After the conclusion of Operation Buffalo, III MAF ordered a sweep of the southern half of the DMZ. The Marines intended for the operation, Hickory II, to destroy enemy fortifications, mortar, and artillery positions in the southern portion of the buffer zone. The concept resembled that employed during Operation Hickory, the Marines' initial entry into the area on 18 May.
During Hickory II, two Marine battalions, one from SLF Alpha, attacked north to the Ben Hai River, wheeled about, and swept southward to the Cam Lo River. BLT 2 / 3 of SLF Bravo screened the in land left flank, while to the east three ARVN battalions and an armored personnel carrier troop advanced up Route 1 to the Ben Hai, then turned and attacked southward. On the coast east of the ARVN thrust, Lieutenant Colonel Albert R. Bowman II's 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion drove northward through the coastal sand dunes from Cua Viet. There was little resistance. The sharpest action occur red on 15 July, when Bowman's battalion engaged an enemy unit four miles east of Gio Linh, killing 25. Marine casualties, when the operation ended on16 July, were four killed and 90 wounded. Total NVA losses totaled 39 killed and 19 weapons captured.
At the close of Hickory II, the two SLF battalions, upon release by III MAF, returned to a ready status off the coast of I Corps, but the remaining five battalions which comprised the 3rd and 9th Marines began a new operation in the same general area. Called Operation Kingfisher, its mission, as in previous operations along the DMZ, was to block NVA entry into Quang Tri Province. From the 16th through the 27th there were only minor contacts.
On 28July the 3rd Marine Division sent Lieutenant Colonel William D. Kent's 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, reinforced with a platoon of tanks, three Ontos, three LVTE’s, and engineers, on a spoiling attack into the DMZ. The main body, including the tracked vehicles, moved north on Provincial Route 606 with Companies E and G providing security on the flanks. Company F remained in a landing zone south of Con Thien, ready to board helicopters and exploit any heavy contact with the enemy.
There was no contact; the armored column moved north without incident. The terrain, however, restricted the tracked vehicles to the road and thick vegetation made movement difficult for the flanking companies. Further, the terrain canalized the column into a relatively narrow "V" of land bounded by the Ben Hai River on the west and north and a tributary stream to the east. The reinforced battalion would have to return by the same route by which it entered the DMZ. The North Vietnamese were already moving units into previously prepared positions covering Route 606.
The North Vietnamese did not molest the Marines in their night defensive positions near the Ben Hai River. The following morning, the 2nd Battalion scouted the objective area and destroyed several small abandoned fortification complexes.
Late in the morning the battalion began its movement south out of the DMZ. It would move in a column led by Company E and followed by Command Group A, H&S Company, Command Group B, and Companies F, H, and G. An airborne forward air controller circled overhead; he would soon be busy.
Company E began moving south at 1000; at 1115 the enemy detonated a 250-lb bomb buried in the road, wounding five Marines. Nearby, engineers found a similar bomb, rigged as a command- detonated mine, and destroyed it.
Upon the second explosion, North Vietnamese soldiers near the road opened fire on the column with machine guns, rifles, and 60mm and 82mm mortars, initiating a running battle that did not end until dark. The NVA units, using heavy fire from prepared positions combined with the maneuver of other units, quickly fragmented the armored column into roughly company-sized segments. Each isolated segment fought its own way through the gauntlet of fire.
The tracked vehicles became more of a liability than a tactical asset. They were restricted to the road because the thick brush provided excellent cover for NVA soldiers armed with antitank weapons. Instead of providing support to the infantry Marines, the tracked vehicles required infantry protection. Using them as ambulances to transport the wounded further reduced the vehicles' ability to fight.
Tracked vehicles suffered all along the column. An RPG round penetrated both sides of an LVTE moving with Company E. Another RPG explosion disabled the turret of a tank with Company F, wounding three crewmen. When Company H brought up an Ontos to suppress NVA fire that was holding up its movement, an RPG gunner hit the vehicle and wounded three crewmen. A second Ontos came forward, beat down the enemy fire with its machine gun, and permitted the company to move again.
The infantry's primary fire support came from the airborne controllers, one of whom was on station throughout the day. The controller maintained con tact with air representatives with each company and with the battalion air liaison officer. The airborne forward air controller directed fixed-wing air strikes whenever needed. The Marine infantrymen needed them often.
The North Vietnamese units knew the danger from American supporting arms and attempted to stay close to the Marine column. Company F had hardly cleared its night defensive position when it realized an NVA unit had immediately occupied the position. At another point, Marine engineers with Company E spotted a 12.7mm antiaircraft machine gun just off the road. They attacked, killed seven NVA soldiers, and destroyed the weapon and its ammunition. At the rear of the column, Company G had problems with enemy units following in its trace and maneuvering back and forth across the road. Company G killed 12 and wounded 10 of these soldiers; an attached scout-sniper team killed another 15. Shortly afterward, an enemy assault from the flank almost cut the India Company in two, but the attack failed.
Shortly after Company F took its place in the column, it received instructions to establish a helicopter landing zone for evacuating casualties from Company E and H&S Company. When the tanks carrying the dead and wounded reached the zone, the enemy opened up with RPG’s, machine guns, and 60mm and 82mm mortars. The mortar fire walked across the entire landing zone. In addition to the earlier casualties, the Marines now had another seven men killed and 31 more Marines and Navy corpsmen wounded.
A gap then developed between the rear of H&S Company and Company F. The latter Company loaded the casualties in the zone on the tanks and attacked to close the gap. It did so at the cost of a further two dead and 12 wounded by NVA mortar fire. The company resumed its fight south.
Late in the afternoon, Company E and Command Group A managed to break through the enemy to safety. They left behind, however, two Company E squads which could not move because of intense enemy automatic weapons and rifle fire that killed two and wounded nine Marines. Company E and the command group continued on until they linked up at 1830 with Company M, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, which had moved up from Con Thien.
By this time the other companies of the 2nd Battalion were no longer able to continue south; there were too many casualties to move. At 1930, Company H drew back and established a defensive position on high ground at the edge of the clearing through which Route 606 passed at that point. Joining Company H were Company F, two other squads from Company E, two squads from Company G, plus H&S Company. It was an all-infantry force; the tracked vehicles, carrying some of the wounded, had broken through to join the lead elements at the position of Company M, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines.
Company G's movement came to an end about the same time. It could no longer both fight and transport its wounded. By 2100, the company was in a defensive position for the night.
The two isolated squads from Company E found themselves rescued early in the evening. Lieutenant Colonel Kent had taken operational control of Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines and accompanied that unit back to the two squads. They accomplished the mission by 1930 and Mike Company moved into a good defensive position for the night. To the south, the bulk of Company E organized its defenses and called in Medevac helicopters for the casualties.
The remainder of the night was relatively quiet; the NVA units were pulling back. Company G and Company F both heard much shouting west of their respective positions and called in artillery missions. The final event of the fight occurred at 0330 when an NVA soldier crept up to Company Fs perimeter and killed one Marine and wounded three with a burst of automatic weapons fire. Other Marines opened fire and the NVA soldier withdrew.
The following morning, the 30th, helicopters evacuated all casualties located at Company G's position. Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Kent moved north to link up with the rest of the 2nd Battalion. The Marines evacuated the remainder of the casualties by 0900 and all units were out of the DMZ by 1150 behind a screen provided by the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines.
The gauntlet had been costly for lieutenant Colonel Kent's 2nd Battalion. Twenty-three Marines died and the wounded totaled 251, of whom 191 required evacuation. There were 32 confirmed NVA dead but the battalion estimated another 175 probably died.
While the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines' battle quickly entered the division's folklore as "2/9's armored thrust into the DMZ," an earlier and relatively minor action on Route 9 had a more lasting impact on the tactical situation in northern I Corps. It led to an end to vehicle convoys to Khe Sanh; thereafter, the base relied upon aerial re-supply.
III MAF supplied Khe Sanh at the time by aircraft and "Rough Rider" vehicle convoys from Dong Ha. One of the largest of the convoys, composed of over 85 vehicles and several U.S. Army 175mm guns, departed Dong Ha on 21 July. Part of its route passed through the TAOR of Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Needham's 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines. This gave the battalion the responsibility for securing that portion of Route 9.
Lieutenant Colonel Needham ordered his Mike Company to send a platoon out that morning to sweep Route 9 from Ca Lu west to the boundary between the regimental TAOR’s of the 3rd and 26th Marines. The convoy departed Dong Ha at about the same time as the 2nd Platoon, Mike Company began its check of the road.
The 2nd Platoon searched Route 9 without incident for about five kilometers. Then the point surprised an NVA soldier urinating beside the road.3 The point opened fire; other NVA soldiers answered with rifle fire from high ground north of the road and from a tree line south of it. The whole platoon quickly became engaged with what the platoon commander first believed was an NVA platoon. He soon changed his estimate to an NVA battalion.
The 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines ordered the platoon to disengage but the unit could not do so. The battalion staff at Ca Lu worked quickly to coordinate air and artillery support and alerted the rest of Mike Company to prepare to move to the 2nd Platoon's rescue. In the midst of this activity, the Rough Rider convoy's arrival at Ca Lu created some confusion. The battalion requested and received permission to halt the convoy immediately since there was only one place between Ca Lu and the 2nd Platoon's position where the convoy could be turned around.'
Mike Company moved toward the firefight with two U.S. Army vehicles in support. One of these mounted dual 40mm cannon; the other carried a quad- .50 machine gun. As the force neared the 2nd Platoon, the enemy fired approximately 200 rounds from 82mm mortars at the road. Enemy riflemen opened fire from the high ground north of the road.
Under the cover of fixed-wing aircraft strikes on the high ground and heavy fire from the two Army vehicles, Mike Company reached its 2nd Platoon and the Marines disengaged. Two tanks came up from Ca Lu and provided additional fire against the tree line to the south. The combined force then returned to Ca Lu.
The Rough Rider convoy could not continue to Khe Sanh until the road was secure. The division ordered it to turn around and return to Camp Carroll.
Description: [From John Colvis]
Here's a photo I took on July 21, 1967
showing the NVA regimental ambush site on
Route 9 between Ca Lu and Khe Sanh in the
far distance. Our jets were dropping bombs
on the NVA. Our Squad (2nd Squad, 2nd
Platoon, Company M) was on jungle patrol
that day on the south side of the Thach Han
River. And when the rest of our platoon
was called in to investigate the Marine truck
convoy disturbance, only to be ambushed
themselves, we (2nd Squad) were ordered
to climb the nearest mountain in case a radio
relay was needed. It was during this battle
that our platoon sergeant, SSgt. Terrance
Leo Meier, was wounded with a bullet that
passed through his neck and jaw. He died
in the hospital a few weeks later due to the
complication of a bacterial infection
(Click on pic to enlarge)
At noon the following day, the 22nd, the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, using its own Lima Company and Companies A and C of the 9th Marines, moved against the enemy positions north of Route 9. There was only scattered contact with the enemy; however, the Marines found ample evidence the previous day's action had prevented a major ambush of the Rough Rider convoy to Khe Sanh. They found 150 well-camouflaged fighting holes in the area where the 2nd Platoon had engaged the enemy. The North Vietnamese obviously had constructed the fighting holes for a horseshoe-shaped ambush whose killing zone was the open road. Nearby was a large, abandoned NVA base camp containing another 200 fighting holes and 25 two- and four-man log bunkers camouflaged with dirt and elephant grass. The camp also contained several huts, some for sleeping and others for cooking.
The following day Kilo Company, 3rd Marines, supported by tanks and Army M42 "Dusters" (the latter mounting dual 40mm cannon), joined the operation and attacked Hill 216 north of, and overlooking the NVA ambush site on Route 9.
Kilo Company ran into heavy machine gun fire from a bunker complex on the hill's east slope, which killed one Marine and wounded two. The company called in an artillery mission and the supporting tracked vehicles opened fire on the enemy. Kilo Company then pulled back to allow fixed-wing aircraft plenty of room to bomb the bunkers. At the completion of the strike, Kilo Company attacked, but the NVA unit had gone. The Marines continued to the crest of Hill 216.
Later that afternoon, fixed-wing aircraft bombed Hill 247, located west of Hill 216 and which also overlooked Route 9. Following the air strike, Lima Company, 3rd Marines moved west on Route 9 and linked up with Company B, 26th Marines which had cleared the road from the western edge of the 26th Marines' TAOR.
During its move, Lima Company uncovered 30 Chinese-made anti-personnel mines buried along approximately 2,000 meters of the southern margin of Route 9. The enemy had rigged the mines with trip wires to catch the Marines and soldiers from the Rough Rider convoy as they sought cover from the planned ambush.
With Route 9 cleared, the Rough Rider convoy, minus any 17 5mm guns, completed the trip to Khe Sanh on the 25th. The whole episode, however, changed the thinking about re-supply for Khe Sanh. There was one more large convoy to Khe Sanh and a few to the Lang Vei Special Forces camp, but these ended in early August. There were no other convoys to Khe Sanh until Operation Pegasus opened Route 9 at the end of the "siege" of Khe Sanh in 1968.
For the next few weeks only scattered, small-scale fighting took place. Intelligence analysts reported the probability of a major enemy offensive in the region. They reported a large buildup of supplies north of the DMZ, and estimated at least five Communist battalions were preparing for offensive operations. Sighting reports of vehicles north of the Ben Hai increased substantially, including, for the first time, reports of armored vehicles there.
The first outburst of renewed NVA ground activity in the Kingfisher area happened in the southwestern portion of the TAOR on the morning of 21 August. A North Vietnamese battalion ambushed a small Marine convoy traveling south on Route 9 from the Rockpile to Ca Lu. In the first moments of the attack, enemy antitank rockets hit and put out of action two Marine trucks and two Army track-mounted, dual 40mm guns of the 1st Battalion, 44th Artillery. The security force with the convoy returned fire and radioed for air and artillery support. Lima Company of Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Needham's 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines came down from the Rockpile, and a reinforced platoon from Mike Company moved up from Ca Lu. These maneuvers trapped the ambushers. The action lasted for more than six hours as the Marine units, sup ported by air and artillery, converged on the NVA battalion. As night fell the enemy broke contact and fled to the west. Confirmed Communist losses were light, but 3 Marines and 3 Army artillerymen died, with another 35 wounded.
The North Vietnamese tried again on 7 September at almost the same location, but again the enemy commander miscalculated the location of Marine forces, their ability to maneuver, and the speed with which the Marines could bring supporting arms to bear. The NVA ambushed a convoy at 1010, and again Marine units converged on the site from the north and south. This time the battle continued for more than eight hours. The Marines killed 92 of the enemy before the fight ended at dusk. American casualties in this encounter totaled five killed and 56 wounded.
Additional indications that the Communists remained determined to achieve a victory at Con Thien became evident during late August. To gain maximum propaganda effect, the North Vietnamese timed their new offensive to coincide with the South Vietnamese elections scheduled for 3 September. As the date for the elections approached, the NVA fired an increasing volume of artillery and rockets across the DMZ at Cua Viet, Gio Linh, and Con Thien. On 26 August these hit Dong Ha in three separate at tacks; 150 rocket and artillery rounds destroyed two helicopters and damaged 24 others.
The most effective and spectacular of these attacks took place on Election Day. Forty-one artillery rounds slammed into Dong Ha base that morning, destroying the ammunition storage area and bulk fuel farm and damaged 17 helicopters of Major Horace A. Bruce's HMM-36 1. Damage control teams fought the fire and explosions for four hours before they controlled the situation. Miraculously, no one died, but 77 suffered wounds, one seriously. Spectators as far away as Phu Bai could see the billowing smoke cloud that rose over the base. Because of this and similar attacks, III MAF moved the logistics base in 1968 from Dong Ha to Quang Tri, beyond the range of the enemy's 130mm guns.
The attack on 3 September ended the use of Dong Ha as a permanent helicopter squadron base facility. HMM-361 personnel flew back to the Marble Mountain facility that day in the CH- 53s of HMM-463. All of HMM-361's aircraft caught on the ground suffered damage from blast, shrapnel, or both and the CH-53s had to lift them to Marble Mountain. Until III MAF readied a new field at Quang Tri, helicopter support for the DMZ area came from squadrons at Marble Mountain and Phu Bai.
Brigadier General Metzger had good reasons for vividly remembering these attacks. He recalled: When one of the attacks hit Dong Hal was in a UH-1E on the pad getting ready to take off. The pilot lifted off the ground and turned to the south, thereby flying right through the barrage of "incoming." We felt the "bird" shudder and knew we were hit. After a futile attempt to spot the enemy firing batteries, we finally landed at Camp Evans and examined the plane. There was a hole about 15 inches in diameter in the tail. We were fortunate!
Con Thien was the primary NVA artillery target. During September, the North Vietnamese subjected the Marines there to one of the heaviest shellings of the war. The hill itself, known to local missionaries as "The Hill of Angels," was only big enough to accommodate a reinforced battalion. Almost daily Con Thien's defenders could expect at least 200 rounds of enemy artillery fire, and on 25 September more than 1,200 shells rained down upon the position. The completed "Dye Marker" bunkers at Con Thien pro vided some cover as the NVA artillery and rocket at tacks escalated.
Under cover of the artillery and rocket attacks, enemy ground activity increased; the NVA's main thrust was to the south and southeast of Con Thien. Since the beginning of Operation Kingfisher, the 9th Marines had been operating in that area with a force varying between three and six battalions. The level of combat was light, but enemy resistance began to stiffen at the end of August.
On 4 September, Lieutenant Colonel Bendell's 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines met strong opposition. At 1100 that morning, the battalion's India Company, commanded by Captain Richard K. Young, engaged an enemy force 1,500 meters south of Con Thien. The company pressed the enemy unit, but by 1400 its advance halted because of the volume of enemy fire. Mike Company and the battalion command group moved to the left of India Company and, after extensive artillery preparatory fires, struck the NVA flank. Moving slowly, with two tanks in support, Mike Company pushed through the Communist position, relieving the pressure on India Company. The maneuver trapped a group of enemy soldiers between the two Marine units, and India Company assaulted and overran the entrapped NVA force. The count of the enemy casualties at the end of the fight was 38 killed and one captured. As Bendell's units returned to their perimeters near Con Thien," they endured harassing fires from NVA mortar and artillery. Six Marines died and 47 suffered wounds in the day's action.
Three days later, India Company of Lieutenant Colonel Harry L. Alderman's 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines found the enemy again three miles south of Con Thien. The fight lasted for five hours and resembled the battle of the 4th, except this time Marine tanks reinforced the infantrymen. Fifty-one NVA died in this encounter; so did 14 Marines.
On 10 September, Alderman's Marines engaged what seemed to be the entire 812th NVA Regiment. The fight began in the early evening four miles southwest of Con Thien. In this instance the patrol ling Marines spoiled a major enemy attack in the making. The battalion's command chronology reflects the intensity of this four-hour battle:
1615H— Mike Company and Kilo Company received estimated 60 rounds of 140mm rockets followed by a coordinated attack by NVA (reportedly) wearing USMC flak jackets and helmets.
1630H— India Company and Lima Company came under attack by NVA wearing USMC equipment and supported by mortars.
1637H— Kilo Company and Mike Company were hit by 12 140mm rockets followed by 12 more at 1645H
1655H— India Company and Lima Company came under an extremely heavy assault from the north and west sides of their perimeter by an estimated NVA battalion. Fixed-wing air, which was on station, began making strikes immediately, and napalm consistently fell 50 to 75 meters from the friendly lines. The flame rank and gun took direct hits from RPG’s fired from approximately 75 meters. The flame tank was destroyed and burned the remainder of the night, and the gun tank was rendered useless and rolled into a draw.... The crews of both tanks withdrew into the perimeter.
1700H—The tank supporting Kilo Company fired on 100 NVA in front of their lines with unknown results.
From 1705H to 1754H—Each Company reported numerous sightings of NVA in various sized units maneuvering around both defensive perimeters.
1825H—The [battalion] CP received heavy incoming mortar fire and the NVA appeared to be massing for an attack.
1825H—M-1 [1st Platoon, Mike Company] was pinned down in a bomb crater 70 meters west of the CP.
1900H— Mike Company pulled back towards the CP to consolidate the lines and was forced to abandon a disabled tank.
1905H—An emergency re-supply was attempted to India Company and Lima Company and although suppressive fires were delivered, the enemy fire was too intense and the helicopter could not land.
1905H—A flare ship arrived on station. Kilo Company and Mike Company had formed perimeter around the CP and were boxed in with well-aimed artillery.
2030H—The enemy ground attack ceased although 60mm mortar [rounds] were still being received by India Company and Lima Company.
The next morning the companies searched the battlefield for casualties and abandoned equipment, and evacuated all casualties by 1000. The Marines recovered a large quantity of enemy material, including cartridge belts, packs, ammunition, and weapons; 140 enemy bodies lay scattered throughout the area. The 3rd Battalion's losses totaled 34 killed and 192 wounded. Alderman called it “... the hardest fighting” the battalion encountered since arriving in Vietnam.
Following this fight, the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines moved to near Phu Bai to refit. As its replacement in the DMZ area, the division pulled Lieutenant Colonel James W. Hammond, Jr.'s 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines off an operation near Camp Evans and sent it north. Hammond later wrote: “to take the place of [the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines] which had been mortared [severely] in their position northwest of Con Thien. We then became the roving battalion outside Con Thien... the battalion moved every day but still was shelled as much, if not more than Con Thien. The difference was that we had to dig new holes in every position we were hit pretty hard during our month-plus along the DMZ.”
Both sides shed more blood around Con Thien before the month ended. At 0325 on the 13th, a North Vietnamese company attacked the north- northeast sector of the perimeter of the outpost. Even though artillery, mortars, and heavy machine guns supported the attacking force, the Communists failed to penetrate the wire. They gave up and withdrew after a heavy pounding from the Marines' supporting arms.
Following the attack of the 13th, Colonel Richard B. Smith, the new commanding officer of the 9th Marines, moved two battalions to a position behind Con Thien from which they could react if the enemy attacked in force. Lieutenant Colonel John J. Peeler's 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines occupied the area southeast of Con Thien while Lieutenant Colonel James W. Hammond, Jr.'s 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines moved to the southwest of the hill. At the same time, Colonel Smith ordered the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, now commanded by Major Gorton C. Cook, to move inside the main perimeter. The anticipated assault did not materialize; instead the NVA bombarded all three battalions with savage artillery and mortar attacks for the next seven days.
With the passing of the immediate threat to Con Thien, the Marines there went on the offensive. On 21 September, Hammond's battalion started a search and destroy operation 1,800 meters east of Con Thien. The battalion front, Companies E and F, moved out on line. Movement was cautious but steady, but maintaining alignment proved difficult in terraced terrain broken up by hedgerows. The command group and Companies G and H had to stop, waiting for the rear elements to clear their previous position.
As the lead elements advanced, maintaining visual contact became impossible in the thick under brush. At 0750, Company E encountered fire from snipers. Then, when the company pushed forward, it came under heavy automatic weapons fire from the front and left, which killed one Marine and wounded four. The tempo of the battle increased; the Communists opened up with mortars. The Marines, now close to the NVA force, heard shouted orders and directions for a mortar crew, and the two sides soon became involved in a deadly grenade duel. The battalion could not call in artillery because of the close contact, and Company F was in no position to help. Company E slowly withdrew to a position that offered better cover and established a landing zone to evacuate casualties.
Shortly after the beginning of the engagement, Lieutenant Colonel Hammond ordered Company G to envelop the left flank of the NVA position, but 150 meters of open ground faced the assaulting troops. The company advanced to within 30 meters of the objective, but withdrew in the face of nearby NVA small arms, automatic weapons, and mortar fire. Meanwhile, Companies E and F linked up and covered Company G by fire as it disengaged.
The battle turned into a stalemate. The battalion needed tanks, but after 96 hours of rain the approaches to the area were impassable. At dusk the fighting died down and the Marines pulled back to the main battalion perimeter. The NVA force had killed 16 Marines and wounded 118; 15 of the bodies remained on the battlefield until 10 October when the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines went back and picked up its dead in a later operation in the same area." The battalion could not determine the total Communist casualties but reported at least 39 NVA soldiers killed. Intelligence officers later identified the enemy force as part of the 90th NVA Regiment. After the action of the 21st, the enemy withdrew across the Ben Hai River.
The persistent enemy attacks during September appeared to be a desperate bid for a military victory, with its attendant propaganda value, before the fall monsoon hit. Failing in attacks from three different directions, the NVA resorted to a massive attack by fire against Con Thien. During the period 19-2 7 September, more than 3,000 mortar, artillery, and rocket rounds blasted the position.
The Americans retaliated by massing one of the greatest concentrations of firepower in support of a single division in the history of the Vietnam War. III MAF artillery units fired 12,577 rounds at known and suspected enemy positions in the region, while ships of the Seventh Fleet fired 6,148 rounds at the same area. Marine and Air Force fighter pilots flew more than 5,200 close air support sorties and B-52 bombers of the Strategic Air Command dropped tons of ordnance on the enemy in and north of the DMZ. The Con Thien garrison applauded the results; North Vietnamese pressure on the outpost subsided as September drew to a close.
Although enemy activity gradually diminished at Con Thien; defense of the base remained a continuing ordeal. Marine searching and patrolling activity discovered a multitude of bunker and trench complexes around the hill mass, most of which were about 1,500 meters from the main perimeter. The Marines destroyed the bunkers, but often during subsequent patrols they found them rebuilt again. During early October the Marines continued to find bunkers, but by then these were usually unoccupied.
Experiences of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines during October typify the trend of activity around Con Thien during the fall. On 4 October the battalion, still under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hammond, conducted a sweep southwest of Con Thien in conjunction with Lieutenant Colonel Henry Englisch's BLT 2 / 3 from SLF Bravo. Leaving the line of departure at 0645, the battalion had found three NVA shelters by 0830. An hour later and 1,000 meters further, the Marines found several more am bush sites and 16 bunkers. Shortly after that, Company H came upon 13 more bunkers while skirting the southwest side of the Con Thien slope. Similarly, Company G found abandoned mortar positions, loose 82mm mortar rounds, and powder-charge increments. Just before 1500, the unmistakable odor of decaying human flesh led the Marines to the partially covered graves of 20 North Vietnamese.
Backtracking, Company G discovered fresh enemy footprints around the previously destroyed bunkers. Tension heightened. The three companies moved back to the perimeter west of Con Thien, but while pulling back Company G heard movement and called in artillery to cover their return march. The Marines observed no NVA casualties, but had no doubt the Communists were still active.
Several days later the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines relieved BLT 2/3 as the defense force for the recently built bridge north of Strongpoint C-2. The construction of the bridge had permitted the reopening of the vital road to Con Thien which the heavy September rains washed our. The battalion defended the bridge because the 3rd Marine Division was concerned that if the enemy destroyed it, they would cut the only supply line to Con Thien.
The defense of the bridge was no easy task for Lieutenant Colonel Hammond's battalion. Since its move north from Camp Evans on 11 September, the constant combat around Con Thien had worn the battalion down from a "foxhole strength" of 952 to about 462. The 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines had great difficulty in manning all the defensive positions prepared by the departed full-strength BLT-2 /3.
The defensive position around the bridge was divided into quadrants by virtue of the road, which ran roughly north and south, and the stream, which ran east and west. Company G had the northwest quadrant; Company H was on the same side of the road but across the stream in the southwest quadrant. Company F was in the northeast; Company E in the southeast. The battalion command group set up beside the stream in Company G's area and near the center of the position.
At 0125 on 14 October, 25 artillery rounds, rockets, and 135-150 mortar rounds hit Company H. An ambush squad posted in front of the company reported an enemy force moving toward it, and immediately took the advancing enemy under fire. The Marine squad leader notified his company that he had three casualties and that the enemy seriously outnumbered his squad. The company commander, Captain Arthur P. Brill, Jr., ordered the squad to pull back and, at the same time, called for night defensive fires to block the avenues of approach to his position. The battalion requested flare ships to illuminate the area.
Using starlight scopes, sniper teams watched the enemy as they massed only 50 meters in front of the company. The snipers and two tanks attached to the company opened fire, forcing the North Vietnamese to start their assault prematurely. The rest of the company held fire until the NVA troops reached a clearing 20 meters from the wire. Of the entire attacking unit, only two NVA soldiers reached the wire and Marines killed both as they tried to breach that obstacle.
The enemy withdrew, leaving bodies behind, but they were far from finished. At 0230, enemy mortars shelled Company G. Direct hits by RPG’s destroyed a machine gun emplacement and several backup positions on the primary avenue of approach into the company position. The NVA force attacked through this break, overran the company command post, and killed the company commander, Captain Jack W. Phillips, and his forward observer. Three platoon leaders, two of whom had just arrived in Vietnam that morning, also died. The battalion sent its S-3A, Captain James W. McCarter, Jr., to replace Phillips, but enemy fire killed him before he reached Company G. During the confused, hand-to-hand combat some of the North Vietnamese fought their way within grenade range of the battalion command post in the center of the position.
In the command post, although wounded by a grenade, Sergeant Paul H. Foster, a member of the fire support coordination center, continued to direct mortar and artillery fire upon the enemy. Another grenade landed among a group of six Marines. Sergeant Foster threw his flak jacket over the grenade and jumped on top of the jacket. The grenade blast mortally wounded him, but this action saved his fellow Marines. Before the melee ended, the North Vietnamese killed or wounded the entire for ward air control team. The enemy also killed the battalion medical chief, and wounded the fire sup port coordinator, headquarters commandant, and battalion sergeant major.
Lieutenant Colonel Hammond moved what was left of his command group to a better location within Company H's position. He ordered Company F to move to Company G's right flank and counterattack to push the NVA forces out of the perimeter. Illumination and automatic weapons fire from "Puff," the AC-47 requested at the beginning of the fight and which arrived about 0330, aided the counterattack. By 0430, the enemy began retreating out of the position, pursued by Company E.
The next morning the battalion reconsolidated and evacuated casualties. Twenty-one dead, including five officers, and 23 wounded were the night's toll. The NVA lost at least 24 killed. That afternoon, Lieutenant General Cushman and Major General Hochmuth visited the bridge site. They granted a request from Lieutenant Colonel Hammond that the new bridge be named Bastard's Bridge to honor the 21 Marines of the 2nd Battalion who gave their lives in its defense. At 1400, Hammond's battalion turned over the bridge to Lieutenant Colonel Needham's 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines and then moved to Dong Ha where it assumed the mission of regimental reserve after 42 days of close combat.
The last major action of Kingfisher took place during a 9th Marines operation on 25-28 October. By this time Hammond's battalion (minus Company G which was attached to the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines), had moved to Cam Lo to take part in the operation. The 1st Battalion, 9th Marines was at Con Thien and Needham's 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines was at C-2 Bridge. The regimental frag order directed Hammond's Marines to sweep north on the west side of Route 561 while the other two battalions provided blocking forces.
The 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines began its sweep at 0600 on the 25th. Lieutenant Colonel Hammond planned to move his under-strength battalion all day to reach the objective before dark. There was no enemy contact but heavy brush slowed the move. As darkness approached, the battalion was still about 1,000 meters from the objective. Hammond decided to halt the battalion and request additional ammunition before darkness.
Hammond's decision was prudent, given the nature of the enemy in the DMZ region and the recent combat losses that reduced his entire battalion to just over 400 men. Additional ammunition could partially compensate for the loss of firepower resulting from personnel shortages and the absence of Company G. He controlled, at the time, a "battalion" only a little larger than a standard reinforced rifle company. The re-supply helicopters would give away the battalion's location, of course, but he took the risk that his command could receive its additional ammunition and move on to the objective before the enemy responded.
Helicopters were in short supply at this time, following the grounding of all CH-46s after a series of accidents. III MAF by necessity reserved the available helicopters for meeting emergency requests from units in the field. Hammond ordered an emergency re-supply" of ammunition.
Lieutenant Colonel Hammond took a calculated risk and lost. The re-supply helicopters did not bring everything he ordered but, worse, also delivered significant quantities and types of ammunition that the battalion had not ordered, including three pallets of tactical wire. There was more material than the battalion could use or move. Hammond's Marines would have to spend the night in place and try to get the excess ammunition flown out the next morning. Unfortunately, the helicopters had revealed the Marines' position to the enemy.
The North Vietnamese hit the battalion's perimeter about 2330 with 10 rocket rounds. The battalion executive officer, Major John J. Lawendowski, died and Lieutenant Colonel Hammond and two others required evacuation for wounds. Lieutenant Colonel Frankie E. Allgood, the newly promoted executive officer of HMM-363, landed his UH-34D at the battalion command post and flew the casualties to Dong Ha. Captain Arthur P. Brill, Jr., who had moved up the previous day from commanding Company H to be the battalion operations officer, took command of the battalion.
Upon learning that Hammond and Lawendowski were casualties, Colonel Richard B. Smith, commanding the 9th Marines, decided to send an officer to take temporary command of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines. The obvious choice was right at hand. Lieutenant Colonel John C. Studt, the regimental operations officer, knew the details of the current operation; he had drafted the regimental frag order implementing the division's directive for the operation. Colonel Smith sent Studt to the Dong Ha airfield to catch a helicopter to the 2nd Battalion.
Lieutenant Colonel Studt reached the airfield shortly after medical personnel removed the 2nd Battalion's casualties from Lieutenant Colonel Allgood's helicopter. Studt explained his mission and the two officers discussed the chances of succeeding in reaching the 2nd Battalion safely. Having had great difficulty in evacuating the four casualties, Allgood advised Studt that he wasn't sure he could make it into the battalion's position. He also pointed out that fog was increasing throughout the whole area. Both officers decided, however, that the situation required that the flight be attempted. Studt climbed into the passenger compartment of the helicopter, which, he noted, “still had fresh blood on the floor.” Allgood lifted off from the airfield and managed to land the UH-34D inside the battalion perimeter around 0300 on the 26th.
Studt immediately climbed into Captain Brill's foxhole to get an appraisal of the 2nd Battalion's situation. The first thing that struck Studt was the gaps in the battalion staff. Each time Studt asked about a key staff position, Brill reported that the respective officer was either a casualty in some hospital or a new officer was filling the position.
The battalion had been ground down during a month and a half of heavy fighting.
Company G, released back to the 2nd Battalion's control, arrived at the defensive perimeter the following morning. The additional strength was welcome since Lieutenant Colonel Studt had learned he would have to leave one company behind to guard the pile of excess ammunition. Due to other commitments, the regiment reported, there were no helicopters available to move it. "I could nor help but note," wrote Studt, "that this short-sighted policy resulted in [III MAF] providing a number of helicopters for emergency medevacs, which might not have been necessary had they been a little more flexible and appreciative of the tactical situation on this operation.
Leaving Company F to guard the ammunition, the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines moved toward its objective and occupied it by 1300. Shortly afterward, enemy 60mm mortars hit the battalion as it organized its defenses. One hour later, the NVA struck with a heavy mortar barrage, followed by small arms fire from the west and northwest. The Marines began taking casualties and requested a helicopter medevac.
In an effort to pick up some of the casualties, Captain Ronald D. Bennett of I-IMM-363 attempted to land his UH-34D within the 2nd Battalion's perimeter. Those on the ground waved him off because of intense enemy fire. As Captain Bennett pulled away, enemy fire hit the rear of the helicopter, separating the tail pylon. The aircraft crashed, rolled and began burning about 150 meters outside the Marine lines. Bennett and a gunner, Corporal Edward Clem, died in the crash. Second Lieutenant Vernon J. Sharpless and Lance Corporal Howard J. Cones, both seriously injured, managed to crawl from the burning wreckage.
A second helicopter from HMM-363, piloted by Captain Frank T. Grassi, tried to land to pick up the survivors, but could not. Enemy fire hit Grassi in the leg and arm, damaged the helicopter, and slightly wounded one of the gunners and a Navy hospital corpsman. The aircraft limped away as far as Strong Point C-2 where it made a forced landing.
Captain James E. Murphy, the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines' air liaison officer, who had been calling in air strikes in front of Company E, saw Bennett's helicopter go down. With his radio still on his back, Murphy crawled out to the downed helicopter, moving past NVA soldiers in his path. He found the two survivors near the burning helicopter. The three Marines were surrounded and there was no way Murphy could get them back to Marine lines. Fortunately, the enemy soldiers in the area either did not know the three men were there or simply did not care. Captain Murphy could hear NVA soldiers near by and see some movement, however, and called in air strikes within 50 meters of the crashed helicopter with the aid of an airborne observer in an 0-iC aircraft overhead. The latter eventually managed to direct a Marine A-4 attack aircraft to deliver a line of smoke so that a UH-1 helicopter could land and rescue the three Marines.
The rescue helicopter was a UH-1C from the U.S. Army's 190th Helicopter Assault Company whose pilot volunteered to make the pickup. Enemy fire hit the aircraft twice during the rescue and the pilot suffered a minor wound in the arm. The UH-1C also managed to reach Strong Point C-2 where it, too, made a forced landing.
Lieutenant Colonel Studt's observation during his short period of command convinced him of the need for reinforcements. At his request, the 9th Marines ordered the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines at C-2 Bridge to send two companies and a small command group to the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines' position.
Company F still occupied its exposed position and Studt decided to move it within the battalion perimeter. He directed the company to have its attached engineers blow up the excess ammunition, but they were unable to do so. After several hours of fruitless attempts by the engineers, Studt told the company to leave the ammunition and join the rest of the battalion. The battalion had direct observation of the ammunition pile and would cover it by fire.
Company F reached the perimeter near dusk. The two companies from the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines arrived at about the same time. With these reinforcements, the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines was ready for any NVA attacks that evening. Studt recounted the night's subsequent events: From before dusk, until almost 0200 in the morning, we were under almost continuous attacks by both direct and indirect fire, and our perimeter was hit again and again by ground attacks.... The wounded were being accumulated in the vicinity of my CP, which consisted of foxholes, and their suffering was a cause of anguish. After several attempts to medevac them by helicopter were aborted due to intense enemy fire, we came up with the plan that on signal every man on the perimeter would open fire on known or suspected enemy positions… for a few minutes with an intense volume of fire. During this brief period, a volunteer pilot.., succeeded in zipping in to the zone and removing our emergency medevacs. The [truck] … probably would not have worked again.
The ground attacks ceased around 0200 in the morning of the 27th, but the Marines heard enemy movement for the rest of the night as the North Vietnamese removed their dead and wounded. Dawn revealed 19 enemy bodies within or in sight of the Marine positions. Lieutenant Colonel Studt decided not to send anyone to sweep the area since any movement still drew enemy artillery and mortar fire.
The enemy completed its departure by dawn. The Marines soon did likewise; on orders from the 9th Marines, the battalion made a tactical withdrawal. Still harassed by enemy rocket and mortar fire and carrying the remainder of its dead and wounded, the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines moved by echelon to Strong Point C-2 and then to Cam Lo. During the period 25-27 October, eight 2nd Battalion Marines died and 45 suffered wounds giving the battalion an effective strength of around 300 Marines. Known NVA casualties were the 19 bodies counted by the battalion on 27 October.
The battalion moved back to Dong Ha on the 28th and resumed its role as the regimental reserve. Lieutenant Colonel William Wiese took command of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Studt returned to his duties at the 9th Marines' command post. That day a message from Lieu tenant General Cushman arrived, the last line of which read "2/4 has met and beaten the best the enemy had to offer. Well done."
Kingfisher listed 1,117 enemy killed and five captured; Marine casualties totaled 340 killed and 1,461 wounded. General Westmoreland described the operation as a "crushing defeat" of the enemy.
The Con Thien area remained a grim place. The constant danger of artillery, rocket, and mortar fire, and massed infantry assaults, and the depressing drizzle and mud from which there was no escape, combined to make it miserable for the Marines there. Neuropsychiatry or "shell shock" casualties, relatively unheard of elsewhere in South Vietnam, were not unusual. Duty on and around the drab hill mass was referred to by all Marines as their "Turn in the Barrel," or "the Meat-grinder.