VC and too busy defending themselves and the bridge to observe the
fight in Ngoc Ngot.59
In the compound itself, pandemonium reigned. Corporal Willhite recollected that the VC were in the compound so fast some Marines and several of the PFs panicked: "Some of them just went out and crawled under hootches and stuff, they forgot their rifles."* On the other hand, several Marines and a few of the Popular Force troops fought off the enemy as best they could. Willhite remembered that as he ran out of his "hootch" with his rifle, enemy soldiers ignored him, concentrating instead upon the communication and ammunition bunkers. Reaching a site with a clear field of fire of the ammunition bunker, Willhite and a mixed group of Marines and PFs attempted to stem the tide. Both he and Krusewski credited one Popular Force member, armed with a Browning automatic rifle, for providing the necessary firepower to hold off the enemy from reaching their positions. Within 25 to 30 minutes, nevertheless, the Communist attackers had nearly destroyed the entire compound. Krusewski later wondered "why they didn't kill everybody, I don't know, they just turned around and left when the sun starred coming up." Equally puzzled, Willhite, nearly 20 years later still spoke in disbelief, "It was like a miracle, sun came up, church bells rang. They just picked up their stuff and walked away."60
The detail led by Lance Corporal Lopez had withstood the enemy assault in their sector and the bridge still stood. It was the only one of four bridges between Phu Loc and CAP Hotel 7 on Route 1 that remained intact. Seeing the Communist troops withdrawing from the compound, the four Marines returned to Ngoc Ngot and began to attend to the wounded and bury the dead.61
Of the more than 40 troops, both Marines and South Vietnamese, in the Hotel 6 compound the night before, only about seven escaped relatively unscathed. The Marines sustained casualties of 5 dead and 16 wounded, 12 of whom had to be evacuated. Among the dead was the Navy corpsman. It would not be until 0900 that a Marine platoon from Company D, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines arrived and called in a helicopter to take out the most seriously wounded. As Corporal Willhite later remarked, the CAP Marines could not depend on supporting infantry and artillery. When the enemy attacks, "they know all about your supporting units, and they tie them up . . . they usually always get you."62
In this particular instance, the corporal was absolutely correct. In the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines command post, the battalion received a radio message at 0335 about the attack on the Phu Loc District headquarters. At the same time the Combined Action Group headquarters reported that it had lost radio communication with CAPs Hotel 6 and 7 and that Hotel 5 at Phu Loc was under attack. Less than five minutes later, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines assembly area south of Phu Loc came under an 82mm mortar barrage and recoilless rifle fire. Among the wounded was the battalion commander. Lieutenant Colonel van den Berg." Major Harold J. McMullen, the battalion executive officer, temporarily assumed command.63
About an hour after the attack on the battalion command post, Communist gunners also took the Company D base area under mortar and recoilless rifle fire. At 0530, the Company D commander sent a reaction force to Hotel 6 and 7, but enemy mortar rounds forced the Marines to turn back. Waiting until daylight to avoid a possible enemy ambush, Major McMullen sent a platoon-sized relief force from Company B to the assistance of the district headquarters and the CAP platoons. As the Company B platoon entered the Phu Loc District compound at 0700, they saw the VC attempting to disengage and took them under fire, killing seven of the enemy. At the headquarters, the combined force of ARVN and U.S. advisors accounted for about 50 of the enemy. An hour later the Marine platoon reached Hotel 5 where the enemy had already departed. The Marines there sustained casualties of one dead and five wounded. At about the same time, 0800, another platoon from Company D arrived at Hotel 7 which had been overrun. The CAP Marines there suffered casualties of seven dead and four wounded. One hour later the Company D platoon arrived at Hotel 6. All told on the morning of 7 January in the Phu Loc sector, the allies sustained casualties of 18 Marines killed and 84 wounded, 4 U.S. Army advisors wounded, and an unspecified number of South Vietnamese regular troops and PFs killed and wounded, while
* In his comments, Willhite believed the reason that some of the Marines panicked was because the VC were into the compound so quickly. He recalled "hearing 'incoming!' then almost immediately 'They're in the compound.' They were at the doors of our hootches." Willhite claimed the reason that he got out with his gear, "because I always tied my backdoor shut with corn-wire at night to keep it from being blown open by the wind." Arliss Willhite, Comments on draft, dtd 28Sep94 (Vietnam Comment File).
** Lieutenant Colonel van den Berg commented that "due to the lack
of reaction time and space, I am not aware of any close defensive fires
called by/for any CAP." van den Berg Comments.