Nails In The Coffin
Thomas Calabrese –April 1970 was the deadliest month of the year with 730 American deaths and on April 1st, seventy American troops perished in the single deadliest day of the year of the Vietnam War. North Vietnamese Army units shelled 115 targets throughout the country and launched 13 ground assaults during this 24 hour time period. At the center of the carnage was a hastily built fire support base called Illingsworth. This base was located in a dry pond bed, five miles from the Cambodian border in the Tay Ninh province. The 219 yard perimeter was protected by Claymore mines, but it did not have any concertina or barbed wire as an additional defense. Defending Illingworth were 215 men from the 1st Cavalry Division and were supported by Charlie and Echo companies of 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry and elements of four field artillery batteries.
Sergeant First Class Tim Tinsley was a grizzled combat veteran who falsified his birth certificate to enlist in the Army during the last eighteen months of World War II as a fifteen year-old boy from Escondido, California. He fought at Monte Cassino and Anzio before returning to California about the same time that some of his friends were graduating from high school. He worked at a variety of odds jobs before being recalled to active duty at the beginning of the Korean War. Tinsley fought with the 25th Reconnaissance Company and 27th Infantry (Wolfhound) Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division. Two of the battles that he participated in were Heartbreak Ridge and Pork Chop Hill and he was awarded two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts before the conflict ended.
Between the end of the Korean War and the beginning of the Vietnam War, Tinsley fought as a light heavyweight boxer for six years and was ranked in the top ten before retiring from the ring. He then worked as a bodyguard for Carl DelMonico, a high stakes gambler. While at a private game at the Rivera Casino in Las Vegas, Tinsley met Frank Sinatra who mentioned an opportunity in his upcoming movie, Never So Few, a war film being directed by John Sturges. It also had Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lawford, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson as members of the cast. “The Director is looking for some combat veterans to play jungle fighters, are you interested?”
“I fought in Europe and Korea, but I’ll give it a try, thanks,” Tinsley said.
Tinsley was no Shakespearean actor, but he definitely had the appearance of a military man and he impressed Director John Sturges during the filming of the movie enough to be called back to play the part of a POW in the classic movie, The Great Escape, to be released in 1963. While in Munich, Germany during the filming, Tim and Steve McQueen would often go motorcycle riding in the Rhine Country. It was actually Tim Tinsley doing the stunt riding where Steve McQueen got tangled up in the barbed wire. Making movies was fun and playing a soldier in front of the cameras was alright, but it was really nothing more than a diversion for the adventurous Tim Tinsley. When the Vietnam War started in the mid-sixties, his wanderlust got the best of him so he contacted his friend, Korean War veteran David Hackworth, the most decorated soldier of the conflict and inquired. “I heard that you’re putting a unit together to head to Vietnam.”
David Hackworth replied, “It’s called Tiger Force and we’re going to apply guerilla warfare tactics against the Viet Cong fighters. Are you interested?”
“Yeah,” Tim replied simply.
The unit was composed of 45 elite combat warriors whose purpose was to ‘out-guerrilla the guerrillas’ going deep into the jungle, inflicting as many casualties as possible then retreating to fight another battle against the enemy on their terms. One of the hard fast rules of the unit was to never capture or hold land and make themselves a stationary target. In 1968 the Tiger Force was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and soon afterward Colonel David Hackworth decided to return to the United States. Sergeant Tinsley was one of the first persons he told, “What are you going to do… stay with the unit?”
“I stuck around this long because you were in command, but if you’re heading out then it’s time for me to move on too,” Sergeant Tinsley commented.
“Back to the real world?” Colonel Hackworth asked, “I could use the company.”
“Not quite ready for that. I still have some tread left on my tires. I think I’ll put a transfer in for 1st Air Cav, if they’ll have me.”
“They’ll have you, I’ll make sure of that,” Colonel Hackworth promised.
Nathan Nielsen was a West Point graduate. His father went to the Academy before him and served in World War II, Korea and the early part of the Vietnam War. His grandfather served with George Patton under the command of General John J. Pershing in the search for Pancho Villa, the Mexican bandido and also served both World Wars. Nathan studied military strategy and tactics, but the important advice about being a good officer came from his father. Colonel Dan Nielsen told him, “Never let arrogance get in the way of your common sense. Once you get your own command, always remember what two time Medal of Honor recipient Dan Daly said.”
“Any officer can get by on his sergeants because to be a sergeant, you have to know your stuff,” Nathan answered.
Captain Nathan ‘Nails’ Nielsen was drinking beer with several fellow company commanders from the 1st Air Calvary in an Officers Club in Da Nang when Captain Ben Curry commented, “Private News Network says that Tiger Tinsley is coming our way.”
Captain Ron Bentley, “He’s a hell-raiser who causes trouble wherever he goes.”
“There’s two ways that you can look at that, he’s either caused trouble or he’s gone where it already was. This country is in big trouble, is that Tinsley’s fault too?” Captain Nielsen interjected.
When Sergeant Tinsley arrived at the unit, Captain Nielsen requested that he be assigned to his company. When the two soldiers met each other, their conversation was brief, respectful and to the point, “Your reputation precedes you.”
“Is that a problem?” Sergeant Tinsley asked.
“If it was, I wouldn’t have requested that you be assigned to my unit,” Captain Nielsen answered.
“Got any particular rules or quirks that I need to know about?” Sergeant Tinsley inquired.
“Try to keep as many of our men alive as possible, while completing the mission,” Captain Nielsen said.
“Keeping it simple, I can live or die with that order.”
When Echo Company arrived at Fire Base Illingsworth, PFC Eddie Hagg wiped the sweat from his face with a dirty green towel hanging around his neck and commented, “This is one hot miserable place.”
Sergeant Tinsley quipped, “Don’t worry about it, better men than you have died in worse places than this.”
The rest of the unit didn’t know whether to take consolation in that statement or not. Captain Nielsen called out, “Sergeant Tinsley…over here.”
Sergeant Tinsley walked over and Captain Nielsen pulled out his map and asked. “Got any opinions?”
“We’re in the middle of some heavily trafficked NVA infiltration routes. They call this sector, ‘Dog’s Head’. A lot of American blood has been spilled around these parts and there’s only one reason to send us here,” Sergeant Tinsley said.
“Bait,” Captain Nielsen surmised.
“You said it…I didn’t.”
The behavior of Battalion Command was inexcusable, it was like they were encouraging the NVA to attack the firebase. Patrols were sent out to intercept enemy troops and then they returned to Illingsworth under full view of NVA scouts. The Americans were hit several times a day with mortars and the explosions would often detonate the Claymore mines set around the perimeter. The Americans would then have to go out and put new ones in and expose themselves to sniper fire.
Captain Nielsen was getting more frustrated with each passing day with battalion’s lack of logistical support for the base. He was angrily talking on the radio and if he could have walked across the radio waves and strangled somebody with his bare hands, he’d have done it, “Dammit, we need that concertina! What part of impending attack don’t you pencilnecks understand?”
Captain Nielsen slammed the radio receiver against a sandbag as Sergeant Tinsley walked into the bunker and commented, “You keep talking like that and people are going to think that I’m a bad influence on you.”
After repeated requests, Echo Company was reinforced with two self- propelled 8-inch howitzers from A Battery, 2nd Battalion and tons of ammunition for the big guns. Captain Nielsen approached Spec 4 Ralph Jones of A Battery, “You’d better dig some ammo pits.”
“We’ve been ordered not to,” Spec 4 Jones shrugged.
Captain Nielsen thought it was beyond reckless to leave ammo boxes in clear view of enemy gunners. In fact it was so stupid that the only reply he could come up with was, “Oh.”
Sergeant Tinsley strolled up, “Let me guess, they’re going to leave the shells out in the open.”
Captain Nielsen, “Ever wonder how many men would be alive if they knew want the hell they were doing?”
“That’s a trail you do not want to go down,” Sergeant Tinsley walked off and the conversation abruptly ended.
At 0218 hours on April 1, the first of 300 North Vietnamese mortar, rocket and recoilless rifle rounds exploded in a 20-minute barrage inside Illingworth’s perimeter. While other soldiers were panic-stricken by the intensity of the attack, Sergeant Tinsley joked, “April Fool’s Day, boys! It looks like Charlie is in a playful mood. Let’s get in the game, dogfaces.” His demeanor had a calming influence on his fellow Americans. The 32nd’s Fire Direction Center took a direct hit and three off-shift radiomen were killed. The 72nd FDC suffered a similar fate and seven more Americans were killed. Sergeant Tinsley organized a rescue team and they began digging with their hands and e-tools while under heavy bombardment. They dug out several dead bodies and Sergeant Tinsley came to the conclusion that future digging was a waste of time, so he told his soldiers, “Abandon Rescue!!” He was wounded for the first time when a jagged piece of shrapnel, two inches in length pierced his right forearm. Sergeant Tinsley called out, “Medic!” From out of the smoke and haze Corporal Josh Parmon appeared, “I caught a splinter,” the seasoned combat veteran grimaced.
Medic Josh Parmon pulled out the smoking piece of metal from the bloody flesh and applied a field dressing. Sergeant Tinsley moved his arm, “Good as new, I might need you again… don’t go too far.”
“I’ll cancel my trip to Disneyland then,” Corporal Parmon grumbled and took off in a full sprint toward another wounded soldier.
While this was happening Captain Nathan ‘Nails’ Nielsen stood in the midst of the battle and directed artillery and air strikes from a dozen circling gunships. Sergeant Tinsley kept his men focused on the mission at hand and directed small arms fire to prevent Illingsworth from being overrun. Captain Vern Smith, a Cobra pilot exposed himself to deadly enemy fire from the ground, in order relay vital communications from the firebase during the battle.
This was just the appetizer in the NVA’s menu of death for the early morning hours. The next serving was 400 bloodthirsty soldiers from the 272nd Main Force Regiment of the 9th VC /NVA Division. The dust was so dense, it was difficult for the Americans soldiers to see more than twenty five yards in front of them. When the enemy did appear, they were like ghosts appearing out of a mist from hell. Several soldiers wanted to retreat, but Sergeant Tinsley pushed them back down and yelled out, “There ain’t no place to run to, might as well fight ‘em here!”
Very rarely does a combat soldier get so close that he can see the face of the enemy that is trying to kill him, but that was definitely the case on Illingsworth this fateful morning. Flares were popping up all over the place and if a person wasn’t in a life and death situation, he might be inclined to sit down and enjoy the light show. Sergeant Tinsley saw a machine gun team struggling to clear their malfunctioning M-60 and jumped in beside them. Using his expertise, he quickly cleared the weapon and laid down suppressive fire that killed a dozen enemy soldiers then warned the machine gunner as he departed, “Short bursts only!”
Captain Nielsen turned over the fire direction responsibilities to Lt. Roy Corrigan and rushed through a hail of small arms fire to rejoin his men. He didn’t know if it was a stroke of luck or fate, but he saw Sergeant Tinsley off to his right firing at the attacking NVA troops. He dove for cover, rolled over, grabbed an enemy soldier and shot him point blank with his 45 caliber pistol. He dived in the fighting hole with Sergeant Tinsley, “How are things going?”
“One day is pretty much the same as another,” Sergeant Tinsley replied nonchalantly.
“Glad to see that you’re still alive.”
“I was thinking the same thing about you,” Sergeant Tinsley smiled and shot two more enemy soldiers coming out of the haze. Wave after wave, forty abreast the NVA came toward them. Captain Nielsen and Sergeant Tinsley ran down the line, encouraging their soldiers to hold the line. The choking dust caused many of the weapons to jam, leaving the Americans no other choice but to throw grenades and grab enemy AK-47’s from dead enemy combatants. The twenty soldiers from Recon Platoon were ’professional warriors’ much like Sergeant Tinsley and Captain Nielsen and they couldn’t have showed up at a better time.
Sergeant Dan Lozza inquired, “Where do you need us?”
Captain Nielsen answered, “With us.”
They could now focus on the task at hand and nobody needed to be encouraged to stay calm and keep their nerve. Joining together they faced the relentless onslaught of the NVA with the bravado of men who had no concern for their own survival.
It was like a prizefight between two highly motivated and skilled contenders. Just when one opponent would knock his adversary down and you’d think it was over, the other fighter would pull himself up off the canvas, shake off the effects and land a crashing blow of his own. In this life and death fight, the decision remained in doubt, changing by the minute.
Once the NVA had breached the perimeter, the howitzers were of no use so the crews of the big guns grabbed M-16’s and ignored the full fury of the NVA’s fire and answered it with their own. It was becoming obvious that the NVA were willing to lose as many men as they had to in their efforts to capture Illingsworth. It was reminiscent of the Banzai charges of the Japanese during World War II. Captain Nielsen contemplated using the desperation call of ‘Broken Arrow’. This is when a commander calls in artillery and air strikes on his own position, figuring they are about to be overrun and killed so they might as well take as many enemy soldiers with them as possible.
Sergeant Tinsley noticed the stacks of ammo boxes next to artillery positions that somehow managed to remain untouched as the battle raged around them, “I got an idea,”
Captain Nielsen fired off a burst of machine gun fire from an M-60 lying nearby, “I hope it’s a good one, because I only got one left.”
“Pull back! Pull Back!” Sergeant Tinsley yelled out to fellow soldiers. The Americans crawled into the remaining four bunkers on the west end of the base. It was so crowded that it was hard for them to breathe, let alone move. Sergeant Tinsley grabbed two (LAW’s) light anti- tank weapons which are basically disposable bazookas, and handed one to Captain Nielsen. They crawled out of the bunker and kneeled down side by and side and sighted in on the ammo boxes as bullets hit all around them. They both fired then dived for cover and if they could have, they would have pulled the earth right over them. There was a titanic roar as the artillery rounds went off in rapid succession. The ground shook like an earthquake on steroids and when the explosions stopped, there was a 50 foot deep crater in the center of the firebase and dozens of dead NVA soldiers were lying around it. Americans slowly began crawling out of their fighting holes to see what was left of their base.
Ten minutes later, a formation of medivac choppers began landing one by one to pick up the dead and wounded. A UH-1 Iroquois (nicknamed “Huey”) helicopter carrying the Battalion Commander, his entourage and press officials arrived after of the battle. Colonel Harold Conway arrived wearing clean and pressed jungle utilities and shined jungle boots, He called out “Who’s in charge here?” Colonel Conway had made himself a dubious reputation as a leader who managed to avoid combat while giving the impression that he was involved in the action.
Captain Nielsen was getting treated for a scalp wound by a medic and called out, “Over here.”
Colonel Conway scanned the area and everywhere he looked he saw destruction and dead bodies so he decided to make a lighthearted comment for the benefit of the media, “It looks like we had a little bit of trouble.”
“Nothing escapes the keen eyes of Battalion leadership,” Captain Nielsen’s statement was laced with sarcasm.
Before their verbal interaction escalated, Sergeant Tinsley limped over with field dressings on both arms, right leg and covered with dust and dried blood, “You got lucky, Colonel.”
“How so?” Colonel Conway responded.
“If you had gotten here an hour earlier, you might have gotten your uniform dirty.”
Colonel Conway was so angry that he didn’t know how to react. He spun around to go back to his chopper, “Let’s get outa’ here!” and tripped over a dead enemy soldier and fell face forward into a bunker. The only thing sticking out of the ground were his legs and the combat photographers did not hesitate to capture his embarrassing image on film. When the photo was printed in the Star and Stripes newspaper, the caption read; Battalion Commander Gets to Bottom of Problem.
If it wasn’t that Captain Nielsen and Sergeant Tinsley were being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions on Fire Support Base Illingworth, Colonel Conway would have thrown the book at them. Both men decided that it was in their best interest to transfer to the Reconnaissance Battalion. While serving with this unit they were often required to go deep behind enemy lines on their missions.
The vicious and merciless North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong Guerillas were faced with two daunting and seemingly insurmountable tasks. If they somehow managed to escape certain death at the hands of Captain Nathan ‘Nails in the Coffin’ Nielsen, they still had to elude the lethal blows of Sergeant Tim ‘Claws of the Tiger’ Tinsley.