Khe Sanh Hill Fights of ‘67
Compiled by Ray Stubbe
All Rights Reserved by the Author
First and Third Platoons of B/1/9 were operating from PPBs at XD 798443 and XD 790455, one just west of Hill 861, the other a click northwest. The Second Platoon provided defense of the KSCB.
Like the descent into monsters within a nightmare, the mission was to check out some caves that had been spotted by B-l about 1630H on 23 Apr. Tom Ryan, Point man of B-3, later reflected: "The Colonel on the base had said, 'We'll just send up two platoons, one on each side, and we're going to clean them up once and for all.' It was crazy!" The two platoons joined together about 1800H and set in for the night at XD 810460. It was not restful; Cpl Michael A. Brown, a MG team leader of B-3 recalls: "We set in our perimeter. We weren't too sure. We were kinda nervous then. We knew we were moving into a VC area. Anyway, we set up our PPB there, out there in the open with First Platoon."
On the morning of the 24th, the two platoons moved out at 0530H in two columns about 300 meters apart following a path they had used on previous patrols in this area, moving towards Hill 516 (XD 799459). It was raining, and some Marines in the patrol were able to eat some Cs as they moved. "The area was pretty open. We moved out. There was no contact. The trail was kinda rough but we made it. We kept on humping. Then we moved up this hill. I'm not sure which hill it was. I guess it was around 861 and finally we were moving into this area with the grass pretty thick, and we weren't sure we were going to make any contact or not. A couple of guys were saying, 'Well, there probably won't be anything there when we get there.' I knew myself that if there was anything there, it wouldn't be anything they wanted."
As B-l moved towards the caves, one of the men in 3d Squad of B-l spotted 4 or 5 NVA in khaki uniforms moving towards the Marines. The platoon commander, 2/Lt James D. Carter, Jr., passed the word for the platoon to hold fast since they were advancing towards them. The enemy force moved up to within 50 meters, spotted one of the Marines, and began to fire. The Marines opened fire. After the exchange of bullets, Lt Carter took 8 men with him to investigate. He found an enemy soldier on a stretcher, killed him and one other enemy trooper down the hill. The First Squad Leader, Cpl James Gerald Pomerleau, was perhaps too anxious to get to the enemy, and was hit by a WP grenade and killed. B-l brought the body of Cpl Pomerleau back up the hill and proceeded some 300 meters towards Hill 861 when they began receiving heavy fire, pinning them down.
In order to cover their movement out of the enemy's direct fire, LCpl Eric G. Wilk of B-3 moved his 60mm mortar directly into a position exposed to enemy MG fire and began firing. His mortar effectively silenced the murderous fire on B-l and they were able to pull across the ridge to a position of defilade from the enemy fire. Immediately, the numerically superior enemy force shifted its vicious fire toward the advancing B-3 and specifically as LCpl Wilk's mortar position, which was causing them so much damage with repeated accurate fire. Without a moment of hesitation, LCpl Wilk boldly moved his weapon to a more effective position and again directed accurate counter-fire, enabling his platoon to regroup into defensive positions. LCpl John Wayne Skelton, Jr., began running through the intense fire to obtain vital mortars after the ammunition carriers were unable to deliver ammunition due to the heavy volume of small arms fire and mortar fire. Repeatedly exposing himself to the enemy fire, he moved one man to another, collecting ammunition and delivering it to LCpl Wilk. Despite the heavy MG fire directed on him, LCpl Wilk continued to fire and only stopped when a MG round shattered his right forearm making him unable to continue. LCpl Skelton then continued to fire the mortar until he was seriously wounded by the heavy volume of enemy fire.
Meanwhile, in B-l, LCpl Dana Cornell Darnell, a mortar ammunition carrier, saw his mortar gunner fall unconscious when the ambush was sprung. With extraordinary calmness in the face of the intense enemy fire, LCpl Darnell retrieved the mortar.
LCpl Darnell had yelled for the ammunition, which had been distributed among the platoon's members to be delivered to his position. Due to the intense enemy fire the other members of the platoon were unable to reach his position with the necessary ammunition. LCpl Darnell immediately stood up and raced through the enemy fire to retrieve the ammunition, with complete disregard for his own safety. Due to the urgency of the situation he was unable to set up the mortar properly. Holding the mortar between his legs and steadying it with his hands and using his helmet as a baseplate, LCpl Darnell began firing the mortar from a position exposed to the enemy fire and delivered accurate fire into the enemy positions. His A-Gunner urinated on Darnell's hands and the tube to keep it cool. When he had exhausted all of the mortar rounds of the mortar squad, LCpl Darnell informed the rest of the platoon to standby; he was coming around to collect more ammunition. He stood up and again raced up and down the lines collecting mortar ammunition and then returned to his mortar, all the while being subject to hostile fire. This was repeated several times until the enemy fire was silenced.
At this time, the First Platoon was ordered to withdraw from the clearing. While withdrawing, two Marines in close proximity to LCpl Darnell were hit by MG fire. He quickly moved through the fire to render first aid and was dragging wounded Marines from the clearing when he was temporarily blinded by dirt and rock fragments which embedded in his eyes. He refused to be evacuated and within an hour was again caring for the wounded. When the radioman for the Third Squad was killed, LCpl Darnell took over the radio as the platoon withdrew.
The chaos of the battle momentarily settled, but not the disorienting confusion. Corporal Brown, a MG team leader of B-3 recalls, "We didn't know which place we were supposed to be in, where we were going to set down at. We just moved in as clumsy as we could. We tried to figure out where the fire was coming from."
B-l was then ordered to leave their KIA with B-3 and join up with BRAVO-6, Capt Sayers. Two men at the time started moving to where they could find some cover; no one had any real cover at this time. The mission was to assist B-2, which had lost four men.
Early on the morning of the 24th, 2Lt Thomas G. King had led 30 men from B-2 plus a 81mm mortar section with approximately 120 rounds of mortar ammo and ILt Phillip H. Sauer, commander of the ONTOS section at Khe Sanh, to Hill 700, about a click south of 861, to provide security for the sweeping I -I and B-3.
Upon reaching XD 805435, Lt King set up his 81 and at about 0930H, began to fire into the cave area. About an hour later, he dispatched a 5-man OP to proceed up the trail to the top of Hill 861 for a better advantage so they could call fire missions and possibly air support for the two platoons. The OP advanced until it reached a bamboo thicket about 300 meters from the top of the hill, at 1100H, and was ambushed by dug-in 20-30 NVA. The point man went down yelling, "I'm hit!" and just lay on the trail. Lt Sauer and PFC William Marks made it to a foxhole; the radioman and security took cover about 15 feet behind them. The NVA soldiers began plastering them with fire. Lt Sauer was armed with only a pistol. Marks' rifle had become caked with mud and was giving him trouble. A NVA round had burst the muzzle of the security man's rifle; it was worthless.
Marks and the Lt decided to make a run for it. Sauer said he'd cover Marks and follow him back to the others.
"I took off and it was the last I ever saw of him. When I got to the other two I said, 'Come on let's get out of here,' and we ran down as far as we could and went down again, the fire was so heavy. But we got up and began running again. We saw the gooks shadowing us downhill on our right side and I thought they had us surrounded. I thought we were all going to die right there. We were running scarred." The radioman was hit in the chest and went down. The security man disappeared. Marks found himself alone, running blindly, stumbling and falling along the narrow and slick mud path as bullets hit all around him.
The squad security for the 81 moved forward to investigate, and Marks stumbled into them. Breathless, exhausted, and caked with mud, he blurted, "They're all dead. The other four, all dead." When he made it to his unit, he was given some aspirins and told to lie down and rest. He couldn't. "I kept seeing those poor guy's faces." Lt King immediately dispatched one of his squads to retrieve the 4 bodies. They arrived at the ambush site and had their hands on two of the bodies; they did not see the other two. Due to the very heavy fire, the squad was forced to withdraw, and Lt King proceeded to call an artillery mission on Hill 861 where it was assumed the NVA were dug-in.
At this point Capt Sayers radioed Lt King and said he was on his way by helicopter. The approach of his helicopter was met with .50 caliber MG fire, but managed to land with Capt Sayers and his radioman and take-off. Lt King immediately turned the 81 tube around and fired on the .50. One enemy body flew into the air. A squad dispatched to investigate could locate nothing. When the squad returned, Lt King and nine Marines went to the ambush site on 861, took no fire, and managed to get to the two bodies and drag them back. One body had been stripped of everything but boots, utility trousers, and utility jacket. The other body was stripped and had nothing but a cartridge belt, a couple of canteens, and flak jacket.
For about 20 minutes, the squad combed through the immediate area searching for the two others, without success. Perhaps they had crawled away, they thought. Lt King then requested permission from Capt Sayers to pull back:
"I did not like this area. It was too very quiet. There was no bugs making any kind of noise, no noises whatsoever, and I figured the enemy was still up in that area." Upon reaching a suitable area, he called in a helicopter to evacuate the two bodies. "I came up on the helicopter's frequency, and he instructed me to pop a smoke. I popped one smoke. The helicopter circled high overhead. He instructed me to pop another smoke, which I did. The helicopter, which was a 34, proceeded to land. His wheels had no more than touched the ground when the whole tree line on top of 861 opened up on us with heavy automatic weapons fire. The helicopter took 35 hits. None of my people were hit; we all got down." The firing slowed down somewhat as Lt King returned to Capt Sayers and the 81 tubes, which continued to support the sweeping B-l and B-3. The FO of B-l radioed that the rounds were landing directly on top of a NVA company, and to keep firing. B-l had been moving towards 861, as ordered, but was ambushed with heavy automatic MG fire; there was another man killed, another wounded. The platoon disengaged, moved to a LZ, and was able to medevac two or three of their wounded by helicopter. Receiving additional heavy fire, the platoon moved to another LZ. Another chopper arrived, but so did heavy enemy fire; another man was killed, three more wounded. The chopper could not land. So B-l set in for the night, dug in with their wounded and dead. "It was raining. It was miserable. It was cold. I was in Korea too, and I wonder to this day which one was worse." [GySgt Al Koppel, Weapons Plt Cdr, B/l/9]
B-3, the other sweeping platoon, fared no better. After B-l left them with the body of Cpl Pomerleau, Cpl Brown recalled, "We stood around there. We couldn't figure out whether we were supposed to set in or not." Three or four minutes passed. All at once they started receiving fire-small arms, mortars, .30 and .50-from the ridge line opposite them, and everyone jumped down. The Marines of B-3 moved to the treeline at the crest of their hill and tried to return fire.
"Nobody knew exactly how we were doing it. We just moved up into the brush, sat down, and started firing. We were firing, and I could see a couple of muzzle flashes from the bushes up ahead, but it was hard to pinpoint the fire. It seemed maybe they were dug in. We were firing back and forth for a while and the rounds were coming close. We didn't have any trouble. We had concealment, but once we fired, our concealment was literally no good because they could see where [the bullets were coming from, I didn't know what was going on. We heard a couple of guys get hit, and they were screaming and it kinda shook us up. We didn't know what the hell happened. We kept on firing. Finally they told us to pull back and just leave half our gear up there. We tried to bring it with us but it was almost impossible to keep moving and pick up everything you had and keep our packs on our backs. We found out who the casualties were and the corpsman was working with them, and we were trying to figure out what we were going to do with the gear, and it was the mortar section that got hit. A couple of the guys-. One of them seemed to be all right at first. He was on his feet. He was running. Then the next thing I knew he was laying down. He was unconscious. The other guy got hit. He was hit twice in the leg and in the arm. It tore up his arm pretty bad, but he never let down his spirits. He kept his morale up. He had two morphine shots and it didn't seem like it put him out. He was still conscious and he felt every bit of the pain it seemed."
They started to move off the hill but were having trouble transporting the wounded in makeshift stretchers. One of the machinegunners gave up his MG and started to carry a wounded man on his back, a man from the rockets squad who had been hit in his legs. They continued down the path trying to locate a LZ. The NVA attempted to mortar the Marines, but their aim was fortunately inaccurate. Nevertheless, as Cpl Brown recalls, "Most of us were scared. We were just glad to get away from there. But we weren't running to anything. We weren't actually getting away from anything. We were still in it." The Marines moved down a trail, but paused since the corpsman was having trouble with casualties to the rear. Friendly aircraft began dropping bombs on the hill-very close to B-3. "We got bombed by our jets up there. My squad got 6 people killed. They were blowing up the whole top of the hill with mortars. They were just telling me to move quick… running down there, more or less falling, and the jets bombed us, blew my whole fire team away. I think they thought we were the enemy the way we were coming off that hill." Two more bombs came too late: "We lost radio contact with the platoon commander, and the word was passed back to me-I was about in the middle of the formation-that some people had been injured by the bombs and they needed a corpsman up there badly. So we passed the word back for a corpsman. The corpsman came up, and we moved back to this area that had been bombed, and around this area we saw various gear scattered all over the area, and parts of bodies all over the area, and we were told to move past this area so that the platoon sergeant could move up and stay with this man who was dying. And the man wouldn't die right off, so we got the word to pick him up with almost of the gear we could carry and the wounded, and move down to this LZ area.
It was about 1700H when Capt J.A. House of HMM-265, who had been piloting a routine respply for some 4 hours, was alerted for an emergency medical evacuation. Capt House and his co-pilot, Capt J. J. Dalton, proceeded along with his wingman, Capt Nick, to B-1 and B-3 for the medevac. Capt Nick approached the LZ occupied by B-l on the very top of Hill 861. As soon as the helicopter landed in the zone, the enemy opened fire. "We got three of them aboard. We got every window in the cockpit shot-out right there. We also had an armor-piercing round in our forward transmission. As we landed [at KSCB] the transmission froze. Neither one of us were hit. My Gunner got hit in the knee- took a 12.7 in the knee. I think we got one wounded and two bodies out before we got out of there. My job as the co-pilot was to watch the fire and get the ramp down. I started to call in the fire. We were facing the horse-shoe ridge on 861, and the fire started on the left and went all the way around."
Capt House then proceeded to B-3's position (XD 804453), which was supposed to be in defilade from the enemy. However, as they landed in the zone they began receiving intense enemy fire from the ridgeline to their right. The zone was also obstructed by trees and stumps. Immediately upon setting down, the aircraft came under fire from an automatic weapon at the three o'clock position and the Crew Chief, LCpl Daniel Douglas Dulude, returned fire with the .50. Upon observing that there was no fire from the 9 o'clock position and that the side of the hill made it improbable that fire would come from that side, the Gunner, SSgt G.L. Logan, began loading for the Crew Chief and the first medevac crawled into the aircraft on his hands and knees.
LCpl Dulude motioned for SSgt Logan to take over the gun while he assisted the wounded man aboard the chopper. He then learned that there was no one to help the wounded to the aircraft except other wounded, and that the casualties were on a small hill about 25 meters from the chopper. With automatic weapons fire striking around the aircraft and without regard for his own personal safety, LCPL Dulude departed the aircraft and dashed into 12 - 14 foot high elephant grass to aid the wounded. The height of the grass made it impossible for him to see the aircraft after moving about 15 meters. He returned with one of the wounded men and courageously set out to help the next man. Returning again he turned around and once again left the aircraft to return to the wounded. At this point, during his second trip to help the wounded, the enemy began to mortar the zone. At least 6 mortars fell in close to the aircraft and the area in which LCpl Dulude was working. Although the enemy small arms fire and AW fire was intense, LCPL Dulude continued his efforts, disregarding his own personal safety. He returned to the aircraft a third time and once more ran back into the zone. Finding the last man, LCpl Dulude again returned to the aircraft. Then he made certain there were no other casualties remaining in the zone. Only when he was certain all the wounded were aboard did he reenter the aircraft and inform the pilot that they were clear to lift-out. Although exhausted, he refused rest and immediately began administering first aid to the wounded enroute to the medical facility.
That night B-1 and B-3 dug in as best they could. They had no E-tools, and dug their foxholes using canteen cups and bayonets. They had been traveling light-no packs, only cartridge belts. One Sergeant in B-3, shot in his legs, kept telling everyone, "We are all going to die!" Surprisingly they were not assaulted that night. Air-strikes and artillery pounded the areas around them and 861 for most of the night.
At B-2's position, having exhausted the 81 ammo, Capt Sayers pulled back to Khe Sanh with the mortar team and squad security just prior to darkness.
Casualties for 24 April were: 14 USMC KIA, 18 WIA, and 2 MIA, 5 NVA KIA (confirmed) and 100 KIA (probable).
Support for 24 Apr: 660 rounds of 105mm and 8 fixed wing Sorties dropping 6500 pounds of ordnance.