AT 1613 ON 1 MAY 1968, THE 3d BATTALION, 21ST INFANTRY, 196th Light Infantry Brigade (LIB), Americal Division, began airlifting into Mai Xa Chanh East and West.
When the NVA offensive began, BLT 2/4 had companies in Nhi Ha, Lam Xuan West, and Mai Xa Chanh East monitoring the infiltration routes along Jones Creek and screening the BLT CP at Mai Xa Chanh West. On 30 April, after the last of these elements had been committed at Dai Do, Lieutenant Colonel Weise expressed concern to Colonel Hull about the sudden vulnerability of his support elements at the BLT CP. Regiment forwarded a request through 3d Marine Division to III MAF asking that a battalion from the III MAF reserve be placed opcon to Hull to defend Jones Creek. The III MAF reserve was an opcon Army unit, the 196th LIB, and brigade selected one of its battalions, the 3-21st Infantry, for deployment to the 3d Marines. The 3-21st Infantry had only recently moved 150 kilometers north from Fire Support Base (FSB) Center to Camp Evans. The battalion was in the process of building Fire Support Base Belcher near Camp Evans when III MAF airlifted it another fifty kilometers northwest to the Mai Xa Chanhs. This last move placed the far-from-home Army battalion within nine klicks of the DMZ.
By 1250 on 2 May 1968, the 3d Battalion, 21st Infantry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, was heavily engaged in Nhi Ha and Lam Xuan West.
THE COLUMN WAS FOUR DAYS OUT FROM FSB BELCHER and eye-deep in elephant grass when a poisonous green viper nailed the point man of 2d Lt. Terry D. Smith’s platoon in A Company, 3-21st Infantry.
Overhead, the sky was overcast with the low, leaden clouds of the approaching monsoon, and the patrol was soaked from the cold, nearly constant drizzle. “It was an absolutely miserable area,” recalled Lieutenant Smith. The place had previously been defoliated. The trees were dead and without leaves, whereas the underbrush, exposed to direct sunlight through the withered canopy, had grown wildly. The dense, razor-edged elephant grass was ten feet high, so the Alpha Company GIs, moving in single-file columns, had to hack and chop the whole way. Their machetes were loud and progress was slow. It was dank and muggy in the elephant grass, and impossible to see what was ahead. The insects in the underbrush, to include red ants, were huge and vicious, and the mosquitoes were thick. There were leeches, too.
Alpha Company had found nothing of value, not even a hootch. “The hacking through the elephant grass just wore people out,” said Lieutenant Smith. “It was just a useless waste of time. There was absolutely nothing there.”
The only casualty was the point man, who was bitten twice on his left hand by the green viper, between thumb and index finger. “He was really calm, but I thought he was going to die on me,” said Lieutenant Smith. The platoon medic had to keep moving the tourniquet up the point man’s arm as it quickly swelled to three times its normal size. The snake had been killed. Its head was chopped off, placed in a plastic bag used to carry radio batteries, and tied to the point man’s fatigue shirt so the medical personnel in the rear could identify the species.
Lieutenant Smith immediately requested a helicopter med-evac, and in the twenty-five minutes it took a Huey to make the flight from Camp Evans, every grunt in the platoon who had a machete was swinging it to clear a landing zone. They hacked at the thick vegetation, stomped on it, and took running jumps to mash it down with their weight. It was tight quarters nonetheless for the helicopter, and the pilot complained about a tree that the platoon had not had the ordnance to knock down. The Huey came to a hover over the semiflattened vegetation, and grunts lifted the point man up to the skid, where the door gunner hauled him aboard. Thanks to rapid medical assistance, the point man was back with the platoon within a week—by which time the platoon was in heavy combat on the DMZ.
Lieutenant Colonel William P. Snyder was the commander of the 3-21st Infantry, 196th LIB. The chain of events that moved his battalion to FSB Belcher, and then on to the DMZ, began when the 1st Cavalry Division, headquartered at Camp Evans, launched an unrelated attack against the NVA logistical complexes in the A Shau Valley. In the absence of the Cav, the entire 196th LIB was tasked to disengage from its operations in Quang Tin Province and redeploy to Camp Evans, which was to the north in Thua Thien Province.
The realignment required Snyder’s 3-21st Infantry (better known as the Gimlets) to airlift lock, stock, and barrel from their mountaintop fire support base, FSB Center, to the brigade headquarters at FSB Baldy for further transportation by C-123 cargo planes to Camp Evans. The move began on 20 April with E/3-21 and the lead elements of D/3-21 arriving at FSB Baldy. When the remainder of Delta caught up the next day, the company moved on to Camp Evans and immediately started up Route 1 on foot to secure the slight rise on which its new firebase would be built. The company ran out of daylight before reaching the hillock, but the next morning, 22 April, Delta continued on to its objective. The GIs spent the rest of the day unloading the ammunition and supplies that followed them up in trucks. The developing perimeter was half a kilometer west of Route 1, where the coastal lowlands began undulating into the foothills that became one side of the Annamite Mountains, which shielded the A Shau Valley.1
Also on 22 April, elements of the Americal Division’s 198th LIB relieved the Gimlets on FSB Center, and HHC, A, B, and C/3-21 were shuttled by Chinook helicopter to FSB Baldy. The 3-21st Infantry was accompanied by its supporting artillery battery, D/3-82d Field Artillery (105mm), whose field guns were slingloaded underneath the twinbladed Chinooks. At FSB Baldy, each soldier was issued clean fatigues, extra ammunition, and another case of rations, as well as mail and a cold beer or soda. After the fixed-wing airlift to Camp Evans, B/3-21 was moved on by Chinook to reinforce Delta Company in the as yet unbuilt FSB Belcher. The rest of the battalion road-marched up Route 1 the next morning, 23 April, despite sniper fire and a booby-trapped grenade that wounded two Charlie Company GIs. The casualties were medevacked on the spot. After the linkup, Bravo was detailed to build bunkers, fill sandbags, and lay concertina wire at FSB Belcher while waiting for the bulldozers that would be brought in to push up an earthen berm and clear fields of fire.
The rest of the battalion moved out to secure the area. On 28 April, Capt. James F. Humphries, the Delta Company commander, was swinging back out of the foothills toward Route 1 when the point element triggered what was probably a booby-trapped 82mm mortar shell. The first three grunts in the column, all of whom were wounded badly in the legs, were blown down the side of the ridge along whose crest the company was moving.
Lieutenant Colonel Snyder was already airborne in the area, and he medevacked the casualties aboard his Huey. Captain Humphries then instructed 2d Lt. Richard J. Skrzysowski, whose platoon had hit the booby trap, to continue to march and to clear a path down to a narrow stream that Delta would cross in the morning. The stream was the last natural obstacle between the foothills and the safer ground along Route 1. On the way down, several more booby traps were found rusting away in the defoliated underbrush. The platoon sergeant blew them in place with plastic explosives.
The platoon sergeant was Sfc. Buford Mathis, a powerfully built career soldier. “Mathis didn’t want anybody else fooling with the booby traps,” Lieutenant Skrzysowski said later. “He knew what he was doing, so we let him do it.”
The explosions marked the platoon’s progress. As directed by Captain Humphries, who was still in the foothills with the other two platoons, Skrzysowski and Mathis halted their platoon and dug in just short of the stream. The next morning, 29 April, Captain Humphries told 2d Lt. John T. Dunlap III, another platoon leader, to retrace Skrzysowski’s semicleared route down to his overnight position and to continue from there to clear a path to the stream. The rest of Delta Company would follow, and they would then all cross the blueline. Dunlap wanted to cover the ground personally before walking his whole platoon through the booby-trapped terrain. He selected five men to accompany him. Skrzysowski was sitting with Mathis and cleaning his M16 when Dunlap showed up behind the first two grunts of his patrol. A trail ran down to the stream through a bamboo thicket. Skrzysowski suggested to Dunlap that although both trail and bamboo were unchecked, Dunlap should take the trail, “where you can at least see this stuff.”
Lieutenant Dunlap disagreed. The bamboo might be booby trapped, but the trail almost certainly was. Just before starting into the bamboo, Dunlap looked at Skrzysowski and said, “No sweat, Ski.”
Moments later, there was a huge explosion. Lieutenant Dun-lap was blown away, and the five grunts with him were grievously wounded. “I just found out that my platoon leader was killed in that last blast I heard,” Sgt. Laurance H. See, a squad leader, wrote in a letter to his fiancée as he sat in the company laager, listening to the hysterical screaming below the hill. “It was a 155 Howitzer round. Pieces of it landed all around, so I put my steel pot on. Damn it. Baby I’m pretty shook right now. He was a good lieutenant. We got along pretty well. Now he’s dead. It makes me feel weak and empty.”
Exercising great caution so no one else would get hurt by other booby traps, a handful of grunts pulled their wounded buddies out of the smoking, splintered bamboo. It was a demoralizing moment. “Without warning, somebody’s gone—and there was no enemy to fight,” Lieutenant Skrzysowski said later. “That really hurt. That had an impact that people had problems dealing with.”
Captain Humphries ordered every medic in the company to the scene, and a Huey landed in Delta Company’s position within fifteen minutes of the explosion to medevac the first three men removed from the shredded bamboo. Another Huey came in within a half hour to medevac the rest. Afterward, Lieutenant Skrzysowski gripped his radio handset with white-knuckled anger as he spoke with Humphries, who he greatly respected, blowing off steam: “We got to get the hell out of here! Losing people in a firefight is one thing, but walking around in an area loaded with booby traps just doesn’t make any sense!”
At 1413 on 1 May 1968, Col. Louis Gelling, the 196th LIB commander, ordered Lieutenant Colonel Snyder to execute the 3-21st Infantry’s contingency plan to deploy to the DMZ. Other brigade elements would assume control of FSB Belcher. “It was a confusing move,” recalled Lieutenant Skrzysowski, whose company was to lead the way into Mai Xa Chanh East. Delta Company was conducting platoon-sized ambushes and road security operations along Route 1. Skrzysowski, whose platoon was dug in near an old French fort, was instructed to secure a pickup zone along the west side of the highway and to assemble his men for helicopter extraction. That was all the information he received. “I wasn’t told where we were going, what lift units were going to pick us up, what the mission was, what the threat in the landing zone was—none of the normal things.”
Since airlifting to Camp Evans, the 196th LIB had been on standby to respond to an expected NVA offensive. Higher command knew something was coming, but not where, and the 3-21st Infantry was ready to move to the DMZ or Khe Sanh or Da Nang or Quang Tri or Hue, which was the largest city near the A Shau.
Lieutenant Skrzysowski was most concerned about organizing his platoon into helo teams, but no information was forthcoming as to the number or type of helicopters involved. The result was that each helo team was hastily formed with as many combat-loaded soldiers as each pilot determined he could carry as the choppers came in one or two at a time. In short order, Skrzysowski was alone in the pickup zone with his radioman and three grunts. “Everybody was gone, and I had no idea where they were going!” Army Hueys had lifted the platoon out, but then a Marine Sea Knight settled into the pickup zone and a gunnery sergeant waved the tail-end group up the back ramp. “I’m looking out the window, trying to find out where the hell we’re going to land. I ask the gunny. Christ, he doesn’t know.…” Skrzysowski had been issued three maps at the time of their original deployment north, one apiece for Hue, Khe Sanh, and the eastern DMZ, and he broke them out aboard the Sea Knight. He had thought that Hue, the scene of house-to-house fighting during the Tet Offensive, would be the hot spot of this new NVA offensive. Instead of Hue, the Sea Knight unloaded Skrzysowski and his group among the burial mounds in a flat, sandy-soiled cemetery near the bend in a river that would not be identified to him as the Cua Viet until an hour later. He could hear firing off in the distance. “I wondered what the hell was going on,” he said. “I was trying to assemble my people, and find my company commander—I had no idea where he was.”
Lt. Col. William Weise, commander of BLT 2/4 during the Battle of Dai Do. Courtesy W. Weise.
Maj. G. F “Fritz” Warren, BLT 2/4 S3, conducts a briefing in the unit’s Mai Xa Chanh West command post. Courtesy W. Weise.
Lt. Col. Weise (left) and Maj. Warren celebrate Weise’s thirty-ninth birthday at Mai Xa Chanh West on 10 March 1968. Courtesy W. Weise.
Sgt. Maj. John M. “Big John” Malnar, the BLT 2/4 sergeant major, during a moment of casual reflection at Mai Xa Chanh West. Courtesy W. Weise.
1st Lt. Judson D. Hilton (without hat), BLT 2/4’s forward air controller at Dai Do, poses with his tactical air control party at Subic Bay, Philippines, in January 1968. Courtesy J. D. Hilton.
Capt. James L. Williams led H BLT 2/4 during the initial assault on Dong Huan on 30 April 1968. He was seriously wounded by an enemy grenade. Courtesy J. L. O’neill.
LCpl. James L. O’neill, a sniper attached to H BLT 2/4, got one kill at Dong Huan on 30 April 1968, then two dozen more in Dinh To on 2 May. Courtesy J. L. O’neill.
2d Lt. Bayard V. “Vic” Taylor (center), a former enlisted man, wound up as skipper of H BLT 2/4 in Dai Do. Courtesy B. V. Taylor.
Capt. James H. Butler (holding canteen cup) was the CO of F BLT 2/4 during the Battle of Dai Do. Courtesy W. Weise.
A trio of BLT 2/4 Marines check out a 12.7mm machine gun captured during the Battle of Dai Do. Courtesy W. Weise.
1st Lt. George C. Norris (center) was killed, and GySgt. Norman J. Doucette (right) was badly wounded when their company, B/1/3, was attached to BLT 2/4 on 30 April 1968. Courtesy N. J. Doucette.
SSgt. Robert J. Ward, H BLT 2/4, receives the Silver Star for his actions in Dong Huan, where he cleared an NVA trenchline while armed only with a shotgun and despite having been wounded twice. Courtesy R. J. Ward.
Cpl. Richard J. “Mongoose” Tyrell, F BLT 2/4. Courtesy R. J. Tyrell.
Capt. J. R. Vargas was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions while commanding G BLT 2/4 in Dai Do. Courtesy J. R. Vargas.
SSgt. Reymundo Del Rio (center) gunny of G BLT 2/4 during the Battle of Dai Do, is presented the Bronze Star with his skipper, Capt. Vargas, at his side. Courtesy R. Del Rio.
1st Lt. Hilton (right) stands in front of an M48 tank, the type used by Marine tankers during the Battle of Dai Do. Courtesy J. D. Hilton.
Marines of BLT 2/4 assault Dai Do. Courtesy W. Weise.
A 60mm mortar team in action with B/1/3. Courtesy N. J. Doucette.
1st Lt. David R. Jones, E BLT 2/4 (right). Courtesy D. R. Jones.
Cpl. Nicolas R. Cardona, E BLT 2/4, was the only man in his squad to emerge unscathed from Echo’s assault on Dai Do on 2 May 1968. Courtesy N. R. Cardona.
Capt. James E. Livingston, skipper of E BLT 2/4, got the Medal of Honor for his actions while covering his company’s retreat from Dinh To on 2 May 1968. Courtesy J. E. Livingston.
LCpl. Philip L. Cornwell, E BLT 2/4, checks out a LAW rocket launcher. Courtesy P. L. Cornwell.
Lt. Col. Weise awaits medical evacuation at the BLT 2/4 casualty collection point in Mai Xa Chanh West. Weise was shot in the lower back when the NVA assaulted Dinh To on 2 May 1968. Courtesy W. Weise.
BLT 2/4’s command group for the Battle of Dai Do (from left): Maj. Warren, Maj. Knapp, Capt. Murphy, 1st Lt. Smith, Lt. Col. Weise, Sgt. Maj. Malnar, and Capt. Forehand. Courtesy G. F Warren.
HM2 Roger D. Pittman, a corpsman with F BLT 2/4. Courtesy R. D. Pittman.
Marines bag the bodies of their dead and collect abandoned gear on 3 May 1968, the day after the bloody debacle at Dai Do. Courtesy F. H. Morgan.
Above and Below: BLT 2/4 Marines sweep through Dai Do and Dinh To on 3 May 1968. Courtesy F H. Morgan.
Among the C/3-21 grunts ambushed at Nhi Ha on 2 May 1968 were SSgt. James M. Goad (with bush hat in front), Sgt. Jimmie L. Coulthard (seated with hands clasped), Sp4 Derryl D. Odom (standing with fist on hip), and Pfc. Wayne Crist (with glasses). Courtesy J. L. Coulthard.
Sgt. Roger W. Starr, a C/3-21 machine gunner. Courtesy R. W. Starr.
SSgt. Goad of C/3-21 shows off the helmet he was wearing when he was hit in the head with two bullets during an earlier action. He didn’t get a scratch. He wasn’t as lucky at Nhi Ha in early May 1968. Courtesy J. M. Goad.
Capt. Jan S. Hildebrand, the 3-21st Infantry battalion surgeon, in his aid station at Mai Xa Chanh West. Courtesy J. S. Hildebrand.
Sfc. Buford Mathis (left) and his RTO, Pfc. Charles C. Cox, of D/3-21, about two hours before the 4 May 1968 assault on Nhi Ha. Courtesy C. C. Cox.
Sgt. Larry See (wearing glasses), D/3-21. Courtesy L. H. See.
Capt. Dennis A. Leach, CO of C/3-21. Leach commanded the task force that seized Nhi Ha and held it despite repeated NVA counterattacks. Courtesy J. S. Hildebrand.
The Gimlets took this church bell as a souvenir when they took Nhi Ha on 5 May 1968. It was eventually donated to an orphanage in Tarn Ky. Courtesy J. S. Hildebrand.
Lt. Col. Snyder sits in the ruins of the church at Nhi Ha after the operation. Courtesy J. S. Hildebrand.
Sgt. Starr awaits medical evacuation after being blinded in his right eye during the attack on the night of 5-6 May 1968. Courtesy R. W. Starr.
Sgt. James L. Stone, A/3-21. Courtesy J. L. Stone.
Capt. Robert E. Corrigan, CO of B/3-21 (at far left), after receiving the Silver Star. Courtesy W. P. Snyder.
2d Lt. Terry D. Smith, a platoon leader in A/3-21, was shot and also hit by mortar fragments during an ambush near Nhi Ha on 6 May 1968. Courtesy T. D. Smith.
Sgt. Larry Haddock, A/3-21. Courtesy N. E. Hannan.
Sp4 Neil E. Hannan, A/3-21. Courtesy N. E. Hannan.
Sp4 Thomas E. Hemphill, a grenadier in A/3-21, in front of his position on the Nhi Ha perimeter. Courtesy T. E. Hemphill.
Sp4 William W. Karp (center), senior medic in A/3-21. Courtesy W. W. Karp.
Sp4 Bill A. Baird (center), A/3-21, was wounded and captured on 6 May 1968. He remained a prisoner in North Vietnam until 1973. Courtesy N. E. Hannan.
Another patrol saddles up in Nhi Ha. Courtesy J. L. Stone.
Lt. Col. William P. Snyder (right) receives a commemorative plaque before leaving U.S. Army Vietnam headquarters to assume command of the 3-21st Infantry. Courtesy W. R Snyder.
Lieutenant Skrzysowski and his RTO were alongside a burial mound when they were joined by a Marine with a major’s leaf on his helmet, a cane in one hand, and one foot in a cast. “Who’s in charge of this route-step outfit?” the major snapped.
Lieutenant Skrzysowski, who wore no rank insignia, identified himself, then asked, “Where are we? I’m looking for the rest of my people.”
The major explained that “all your companies are getting briefed. We got a lot of activity just north of here and it’s going to be your job to help us clean it out.” The major explained that they were in the middle of an expanding campaign that involved several NVA regiments coming down from the DMZ in an effort to cross the Cua Viet River. He said that the NVA knew the terrain, and added that “most of them are in reinforced bunkers. You’re not going to really see these guys until you’re right on top of ’Em. The bunkers are located within hedgerows, and what ya gotta do is get those M60 machine guns right down low to the ground and start firing into those hedgerows to cover your assault.”
“What? No artillery, no air?” Skrzysowski said incredulously.
The major explained that there were often simultaneous contacts at several locations—and not always enough supporting arms to go around. Skrzysowski finally asked the major what had happened to his leg. The major joked that he’d had “a meeting engagement with an RPG.”
Upon receipt of the redeployment order, Lieutenant Colonel Snyder had Capt. John M. Householder, the 3-21st’s S2, helicopter up to Camp Kistler at the mouth of the Cua Viet to establish liaison with the 3d Marines. Snyder flew up to join him shortly. In Snyder’s absence, Maj. Paul N. Yurchak, the S3, organized the truck convoy that would soon head north with supplies, while the company commanders conducted impromptu airlifts from their positions in and around FSB Belcher. The Marines provided most of the helicopters; the fifty-kilometer flight to the BLT 2/4 AO placed the Gimlets closer to the DMZ than any other U.S. Army battalion in Vietnam.
The airlift began at 1613. The first battalion element to move north was Captain Humphries’s D/3-21 (call sign Black Death), which landed in Mai Xa Chanh East.
Captain Robert E, Corrigan’s B/3-21 (Barracuda) was inserted next, landing above Mai Xa Chanh West in accordance with the battalion’s mission to secure both sides of Jones Creek.
Because its captain was temporarily absent, 1st Lt. Gerald R. Kohl, the company exec, took C/3-21 (Charlie Tiger) into Mai Xa Chanh East. Next came Capt. Stephen F. Russell’s HHC/3-21 and 1st Lt. Jerry D. Perkins’s E/3-21 (Eliminator), which were, respectively, the battalion’s headquarters and combat support companies. Eliminator controlled two reconnaissance platoons (Assassin and Spectre) and a mortar platoon (Fastballs). The battalion headquarters began establishing hasty positions behind the two grunt companies in Mai Xa Chanh East.
The last line company, Capt. Cecil H. Osborn’s2 A/3-21 (Alpha Annihilator), landed in Mai Xa Chanh East between 1740 and 1900, at which point operational control of the Gimlets passed to the 3d Marine Regiment.
Wait a minute, back up a minute, thought 2d Lt. John R. Jaquez, the Charlie Tiger FO. This is sounding more like World War II, instead of chasing VC through the jungle and worrying about booby traps! A Marine officer had his map spread out on the dirt for the Army officers huddled around him, and Jaquez listened incredulously as the Marine casually ran through the suspected locations of the NVA companies, battalions, and regiments in the area. The Marine emphasized that these were NVA regulars, well equipped with AK-47s, RPGs, 12.7mm heavy machine guns, and 60mm and 82mm mortars. Jaquez, already well aware of their proximity to the pinkline—the DMZ—listened carefully as the Marine made it abundantly clear that the enemy had artillery positions that were in range and protected against air strikes by antiaircraft batteries. There’s a whole different animal here, thought Jaquez. These aren’t dinks. These are real soldiers. It’s like real war now.
The Gimlets’ supporting artillery, D/3-82 FA, had not caught up with them yet, so 2d Lt. William A. Stull, the Alpha Company FO, had a face-to-face conference with a Marine officer about fire support for that night. Marine artillery was heavily engaged against targets in the Dai Do complex, and the Marine fire support coordinator said, “Okay, now you’ve got eighty rounds tonight—”
“What the hell do you mean ‘eighty rounds’?” asked Stull.
“We’ve allocated eighty rounds for your company, but don’t use ’Em unless you need ’Em.”
“Shit, I shoot more than eighty rounds just getting our targets set up for the night,” answered Stull.
The Marine was adamant. “No, those eighty rounds are for if you get into a big battle.”
Lieutenant Stull shook his head. We’re jumping through hoops, trying to find out who’s going to be our support and what the frequencies are, he thought—and then they come up with this eighty rounds crap! He complained to Capt. Charles W. Hitzemann, the artillery liaison officer with the 3-21st Infantry. Hitzemann laughed. He said he would work the problem through channels. The answer came back that the 3-82d Field Artillery would slingload ammunition up to the Marines to replace round for round whatever they had to fire for the Army.
The Gimlets were quickly learning just how rich in material they were in comparison to the Marines. The GIs, who had begun digging in almost as soon as they got off the helicopters, were accustomed to trip flares, claymore mines, and concertina wire in abundance, as well as to bunkers built with timber, steel runway matting, and multiple layers of sandbags. The Marine bunkers didn’t compare. “The village we occupied was a mess with nothing significant done in the way of defending it by the Marines,” wrote Sp4 Don Miller of the 106mm recoilless rifle section in HHC/3-21. “The Marines were using NVA trenches (too small for us), and even punji stakes within the perimeter hadn’t been removed. One of our guys flopped down in the grass and a stake went through his rucksack. The esprit de corps of the Marines is not in question, but their tactics and leadership always seemed suspect—and I know they were poorly supplied. They begged us for the most basic kind of stuff, like rifle cleaning equipment, oil, brushes, bore rods, etc. They seemed so raggedy.”
Lieutenant Colonel Snyder was immediately impressed with Colonel Hull, who struck him as an experienced old infantryman with a no-nonsense, to-the-point manner. Hull wanted Snyder to seize and hold Nhi Ha and Lam Xuan West. They spoke in front of the operations map in Hull’s CP bunker, and Hull outlined the circumstances that had left these positions uncovered. Whether or not the NVA had already moved back in was an open question. Hull cautioned Snyder that twice before when the Marines had relinquished control of the two hamlets because of other operational commitments they had had to launch attacks to regain the area. Nhi Ha and Lam Xuan West, which straddled Jones Creek and were linked by a footbridge, were important to the NVA because they were situated along the primary infiltration route from southeastern North Vietnam to the enemy base area in the Hai Lang forest south of Quang Tri City. Nhi Ha had served as a way station and rest area for NVA troops on their first day’s march south from the DMZ. Both hamlets provided an ideal location from which to launch operations against the Marines’ logistical lifeline, the Cua Viet River.
Hull and Snyder spoke until after dark about enemy tactics and capabilities in the area. Hull said to anticipate that Nhi Ha and Lam Xuan West had been occupied by the NVA in at least company strength. “Don’t be surprised if the NVA are back in there. Expect them to be in there. We can support you with artillery and mortar fire. Let me know what you need—and go do it.”
Lieutenant Colonel Snyder and Captain Householder, along with the colonel’s radiotelephone operator (RTO), departed Camp Kistler at 2130 to join the battalion at Mai Xa Chanh East. They did not travel by helicopter as they expected, but on a skimmer moving at top speed through the dark on the Cua Viet River. Since the young Marine driving the skimmer was nonchalant, Snyder and Householder, figuring that he must know the score, masked their own concerns. Nevertheless, it was an exceptionally hairy experience for the newcomers.
As soon as Lieutenant Colonel Snyder put ashore and was led into rubbled Mai Xa Chanh East, Capt. Jan S. Hildebrand, the battalion surgeon, was at his elbow. The doctor was concerned about medical supplies. Captain Hildebrand and two of his battalion medics arrived on one of the first helicopters. Each had worn a helmet and flak jacket, and carried a pistol and M16 for the flight. They’d added whatever medical supplies they could carry on their backs. Hildebrand had wanted to be on the scene in case of heavy contact near the landing zone. When there was none, Hildebrand had concerned himself with getting a fully stocked battalion aid station established. He told Snyder that he didn’t have enough medical supplies on hand to sustain the unit in the event of battle. “I have to get my supplies in!” he implored the battalion commander.
Army Chinooks were shuttling materials in from FSB Belcher, and Snyder replied, “Don’t worry, Jan. I won’t let that last helicopter come in without your stuff.” The very last Chinook of the night did, in fact, bring in a mermite can for Hildebrand, which he immediately opened—only to discover that it was full of beer! “The top sergeant back at Belcher thought we needed beer more than anything,” explained Hildebrand. “I closed that thing so damn fast and hid it from Snyder. Fortunately, nothing happened that night. The next morning, everything came in.”
At 2300, Lieutenant Colonel Snyder called his company commanders to the small, roofless building in which he had established his command post. They stood outside in the glow of the illumination rounds going up to the southwest over Dai Do, and northwest over Alpha 1, where an NVA probe was being repelled with massed artillery. Snyder pointed out across the flare-lit paddies, and explained to his company commanders what their objectives were and who was to do what when their attack kicked off in the morning. The terrain ahead of them was bleak and foreboding, like a photo of Verdun.
Lieutenant Colonel Snyder, who was not a harsh man, also expressed concern about their night defensive positions. He told his company commanders to get tied in better so they wouldn’t be in too bad a shape during the night. “It was really screwed up. My S3 wasn’t on the scene yet himself, so until I got back those guys didn’t have a clue as to what they were supposed to do, or who they might be on the lookout for,” Snyder later commented. A perimeter had been established in his absence, and while the individual companies were reasonably well deployed, “they didn’t have any good sense of how they were located in relation to one another. It’s hard to form a night defensive position when you’ve never been there before, don’t know where to go, don’t know what you’re going to be expected to do, and it was a troublesome scene because it was dark, people were tired, and they didn’t know where they were. I mean we were vulnerable. If we’d been hit that night we’d have been in some trouble.”
1. The new position was christened FSB Belcher in honor of Capt. Roland Belcher, the previous commander of D/3-21. Belcher was killed on 8 January 1968 during a savage ambush in Hiep Due Valley, northwest of FSB Center.
2. This officer was later relieved of command. His real name is not used here.