|Name:||Robert Charles Lopez|
|Rank/Branch:||Private First Class/US Marine Corps|
|Unit:||Battery D, 2nd
3rd Marines, 1st Marine Div.
|Date of Birth:||30 September 1948 (Oakland, CA)|
|Home of Record:||Albuquerque, NM|
|Date of Loss:||10 May 1968|
|Country of Loss:||South Vietnam|
|Loss Coordinates:||152208N 1074541E
Click coordinates to view maps
|Status in 1973:||Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered|
|Other Personnel in Incident:||Thomas J. Blackman; Joseph F. Cook; Paul S. Czerwonka; Thomas W. Fritsch; Barry L. Hempel; Raymond T. Heyne; Gerald E. King; William D. McGonigle; Donald W. Mitchell; James R. Sargent (all USMC-missing); Glenn E. Miller and Thomas H. Perry (USSF - missing); Horace H. Fleming (CH46-missing)|
SYNOPSIS: Kham Duc Special Forces camp (A-105), was located on the western fringes of Quang Tin Province, South Vietnam. In the spring of 1968, it was the only remaining border camp in Military Region I, and was located 46 miles southwest of DaNang, on a narrow grassy plain surrounded by rugged, virtually uninhabited jungle. The camp and airstrip were bordered by the Ngok Peng Bum ridge to the west and Ngok Pe Xar Mountain, looming over Kham Duc to the east. Steep banked streams full of rapids and waterfalls cut through this tropical wilderness.
In late March 1968, US intelligence picked up information that the 2nd NVA Regiment, well over 10,000 men strong, was moving from North Vietnam, through Laos, and intended to enter South Vietnam somewhere south of Kham Duc, on it way to the DaNang area. Capt. John White, Royal Australian Army, along with two other Australian Army advisors, commanded a company of some 130 Chinese Nung commandos who comprised the 11th Mobile Strike Force Company. His orders were for his "Mike Force" to ferret out all information pertaining to the movements of the 2nd NVA regiment. To this end, they staged out of the Special Forces Camp at Kham Duc.
Five miles south of Kham Duc, Capt. White and his men, discovered the old abandoned French fort of Ngok Tavak located between the Vietnamese/Lao boarder and Route 14. Like the old fort, Route 14 was built by the French, and it ran north/south along the boarder. Kgok Tavak was roughly 40 meters by 40 meters square (a little over an acre). It was surrounded by a 6 to 8 foot high berm with fighting positions cut into it. The fort itself stood atop a small mountain with the highest point being in the center of the fort. Both the fort and the road were badly overgrown with jungle, a fact that was to their advantage in using it as a secret base of operations.
Over the next 4 weeks, Capt. White's Mike Force located and tracked the movements of the NVA regiment as it moved through Laos, then began moving up Route 14 toward them. Each day Mike Force troops would scout for the Communist force. They were aided in their search by a Forward Air Controller (FAC) who daily, from his airborne vantage point, could easily observe the enemy troop movements as they repaired Route 14 as they traveled along it. A 6-man Special Forces A-team from C Company, 5th SFG, was also staging from the old French fort.
About 1 May, to Capt. White's astonishment, 3 Marines helicoptered into the old fort asking him where he wanted 2 - 105mm howitzers placed as well as the Marine unit that was coming in with the guns. Since it is a Mike Force's job to see and not be seen, the arrival of the Marine platoon called unwanted attention to the old fort. The next day the two howitzers, 44 Marines and 1 jeep of Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 13th Marines were airlifted into the area by CH46 Chinook helicopters over Capt. White's objections. PFC Robert C. Lopez was a Marine rifleman assigned to this company.
A CIDG platoon (local irregular defense forces) of 60 men were sent from Kham Duc to beef up the defensive manpower of the fort. Capt. White stationed them outside the fort itself on the eastern side in a perimeter position between it and Route 14. Within 24 hours of the CIDG force's arrival, the defenders found their telephone wires and claymore mine wires had been cut. It was later learned that the CIDG force contained Communist infiltrators. For the next week, the NVA moved steadily closer to Kgok Tavak. On 7 May, the CIDG troops told Capt. White "they had to be part of the inner defense" of the fort. When they were told "no," they walked out vowing to return to Kham Duc. They got about 1 kilometer away from the fort when they ran into an NVA ambush. The ensuing fierce firefight could be heard by the allied forces inside the fort. Interestingly, when the CIDG force returned to Kgok Tavak, not one of them was wounded.
On the evening of 9 May 1968, Capt. White made the decision to move most the Marines and the howitzers to the highest part of the fort in the center of it. Over the next few hours, they dug their foxholes and prepared their positions. The rest of the Marines manned machine gun and mortar pits along the perimeter. At midnight, the defenders could plainly hear NVA troops moving into attack positions around their location. The commander of the 2nd NVA regiment determined that Ngok Tavak could not be bypassed because of the threat it posed to their flank once the regiment moved past the outpost. At 0300 hours on 10 May, the CIDG troops moved toward the fort yelling, "Don't shoot, don't shoot! Friendly, friendly!" Suddenly they lobbed grenades and satchel charges into the closest machine gun positions on either side of the entry, and ran into the fort. Right behind them were 2 companies of NVA with flame throwers. They ignited the ammo storage bunkers near the center of the compound.
By 0315 hours the old fort was being pounded by mortars, rockets, grenades, machine gun and small arms fire. According to Capt. White, conservatively there were 100 "friendly" troops and 300 "unfriendly" troops all within the interior of the fort fiercely fighting one another. The fighting was so intense and in such close quarters that no one could move without running into someone else. The problem was, was it friend or enemy? The allied troops were forced from the eastern and central portion of the camp, to the western quarter. In an attempt to halt the attack, an Air Force AC47 gunship, nicknamed "Spooky," was called in by the defenders to lay down a withering barrage of suppressive fire. The gunship continued strafing runs every ten minutes until it was out of ammunition, then remained on station until it was nearly out of fuel in order to provide Kgok Tavak with a desperately needed communication link. These air attacks decimated the enemy ranks to the point the NVA's attack was halted.
In the pre-dawn light, the tide of the battle began to turn in the defender's favor. Outside the fort two platoons of Nung were dug in in a "V" shaped defensive position on the old French parade ground just to the west of the fort. Each platoon had an Australian advisor with it; and because of the ammo fires, coordinated automatic and small arms fire was able to mow down the NVA troops who were now being silhouetted by the flames. As the NVA were driven back and out of the old fort, they took nearly all of their dead and wounded with them. As the allied forces secured their location, they found USSF Sgt. Glenn Miller dead with a gunshot wound in the right side of his head. They also found the bodies of 11 Marines who were killed during the fierce, and frequently hand to hand, combat which raged during the night. These bodies were placed in body bags and moved to a temporary morgue area so they could be recovered at a later time.
Also in the early morning hours, two CH46's were able to land 45 replacements from the 12th Mobile Strike Force Company and intended to remove Kgok Tavak's wounded at the same time. Both of the Chinooks were shot down, one wrecking the small helipad located to the west of the fort on the old parade ground. American medivac helicopter pilots, who were already in the area, requested permission to try to evacuate the wounded. In an uncharacteristic demonstration of honor, the NVA allowed all red cross marked helicopters to hover unmolested next to the berm where wounded defenders were loaded aboard them. As soon as each departed the area, the attack resumed. As one of the medivac helicopters began to lift off, 1st Lt. Horace Flemming, pilot of the Chinook that crashed on the helipad, and a Nung soldier were attempting to board. They were able to grab the skid, but were unable to be rescued by those inside. Both men fell to their death from the skid into the thick jungle from an altitude of approximately 100 feet.
After the counterattack forced the Communists out of the fort, Capt. White made the decision to evacuate Kgok Tavak at 1200 hours if reinforcements were unable to get into them. After informing Kham Duc of his decision, he was told to "hold on" as "reinforcements were on the way." Unfortunately, all attempts to reinforce the tiny outpost were repulsed by the NVA. At 1300 hours NVA forces encircled three-quarters of Kgok Tavak leaving only the northern side of the compound open along Route 14. The NVA plan was to allow the defenders to escape, then ambush them as they moved along the road toward Kham Duc. However, Capt. White devised an escape plan of his own. First, all the weapons, equipment and munitions that could not be carried with them were hastily piled into the command bunker and set afire. Air strikes were called in to drop napalm beginning at the northeast corner of Ngok Tavak, then these strikes were "walked out" in a line away from the fort toward the northeast. As the flames began to subside, the escape column, totaling about 80 men, departed through the fire caused by the napalm. Nung commandos were in the lead followed by the Australians, Marines, Special forces and a rear guard of Nungs. As they departed the camp, a mortar round exploded in the rear of the column killing and wounding several of the Nungs. Special Forces medical specialist Thomas Perry dropped back to aid the wounded. When the NVA entered the old fort, they captured Perry and the men he was treating. The rest of the allies were able to make good their escape, then were picked up by Chinook helicopters a safe distance away and transported to Kham Duc Special Forces Camp,
For those men killed at Kgok Tavak whose bodies were left behind, they have the right to have their remains returned to their families, friends and country. For Thomas Perry, along with many other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Indochina, his fate could be quite different.
Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE America Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
Military men were called upon to fight in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.