Piecemealed

BY LATE AFTERNOON ON 30 APRIL 1968, THE ASSAULT BY H BLT 2/4 on Dong Huan was over, but F BLT 2/4 was heavily engaged in Dai Do. At the same time, a company placed opcon to the battalion, B/l/3, came under heavy fire in An Lac. The battlefield resembled an open-topped, bluelined horseshoe some two kilometers in depth and a klick wide. Framed by one unnamed tributary to the east and another to the west, and with the Bo Dieu River as the southern edge, it contained five evacuated hamlets. Dong Huan was situated at the eastern edge and An Lac at the southern, with Dai Do snug against the western tributary. Dinh To and Thuong Do sat along the same creek north of Dai Do. This horseshoe had been an ARVN TAOR. With the ARVN redeployed to the Dong Ha area, BLT 2/4 had been given the mission of clearing the horseshoe. Lieutenant Colonel Weise requested via regiment that the 3d Marine Division approve a boundary change to annex the battle area to the BLT 2/4 TAOR. Weise was adamant (“We wanted to be able to fire and maneuver with a free hand”), and he commented about the several hours of delay before the shift was finally ordered: “It shouldn’t have taken that long, but that’s the way it was when you were dealing with the ARVN. On previous joint operations we had tried to get artillery fire missions and air strikes cleared through ARVN fire support coordination centers, and you may as well be assuming a twelve-hour delay for something that should take half an hour. They were very slow with coordination, and I knew damn well that I wasn’t going to commit any of my troops in their area unless I had operation control of it.”

A Toehold in Dai Do

WELL, LOOKING BACK, EVERY TIME WE’VE HAD A NEW second lieutenant we’ve really had a good initiation for him,” the seasoned lieutenant had told the new one with matter-of-fact humor when asked about the outfit and the area. The seasoned lieutenant had gone on to say that “some of those guys didn’t survive their baptism of fire.”

The new lieutenant, 2d Lt. David K. McAdams, thought of that observation as he got his platoon, Foxtrot One, onto the amtracs that had arrived late in the morning of 30 April 1968 to move F BLT 2/4 from Mai Xa Chanh East to Dai Do. McAdams had been in Vietnam for six days and in command of this platoon, his first, for two. His mouth was dry. His adrenaline was pumping. He was not alone. A young Marine from the other platoon boarding the amtracs claimed that his jungle rot was so bad he ought to be medevacked back to the ship. McAdams watched as the seasoned officer who had spoken with him, 1st Lt. James Wainwright, the company exec, told the balking Marine to get his ass in gear. Wainwright was the most experienced officer in the company. He had been a correctional officer in civilian life, and was older than the average lieutenant. His black hair was flecked with gray, and he was a tough, gruff, chunky little man with heavy jowls, a black mustache, and perpetual five o’clock shadow.

Lieutenant Wainwright finally had to use some assertive leadership in the form of the butt end of his M16 and some good, solid thumps to convince the malingerer to get saddled up.

The new Foxtrot 6, Capt. James Butler, a soft-spoken, twenty-five-year-old career officer from Texas, had left Wainwright to get the company mounted up while he took a skimmer over to the BLT CP to get the word on Hotel’s developing fight and Foxtrot’s planned role. Weise was already moving out aboard the Monitor, so Major Warren briefed Butler. The skipper had relied heavily on Wainwright during his previous three weeks of no-contact command, but he elected to leave him behind this time. Unable to secure permission from regiment for Foxtrot Two to rejoin the company from My Loc, and with the rest of Foxtrot moving out, Butler wanted his seasoned exec with that lone platoon. Butler also sent the scout observer and radioman from his artillery team, his 81mm FO team, and his 60mm mortar section to My Loc. The platoon at My Loc was commanded by a staff sergeant. “Butler felt the staff sergeant was the more experienced and capable platoon commander, and wanted to keep a close eye on us second lieutenants,” McAdams recalled.

Captain Butler was a member of the Naval Academy Class of 1965. His father, also an academy graduate, was a retired Marine major general. Butler rejoined his company as it moved past Mai Xa Chanh West atop the BLT’s attached amtrac platoon from B/1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion. He had McAdams’s Foxtrot One and 2d Lt. Robert Lanham’s Foxtrot Three riding atop rather than inside the platoon’s four armored, sandbag-topped LVTP5 amtracs because the vehicles’ highly volatile gasoline fuel tanks were located directly beneath the troop compartments. Two of the amtracs had a 106mm recoilless rifle mounted on top.

At the BLT CP, Major Warren had described for Butler the plan to have Foxtrot ford the tributary between Bac Vong and Dong Huan, then move on Hotel’s west flank and assault southward into Dai Do when the latter hit Dong Huan. Warren noted that they still had no indication of enemy forces in Dai Do.

Foxtrot’s amtracs rolled past the two tanks firing into Dong Huan, then easily earned the two platoons across the blueline north of Hotel’s fording site. Hotel had been given priority on artillery fires dedicated to BLT 2/4, and Foxtrot was unable to get a smoke screen. This had been a concern of Butler’s from the beginning. The map showed nothing but open ground between the stream and the objective. Butler didn’t care if any NVA had been spotted in Dai Do or not; he wanted as much smoke as he could get when they crossed the line of departure. His FO, 2d Lt. J. M. Basel, made an initial request for a smoke mission as they pulled out of Mai Xa Chanh West. Before crossing the creek, Basel tried again, but for “reasons I never fully understood, the artillery was not ready to fire the mission or had more pressing missions. Captain Butler eventually gave the order to commence the attack without smoke cover.”

Feeling naked, Foxtrot Company closed on Dai Do from the northeast with its four amtracs spread out in the dry, thigh-high grass. The hedgerows at the edge of the hamlet were in view when, at approximately 1350, the first RPG came out of nowhere toward them. It hit the right rear of the amtrac on which Captain Butler rode with Foxtrot Three. The RPG exploded where the side of the advancing amtrac crowned onto the flat deck. In the sudden flash, Butler saw the radioman from the naval gunfire team spill off the deck, wounded and screaming. There had been five radio operators on the captain’s vehicle, and their flock of antennas must have looked like a red flag to the enemy.

Lance Corporal Donald J. Gregg, a nineteen-year-old squad leader, was wounded in his right wrist and leg by fragments from the same RPG. He jumped down into the grass. Other Marines fell off in confusion, and Gregg got them behind the cover of the halted amtrac. Most of the men in his squad had been wounded or otherwise shook up, including one who’d taken some bad hits in his shoulder and upper chest, and their M79 man, whose face was peppered with metal shards and whose glasses had been blown off.

More RPGs exploded around Foxtrot Three’s other amtrac. As the Marines dismounted, Pfc. Norman I. Phipps, twenty, of Haysi, Virginia, was killed instantly by shell fragments—the first Foxtrot Marine to die that day.

The NVA also opened fire from Dai Do with automatic weapons. Captain Butler grabbed his radio handset to respond to Hotel 6, who was calling for him to assault Dai Do. Butler was not ready. Although there was a lull in the NVA fire, that first volley of ten to fifteen rocket-propelled grenades had damaged two amtracs and produced multiple casualties. It was a bad start.

Butler was finally able to get some arty going on Dai Do, and the two 106mm recoilless rifles on their amtracs also began pumping HE downrange. Under this cover, the two Foxtrot platoons started forward behind a rolling shock wave of from-the-hip, on-the-move firing. The field was dry and hard—and terribly long and open. The NVA let the Marines get within a hundred meters of the first hedgerow, then opened up again. The roar of their AK-47s was sudden and shattering. The wall of fire dropped the Marines on the left and right of the already wounded Lance Corporal Gregg. He could hear the crack of bullets all around him as he crawled to the casualty on his right. The Marine had been shot in the leg. It was a traumatic, bone-breaking wound, and Gregg and another Marine held the man to calm him down, then dragged him far enough back toward the amtracs for others to move forward to assist him.

Gregg then crawled back to help the Marine who had fallen on his left It was LCpl. Kenneth C. Baxter, nineteen, of Council Bluffs, Iowa. He was dead. Baxter, tall and blond, had been a replacement in Gregg’s squad and was quiet and hardworking, like most new guys. He had been shot in the head. Gregg managed to pull Baxter off the paddy dike he’d fallen across as another dirt-kicking burst of AK-47 fire hit all around him. Gregg tried to move back with the body but couldn’t. He was too exhausted to crawl, and there was too much enemy fire to allow him to get up and drag the man. Gregg finally rolled away and began shooting into the hedgerow. He couldn’t see the enemy.

Private First Class John J. Kachmar of Foxtrot Three glimpsed two or three NVA in the hedgerow in the brief instant before they opened fire. It looked as though they were rushing from one position to another. Kachmar, already firing from the waist, swung his M16 to his shoulder, and had just squeezed off a couple of semiaimed rounds when the NVA opened fire in unison. In the sudden roar, Kachmar saw the new guy in his fire team, Frenchy LaRiviera, bounce backward and scream as he was hit. Kachmar crawled to him in the tall, concealing grass. LaRiviera’s right arm was smashed below the shoulder, but his system wasn’t registering the pain yet. Kachmar applied a battle dressing. It was soaked with blood in moments, so he used an extra belt-suspender strap that he kept in his medical pouch for use as a tourniquet. When he pulled it tight, LaRiviera passed out from the sudden jolt of pain.

Kachmar raised up to drag his buddy back—and was instantly a target. He returned the fire as best he could from the prone. His guess was that the NVA who had shot at him was in a tree at the hamlet’s edge. Kachmar couldn’t get higher than the two-foot rice stalks hiding them, so after discarding LaRiviera’s weapon, ammo, and web gear, he got a grip on the man’s flak jacket, got his legs around his body, and shoved off on his back. He pushed along with an upside-down frog kick. LaRiviera shoved weakly with his feet, too. They were making it inch by laborious inch when an AK-47 round ripped into one of the ammo magazines in a bandolier across Kachmar’s chest, sending a metal fragment into his nose. It was a minor wound, but it hurt like hell, and Kachmar, exasperated, unslung the M16 he’d been dragging in the dirt around his neck and fired another ineffectual burst into the treetop.

Behind them, Corporal V.…heard movement and called for identification. Kachmar shouted back, “It’s me, Kachmar! I’m over here with Frenchy! He’s hit! I need help!”

Corporal V.…hollered back that he would get help. Kachmar lay in the grass under sporadic fire for five minutes before he realized that no one was coming. Feeling exposed and alone, Kachmar pulled LaRiviera toward an M60 firing to their rear. Exhausted and sweat-soaked, he drained most of his last canteen, then poured the rest over LaRiviera’s face. The young Marine was going into shock and carrying on nonsense conversations.

They finally made it back to the dike and mound from which the M60 was firing. Several other Marines were there, including their platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Chateau, whom Kachmar was wildly relieved to see. Chateau had a corpsman tend to LaRiviera, then told Kachmar, “You’re dead.”

“What are you talkin’ about?”

“V—said you and Frenchy were dead,” replied the non-com. He sounded disgusted.

Maybe Corporal V—really thought Kachmar had been killed. Maybe not. Maybe the idea of leading a team back for Kachmar and LaRiviera had completely unnerved him. It didn’t matter to Kachmar, who was boiling. “I’m going to kill the motherfucker,” he shouted.

“Nan, nan, nan,” Chateau replied. “V—’s been hit, he’s in one of the amtracs.”

Kachmar was still at a fever pitch. He saw an M79 grenade launcher lying unattended nearby and asked who it belonged to. Chateau asked why, and Kachmar answered, “Because I’m going to fire up that gook who was trying to kill me and Frenchy! That cocksucker wanted to kill me!” They were still taking fire from Dai Do. Kachmar didn’t care. He went up on the mound to get a clear view, and fired his first M79 round at the tree at the edge of the hamlet. It was a long shot, and the round fell short. Kachmar lobbed his next round at nearly maximum elevation from a kneeling position. Bingo. He fired two more rounds before Chateau got ahold of the back of his web belt and hauled him off the mound. “Stop it,” the platoon sergeant yelled, “you’re going to get killed! Enough!”

While Foxtrot Three’s assault on the left flank stalled, Lieutenant McAdams and Foxtrot One on the right flank were clear of the cross fire and able to conduct a fire-and-maneuver assault all the way to the edge of Dai Do.

It was Lieutenant Mc Adams’s baptism of fire. The assault was a matter of jumping up and running, then falling down and doing it again. Sweat-slick and worn out, McAdams, a large, pithy, slow-talking farm boy from Gaston, Oregon, was basically going it alone: Both his platoon sergeant and right guide were on light duty because of jungle rot, and had been left at Mai Xa Chanh East. As a result, McAdams had difficulty maintaining contact with and controlling his platoon during the long maneuver. Nevertheless, he later wrote that the attack “was a classic frontal assault out of The Basic School. We maneuvered by fire team rushes until the artillery got hot. We then crawled in to get closer. Then, when the artillery was lifted, we went in shooting. Fortunately, we were not receiving heavy fire.”

At about 1505, Lieutenant McAdams went through the first hedgerow and over the first slit trench, where several NVA with weapons were huddled, apparently dead. The Marines ensured that they were by firing into the bodies as they rushed past, not stopping until they reached the next trench line some twenty meters into the hamlet. McAdams jumped into it at the urging of his veteran radioman, Cpl. Richard J. “Mongoose” Tyrell, who was very impressed by his gutsy new lieutenant. Tyrell wanted McAdams to understand, though, that his role was to be to the rear of his platoon, controlling all the elements, rather than leading the charge. McAdams and Tyrell could count only a dozen Marines still with them, including four who’d gotten mixed in from the other platoon. McAdams discovered then that two of his men had been hit in the legs. Their trench was bordered by vegetation and seemed to be one side of a complete square with a burial mound in the middle of it. They were in the hamlet’s cemetery.

Lieutenant McAdams and Tyrell could see two NVA standing in the chest-deep trench across from them. They were about thirty meters away, and seemed to be looking around for the Marines who had made it into their lines. When McAdams called up his M79 man, the NVA took notice and disappeared. The grenadier’s subsequent shot landed reasonably close to where McAdams pointed, but they figured the NVA had gotten away. Butler and Basel had meanwhile organized some arty to protect McAdams’s little position. The salvos were so close that McAdams, afraid he was going to get hit by friendly fire, made adjustments from the bottom of his trench.

The barrage did its job; no NVA closed with the Marines.

Captain Butler, who was terribly frustrated at not having a reserve platoon to exploit McAdams’s toehold in northeastern Dai Do, and the rest of Foxtrot Company were being plastered with 130mm NVA artillery fire in the open fields where they lay pinned down. Muffled kettledrumming signaled each five-gun cannonade from the foothills on the North Vietnamese side of the DMZ. The salvos were terrifying in their accuracy. They weren’t doing much physical damage, however, because the NVA did not use variable time fuses capable of causing airbursts. Lieutenant Basel later wrote that “we were picking fragments from our flak jackets,” but what “saved us was they appeared to adjust with time fuses and fire for effect with quick fuses. If they had hit us with time or VT fuses, I doubt that many of us would have seen another day. As it was, the quick fuses buried in the sand and much of the lethal effect was lost.”

“Foxtrot was hanging by the skin of its teeth,” Lieutenant Colonel Weise later wrote, “and we were pounding enemy positions with artillery, naval gunfire, and organic weapons.… Foxtrot Company needed assistance. I ordered it to hold on, hoping to reinforce with Golf Company.” Weise’s view of the flat, smoky battlefield was from the Navy Monitor steaming back and forth on the Bo Dieu River in an effort to avoid enemy fire. Lieutenant Kelley and his half-dozen crewmen, all wearing helmets and flak jackets, returned the fire with .30- and .50-caliber machine guns and a pair of 20mm cannons. Weise and Big John Malnar manned the deck-mounted 81mm mortar in support of the ground attacks. They also lobbed rounds at targets of opportunity, namely NVA soldiers who appeared as olive-drab dots in the distance as they moved across an open area. It was impossible to tell if the NVA were retreating or reinforcing, but Weise could see that his rounds were landing where intended. It was impossible to tell what damage they inflicted.

Weise was sure of at least one direct hit by the Monitor. When the NVA artillery cranked up, he brought his binoculars up for another look at two Vietnamese sampans about two hundred meters upriver. The people on board wore fisherman’s garb, and the southern shore of the Bo Dieu was, in fact, populated. But Weise did not think they were villagers. Presumably, civilians would have headed for shore when the first round hit the water. Weise suspected that they were NVA artillery spotters with a radio aboard one of the sampans. Taking no chances, he instructed the gunboat commander to swing his 20mm cannons around. The rapidly firing guns blew the sampans apart.

It was at about that time (1530) that Colonel Hull boarded the Monitor. Weise wrote that although “the enemy had been firing at everything that moved on the water,” the regimental commander “seemed unimpressed by his own daring dash up the river or by the artillery and mortar rounds exploding around us. He had already been ashore to visit Hotel Company.”1

Colonel Hull and Lieutenant Colonel Weise discussed the situation. Hotel Company had just pushed a large number of NVA out of Dong Huan, and Foxtrot was pinned down by another large force in Dai Do. There were also an undetermined number of NVA in An Lac. Though Hull had given Weise permission to reinforce with Golf Company, helicopters had not yet been made available to move it from Lam Xuan West. Echo Company was opcon to division at the Dong Ha bridge, a situation Weise hoped Hull could remedy. “I don’t have any more troops,” he told the regimental commander. “I want to get Echo Company.”

“I’m working on Echo Company,” replied Hull. “Division said they would probably release them, but they weren’t sure about it.”

Weise then made his first personal request for what Major Warren had been raising cain about via radio: “You know, we could really use some tanks and Ontos. We could also use a hell of a lot more close air support.”

Hull said he would work on it. In the meantime, the pressure was on to reopen the river. He told Weise that he was giving him opcon of B/1/3, commanded by 1st Lt. George C. Norris, which was currently in the battalion base camp at Giao Liem on the populated southern side of the Cua Viet River. Giao Liem was three klicks due south of Mai Xa Chanh West, along a Cua Viet tributary. Like BLT 2/4, 1/3 was resupplied by Mike boats from Camp Kistler. A platoon of amtracs was to be made available to carry B/1/3 up the Bo Dieu to the western edge of An Lac, which was on the north shore about seven hundred meters southeast of Dai Do. That would put B/1/3 in a position to assault Dai Do from the south after clearing An Lac, thus taking the pressure off Foxtrot’s pinned-down attack on the northern side.

Lieutenant Norris, marching to a point outside Giao Liem to meet the amtracs, came up on the BLT 2/4 net at about 1550. Weise had worked with Norris during Operation Task Force Kilo (29 March-2 April 1968), a multibattalion push to the DMZ, and had been “very much impressed with die way he handled himself. He was a good combat leader and he ran a damn good company.” Weise briefed Norris via radio, and by 1625 the Monitor had pulled several hundred meters downriver from An Lac so it could support the landing by fire. Weise described the scene as follows:

Covered by a heavy bombardment of artillery and naval gunfire, Bravo Company, atop the amtracs, crossed the river in a classic amphibious assault wave. As the assault wave neared the northern bank, the enemy opened up.…The scene reminded me of films of the Iwo Jima assault in World War II. The direct-fire weapons of the River Assault Group boats gave excellent support as Bravo Company dismounted and fought its way over the river banks.

Bravo 1/3 was pinned down in An Lac and reporting heavy casualties when Hull got back in his skimmer to return to his Camp Kistler CP. Weise thought the appearance of yet another NVA unit had made a believer out of Hull, and he stressed once more to him, “We’re in a world of hurt here. There’s a whole lot of bad guys and not many of us good guys.”

The regimental commander, however, did not release the Foxtrot platoon at My Loc, nor did he commit additional elements from 1/3 at Giao Liem. The latter option would have been judicious considering the shot-up condition of 1/3’s orphan company, Bravo, and the fact that things were quiet in the Giao Liem TAOR. That Hull did not commit these elements indicated his wait-and-see frame of mind. Hull could not be sure that Weise was not simply up against three NVA platoons or companies in the three fortified hamlets. With only two infantry battalions, 1/3 and BLT 2/4, currently opcon to his regiment, Hull had reason to be prudent with his resources. BLT 2/4’s action in the horseshoe was already drawing resources away from the Jones Creek approach to the Cua Viet River, and Hull was not willing to invest the bulk of 1/3 in a battle he was not yet convinced would be the major one.

Weise had a real three-ring circus on his hands in Dong Huan, An Lac, and Dai Do, and every combat instinct he had told him to pile on with everything available. He was correct, but so was Colonel Hull. The NVA would shortly exploit the growing holes along Jones Creek, just as he feared. Hull would be forced to divide his resources between two simultaneous, large-scale enemy actions.

It was galling to the Marines to be on the defensive and literally outnumbered. Major Warren, interviewed three weeks after the event by the division historical section, put it this way:

One of the things that hampered the BLT commander was the lack of enough people at the right time.…He only had one and two-thirds companies to play with at the very be ginning.… Committing the organization piecemeal has al ways been a very bad tactic. It is one that the BLT commander did not desire in this case, and repeatedly made requests to commit all of his unit at one time, or at least in sufficient strength to continue pressing the attack forward once he gained some initial success.

There were other problems. The BLT’s attached tank platoon fielded only two tanks, and requests for additional tanks went unanswered by division. The BLT’s attached antitank platoon—which had five tracked Ontos vehicles, each equipped with six 106mm recoilless rifles—had previously been chopped to another command, and division failed to act on requests to return it. “Too bad,” Weise wrote, “because the Cua Viet area was ideal country for tracked vehicles and we sorely missed the firepower of the thirty 106mm recoilless rifles of those light, highly mobile vehicles.” The BLTs attached 105mm artillery battery at the DHCB had likewise been chopped to the division’s artillery regiment. The battery was thus firing missions for other units within range of the DHCB, and the result, Warren would angrily report, was an “inefficiency of general support artillery in situations where continuous dedicated fire support is crucial to success on the battlefield.”

BLT 2/4 was not totally stripped of support, however. Weise could count on naval gunfire from the five-inch guns on the destroyers offshore, and from the eight-inchers of a cruiser. Weise wrote that “the ships loved to shoot,” and that their fire was “accurate, reliable, and, best of all, available when needed.”

Weise could also count on his attached 4.2-inch mortar battery, W/3/12, commanded by Capt. F. X. Conlon, which was located with the BLT CP at Mai Xa Chanh West. The four-deuce mortar was a highly lethal and accurate weapon, and Whiskey Battery did a superb job. The battery exec, 1st Lt. W. A. Sadler, was aboard ship when the battle began because his tour was actually over, but as he later wrote, he “scrounged some gear and hopped on an inbound helicopter. We flew just above the surface of the river. When I reached the CP, I ran straight to the battery position.” The four-deuces had been in action from the beginning, “firing three or four missions at the same time,” Sadler wrote. “It sounded like one continuous roar. We fired everything we had and were resupplied by helo in the middle of our position. Our Marines fired their mortars until the base plates had sunk out of sight. The guns were out of action for a very few minutes, just long enough to pull the base plates out and reset them.”

What was needed most was close air support, which was not provided in anywhere near the quantity necessary. “Somebody screwed up,” Weise said later. “They should have assigned us priority. I was very, very unhappy then, and I’m still very unhappy about it.”

The big picture offered a partial explanation. Major General Tompkins, whose division had few reserves to spare, was being forced to feel two pulses at once: Simultaneous with BLT 2/4’s engagement was the ongoing Battle of Thon Cam Vu (29 April-1 May 1968) in the 9th Marines’ TAOR. Thon Cam Vu was only six kilometers west of Dai Do. The battle there involved the tanks of Task Force Robbie, the division reserve, and the infantrymen of 3/9. The latter lost 29 KIA and 115 WIA while reducing an NVA battalion. A body count of 66 was claimed by 3/9, but every jet and artillery round committed to Thon Cam Vu was one less for BLT 2/4. The 3d Marine Division was stretched to the point where its commanding general had to rob Peter to pay Paul. In effect, no echelon from battalion to regiment to division was fighting the way it wanted to. The situation produced a lot of hard feelings among the commanders involved.

The Marines of B/1/3, pinned down on the beach at An Lac, had most recently been engaged in a spectacular melee at Charlie 4, located where the DMZ met the South China Sea. It had been an intramural event. Charlie 4 was a seemingly impregnable strongpoint, and since Bravo Company was not required to stand watch during its first night there after weeks in the field, attitudes became relaxed. Lieutenant Norris ended up in a boozy game of blackjack in his bunker. When their big first sergeant turned into a nasty drunk and would not listen to the gunnery sergeant’s gentle suggestions to retire, the wiry little gunny jumped up and sucker-punched the topkick, knocking him cold. Norris was tight with the gunny but thought it only fair to jump him in response, and the fist-swinging brawl piled outside. It was then that a radioman with the company headquarters jumped atop the bunker with a grenade. He looked crazy—as though he was going to kill someone. It wasn’t funny anymore.

Lieutenant Norris succeeded in talking the man down before he pulled the pin. Norris and his quick-fisted gunny, GySgt. Norman J. Doucette, realized then that the radioman was stoned. They were shocked. The use of marijuana by Marines was, in fact, a relatively new phenomenon; although generally smoked only in base camps, strongpoints, or village defensive positions, its presence explained to Doucette why he’d been finding glassy-eyed grunts on night watch during the past few months. If he had understood then what he later learned, he would have administered more than a mere kick in the rear and a harsh word or two.

Norris and Doucette gathered Bravo Company’s hung-over Marines the next morning to read them the riot act. Norris barked at the formation, “If any of you guys want to take me out with a grenade—do it now.”

Lieutenant Norris, a twenty-six year old from Des Moines, Iowa, was a big man and, sporting a black mustache and a red bandanna around his neck, he was nothing if not colorful. His call sign was King George. Norris had been on line with Bravo Company for eleven months as a platoon commander, executive officer, and company commander. He was not a career man, but he had a lot of pride in the Marine Corps, and he had resisted reassignment to battalion. He had signed on to see the war, not sit it out in the rear.

“We had a great company commander, and we were elite compared to other units,” recalled LCpl. Doug Urban, who spent eighteen months in Bravo Company. “We were strictly business—very, very professional—and the guys were incredibly tight.”

Nevertheless, Lieutenant Norris’s landing with B/1/3 in An Lac was a complete disaster. A particularly confusing fog of war dominated the event. When the amtracs churned across the Bo Dieu River toward An Lac, the Bravo Company Marines sitting on top were completely shocked by the wall of NVA fire that greeted them. It was the first indication that the NVA occupied An Lac in strength. Although Weise later wrote that the “primary concern at the time was to clear An Lac and open the river,” and that Bravo was to continue its attack to relieve Foxtrot “only after An Lac was cleared,” the Bravo Marines had not understood their mission that way. They had been under the impression that An Lac was relatively secure, that it was only a jumping-off point for the urgent business of reinforcing Foxtrot.

Bravo Company’s landing was an unanticipated, stumbled-into meat grinder, not the “classic amphibious assault” of Weise’s description. Bravo Company would also take exception to the statement that it had been covered “by a heavy bombardment of artillery and naval gunfire.” According to Gunny Doucette, “There was nothing—nothing.” No smoke rounds were fired to obscure Bravo’s approach, so the NVA in An Lac had a shooting-gallery view of the landing. Their fire geysered the water around the low-riding amtracs as they trundled in with .30-caliber machine guns blazing. As soon as the amtracs hit sand again, the Marines dismounted and sought cover behind burial mounds on the western fringe of An Lac. There they returned the fire of the invisible, entrenched enemy to the east.

The casualties piled up quickly. Lieutenant Norris was hit a few steps onto the beach, then hit again as several Marines tried to move him back in a poncho. King George was dead.

Second Lieutenant John M. Odell, a platoon commander, was KIA.

Sergeant Harold J. Vierheller, a platoon sergeant, was KIA.

Altogether, seven Bravo Company Marines were killed and fourteen were seriously wounded in perhaps the first five minutes of chaos on the fire-swept beach. Two of the amtracs were hit by RPGs and began exploding. “It was total chaos,” recalled Lance Corporal Urban. Bravo Company, caught off guard and decapitated before anyone had gotten anything organized, bogged down in the enemy’s killing zone. “Everybody just freaked,” said Urban. “We weren’t a company anymore. We were just a bunch of people lying on the ground trying to get a handle on this thing. Anything above two feet was dead.”

Because Gunny Doucette did not know that King George was dead, he did not understand the breakdown on the beach. We’re getting the living shit kicked out of us, he thought, and my goddamn Marines are hiding behind all these goddamn graves. What the hell’s going on here?

Gunny Doucette, who was never without a short stubby cigar, had fought in Korea and had been with B/1/3 in Vietnam for nearly a year. He may have been an idiosyncratic, hard-assed lifer, but he was also a tough, dedicated Marine who led by example. He ranged the beachhead at An Lac with utter abandon, waving his favorite walking stick—a golf putter—above his head as he tried to get the company organized. He reached the position of a redheaded sergeant who had made it with a squad or two around the northern fringe of An Lac and was firing south into the thicketed hamlet. Doucette wanted them to rush the NVA from that flank. “We got to get in the tree line—we gotta secure that comin’ tree line!” he shouted.

The redheaded sergeant had plenty of reason to balk, and he did. He said that by assaulting from the north, they would charge right into the Marine fire coming from the burial mounds to the west.

“I don’t give a shit!” screamed Doucette. “We’ll maybe lose a couple of men—but we got to take the comin’ tree line ’cause that’s where the fire’s comin’ from!”

Not one Marine moved. Gunny Doucette cursed the redheaded sergeant in the heat of the moment as a goddamned yellow bastard. A Marine ran to him then to report that Lieutenant Norris had been killed. Doucette could not believe it, and he started back down the line to find the skipper, convinced that he might still be alive. King George was bulletproof.

Gunny Doucette never made it to Norris. He stooped over a prostrate, seemingly wounded man who was lying in the open. The gunny’s left shoulder was to the enemy tree line. He stopped for only a moment to check the casualty, who turned out to be a dead young Marine, but in that instant he became a stationary target. Before Doucette could push on, an NVA marksman dropped him with a head shot. There was a sudden white flash in his face and the simultaneous sensation of what felt like a baseball bat connecting with his left cheekbone. The round exited through his right cheek, taking most of his tongue with it and shattering most of his teeth as it knocked him down. It was an excruciating, blood-pumping wound. Doucette rolled onto his left shoulder so his back was to the enemy soldier who had nailed him, and he froze in instant recognition of his foe’s marksmanship. If I move again, I’ve had it, he thought.

Gunny Doucette lay there helplessly, looking at his grunts behind the burial mounds. They looked back at him, but not one of his fellow Marines came to his aid. Finally, one gutsy kid, a Filipino-American Navy corpsman, crawled out and secured a battle dressing to each of his shot-open cheeks. That son of a whore, Doucette thought with great affection as the corpsman bounded off to aid their other wounded. Doucette’s wound kept bleeding, though. His utilities clung wetly to him. The sand around him was red. Doucette, convinced he was bleeding to death, prayed like he had never prayed before. It was all he could do. No one else was going to get him out of there. Amid the shouting and gunfire, nothing really seemed to be happening. Not a goddamn thing, Doucette thought, and he cursed the bastards who had gotten them into this, and the other bastards who didn’t pick up the ball and attack and take the initiative. Somebody went and left us lying right here to just get slaughtered, he thought.

1. Hull was a three-war Marine. He earned the Silver Star as a first lieutenant in 1944 with the Chinese Communists, wreaking clandestine havoc on Japanese garrisons in occupied China. Hull got the Navy Cross and Purple Heart in 1950 as the skipper of D/2/7, during a savage take-the-hill battle at the Chosin Reservoir. Hull fought his regiment with the same conventional, hit-’Em-hard style. One of his staff officers said, “Hull gave the impression of being a gruff-type commander, but he was really a person who listened-as well as growled.”

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