Khe Sanh Hill Fights of ‘67
Compiled by Ray Stubbe
All Rights Reserved by the Author
Decimation In The Fog 25 April 1967
The plan for 25 April was to move K/3/3 and the 3/3 Command Group to Khe Sanh to conduct a Battalion-minus operation with B/1/9. K/3/3 had been scheduled to relieve B/1/9 on 29 April, and liaison personnel of 3/3 were already at Khe Sanh on the 24th. Intentions were for B/1/9 to evacuate their casualties during the morning and sweep toward Hill 861 from the northwest.
Fog was to determine much of the day's activity rather than plans. At 0815H, B-3 was preparing their ammunition and gear when suddenly someone shouted, "Look back! Look back! Hey, come here!" A NVA soldier had walked right up to Tom Ryan, the Point Man of the platoon, to surrender, saying he wanted to quit; he was going home.
"I couldn't believe it; they were actually talking to a Gook! So I wanted to run for my life because I thought we were surrounded. We tied him up good, put a blindfold on him, stuck stuff into his mouth. We just sat there and waited and wondered. Maybe we were spotted; we didn't know. We just sat there."
The captured NVA soldier, Vu Van Tich, later stated that he was a member of 4th Battalion, 32d Regiment, and that he had left his unit 4 days prior to his surrender.
A medevac of the casualties was attempted. As the first chopper landed in the zone, it encountered a hail of small arms fire. The chopper rifled off immediately, but not before Capt Sayers had debarked and several evacuees embarked, including the POW. This was the only helicopter able to reach B/l/9 on 25 April due to the fog. Thereafter B/l/9 commenced movement along the trail south and east to Hill 861 (XD 803443).
B-3 was moving to link up with their "6" Sgt Rios began leading the men down a gully and up to the ridge line to Capt Sayers, avoiding the path were they had been hit the previous day. But the vegetation was so thick that after half an hour, they had only moved less than 10 meters. The Sgt then decided the only possible route was the trail, to take the chance of getting ambushed, but to be very alert.
As they moved, they discovered a lot of gear plus about 3 bodies. The progress was halted as the bodies and the gear was retrieved. The humping, the anxiety of battle and always-possible death, and the lack of water they themselves had, made all of the Marines dangerously desiccated and weaker by the moment. The dead bodies, however, still had some canteens of the precious water, which they could swallow. Even in death, the Marines at Khe Sanh shared what they had with each other. It was now about 1730 or 1800 and the fog was so thick that visibility was restricted to about 5 meters. "We got on top of the hill. We set up stretchers for these dead people, and we started to move off. We got down the trail approximately 50 meters. There was a dead man lying there. So they passed the word back to the formation that the last three men were to pick up this dead man and carry him along. They were supposed to pass the word up when it was time to move out, but we were trying to get the man arranged, to get a liner for him and word was passed to move out. We passed the word up that he wasn't ready. Word was passed 'we're moving out anyway,' so we moved out. We got about 75 meters on the other side of this dead person and the word was passed that we were supposed to go back and get this man."
The fog was, by now, very, very thick, and it was also dark. "We told them the fog was so thick we couldn't even find the path to get back there, and so we decided that we would move on. We had about 3 KIAs with us already." B-3 moved about 30 more meters, dropped their KIAs, and set up a perimeter for the evening.
B-l, still separated from B-3 during the 25th, had been able to evacuate their wounded on the medevac helicopter, but not their dead, and also moved all day until about 2100H with their dead- through the extremely torturous and muddy terrain, although completely exhausted, with no food and little water.
Fog delayed movement of the 3/3 Command Group under command of LtCol Gary Wilder and Co K/3/3, commanded by Capt Bayliss L. Spivey, from Thon Son Lam to Khe Sanh until noon on the 25th, at which time 3/3 assumed OPCON of B/1/9. Capt Sayers had managed to depart KSCB just minutes earlier. LtCol Wilder later noted: "So I got another company up that was attached to me, and by the time the Company got up there, late in the evening, I was able to brief the Company Commander. I had the unpleasant task of telling him that he had to march in, using stealth, and join-up with the remnants of those two platoons in the middle of those three hills, probably heavily-occupied." LtCol Gary Wilder had commanded 3d Recon Bn (reinforced with 1st and 3rd Force Recon Co's) whose patrols had detected the influx of the NVA 324th Division north and west of Dong Ha. Operation HASTINGS was launched as a result and 1995 NVA were confirmed KIA. Now, LtCol Wilder was CO of 3/3. Col John Lanigan, CO of 3d Marines, had decided to replace B/l/9 with 3/3 since Khe Sanh was very active as a base for launching intelligence-gathering units into Laos to monitor the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and especially the portion of it that stemmed north from Route 9, just east of BV33, parallel to the border, and then crossed into the DMZ, known as the "Sante Fe Trail."
Numerous patrols of Marine Force Recon and B/1/9 infantry had disclosed the presence of major NVA units in the Khe Sanh area but the base commander at the time refused to believe these reports. Wilder noted: "When the base commander briefed me when I went up initially for the coordination on the change, he said, 'There are only 30'-and I remember these things even though it's a long time ago. He said, 'There are 30 VCs operating in our area. They have 2 82mm mortars, but they only have one base-plate.' When he was finished, I said, 'Do you really believe yourself what you just told me?' He said, 'What do you mean!? Of course! We have good intelligence.' I said, 'You're talking to the former Division Reconnaissance Officer. Stop that!' But he honestly believed it. During the operation I got hold of one of my recon Sergeants who had been up there for some time, and I said, 'Sergeant, what the hell's going on up there?' And his words were, 'Sir, I've been trying to tell that *** for two months that we got North Vietnamese crawling all over these hills, and he wouldn't believe me."'
Capt Spivey, CO of K/3/3 since 02 Apr 67, received the mission from LtCol Wilder to take Hill 861 and be prepared to continue to the northwest to aid B/l/9 and exploit their contact. K/3/3 jumped off in the attack from KSCB by foot at noon and commenced artillery prep of Hill 861. At 1410H the hill at XD 813430 was reached and the company, now about 3/4ths of the 5,000 meters from KSCB to 861, deployed for the final attack: two platoons separated to go up the two ridge lines approaching the hill from the south. K-3 was to continue north to XD 806445 (a hill later called "861-A" during the Siege) and be prepared to assist K-1 and the Co Hq, which moved northwest directly on to 861. K-2, along with the 60mm mortar section, remained as security for the Bn CP to cover the company's approach to the objective. K-2 was at XD811431.
By 1445H, K-l and the Co Hq had reached a position at XD 804438. The advance was checked at this point to permit K-3 to progress to a supporting distance along the ridge to the east. Also, a final artillery prep was requested. At 1525H, K-3 was at the desired position at XD 808439. Artillery check fire was in effect throughout this time. Up to this time, K13/3 had received no contact, and at 1615H, Capt Spivey requested to continue the attack without further prep fires. Permission was granted. By 1630H, K-3 had reached its objective at XD 806445 and was ordered to establish a blocking position to the southwest.
K-1 and K-3 were not physically tied-in due to the very small width of the hill approaches and extremely steep sides.
K-l moved up the ridgeline directly south of the summit of 861 while K-3 moved on a ridgeline moving into the objective from the east to support K- I 's advance. At precisely 1705H - Capt Spivey recalls the exact time - lead elements of K-l, then some 300 meters from the summit, began to receive fire from enemy bunkers on top of the hill as well as mortars from a reverse slope defense. Due to the nature of the concave slope and the brush, the Marines never had good observation of the enemy position, but poured a large volume of M-79, LAW, and small arms into the general area.
Although they advanced to about 100 meters of the crest by 1730H, they had run out of troops. Only 10 effectives remained in K-l; there were 15 Marines killed and another 15 WIA. The number of dead and wounded made disengagement impossible.
When the First Squad leader was mortally wounded, LCPL Raymond Lee Huckins immediately assumed command, reorganized the squad and aggressively continued the assault. When the enemy fire increased and temporarily halted the unit's advance, LCPL Huckins, discovering a critical shortage of ammo, fearlessly exposed himself to the enemy fire to distribute ammo and assist in rendering first aid to the casualties. As he moved among his men, encouraging them, an enemy grenade landed within a few feet of him and two other Marines. Disregarding his own safety and with outstanding presence of mind, he picked up the grenade and hurled it away a few seconds before it exploded.
Cpl Stoney Jackson received painful leg wounds but refused medical evacuation and continued to lead his men.
The Corpsman of 1st platoon, Kilo 3/3, HM3 Michael G. Gibbs, immediately moved to the forefront, into the heat of the battle, and began to treat a Marine with a sucking chest wound and then moved him 15 meters to a safer location, He then exposed himself again to the intense fire to assist a second Marine. While administering first aid, he was wounded in his back, but continued to help the wounded Marine. Having completed treatment for the second Marine, he moved to a third, but received a wound that broke his leg. He was then pinned down under fire where he quietly remained until darkness, when he and the others were moved to a more secure area.
[HM3 Gibbs was KIA the following morning during a mortar attack].
[On 07 Jul '67, a Marine of W/1/13 on Hill 861 was digging a position near the LZ and uncovered a wallet containing personal effects and ID of HM3 Michael G. Gibbs].
Capt Spivey requested that LtCol Wilder release the reserve platoon, K-2, which was then in the vicinity of the Bn CP group. As K-2 advanced towards the decimated K-l, K-3 was ordered forward on the crest from the east but reported slow progress in the saddle northeast of Hill 861; they reached XD 804444 and were held up for the night. B/l/9 was moving towards K-l from the west slope of 861.
The sun was setting along with their hopes. Darkness was setting in, along with the darkness of the unknown, the fear and the terror. The Marines were just under the enemy positions, and Capt Spivey was unable to extract K-l from the immediate contact with the enemy. All of the wounded of K-l, however, were recovered into its lines along with all but 4 of those killed.
By 1830H, K-2 had arrived at K-l's position and began to recover the 4 KIA, but two additional casualties were taken in the process, and the attempt was discontinued. During this time there were numerous acts of heroism as the very young Marines went about, in the face of heavy enemy fire, dragging the wounded and dead to safer positions.
LCpl Harold Allan Croft, for example, without hesitation, moved through the exploding mortars and automatic weapons fire to assist HM3 Gibbs. He then began crawling around the hillside giving medical aid to the wounded. At times he appeared to be everywhere, administering aid, giving encouragement, and serving as an inspiration to all present. In one instance, during a pause in the enemy mortar attack, PFC Croft exposed himself to heavy MG fire to administer first aid to LCpl Oliver, a victim of mortar shrapnel. PFC Croft applied battle dressings to the head and leg of LCpl Oliver and then dragged him to safety. Every time someone yelled "Corpsman!" PFC Croft ran out of his hole, knowing the corpsman was already busy, to apply battle dressings and drag the wounded to safety.
Since the first contact at 1705H, incoming mortars were received in volleys of 3 to 5, falling at first to the south, but were walked up the ridge. Most of the rounds continued to fall a little behind the position, but several were on target, producing additional casualties. Counter-mortar and artillery seemed to have limited effect. Apparently the enemy mortars were dug in on the reverse slope making artillery fire ineffective.
The command group withdrew a short distance, but PFC Floyd Allen Gregory, the Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) rep, remained forward to assist communications personnel maintain vital contact with subordinate and higher echelons.
During the night, K/3/3 maintained its positions under sporadic fire as all dug in, in place. About 0200H, they spotted rockets and mortars being fired from GS7493, a position to their west, being fired on KSCB. Artillery was fired accurately on target, and C-47 SPOOKY later arrived on station to spew its venom of fire.
LtCol Gary Wilder notes: "..this is the most interesting aspect of all: during that night, they rocketed Khe Sanh-or tried to. Now we saw the rockets going up and going over. I remember talking on the phone like I'm talking to you-I'm talking to the Khe Sanh base as the rockets are going over my head, saying, 'Pull your head in; they're coming in!' Now fortunately I programmed a flare plane to be on station that night, which was one of the old C-47’s equipped with mini-guns. The minute the rockets started going up, I vectored him and he started hosing down with the miniguns. The thing was quieted-down very quickly. But the interesting thing was - I found out the next day - there had been a coordinated attack that took place on every northern base in the I Corps area at the same time, right to the minute. So we subsequently pieced together - the intelligence people - that we believe that they had planned that night to take Khe Sanh. And it makes a lot of sense, because there was but an infantry platoon and some reinforcements. And it was only by the accident of those Marines walking up Hill 861 that triggered all of this action prematurely."
Col Wilder continues: "They moved a whole Division into Laos, and subsequently moved a Regiment of that Division in to occupy those three hills. I think the plan was that that Regiment was going to hold the three hills and they were going to pass another one or two Regiments through them and take Khe Sanh. The intelligence that came back said that the first regiment that had occupied those hills had been virtually annihilated. The second regiment was involved in the counter-attack, and they were written-off. So it's two of the three regiments were wiped-out for all intensive purposes." (But this is getting at the end of the story!)
During the afternoon of the 25th, recon team 3AI, HAWK, made contact with 10 - 15 NVA west of their position (XD 762505), a ridgeline beside a dead tree about 30 meters from a treeline which ran across the ridge. "Around one o'clock we started hearing the noise coming up this hill. We were in a well-camouflaged little jungle area on a knoll. It was a flank movement coming up that hill. They were all helmeted, geared and combat ready. They had elephant grass over them for camouflage. Closer and closer the enemy came. They got within 50 ft. We were well concealed on higher ground. Cpl Robert Wacker, the Squad Leader, squeezed the trigger. It was a mix-fire! It sounded almost like a firecracker. Our adrenalin was really going. The next guy, Rudy, opened up and we got those guys, no problem. The problem was what was behind those guys. It must have been a company, and they started to open up-small arms, MG fire. They had us pinned down real bad. Then something happened.
"I don't know if it was a 82mm mortar or a hand grenade. it hit right above us; it got every one of us. Terry Burton, who was right next to me, was completely unconscious -looked like someone took an ice-pick to him. "Another guy came crawling up to me and said, 'Baker, we got to get out.' This was after about 15-20 minutes of fire-fighting. We were getting low on ammo. We had placed our K-bars in front of us, and were fixin' to go hand-to-hand. He said, 'The Assistant Squad Leader, Rudy, told me to tell you to get out.' "Well, I didn't want to go! I knew there'd be a MG because we were getting fire from three sides. In my haste in going out I tripped the M-21, and I started a fire. I mean it was burning, and I tried to put it out with my hands. So I knew I was going to die, and being a religious man I told God, 'God, if you give me one more chance, I will stop my evil ways.' I knew I was going to die. Well, fortunately for me there was nothing out that way at the time."
Two choppers of HMM-265 landed to extract the team. The first, piloted by Capt Petteys, made his pass too fast and his guns jammed; he waved off. His wingman, Capt J.A. House, II, rolled in behind him and slid in along the ridgeline. His helicopter, EP-173, immediately drew automatic weapons fire, but he was about 75 meters from the recon team. LCPL Daniel D. Dulude, the Crew Chief, knelt on the open rear ramp of the aircraft where he was exposed to the direct enemy fire only 75 meters away and calmly directed Capt House through a difficult back-taxi maneuver towards the team.
Fred Baker, a member of HAWK, along with another man, Pete, dashed back and forth carrying everyone. Six men of HAWK were badly wounded or unconscious; 2 were still able to move. Also assisting the wounded recon team members to the chopper under the heavy enemy fire was the Crew Chief, Daniel D. Dulude: "The enemy were in the beeline and were firing AKs and throwing hand grenades at the team. It seemed as if we had misjudged our chances of retrieving them. The point is rather vivid in my mind because the transmission on the helicopter had been leaking transmission fluid on the ramp and made it extremely difficult for one person to crawl up. I remember the two of us [Dulude and Baker] pushing the medevac up the ramp in what seemed like an eternity. We then left to help two others. Our paths led us to different wounded and we made our way back to the helo on our own. At this point a count of Marines on board indicated that there were 3 missing. Two were wounded and the third was Baker who had already started back for one of them. I again left the plane to gather the last wounded man. We took another count, raised the rear ramp, and left the zone." The entire team was medevaced to DaNang. After HAWK was extracted, Huey guns hips strafed the suspected enemy positions in the beeline causing one secondary explosion.
Due to the action at Khe Sanh, Co K/3/9, commanded by Capt Jerrald E. Giles, was flown into Khe Sanh from Camp Carroll.
Like so many troopers who came to Khe Sanh, LCpl Henry Rose, Jr., a squad leader in Weapons Platoon, K/3/9, recalls: ".. at first nobody knew where we were going. We knew we were going somewhere because my company was the reactionary company for anything that came up." Marines were jostled from one place to another during their tours in Viet Nam until all the places and events and days merged into a very confused and tangled web of experience as impenetrable as a bamboo thicket, out of which it was impossible to make any sense, only nightmares from images seared on the soul.
3d Marines at Khe Sanh assumed OPCON of K/3/9 at 250830H. The Marines were now sending companies to Khe Sanh piecemeal into the meat grinder of battle: E/2/9, B/l/9, K/3/3, and now K/3/9. The opinion held by the higher echelons of the Marine command that there really was no enemy at Khe Sanh, had become the perception that precipitated death. Capt Spivey on the Combat Base the 24th as B/1/9 was experiencing its contact remarked, "No one suspected more than probably a NVA company in the area at that time." Of course, the extremely rugged terrain precluded any large mass movement of troop formations. The hills of Khe Sanh dictated how we would maneuver.
Reconstruction of the NVA plan by FMFPAC reflected isolation of the battlefield by mortar attacks on Dong Ha, Gio Linh, Con Thien, and Camp Carroll, all designated to upset Marine fire support and logistic arrangements. A mortar attack on Phu Bai would endanger helicopter support, while blowing away bridges and key stretches of Route 9 would sever overland logistic supply. In addition, a diversionary attack on the Lang Vei camp, four miles west of Khe Sanh near the Laotian border, would make the enemy threat appear to be focused there. As LtGen Krulak's summary put it: "All this was to be ancillary to the main effort, a strong ground attack on Khe Sanh, coming southward from the mountainous region near the Laos-RVN-DMZ corner."
Later analysis through contacts, prisoner interrogation, and captured documents, reflected that the 18th Regiment of the NVA 325C Division had moved into the operational area from Laos early in April under cover of fog and heavy cloud conditions. The mission was to attack Khe Sanh. The regiment occupied the triangle shaped key terrain in the area bounded by Hill 861 (XD 803443), Hill 881-South (XD 777437), and Hill 881-North (XD 774457). A prisoner reported that the regiment was supported by the 2d Artillery Battalion armed with ten 120mm mortars and ten 75mm recoilless rifles.
(3/3 casualty numbers amended end of next page)