The weapon was new, made of cutting-edge materials. It had demonstrated its capability in the lab and on the range, and the men had such confidence in it, that when a Laotian unit, driven out of Laos by NVA forces with tanks, begged the SF camp commander for anti-tank weapons, team sergeant Bill “Pappy” Craig (who was acting as his own weapons man, having been sent a flaky kid as a replacement who more or less defected to the NVA) gave the Laotians his two old, if proven 3.5″ rocket launchers, aka Super Bazookas. He kept the new Light Antitank Weapons for his own team.
He would live to regret that decision.
The time was early February, 1968, as all of South Vietnam convulsed with what the People’s Army of Viet Nam called the “General Offensive/General Uprising” and the West knows as the Tet Offensive.1 The place was the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp on Route 9, a scrawny , risky road running west past Khe Sanh, where a large Marine force was besieged on one large hill and several hill outposts.
Lang Vei was the northwesternmost permanent Allied presence in the Republic of Vietnam. This map of Special Forces compounds the year before the attack hints at just how far out it was — it’s the solitary little dot in Quang Tri province. The Marines at Khe Sanh were almost as isolated.
The LAW is a 66 mm weapon, as its name implies a Light Antitank Weapon, which answered the question: “What if you took the German disposable Panzerfaust concept and redeveloped it with the latest Space Age propellants, explosives, and materials — could you make a compact tank killer?”
The result was a small, environmentally sealed, extensible shipping container/launch tube that was, on its design, marginal on modern tank front turret and glacis armor, but effective on side, rear, top or bottom skins. It was effective through 360º on armor of World War II vintage tanks, still widely deployed by potential adversaries.
The LAW’s adversary that night should have been well within its capabilities, as the 1950s-vintage PT-76 light amphibious tank was never intended to slug it out with AT defenses. It was built to support river crossings — something the Soviet Army’s offensive doctrine demanded an answer for — with a better-than-nothing tank mounting a descendant of the first generation T-34’s 76mm main gun in a truncated-conical turret. The NVA also deployed a Chinese copy of the PT-76 with a domed turret like that of the T-54/55, mounting a version of the improved 85mm gun from the improved late version of the T-34; they also used T-34s themselves, but the only tanks confirmed at Lang Vei were PT-76s.
The PT-76 would go on to perform adequately at another SF camp, Ben Het, the next year (in the light of Lang Vei, Ben Het was reinforced by attached artillery and tanks, but one of the PT-76s actually knocked out a defending M-48 MBT before being destroyed itself). The PT-76 was also used by the Egyptian Army in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel.
This 50-odd minute documentary is rife with errors2, and omits even the names of those Green Berets that did not talk to the filmmakers, but does include a broadly accurate reenactment of the fight, and snippets of rare interviews with SF defenders, including men from all key groups (the defenders who held out in the TOC bunker, then evaded under air-strike cover; the guys evading on top of the hill, some of whom escaped and some of whom were captured; and the guys isolated with the Laotian battalion at Old Lang Vei). The story of the fight, though is complex enough that you ought to read an overview before trying to make sense of a 50-minute video retelling, or it may confuse you.
The reputation of the LAW never recovered both from the blow of its failure at Lang Vei (it didn’t work much better at the next camp attacked by tanks, Ben Het, either), and the Army’s failure to face that failure squarely and forthrightly. Denial kept things from being resolved.
The camp itself was overrun. Of the eleven attacking PT-76s, three were left on site, destroyed by the defenders or by air; four more were blasted by air or artillery and destroyed in the immediate area. A 12th PT-76 had been caught in the open and killed by the USAF on 24 January.
Of 24 USSF on the site, 10 were killed, captured or missing, and 14 got away, all but one of them wounded. When an awards formation was held shortly afterward, only half of the survivors could stand up to get their medals.
Rich Allen, who was single, had traded places with Ashley before a fifth and final assault of their small element at the Old Camp to try to relieve the besieged new camp. Because Gene had a wife and son, Rich asked to take the more exposed front position. He was reloading his BAR — the camp had a lot of BARs — when he heard a burst go past him and mortally wound his friend.
Allen would be the only man who survived without a wound.
The Vietnamese VNSF and Montagnard CIDG strike force suffered similar casualty percentages. 209 of the Yards would be missing or killed, about 70 wounded went out with the Americans from the Old Camp, and 160 more escaped overland to the Marine base at Khe Sanh — where the Marines treated them as POWs. A SOG element at Khe Sanh was able to get them sprung and evacuated to Nha Trang.
The Marine commander at Khe Sanh, Col. David Lownds, had been lying when he’d told General Westmoreland he would reinforce Khe Sanh if it were attacked. He never had any intention of risking his men on a night movement on a road on which the NVA would certainly have prepared ambushes. He did, however, authorize his transport helicopters to pick up survivors, which the Marine crews did (amid enemy fire).
The official Army history of Special Forces in Vietnam doesn’t mention the 1968 Lang Vei battle, and dismisses the 1967 fight at the Old Camp that ultimately forced the camp to relocate, with a very few lines, and an ominous foreshadowing of the tank menace:
In I Corps on 4 May 1967 at 0330 Camp Lang Vei, Detachment A-101, Quang Tri Province, was attacked by a company-size force supported by mortars and tanks. About one platoon of Viet Cong gained entry into the camp. With the assistance of fire support from Khe Sanh, enemy elements were repelled from the camp at 0500. Two Special Forces men were killed and five wounded; seventeen civilian irregulars were killed, thirty-five wounded, and thirty-eight missing. Enemy losses were seven killed and five wounded. 3
And referring to NVA armament, to wit, tanks…
…major changes in enemy armament occurred. Introduced in quantity were tube artillery, large rockets, large mortars, modern small arms of the AK47 type, antiaircraft artillery up to 37-mm., and heavy machine guns. Tanks were employed on one occasion against the CIDG camp at Lang Vei, and others were sighted in Laos and Cambodia near the border and in South Vietnam. In central and southern South Vietnam, North Vietnamese Army replacements were used to bolster main force Viet Cong units that had lost many men.
The enemy launched his Tet offensive on 29 January 1968. This was followed by a massive buildup at Khe Sanh and the armor-supported attack that overran the camp at Lang Vei in I Corps. Pressure on CIDG camps, except for the attack on Lang Vei, was unusually light during the entire Tet offensive and for approximately sixty days thereafter.4
The tank menace had been well reported by the border camps and by the secret cross-border penetration patrols of MAC-V SOG. A Mike Force patrol had found a recently-used tank park near Lang Vei shortly before the attack. But intelligence officers dismissed the eyewitness (and in the case of some of the border camps, ear-witness) reporting, as implausible. The data conflicted with the theory, and they threw out the data.
We suppose that’s why we have intelligence officers.
In the months and the years that followed the hilltop fight, the Army made many half-hearted attempts to understand why and how the LAWs had failed. The testimony that they did fail is clear: they failed to fire, squibbed, hit the PT-76s and bounced off, hit and didn’t penetrate. And the weakest tank in the enemy inventory, a tank with a bare 15mm or so of armor, rolled over the defenses with near impunity. But most of the investigations were aimed at proving “that couldn’t have happened,” and shoring up the reputation of the M72 which had performed well in tests and poorly in combat.
The most plausible explanation is that long-term storage, careless handling while in storage (in the Army, the hard left of the bell curve goes into ammo handling), environmental problems, or the shock of parachute delivery had somehow affected the functioning of the rockets. The Lang Vei survivors reported so many diverse problems with the weapons that engineers were at a loss to duplicate the failures or even come up with an Ishikawa diagram or failure tree that plausibly explained them.
Other than the ineffective LAWs, the anti-tank weapons the defenders had included obsolete 57mm and obsolescent 106mm recoilless rifles, lightweight cannon that used the discharge of a countermass (in the case of these ones, gases through a de Laval venturi) to “punch above their weight.” The guns had been scrounged by team members and there was very little ammo for the 106s — perhaps as few as ten rounds. The recoillesses were positioned, necessarily, in fixed positions that were located before the attack and attacked. The Montagnard crews were killed or wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Schungel tried to get one of the 106 RCLs into action during the fight; another was crewed by James W. Holt, an Arkansas soldier who went missing that night while seeking more 106 ammo or LAWs (his remains were recovered in 1989, and identified only in 2015, thanks to advances in DNA technology). Holt managed to kill three PT-76s, according to a DOD POW-MIA narrative of the fight stored in the Combined Action Combat Casualty File for Lang Vei reliever (and later DNH in an air crash) Major George Quamo of MAC-V SOG.
Shortly after midnight on February 7, 1968, a combined NVA infantry-tank assault drove into Lang Vei. Two PT-76 tanks threatened the outer perimeter of the camp as infantry rushed behind them. SFC James W. Holt destroyed both tanks with shots from his 106mm recoilless rifle. More tanks came around the burning hulks of the first two tanks and began to roll over the 104th CIDG Company's defensive positions. SSgt. Peter Tiroch, the assistant intelligence sergeant, ran over to Holt's position and helped load the weapon. Holt quickly lined up a third tank in his sights and destroyed it with a direct hit. After a second shot at the tank, Holt and Tiroch left the weapons pit just before it was demolished by return cannon fire. Tiroch watched Holt run over to the ammunition bunker to look for some hand-held Light Anti-tank Weapons (LAWs). It was the last time Holt was ever seen.
But the same narrative shows that apart from the 106, the other defensive means were ineffective.
LtCol. Schungel, 1Lt. Longgrear, SSgt. Arthur Brooks, Sgt. Nikolas Fragos, SP4 William G. McMurry, Jr., and LLDB Lt. Quy desperately tried to stop the tanks with LAWs and grenades. They even climbed on the plated engine decks, trying to pry open hatches to blast out the crews. NVA infantrymen followed the vehicles closely, dusting their sides with automatic rifle fire. One tank was stopped by five direct hits, and the crew killed as they tried to abandon the vehicle. 1Lt. Miles R. Wilkins, the detachment executive officer, left the mortar pit with several LAWs and fought a running engagement with one tank beside the team house without much success. .... NVA sappers armed with satchel charges, tear gas grenades and flamethrowers fought through the 101st, 102nd and 103rd CIDG perimeter trenches and captured both ends of the compound by 2:30 a.m. Spearheaded by tanks, they stormed the inner compound. LtCol. Schungel and his tank-killer personnel moved back to the command bunker for more LAWs. They were pinned behind a row of dirt and rock filled drums by a tank that had just destroyed one of the mortar pits. A LAW was fired against the tank with no effect. The cannon swung around and blasted the barrels in front of the bunker entrance. The explosion temporarily blinded McMurry and mangled his hands, pitched a heavy drum on top of Lt. Wilkins and knocked Schungel flat. Lt. Quy managed to escape to another section of the camp, but the approach of yet another tank prevented Schungel and Wilkins from following. At some point during this period, McMurry, a radioman, disappeared. The tank, which was shooting at the camp observation post, was destroyed with a LAW.
That’s the only reference to a LAW having an effect on a tank.
Team Sfc. William T. Craig and SSgt. Tiroch had chased tanks throughout the night with everything from M-79 grenade launchers to a .50 caliber machine gun. After it had become apparent that the camp had been overrun, they escaped outside the wire and took temporary refuge in a creek bed. After daylight, they saw Ashley's counterattack force and joined him.
And there you have it.
Signals intelligence showed that the Lang Vei defenders weren’t making it up — the attackers, too, made note of the rockets’ poor performance in their after-action reporting.
(In an interesting aside, the degree of enemy success at Lang Vei was due in part to infiltration, not unlike the insider threat our guys have faced in Afghanistan:
Subsequent intelligence and prisoner of war interrogations indicated that the attackers were aided from inside the camp by Viet Cong who had infiltrated the CIDG units, posing as recruits. One prisoner of war said that he had been contacted by the Viet Cong before the attack and directed to join the CIDG at Lang Vei in order to obtain information on the camp. After joining the CIDG, the man recruited four other civilian irregulars to assist him. One man was to determine the locations of all bunkers within the camp, the second was to report on all the guard positions and how well the posts were manned, the third was to make a sketch of the camp, and the fourth was to report on supplies brought into the camp from Khe Sanh. The Viet Cong had contacted the prisoner who was under questioning on four occasions before the 4 May attack to get the information. On the night of the attack, the prisoner of war and another CIDG man killed two of the camp guards and led the Viet Cong force through the wire and minefield defenses into the camp’s perimeter. This technique of prior infiltration was a Viet Cong tactic common to almost every attack on a camp.5
Nothing to do with LAWs or tank fighting, but … interesting).
And there the situation stood. The Army continued to buy LAWs in the hundreds of thousands, and sponsored dozens of improvements great and small. The Soviets would even make a conceptual copy, after their proxies encountered the weapon in Vietnam (where no one was impressed by it) and Angola (where it proved a surprisingly useful antipersonnel weapon, although less so than the RPG-7). The first Soviet version was the RPG-18 and it was closer to the original M72 than to the current version at the time it was introduced, the M72A2.
The LAW would later be replaced in the United States by the combination of the extremely effective Javelin fire-and-forget ATGM, and much-improved LAWs, which continued to be produced as a multipurpose light weapon after most development and production was transferred to Norwegian licensee NAMMO. The LAW is now at M72A7 and counting, but its reputation hasn’t recovered much, and SF teams have preferred to kill enemy armor long before it gets within LAW range — which new weapons like the Javelin and AT-4 make possible. When in 2003 a small Special Forces team (from the same SF Group as was engaged in Vietnam, 5th SFG(A), as it happens) found itself attacked by an Iraqi armored and mechanized force, the Green Berets destroyed so many Iraqi tanks and APCs that what had started as a ferocious attack turned into a headlong rout.
The Special Forces guys used the Javelins. The Iraqis, who fought bravely if futilely, didn’t get the chance to get within LAW range.
But to this day, nobody really trusts the LAW, even though today’s M72A7 is far more effective than its 1968 version. Why not? Lang Vei, where men who trusted the LAW were killed and captured, and the post was lost.
- The offensive began on the Asian lunar New Year, known as Tet in Vietnamese; the Americans had been expecting the NVA to violate the traditional holiday truce — that is, after all, what Communists do — but were taken aback by the scale and fury of the offensive, which was led in many urban locations by local Viet Cong. The offensive was a failure for the NVA — their VC guerrillas were finished as a fighting force for the rest of the war — but was reported in the US as an NVA victory, based largely on the Saigon hotel bar rumor reporting that characterized the “new breed” of war correspondents.
- Errors are too many to list here, but one of the most grievous is using random tubular mock-ups in place of LAWs. They also include the statement that the NVA/VC took the US Embassy during Tet, whereas none even got inside the chancery building (between the Marine guards and responding MPs, the NVA sappers that got inside the wall of the compound were all expeditiously slain); the use of later M16A2 rifles in some scenes; the lack of description of what became of the CIDG that surrendered (they were murdered); the use of wrong vehicles such as late-1980s CUCV trucks and 1970s-vintage Dodge M880s. It appears to be based largely on Phillips’s The Night of the Silver Stars, which seems to have been written in part to rehabilitate the reputation of certain Marine officers at Khe Sanh, who did not cover themselves in glory that night
- Kelly, Francis J. “Splash”. Vietnam Studies: US Army Special Forces, 1961-1971, p. 110
- Kelly, Francis J., pp. 126-127
- Kelly, Francis J., p. 110
Cash, John A.. Battle of Lang Vei. Chapter from: Cash, John A., Albright, John, and Sandstrum, Allen. Seven Firefights in Vietnam . Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, US Army, 1985. Retrieved from: http://www.history.army.mil/books/vietnam/7-ff/Ch6.htm
Jones, Gregg. Last Stand at Khe Sanh. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2014.
Kelly, Francis J. “Splash”. Vietnam Studies: US Army Special Forces, 1961-1971. Washington: Department of the Army, 1972. Available at: http://www.history.army.mil/books/Vietnam/90-23/90-23C.htm
Phillips, William R. Night of the Silver Stars: The Battle of Lang Vei. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
Stanton, Shelby L. Special Forces at War: An Illustrated History, Southeast Asia 1957-1975. Charlotesville: Howell Press, 1990.