Some time back, I wrote about this young U.S. Army Captain, the youngest one in Vietnam, and his actions at an isolated forward artillery base called “Firebase Kate.” His name is William Albracht. I have since come in contact with two Vietnam veterans, Joe Murphy and Ken Moffett, who have been engaged in a long effort to have Capt. William Albracht’s Silver Star upgraded to a Medal of Honor.
I came to realize, in my conversations with Murphy and Moffett, that this man’s story needs to be told at greater length. As a result, I am going to try to unfold the circumstances and events that took place at Firebase Kate from October 28 through November 2, 1969, over the next few days, so that you can see for yourselves the true quality of Capt. Albracht’s courage and leadership skills more fully. The beginning of the story follows. My resource for this information is taken from a document called the “Executive Summary of Firebase Kate and CPT Albracht’s Valorous Leadership.”
Firebase Kate was established in September of 1969, a month before the events that will be described in this story. It was located in the III Corps area of the Central Highlands of South Vietnam 3 kilometers (less than 3 miles) from the Cambodian border and some 9 kilometers (less than 6 miles) from the Special Forces Camp A236 at a place called Bu Prang.
On October 28, Capt. William Albracht was sent to Firebase Kate to serve as the de facto commander of a Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) force at the firebase. These CIDG forces were made up of indigenous mountain tribesmen called Montagnards. There were 132 CIDG troops at the firebase along with one Special Forces sergeant and 27 US artillerymen. The base included three artillery pieces; two 155mm and one 105 Howitzers.
Albracht did an immediate inspection of the firebase with the Special Forces Sergeant, Daniel Pierelli. Pierelli had only arrived a day earlier himself. Seeing the condition of the firebase’s defenses he was stunned at their inadequacy and immediately gave orders to strengthen those defenses. And it was none too soon.
The next day North Vietnamese Army forces began to make their move out of Cambodia from the Ho Chi Minh Trail complex with the intention of eventually taking control of the Central Highlands area of South Vietnam, splitting South Vietnam in two. In this initial phase they were going to take out the three firebases, including Firebase Kate, on their way to taking the Special Forces camp at Bu Pang. Firebase Kate, Capt. Albracht’s Montagnards and 29 Americans were about to be hit by an estimated 6,000 men of the NVA’s 28th and 66th Infantry Regiments.
All hell was about to break loose.
At around 2330 hours the NVA hit a listening post manned by six CIDG troops on a small hill just 100 meters north of Firebase Kate. They were able to pull back behind Firebase Kate’s perimeter. The next morning, October 29, the NVA began a barrage on the firebase with recoilless rifles and mortars, killing one officer and wounding several of the US and CIDG troops.
Here is where Capt. Albracht’s incredible series of heroic acts begins. Not knowing the size of the enemy forces, Albracht led a recon patrol of about 20 CIDGs to try to assess the location and numbers of the enemy they were facing. They found blood trails and an enemy helmet and continued down a steep slope through waist high elephant grass when they were suddenly ambushed with machine guns and small arms fire.
Albracht ordered his men to low-crawl back to the cover of a berm about 30 meters up the hill. Three of his men were injured, but Albrecht put his men into staggered ranks and began his own assault on the ambushers.
At this time, Albrecht was notified by an Army aerial observer pilot that a very large enemy force was on the move to flank his position. Albracht immediately organized his men and pulled back to the berm again. It was at this moment that he realized that one of his men was missing. Albracht, against caution and under heavy small arms fire from the NVA, went back down into the ambush site to find his man. He found the CIDG soldier wounded and unconscious, put him on his shoulders and carried him back to the berm position.
The US Army observer plane then told him that even larger numbers of the enemy were trying to get into position to prevent his return to the firebase. To make things worse, air support was still at least 20 minutes away.
Albracht led his patrol on a forced march back to the firebase, carrying all of their wounded with them. Within hours the NVA had surrounded Firebase Kate and cut off all of the approaches and began to pour small arms fire, mortars, recoilless rifles and rocket fire on top of the artillery outpost. Albracht called for medivac helicopters to remove his wounded men, but as the Dust Off chopper approached, the NVA filled the air with mortars and rocket fire.
Albracht went out into the open in plain view of the enemy to direct the Dust Off chopper. He witnessed an enemy rocket launched from a nearby hill and realized it was headed for the chopper and began furiously waving the medivac off. At the last moment the chopper turned away and the rocket exploded near Albracht. He was wounded in the arm by shrapnel but made it back to the Fire Detection Center bunker and had the wound bandaged.
He refused to be medivaced himself and returned to the action.
Then the enemy began a ground attack, which Albracht thought was only the prelude to a much larger attack and requested reinforcements. A second CIDG company was heading to the base on helicopters, but the enemy ground fire, including 37mm antiaircraft guns, made it impossible to land those reinforcements. Three attempts were made over the next few hours and in the end only a platoon size force was landed on the base.
That’s when Albracht’s air support finally arrived.
Two flights of fighter bombers dropped bombs and napalm and shot rockets at the enemy fighting positions. But the thickness of the jungle prevented the FAC in the air from being able to see significant targetable movements. To aid them in their efforts, Albracht moved out into the open to fire tracer rounds at targets to guide the FAC. The FAC would then fire smoke rockets to paint target areas for the fighter bombers.
Each time Albracht did this he exposed himself to more and more small arms and rocket fire. He did this again and again over the next four days.
The battle continues in the next installment.