Turning the Tables

WHEN THE NVA WORKED OVER NHI HA WITH 152MM FIRE, as they did several times a day in nine-gun salvos, Alpha 1 provided early warning by radio to the 3-21st Infantry. From Alpha 1, the muzzle flashes could be seen along the the ridgelines on the North Vietnamese side of the DMZ. In addition, radar able to lock onto the enemy firing positions ensured that counter battery bombardments, usually from the cruisers offshore, were almost immediate. The NVA, although too well entrenched to be put out of action by anything less than a direct hit, refused to pinpoint themselves further with a second salvo, so the counterbattery fires bought time for the men on the ground. Friendly casualties were few. One of the wounded, however, was no less than Captain Leach, commander of the two-company task force in the village. Leach was up doing something when one of his RTOs began yelling that Alpha 1 had reported incoming. As Leach ran for cover, one of the rounds exploded behind him. The concussion picked Leach up and sent him headfirst into the rubble of a demolished house. Because the shell had sunk perhaps a foot into the soft soil before detonating, Leach’s only injuries were cuts on the top of his head.

The shellings, which jangled nerves and kept everybody with one ear cocked to the north, also produced some memorable near misses. Lieutenant Hieb of Charlie One had to chew out his RTO because the man didn’t want to wear his flak jacket. When he did wear it, he left it hanging open because it was so hot. “I want it on and I want it zipped,” Hieb finally told him. After some moaning and groaning, the radioman did as he was told. Shortly thereafter, during another barrage, Hieb and his RTO jumped into the same foxhole. As they talked, Hieb noticed a big shell fragment lodged in the zipper of the GI’s zipped-up flak jacket. When Hieb pointed it out, the RTO managed a weak grin. Hieb later remarked that “after that I never had to tell him to put his flak vest on. It was the only thing that saved him.”

With Force Tiger situated astride the NVA infiltration routes along Jones Creek, Captain Leach said, “I knew goddamn well we were going to be hit. It was just a matter of time.” Because Lieutenant Colonel Snyder felt that the situation “was perfectly within Leach’s capabilities as a very able and tough-minded infantryman,” he did not move his battalion command post forward to Nhi Ha. The decision to remain back at Mai Xa Chanh East was, Snyder said, “a matter of personal debate for me,” but such a rearward location gave him the freest access to the 3d Marines, upon whom they depended for support. In this instance, Snyder needed bunker material, extra ammunition, and firepower. He got what he needed, thanks to Colonel Hull. As Snyder put it, Hull “raised holy hell” whenever his attached Army battalion did not get what it requested through the Marines’ support system. “Colonel Hull was a rough cob in some ways, but he was a gentleman of the old school. Since I was now his guy, he was determined that I was going to get my fair share of what resources they had,” said Snyder.

The 3d Marines provided the three tanks, as well as four 3.5-inch rocket-launcher teams from BLT 2/4, which would be lethal in the event of an enemy armor attack. The rocket launchers were also effective against ground troops. One team went to Alpha Company and two to Charlie; the fourth was attached to Bravo in Lam Xuan West. The Marines were stunned by how well equipped their Army counterparts were. Each soldier had at least thirty loaded magazines in his defensive position. One Marine joked with the GIs that “a good Marine doesn’t need more than seven magazines, at least that’s what they say.” After the Army grunts shared what they had, the Marine offered to buy some of their claymore mines. Specialist Hannan answered, “I’m not going to sell a Marine a claymore. I’ll give it to you. How many do you want?” The Marine grinned and said, “You guys do things right. If I ever get out of here, I’m going to talk to my congressman!”

The Marines and GIs went into action together after dark on Thursday, 9 May 1968, when elements of the 76th Regiment, 304th NVA Division, crossed the DMZ with the mission of overrunning Force Tiger. The NVA, moving south along Jones Creek, first had to run the gauntlet of firepower brought to bear by Alpha 1. This was the tenth night in a row that the NVA had attempted to slip past Alpha 1, and one of the ARVN advisers at the outpost, 1st Lt. Travis Kirkland, wrote in his diary, “No sleep is the order of the day.” By then, the personnel at Alpha 1 had developed a routine with which they orchestrated the massive amount of firepower available to them. They used a new type of artillery ammunition that the GIs called Popcorn to start the show, usually with a six-gun salvo. Each round contained approximately 150 golfball-sized bomblets that showered down when a charge split the shell casing in midair. The bomblets, equipped with stabilizer fins to ensure that each landed on its detonator, would bounce up several feet before exploding. The night observation devices at Alpha 1 provided a clear enough view for spotters to see which NVA had packs on. When the first Popcorn shell popped overhead and released its bomblets, the spotters could see the NVA pause in midstep at what must have sounded to them like an illumination round. Instead of a burst of light, however, the enemy was in for a lethal surprise. The nine hundred bomblets in a six-gun salvo, exploding a few at a time at first, quickly reached a shattering crescendo. The screams of the wounded and dying NVA could be heard on Alpha 1.

When the NVA sought cover in the tree lines along Jones Creek, the artillery fire ceased and a USAF AC-47 Spooky gunship lit up the area with multiple flares, then hosed down the woods with six-thousand-round-a-minute miniguns that drove the NVA back into the open paddies where the artillery could harvest them. Killing in such ways and at such distances turned the NVA into dehumanized targets. Once, after a particularly effective pass by Spooky, Lieutenant Kirkland shouted into his radio, “Do it again, do it again! I can hear ’Em yellin’!” and got in response, “Do it again—that’s what my wife told me when I went to Honolulu on R and R.”

Lieutenant Colonel Snyder, incredulous that the NVA commanders would subject their units to this firepower night after night, remarked that the result was “absolute slaughter.” Once the NVA had been forced out of the tree lines, Spooky would orbit over the ocean to allow the artillery a free hand. The artillery shot as if without counting, although it sometimes had to cease fire because in the hot, humid night air the smoke from parachute flares and white phosphorus shells became so dense that it concealed the enemy. Lieutenant Kirkland commented that the awesome volume of firepower “would literally light up the sky. I’m told that during this period we controlled more artillery from Alpha 1 than was being fired in the rest of South Vietnam.”

The courage of the NVA running this gauntlet was stunning. Most of them made it somehow on 9 May, and at 2108 a Charlie Company LP reported seeing ten to fifteen NVA coming across the paddies toward Force Tiger. The uptight GIs on LP duty were little more than a stone’s throw beyond the perimeter. The NVA were two hundred meters away to the northeast. Other NVA appeared to the north. Artillery was fired and the enemy ran northwest. At 2156, another Charlie Tiger LP engaged a squad of NVA with M79 fire as it moved in from the northwest. Two NVA were seen to fall. The enemy had yet to open fire. Their movements appeared to cease as Charlie Company continued placing M79 fire on them, along with the arty. Flares popped overhead, one after the other, to reveal in harsh, black-and-white relief an empty, cratered landscape of burial mounds and fallow rice paddies.

The sightings began again at 2337. This time there were a hundred NVA in view as they maneuvered in from the north, northeast, and northwest, darting from burial mound to burial mound with artillery blasting them.

The movement, whether a probe or the preparation for a major attack, ceased at this point. It began again at 0016 on Friday, 10 May, when another hundred NVA were spotted within 150 meters of Force Tiger. This is it, Captain Leach thought. She’s going down tonight. The NVA began lobbing RPGs toward the perimeter. Leach requested gunships and flareships, and instructed his LPs to return as the rate of artillery-delivered HE and ilium increased. By then, Captain Osborn’s Alpha Company GIs, deployed along the southern half of the perimeter, could see more NVA crossing the footbridge that spanned Jones Creek and connected Lam Xuan West and Nhi Ha. Leach had not expected an attack from that direction because of Bravo’s presence in Lam Xuan West. Because he had no faith in Osborn, Leach positioned him to the south where he would be out of the way. The NVA, however, were coming from both directions. Osborn’s LPs soon reported the movement of fire-team-sized groups of NVA, then requested to pull back to the perimeter. When Osborn denied them permission to withdraw, the whispered radio messages from the listening posts grew desperate. “There’s gooks all over out here in front of us They’re right in front of us They’re beside us—they’re going to get us! Request permission to return to the perimeter!”

“Permission denied. Stay out and observe.”

“We need to pull back!”

“You stay out there,” Captain Osborn said in his best unthinking, I’m-the-boss voice. “If you come in, I’ll shoot you myself.”

Lieutenant Gibbs, who was the most experienced officer in the company—he had taken charge of Alpha Two—came up on the net and shouted, “What the fuck? You think the LPs should all get killed? This is it, they’re comin’! Let ’Em come back! What the fuck’s the difference—the NVA are here!”

Shouting himself, Captain Osborn said they could not be sure that it was not merely a probe. Gibbs moved from his bunker to confront Osborn. After a heated, face-to-face exchange, Osborn finally relented. Lieutenant Stull, the company’s forward observer, who had been working arty on the NVA at the direction of the terrified LPs, came up with a plan to help them slip back. Stull passed the word that on the signal of a star-cluster flare, an eight-inch WP artillery round fused to detonate at two hundred meters above the ground would be fired. Everyone on the perimeter was to close their eyes, duck their heads, and count to fifteen when the flare went up. The idea was that the blazing white phosphorus airburst that was to follow the flare would momentarily rob the NVA of their night vision and allow the LPs to run back in. The plan mostly worked. Except for the men from two LPs, who were shot at when they made their move, the rest were able to sprint to safety. One of the LPs that drew fire, under Specialist Hannan of Alpha Two, scrambled into a crater and, undetected, sweated out the night there as fire from both sides crisscrossed in the darkness right above their heads.

The other unlucky LP was from Alpha One. Its leader, Sp4 Carl F. Green, twenty, of Shady, New York, was killed by an RPG while up and moving. Two of his men, wounded by fragments, were able to crawl in.

Meanwhile, two GIs with the LP from Charlie Two were wounded as they came in, while the leader of another LP reported to Captain Leach that they could not move because there were NVA between themselves and their lines. Leach responded, “Well, okay, then get yourself in a fucking hole.” When radio communications with the LP were lost shortly thereafter, Leach suspected that either the NVA had stumbled across their hiding place or friendly fire had taken them out. At 0103, Spooky 1-2 came on station to add the ripping roar of its miniguns to the cacophony of mortar and artillery fire. The amount of illumination over the battlefield was massive. The NVA, who were mostly behind burial mounds, got bogged down, although they continued to fire RPGs and throw Chicoms. The enemy did not expose themselves by firing their AK-47s. Leach had his troops hold off with M16s and M60s and return fire with only mortars, LAWs, and M79s. The lull in visible enemy movement lasted four hours. Presumably, the NVA were using the time to bring additional units into preat-tack positions as each cleared the Alpha 1 gauntlet. Leach, dug in behind his central platoon, Charlie One, was on the horn without pause, placing arty on enemy avenues of approach while maintaining fire on the troops already hunkered down in front of them. “We don’t know where the main attack’s going to come, so don’t give your positions away,” Leach told his platoon leaders. “Don’t fire from your bunkers. Move out in the trenches. Fire your M79s and LAWs and then move to a new position.”

The noisy lull ended at 0535 when the NVA initiated an intense mortar and artillery bombardment of Force Tiger. Lam Xuan West and Mai Xa Chanh East were also shelled. Captain Leach was still awake. Except for two hours of sleep each day before sundown, he had been on his feet for almost four days. Leach was kept going not only by adrenaline, but by a bottle of military-issue amphetamines delivered by Snyder and the battalion surgeon, Captain Hildebrand, when they helicoptered forward for a visit soon after Nhi Ha had been secured. The amphetamines were for Leach and his platoon leaders. They gave Leach’s voice a quick, irritable edge as, in response to the enemy barrage, he keyed his handset to speak with Cedar Mountain 6. “As soon as this shit lifts, you know what’s going to happen,” Leach said. “You better get Delta Company moving right now. You better get ’Em up here because we’ve got a battalion of dinks out there who are getting ready to hit us.”

Lieutenant Colonel Snyder told Delta, his reserve company in Lam Xuan East, to be prepared to move north to Force Tiger on order. Meanwhile, Leach’s artillery spotter, Lieutenant Jaquez, realized that their 81mm mortar section was not returning fire. During the afternoon, Jaquez had preregistered their fires on a brushy little island in the paddies that seemed a natural rallying point for the enemy should they try to organize a ground attack. Dodging shell fire, Jaquez ran to the mortar pit and, yelling and screaming, physically dragged the crewmen from their bunker. He had them start firing on that registration point—where, after the battle, an NVA flamethrower was found, its operator killed before he could put the weapon to use.

The enemy shelling lasted twenty minutes. When it lifted, there was a sudden eruption of muzzle flashes and green tracers as the NVA fired their AK-47s for the first time. A 12.7mm machine gun, positioned to the northeast, also opened up. The NVA foot soldiers started darting forward. “The NVA were not reckless,” said Lieutenant Hieb of Charlie One, whose platoon manned the center of the line and was under the most fire. “Those guys were good, and they were cunning, and they stayed low. You had a very difficult time picking up their movement.” Hieb watched as an RPG scored a direct and disabling hit on the Marine tank assigned to his sector. The tank had not had a chance to fire a single round. Amid all the flashes and shadows, Hieb finally saw the head and shoulder movements of an NVA lying prone while attempting to slide a bangalore torpedo under the perimeter wire. Hieb and his RTO were in a small dugout behind the main line, and the enemy soldier was directly to their front. Hieb did not have any positions in front of him, so he opened up on the man with his CAR 15. Others blazed away at the sapper, and at some point in the confusion Hieb realized that the NVA was lying quite still. He was dead. There were plenty of others to go around, and Hieb’s M60 team, positioned to his left front, fired like madmen at the movements. “The barrel got so hot that I could see it glowing red in the night,” Hieb remembered. “Somebody burned his hands pretty severely trying to get that barrel off and replace it with a new one. The volume of fire was very, very intense. We just kept firing and firing and firing to keep them away from the wire.”

The bunkers at Force Tiger, most of which were large enough for a fire team, were half-submerged and moundlike in appearance. Each had a firing port to the front and an exit to the rear leading into the slit trench that connected each position. Private Harp of Charlie One was asleep in his team’s bunker when the ground attack began. He had not meant to go to sleep. Exhausted, he had simply leaned up against the back wall to rest, but had drifted off as soon as the weight was off his feet. Harp never heard the RPG that hit the top of his bunker explode; he simply found himself sprawled on the bunker floor with an egg-sized knot on the back of his head. The pain was throbbing. Dirt fell on his face from the broken sandbags of the overhead cover. No one else was in the bunker. “I could not get my eyes to focus. I was coughing up sand and trying to get sand out of my eyes. I thought we were being overrun.” Totally disoriented, Harp climbed out into the slit trench and headed toward where he thought his squad leader, Burns, was firing from. “Shit was going off all around, ours and theirs.” Harp had yet to reach Burns when he saw two NVA coming in fast. They were about fifty feet away. One was carrying a satchel charge, the other an AK-47. “I think I saw light reflecting off a bayonet at the end of it.” It was too dark to aim through the peep sight, so Harp looked over the front sight the way one would with a shotgun. “I put the 16 on ‘crowd’—automatic—and fired a magazine at them in six-round bursts. Caught the guy with the satchel charge in the chest. He fell back in a hole, and about three seconds later one hell of a firecracker went off. The other guy fell just in front of the crater. I think I got him, but I’m not sure. At any rate, he was not coming my way anymore.”

Two Marine gunships arrived an hour into the attack and made strafing runs in front of Charlie One and Charlie Three, which was under fire on the right flank. At about the same time, the NVA launched a supporting attack on the left flank. Staff Sergeant Goad, the acting platoon leader in Charlie Two, juggled radios as he tried to shift their fires where needed when not personally handling an M79 grenade launcher. He also fired several LAWs, and mashed down the detonator hooked up to his claymore mines. Goad had prepared his defenses well. He had used an E-tool during the afternoon to dig the claymores into the forward slopes of the burial mounds, then arranged vegetation over the holes as camouflage. When he ran out of claymores, he scooped out additional holes the size of large coffee cans, placed C-4 explosive at the bottom of each with a blasting cap wired to a claymore detonator embedded in the plastique, and then packed the holes with captured enemy munitions and handfuls of metal links and casings from their own expended machine-gun ammunition.

Enemy soldiers were shredded by the explosions.

The NVA set up a recoilless rifle to blast Charlie Two, but the amount of fire it drew prevented its crew from punching off a single shell.

Private Fulcher, in position with two new men, fired his M16 through his bunker aperture—and saw an RPG screaming toward him trailing a rooster tail of sparks that made him think of a giant bottle rocket. Luckily, the RPG hit the sandbags just three inches below the aperture. Meanwhile, the Marine tank with Charlie Two rolled into a firing position that put its 90mm main gun directly over Fulcher’s bunker. When the tank fired its first earsplitting, earthshaking round, Fulcher and the two replacements thought they’d been hit by the enemy artillery.

They dropped to their guts so fast that their helmets bounced off. Shaking off the shock, Fulcher realized what had happened and stuck his head out of the dugout. “Back up,” he screamed at the tank commander. “You’re going to blow us up before you blow up the gooks!” Fulcher grabbed the detonator for his own half-dozen camouflaged mines. He had memorized which cord ran to which claymore, but when he squeezed the detonator he got no response. Furious that he had a dud, he plugged in the next wire and mashed down the detonator again. Nothing. Fulcher frantically tried every wire, but not a single claymore detonated. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong. After the battle, he discovered that the tank’s first shot, a canister round, had chewed up all his claymore wires.

On Charlie Three’s side, where there were the fewest enemy, Sergeant Coulthard spotted an NVA about twenty meters away. The man just barely broke the natural outline of things, and he moved forward only when each flare died as it hit the ground. Lieutenant Musser couldn’t see what Coulthard was pointing at, so Coulthard finally took aim in the flarelight with his M16, and started squeezing off shots at the man. Musser told him he was giving away their position, and to throw hand grenades instead. Coulthard, throwing frags, didn’t know it yet, but he’d already killed the NVA with a round through the top of his collarbone. The body lay in the shadows, wearing an ammo vest, its grip loosened on its folding-stock AK-47.

Captain Leach had requested a backhoe with which to construct tank emplacements, but no engineer support had been made available. Without parapets, the tanks were sitting ducks. The tank parked beside Leach’s CP had already been disabled by a rocket-propelled grenade. Leach was talking with his other tank commander, the one supporting Charlie Two, when the Marine suddenly exclaimed, “I’m starting to take fire—”

The tank was hit by an RPG at that instant.

The bruised and concussed crews of both knocked-out tanks popped their hatches and jumped down in the slit trench between the bunkers. Leach was certain that a lone NVA was going to sprint through their lines to reach the abandoned tank beside his CP, so while he kept busy with a radio in each hand he told his RTOs, “Some sonofabitch is going to climb up on that tank and start hosin’ us down with the .50-cal. Don’t you let anybody get up there!”

Captain Leach was also concerned about the fireworks to his rear where Alpha was dug in, but he could not raise Captain Osborn on the radio. “Not once did Osborn get on the radio, so I had no idea what was going on over there,” recalled Leach. What was happening along Alpha’s side of the perimeter was the same as on Charlie Tiger’s, only with fewer NVA involved. One of the guys in Sergeant Stone’s bunker fired his M16 on automatic at the bobbing figures before them, only to have an RPG explode nearby. Stone shouted at the rifleman, “Jesus, don’t shoot on automatic—they think we’re a machine-gun position!” Everyone had ducked down in anticipation of the next RPG, except for Pfc. Jesse Alston, who kept raising his head to look out the firing aperture. “Jesse, stay down, stay down!” Stone shouted. But the man put his head up again just as the next RPG exploded directly in front of the bunker. Alston cried out as he fell back. Stone hunted around in the darkened bunker for a battle dressing, and as he bandaged the wound on the side of Alston’s head he realized that it was not too serious. It was bad enough, though, that the shook-up Alston volunteered to stay down and reload ammo magazines for the rest of the fight.

Surprisingly, the NVA continued pressing their attack even after the sun rose. At 0700, a Helix FAC came on station, followed in about twenty minutes by two A-4 Skyhawks from Marine Attack Squadron 121. Captain Leach told the FAC to bring in the air strikes immediately. When the FAC asked, “Well, how close do you want ’Em?” Leach answered, “I want ’Em about thirty meters from the perimeter. Do you see this tank here? I want you to use this tank as a reference point.…”

One of the Skyhawks executed a nonfiring pass over the target area and took AK-47 fire and one hit.

“That was perfect,” Leach told the FAC.

The next low-level pass was to deliver the five-hundred-pound snake-eye bombs. “Get everyone down in their holes,” Leach said when he got his platoon leaders on the horn. “Get under the overhead cover. Don’t worry about what’s on the goddamned perimeter—we got it comin’ in!” Leach stunned his command group when he said with deadly seriousness, “Guys, I’m going to say a little prayer right now,” and then dropped to his knees on the bunker floor. “It’s time to ask for help from above.”

The first Skyhawk, taking hits, pulled out of its pass in a skyward roar as the high-drag bombs seemed to float toward the NVA behind the burial mounds. The strike was bunker-shaking perfection. “They put ’Em right on the bastards,” Leach said. “It was beautiful. It was just death. The shit was flying right over us!” There was a definite lull in the NVA fire as the two Skyhawks continued to place their ordnance on target. Then, at 0740, some of the enemy began to pull back to the north. The medic in Leach’s bunker suddenly shouted, “Jesus Christ, look at ’Em run!” Private Harp was able to sight his M16 on three NVA who had their backs to where he stood in the slit trench. “The first one was running about a hundred meters from me. I fired once. He fell and never got up.” The other two realized they’d been spotted and started zigzagging as they ran on. “I dropped the second one with two shots. I fired five times at the third guy. He fell, holding his arm, but got up again and threw or dropped his weapon as he got behind a grave. He got away.”

Captain Leach was so excited that he put down his radio for the first time since the attack started and raised his captured AK-47. He got off only a few bursts before some shook-up troops, who thought at first that an NVA had gotten inside the lines, shouted at him to knock it off.

On Alpha’s side, Sergeant Stone joined a grenadier who was lobbing shells at the retreating NVA from the slit trench. Stone opened up with his M16, but he was so tired that he kept nodding off between bursts. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Gibbs, the de facto company commander, instructed Specialist Hannan to bring his stranded LP in from the crater where they had been cut off during the battle. Hannan caught a bullet in the radio on his back while running in.

The LP from Charlie Tiger with which contact had been lost and that Leach feared had been overrun also made it back at about the same time. “I was awestruck,” remembered Leach. “I don’t know how those kids survived, but I was never so goddamned happy in my life as I was when I saw those three come marching back in.” The LP leader still had a grip around the hand grenade he had intended to throw when he’d first heard the NVA coming eight hours before. He had pulled the pin at the sound of movement, but when he saw how many NVA were out there he’d realized it would be suicide to give away his position by lobbing the frag. Unfortunately, he had dropped the pin and could not find it. “He had to hold the spoon down on the frag all fucking night,” one trooper explained. “That morning, when they finally came back in, his hand had locked around the frag so he could not let go. It took two men to pry his fingers loose and throw the damn thing.”

Lieutenant Colonel Snyder considered the NVA attack to be “poorly planned,” an appraisal confirmed at 0742 when, in the middle of the retreat from Nhi Ha, the NVA launched a two-platoon effort against Captain Corrigan’s Bravo Company in Lam Xuan West. Barracuda destroyed the attack at a range of thirty meters with automatic rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, rockets, claymores, a recoilless rifle, mortars, artillery, and a helicopter gunship. Attacking an entrenched and fully alerted position after sunrise was madness. Snyder believed that the NVA units had been committed behind schedule because of the delay in getting past Alpha 1. The enemy depended on well-rehearsed battle plans. Because they lacked a sophisticated communications system, Snyder said, “Once anything went wrong, there was no way they could control what was happening, other than shouting at one another. So people would come in and charge, and once you disrupted the attack they didn’t know what to do. They would just lay there right around the perimeter and we’d flush them out in the morning.”

The NVA completed their retreat under the cover of mortar fire. At 1055, the medevacs began landing for The Gimlets’ one KIA and thirty WIA. Captain Leach saw a black grunt heading for the dust-off with a big bandage on the side of his face. Before Leach could give the man a few words of encouragement, the GI approached him and asked, “Are you okay, sir?” Leach, feeling humble and almost overwhelmed with emotion, grabbed the man’s arm and said, “We’re going to get you out of here right away.”1

Amid shell fire, Captain Humphries and Delta Company humped into Force Tiger before noon, policing up two NVA from spiderholes along the way. Apparently relieved to be alive, the two enemy soldiers were laughing as they were led into the perimeter. Leach made sure that they were helicoptered out quickly because he knew there were troops who would have summarily executed them. That was the angry mood of the moment. Leach had ice water in his veins when it came to the bushwhacking guerrillas they chased down south, but he put his foot down when it came to mistreating NVA regulars who had fought the way these had. “These guys are soldiers, and they’re going to be treated like soldiers,” he told his men. “They’re goddamn good soldiers.”

While the perimeter sweep was being organized, Leach stormed over to Captain Osborn’s command post. “I was taking Benzedrine,” Leach remembered. “That shit works on you. I was a little crazy by then.” Leach confronted Osborn in a low, angry whisper. “Why weren’t you on the comin’ radio?” Then he exploded in a booming rage. “What the fuck, you sonofabitch—you weren’t on the radio all night! What the fuck’s the matter with you?”

Osborn just gave Leach a blank stare.

The perimeter sweep commenced at 1300. Killing NVA stragglers along the way, the grunts had pushed out two hundred meters in two hours when the NVA rear guard opened fire from the tree lines to the northwest along Jones Creek. Air strikes were called in. Enemy shelling began at dusk, resulting in three injuries and the last medevacs of the day.

During the night, Lieutenant Stull, the Alpha Company FO, overheard some angry conversations about the trooper killed the night before on LP. “That was the ball-buster,” said Stull. “That was the one that made everybody crazy.” The grunts could not fathom why the LP had not been immediately pulled back when it had NVA crawling all over it. Stull, who enjoyed a pretty good rapport with the men, interrupted one group to ask, “What’s the problem?” The answer: “Well, we got somebody that needs to be taken out.”

“Whaddya mean ‘taken out’?” Stull asked.

“Well, you know…”

Lieutenant Stull immediately approached Sergeant Dickerson of Alpha Two. “What the hell’s going on? They’re talking about fragging somebody! Is it me?”

“Nan, nan, nan, you’re okay. You’re cool,” said Dickerson.

“Hell, if it’s me, I’ll start walking home right now. You guys don’t have to frag my ass!”

Sergeant Dickerson repeated that Stull was not the target. It was Captain Osborn. Dickerson, a career man with seven years in uniform, was as angry and burned out as his grunts, and he told Stull that the company headquarters and each platoon were going to provide a GI armed with a grenade. One of the four grenades was going to be defused and the pile jumbled so that the men would not know which one was inactive when they picked the frags back up. All four were to roll their grenades into the company commander’s bunker. If one of them had pangs of guilt afterward, he could rationalize that he had tossed the defused grenade.

“Hey, that’s not where it’s at,” Stull protested. “Being stupid like the captain is one thing. Being vindictive is another. Maybe we should try to cool the guys down.”

Sergeant Dickerson disagreed. “Well, how many motherfuckers is he going to kill before his number comes up?”

The idea of using a captured AK-47 on Captain Osborn was also discussed. Some of the grunts went directly to Lieutenant Gibbs, who was the most respected officer in the company. Gibbs, who had no doubt that they meant what they said, told them to cool it, that he would handle it. Gibbs called Lieutenant Colonel Snyder and reported that Osborn was “not going to live very long,” and added that “if his men don’t kill him, I think I will.” Snyder cut him off. “Lieutenant, stop talking that way,” he snapped.

The battle with the NVA was not over yet. Artillery had been fired all night long as enemy platoons, throwing grenades, had moved around the perimeter to recover casualties from the night before. On the morning of Sunday, 11 May 1968, the sweep around Force Tiger commenced again. Staff Sergeant Goad of Charlie Two bent over to pull an AK-47 from a hole in which he had found several apparently dead enemy soldiers. The weapon discharged when he pulled on it. Goad had been holding the barrel with his right hand. His arm jerked violently away as the shot tore through it, but he was still on his feet. Before he could think, he swung up the M79 in his left hand and unloaded a canister round into the hole. If one of the NVA was still alive, that finished him. It also destroyed the evidence of what had happened. Goad would never know if he had been shot by a diehard NVA at the other end of the AK-47 barrel he’d been tugging on, or by a dead man whose fingers were stiff around the trigger.

“It would be a hell of a deal,” he said later, “to make it through all that bullshit—and then have a dead man shoot me.”

Staff Sergeant Goad’s arm hung uselessly. The bullet had entered his forearm and exited six inches farther up through the elbow, shattering it. He was in shock. When a medic tried to administer morphine, he declined, saying, “Hell, it ain’t hurtin’.” Captain Leach ran over to find Goad cradling his elbow with his good hand. Goad, stud that he was, was embarrassed. “Sir, I’m really sorry. I’m really sorry for screwing up.”

The C&C Huey immediately medevacked Staff Sergeant Goad to the 18th Surgical Hospital in Quang Tri City. While he was sitting on a gurney in the triage area, the pain suddenly came down on him—as did the emotions of the moment. Colonel Gelling, the brigade commander, helicoptered up to see him as he was being prepared for surgery. Gelling later wrote that despite the pain, Goad’s only concern was for “what was happening to the men in his squad. He was not overly emotional, but actually cried when talking about the men in his squad and wondering who was going to take care of them. He specifically asked me to carefully select a squad leader to replace him because the men in his squad were so outstanding that they deserved special consideration.” Gelling added that Goad’s action reflected “the deepest concern I’ve ever seen by one man for those who fought with him.”2

The NVA rear guard was still in position. Several GIs were wounded by enemy fire from the northwest. Four air strikes later, the sweep began anew. The single Marine tank that had survived the night attack—it had been positioned with Alpha Company—fired its 90mm gun into likely enemy hiding places, as did the M79 grenadiers advancing across the parched brown lunarscape. Troops used their M16s liberally, and grenaded all the craters and spiderholes as they systematically progressed with the tank.

Sergeant See of Delta Company checked out a brush-camouflaged dugout that the tank had just blasted. The two NVA inside the dugout had been reduced to hamburger. One of the GIs picked up a pith helmet with a red star on it and discovered that it was full of brains. See spotted another NVA with ants crawling out of his mouth and maggots squirming in his eye sockets. When is it going to end? thought See, trying not to gag at the sight and the smell. Some troopers wrapped olive-drab sweat towels around their mouths and noses to filter out the stench. The bodies were everywhere, as were the big green flies and the human debris caused by heavy ordnance. “You’d see something weird-looking on the ground,” remembered Sergeant Coulthard of Charlie Three, “and all of a sudden you’d realize, Jesus Christ, it was part of a hand or part of a head.” Private Harp encountered a dead NVA who lay atop his AK-47 in a small gully. The man had been hit by napalm. “He looked like some kind of obscene burned rubber doll,” said Harp. “He was kind of melted. He had no features at all, just the general outline of a man burned into black rubber. His uniform had been completely burned off. All that was left were his boots. They were completely intact. Strange shit, napalm.”

There were so many dead NVA that the tank could not avoid running over bodies. Leaving broken weapons where they lay, the troops slung working AK-47s over their shoulders as the sweep progressed. They also checked the bodies for intel material. Private Harp removed the helmet, web gear, grenades, and an intact AK-47 from one NVA with a blown-open head. As he did so, the man’s shredded body began to pull apart. The soldier’s papers included a couple of hundred piasters, a military document, a letter written in Vietnamese, and a photograph of the dead man with a young woman and two children. “For a minute I thought I was going to cry for that guy,” Harp recalled. “But then I remembered Yost and Morse and Sullivan, and all those guys from Alpha Company, and those guys from Second Platoon that we scraped into a poncho, and my attack of humanity passed as I went on to the next corpse to police up his gear. An awful lot of very brave people on both sides died extremely violent, miserable deaths at Nhi Ha. I’d had a bellyful.”

The Gimlets’ DMZ adventure, which was essentially over at that point, cost the 3-21st Infantry a total of 29 KIA, 1 MIA, and 130 WIA—71 of whom required medical evacuation. The battalion was credited with 358 NVA kills and 4 prisoners. An additional 91 kills were claimed by air, and 130 by artillery. The Gimlets’ reward was to be included in the Navy Unit Commendation awarded to the 3d Marines. It was a proud moment for the battalion. “Even the Marines admit that we’re really kicking ass,” Specialist Hannan wrote home from the DMZ. Specialist Farrand of D Company commented that no one was scared anymore “because everyone was too into what they had to do. You didn’t sense fear. You sensed fatigue, seriousness, anger at the enemy, and a lot of backslaps and forced levity. Everybody was a brother to everybody. The NVA were up against a force that wasn’t going to move.”

The exception was Alpha Annihilator. Captain Osborn was, in the words of his replacement, “a broken man who couldn’t wait to get out of the bush” and the company was “listless and hurting.”

Nine days after the battalion pulled off the DMZ, Alpha was attacked in its night defensive position in the Que Son Valley. In their haste and confusion, the GIs in Alpha Two’s LP left behind their starlight scope when they pulled back to the perimeter. Captain Osborn ordered the three-man team to retrieve it. The NVA were waiting, however, and fired an RPG. Sergeant Patterson and Specialist McFaddin—the grenadier who had saved the day in the creek at Xom Phuong— were killed instantly. McFaddin’s arm was torn from his body and sent flying. The third man, seriously wounded, was able to crawl back under covering fire from the perimeter. Snyder relieved Osborn the next morning.

In turn, demoralized Alpha Company went to 1st Lt. Hal Bell, who had recently taken over Alpha Two and was soon to be promoted to captain. Snyder commented that “within six or eight weeks, Bell had pretty much turned the company around. Bell turned them into a bunch of tigers.” Commissioned from OCS after college, Bell, who had a winning personality and got along well with his men, also had the advantage of having attended the sixty-day British Jungle Warfare School in Malaya. He spent ten months commanding the Americal Division’s Combat Tracker Platoon, which employed tracker dogs—specially trained black labrador retrievers—and helped units find the enemy when contact was lost. Bell, thinking of making a career in the Army, had extended his tour to get a rifle company. He would eventually quit, disgusted at the no-win policy of Vietnamization that got a lot of GIs killed even as it lost the war.

In the meantime, however, Bell brought enthusiasm, aggressiveness, intelligence, and experience to Alpha Annihilator. In addition to enforcing the basics, he emphasized squad-sized night operations as the best way to catch the VC and NVA in the Que Sons and the Hiep Due Valley. Despite a lot of initial resistance from edgy, gun-shy troops, he remarked that “once you get used to it, your confidence level goes up.” The patrols killed a lot of surprised enemy soldiers who were moving at night in small groups or bedding down in remote hootches. “Once those guys started to get some successes, it became their idea of fun,” said Bell. “They would tell you the most ghoulish stories of what people were doing when they got ’Em.” Bell added that although the troops had demonstrated that “they would not put up with bullshit from incompetent leaders, the GIs’ recuperative powers are absolutely marvelous. It just amazes me some of the things they did. And they were not Regular Army—they were just draftees, and the lieutenants were just college kids. But if you’ve got some captains, lieutenants, and sergeants that don’t screw up too bad and keep track of the fundamentals of the foot soldier, then those soldiers do very, very well.”

The Gimlets’ last recorded casualty on the DMZ occurred on 12 May 1968 when a soldier was hit in the back by fragments from the intermittent shelling on Force Tiger. The Gimlets killed a few more NVA as the operation wound down. Small groups of NVA were spotted after dark on 11, 12, 13, and 14 May as they crawled through the grass around Force Tiger to harass the perimeter and listening posts with grenades. The closest NVA were engaged with M79s, and the ones farthest away, visible under the near constant illumination, became targets for the artillery.

On 15 May, the 3-21st Infantry was relieved in place by elements of BLT 2/4, which marched up from Mai Xa Chanh West. The Army grunts got down in their bunkers when the Marines started filing along the paths through their claymores, trip flares, and concertina, as they expected all the movement to draw enemy artillery fire. Alpha Company was scheduled to turn over its positions first. A Marine lieutenant walked up to Sergeant Stone of Alpha Three and said, “We’re here to relieve your position. Have your men get out.”

“We dug these goddamn holes—we ain’t gettin’ out till they give the order to move,” Sergeant Stone answered. “They got this place zeroed with rockets. You know, your men are welcome to get in with us, but I’m not telling my men to get out of here.”

Staying under cover until it was finally time to leave, Alpha Company formed up into platoon columns and started south. A trash fire was burning inside a crater just outside the bunker line. Enemy munitions had been piled nearby—they were to be destroyed in the crater—and, somehow, what was later thought to be a satchel charge ended up in the blaze. The explosion set off the rest of the NVA ammunition in a huge fireball, which tipped over the Marine Otter parked nearby and sent the GIs standing on it flying. The explosion shook everyone up. They thought at first that the NVA were shelling them. Sergeant Stone, heading back across the paddy in his file, noted that he “turned around and looked back, and here’s all this smoke and stuff going up. That was my last look at Nhi Ha. We kept right on going.”

Charlie and Delta Companies pulled out of Force Tiger by 1500 on 15 May, and all four of the 3-21st Infantry’s rifle companies spent the night dug in near the battalion CP with a flareship overhead. One NVA was spotted as he reconnoitered their perimeter. At 0700 on the sixteenth, USMC Sea Knights and Sea Stallions began lifting the battalion from the vicinity of Mai Xa Chanh East to the airfield at Quang Tri City. The move took eleven hours and forty lifts.

From Quang Tri, C-123s airlifted the Gimlets to FSB Baldy. Chinooks then moved the platoons from Baldy to FSB Colt, and on the morning of 17 May 1968 the Gimlets were back in the bush under 196th LIB control.

“What struck me the strongest was going back out in the Que Son Valley and starting to hump all over again,” said Sergeant Coulthard. “I think that’s when my discouragement with the war began. Not that I turned against the war, but I thought, My God, we’re going to have to do this for a long, long time. It’s when I really realized the magnitude of what the hell we were trying to do—and the enemy’s willingness to pay the price.”

1. Captain Leach was awarded the Silver Star and his second Purple Heart for Nhi Ha. He also received two BSMv’s and an AM during his two combat tours.

2. Sergeant Goad received the Silver Star, BSMv, ARCOMv, and Purple Heart, but his wound canceled his plans for OCS and resulted in his involuntary separation from the service because of physical disability.

Epilogue

Officially, the Battle of Dong Ha, as the 3d Marine Division labeled the series of actions above the Bo Dieu and Cua Viet rivers, lasted from 29 April until 15 May 1968. The brunt of the NVA offensive was borne by BLT 2/4 and the 3-21st Infantry in the Operation Napoleon/Saline TAOR, under the op-con of the 3d Marines. Considerable combat was also experienced by 1/3 in this sector, and by 3/3, 1/9, 3/9, and 1/ 26 near Cam Lo and Thon Cam Vu in the Operation Kentucky TAOR, as well as by the 1st ARVN Division above Dong Ha. Another highlight was the deployment of the 1st and 2d Battalions, 5th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), which operated under the 3d Marines from 6 to 17 May. The Cav called its participation Operation Concordia Square, and its units ranged from northeast of Nhi Ha to north of Dong Ha.

The campaign was marked by heavy shellings of allied positions. More than a hundred tons of ammunition in the supply depot at the DHCB was blown up on 14 May. Total casualties in units under the operational control of the 3d Marine Division during this period were 233 killed, 821 wounded, and 1 missing in action. The Navy’s TF Clearwater lost 15 killed and 22 wounded. ARVN casualties, haphazardly reported, were 42 killed and 124 wounded. The NVA reportedly lost 2,366 dead and 43 prisoners.

The carnage bought only a week of relative peace for 3d Marine Division units along the DMZ before the next NVA offensive began.

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