A district town 55 miles north of Saigon, Dong Xoai was at a junction of roads linking points north and west. Among the military and civilian traffic from the west in the summer of 1965 were infiltrators fresh off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Political unrest in Saigon led the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies to launch an offensive with the intention of attacking and humiliating government troops and their American allies. At midnight on June 9, a furious mortar barrage, followed by wave after wave of Viet Cong infantry, shook the silence in Dong Xoai and a nearby Special Forces post. The next day, as South Vietnamese troops and U.S. advisers fought to drive the enemy out, photographer Horst Faas, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was with them. His photos appeared in the pages of Life magazine a short time later, providing Americans with a glimpse of what was to come in the war. Here, in his words and pictures, is Faas’ story of 24 hours of hell at Dong Xoai.
After several days on an operation in the Mekong Delta, on June 10, 1965, I was ready to take a turn in the AP Saigon bureau office handling the pictures of other photographers. I looked forward to busy but quiet bureau duties for at least a few days. As often happened, however, escalated fighting interrupted my plans.
Word came in that morning of a full force Viet Cong (VC) attack on a Special Forces camp and district capital at Dong Xoai. I grabbed a fresh supply of film, some food and sped to Bien Hoa airport. The 118th Aviation Company was to ferry reinforcements to the battle—and evacuate dead and wounded. After four years of photographing the war, I was picky about the troops I accompanied—always making sure they were experienced and that they took better care of their weapons than the chickens and ducks in their baggage that would be dinner in the field. These checks could keep a photographer alive, especially in the early days, when virtually all our combat coverage was with South Vietnamese troops.
I had traveled on helicopters of the 118th frequently to and from firefights, and knew many of their pilots and commanding officers. I was told that the choppers would transport the South Vietnamese 52nd Ranger Battalion to the battle—a unit that was as fearless, tough and gung ho as they come.
I hitched a 20-minute ride to Phuc Vinh and by midafternoon was waiting with the Rangers for the 10-minute hop to Dong Xoai. I got aboard a chopper with two American advisers, their South Vietnamese counterparts and assault troops. Soon, I began to think that maybe I’d made a mistake this time out. Radio chatter revealed that the Special Forces camp and Dong Xoai was largely in the hands of the VC and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars. A major battle was underway, and it was not going well.
What I did not know was that several rescue attempts at the Special Forces camp had already resulted in staggering casualties to South Vietnamese and Americans. Apparently friendly civilians at the edge of a helicopter clearing waved rescue choppers down. As troops jumped off the helicopters, the “civilians” took up positions in foxholes and bunkers, opening up fire once the helicopters were gone. Only NVA regulars could have devised such a sophisticated ambush. The South Vietnamese were decimated and a chopper was shot down and had exploded, killing the American crew.
We were in the second of five helicopter waves to arrive at a soccer field on the town’s edge near some buildings that had fallen to the Viet Cong. Dense growth of the Thanh Loi rubber plantation lay on one side, where I assumed VC were hiding. Buildings and a road framed the opposite side. I thought we were making a mistake—or maybe it was just plain fear—as I saw bodies on the playing field. Approaching at tree-top level, we hovered a few feet off the ground. I stepped onto a skid and jumped about four feet to the field. Incoming fire was intense. Mortars exploded under the choppers as they lifted out of range. All around me I heard the snap and zing of machine gun and small-arms bullets from the buildings and from the jungle. At that moment, I recalled the old adage—“You never hear the bullet that hits you.”
Helicopters continued to arrive but were met by gunfire from all sides, preventing late waves of troop reinforcements to land. The 52nd Rangers were left under-strength and out- numbered as evening approached, making evacuation impossible. A night of fear threw a dark shroud over our trench, and sleep was impossible. Would the VC assault us from Thanh Loi and catch us on the darkened open field? The radioman and I exchanged grim thoughts of what might happen should an attack come. Death? Capture? Explosions from air attack, bomb blasts and artillery boomed in the darkness, their detonations creating single brief flashes of light. Gunfire rattled constantly as Rangers launched attacks through much of the night. With photography impossible, I remained in my cover in the darkness.
A welcome dawn gradually lit the scene. One helicopter came in and swept the tree line with heavy gunfire, but received no response. The major force of Viet Cong had vanished. The Rangers finally recaptured the town around 9 a.m. Helicopters arrived to bring in more Rangers and evacuate the dead and wounded. All the while, I photographed what I could.
Seldom does a photographer reach such scenes at the moment danger fades and survivors realize they are safe but find the loss of their loved ones. As I photographed the remains of the battle, I passed burning houses, carefully avoiding the sprawled dead, making a photo here and another there of survivors in shock, others wounded and the many killed. I tried to be unobtrusive, shooting from a distance. I was invisible to them and it showed in the pictures. There was no posing, simply human beings taking stock, reorienting themselves after being at the edge of death.
Exhausted and still stunned by my own survival of the hellish violence, I boarded a chopper for the return to Bien Hoa, then to the AP office in Saigon, from where in hours the pictures were sent to the world’s newspapers and television stations.
At Dong Xoai, the numbers of killed or wounded were high: 1,190 South Vietnamese army and militia, 35 Americans and an estimated 700 Viet Cong. No count was kept of civilian casualties.
Two Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions at Dong Xoai, including the only Seabee so honored in any war, Construction Mechanic 3rd Class Marvin Glenn Shields. He and Army Major Charles Williams, both severely wounded several times, joined forces in the early hours of June 10 to eliminate a VC machine gun emplacement that was shredding the Special Forces camp. Shields was mortally wounded in the fighting. Despite his wounds, Williams took command of the post when his commanding officer was killed.
In 1998 I was assigned to do a story on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and followed its path along the Cambodian border to many of its outlets in Vietnam, one of which passed through Dong Xoai. I went to the edge of town. The buildings were replaced, but I managed to determine the location of the soccer field. I wanted to see if the goal posts were still there. The area had become a hotbed for smuggling, and as I made my way through a field, armed with my camera, a Vietnamese soldier-guard, armed with a rifle and fixed bayonet, chased me off. I never made it back to the goal posts.
Born in Berlin in 1933, Horst Faas grew up in the turbulence of WWII. After joining AP, he covered war in the Congo and Algeria before getting to Vietnam in 1962, where he spent 10 years. He has published several books about photojournalism and the Vietnam War. Hal Buell was an AP photo editor for 41 years, 25 of them as head of AP’s photo service. He is the author/producer of more than 15 books about news photography, two of them about Vietnam.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.