forty more tons of artillery ammunition arrived along with 30 replacements for Charlie Company. “Stand fast,” he was told. “Dig in. General Roberts is happy with the action we are getting and he wants to see what will happen next.”
This was it: the beginning of Mike Conrad’s defining hours. Consider Conrad’s plight: Most of his battalion, companies A, B and D, were out on patrol, too far out, in fact, to hump back in time to make any difference over what Conrad now believed was imminent. Charlie company was in rough shape, and dealing with a raft of “cherries” who had never been in combat. His only nearby resource was Echo Recon platoon, a group of 21 tough, experienced, combat veterans. He pulled them back in and put them on the line next to Charlie Company, along with the Echo mortar platoon. He had a handful of men in his headquarters company, several radio operators, a supply sergeant or two. Detachments of three artillery battalions had been sent to Illingworth. Among them were 80-plus “redlegs” and their guns. The 105 and 155 MM howitzers (eight guns altogether) could be useful, but two behemoth, 8-inch guns would not: they were for long range work, not the close in fighting Conrad knew was coming. Also aboard the base were three Sheridan tanks, but they were all awaiting repairs and virtually useless.
Conrad did have plenty of TACAIR on call and his artillery officers had dialed in firing assignments for all the nearby fire support bases. Would it be enough? Conrad knew it would have to be—or they’d all end up as casualties or POWs.
The command structure was not working in Conrad’s favor either. The artillery assets aboard his fire base were not under his command or control. They reported to division artillery. Immensely complicating Conrad’s situation was that “someone” at division artillery, no one knows who it was to this day, shipped Conrad 40 unneeded and definitely unwanted tons of 8-inch artillery ammunition the day before the battle. There was no time to bunker it in properly and no one to countermand the orders sending it to Illingworth. It would sit, in the middle of the base, in a large, unprotected pile, waiting for an enemy grenade or satchel charge to blow it all to kingdom come.
Observation, intelligence and experience all dictated that the enemy was lurking a few hundred yards away, in the jungle perimeter, setting up their available artillery and rockets. Conrad also suspected that there would be many more troops available to the NVA commander than the men he had available. Worse, there were no additional assets nearby that could get to Illingworth in time: the cavalry was over ten miles away, and there were no roads. All nearby infantry was dug in and defending the other firebases in the region. Conrad’s only external resource was TACAIR, as mentioned; but, the enemy would likely attack at night, when airborne assets would be largely blind. Conrad also knew that the enemy would try to get in as close to his troops as quickly as possible. The tactic was dubbed “danger close,” which meant “too close:” jets and attack helos would not be able to distinguish between friend and foe, thereby making it impossible to shoot.
Mike Conrad was finishing up his thirteenth year of commissioned service. He had done well. He was a lieutenant colonel with bright prospects and was already a favorite of his superiors. He was considered one of the best battalion commanders in the entire division. He had trained for this moment all his career. He had combat experience and a bucket full of academic honors. All of that was on the line. Depending on what he did with the next few hours of his life men would live or die and Conrad’s own career would move forward or effectively end. He was on the bubble. What would he do?
He could try and find some creative way to thwart his orders, but Mike Conrad was simply not that kind of soldier. He was a skilled and creative thinker, and a realist, but he was not a quitter and he would not thwart the chain of command. The command structure was not always right, he knew this, but breaking it, right or wrong, was not in his tradition, training, or schema. This was what he had been taught, what he believed, and it was what he would do. He knew, like countless others of his West Point forebears and peers, that the chain of command is the backbone of the military: break it, and you invite disaster, even if your are ultimately proven right.
Mike Conrad would do the best he could with what he had, and if the chips fell his way, well, that would be good but if they didn’t, that was not going to be in his control.
As darkness settled over FB Illingworth on the night of March 31, 1970, Conrad was convinced this would be the time when he and his men would be tested. He called all his officers together and gave them explicit instructions on how to handle each sector of their responsibilities. Conrad walked the entire post, with his radioman, several times, personally seeing to his dispositions and encouraging his troops. After darkness fell, he let his men stand down and grab some chow, have a smoke and catch a few minutes of sack time, but he held them in place, right where they needed to be, in their firing positions. Shortly after midnight, he executed a “mad minute,” opening up all the hand-held weapons on the base; but, knowing the enemy would be counting and spotting his guns, he had all the riflemen and machine gunners fire from “false” positions, then scurry back to their fortified and better entrenched emplacements. After the mad minute, Conrad passed the word for everyone to hunker down, under cover. He knew that any attack would begin with the NVA softening up the base with mortars, rockets and artillery.
Shortly after 2 AM, the opening salvos from the NVA arched into the sky and starting raining down on Illingworth. The aim of the NVA was good: in the first few moments, they knocked down Conrad’s communications tower, effectively “blinding” him to long distance communication. He and his artillery liaison were able to communicate with a Blue Max helo pilot, circling above the base, who set up a comm link between Illingworth and division headquarters.
Seconds after the artillery barrage lifted, the 272nd NVA Regiment, over 400 strong, came boiling out of the jungle, attacking in waves of 30 or 40 at several different points along the perimeter. Fortunately for Conrad, unfortunately for the NVA, the enemy elected to concentrate its attacks at the southwest corner of the base, right where the infantry defense was the strongest.
Men grappled, fought, stabbed and shot each other in the darkness for the next hour. TACAIR roared overhead, savaging the NVA assault on its perimeters as men were fed into the fight. The 105-mm batteries, at zero elevation, banged away, punching gaps in the lines of the attackers. The redlegs who couldn’t use or sight their weapons for close-in work grabbed M-16s and frags and stepped up to the berm to fight as infantry. The un-horsed cavalrymen grabbed whatever hand held weapons they could scrounge and manned their portion of the sand-bagged wall.
While all of this was going on, Conrad was everywhere: racing around the perimeter, plugging gaps, shifting men, pushing frightened soldiers back on the line. He tried to sow encouragement everywhere he went.
Shortly after 3 AM, as feared, the huge, unprotected stockpile of 8-inch ammunition blew. How it happened remains unknown: there were many small fires nearby; or, it could have been a satchel charge, grenade or mortar round. Some witnesses likened it to an atomic blast, complete with a giant mushroom cloud. Men close to the blast were sucked into the sky or pounded into the ground. Everyone else was tossed through the air or knocked flat. Eardrums were blown, guns ripped from hands, dirt and dust flew everywhere, so much so, in fact, that all weapons jammed. Combat came to a halt. For the next few minutes death and destruction rained from the sky: 200 pound artillery shells, truck parts, sandbags, equipment, tools, and utensils of all kinds; and, of course, bodies, or parts of bodies.
Mike Conrad, at the time, was providentially in the TOC but later stated, “I thought it was the end of the world.”
A full ten minutes of silence passed. As friend and foe staggered back to their feet sporadic firing resumed, as soon as weapons could be cleaned, but the blast had broken the back of the attack. One by one, then in small groups, the enemy retreated into the jungle. The surviving Americans went about gathering up the few live prisoners left behind, mostly wounded, and rooting out the few attackers still willing to fight. By a little after 4 AM the main fight was over. Shortly thereafter, a company of Sherman tanks from the 11th Armored burst through the jungle thickets nearby. They had been charging hell bent for leather for the past four hours, riding to the rescue. They didn’t get there until the action was all but over, but when they arrived they threw an immediate and welcome cordon around the devastated compound.
At about 5 AM, the first of the dust offs arrived, to evacuate the wounded, of which there were many. Brigade and division officers flew in to assess the damage and get first-hand reports on the action. Mike Conrad was a mess, but he was alive, and had only sustained cuts and bruises. He reported to General Casey covered in dirt, his voice hoarse from all the shouting he had done, and still coughing out spates of dirt and dust from his grit-filled lungs. If anyone had a right to say, “I told you so!” it was Mike Conrad, but he did not. He delivered as professional a report as his exhaustion and depleted stamina would allow.
Conrad’s command had held together, and repulsed an enemy force of far superior numbers. Over one hundred NVA bodies littered the battlefield—and those were just the corpses left behind. The NVA liked to remove their dead from the field, mostly to obscure their losses from a US Army obsessed with body counts.
General Roberts landed, told the men what an outstanding job they had done, handed out a few random Silver Stars from a cigar box stashed aboard his helicopter, then flew away after promising the survivors that a “hot meal” would be flown in “shortly.” It ultimately arrived in time for dinner.
General Casey was laudatory as well, praising Conrad for holding his command together in the face of very bad odds. He gave Conrad some good news and some bad: the good news was that he and his battalion would get a stand-down, back to the rear, to re-group and re-arm. The bad news was that it wouldn’t come until the next day: Conrad and his men would have to hold Illingworth one more night. Conrad was thunderstruck, but Casey was firm. One more day.
Slowly, the survivors of Illingworth began to pick up the pieces, bag up the bodies and parts of bodies, reposition the artillery aiming stakes, find serviceable weapons and ammo, and bind up their wounds. Many dust-offs came and went. Water and hot chow finally arrived. The chaplain held a mass amidst the wreckage.
Most, Mike Conrad included, thought the enemy might come back that night and try and finish the job. They nervously positioned their vastly thinned out ranks along the berm once more, and waited. The night passed. The enemy did not return.
The next day Fire Base Illingworth was abandoned. The engineers arrived and dismantled everything, salvaging what they could. By the end of the day, Illingworth was no more—except for the large mound of earth covering the common grave of the enemy soldiers who had perished there.
Mike Conrad’s depleted battalion was pulled off the line. They were sent to the rear, as promised, to rest up and regroup. Little did they know that a month later they would be back in the thick of it, charging off with the rest of the division into Cambodia.
Mike Conrad had gone through hell and back, transiting his defining hours with valor and distinction. He would be awarded another Silver Star for his courage and leadership at Fire Base Illingworth. He would recommend one of his young E-Recon warriors, Peter Lemon, who exhibited extraordinary bravery during the dark hours at Illingworth, for the Medal of Honor. Lemon would receive that award more than a year later. Two Distinguished Service Crosses, both posthumous, were also earned by members of E-Recon, Sergeants Casey Waller and Brent Street. There were a slew of Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Army Commendation Medals, too. Many Combat Infantryman Badges were earned, and dozens and dozens of Purple Hearts were granted.
The struggle at Fire Base Illingworth was the worst battle of the worst single day of the war in the year 1970. It was a battalion versus regiment slugfest with a 40% casualty rate on one side (the US) and better than a 50% casualty rate on the other (the 272nd NVA Regiment). Echoes from that contest, good and bad, echoed all the way from the battlefield to the White House.
Mike Conrad’s steadfast performance as a battalion commander at a very difficult time in the Vietnam War gained him notice and many friends. It certainly helped to propel him up the ladder. A year after Illingworth Mike was a full colonel, would make brigadier general easily, return to command his old division, the First Cavalry, and retire as a major general. He is still president of his West Point class, a group from which not only Mike emerged, but also BGEN John C. “Doc” Bahnsen and General Norman Schwarzkopf.
The “defining hour” comes to all who don the uniform of a commissioned officer in the armed forces of the United States. It certainly came for Mike Conrad, and he survived its passage with honor, dignity, courage and steadfastness. This brings me to my final point: Mike Conrad, although an exceptional officer, was one of many from his era of the same caliber. The national angst that we have had for over five decades relative to the Vietnam War has tended to obscure the careers, deeds and courage of many men and women like Mike. It’s time to change that. It’s time to bring these men and women “home” to the place of honor and dignity that they should enjoy in our pantheon of true American heroes. Mike is an example of the best of the best, but he is only one of the many tens of thousands who served in Vietnam who have been sidelined or largely ignored. It’s time to change that dynamic. I am hopeful that there will be many more narratives like Mike Conrad’s to reach the gaze of the American public in the days ahead. We should do so before these stories and the wonderfully brave, loyal, and courageous Americans who made them are lost to us for good.
*Mike Conrad, General Casey and the cavalry troop commander would all receive Silver Stars for this action and Alpha Troop of the 11th Armored would be belatedly decorated with the Presidential Unit Citation.
Phil Keith is a Vietnam veteran. He is the author of Firebase Illingworth and Blackhorse Riders. As he was writing his new book, Firebase Illingworth, he researched Conrad, whose reputation as a leader was more than proven during Vietnam, and beyond, until he retired as a Major General years later.