The ”Black Lions” were looking for a fight. The battalion had been on a search-and-destroy mission for more than a week. Now the men of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division were exhausted from chasing the Viet Cong through the jungle 50 miles north of Saigon.
On Oct. 17, 1967, along a jungle stream called Ong Thanh west of Highway 13, the main dirt road connecting Saigon with the Cambodian border, the “Black Lions” found what they were looking for. The 2nd Battalion of “The Big Red 1” ran head on into the battle-hardened 271st Viet Cong Regiment that was waiting for them in the bush.
When the shooting stopped, 57 “Big Red 1” soldiers from a single under-strength battalion were sent home in body bags. Another 77 were wounded in the half-day jungle fire-fight. The Viet Cong left 103 of its men on the battlefield.
Brig. Gen. James Shelton (Ret.) of Cape Haze, Fla. published a book, “The Beast Was Out There,” about this jungle battle during the Vietnam War. His book tells the story of the “Black Lions’” defeat by a stronger, more experienced and batter led VC unit 37 years ago during an engagement in the heartland of South Vietnam.
“What eventually led me to write this book was a wire service article that appeared in many papers around the United States (during the war). The article said the 1st Infantry Division won the battle against the VC,” Shelton observed. “We didn’t win the battle, but the spin doctors put their spin on what happened.”
Besides wanting to set the record straight on the battle’s outcome, Shelton, 68, wrote the book to make sure up-and-coming battalion commanders understood they could get themselves into the same predicament. They could get themselves and their men killed if they got too cocky about their abilities to whip the enemy in future wars. Sometimes one side’s great fire power doesn’t make a difference in the outcome of a battle. Ong Thanh was one of those times.
“Lastly, I wanted to tell the story of these brave men who fought and died for their comrades and their country, in that order,” he noted. “I wanted to build a memorial to these men at the 1st Infantry Division Museum at Wheaton, Ill., outside Chicago. All the proceeds from the sale of my book will go to the memorial.”
At the time of the Battle of Ong Thanh, Shelton was a major serving as the operations officer for the 1st Division, of which the “Black Lions” were part. Ten days earlier he had been the operations officer for the “Black Lions Battalion.”
“The 9th Viet Cong Division, made up of three regiments—the 271st, 272nd and 273rd –was absolutely the finest infantry in the world,” Shelton said. “These VC soldiers had been in the field for yeas. They had fought and defeated the French in the 1950s.
“Our guys were new and had never been in a fight like this before. They weren’t that well trained. Although they didn’t know it at the time, the ‘Black Lions,’ part of the ‘Big Red 1, were outnumbered 10 to 1, by the enemy. It’s the story of war. It happened before and it will happen again,” the general said.
The 1st Division was given the task of clearing out the enemy base camps along Highway 13 from Saigon north to the Cambodian border. The dirt road was the main artery leading from the country’s capital north to the border.
Lt. Col. Terry Allen, the “Black Lions’” battalion commander, was a seasoned, competent, professional soldier, according to Shelton. His father was Maj. Gen. Terry Allen Sr., commander of the 1st Infantry Division during the invasion of North Africa and Sicily in World War II.
The problem with young Allen’s Vietnam command was that his unit suffered from the same problem all American infantry units in the war had to cope with: Because a soldier’s tour of duty lasted less than a year in Vietnam, there was a lot of coming and going in the ranks, which didn’t improve a soldier’s ability to fight.
The “Black Lions” and their officers had only been together on the front lies three or four months when they fought the Battle of Ong Thanh. They weren’t by anyone’s estimate seasoned troops.
But what happened to the battalion was more deeply rooted than the men’s lack of front line experience.
“It was an error in judgment. It was a lack of good intelligence. It was overconfidence on the part of the battalion commander,” Shelton said. “It didn’t register with Terry Allen that there was a much larger force than he expected. I think he thought we could whip the world. I think he thought we were invincible.”
The general said Allen’s depleted “Black Lions” battalion of 150 men was facing a regiment of 1,500 VC soldiers. D-Company’s Lt. Clark Welch was the first member of the unit to realize the battalion was possibly taking on more than it could chew the day before the enemy ambushes on Oct. 16, 1967.
“When the lieutenant confronted Terry Allen with the suggestion they should call off the search-and-destroy mission or get more troops on the ground, the battalion commander told him, ‘Look, that’s why we’re out here. We’re going in there again tomorrow, but you’re not gonna be the lead company.’ That didn’t go down well with Welch, but he followed orders,” Shelton said.
At 0805 A-Company moved out of the NDP (Night Defensive Position) looking for the VC. The 1st Platoon spotted several VC soldiers on the trail and Capt. James George, A-Company’s commander, told his men to set up a quick ambush. The enemy disappeared into the jungle before they could be attacked.
Moments later A-Company was hit by heavy fire from a concealed machine-gun. The platoon was pinned down.
“A-Company was wiped out in 20 minutes,” Shelton said. “Two platoon leaders were killed almost immediately and Capt. George was injured.
“When the shooting started, Lt. Welch, who was following behind the lead unit with D-Company, organized a perimeter around the command group that included Lt. Col. Allen and Sgt. Maj. Francis Dowling. They were inside Delta Company’s perimeter,” he said.
The VC was hiding in the jungle—30 feet from the “Black Lions” in some cases—when they launched the initial attack. They had also out flanked A-Company during the heat of the battle and were shooting at the disintegrating American unit from both sides.
Because of the closeness of the fighting it made it impossible for the “Black Lions” to call in air strikes or artillery without the risk of being killed by friendly fire. Before the battle was over, Lt. Harold Durham, a forward artillery observer with D-Company, was forced to call in 105 millimeter artillery fire on their position to keep his company from being overrun by the enemy.
“Lt. Welch remembers seeing the brave artillery lieutenant pressing the ‘press-to-talk’ switch on his radio handset with the stub of his wrist because his hand had been blown off,” Shelton writes in his book. “Durham was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions that day.”
Despite Lt. Durham’s heroic effort, it didn’t save Lt. Col. Allen or Sgt. Maj. Dowling. They both died near an ant hill in the middle of the jungle fight.
“A platoon sergeant moving to the rear was the last one to see Allen alive. The sergeant looked back and saw either an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) or Claymore mine explode near Allen, followed quickly by a burst of machine-gun fire, which killed him,” the general wrote.
“By all accounts, on Oct. 17, 1967, the “Black Lions” were out-positioned, out-gunned, out-manned and out-maneuvered,” Shelton added in his book.
For whatever reason, the 271st Viet Cong Regiment didn’t press home its victory.
“After a couple of hours, the enemy started to withdraw as we were pulling our guys out of a hole we chopped in the jungle with chainsaws,” the general said. “We brought in helicopters to get them out of there. The VC could have easily overrun the NDP and wiped out the whole battalion.
“It was kinda like Gen. George Custer at Little Big Horn. The ‘Black Lions’ were surrounded and the enemy was coming from both sides. Ong Thanh was like history repeating itself. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we got whipped. We’re fortunate we didn’t lose every man.”
Name: James E. (Jim) Shelton
Hometown: Franklin, N.J.
Address: Cape Haze, Fla.
Entered Service: 11 October 1957
Rank: Brigadier General U.S. Army
Unit: U.S. Army 8th Division and Berlin Brigade, 1st Infantry Division in Combat, Vietnam
Commendations: Three awards Bronze Star Medal, Two awards Air Medal, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Master Parachutist Badge, Expert Infantry badge, Korean and Vietnam Service Medals
Married: Margaret Joan Stephens
Children: Margaret, James Jr., Paul and Terry Shelton; Patricia Rasmussen, Theresa Garcia, Kathleen O’Halloran, and Sarah Senter.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida and is republished with permission.
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Members of Black Lions Battalion in Vietnam met troops at Fort Jackson – Brig. Gen. Jim Shelton of Cape Haze is Black Lions
Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Thursday, October 28, 2004
A dozen or so old soldiers met in Fort Jackson, S.C., outside Columbia for a weekend of reminiscing about a battle they fought in almost four decades ago. While there, they also played golf, enjoy some libation and motivated today’s troops of the 28th Black Lions Battalion.
Brig. Gen. Jim Shelton of Cape Haze was part of the annual pilgrimage this year to Jackson.
They call it their “November Nightmare,” even though this year it was held in late October.
The 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division is a fabled Army unit. It distinguished itself in World War I, World War II and Vietnam .
Members of the current Black Lions battalion serve as part of the training cadre at Fort Jackson. The fort is the largest Army basic training base in the country.
He was a major and had just been transferred to division headquarters for the Black Lions when the unit got mauled by a Viet Cong Regiment.
Thirty-seven years ago, on Oct. 17,1967, these old warriors were young jungle fighters. They took part in the little-known battle of Ong Thah, approximately 50 miles north of Saigon, South Vietnam , during the early part of the war.
They were badly beaten by a regiment of Viet Cong, South Vietnamese guerrillas. The enemy force was much larger and more experienced in jungle warfare than the Black Lions, many of whom had just arrived in Vietnam. The VC outfit had helped run the French out of Vietnam more than a dozen years earlier.
The Black Lions’ objective was to flush the enemy out of the bush and kill him. The under-strength, inexperienced battalion walked into an enemy ambush that resulted in 61 of them getting killed and 87 wounded in a couple of hours. Supposedly, 103 of the VC were killed in the jungle fighting, but that was probably an inflated figure, in view of later accounts of the battle.
For some of the Black Lions soldiers who survived the heat of battle that day, friendships were forged that will last until the last Lion involved fades away. That’s what last weekend’s get-together was all about.
They came to Jackson to be with their buddies who had experienced the horrors of close jungle combat like they had. They came to Jackson to talk about their life experiences with good friends who thought like they did, fought like they did and loved the United States of American like they did.
To be in the presence of these war heroes who put their lives on the line for their friends and their country decades ago was a humbling experience.
Of course, none of them would admit he was a war hero. If asked, they simply say they were just doing their job. They were trying to protect themselves and their buddies from getting killed in the jungle of Vietnam so long ago.