Week of June 30
On July 1, 1970, North Vietnamese Army troops attacked elements of the 101st Airborne Division defending Fire Support Base (FSB) Ripcord, on hills adjacent to the A Sầu Valley, west of Huế. The fight for FSB Ripcord would turn out to be the last major battle between American and North Vietnamese ground forces in the Vietnam War.
FSB Ripcord occupied a cluster of four hilltops overlooking the infamous A Sầu Valley, a critical area in northern South Vietnam, near the border with Laos, which the North Vietnamese used as an infiltration route into South Vietnam. The valley and its adjacent hills played host to frequent, heavy fighting throughout the war.
Ripcord was established in April 1970 to support Operation TEXAS STAR, yet another attempt to block Communist infiltration from the Hồ Chí Minh Trail. The base was located in rugged, mountainous terrain and was dependent on helicopters for supplies and reinforcements. It was defended by the 2d Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment. On July 1, 1970, Ripcord’s defenders came under heavy mortar, rocket, and automatic fire from a large number of North Vietnamese Army troops, who surrounded the base. As additional elements of the 101st Airborne Division arrived as reinforcements, it became clear that Ripcord was under siege from as many as eight North Vietnamese regiments—approximately 11,000 soldiers.
The four American battalions held their ground despite being heavily outnumbered for nearly three weeks, but on July 18 North Vietnamese troops shot down a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, which crashed into and destroyed Ripcord’s ammunition reserves. U.S. commanders were wary of a potential repeat of the standoff at Khe Sanh just over two years earlier, and they were under orders from U.S. MACV commander General Creighton Abrams to “recognize the impact of heavy casualties” at this late stage of the war. They thus ordered an evacuation of Ripcord, which occurred on July 23, 1970. Immediately after the evacuation a B-52 Arc Light strike on the hills decimated many of the North Vietnamese troops who remained in the area.
As many as 75 American soldiers died in the fight for Ripcord (the exact number is disputed among historians and authors), and 345 were wounded, making it the costliest battle for U.S. forces in the year 1970. Three Medals of Honor and five Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded for the battle. It marked the last time multiple battalions of U.S. and North Vietnamese troops faced each other during the war. By the end of 1970, U.S. troops were rapidly handing over conduct of the war to the South Vietnamese armed forces, and American military leaders had greatly curtailed significant U.S.-led offensive operations.1
1Graham A. Cosmas, United States Army in Vietnam: MACV: The Joint Command in the Years of Withdrawal, 1968–1973 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 2006), 257; Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (2nd edition; Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 976–77; Ronald B. Frankum, Jr., Historical Dictionary of the Vietnam War (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, 2011), 393; Keith W. Nolan, Ripcord: Screaming Eagles Under Siege, Vietnam 1970 (New York: Random House, 2000), 1–3, 13–16; Heather Clark, “Vietnam 40 Years Later: 101st Airborne Division Veteran Recalls Ripcord Battle,” May 17, 2012, http://www.army.mil/article/80071/ (accessed June 28, 2016).