Abandoned in Hell: The Fight for Vietnam’s Firebase Kate

  • By William Albracht and Marvin J. Wolf
  • Penguin
  • 375 pp.

A debate about strategy — but not courage.

The Vietnam War cost more than 50,000 American lives and left a generation of our citizens, on both sides of the debate generated by the war, embittered and bewildered. More American wars have been fought since, often promoted by leaders who went out of their way to avoid service in Vietnam, but none have roiled the nation like the conflict in Southeast Asia.

Much of the bitterness has eased as the nation realizes that the soldiers who fought in Vietnam only did their duty — in most cases, honorably; in many cases, bravely. Recent surveys indicate that almost 90 percent of Americans now respect — even revere — Vietnam veterans.

The bewilderment will probably last a lot longer. How could it not, since almost immediately after the South Vietnam “domino” fell to the Communists, they fell out among themselves, with China and North Vietnam at each other’s throats in a border war. And now there is another Hanoi Hilton, which accepts Visa and MasterCard!

Epic stories about defenders who were outnumbered and outgunned (or out-speared) have held a special fascination since the Spartans fought the Persian hordes at Thermopylae. Think of the Alamo, or Custer’s Last Stand.

That’s why Abandoned in Hell: The Fight for Vietnam's Firebase Kate, by William Albracht and Marvin J. Wolf, is such an inspiring Vietnam tale. Unlike the battles mentioned above, it has a happier ending, with most of the defenders surviving to fight another day.

Not that the odds weren’t as daunting as those at the Alamo or Little Big Horn. At Firebase Kate, in 1969, a group of fewer than 200 Green Berets, U.S. Army artillerymen, and Montagnard militiamen held off 6,000 surrounding North Vietnamese regulars for almost a week before finally abandoning a hill that was under constant infantry assault and denuded by enemy shell and rocket fire.

The defenders didn’t want to leave. But with ammunition and water running low, and with the number of dead and wounded mounting, the man in charge, Captain William Albracht, decided to fight his way out.

Air evacuation was not an option. As Albracht wryly notes, by the end of the battle, the only things that could land on Firebase Kate were enemy shells.

Albracht, barely in his 20s and believed to be the youngest American captain in Vietnam, led his remaining troops off Kate and back to the relative safety of U.S. lines in a nighttime march unique in the war’s history. He got his wounded out (which included himself) and earned the first of the three Silver Stars he won for his Vietnam service, the last of which was belatedly awarded in 2012.  

The Firebase Kate battle was not without costs. Dozens of Americans and Montagnards died, including some very brave U.S. helicopter pilots. Those pilots, and their Army and Air Force comrades in helicopters and gunships, did their best to resupply Kate, remove the wounded, and rake the enemy assaulting the base’s perimeter.

As Albracht acknowledges, the battle’s outcome would have been far different without their support, and that of U.S. fighter bombers, in the face of hostile anti-aircraft fire and often deplorable flying conditions in the mountainous region.   

Albracht and Wolf are respectful of the courage — and professionalism — of the North Vietnamese, but not of the South Vietnamese “allies,” who demurred from mounting a rescue of the troops on Kate for a variety of reasons, one of which, apparently, was that they hated the Montagnards, considering the indigenous tribesmen barely human.

In contrast to that opinion, Bill Albracht says of his Montagnard soldiers: “None of the 27 Americans who served on Firebase Kate would have survived the enemy’s onslaught if these short, wiry, dark-skinned, and unshakably loyal fighting men had not stood their ground, bled and died and fought as bravely and as well as any soldiers on the planet.”

Makes one wonder just who are more human: men who fight for comrades or men who don’t.

Although I assumed the authors would praise all things military and criticize the media and opponents of the war, Albracht and Wolf strive to be objective. They present a riveting account of a long-forgotten battle in a historical perspective that doesn’t mince words about the political and military shortcomings of American and South Vietnamese strategies and leaders — strategies that put isolated artillery firebases too far from the units they were supposed to support, along a border they couldn’t shoot across to return fire from an enemy using Cambodia as a sanctuary.

(That didn’t stop Albracht, who, when things got really desperate, put the lives of his men ahead of political expediency. He authorized cross-border strikes, which didn’t make President Nixon particularly happy.)

Leaders who cut Kate’s ammunition requests by half because they thought the defenders were using too much. (I’m sure the North Vietnamese would have agreed.) After the battle, Albracht tried to throttle one rear-echelon supply officer.

This kind of honesty and candor makes the actual battle scenes (themselves finely rendered) even more powerful.

In addition to being a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, Albracht was a senior Secret Service agent whose 25-year White House career included the protection details of four American presidents and numerous foreign dignitaries. Marvin J. Wolf is also a decorated Vietnam vet and the author or co-author of many nonfiction books.

They were able to locate and interview extensively many of the survivors of the Firebase Kate battle and have thus crafted a book that is more than a mere war story. The introduction alone, with its history of the South East Asia conflict and the Montagnard culture, is both fascinating and educational.

With a forward by Joseph L. Galloway (co-author of We Were Soldiers Once) and excellent illustrations and photos, Abandoned in Hell: The Fight for Vietnam's Firebase Kate is a story that deserved to be well told.

And now it has been.

Lawrence De Maria, a Marine veteran and former New York Times Pulitzer-nominated reporter, is a reviewer and columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books. He recently released his 12th thriller on Amazon.com.

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