March 6, 1968 Battle  by Kevin Seldon

Fifty-six years ago, Lieutenant Colonel James Wesley Marsh led his battalion of Marines through a tumultuous day along the DMZ. In all his combat experience which included a tour as a rifle platoon commander in Korea where he was wounded twice, Lieutenant Colonel Marsh’s ultimate leadership test would come against a formidable enemy in the DMZ in an area of operation between Con Thien and Gio Linh. On this day, March 6, 1968, Lieutenant Colonel Marsh would demonstrate the professionalism, commitment, and courage that epitomizes combat leadership. This is the story of Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines who were ambushed by a battalion of NVA in the eastern DMZ area of operation. The following accounts were taken from a multiple array of sources including the book, “No Shining Armor, The Marines at War in Vietnam,” as well as the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines command chronologies. Additional material came from several casualty cards as well as emails from several who participated in this operation.

By March 1968, with the siege of Khe Sanh entering its 3rd month, and in the wake of the failed Tet offensive, operations along the DMZ continued to generate large-scale, prolonged and intense contact between U.S. and NVA forces. Along the eastern DMZ region, just northeast of Con Thien, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines under the command of forty-year-old Lieutenant Colonel James Wesley Marsh, a native of Clovis, New Mexico. Marsh was a seasoned combat veteran who commanded a rifle platoon in Korea and was wounded twice. Marsh, a mustang who enlisted in 1945 as well as Naval Academy Graduate of 1950, took command of the battalion on January 21, 1968—the same day as the siege of Khe Sanh began. 

By early March, the battalion increased their area of operations in the eastern DMZ region due to detection of increased NVA activity. During the month, the battalion would be engaged in heavy prolonged encounters with the enemy estimated to be a battalion-size force. The emboldened enemy was also incorporating heavy artillery during their operations in this area.

On March 3rd, Charlie Company of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines who were also operating in this area, encountered an estimated 50 NVA. Using tanks and preceded by artillery support, the Marines assaulted into this enemy fortification. They were assisted by Company K of Lieutenant Colonel Marsh’s battalion. The enemy position was very quickly overrun with the fire support of tanks. Although only 17 NVA bodies were found, estimates suggested several more NVA had been killed in the pursuit by fire efforts of the Marines who lost one Marine who was wounded.

On the same day, elements of Lima Company 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines spotted enemy movement which was met by artillery and machine gun fire. Marine snipers operating within Lima Company’s lines accounted for nine enemy killed. Several more were likely killed by the air strikes called in as well as the artillery support. Intelligence later reported that this NVA force was likely a battalion moving northeast along a roadway. Assessment of the area found dead enemy with large packs, radios and other gear to suggest that a larger-scale operation was in the mix. One of the NVA soldiers killed by one of the snipers was found with rather large-power binoculars. The total number of confirmed and probable NVA dead was 84.

Given the dramatic escalation in the enemy’s activities, Lieutenant Colonel Marsh’s battalion was on an extra heightened sense of alert. The battalion occupied a position designated as Alpha-3 (A3), which was a small rise halfway between Gio Linh and Con Thien. The place had wood-reinforced bunkers built by the Seabees and engineers. The vegetation for about 1/3 of a mile all around had been bulldozed away. The position was enclosed by a massive tangle of barbed wire and buffered by a strip dotted with anti-personnel mines. Hundreds of meters north of A3 was Hill 28, which was always held by at least two companies and served as a key observation point. North beyond Hill 28 were the two northern-most outposts nearest the DMZ—OP Gold and Silver. OP Gold was nearest 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines area of operation. The Marines of Marsh’s 3rd Battalion had grown accustomed to the nightly round of incoming mortars since their arrival the previous Christmas. 

According to Private First Class Robert L. ‘Lex’ Payne, “Every day they’d fire, and it seemed like the first round that come in hit the 3rd Platoon shitter.” Private First Class Craig Pyles recalled the experience of being under artillery fire, “People talk about artillery whistling. That’s bullshit. It doesn’t whistle unless it’s a long way off. When they’re real close, you hear that screaming sound, and then for a split second there just silence and then instead of kaboom, there just a crack. The ground just seems to leap up underneath you. Then you can smell the cordite from the explosion. That whole experience can be so demoralizing when there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Routine patrols were conducted, but the patrol size was dramatically increased due to the scale of the enemy’s activities and frequent use of battalion-sized forces. On March 6, 1968, Mike Company, along with the battalion command staff, initiated a patrol at 6:55 A.M. to sweep the vicinity of an old French-built road. According to First Lieutenant Jim Furlow, the Forward Air Controller, who accompanied the battalion command staff, “Today started as a walk in the sun with Bill [Captain William] McAdam and Mike Company. ‘Tex’ Keyes was carrying the radio. I was always more confident if ‘Tex’ was with me. Colonel Marsh and Sergeant Major Neal King, newly arrived, also came along, not in command, but more for orientation. It was a beautiful morning and I was in pretty good spirits. If I could live a few more days, I was going home. The Colonel and I talked some as we waited to go out the wire. I'm still bitter about being in the field my last week in country.” Private First Class John Mick recalled, “I carried five canteens of water that day, I loaded up, like nine grenades. I carried 752 rounds; I’ll never forget that amount. I know I was weighed down, but I was never so thankful as I had that ammunition with me when we got out there.”

First Lieutenant Bill Kenerly, who commanded 2nd Platoon, recalled, “We knew that we were probably going to make contact out there. Of course, the whole reason for the March 6th operation was that intelligence had reported that there was a road through the DMZ in that area and that the North Vietnamese were moving supplies down by truck. The objective on March 6th was a piece of high ground that we were supposed to use as an observation post, to sit up there and spend the day looking for this road and any movement along it.” 

At 9:30 A.M., a Marine observation post nearby heard the report of mortars firing from an estimated 1400-1800 meters distance and reported this to battalion. Furlow recalled, “We had not been walking very long, when there was an explosion and we lost a Marine to a mine. His body was carried back to A-3 [the starting point of the patrol].” The patrol continued west. By 11:00 A.M., Mike Company made their final approach to the French-built roadway. At approximately 11:05 A.M., the company made contact with what was estimated to be an NVA company dug in on both sides of the road. According to Private First Class Lex Payne, “We moved until we made contact with the NVA, and that’s when we found out we had them right where they wanted us.” Private First Class John Mick recalled, “Our squad was walking on line. We stopped at the base of this little hill and I saw these blades of grass with a lot of footprints all around them in the mud.” Standing near Mick was twenty-year-old Corporal Ronald Lee Ellis of Evansville, Indiana. Mick noticed Ellis stand straight up. “The next thing I know, there was a gook up behind this great big tree on top of this hill and he opened up.” The round struck Ellis in the stomach just below his rib cage close to his belly button. As Mick grabbed a hold of Ellis and called for the corpsman. A corpsman named Winslow rushed to treat Ellis as the gunfire quickly intensified.

Initially the enemy engaged with small arms and eventually three particularly troublesome machine gun positions. Captain William H. McAdams’ Marines encountered and neutralized three enemy gun emplacements, and as Mike Company consolidated their position along the berm, they were immediately taken under fire from NVA troops estimated to be approximately a battalion-size force dug in along an estimated eighteen fortified positions on the other side of the berm and in extremely close proximity to the lead elements of Mike Company. The NVA holding this ground employed AK-47s Chinese-made grenades Marines. 
Private First Class Mick recalled, “We advanced around the side. We didn’t attack that machine gun bunker because after we got hit we forgot what we were doing because everything was happening around us so quick. A guy named Thatcher ran ahead. Well, we got up on the hill and we were looking over when Thatcher screamed a bloody scream. We called down, ‘Corpsman up, corpsman up.’ A gook threw a Chicom in there on him and blew his left leg off just about six inches above his kneecap. When I jumped down there with Doc Winslow, red, dirty-looking blood was pumping out of his leg. We put a tourniquet on and helped pick him up and carry him out of the hole.”

Despite this intense sudden fusillade of gunfire, men from Mike Company engaged the enemy at alarmingly close range. According to Furlow, “About mid-morning the action started quickly with rifle fire. Light at first, but it soon became heavy. We had run into NVA, they had holes and they began to fight back. The command group was about fifty yards behind the lead platoon.” Private First Class Thomas Evanoff, who had just arrived in country and had never been in a firefight, recalled, “My life basically changed March 6th, 1968. Just as daylight was breaking, we walked into a battalion ambush. From then on it got worse.” 

The company quickly got on line and began to return fire. “There was a berm there and I could see Marines firing from behind it. I saw one Marine stand up and throw a grenade almost straight down the other side of the berm so the NVA were really close,” recalled Furlow. When the action began, the troops Mike Company had stumbled into were elements of the 27th Regiment of the NVA's 325th Division McAdams’ additional platoons raced to reinforce the line. Shortly into that action that morning, the NVA began to employ mortars and artillery fire which inflicted several casualties. Lieutenant Colonel Marsh immediately arrived on scene and found Mike Company heavily engaged in an incredibly intense firefight.

Twenty-one-year-old Lance Corporal David Warren Cutshall of Rapid City, South Dakota, a machine gun team leader with Mike Company was among the lead elements pinned down when they encountered the NVA. Cutshall occupied a critical position with his machine gun when he spotted elements of the NVA maneuvering through the adjacent tree line as they tried to flank the pinned-down elements of Mike Company. Firing tracers into the flanking enemy columns, Cutshall enabled an anti-tank assault team to destroy an enemy bunker with rocket fire. For the next several hours, Cutshall held this critical position protecting the flank of the pinned-down company.

As the firefight intensified, Private First Class Lex Payne recalled, “It was the only firefight that I was in, in the open, where the gooks actually massed up and attacked us, sweeping on our line like our tactics. We were pulling the pins on the frags [grenades] and letting the spoon go and counting to three and throwing them and getting air burst to keep them off us.”

Initial Radio reports over the battalion frequency after the engagement began reported two Marines from Mike Company were wounded and a medevac was requested. According to Furlow, “Mike Company formed a sort of a 'U' shaped perimeter and firing and explosions continued. We called for an AO and I began looking around for a place to land med-evac helos. I found a place that offered cover for the helicopters toward the open end of the 'U.’ It had a tree line between the berm and the LZ.” As the initial casualties were carried back to the LZ, the great distance from the front to the LZ, which was intentionally done to protect the medical evacuation choppers, proved to be a great distance that greatly delayed the evacuation of casualties. By 11:25 A.M., Mike Company’s first two casualties were evacuated. 

According to Furlow, “When I got back to the command group and told the Colonel [Lieutenant Colonel Marsh] what I was going to do, he asked me to land the helicopters closer. He felt there would not be enough protection for the helos in the open end of the perimeter. I explained that to get closer the helicopters would be exposed to more ground fire during their approach they would have to come in above that tree line at slow speed, then drop into the perimeter also more exposed when they tried to leave. The Colonel listened to argument but stuck with his idea to bring the helos in closer. I thought that we could try the closer LZ and if the birds got shot up we could move the LZ back to my original location.” 

By 11:35 A.M., NVA mortars began to target nearby Lima Company. Aerial observation overhead spotted an NVA mortar position and relayed coordinates to the artillery. At 11:40 A.M., Major Ray F. Findlay, the battalion operations officer, requested gunship support, but he was informed no gunship support was available. To gain a tactical advantage, Mike Company moved toward a ridge and were immediately engaged by three strong NVA machine gun positions. Pinned down, the company took several casualties. Among them was Corporal Ronald Ellis who had been hit early in the engagement and was bleeding. One Marine remembered, “Ron was our first KIA on this bad day in 1968. I held his hand as Doc Winslow was working on him.” As the corpsman worked on Ellis, Private First Class John Mick recalled, “I asked Doc Winslow if I could help, and he said, ‘Help me hold him down. Help me hold him down.’ He kept trying to get up. I sat there for what seemed like forever and watched this guy slowly die. The blood drained. What happened, the bullet went through him, which we didn’t realize.” Ellis was a Marine his comrades affectionately referred to as Moose. According to Private First Class Lance Corporal Vito Lavacca, “Moose was the epitome of what a Marine should look like. He was a big guy, about six-three, six-four, dark hair, big kind of lantern jaw. Good lookin’ guy. Deep voice. Funny. Came from someplace around Chicago.” As Private First Class Mick tried to hold Ellis down while the corpsman worked on him, no one realized he had an exit wound. “You really couldn’t see what went on the back side. The doc was trying to stop the front [bleeding] and it was all running out the back of him. We just couldn’t get an IV in him and his veins were collapsing.” Despite the corpsman’s best efforts, Ellis died before he could be evacuated. 

According to Furlow, “By this time, we had begun getting wounded men into the LZ. We had med-evac helos en route. We were unable to get an AO [gunships].” As the exchange of gunfire intensified, reports were received that the NVA were seen approaching the area with mortars. Within minutes, the first NVA mortars began falling near Mike Company. 60mm mortar teams also raced forward and set up positions to begin laying down a barrage on Mike Company’s front. According to First Lieutenant Bill Kenerly commanding the 2nd Platoon, “When the fighting broke out, I tried to get my mortars in position. The hill we were supposed to be on was entirely too overgrown with vegetation to shoot a mortar from the top of it, so I moved my platoon and the mortars down into a creek bed where the mortars could set up and didn’t have the overhead cover that would keep them from firing. At that point we weren’t involved in the firefight. It was going on 150 or 200 yards away.” Shortly after emplacing their mortars in the creek bed, Kenerly got a call over the radio from Captain McAdams directing him to move a squad to reinforce 3rd Platoon. “I detached a squad and sent them over there. That happened three times,” recalled Kenerly. “By the time I got to where the firefight was, myself and my radio operator were all that was left. Everybody had been assigned out somewhere to reinforce the line at different positions, so I didn’t have a platoon to command.”

By 11:52 A.M., the guns of 1st Battalion, 12th Marines were delivering counterbattery fire on these NVA mortar positions. According to Furlow, “The Marines started flipping mortar rounds at the NVA, and soon we were getting artillery support from the rear. The NVA were also getting organized and they begin to fire mortars at us plus they started getting artillery support from their positions north of the Ben Hai River. The air was filled with noise of battle explosions from mortars, artillery, RPG's and rockets the firing of automatic weapons. This went on for hours.” As the exchange of mortar and artillery fire ensued, Furlow recalled, “A Huey gunship, circling overhead during a med-evac, called me on the radio. He said he had spotted an enemy mortar crew, out on the trace, and in the open, setting up a tube to fire at us. I asked him to, 'Take them out!' But he said his orders were to protect the med-evac helo in our LZ at the time and that he could not break away to attack the mortar crew. I said to him, 'Jesus, we will get more wounded if you don't take them out!' He just ignored me the med-evac lifted out of the LZ and they were gone. There was a Marine mortar crew set up opposite me in the LZ. I didn't know what to do about the NVA mortar so I ran over to our guys and told the story to the Lieutenant running that crew. He had no answer for me but we shared our thoughts for a moment.”

By 12:32P.M., Mike Company radioed that they had suffered seven casualties. According to Furlow, “When we called for our first med-evac, some jerk in the rear, back at Dong Ha, came up on the net and told us not to use the frequency we were using and to change it! We were using the frequency that we always used. Can you believe this? I in a real live fire fight men are bleeding all around me explosions are occurring all over the place I'm running from hole to hole getting everything ready for the med-evac talking to Corpsmen and to the wounded to determine who we would send out first and this son of bitch in the rear, sitting in a tent, tells us we have to change frequency and possibly screw up our life saving efforts! When he wouldn't listen to Tex, I got on the radio. I explained that I had an emergency med-evac in progress and that I was not about to screw it up by changing frequencies with helicopters inbound. I did this in a pretty calm voice. When I finished explaining my situation to him his reply was 'My six says for you to get off the freq!' I now went into my voice that left no doubt to his imagination! I told him I was the, 'Mad 14 Actual and that I was going to run my med-evac on this frequency and that if he came on the air while I was running my med-evac that I would find him when this was shit was over. My actual words were more like 'If you **** this up for me, I'm going to come find you and I'm going to kill your sorry ass!' Believe me, at that moment I was not kidding! And he knew it!”

As the lead elements of Mike Company continued to exchange fire with the NVA near the berm of the French-built road, their casualties began to mount as NVA mortar fire continued to plaster the area. The Medevac helicopter, which had left temporarily to refuel, was not immediately available when Major Findlay relayed a request at 1:17 P.M. for immediate evacuation of nine critically wounded Marines. Within ten minutes, as enemy resistance seemed to intensify, Findlay radioed a request for continuous air support by both fixed wing and helicopter gunships. By 1:30 P.M., the first jets dropped ordnance along the French road dangerously close to the pinned-down elements of Mike Company. To better facilitate additional air strikes, and protect Mike Company given the danger-close proximity, Marines tried to mark the targets with White phosphorous and red smoke grenades, but the wind carried the red smoke back into Mike Company’s position, which temporarily delayed the air strikes. By 1:34 P.M. Findlay was notified by 9th Marines that gunships were no longer available and only fixed wing support would remain on station for air support.

First Lieutenant Kenerly, who commanded the 2nd Platoon, had sent his various squads to bolster Mike Company’s front which was heavily engaged. With all his squads committed at various points along the line, he held no more command over the platoon. Eventually, Kenerly himself was summoned, “I was told by the captain to go up on the hill and to organize the evacuation of casualties from that point. There were . . . a couple of dead and some wounded up there. So, I went up and did what I could to get those people moved off the top of the hill. Once they were cleared out, I stayed up there and attempted to move our people down the sides of the hill.” 

A mere fifty meters behind the front, Marines continued carrying wounded and dead comrades to the LZ in preparation for arriving medevacs. According to Furlow, “We ran med-evacs all afternoon. Once when we were loading wounded and dead, a body shifted in the tarp it was in and the body was half in and half out of the helo. The man’s stomach had been ripped open and his insides began to fall out right in front of me. God! That was terrible! I froze. I felt I should grab those insides and push them back in his body but I hesitated to do it a Corpsman was standing beside me and when I didn't react he grabbed the man’s insides and stuffed them back. I looked up at the helo pilot who was watching this our eyes met and we just shook our heads.” As Furlow ran back and forth between the LZ and the pinned-down elements of Mike Company, Marine mortar teams emplaced on the edge of the LZ continued pounding the enemy. The NVA, however, began to target these positions with counterbattery fire and according to Furlow, “I hadn't gotten more than fifteen or twenty yards, when there was a large explosion just behind me! I turned around and the Marine mortar crew were all knocked down. Damn! That was close!” Marine mortar crews and artillery batteries continued to try and neutralize the enemy mortar and artillery fire with counter battery. Nearby, Lima Company, the reserve company, which had been held back by concentrated enemy artillery fire, began receiving incoming within their position. According to Private First Class Lex Payne, “After about three hours when we were running out of grunts, the gook artillery had Lima Company at Alpha 3 pinned down where they couldn’t leave the gates and they had the Marine battalion at Con Thien pinned down. They could leave to assist us either.”

As the Marine artillery batteries tried to suppress the enemy’s mortar fire, elements of Mike Company continued to carry casualties to the LZ. Around 1:45 P.M., Mike Company reported that a friendly White Phosphorus round landed just 50 meters in front of their position and an immediate, ‘check fire’ was called over the net.

First Lieutenant Kenerly, having tried to help direct the evacuation of casualties off the hill, found himself engaged with the enemy dug in on the opposite side of the ridge. His men had nearly exhausted their supply of grenades. According to Kenerly, “Each time we sent a stretcher-bearer back with dead or wounded, we sent back requests for hand grenades. My troops had thrown all theirs. I had given the four that I carried to them and we were out. We sent back request after request. Nothing happened.” Kenerly and the men who were with him, grew frustrated at the fact no one had addressed their critical need for grenades. Kenerly 
remembered, “Somewhere along in there, Colonel Marsh, who was with us that day, came running across this little field. He had one of those flak jackets with the big, bellowed pockets on the front. He had both of those pockets full of hand grenades and had his two arms full of hand grenades. He came running up that little hill and he dumped what must have been twenty or twenty-five hand grenades at my feet. I was literally struck speechless at that and said, ‘Colonel, what the hell are you doing here?’ And he said, ‘Well, you said you needed hand grenades.’” Kenerly was dumbfounded and remembered his feeling at that moment, “That, at that time, was probably the best thing that he could have done to keep my spirits up. It was a real morale boost on what was becoming a very crummy afternoon.”
Despite the enemy’s concentrated fire, Marines braved the gauntlet to begin carrying the share of Mike Company’s many casualties to a place of cover near the LZ beginning at approximately 1:55 P.M., and two emergency medevacs were requested. By 2:21 P.M., one of the two emergency medevacs had been completed, but during the intervening waiting period, an additional medevac as now requested for the seven wounded Marines and four bodies that had been recovered. Private First Class Thomas Evanoff recalled, “Halfway through the day into the afternoon, we were taking so many casualties we couldn’t get them out.” 

According to Furlow, “The helicopter crews were very courageous. It made me proud of my fellow aviators. The LZ was not more than fifty yards from the main part of the fighting. The H-34's were under fire coming in and going out of the zone and often while in the zone. I had always said that I would not ask a pilot to fly into a LZ that I would not stand up in so I stood up each time they arrived to show them I would hang in there if they would. But there was a lot of fire over the LZ and at times incoming mortars. Once when we were loading wounded an explosion went off nearby. I was standing just under the pilot's window and I could read his lips when he told the crew that he was leaving. His eyes were looking right into mine! I ran to the radio and begged him not to leave. We still had wounded to get on board! I was getting pretty emotional by this time I told him, 'The explosion was nothing that I was standing up in the LZ right under his window! What more could I do?' But he was gone. I was desperate to save as many men as I could. I don't blame the pilot for leaving because there was too much fire! But I had wounded and I was trying to get as many of them out as fast as I could.”

By 2:34 P.M., Major Findlay managed to reach the embattled front and discovered that the enemy’s small arms fire had dwindled, but snipers and frequent incoming artillery had prevented Mike Company from pulling back. Despite the air strikes and counterbattery fire, the NVA continued to reinforce their position. At 2:45 P.M., overhead air observation spotted an enemy mortar position which was immediately taken under artillery fire. Fifteen minutes later, the enemy resumed another heavily concentrated barrage on Mike Company which caused additional casualties. Braving the fire, Mike Company Marines ran into the hailstorm to evacuate their comrades as the enemy artillery continued to steadily drum the area. Overhead aerial observation reported that Mike Company was under bombardment and the inbound evacuation choppers were waved off to avoid losing an aircraft. The enemy’s barrage eventually crept into the LZ, further preventing evacuation efforts. 1st Battalion, 12th Marines immediately sought to resume their counter-battery fire from earlier which had been in check fire since a white phosphorous round detonated danger close to Mike Company’s lines. Captain McAdams advised all stations to mark their positions with air panels. By 3:46 P.M., 1st Battalion, 12th Marines inundated the enemy mortar positions which resulted in at least one enemy position confirmed to have been neutralized. By 3:55 P.M. fast movers were on call overhead ready to provide close-in air support so that evacuation of the wounded could be completed. 

According to Furlow, “Late in the afternoon, I got called to go see Captain McAdam. He was forward about fifty yards in front of the LZ. I could see him up against the berm the Marines were firing from. We made eye contact as I was starting to run across the brush toward him, he signaled me with his hands that I should crawl through the weeds and brush to his position. I dropped down and started a fast crawl on my hands and knees. After just a few yards I came up on a wounded Marine I stopped beside him to see how he was and to talk with him. I could see he had one leg blown off below the knee, but he wasn't bleeding. He was alert and calm. I asked him how he was doing? He said he was okay except that he lost part of his leg. I offered him water, but he said he had plenty of his own. He told me someone had gone for a stretcher for him and that he thought help was on the way. He was very calm, and very collected. My heart just went out to him for his display of courage laying quietly all alone in a battle his leg gone in a land half the world away from his home. God! How inspiring these men are. I told him I had to leave, but that I was concerned that he would be okay. He told me he was fine. I promised him we would get him out. I looked into his face, eye-to-eye, 'Take care, Marine!' And I left. When I got to Bill McAdam, he asked me to try to clear the LZ of wounded. When it was clear, and he got the word from me, Mike Company was going to start backing out. On my way back to the LZ, I ran into a Corpsman moving through the brush toward that wounded Marine. He was a little guy, smaller than me, his eyes were full of caution and fear I gave him directions to the wounded man and he pushed on. I bet when he joined the Navy, he never dreamed he would end up with the Marines on the DMZ, crawling through the brush in the middle of a firefight. During this period of trying to clear the LZ we continued to take casualties. I decided to again inspect the alternate LZ further to the east of the one we were using.” The evacuation of casualties was able to be completed by 4:15 P.M.

Lieutenant Kenerly, who had occupied the small hill where several Mike Company Marines had been engaged for hours, eventually came off the small hill and moved to the beleaguered company’s right flank where the 3rd Squad of his 2nd Platoon had been sent earlier. “I crawled down to them and as I got there, they were beginning an assault into a bunker line. My 3rd Squad leader was a corporal named Charlie Lee.” Once Kenerly found twenty-one year-old Corporal Charles Thomas Lee of Oxon Hill, Maryland, the corporal was preparing to enter one of the enemy’s bunker complexes when an abandoned enemy machine gun was spotted out ahead of the bunker complex. “We could see a dead NVA laying in the door of it. So, Charlie Lee, his 1st Fire Team leader, whose name was Hall, my right guide—Corporal Robert Pigg, my platoon sergeant, who was a sergeant named Gonzales, and me moved in on that bunker. Lee and Hall were out front. When we got to the edge of that trench line, there was a .45 pistol laying in the trench that one of the M79 men who had been wounded earlier dropped.” Corporal Pigg picked up the .45 pistol as he set out to bring the abandoned machine gun in. Along the way, Pigg had to crawl passed the body of the NVA lying nearby. 

As he approached, Pigg quickly realized that the NVA soldier was not dead. According to Pigg, “When I got to their trenches there was a wounded NVA lying face down with his hand trying to get a Chicom off his backpack. I shot him with a .45 pistol that I picked up on my way there. At this point Corporals Lee and Hall could not see me so they came up to check on me.” As Lee and Hall moved to check on Pigg, Kenerly and the others watched as Lee and Hall moved temporarily out of view. According to Kenerly, “I heard a burst of automatic-weapons fire and I could see the bullets strike Lee and Hall. I could see the stuff flying out of their flak jackets as it hit them across the shoulders and neck and face. They both fell in that trench.” As Kenerly and the other dropped in response the burst of machine gun fire, the men could not figure out where the fire had come from initially. Pigg spotted the NVA as he dropped back into the bunker from which he emerged. According to Kenerly, “I called to Lee and Hall. At that point I wasn’t sure they were dead. We didn’t get any response, so one of troops slid into the trench and pulled them out while we provided cover.” Once the bodies of Hall and Lee were dragged back, Kenerly recalled, “They were both nearly decapitated by the burst of fire. I’m sure they knew what hit them.” Lee’s death was especially tough for Kenerly since Lee was not supposed to be on the patrol. According to Kenerly, “He had had ringworm on his tail and the battalion medic told him he didn’t need to go to the field. He only had forty days left in Vietnam. He had been in fact staying in the rear, but when he found out where we were going that day, he came back to me after I briefed the squad leaders and said, ‘Lieutenant, you’re probably going to step in it over there, and I’m one of the few people that you’ve got that have been in a real firefight before and I want to go along so I can help.’” 

Due to the companies heavy casualties, Lieutenant Colonel Marsh ordered Mike Company to pull back to allow supporting arms and air to concentrate their fire. Marsh was up front with the survivors of Mike Company directing the extraction, which included the company’s remaining wounded and dead. Marines began to grab and assist wounded men back. Private First Class John Mick watched as his squad leader and five others went to assist in carrying the body of Corporal Lee that had been brought back from the NVA trench line. According to Mick, “Six of them ran over and a mortar round came down right next to him and took almost all of them out.” One man was killed, but Mick’s squad leader was riddled with fragments and his arms shredded. “It took quite a few more people to medevac them out.” The casualties compelled a request for litter bearers to help evacuate and as many men as were available were sent. As more men arrived to assist, the incoming fire continued to inflict casualties. According to Lieutenant Kenerly, “Things were so confused that as I looked around I had maybe twenty people, twenty-five people, in what the company commander was calling my platoon and about half of those were from other platoons. I had a gun squad that I knew. I had six or eight riflemen and my right guide and that was about it. But these guys hung tough and maybe twenty of us provided security for the company as it withdrew.

After conferring with Captain McAdam, he told us to start backing out. We started the corpsman and wounded back toward A-3. Mike Company started backing out with us. Just as we were nearly clear of the LZ and I was fixing to abandon it after I was sure we had everybody an CH-34 landed in the LZ totally unannounced! The wounded were clear we had no one for them. I went a little crazy about then I felt that the helo would draw incoming and that I would have more causalities.

As the survivors of Mike Company tried to pull back, the enemy’s mortar fire quickly cut off the retreat and flanking elements of the NVA began to maneuver against both flanks of a highly under strengthened Mike Company. Lieutenant Marsh quickly figured out that the enemy was in the midst of launching a counterattack on the company at its most vulnerable moment. “As the company withdrew through our lines the mortar fire started to come in. The North Vietnamese mortared the hell out of the top of the hill. That was the most frightened I hope I’ll ever be in my life. When we pulled off the hill, the North Vietnamese seemed to come up it. We were taking direct rifle fire. Every time we tried to move, I was either taking wounded or we were getting near misses. The mortars were slamming into us and I lost one rifleman killed with a direct hit. My gun team was wiped out. The rifleman in Kenerly’s platoon who was killed was nineteen-year-old Laurence Ray Ashmore of Houston, Texas, who died instantly when a mortar landed nearly on top of him breaking his M16 rifle in half.

Realizing that the enemy was initiating a counterattack on both flanks of the engaged company in an attempt to isolate it from the battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Marsh deployed a reserve platoon and his own command group to repel the attacking force in order to facilitate the withdrawal. Completely disregarding his own safety, the daring lieutenant colonel sprinted across seventy-five meters of fire-swept terrain to the point of heaviest contact where he realized the engaged element did not have sufficient men to maintain fire superiority and simultaneously evacuate its casualties. Immediately, Marsh raced back another 75 meters through incoming mortar fire to his command post and organizing a litter detail, Lieutenant Colonel Marsh repeatedly exposed himself to intense enemy fire as he moved about the hazardous area directing the recovery of casualties. 

As Marsh and others tried to pull the last of the casualties out, a handful of Mike Company Marines helped to stave off the enemy counterattack. As survivors withdrew, Lance Corporal David Cutshall provided covering fire for his companions as they moved to join their platoon. As NVA units attempted to move around the flank of the company, Cutshall pulled the pin on a grenade and as he prepared to throw it, an enemy grenade detonated which gravely wounded him and caused him to drop his grenade and he instinctually fell upon the activated grenade to shield his companions nearby who had no chance to escape.

Lieutenant Kenerly recalled the chaos of the rapid extraction. “I had tried to do a little fire and maneuver in reverse—that is, a team cover, two teams pulled back, those two cover, one pull back—and that worked for a while, but we got eventually into a flat area where we were just getting chewed up. We had pretty much gotten all of the wounded out. There was one man dead that we couldn’t get to. I finally gave the order that each man was to help the wounded man nearest him and we were to get up and just run like hell . . . and that’s exactly what we did.” Miraculously, every one of Kenerly’s Marines ran the approximately last forty yards under small arms fire but managed to escape unscathed. Once they got out of the kill zone, they realized the body of nineteen-year-old Private First Class Ronald Steven Dobbs of Detroit, Michigan. Dobbs died earlier in the action when a Chinese-made grenade landed nearby and killed him.

Major Findlay, the battalion operations officer, quickly recognized the developing counterattack and reported Mike Company’s emergency situation and urged McAdams to pull back to the LZ. Despite this recommendation, Mike Company still had wounded and dead who had not yet been recovered. Lieutenant Colonel Marsh wasted no time evacuating casualties and even helped carry eight casualties through mortar fire by himself. When news that Private First Class Dobbs’ body had been left behind, Lieutenant Colonel Marsh called for volunteers to go back into the no abandoned lines and recover Dobbs. Corporal Robert Pigg, who still had the captured enemy machine gun with him, volunteered and quickly handed over his captured machine gun to one of the medevac crews and accompanied a small group of volunteers including Marsh to go back in and recover Dobbs. According to Kenerly, “They came back with Dobbs without taking any casualties and we were starting to pull back. By that time, I was carrying my own radio and was armed with an M79.” Kenerly’s radio operator, Private First Class Kevin Sweeney had mentally broken after an enemy grenade hit his radio and landed at his feet. Upon discovering the grenade, Sweeney and Kenerly ran in opposite directions to avoid the blast which never occurred. The device was a dud, but the close call and the day’s action proved to be Sweeney’s breaking point and Kenerly took the radio.

To help facilitate the extraction of Mike Company, Kilo Company was moved up at 5:47 P.M. to block any flanking maneuver on Mike Company. By 5:54 P.M., a medevac was reportedly inbound to the LZ where Mike Company had assembled twenty casualties awaiting evacuation. The LZ was a mess with the dead and wounded. Lance Corporal Vito Lavacca recalled, “The worst part was . . . carrying somebody back to what we were trying to clear as an LZ . . . to get the bodies out. And goin’ back there and seeing a whole pile of bodies. Just stacked on top of one another.” Private First Class Tom Evanoff remembered the body of one of the dead brought back to the LZ, “I’ll never forget his face because everything was on his face—terror, shock, ‘it couldn’t happen to me’ kind of look. His mouth was wide open, his eyes wide open. It was all froze this way. He was dead. They told me to grab him and put him on the chopper. We started throwing them on the choppers. First, I tried to be careful. It just seemed like the thing to do, but there were just too many of them. We just kept throwing them on the choppers. As the choppers were rising it looked like water, rain, was coming out of the choppers. It was blood flowing out.”

As medevac’s began to arrive, Major Findlay and Lieutenant Colonel Marsh directed the arrival of choppers over the radio. As the evacuations occurred, the aerial observer circling the area reported another enemy mortar crew of six men moving into position at 6:39 P.M. As mortars began to slam into the LZ with terrifying accuracy, Lieutenant Colonel Marsh notified the combat operations center at Alpha-3 that he was moving the LZ. By 6:55 P.M., gunships were brought in to neutralize the newly reported NVA mortar team who dropped their mortar tube and base plate and fled into the tree line for cover. 

Having moved his LZ, Marsh was able to effect the evacuation of Mike Companies’ last casualties by 7:00 P.M. Mike Company’s survivors immediately moved to join Kilo Company at their position. By 8:37 P.M. the survivors of Mike Company managed to return to Alpha-3. According to Private First Class Evanoff, “when we got back to Alpha 3 it was already dark. I almost dropped the stretcher and crawled down into the bunkers. We just picked a spot to fall down and sleep because there were so many empty spaces. The rest of the companies pulled watch for us. We were all in shock. The next morning, we got a roll call on who got back and who didn’t. We lost one-third of the company.

During the day, the NVA fired an estimated 150-175 rounds of 105mm artillery and approximately 150 mortars on Mike and Lima Companies which accounted for an overwhelming majority of the casualties. Mike Company’s casualties that day were 14 killed and 29 evacuated wounded. 

Lieutenant Colonel Marsh’s conduct that day of being up front with his Marine further solidified the already high level of respect the Marines of 3rd Battalion had for their battalion commander. The Marines already knew Marsh was a Marine’s Marine who would rather be with the grunts on patrol, but when his billet negated his participation directly in the action, he was always the first there to greet those returning. He often ate C-rations with the line platoons, visited their bunkers He would frequently meet returning patrols at the gate of Alpha-3 and shake the hands of his Marines as they returned to the perimeter. After Kilo Company conducted an ambush on January 30, 1968, in which they killed a reported several dozen NVA, Marsh was the first to greet every Marine as they came back to Alpha-3. 

Marsh left 3rd Battalion after only six months for another billet in Vietnam—a common rotation practice among senior officers. Eventually Marsh returned to Headquarters Marine Corps and served as the head of the Manpower Management Information Systems Branch. Under his supervision, the Marine Corps was able to develop the modern manpower management system still in use. Marsh’s final duty in the Marine Corps was assignment to the 2nd Marine Division where he served as the commanding officer of the 2nd Marines as well as chief of staff of the 2nd Marine Division. Colonel Marsh retired from the United States Marne Corps September 1, 1975, after twenty-five years of honored service in two wars. After Marsh retired, he worked for the Marine Corps in a civilian capacity as a Special Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower. In his retirement, Marsh taught chemistry as the U.S. Naval Academy. His academic credentials included a Master of Science from Stanford and George Washington. He completed a doctorate at the American University. He was also a graduate of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. 

Marsh passed away February 11, 1996, at the age of sixty-eight. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.