Dennis R. (Buz) Bruzina
District Advisor at Dak To, Kontum Province
After three years since the first tour in Vietnam, the last two in the Pentagon, it was time for a second tour in Vietnam. Based on the experience from my previous tour and what I believed to be my best contribution to our efforts in Vietnam, I volunteered for the Department of State program to be a District Advisor hoping to be assigned in the same area where I had been previously. After completing the course and arriving in Vietnam, to my unexpected surprise, I became the District Advisor at Dak To, Kontum Province in the Highlands. DakTo was notorious as one of the most dangerous Districts in Vietnam. Major battles had occurred in that Tri Border area of Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam. This was a favorite route into the Highlands used by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) .
The previous Adviser already had departed and the enlisted were due to depart shortly having completed their tour. No enlisted were programmed in as replacements due to the drawdown of forces in Vietnam. A Military Intelligence Captain and I were the only ones left plus a Vietnamese interpreter.
My Vietnamese counterpart was a Lieutenant Colonel of Black Thai ethnic background and a soldier since his youth. I developed the highest regard for him, second to only one other Vietnamese Officer. The top Vietnamese officer coincidentally was the same officer that was in command of the two Airborne Battalions in Ben Suc during my first tour in Vietnam. Now a Brigadier General, B.G. Hao was in Dac To District in Command of two Airborne Battalions clearing a mountain area called ”Rocket Ridge” leading up to the Fire Support Base (FSB) using supporting 8 inch howitzers in direct fire as the troops worked up to the FSB. I went to visit with him unexpectedly interrupting his meeting with the two Battalion Commanders and Staff. He stopped the meeting and ran to embrace me and asked what I was doing in Dak To, and then told me he would visit with me the next day at the District Compound.
Upon my return to the District Compound I advised my counterpart to expect B.G. Hao the next day. I was certain he did not believe me. While I was first meeting with now Brigadier General Hao, John Vann, the Senior Advisor in the 2 Corps area, visited the District Compound and discovered a large generator used to light a portion of the entire compound that was supposed to be removed by my predecessor. He immediately let the new Kontum Province Senior Advisor (PSA) know of this neglect that perpetuated my NOT being in his high regard throughout my entire tour. I did arrange for its removal.
The next morning in came two helicopters with B.G. Hao, his Colonel Advisor, the Vietnamese Staff and their Advisors. We spent over an hour together despite his Colonel Advisor insisting that they were late heading back to Saigon via the Kontum airport. His Senior Advisor was ignored. My counterpart was with us with little to say except being surprised. Brigadier General Hao was totally fluent in English as was my counterpart.
From April to January 1971the DakTo area was like ”Peaceful Valley” as compared to the other District in Kontum with their successful kills and body count. Occasionally we would observe an unmarked helicopter flying in the area believed to be maybe hunting tigers.
With only the back pack PRC 25 Radios we could not always communicate when moving in our area, so I requested better radios for the two vehicles. I was criticized for that. We did get mounted radios for the two jeeps at the District.
I was told to send out parties into extreme outlying areas with no backup security. My counterpart did not want to oblige and I agreed with him. In fact, he could get all the intelligence information he needed from the Montagnards who were totally opposed to any VC/ NVA intervention.
Our Source of water was a well just outside the Compound, and needed a new pump. When pulling out the piping it was lost and fell into the well. This ended our local water supply except for hauling from a nearby stream.
Our bunker inside the compound consisted of a mobile home shell covered by timbers, sand bags and concrete filled 55 gallon drums with some USAID furniture inside to sleep on. While visiting an outlying village I received a call that people from the Province Advisor Headquarters were here to pick up all the USAID furniture with no advance warning. This was part of the draw down in Vietnam. I challenged that and was criticized for being more interested in “creature comforts”. The furniture was removed.
During the period mentioned previously my counterpart and I spent at least three overnight visits among the Montagnard villages and hamlets per week. We always were welcome with a meal primarily of chicken and the liquid Montagnard rice wine that was normally freshly brewed. The normal routine would include the Village/Hamlet elders grouped in a circle with the rice wine first tested. My counterpart would draw the first measure followed by me, then around the group. As some departed they would be replaced by others and the ritual would be repeated into the night. These visits bring fond memories despite the frequent headaches.
The PSA on Saturdays frequently held Advisor Staff meetings. Unforgettable was the meeting where he berated my counterpart in front of the entire Advisory Group without any advance warning. I was stunned because I was aware he was being recommended in Saigon to be a Province Chief. I prepared a letter expressing my concern, placed it in an envelope addressed to him marked as “Personnel” just before I departed to the States on my authorized leave. I had heard nothing regarding the contents before I departed.
Upon my returned I was advised by the Deputy PSA that he was furious and seriously considering to relieve me. I never was called in to report to the PSA. The interpreter was no longer at the District. I was told he committed suicide and was later replaced. We were down to one other officer and one interpreter. The MI officer was continually gathering and analyzing the local and area intelligence. He developed a thorough estimate of the route and equipment that could be expected to be used by the NVA in an expected offensive in the early spring of 1972 into Kontum by passing through DakTo District.
After one of the Saturday Staff meetings Mr. Dunn, the civilian Deputy Province Advisor, invited me to stay the night with him instead of taking my chance late to drive back to DakTo. I made the mistake to accept his offer. He lived in a four room prefabricated air conditioned home with a wall surrounding the quarters with Mhung security. This kind of luxury made me sick to discover that it existed when soldiers experience something by far less than that for living conditions. He treated me well with too much scotch and an extravagant meal. My suspicion was he was trying to draw out my comments regarding the strained relationship with the PSA.
Beginning in January NVA reconnaissance activity began to occur in our District resulting in successful kills of NVA soldiers. In January the PSA made his one and only visit to the District and spent the night .He was given our intelligence briefing by the MI officer. The briefing included the route to be taken and stated heavy equipment such as tanks and other self-propelled vehicles to be used in the offensive in the area. The intelligence presented was right on what actually occurred in April. Nothing was said by the PSA as complementary or otherwise. Shortly thereafter the MI officer departed back to the States and I was on my own losing my interpreter in February. John Vann made frequent visits to the District to get updates from my counterpart. We developed an excellent relationship. Frequent B-52 strikes began in and around the DakTo District area when it became known NVA units were moving into the area. Rockets and NVA artillery rounds began falling into the Tan Can 22d ARVN Division Forward Compound that included a Battalion of the ARVN 42d Regiment. The Compound was located approximately seven kilometers south and within sight of the District Headquarters. Only an infrequent mortar round landed in our vicinity. I could say we were lucky.
During TET celebration LTC Bao and I paid our respects to each religious element. We first visited the Cao Dai monk and toasted with some of his scotch .Next was the Vietnamese Catholic Priest with a toast of Church wine. Next was a visit with the Buddhist monk and toasted with tea .Lastly we visited the French Catholic priest, who spoke English. There were five French missionary priests among the Montagard villages and two non-Catholic American missionaries as well. Father Du Jon offered us wine for the toast. I frequently was able to attend Sunday Mass with either the Vietnamese priest or Mass with Father Du Jon.
In February John Vann visited the District and we exchanged discussion as to when the offensive would begin. He was convinced it would begin in March. LTC Bao told him it would begin in April and the attack would go for the “Head”, that is, attack the Tan Can Compound and by pass the District Headquarters. They agreed on a $100.00 Piasters bet as to when the offensive would start. In addition to the B-52 strikes the VNAF began making air strikes dive bombing in the area. We could observe Tracer fire each time the aircraft would climb out of their dive. One Skyraider was shot down but the pilot parachuted fortunately to safety.
One of the more memorable and enjoyable occasions was attending a wedding in Tan can. Both LTC BAO and I were invited to attend the dinners of the bride parents at noon and the groom’s parents in the late afternoon. Included in both meals were toasts by each attendee making contributions as a small glass of pure/clear rice wine was consumed by either the bride or groom. Both LTC Bao and I were included to contribute at each meal. After the noon meal I really took a short rest due to the power of the beverage. How the bride and groom survived I will never know.
On a sad note we were called to the DakTo cemetery because one of the Vietnamese soldiers was found there. Sad to say he and his girlfriend had placed a grenade between them and committed suicide because the girl’s family would not approve a marriage.
A Vietnamese Lieutenant was killed by a NVA sniper, shot through the head. He was one of our best.
Occasionally we received mortar rounds landing around the District Compound and could visually spot the location of the mortar. I called in an Air Force strike of Phantom Jets. The strike was unsuccessful. My Counterpart was able to obtain a VNAF Skyraider strike. It was successful. There were no more mortar attacks from that location.
A mortar round detonated near the compound tower a few days prior to eliminating the NVA mortar position in the early evening when LTC Bao, a Vietnamese and Montegnard Captain and I were on the compound tower. A fragment hit the Vietnamese Captain in his eye. I stayed on the tower to help him down. He was still wearing my captured Czech Binoculars when he was evacuated and I failed to retrieve them. They were never recovered.
LTC Bao and I were invited by the Buddhist Monk to a luncheon. The purpose was to mend fences caused by a disagreement between LTC Bao and the Monk. The luncheon included at least twelve important Vietnamese people from the Tan Can community. The table was full of a variety of dishes to include what appeared to be a meat loaf. After the meal I commented to my Counterpart how great the various items were including the meatloaf. He advised me it was not meat since the Buddhists did not eat meat. I will never know what I really ate thinking it was meat loaf.
I received a call to try and capture any members from the NVA reconnaissance activity. Our roving elements were successful in capturing two NVA troops and turned them over to the Province Headquarters. This was a perfect example of our capability and successful results when there was enemy activity in our area.
The offensive did not begin in March as John Vann predicted. He visited us in early April to get updated on the activities in the District and to pay my Counterpart the $100.00 Piasters. LTC Bao then asked John Vann if he would autograph the currency for him and John Vann graciously did with a huge smile.
A few days later 16 April 1972 we received word that there was an element of a NVA platoon or company size unit overlooking the main and only road from the District and Tan Can to Kontum City. Several Montagards were wounded and moved to the Tan Can compound for U. S. helicopter evacuation. My counterpart and I were on the opposite slope of the engagement when a mortar round landed in our vicinity. A fragment entered my left thigh forcing me to join the wounded Montagnards at the Tan Can Compound. When a helicopter arrived, I refused to depart until all the wounded Montagnards were evacuated first. The third Helicopter that picked me up was also carrying supplies to be dropped off on top of one of the ridges overlooking the NVA occupied area. I was sure we would be shot down after seeing the Skyraider shot down. We made it to the drop off and to Pleiku hospital where a gurney and two doctors were waiting and forced me onto the gurney rather than walking. Since the fragment was so close to the leg nerve they decided not to remove it. Rather I was to be kept there to avoid infection and to stitch me up.
In less than a week and stitched up I returned to the Province Headquarters and finally back to DakTo on 21 April. That night Father Du Jon’s village was attacked. He was captured but his villagers rescued him killing several NVA soldiers that were buried in a mass grave the next day using a bulldozer the District possessed. This village was along the road passing the District Headquarters to Tan Can and would be the road taken by the NVA track equipment used to attack the Tan Can Compound.
On the night of 23 April while in the operations bunker messages began coming from our Montagnard outposts that there were tanks coming in. Our apprehension of a pending attack and concern that we were about to be overrun at any time was real! There was no anti-tank equipment to defend our Compound against tanks. The District Regional element, along the road to Tan Can at a bridge location, had no anti-tank equipment, nor the opportunity to destroy the bridge.
I established contact with an Air Force aircraft equipped with 105mm cannon, and reported our situation. They immediately attempted to engage any track vehicles that could be identified presumably by detecting them through a heat signature. The Aircraft crew began so called successful strikes. I requested confirmation of burning from any hits. There were none as verified by our night locations of Montagnards who reported none. Whatever was reported to their Headquarters would have been questionable to say the least. Our operations center received reports of track vehicles moving back and forth on the road to Tan Can, by- passing our Compound, and apparently moving into position to attack the Tan Cam Compound the next morning.
The next morning the sky was completely overcast preventing any air support. The attack on the Tan Can Compound began at first light. During the attack John Vann with two helicopters attempted to rescue the Advisors and was partially successful. However, one chopper was shot down carrying five Advisors. My wife received information that I might have been aboard that aircraft. That report was corrected shortly thereafter. Some Advisors were probably captured in the Compound. I was informed later that the senior Advisor and Commander of the Battlion, 42d Regiment were able to hide in the Compound and escape that night and get to Kontum City. The surviving members of the downed helicopter were discovered by a Montagnard and with his help contact was made to recover both survivors and those lost.
By early afternoon the skies cleared and an Air Force aircraft observer was on station. We had a report of a NVA Tracked vehicle and crew was located in the vicinity and to the north of Tan Can Just off the road near a pond. It took almost thirty minutes for the observer to identify the location and bring in an air strike. The observer became elated with the success. It must have been his first successful strike. One of the NVA crew was captured and brought to the District. He could not have been more than15 years old.
It was exactly 1500 hours when in the operations center we received a call that resulted in the decision to abandon the District Compound, and attempt escape and evade into the jungle. In preparing to leave Captain Cassidy and I destroyed records in file cabinets using thermite grenades. As we were preparing to depart I received a radio call from John Vann asking for our status I informed him that we were ordered to abandon the Compound. He stated he would land outside of the Compound to pick the two of us up. I requested to say goodbye to LTC Bao and went into his quarters to meet with him. It was just the two of us. We emotionally embraced and bid goodbye.
His family of wife and eight children had already been moved safely out of DakTo. I had taken two pictures of him and his family. Each picture included seven of the eight children. He left a different one out because all eight would be bad luck in a picture.
As I was leaving he asked a favor of me, and that was to take with us a mother and youth about 8 or 10 years old. Thinking John Vann was flying a Huey I said” Yes”. John Vann landed in a two seat LOACH. He advised me that he could not take all of us. I pushed the mother and child into the chopper. Then he told us to climb on the skids and he would try to take off. We became airborne and flew over the NVA positions at about 500 feet without a shot being fired all the way to Kontum City. We landed at the Province Compound with nothing but the clothes we were wearing, weapons and back pack.
After the third day finally LTC Bao and most of his forces were rescued using a Ch-47 and Hueys. Unfortunately one Huey was lost but the pilots were rescued. Some had to be left behind. I was able to see LTC Bao one last time. During the unsuccessful battle for Kontum City, Lieutenant Colonel Bao became a hero. He moved to become a Province Chief. Sad to say, to this day I have never been able to find out if he survived the takeover of the Country by North Vietnam.
Before leaving Kontum, as my tour was ending, CH-47 helicopter aircraft were bringing in supplies needed for the impending attack on Kontum City. The Montagnards at the gate of the compound were pleading to be evacuated. I was not a popular person at Staff meetings when I made an issue of this unacceptable waste of not using empty aircraft to begin evacuation. Finally after several days evacuation began.
The security for the Province Compound was provided by a Mhung unit that was pulled out just after I arrived from DakTo. As soon as they departed an element of Vietnamese soldiers raided the Compound and stole everything they could get their hands on. They did not get my weapon or the clothes I was wearing.
I headed back to Saigon by way of Pleiku, and was able to visit John Vann in his office. We calmly talked about the ominous situation in the 2 Corps Area against what was clearly a major offensive to split South Vietnam through the 2 Corps Region. I thanked him for putting his life on the line to pull me out of DakTo, and rescuing numerous other Advisors as well that day, using up more than one helicopter before he picked us up in the LOACH. He signed his picture given to me as a parting gesture. It was a very somber farewell as if he knew he would not survive Vietnam. He died in a helicopter crash on his way to Kontum sometime after the NVA offensive stalled in the Highlands.
My last days were spent in Saigon where I was able to visit with the two interpreters that worked with me during my first tour. The one was an Ensign in the Vietnamese Navy (Tam) and the other a medically discharged Army Lieutenant (Hien) shot three times in the legs in the Cambodian offensive. The day was spent touring parts of Saigon to include the zoo. We walked everywhere and even sat outside a shop eating ice cream cones. Unbeknown to me it was the first time Hien was out walking still recovering from his leg wounds. Not once did he show me any signs of pain. Both, with their families, managed to migrate to the United States after Saigon fell. I Sponsored Hien, his wife and two boys by way of France to the United States.
I departed in a Boeing 747 first stopping on Guam. The aircraft developed a mechanical problem. We spent a night in Guam waiting for a second aircraft to fly in from Japan. A mechanical problem developed with the second aircraft, and between the two we finally were able to leave Guam, arrive at Travis Air Force Base to work my way home in Virginia. Spending one day at home, I spent the next three weeks in the Fort Belvoir hospital to recover from viral meningitis before heading to Fort Sill. Oklahoma. Thus my second tour in Vietnam came to an end.
Impression: When assigned to the DakTo District, I was certain that I would not survive, but I did.
Impression: On the way to DakTo I stopped at NhaTrang on the coast. There was the opportunity to enjoy a beautiful beach and get sunburned. The French style food prepared by Vietnamese was delicious.
Impression: The Highlands offered a far better climate than the Saigon or Delta area. In the November to February period it was chilly. Frequently I would deliberately strip to the waist to shave, etc. while the Vietnamese troops shivering would watch. They did not like the “cool” temperatures. It made no difference to the Montagnards.
Impression: At the outset of my tour in Dak To a trip by road could be made to Pleiku to obtain American rations that could be stored in an experimental refrigerator using kerosene to fuel the cooling unit. It worked very well. However, I would regularly get sick with diarrhea. When there was just the two of us or alone we enjoyed the local foods and never became sick. The steady diet of chicken manioch (form of white potato) and rice when with the Montagnards was okay as well. Realistically it was better to rely on the local food.
Impression: At the outset of my tour there was a monthly requirement to file a report on the progress being made In security, development, identify and rate the villages and hamlets as to VC supporting or controlled, etc. It was a farce and later was discontinued. Advisers were rated on the progress to include success in killing VC. The Dak To area did not reflect progress because it was stable as long as the NVA left the District alone. Case in point is the offensive beginning after January 1972.
Impression: The Dak To Advisor Team of two at that time experienced an IG Inspection. To this day I have no idea where they came from but I was certain they were from some plush Headquarters earning combat credit. We were gigged for maintaining 5 gallon cans of gasoline in a CONEX container because of the fumes inside whereas they were stored to protect against mortar attacks.
Impression: I was convinced the PSA was dissatisfied with my performance because there were little results coming from the Dak To District ,namely low body count compared to the other District where there was continuous activity going in and out of Kontum City. The PSA, nor his Staff could find the time to visit our District. I often wondered why (Too dangerous, maybe).
Impression: As an Advisor to a career soldier from youth, LTC Bao only required American support that could not be provided from his own resources. There always was a continuous exchange of discussions in making plans for maintaining security with his limited assets, The Regional/PF assets were a match to any local VC, but no match against the NVA.
Impression: The Montagnards were truly a wonderful ethnic group of people in Dak To. Their primitive culture is pure and worthy of respecting. In spite of limited assets they managed to survive in spite of the war. They were always friendly and hospitable when paying visits. Since the war the gradual eviction from their traditional areas by the Vietnamese population is truly tragic. I will always remember and respect them, especially a Montagnard Captain who worked with the District Chief.
Impression: Beginning in January and Increasing nightly in February and March, 1972, B-52 air strikes became the routine shaking the ground and rattling the buildings. It was music to my ears. There definitely were major NVA units moving into the area. These strikes definitely had an impact on the offensive not beginning until April. The determination of the NVA to persevere had to be admired.
Impression: I lost respect for our U.S. Air Force. First, they could not successfully hit a target. Second, I believe they were totally inaccurate to report hits on the night targets that could have had an impact on the overrun of the TanCan Compound. I have the highest regard for the VNAF. Not only did I witness success in hitting targets, I saw bravery in dive bombing enemy positions, but also i saw crashed VNAF helicopters full of bullet holes. The exception, when criticizing our Air Force, is the B-52 pilots.
Impression: My lack of admiration for John Vann completely changed from my first tour for several reasons. I do not count his first visit to the District when I was not there. The fact that in his frequent visits, more than the Province Advisor personnel, he came with a purpose to get to know us, bring him up to date on activities in our locale, and show an appreciation for our efforts, earned my respect for him. John Vann was truly heroic in personally rescuing Advisors all over Kontum the first day of the of NVA offensive throughout Kontum, not to mention the Captain and me from Dak To. I can never forget him.
IMPRESSION: THE MOST UNFORGETABLE EXPERIENCE FROM BOTH TOURS in Vietnam is one that is imbedded in my mind and will never go away. It haunts me to this day. After privately informing LTC Bao that I was ordered to leave the District to be picked by John Vann, we had to walk out of the Compound in front of all who were about to abandon the District and head into the jungle without me. We were abandoning them, running away like rats leaving a sinking ship. Our country made promises to the South Vietnamese. They placed their trust in us, and now I have to show our true colors to people who know me as an American, untrustworthy, and unfaithful. I attribute my bitterness to our “Wonderful Politicians” who got us into the war, placing political restraints on the efforts to win, thus making it impossible to win, and shutting off resources needed by South Vietnam to prevent North Vietnam from taking over.
Impression: Last but not least. When first realizing I was going to the war in Vietnam, I was ready and looking forward to win glory and help defeat the Viet Cong.(The realization and mind set changes after experiencing the tragedies of war.) When I arrived in Vietnam and did not join the 173rd Airborne Brigade, I stayed bitter the whole tour and thereafter until attending the Armed Forces Staff College In January, 1968.Walking down the hallway after lunch a lieutenant Colonel stopped me seeing my name tag and asked me if I was to be assigned to the Airborne Brigade in Vietnam in 1966. He listened as I told him my sad story of going to the 1st Infantry Division instead. He said he was the Brigade XO and wrote the letter of welcome to me for the Commander. I was to be a Battery Commander for a Battery that was over run losing the Commander, First Sergeant and several other soldiers as well.” I would not be alive today”. From then on I have maintained the philosophy that there is someone who guides us on a path that sometimes we do not like and where it takes us .We do not know where it will take us or when it will end. In fact my last assignment before retiring was to Fort Riley, Kansas. A case in point; The 1st Infantry Division returned to Fort Riley. I retired here and now am deeply associated with the 1st Infantry Division Association. We never know where our path will take us and why.
Lasting Impression: To this day I always recall events that occurred during this first and the second tour sometimes during the day or at night that have changed my life or haunt me. They will never go away. Some are joyful and others are traumatic, but I work through it. Life goes on. The hardest part when departing Vietnam was leaving my brothers, and especially loyal Vietnamese behind as the only person l and not together as our group. I wanted to stay and continue the job with my U.S. buddies the first tour, and especially with the Vietnamese and Montagnards the second tour. I acquired respect and gained an appreciation of the Vietnamese and Montagnard way of life, not unlike our primitive way in the development of America, except for their culture. Fortunately responsibility to family had to be the priority.
MY LAST IMPRESSION: WAR-There is nothing worse. It is the biggest loss of money, people, and tranquility. War produces chaos that takes generations to recover. Vietnam was a perfect example.
Dennis R. (Buz) Bruzina
Lieutenant Colonel (Ret)
27 SEPTEMBER 2012
Dennis R. (Buz) Bruzina
Junction City, Kansas USA - Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 13:01:02 (EST)