The Massacre at Fire Base Mary Ann
Posted Monday, Apr. 12, 1971
Situated way up in the green, thickly jungled highlands 30 miles west of Chu Lai, Fire Base Mary Ann had long been a secure oasis for its defenders, the 1st Battalion of the Americal Division's 46th Regiment. Last week, after the base was ravaged by a handful of enemy sappers, TIME'S Saigon Bureau Chief Jonathan Larsen visited the blackened bunkers and cabled this account of the savage night:
CHARLIE COMPANY, back from patrol, was ready to relax. The men filed out of the mess hall and into their bunkers, stripped to their shorts and flopped down on their cots. Some thumbed through comic books, some talked, and some, according to various reports, smoked a few joints. The guards were somewhat more alert—but not much. As the night wore on, some apparently nodded off over their M16s.
In the 13 months since Mary Ann had been bulldozed out of a 4,000-ft. mountaintop, it had taken very few mortars and had never even been probed on the ground. On the night of the attack, SP/4 Dennis Schulte recalled, "It was quiet, as always. I had seen nothing and expected nothing. I went over to the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) and talked with some friends until about 2:30 a.m. We talked about going home—as usual."
Ten minutes later, after Schulte had drifted back to his bunker, the base exploded. Hundreds of mortar shells arced down out of the moonless sky with uncanny accuracy. Hunkered down in their bunkers, the G.I.s never even saw the 50 or so North Vietnamese sappers who slipped through the perimeter wire, wearing nothing but shorts, black grease and strings of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). One group wiped out the 155-mm. howitzers, another tossed tear gas grenades and satchel charges into the TOC, killing or wounding virtually everyone inside. Methodically, the others went from bunker to bunker, blowing them with satchel charges, RPGs and, in some cases, homemade grenades fashioned from Coca-Cola cans. One G.I. stayed alive by playing dead; a sapper came up, removed the American's wristwatch, and then went on his way.
By 4:30, when the first gunships and Medevac helicopters arrived, the entire base was in flames. "You couldn't see because of the smoke," said Lieut. Mat Noonan, a Medevac pilot. "We had to circle three times just to see where the pad was." Noonan finally set down amidst "the worst carnage I have ever seen at an American installation. There were rows and rows of bodies—some burned to charcoal, others completely disemboweled. There were nine body bags full of bits and pieces of flesh."
Only twelve enemy bodies were found on the base—one of them stark naked, snared in the perimeter wire. U.S. casualties? The first thing Schulte noticed was that "there were very few people who could walk." All twelve officers had been killed or wounded, and an enlisted man with the equivalent rank of buck sergeant had assumed command. Only at daybreak did the full extent of the massacre become clear. The official count, which seemed on the low side to some officials, was 33 dead and 76 wounded of 200 Americans. Of the 28 South Vietnamese troops in the base —which was in the process of being Vietnamized—only one was wounded. The American survivors pointed out that the South Vietnamese positions were not hit, and that the ARVN troops had made no attempt to help the embattled G.I.s. For its part, the South Vietnamese high command promptly launched a secret investigation to make sure that none of its men had betrayed the base.
In any case, Americal Division officers conceded that the base was unprepared. "Somebody out there screwed up," one U.S. sergeant concluded. "The guards were asleep and the gunners never got their guns down into final defensive positions." SP/4 Schulte found a broader moral in Mary Ann: "A lot of us spend 300 or 360 days a year in the jungle. We sleep in the rain, we eat out of cans, we stay wet ,ten or twelve days straight, until our bodies look like wrinkled prunes. The people back in the States think this war is over. It isn't."
Back then, it was hard to distinguish between friend and enemy. The South Vietnamese military was riddled with NVA spies.