Anniversary: 2-138th’s Return from Vietnam

By John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

News Article on 2-138th’s return from Vietnam

This year, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the return to the Commonwealth of two Kentucky National Guard units which had been activated for Federal service, one Air and one Army unit. 

To see all photos from this event, please click HERE.

On June 8, 1969, members of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, stationed at Shewmaker Air National Guard Base in Louisville, returned following 16 months of duty in support of the Pueblo Crisis.

January 26, 1968, the Pueblo Crisis off the coast of North Korea precipitated the recall to Federal service of the Wing.  In July 1968, Wing Headquarters and an enlarged 165th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron were moved to Richards Gebaur Air Force Base near Kansas City, Missouri.  During this call-up, the 123rd units flew approximately 20,000 tactical flying hours and delivered almost 320,000 reconnaissance prints to requesting agencies.  The command was deployed on important missions to the Panama Canal Zone, the Alaskan Air Command and to Itazuke Air Base, Japan.  Performance during the period attained for the unit its first Air Force Outstanding Unit Award (AFOUA).

Soldiers from the 2-138th returning from Vietnam

On October 24, 1969, the men of the 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery were officially released from active Federal service and reverted to state control.  These men had just completed their tour of duty in Vietnam. 

On April 19, 1968, the 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery, Kentucky National Guard, with units in Louisville, Bardstown, Elizabethtown and Carrollton, were ordered to active duty by President Lyndon B. Johnson.  Among 24,500 men ordered to active duty in 88 units across the United States were 570 Kentucky Guardsmen and 750 Kentucky Air Guardsmen.

Following three weeks of processing at home station, the Kentucky Artillerymen were flown to Fort Hood, Texas, for concentrated field training and combat qualification.  Following the heritage, which had been passed down through the generations of the Kentucky National Guard, these men performed their duties with the utmost of expertise.  These were civilian soldiers taken from their civilian jobs to perform the task of liberating from Communist tyranny a tiny country practically on the other side of the world.  Even though such was quite unpopular with many U. S. citizens, these modern-day centurions carried the torch of freedom for posterity.  During the months before deployment to the Republic of Vietnam, 105 men sought an injunction from shipping the unit to a hostile zone without a declaration of war by the U. S. Congress.  The U. S. Supreme Court refused to issue the injunction.  These men had their day to be heard and never once complained of being sent to Southeast Asia.  Not one man failed to do his duty commendably.

The Kentucky men showed much spirit.  This was indicated by their disregard for a Department of Defense policy, which disallowed two brothers serving together in a combat zone. The 2nd Battalion had numerous pairs of brothers serving in combat, as well as many who had brothers serving with the U. S. Regulars in South Vietnam.  Such concern truly brought out the inbred motto of Kentuckians, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”

In Vietnam, the battalion established its headquarters at Gia Le Combat Base.  The firing batteries occupied such famous bases as Fire Base Anzio, Bastogne, Tomahawk, and Hill 88.  The battalion was responsible to provide fire support for the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne Division, whose home is Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  Together they were to keep North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars from destroying neighboring villages that were located along the China Sea.

In this endeavor the Kentucky National Guardsmen had provided such superior fire support that NVA sappers, demolition experts, were given the life-or-death mission of destroying Charlie Battery of Bardstown.  Charlie Battery had created utter destruction for the NVA and the only possible hope was an attempt to destroy her.  Later, gathered intelligence indicated that the NVA had practiced their mission of destruction for some time, because they were aware of Charlie Battery’s battle adeptness.

The evening of June 19, 1969 was a quiet one for Charlie Battery at their Firebase on Tomahawk Hill.  There had been few attacks by the enemy in the previous days and fire missions were at a minimum.  A heavy rain was pouring down on Firebase Tomahawk.  South Vietnamese rainstorms are much different from those in the States.  It comes down with such force that one would think a dam had broken.  The rain numbs all hearing senses and limits visibility to one foot.  The NVA infiltrators were pleased with such conditions as it allowed them freedom of movement, which, on a quite night would be checked.  Many of the off-duty men of Charlie were watching a James Bond movie or thinking about their loved ones back in Kentucky.

Meanwhile, approximately 150 NVA sappers were massing outside the perimeter of the compound.  Twenty-two infantrymen from the 101st Airborne Division were manning the perimeter.  At approximately 1:45 a.m., 75 NVA sappers, clad only in loin cloths and skullcaps with satchel charges strapped to their bodies and carrying rocket propelled grenades [RPG’s] (shoulder-firing rocket launchers), proceeded to snake through the barbed concertina wire barricade.  Supported by a mortar unit the sappers completely overran the defending infantry, killing and wounding most of them.

One of the Bardstown soldiers shouted the first alarm to his comrades and the destruction was on.  The deadly sappers, who were, as would be later confirmed, on drugs, moved around devilishly free with no fear of death.  They threw satchel charges into the bunkers, killing and wounding many.  The wounded, as well as those unharmed Kentucky artillerymen, fought back with every ounce of life to drive the fanatical enemy from the firebase.  At the same time, the other batteries of the battalion, located at other firebases nearby, were being shelled by the NVA so that they were unable to provide little or no fire support for Charlie Battery.

The sappers delivered approximately 150 satchel charges and RPG’s, during the battle.  After destroying an ammunition storage area, three howitzers, nine bunkers, the mess hall, dining tent, maintenance building, four ammunition carriers, three 2 ½-ton trucks, two ¾ -ton trucks, and three jeeps, the marauders were forced to retreat.  U. S. Army C-47 gunships zeroed in on NVA positions and forced the surviving NVA to run for their lives.

After a two-hour fight the Kentucky artillerymen held the hill, stopping the NVA’s mission of the destruction of Firebase Tomahawk, but at a high cost.  There were nine U. S. casualties on the battlefield, five of which were Kentuckians, 28 of the enemy were killed.  Other dead and wounded were carried off by the enemy in their retreat.  The Kentuckians took one prisoner, from which they learned much so that no such attack could occur again.

Senior Commander in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, said the 2nd Battalion 138th Field Artillery, was “one of the best trained, and absolutely the best maintained battalion-sized unit in Vietnam.”

The Kentucky artillerymen earned five battle streamers for the battalion’s colors while in Vietnam:           

  1. Counteroffensive, Phase IV, 02 Apri1 1968 – 30 June 1968.
  2. Counteroffensive, Phase V, 01 July 1968 – 01 November 1968.
  3. Counteroffensive, Phase VI, 02 November 1968 – 22 February 1969.
  4. Tet 69/Counteroffensive, 23 February 1969 – 08 June 1969.
  5. Summer – Fall 1969, 09 June 1969 – 31 October 1969.

In October 1969, a welcome home ceremony was held for the returning Kentucky artillerymen from Vietnam.  Members of the battalion stood proudly in honoring its achievements.  

Approximately 125,000 Kentuckians served in the Vietnam War.  One thousand seventy-seven gave their lives. 

Today, the men and women of the 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery, Kentucky National Guard are still serving our Nation and the citizens of the Commonwealth.  Its ranks are filled with soldiers who carry on a proud tradition of service, some of these currently serving are the sons or grandsons of the Kentucky Vietnam Veteran Guardsmen.

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