Book Review: Tan Phu Special Forces Team A-23 in Combat (Leigh Wade) : VN

8/12/2001 • Reviews, Vietnam Book Reviews

Tan Phu Special Forces Team A-23 in Combat, by Leigh Wade, Ivy Books, New York, 1997, $5.95 paperback.

Tan Phu is the true story of the 12-man Special Forces Detachment A-23’s daily struggle to stay alive during their temporary duty fighting the Viet Cong (VC) from July through mid-December 1963. The Tan Phu Special Forces outpost was built in 1963 on the site of a former French fort in An Xuyen province, in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam. The detachment’s primary mission was to work with their South Vietnamese Special Forces counterparts to organize and train Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) strikers to kill and capture VC in an area long under Communist domination. When it was time to return Stateside, all but two of the team’s original 12 members had been wounded in combat, five of them from one mortar airburst during their first week in-country.

Tan Phu’s historical notoriety resulted from a devastating enemy ambush by what was estimated to be a reinforced Main Force VC battalion on October 29, 1963. Based on intelligence about an unknown force of VC in the vicinity of nearby Le Coeur, a hammer-and-anvil operation had been hastily planned at Tan Phu. One company of CIDG strikers would sweep the VC into another CIDG company, which was supposed to be waiting in ambush positions. As it turned out, the VC had their own ambush plans and engaged the sweeping CIDG forces with deadly automatic-weapons fire and mortars. Radio communications to Tan Phu were jammed by the enemy, so there was neither immediate supporting mortar fire from Tan Phu nor any 155mm howitzer support from Thoi Binh. There was also no dedicated air support or immediate helicopter reinforcements to prevent the unfolding blood bath.

Author Leigh Wade estimates that CIDG losses were about 60 dead, a like number wounded and 30 missing in action. The wounded CIDG strikers had their hands tied behind their backs by the VC, then were lain face down in rows, and each was shot once in the back of the head.

Captured were: A-23 executive officer Lieutenant James N. “Nick” Rowe, team medic Sgt. 1st Class Dan Pitzer, and U.S. Army Military Assistance Advisory Group intelligence adviser Captain Humbert R. “Rocky” Versace, who was not authorized to accompany CIDG operations but had invited himself along on the misison. All three were wounded. Spared from execution because the VC wanted American prisoners for their propaganda value, they were taken to the legendary Rung U Minh (“Forest of Darkness”) and kept locked in leg irons in small individual bamboo cages.

Rowe escaped after five years of captivity on December 31, 1968, and was rescued by a U.S. helicopter crew that had him lined up in their gunsights until an alert door gunner recognized that the lone black-pajama-clad figure had a beard. Pitzer was released in 1967, after enduring four years of starvation and torture. Because Versace refused to give more than the “big four”–name, rank, serial number and date of birth–he was sentenced to death. Radio Hanoi announced his execution in September 1965, along with that of another unwavering American POW, Special Forces Master Sgt. Kenneth M. Roraback, captured during a separate operation.

Wade wrote Tan Phu from the perspective of an enlisted soldier, about to turn 21, on his first combat assignment with the Special Forces. He had four more tours in Vietnam and rose to the rank of sergeant first class. Tan Phu is well-written and an enjoyable read, and it fills in the rest of the story of what happened to Special Forces Detachment A-23.

Duane E. Frederic

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