Third in a series of accounts, by General Simmons, of the Marine Corps in action in Vietnam, this article picks up the narrative from last year’s Naval Review at Christmas 1967, when the threat of greatly expanded enemy offensives loomed ahead for the American field commanders. We begin with the clearing up of loose ends, and the new disposing of allied forces to meet enemy initiatives anticipated by intelligence reports.
General Simmons deals principally with events generated by the Tet offensive, and the consecutive weaker enemy offensives of the year. He recounts and evaluates the strong enemy strikes at Da Nang, Hue, and just south of the DMZ; and he discusses the other actions. He describes the allied response to the foe’s offensives, and he examines allied command relations in I Corps Tactical Zone, where the Marines had two thirds of their infantry battalions, but where large ARVN, ROK, and U. S. Army units shared the fighting of a powerful concentration of enemy forces.
Perhaps more than anything else, the author, in recounting the actions that took place, projects simultaneously the sense of wave and wash in the war, and a grasp of the tactical situation in the roughest year of enemy action yet. In turn, this understanding may increase the reader’s knowledge of the enemy’s limited military alternatives which perforce established his patterns of action. One might collect from this account the idea that the adversary hoped that the proximity of his bases and sanctuaries would allow him to win in I Corps merely with the refinement of his tactics, as there were few alternative military strategies the enemy could select. For to have strong strategic military alternatives, one needs far greater strength and variety of force than the Communist opponent had at his disposal in 1968.
General Westmoreland calls 1968, "the year of decision." In his Report on the War in Vietnam, he writes, "As the new year opened, I had planned to continue to pursue the enemy throughout the Republic, thereby, improving conditions for the pacification program to proceed at an ever-increasing pace…In December of 1967, information of massive enemy troop movements had prompted me to cancel these plans…As 1968 began, events verified this intelligence, as the enemy continued the forward movement of his main forces toward Saigon, Da Nang, Hue, Khe Sanh, the DMZ, and a number of provincial and district capitals. During January, we began to receive numerous reports about a major offensive to be undertaken just before or immediately after Tet…"
The Situation Before Tet
In I Corps Tactical Zone (ICTZ), the year began with a shuffling of U. S. ground units. The plan, named "Operation Checkers," had for its main purpose the relief of 3rd Marine Division units from covering the n western approaches to Hue. That division could then concentrate its full attention on the problem at hand in northernmost Quang Tri Province. To accomplish this the 1st and 5th Marine regiments were moved into Thua Thien Province under Task Force X-ray commanded by Brigadier General Foster C. Lahue. Before this move took place, other moves first had to be made in the very south of ICTZ.
On 19 December 1967, the 11th Infantry Brigade (Brigadier General Andy A. Lipscomb, USA) had arrived at Duc Pho, almost at the southern tip of Quang Ngai Province. This fresh American brigade made it possible for the Korean "Blue Dragon" Marine Brigade (Brigadier General Kim Yun Sang) to move north from Quang Ngai to the vicinity of Hoi An on 22 December. In turn, the 1st Marine Division (Major General Donn J. Robertson) could start sending battalions north. The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Oliver W. Vandenberg, Jr.) moved to the Phu Loc area above Hai Van pass the day after Christmas.
The prime reason for all this concern and movement were the two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) divisions operating along the DMZ: the 324B Division along the eastern half, and the 325C Division, hanging in at the northwestern corner of Quang Tri province, threatening Khe Sanh. To counter this threat, most of the 3d Marine Division was strung out in a series of combat bases and strong points along the general line of Route 9, tied in large part to the defense of the anti-infiltration barrier.
While "Checkers" was in progress, General Westmoreland, believing that the enemy's next major effort x in the northern part of ICTZ, ordered the redeployment of the 1st Air Cavalry Division and the 2d Brigade, 10ist Airborne Division, to Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces. The two Army divisions were t u to be under the operational control of the III Marine Amphibious Force, commanded by Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman. The III MAF's area of operations would continue to be all of ICTZ, the northern five provinces of South Vietnam.
The U. S. Army was already liberally represented in I Corps with a total of about 32,000 men, including artillery units serving along the DMZ with the Marines, the majority of the advisory effort, and, largest of all, the Americal Division. Literally formed on the battlefield the previous summer, the Americal, or 23d Infantry Division, commanded by Major General Samuel W. Koster, USA, now had responsibility for all U. S. ground 0 operations in Quang Tri and Quang Ngai, the southern two provinces in ICTZ. Already with the Americal Division was the 3d Brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry Division.
So when the Army reinforcements arrived there would be five American divisions in ICTZ—three Army divisions and the 1st and 3d Marine Divisions. When 19 1968 began, there were already some quarter-million Free World forces in I Corps with a cutting edge of 73 infantry battalions.
In terms of infantry battalions—that convenient, if inexact denominator of ground combat strength—21 of the Marine Corps’ 36 battalions were in Vietnam. In air strength, the percentage of tactical units was almost equally high: 14 of our 33 fixed-wing squadrons and 13 of our 24 helicopter squadrons. In all, there was a total of 475 aircraft, over one-third of the Corps inventory. A strength return for 1 January 1968 indicated that 81,249 of the Corps’ 298,498 Marines were serving in Vietnam. Proportionally, no other U. S. service had anything approaching this investment in the war.
The U. S. Navy had over 22,000 men, two-thirds of its in-country strength, in ICTZ. Of these, about 500 officers and 3,000 bluejackets were included in III MAF, mostly doctors, chaplains, and hospital corpsmen. Nearly half the remainder were in the Naval Support Activity, Da Nang. Most of the rest were Seabees. The 30th Naval Construction Regiment was working five battalions in the Da Nang area and two at Chu Lai. The 32d Naval Construction Regiment had three battalions operating out of Phu Bai and one at Dong Ha.
The U. S. Air Force had over 7,000 men in ICTZ, mostly at the Da Nang air base.
The Republic of Korea’s 3d Marine Brigade had four infantry battalions. Including supporting units, it totaled 6,000 men.
The Republic of Vietnam itself had nearly 81,000 men under arms in ICTZ. Led by the durable I Corps commander, Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, these included 31 battalions of regular Vietnamese Army troops (the "ARVN”), two airborne battalions from the General Reserve, 21,000 Regional Forces (the "RFs”), and 23,000 Popular Forces (the "PFs”).
Enemy strength, including North Vietnamese regulars, Viet Cong main force, and hard-core guerrillas was thought to be from 75,000 to 90,000. Of this total, the guerrillas, in many ways more of a problem than the regulars, numbered about 20,000 for all of I Corps. In addition, the enemy was soon to demonstrate, once again, his capability of building up his strength rapidly from sanctuary bases just across the borders.
Situation Along the DMZ
By mid-January, the 304th Division had come across the border from Laos and had joined the 325C outside Khe Sanh. The 320th NVA Division next was identified, apparently poised for an attack against Camp Carroll. On 21 January, interrogation of a rallier from the 325C Division indicated that elements of the 308th and 341st NVA divisions were also south of the DMZ.
With Task Force X-Ray filling in behind him, Major General Tompkins on 10 January moved his headquarters forward from Phu Bai to Dong Ha, now grown into a major base. The Division rear remained for the time at Phu Bai; later it would move forward to Quang Tri.
Route 9 stops at Dong Ha, where it intersects with Highway No. 1, but in prolongation of the same line is the Cua Viet River, flowing eastward to the South China Sea. Operation Napoleon, begun 5 November 1967, was being conducted here by the reinforced 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Edward R. Toner) to give security to the Cua Viet River, by way of which the 3d Marine Division and Army units in Quang Tri province were now receiving the preponderance of their supplies and equipment from NavSuppAct Da Nang.
The Seventh Fleet’s Special Landing Forces were also working in the northern provinces.
North of the Cua Viet estuary, Special Landing Force Bravo (Colonel Maynard W. Schmidt) on 2 January ended Operation Badger Tooth. Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3/1 (Lieutenant Colonel Max McQuown), built around 3d Battalion, 1st Marines, and supported by HMM-262 (Lieutenant Colonel Melvin J. Steinberg), had gone ashore the day after Christmas. A month later, on the evening of 23 January, the battalion landed again farther south, this time lifted by HMM-165 (Lieutenant Colonel Richard E. Romine). Making a night crossing of the Cua Viet River in amphibian tractors, the main body of the battalion continued northward on the next day. A heavy fight that took place in the vicinity of My Loc confirmed our intelligence estimate that the enemy—identified as the 803d NVA Regiment—had established a line of fortified hamlets above the north bank of the Cua Viet from which to interdict traffic on the river. The operation (Badger Catch) as such, ended on 26 January. BLT 3/1 stayed ashore as part of Operation Saline in the same area.
Special Landing Force Alpha (Colonel Bruce F. Meyers) executed Operation Ballistic Armor on 22 January. This put BLT 2/4 (Lieutenant Colonel William Wise), lifted by HMM-361 (Lieutenant Colonel Daniel M. Wilson), in Thua Thien province close to Camp Evans, the base being upgraded for the impending arrival of the 1st Air Cavalry Division. The operation lasted until 26 January; contact was small. Next day, 27 January, the battalion redeployed to a position four miles north of Cam Lo on a one-day operation called Fortress Attack.
These were the first of the 13 Special Landing Force operations conducted in 1968.
The 1st Marines (Colonel Herbert E. Ing, Jr.), one of the regiments of the 1st Marine Division, had been moved north in October and placed under the operational control of the 3d Marine Division. With two battalions—1st Battalion, 1st Marines, and 1st Battalion 3d Marines—it was engaged in Operation Osceola is Hai Lang Forest, west and south of Quang Tri city.
In 3d Marine Division usage, operation nickname had come to be used as designators for tactical area of responsibility. They continued for a considerable period of time and did not begin and end at the frenetic pace which had characterized the search-and-destroy operations carried out earlier in the war.
Farther north, just west of Highway No. 1, "Leatherneck Square," formed by Gio Linh, Con Thien, Dong Ha, and Cam Lo, generally defined the geographic limits of Operation Kentucky, begun 1 November 1967, Kentucky was the business of the 9th Marines (Colonel Richard B. Smith) with four battalions under the regiment's operational control.
West of Kentucky was Operation Lancaster, an area including Camp Carroll, the Rockpile, and Ca Lu, under 3d Marines (Colonel Joseph Loprete) with two battalions: the 2d and 3d Battalions, 9th Marines.
As explained in "Marine Corps Operations in Viet Nam, 1967" in Naval Review, 1969, Marine regiments were being used more and more like brigades, in that infantry battalions were moved in and out from under their operational control, both to meet the exigencies of the tactical situation and the demands of the schedule which rotated battalion landing teams out of the country for re-fitting at Okinawa and service with the Seventh Fleet as Special Landing Forces. This practice was more or less parallel to the practice of moving tactical squadrons back and forth among Marine aircraft groups. It demonstrated the interchangeable nature of Marine battalions and gave the division commanding generals great flexibility in shifting their combat strength. Most infantry regimental commanders, while recognizing the need for and advantages of this system, nevertheless preferred to have their own organic battalions. Command lines were much more clear-cut; the distinctions between operational control and administrative command were avoided. Tactical integrity was preserved and efficiency and effectiveness tended to be greater. One regimental commander estimated that it took about two weeks of working with a new battalion to iron out problems of procedures, and communications.
Defense of Khe Sanh
Khe Sanh had been relatively quiet since the heavy fighting of April and May of the previous year. The area was now the location of Operation Scotland, Initially the concern of the 26th Marines (Colonel David E. Lownds). This was a regiment belonging to the 5th Marine Division which had been moved to the Western Pacific in August 1966, and assigned to the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade headquartered in Okinawa. The 26th Marines had been ashore in Vietnam and had been under the operational control of the-3d Marine Division since April 1967. On 1 December 1967, the regimental headquarters and 1st Battalion were at Khe Sanh, the 2d Battalion was at Camp Evans, and the 3d Battalion was at Phu Bai. Colonel Lownds had disposed the 1st Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel James B. Wilkinson) as follows: one company on Hill 881 south, one company on Hill 861, one platoon on Hill 950, and one company on the perimeter of the combat base itself. This left him a reserve or "interdiction force" of two platoons.
About 1400 on 13 December 1967 General Cushman called General Tompkins on a secure-voice circuit and said that, as he assessed the situation, there were four enemy regiments within 20 kilometers of Khe Sanh, and consequently, he thought another battalion should be added to its defense. At the moment, Tompkins thought the Camp Carroll area was more vulnerable than Khe Sanh—he had one battalion stretched from Ca Lu to Cam Lo. Cushman appreciated Tompkins’ concern but directed that another battalion be sent to Khe Sanh, suggesting the 3d Battalion, 26th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Harry L. Alderman), which Tompkins had just moved forward from Camp Evans to Dong Ha. Five hours later, the battalion, less one company, had closed Khe Sanh. The remaining company plus a platoon of 155-mm. howitzers arrived the next afternoon.
Westmoreland has made the following evaluation of the importance of Khe Sanh:
"Were we to relinquish the Khe Sanh area, the North Vietnamese would have had an unobstructed invasion route into the two northernmost provinces from which they might outflank our positions south of the Demilitarized Zone—positions which were blocking North Vietnamese attacks from the north.”
Critics of the decision to defend Khe Sanh presuppose that there was an acceptable alternative to defending Khe Sanh. The only alternative was to withdraw. But what kind of a withdrawal could have been executed? The men could have been evacuated by air, probably in neat fashion, with little or no loss. But what about the tons and tons of equipment and supplies? They would have had to go overland and Route No. 9 was closed and would not reopen until the monsoon season ended.
In the last analysis, Khe Sanh was defended because it was the only logical thing to do. \lte were there, in a prepared position and in considerable strength. A well-fought battle would do the enemy a lot more damage than he could hope to inflict on us.
Cushman proposed a battle plan for Khe Sanh which Westmoreland approved: essentially, it was to reinforce the garrison modestly and to depend upon our massive air and ground firepower to destroy the enemy, all with the realization that Khe Sanh would, logically, have to be supported from the air during a season when flying weather would be marginal at best.
Along the Coast
To the east, at Phu Bai on 13 January, Task Force X-Ray had been activated, as planned, and with the arrival of the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Ernest C. Cheatham, Jr.), on 15 January, assumed responsibility for the Phu Bai tactical area of responsibility (TAOR).
In this series of essays, Task Force Delta and Task Force X-Ray have appeared, disappeared, and reappeared. Later, mention will be made of Task Force Hotel. These designators are used when it is found wise to form a portion of a division into a provisional command larger than a reinforced regiment. Sometimes, a task force is activated to pursue a specific operation, as was the case with Task Force Delta in Operation Double Eagle, and sometimes to take care of a geographically separated area, as was the case when the 1st Marine Division moved forward to Da Nang, but left Task Force X-Ray behind at Chu Lai.
Relieved of the responsibility for the Phu Bai TAOR, Tompkins could send the 2d Battalion, 26th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Francis J. Heath, Jr.), from Phu Bai to Khe Sanh. This move was completed on 16 January and made the 26th Marines something of a curiosity: a regiment with all three of its organic battalions.
On 20 January, a Marine company made contact with a North Vietnamese battalion entrenched between Hill 881 South and Hill 881 North, two miles northwest of Khe Sanh itself. The 3d Battalion, 26th Marines (Alderman), attacked, killing 103 of the enemy. The second battle of Khe Sanh had begun. Next day, 21 January, the enemy overran the village of Khe Sanh. Refugees came crowding into the perimeter. The outpost on Hill 861 and the base itself came under attack. The largest ammunition dump at Khe Sanh blew up under the mortar and artillery barrage.
Colonel Lownds asked for another battalion. General Tompkins told General Cushman that, unless otherwise directed, he intended to send his Division reserve, the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, from Quang Tri to Khe Sanh. But this was one of the battalions scheduled to revert to Task Force X-Ray, so General Cushman directed Tompkins to send the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel John F. Mitchell), a 3d Marine Division battalion, which was at Camp Evans. Mitchell's battalion arrived at Khe Sanh that same day, 21 January. Over one thousand civilian refugees were moved out by air.
On 26 January, General Lam agreed to send a Ranger Battalion to Khe Sanh and promised to send another one later if needed. The 37th Rangers, their on-board strength down to 318, came in on the 27th from Phu Loc. That same day, two more batteries of Marine 105mm. howitzers joined the garrison.
There were now five infantry battalions at Khe Sanh, supported by three batteries of 105mm. howitzers, a battery of 4.2-inch mortars, and a battery of 155mm. howitzers. Three batteries of 105s fell short of the rule-of-thumb ratio of one battery to each infantry battalion. More guns could have been moved into the perimeter, but this would have increased the congestion within the base. Further, it was foreseen that the controlling factor in direct support artillery would not be the number of tubes, but rather the number of artillery rounds that could be supplied by air.
Offsetting this slight deficiency in direct-support artillery were 18 long-range U. S. Army 175mm. guns within supporting range: 14 of them at Camp Carroll, and 4 at the Rockpile (Thon Son Lam).
Also at the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KKB), there Were six 90mm. gun tanks, ten ONTOS with their 106mm. recoilless rifles, two Army M-42s mounting dual 40mm. "dusters," and two Army M-55s with quad caliber .50s.
Army Reinforcements. Meanwhile, the promised U. S. Army reinforcements had begun to arrive in I Corps. The first element of the 1st Air Cavalry Division north of Hai Van Pass was the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, which came into Phu Bai on 17 January. The 4th Marines (Colonel William L. Dick), who had been screening the western approaches to Hue, terminated Operation Neosha on 20 January. This turned out to be a bit premature; the operation was reopened as Neosha II and continued until 24 January to provide a little overlap for the arriving Air Cavalry. The 1st Air Cavalry began Operation Jeb Stuart on 22 January, fifteen miles west of Hue.
That same day, the first elements of the 2d Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Colonel John H. Cushman, USA) began to arrive in Quang Tri. Osceola, the 1st Marines (Ing) operation west and south of Quang Tri was ended on 20 January. To give the airborne troopers a little time to get acclimated, Osceola II was begun, a one-battalion effort, and continued on through 16 February.
All of this tended to blur the original provisions of the "Checkers” plan which called for the exchange of the 1st Marine Regiment in Quang Tri province for the 4th Marine regiment in Thua Thien province. The two regimental headquarters were shifted more or less on schedule, but transfer of the battalions and some of the companies lagged. The upshot of it was that Task Force X-Ray, with the mission of protecting the base at Phu Bai, screening the western approaches to Hue, and keeping open Highway No. 1 from Hai Van Pass to Hue, found itself on the eve of Tet with two regimental headquarters (1st Marines and 5th Marines) and three understrength battalions. Also at Phu Bai, MAG-36 (Colonel Frank E. Wilson), having moved up from Chu Lai, was operating one light and four medium helicopter squadrons.
In Hue itself was the headquarters of the 1st ARVN Division (Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong). Truong’s tactical zone included both Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces. Of his 12 organic infantry battalions, six were assigned Revolutionary Development missions, five were providing area defense; only one was available as a mobile reserve. His dispositions were generally along the axis of Highway No. 1 from Gio Linh south to Phu Bai. Temporarily in Hue were two airborne battalions from Saigon’s general reserve.
As the month of January drew to a close, the Viet Cong announced a seven-day Tet truce to last from 0100, 27 January until 0100, 3 February. The Allied Tet cease-fire was to be only 36 hours, beginning at 1800 on the evening of 29 January.
Situation in Quang Nam. Most of the trouble for the Marines in Quang Nam province was concentrated in the triangle bounded by Da Nang to the north, Hoi An to the south, and An Hoa to the west. Endemic to the area were the phoenix-like Doc Lap Battalion and wraith-like sapper units who were indisputably the most adroit and deadliest anti-personnel mine experts in the war. A further unpleasantness had been added by the arrival of the North Vietnamese 368B Artillery Regiment whose rockets and heavy mortars continued to plague Da Nang’s densely packed installations.
The first of the 1968 rocket attacks had come on 2 January when Da Nang air base received about 30 rounds. An Air Force AC-47 "Spooky” on station saw the rockets being fired and took the firing position under attack with his mini-guns. Our patrols closed on the position, found three enemy dead and various odds and ends of 122 mm. rocketry.
Da Nang air base was still the headquarters of 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, now commanded by Major General Norman J. Anderson. Also on the field was MAG-11 (Colonel Arthur O. Schmagel), operating a composite reconnaissance squadron (RF-4Bs, EF-10Bs, and EA-6As), an all-weather fighter F-8E squadron, a fighter- attack F-4B squadron, and an all-weather attack A-6A squadron. Across the river, at Marble Mountain Air Facility, MAG-16 (Colonel E. O. Reed) had an observation squadron equipped with UH-1Es, three medium helicopter squadrons—two with CH-46As and one with UH-34DS—and a heavy helicopter squadron with CH-53AS.
Three kilometers west of Da Nang air base on Hill 327, the 1st Marine Division (Robertson) had its headquarters. Behind Hill 327, and along what had been Red Beach, stretched the supply and maintenance installations of the Force Logistics Command (Brigadier General Harry C. Olson). In all, there were about 35,000 Marines in Quang Nam province. But in infantry strength, the 1st Marine Division, less Task Force X-Ray, had only five battalions. The 7th Marines (Colonel Ross R. Miner) with its three organic battalions had the TAOR fanning out west and southwest of Da Nang. The 5th Marines (Colonel Robert D. Bohn), when it went north to Phu Bai to join Task Force X-Ray, left behind its 3d Battalion and 2d Battalion, 3d Marines, in the pieshaped wedge south of Marble Mountain, bounded roughly by the sea and Highway No. 1.
The Korean Marine Blue Dragon Brigade was pursuing Operation Flying Dragon astride the Quang Nam/Quang Tin provincial boundary.
The 51st ARVN Regiment with its four battalions was continuing its long-time mission of supporting Revolutionary Development along the axis of Highway No. 1 south of Da Nang.
As Corps reserve, Lieutenant General Lam had his much-used 1st Ranger Group, one of its three battalions already committed to Khe Sanh.
Situations in Quang Tin and Quang Ngai. All Marine ground strength having moved to the northern three provinces, U. S. ground operations in the southern two provinces, Quang Tin and Quang Ngai, were now the business of the Americal Division.
West of Tam Ky, in the old, much fought over, Que Son Valley area, the big Wheeler/Wallawa operation, begun 11 November 1967, was being fought by the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (Colonel Louis Gelling USA) and the 3d Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Division (Colonel Hubert S. Campbell, Jr., USA). The enemy was principally the 2d NVA Division.
Farther south, a few miles northwest of Quang Ngai city, the 198th Light Infantry Brigade (Colonel James R. Waldie, USA), with two of its four battalions, was prosecuting Operation Muscatine, begun 19 December 1967.
Down in the lower tip of Quang Ngai province, west of Duc Pho, the newly arrived 11th Infantry Brigade (Lipscomb), with its three battalions, was going after the 2d and 22d Regiments of the 3d Viet Cong Division.
Two Marine fixed-wing aircraft groups continued on operate from the field at Chu Lai. MAG-12 (Colonel Dean Wilker) had three light attack squadrons flying the Douglas A4E and an all-weather medium attack squadron flying the Grumman A-6A. MAG-13 (Colonel Edward N. Lefaivre) had three fighter-attack squadrons equipped with the McDonnell F-4B. In all, there were about 6,000 Marines still at Chu Lai.
The 2d ARVN Division (Colonel Nguyen Van Toan) headquartered at Quang Ngai city, had four of its 12 battalions assigned to Revolutionary Development missions. Of Toan's remaining eight battalions, five were providing area defense, leaving three available as mobile reserve.
The rule-of-thumb, derived at the Manila Conference in October 1966, was that as many as half of the ARVN maneuver battalions would be retrained for Revolutionary Development; that is, pacification, duty. At the beginning of 1968, 14 of General Lam's 28 regular ARVN infantry battalions were dedicated to RD.
On 29 January, the MAG-11 area at Da Nang was hit by about 42 rounds of 122 mm. rockets. Across the river at Marble Mountain Air Facility, MAG-16 was mortared. With these rocket and mortar salvos, the enemy opened his Tet offensive in I Corps. There is evidence that the attacks of 29 January were premature; that the full coordinated weight of the offensive was to have fallen on the Allies on 30 January.
There was a second rocket and mortar attack on the 30th against Marble Mountain Air Facility. A section of runway was briefly knocked out. Chu Lai was also hit; about 25 122 mm. rockets impacted there.
The main outlines of the enemy's battle plan were obvious:
The attacks by fire against U. S. air bases were to reduce our tactical mobility and our close air support capability by hitting at our helicopters and our fighter-attack aircraft. At the same time, the enemy also moved to cut our ground lines of communication. His own attack columns were in position; some had already infiltrated into their objective areas, their movement masked by the holiday traffic. The enemy had marked off all the provincial capitals for attack.
On 30 and 31 January, he moved against Tam Ky in Quang Tin province. The defenders, mostly ARVN, some U. S. Army, after a wild fight threw him out. In Quang Ngai city, the story was much the same.
At the other end of the Corps' tactical zone, two NVA battalions came at Quang Tri city from the northeast on 31 January. Elements of the 1st ARVN Division, with a big assist from the 1st Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Division, had them out of the city by noon.
But the Communists were reserving their main effort for Hue and Da Nang.
Attack Against Da Nang
At Da Nang, the enemy had successfully moved a Troan horse element into position outside the ARVN I Corps headquarters compound just east of the air base. In the early morning hours of 30 January, behind a screen of mortar shells and rockets hitting indiscriminately at U. S. and ARVN installations, he made his try at the Corps headquarters. The duty section with help from an adjacent Combined Action Platoon blunted the initial attack. Help came roaring up in the form of Vietnamese military police and Rangers, and U. S. Marine military police from the airfield. In a formless cops-and-robbers fight, the attackers were all killed or melted back into anonymity.
South and west of the city, units of the 2d NVA Division, set for a full-scale offensive against Da Nang, were themselves intercepted. Reconnaissance elements of the 1st Mine Di of vision had picked up the movement of their columns as they debouched from the foothills west of An Hoa and brought them under air and artillery fire. Closer at hand, on the morning of 30 January, General Cushman himself, airborne in his command helicopter, spotted 200 enemy just across the river southeast of Da Nang air base. He radioed his sighting to Major General Robertson who, in turn, committed the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel William K. Rockey). Rockey's battalion went to the rescue of two Regional Force companies heavily engaged near the Catholic hamlet of Thon Trung Luong. They were followed into action by the 2d Battalion, 3d Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Jack W. Davis).
Farther south, in Hoi An, the enemy made a temporary lodgement in Hoi An, but was held by the stubborn defense of an ARVN engineer battalion and ejected by a blistering counterattack by the 1st Battalion, 51st ARVN Regiment.
Fighting continued along the axis of Highway No. 1. The enemy effort trailed off and then came back strong on 5 February. He got back into Hoi An and was thrown out once again. The 51st ARVN Regiment command post and battalion compounds mid-way between Hoi An and Da Nang were also hit. By this time, the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (Gelling) had moved up from Quang Tin province and had come under operational control of the 1st Marine Division.
General Robertson summed it up in a congratulatory message sent to his Division on 10 February:
"Commencing 29 January 1968 enemy forces have made repeated attempts to occupy the city of Da Nang and to destroy or control installations in the Da Nang vital area. Employed in these attacks were the 2d NVA Division, the 402d Sapper Battalion, four independent infantry battalions, one artillery rocket regiment and local guerrilla forces.
"I view with great pride the stalwart defense of the Da Nang area by all Division units and, in particular, the efforts of the 11th Marines; the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines; the 2d Battalion, 3d Marines; and the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, USA, which units bore the brunt of the enemy’s main effort. . . . The enemy has been unable to occupy a single objective in the Da Nang area while he has suffered in excess of 1,100 casualties.”
Battle For Hue
Always, Hue had some of the aspects of an open city in recognition of its place as the ancient imperial capital and cultural seat of Viet Nam. There was a considerable U S. civilian presence and some military, principally related to the MACV advisory effort, but no U. S. garrison, no significant U. S. military installations as at Da Nang. Security within the city was largely a National Police responsibility. The 1st ARVN Division had its headquarters in a corner of the Citadel; there was also the Black Panther Company, an elite and much-used unit; but that was about the substance of the regular Vietnamese Army strength within the city. The 3d ARVN Regiment with three battalions was based five miles northwest of Hue. A fourth ARVN battalion was operating some miles southwest of the city.
The enemy must be given high marks for his infiltration into the city and for the surprise he subsequently achieved. Some of the infiltrators literally waited, in civilian clothes, in Hue’s tea rooms and bars until midnight when they changed into their uniforms. When the enemy signalled his occupation of Hue on 31 January with a mortar and rocket barrage, he had virtual control of the city. He had all of the Citadel with the exception of the 1st ARVN Division headquarters. South of the Perfume River, he had the province headquarters, the public utilities, the jail, the hospital, the University; almost everything of consequence, except the MACV compound and some isolated pockets of U. S. and South Vietnamese resistance.
Early that first morning, 31 January, Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, was dispatched from Phu Bai by truck with orders to reinforce the MACV compound. Following in trace was the command group of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Marcus J. Gravel) with Company G, 2d Battalion, 5th Marines. They were joined on the road, providentially, by a tank platoon. The bob-tailed battalion fought its way through scattered resistance, got to the MACV compound about 1445. They were now ordered to cross the Perfume River with the objective of watching the 1st ARVN Division command post. With the help of the tanks, they got across the bridge but at great cost. They could not breach the Citadel wall, so, as darkness closed on them, they withdrew back across the river to the MACV compound.
Companies F and H, 2d Battalion, 5th Marines joined them on the 1st and 2d of February from Phu Bai. At first the Marine role was defensive; there was great reluctance to use U. S. troops in the counter-attack, a point of honor on the part of the ARVN and also recognition that Marine firepower could do irreparable damage to the city and that there also would be unavoidable civilian casualties. Then Lieutenant General Lam, I Corps commander, hard pressed north of the river, asked the Marines to clear that part of Hue south of the river. The Marines, attacking westward from the MACV compound and moving parallel to the river, were systematically to work.
By 4 February, the counterattack was under regimental control of the 1st Marines (Colonel Stanley S. Hughes). The command group of the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines (Cheatham) had arrived as had Company B, 1st Marines. The companies were sorted out and the two reduced battalions went forward, Gravel with two companies, Cheatham with three.
It was a house-to-house business, with all odds against the attacker. To minimize damage and civilian casualties, fire support was largely limited to direct fire weapons: rocket launchers, recoilless rifles, and tank guns. Use was also made of CS tear gas. By 6 February, the Marines had retaken the province headquarters, the jail and the hospital. Last organized resistance south of the river was extinguished on 9 February. The count of enemy dead had reached 1,053, and it was estimated that two enemy battalions had been destroyed.
North of the river, the 3d ARVN Regiment reinforced with three airborne battalions from the strategic reserve, attacking from the northeastern corner of the rectangular old city towards the south west corner, was making slow, steady progress. The Marines were now asked to cross the river and help in the final assault.
On 12 February, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Thompson) joined the attacking ARVN, moving into the city from the north by helicopter and landing craft. The Marines went in on the left flank; the 3d ARVN Regiment was in the center, and the Vietnamese Marines, who had replaced the airborne battalions, were on the right flank. The attack ground inexorably forward. On 22 February, the Marines seized their final objective, the southeast wall of the Citadel. By prior agreement, the Marines stayed out of the fight for the Imperial Palace. At dawn on the 24th, the Vietnamese flag went up over the Citadel; and that afternoon, the Black Panther Company went into the now deserted Imperial Palace. Mopping up of the NVA remnants went on from 25 February until 2 March when the battle was declared over.
The North Vietnamese had committed at least eight battalions, perhaps eleven, to the battle. Command of this division-size attack had been given to the 6th NVA Regiment. Against them, three under strength U. S. Marines battalions and thirteen Vietnamese battalions were eventually used. West of Hue, five U. S. Army battalions had operated to cut the enemy's lines of supply and withdrawal. Throughout the battle the weather had been vile and the use of tactical air greatly limited. General Cushman has estimated that with a break in the weather the battle could have been fought and won in half the time. It is also quite likely that the North Vietnamese took this into consideration. The rain-laden clouds of the northeast monsoon strike the barrier of the Hai Van mountains and curl back, making the Hue area one of the wettest spots in Viet Nam.
February at Khe Sanh
At Khe Sanh, the Marines were told by General Tompkins (who was an almost daily visitor) to dig in and to confine their patrolling to local security. He set an arbitrary limit of 400 meters for patrols and constantly belabored Colonel Lownds with the admonition that "there is no such thing as too much wire or a position that is strong enough."
Not all the defenders were on or within the Khe Sanh perimeter itself. The chain of hills to the north was extensively organized. Two companies less a platoon of 3d Battalion, 26th Marines (Alderman) were on Hill 881 South. Company K of the 3d Battalion plus two platoons was on Hill 861. Hill 861A had Company E of the 2d Battalion. The rest of the 2d Battalion (Heath) was on Hill 558. Hill 950 had a reinforced platoon from the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines (Wilkinson). With the exception of this detachment, the 1st Battalion reinforced with Company L, 3d Battalion, was on the perimeter around the airstrip along with the 37th Rangers. The 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (Mitchell) was on the hill just west of the base where the rock quarry was located.
Tactical air support flown by marine, Air Force, and Navy, made an immediate ring around Khe Sanh. Farther out, B-52S were used. Westmoreland personally decided where the B-52s would strike.
During the early morning hours of 5 February, sensor devices warned the Marines on Hill 881 South that the enemy was trying to get within assaulting distance. Air and artillery struck the enemy with devastating effect. Another prong of the attack, an NVA battalion, tried to assault the west slope at Hill 86iA. Company E, 2d Battalion, 26th Marines threw back the attack, 109 enemy dead were left hanging on the barbed wire.
On 6 February, there was an artillery and mortar attack against Khe Sanh and the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, six miles southwest of the air strip. During the night, some or all of the 66th NVA Regiment, 304th Division, accompanied by flame throwers and nine Russian-made PT-76 amphibian tanks, assaulted and took Lang Vei. Of the 20 U. S. Special Force Green Berets at the camp, 14 were rescued by Marine helicopters and were safe within Khe Sanh’s perimeter by nightfall, along with 70 to 100 of the Montagnard CIDGs. U. S. air and Marine artillery pounded the abandoned base. At least three of the PT-76s were destroyed.
The enemy’s siege tactics against Khe Sanh were classic: trenches, zig-zags, and parallels, some indications of mining and tunneling.
On February, again behind a rocket and mortar preparation, an NVA battalion hit the southwest edge of the defenses, penetrated the position of Company A, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. A counterattack drove him out. After that, ground contact became more sporadic, limited to light enemy probes. Shelling reached a peak on 23 February when a counted 1,307 mortar and artillery rounds impacted on Khe Sanh.
More Reinforcements, New Commands. General Westmoreland had asked for additional troops from the States while the full shape of the Tet offensive was still unresolved and the threat against Khe Sanh was still building. He also established a MACV Forward command post at Phu Bai on 9 February, and positioned his Deputy, General Creighton W. Abrams, Jr., USA, there.
This move was taken by some as evidence that General Westmoreland had taken the conduct of the battle in the northern two provinces out of the operational hands of Commanding General, III Marine Amphibious Force. Such was not the case. MACV Forward functioned the same as any forward command post—no different, for example, than an advance command post sent forward by landing force headquarters in an amphibious operation. General Abrams, the rugged, 53-year-old former Vice Chief of Staff, U. S. Army, was scrupulous in refraining from giving orders directly to any unit, Army or Marine, under General Cushman’s command.
The requested reinforcements, the U. S. Marine Corps’ Regimental Landing Team (RUI) 27 and the 3d Brigade of the 82d Airborne Division, now began to come into the country. President Johnson had given them a personal send-off.
RLT-27’s deployment was planned as temporary, hopefully not to remain in country more than three or four months. The reinforced landing team, essentially half of the uncommitted remainder of the 5th Marine Division, was formed around an infantry regiment and an artillery battalion: the 27th Marines (Colonel Adolph G. Schwenk) and the 2d Battalion, 13 th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Rhys J. Phillips, Jr.). They began loading exactly 48 hours after notification by Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, that they would be moving. In that time, in order to meet deployment criteria they transferred out 1,400 men and brought in 1,900. Except for his executive officer who was an old hand with the regiment, Colonel Schwenk literally met his staff on the aircraft.
The first unit to arrive in Da Nang by air was the 2d Battalion, 27th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Louis J. Bacher), from Camp Pendleton on 17 February. Next to come, also by air and from Camp Pendleton, was 3d Battalion, 27th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Tullis J. Woodham, Jr.) on 20 February.
The 27th Marines were given the old but still troublesome coastal sector south of Marble Mountain and north of Hoi An. They moved into the area immediately and began working with the half of the 5th Marines (Bohn) that was operating there. In a week they took over responsibility for the TAOR.
Service support troops, formed up into a provisional battalion, arrived from Okinawa on 26 February. The remaining battalion landing team, built around 1st Battalion, 27th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel John E. Greenwood)—which Schwenk had never seen—was part of the Hawaii-based 1st Marine Brigade and had been at sea on an amphibious exercise when the order to proceed to Vietnam was received. It arrived in Da Nang on 28 February.
The 5th marines could now concentrate on operations from Hai Van pass north to Phu Bai. Both the Tet offensive and the monsoon had taken a toll of Highway One. The new operation, Houston, was begun on 26 February with 2d Battalion, 3d Marines (Davis) and 3d Battalion, 5th Marines (Rockey).
Meanwhile, on 19 February, HQ, 101st Airborne Division (Major General Olinto M. Barsanti, USA) with its 1st Brigade (Colonel John W. Collins, USA) had arrived at Phu Bai. Two days later, 3d Brigade, 82d Airborne Division (Colonel Alex M. Bolling, Jr., USA) began coming into Chu Lai and was shuttled north to Phu Bai where it joined the 101st, giving that Division three brigades.
The enemy’s ambitions for the Tet offensive had been large. He had told his troops and his political cadre that the time had come for a general offensive and a popular uprising. In Hue, he had announced the formation of a Revolutionary Government and a New Alliance for National Democratic and Peace Forces, There is evidence that he seriously expected to split of the northern two provinces with his six-division effort.
He did achieve considerable surprise. He did tear up lines of communication and cause widespread destruction and temporary chaos in the populated areas. But by the middle of February, he was through. He had not gained the popular support he expected. The American presence was unshaken. The Vietnamese armed forces, initially caught off guard, had done surprisingly well. Contrary to his expectations, not a single ARVN unit defected. He had won no battlefield victories, held no new territory, and in I Corps alone had used up the equivalent of three divisions.
By the end of February, there were 52 American infantry battalions—over half of all the U. S. infantry battalions in country—operating in I Corps Tactical Zone: 24 U. S. Marine and 28 U. S. Army. General Cushman was commanding the equivalent of a field army. With the possible exception of Lieutenant General Roy S. Geiger's brief command of the Tenth Army during the closing days of the Okinawa campaign, it was the largest combat command ever held by a Marine. Five widely separated American divisions were too many to be controlled from a single tactical headquarters so on 10 March the Provisional Corps, Vietnam (PCV or ProvCorpsV) was activated. Lieutenant General William B. Rosson, earlier the MACV Chief of Staff and more recently Commanding General of the First Field Force Vietnam in II CTZ, was named Corps commander. Marine Major General Raymond G. Davis, Georgia- born Medal of Honor winner in Korea, was designated his deputy. ProvCorpsV was given operational control of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, the 101st Airborne Division, and the 3d Marine Division plus corps troops. ProvCorpsV, in turn, came under the operational control of III MAF. Concurrently with the formation of ProvCorpsV, MACV Forward was dissolved and General Abrams returned to Saigon.
Formation of MACV Forward and later of ProvCorpsV some members of the press as being a manifestation of Army dissatisfaction with Marine Corps generalship. Old debates, dating back to France in World War I, Saipan and Okinawa in World War II, and X Corps in Korea were exhumed. Disclaimers by both Army and Marine Corps spokesmen did not completely still the clamor.
Single Manager for Tactical Air
On 10 March ComUSMACV assigned 1st Marine Aircraft Wing's fixed-wing strike aircraft to the "mission direction" of Commanding General, 7th Air Force. General Westmoreland says the shift of control was made to alleviate the problem of "progressively complicated coordination of this indispensable air support provided by U. S. Air Force, U. S. Marine Corps, U. S. Navy, and Vietnamese Air Force tactical aircraft in addition to the B-52s one of the 3d Air Division in the Strategic Air Command."
The "single manager" concept for tactical air had been approved by CinCPac on 8 March. General Westmoreland's stated objective was to combine into a single system "the best features of both the Air Force and Marine tactical air support systems…"
By the time 7th Air Force control actually got underway, 1 April, the Tet offensive was over, the battle for Hue was fought and won, and the siege of Khe Sanh had just about petered out.
Relief of Khe Sanh
Meanwhile, round-the-clock bombing, well-named Operation Niagara, continued to interdict the enemy’s approaches to Khe Sanh. By now, the verdant green hillsides, once the site of the best coffee plantations in Indo-China, had been pounded into a red-orange moonscape as unprecedented tonnages of aerial ordnance were delivered.
Meanwhile, the choppers and C-123S and C-130S continued to do their job of keeping the base supplied and getting the wounded out. The NVA, in turn, pushed his trenches further forward; did what he could to cut the aerial supply line; hammered away at the base with his mortars and artillery, getting back ten shells for every one he threw in; and occasionally risked infantry action. The Marines at Khe Sanh, chafing at restrictions placed on their own ground counteractions, patrolled out to prescribed limits, occasionally brushed with the NVA, and found considerable grisly evidence of the death and destruction being worked upon the enemy.
On 7 March, a C-123K Provider, making its approach to Khe Sanh from the east, was hit by NVA ground fire a few miles out and went down. All were killed: 43 Marines, a sailor, and the four Air Force crew members.
The enemy’s most serious attack of the month came on 18 March. He tried to breach the portion of the perimeter held by the 37th ARVN Rangers and lost. Early on the morning of 30 March, Company B, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines assaulted an NVA battalion entrenched a mile south of the base. On that same day, Operation Scotland was declared over.
With the end of the monsoon in sight, Cushman had proposed a three-phase Spring counteroffensive to begin in April and to include the relief of Khe Sanh, an attack into the DMZ, and a raid into the A Shau valley. Westmoreland approved the plan.
Accordingly, 1st Air Cav’s first major operation in I Corps, Jeb Stuart, was brought to a close on 31 March to free the 1st Air Cavalry Division (Major General John H. Tolson, III, USA) for the relief of Khe Sanh.
Operation Pegasus was launched on 1 April. The ARVN portion of the operation was called Lam Son 207; the ARVN had long since given up trying to give each operation a gutsy, evocative nickname. 1st Air Cavalry Division, with an ARVN airborne battalion moving with them, was to leap-frog into successive positions east and then south of Khe Sanh. Less dramatically, the 1st Marine Regiment (Hughes) and three ARVN battalions were to move overland westward from Ca Lu to open up Route 9 itself.
On the first day out, 1st Marines, moving against very little resistance, got to their objective west of Ca Lu; and 3d Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry (Campbell) established a fire support base five miles east of Khe Sanh.
On 4 April, 26th Marines attacked southeast from Khe Sanh itself. First link-up between the Marines and cavalrymen came on 6 April when 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (Mitchell) met the approaching 1st Air Cav troopers. Later that same day, 1st Air Cav and ARVN airborne elements reached Khe Sanh. On 9 April, for the first time in 45 days, no shells fell on the base; and U. S. forces went back into Lang Vei Special Forces camp, meeting virtually no resistance. By 12 April, Route 9 was open to truck traffic.
Two days later, on 14 April, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel John C. Studt) took Hill 881 North. Operation Pegasus was now declared over.
The battle for Khe Sanh had been fought according to plan, the Marines had buttoned up their defenses; the enemy had been engaged with massive firepower, air and artillery; the defenders had been adequately re-supplied by air; land communications were restored with the return of good weather.
Writes General Westmoreland: "The key to our success at Khe Sanh was firepower, principally aerial firepower. For 77 days, Air Force, Navy, and Marine aircraft provided round-the-clock, close-in support to the defending garrison and were controlled by airborne Forward Air Controllers or ground-based radar. Between 22 January and 31 March, tactical aircraft flew an average of 300 sorties daily, close to one every five minutes, and expended 35,000 tons of bombs and rockets.''
During the same period, Strategic Air Command’s B-52S had flown 2,602 sorties and dropped over 75,0000 tons of bombs. Marine howitzers at Khe Sanh and Army 175s supporting from Camp Carroll and the Rockpile had fired over 100,000 rounds, nearly 1,500 shells a day.
Between 21 January and 8 April, 14,000 or more tons of supplies were delivered by Marine and Air Force air to Khe Sanh. Sixty-five percent of the deliveries were by parachute drop from C-130S and C-123S. In all, there were some 679 drops. During the same period, 455 aircraft landed at Khe Sanh. Television may have given the American public the impression that anything attempting to land at Khe Sanh was shot down. Actually only four fixed-wing aircraft—a C-130, a C-123, an A-4 and an F-4—appear to have been destroyed by enemy action.
Perhaps a tougher problem in aerial logistics than the air drops on KSCB (the main drop zone was between the perimeter and the rock quarry) was the re-supply of the two Marine battalions occupying the hills to the north. This was done by Marine helicopters flying in "gaggles" averaging seven aircraft and coming straight from Dong Ha to each of the hill positions. Cooling down on these minuscule landing zones was like placing the chopper on the center of a bull's eye and was only feasible because of the covering close air support provided by Marine fixed-wing aircraft using smoke napalm, and bombs. Exact helicopter losses are elusive but it appears that at least 17 choppers were destroyed or received "strike damage" and that perhaps twice this number received some degree of battle damage.
In any case, there was never a serious supply shortage. General Westmoreland rightly called the logistic air effort the "premier air logistical feat of the war."
In no way was Khe Sanh another Dien Bien Phu. The Marines had never thought that it would be.
Raid into A Shau Valley
With the relief of Khe Sanh accomplished, III MAF could turn its attention to the next phase of Cushman’s spring counteroffensive: a raid into the A Shau valley, held strongly by the enemy since the fall of the Special Forces camp there in March 1966.
Operation Delaware Valley was to be a spoiling attack by the 1st Air Cavalry (Tolson) and 101st Air borne Divisions (Barsanti) with the mission of funding and destroying the NVA/VC logistic bases from which operations against Hue and the coastal area were being supported. The coordinated ARVN portion of the attack was Lam Son 216.
Major General Davis, the Marine deputy commander of ProvCorpsV had been very favorably impressed by the airmobile portion of Pegasus. To study Army techniques closer at hand, he had himself attached to the 1st Air Cavalry for the A Shau operation he would find much to admire.
There were two prongs to the initial entry. On 19 April, the 1st Air Cavalry with five battalions and the 3d ARVN Regiment with three battalions made an airmobile assault into the valley. On the same day, 101st Airborne Division with three battalions and an ARVN Airborne Task Force of three battalions started westward along Route 547, axis of Operation Cumberland the previous year. Landing against well-prepared anti-helicopter defenses, the Army on that first day suffered a number of helos destroyed and damaged.
On 22 April, 196th Light Infantry Brigade (Gelling) moved up from the Americal Division to Camp Evans to take over rear area security and to act as a reserve. On 1 May, the air strip at A Luoi, another abandoned Special Forces camp, was re-opened to take C-123 Providers supporting the operation. On 12 May, the ARVN Airborne task force chopped out of Lam Son 216.
On 16 May, the operation was declared over. Ground action had been formless, many small actions, no major clashes. Added up, there were 735 enemy dead. More important were his materiel losses, the largest yet inflicted upon him in I Corps Tactical Zone. He lost 2500 individual weapons, 93 crew-served weapons, and heavier stuff including a number of artillery pieces ranging from a dozen 37m AA guns to several 75mm and 122mm howitzers and nearly a hundred trucks.
Coincident with Operation Delaware Valley, the remainder of the 101st Airborne Division was conducting Carentan II northwest of Hue. Begun 1 April, it lasted until 16 May.
Battle for Dong Ha
The third phase of III MAF’s spring counteroffensive—a cleansing attack into the DMZ—was pre-empted by an enemy thrust in strength against Dong Ha. By late April it was obvious that Hanoi had committed the 320th NVA Division to a serious effort to take the 3d Marine Division command post and major combat base. On 29 April elements of the 2d ARVN Regiment engaged an NVA regiment four miles north of the base. General Tompkins dispatched his Division reserve, Task Force Robbie, to help out. This action set off a six-day fight centered on Dai Do hamlet, a mile and a half northeast of Dong Ha. The Communist main body was met there by 2d Battalion, 4th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel William Weise). After three days hard fighting, Weise’s battalion (he was among those wounded) was relieved by 1st Battalion, 3d Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Charles V. Jarman).
While this violent action was going on at Dai Do, the ARVN in Lam Son 218 had moved to block enemy escape routes to the northwest; 3d Battalion, 9th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Lamontagne) had attacked enemy units withdrawing westward; and 3d Battalion, U. S. 21st Infantry had completed the encirclement of the enemy to the northeast. Heavy fighting continued until about 16 May. As always, lines on the map were tighter than they were on the ground and the 320th NVA Division succeeded in momentarily breaking off contact.
They came back into the attack in late May. Once again the main force was met by the 2d Battalion, 4th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Louis A. Rann), this time near the hamlet of Nhi Ha six miles northeast of Dong Ha, on 25 May. Beginning that same day, the ARVN engaged an enemy column further to the west, just off Highway 1. Meanwhile, the 9th Marines (Colonel Richard B. Smith) with its own battalions plus 3d Battalion, 3d Marines (Lieutenant Colonel James W. Marsh) had also joined in the battle. By the end of the month the 320th NVA Division had been rendered, for the time, combat ineffective.
The enemy himself had launched his second major offensive for the year on 5 May, signalled by 119 rocket and mortar attacks ranging the length and breadth of the Republic of Viet Nam. In I Corps Tactical Zone within 24 hours the airfields at Da Nang, Marble Mountain, Quang Tri, and Chu Lai; the headquarters of both III MAF and I Corps in Da Nang along with the headquarters of the Force Logistics Command; the MACV compound in Hue; and the command post of the 101st Airborne Division were all hit. These attacks by fire continued on 11 and 13 May. Marble Mountain air facility took 20 or 25 rocket rounds.
On 19 May the enemy engaged the U. S. Army base at Camp Evans with a singularly lucky rocket attack. With 12 rocket rounds he hit an ammo dump. The resulting explosions destroyed several helicopters, and inflicted varying degrees of damage on a number of other aircraft. Some 80,000 gallons of fuel also went up.
On the 20th, MAG-16 at Marble Mountain was hit again. On 21 May, Camp Hochmuth at Phu Bai took 150 rounds of mortar fire. On 25 May, Cua Viet Naval Facility was pounded by 111 rounds of mixed rocket and mortar fire. Sixteen 10,000-gallon fuel bladders went up in flames. On 27 May Phu Bai was again attacked by fire.
Although the enemy had once again demonstrated his ability to coordinate wide-ranging attacks by rocket and mortar fire against Free World bases and inflict stinging damage in the process, his May attacks were but a pale shadow of his February Tet offensive. On 27 May he did make a fairly serious thrust at Tam Ky, following his mortars with a ground assault. Three hundred houses were destroyed. Fifty civilians were reported dead.
Allen Brook. While 3d Marine Division was battling at Khe Sanh and Dong Ha and the 1st Air Cavalry and 101st Airborne Divisions had been fighting their fights in the A Shau Valley and west of Hue, things had been fairly quiescent for the 1st Marine Division in Quang Nam province.
On 12 March, 1st and 2d Battalions, 7th Marines (Lieutenant Colonels William J. Davis and Charles E. Mueller) and the 3/5 Armored Cavalry Squadron (Lieutenant Colonel Hugh J. Bartley, USA) had launched Operation Worth 15 miles southwest of Da Nang had By late April, it was apparent that the enemy had fed in the equivalent of an NVA division south of Da Nang. At the year's beginning the 31st NVA Regiment had been found' in western Quang Nam province. In April, the 141st NVA Regiment was identified and a little later there was reason to suspect that the 36th NVA Regiment was in "Go Noi island," a delta west of Hoi An, formed by the meanderings of the many-named Ky Lam river, and bisected by Highway One and the railroad.
At this point, 1st Marine Division (Robertson) made a definite shift in tactics. The defense of the Da Nang complex against rockets and mortars, and sapper attacks had resolved itself into a thickly-manned, heavily-patrolled "rocket belt" extending in a semi-circle around Da Nang. With the additional troops now available plus thinning-out the rocket belt somewhat, it was decided to fan out in deeper-reaching, more mobile operations which would keep the NVA forces at arm’s length from Da Nang.
On 4 May, Operation Allen Brook was launched by 2d Battalion, 7th Marines (Mueller) under control of 7th Marines (Colonel Reverdy M. Hall). The battalion went in on the western edge of Go Noi island and attacked eastward toward the railroad. For the first four days resistance was scattered. Then on 9 May the Marines ran into a large enemy force in the vicinity of the ruined railroad bridge over the Ky Lam near Xuan Dai. There was a hot fight, and 80 NVA were killed.
Four days later, 3d Battalion, 7th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Roger H. Barnard) relieved the 2d Battalion, reversed direction, and started to sweep westward. On 16 May the enemy was met at Phu Dong, two miles west of Xuan Dai, in well-bunkered positions. Heavy fighting followed.
Control of Allen Brook now passed from 7th Marines to 27th Marines (Schwenk). Next day, 17 May, 3d Battalion, 27th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Tullis J. Woodham, Jr.) heli-assaulted two miles west of Phu Dong, ran into a dug-in enemy almost immediately. In the next ten days the Marine battalions converged on the enemy, now identified as the 36th and 38th Regiments of the 308th NVA Division, with the fighting finally concentrating at Le Bac and Cu Ban, fortified hamlet complexes about five miles east of An Hoi.
In a coordinated ARVN operation, Hung Quang 1-38, two battalions of the 51st Regiment (Colonel Truong Tan Thuc) plus the 21st and 37th Ranger Battalions operated in the eastern part of Go Noi island, from 16 May to 25 May.
Mameluke Thrust. A companion operation to Allen Brook was Mameluke Thrust, launched by the 7th Marines (Hall) on 18 May after passing control of Allen Brook to 27th Marines. The Mameluke Thrust area was west and south of Da Nang, north of An Hoa, fan-shaped blanketing the corridors leading down from the mountains and pointed at Da Nang.
The enemy had been probing at Thuong Duc Special Forces camp in late April and early May. He was identified as the 31st Regiment, 308th NVA Division. Mameluke Thrust was begun with the entry of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel William J. Davis) into "Happy Valley."
To screen the large area, extensive use was made of the Sting Ray" concept, the pre-eminently successful technique worked out by the Marines, which introduces small reconnaissance teams into the objective area to bring down air and artillery fire on observed enemy.
Operations in Quang Tin Province. Southwest of the Allen Brook area, Americal Division had begun Operation Burlington Trail on 8 April. Three U. S. Army battalions would be used and it would last until 11 November.
Kham Duc, a Special Forces camp on the western edge of Quang Tin province, was the object of the 2d NVA Division's main attention in the May mini-Tet. First to be all hit was Ngok Tavak outpost. Engaged by an NVA battalion on 10 May, the garrison, CIDG Montagnards reinforced by a section of Marine 105 mm howitzers, resisted for twelve hours before pulling out.
General Cushman first elected to reinforce the main camp A battalion of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade was flown in from Quang Tri by C-130; a rifle company came in from Chu Lai by helicopter. On 12 May the NVA attacked in regimental strength. The outposts on the surrounding high ground were all gone.
Two alternatives were open to General Cushman: to continue to reinforce or to withdraw. He saw no advantage in making a major battle of it, one that would have to be supported logistically entirely by air. He recommended that the camp be evacuated and General Westmoreland concurred.
In all, some 1,400 persons were taken out. In the process one C-130 with 150 Vietnamese aboard, was shot down on take-off; all were killed. Large quantities of supplies and equipment had to be abandoned or destroyed in place.
Marine Air Operations
Throughout late Spring, the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, trying to adjust to the new rules for single-management of tactical air support, continued to provide all aviation on services, acting much like a composite air force.
Bombing north of the 19th Parallel had halted 1 April following President Johnson’s dramatic televised message to the Nation on the night before, in which he had announced the reduction in bombing, plans for preliminary peace talks, and his own decision not to seek re-election.
Marine Aircraft Group 36 (Wilson) had been operating its helicopter squadrons from both Phu Bai and Quang Tri. On 16 April, the Quang Tri squadrons were formed into provisional MAG-39 (Colonel John E. Hansen).
On 14 May, VMF(AW)-235 (Lieutenant Colonel Carl R. Lundquist) the last of the Marine F-8 squadrons in-country, left Da Nang for Iwakuni and staging to Kaneohe in Oahu where it would be redesignated VMFA-235 and re-equipped with F-4Bs. There had been three F-8 squadrons at Da Nang. First deployed in December 1965, the three Crusader squadrons—VMF(AW)s 312, 232, and 235—had flown a total of nearly 21,000 sorties.
The only new airplane to come into the Marine fighting inventory in 1968 was the long-awaited OV-10A—the North American Bronco. It was also called a "COIN” aircraft (For "counterinsurgency”) or "LARA” (for "light armed reconnaissance aircraft”) but it could do much more than these two descriptors would indicate. It had been designed and built to meet a Marine Corps requirement for a light, simple airplane that could operate from the deck of an amphibious assault ship, that could land and take-off from unimproved airfields, or a stretch of road if need be, and that could still perform a wide variety of missions: visual reconnaissance and surveillance to be sure, but also helicopter escort, ground attack, airborne tactical air coordination, artillery and naval gunfire spotting, battlefield illumination, and enough cargo and passenger space for liaison and utility use.
Six OV-10As, under command of Major Simon J. Kittler, arrived at Cubi Point in the Philippines on 22 May and passed to the operational control of 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. They came into Marble Mountain Air Facility on 6 July and flew their first combat mission four hours later. The OV-10As’ arrival was particularly opportune. Marine O-1 light reconnaissance aircraft assets had declined to the vanishing point and U. S. Army O-1s were spread thin. Further, the OV-10A could share the demands for helicopter escort and ground fire suppression then being borne by the TA-4F and UH-1E gunships.
By the end of the year, 26 of the new aircraft had been added to the complements of the two Marine observation squadrons, VMOs 2 and 6, and had racked up a total of 3,000 sorties.
With its twin tail booms and its two big three-bladed propellers, the OV-10A looked like something out of World War II; but it soon proved it could do the jobs for which it had been designed to do, with speeds well over 200 knots, good loiter time, and a respectable combat radius.
On 10 April, President Johnson had announced that General Abrams would succeed General Westmoreland in July. This was no surprise. General Westmoreland had been ComUSMACV since 1964. For a year General Abrams had been his Deputy. Best judgment was that President Johnson had delayed General Westmoreland’s departure until the Tet offensive was demonstrably over and Khe Sanh no longer under siege.
In III MAP, May was a month of command changes. Major General William J. Van Ryzin, Deputy Commander, III MAP, returned home for promotion to lieutenant general and assignment as Chief of Staff at Headquarters, Marine Corps. Major General Tompkins, who had commanded the 3d Marine Division since the death of Major General Hochmuth, through the Tet offensive and the battles for Khe Sanh and Dong Ha, moved up to Deputy Commander, III MAF.
Major General Davis, was shifted over from Deputy Commander, Provisional Corps, Vietnam, to command of the 3d Marine Division. Major General Clifford B. Drake, newly arrived from Headquarters, Marine Corps, where he had been Director of Reserve, became Deputy Commander, Provisional Corps, Vietnam.
But the most significant change of command of all was one that occurred earlier. On 1 March, Clark McAdams Clifford was sworn in as the new Secretary Defense, replacing Robert Strange McNamara.
Shift to More Mobile Operations
After the link-up at Khe Sanh, General Westmoreland, meeting with Lieutenant Generals Cushman and Rosson at the Provisional Corps, Vietnam, headquarters at Phu Bai, asked that a study be made of how to maximize troop use in the good weather. Cushman had peen advocating more mobile operations for Quang Tri province since 1967, but had lacked the resources and had also been tied to the anti-infiltration system. Now both he and Rosson recommended Khe Sanh be abandoned, saying it could be covered by mobile forces working out of Landing Zone Stud, the new airfield and logistic base developed at Ca Lu for the support of 1st Cavalry Division during Pegasus.
Westmoreland agreed in principle but said that implementation should be deferred for two reasons. First, evacuating Khe Sanh might siphon off resources needed to support Operation Delaware Valley to be launched in the A Shau. Second, as he was scheduled to depart shortly, he preferred that the final decision be made by General Abrams.
Cushman and Rosson also recommended that modifications be made to the strong point obstacle system which had tied up so much of the 3d Marine Division's resources. Again, Westmoreland approved Cushman's and Rosson's recommendations in principle but asked that a detailed plan be developed. In his Report, General Westmoreland says "…the enemy's artillery and rocket fire had been so intense that the construction of the originally planned physical obstacles was not feasible."
Scotland II. At Khe Sanh, with Pegasus over, Scotland II was begun on 16 April. The troop list was impressive: the 1st Marines (Hughes) with six Marine infantry battalions and the 3d Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Division (Campbell) with two Army battalions. The tactical headquarters was Task Force Glick, named for the commander, Brigadier General Jacob E. Glick, and originally established for the purpose of closing down the Khe Sanh base. On 25 April General Glick was relieved by Brigadier General Carl W. Hoffman. The command was briefly known as Task Force Hoffman, then became Task Force Hotel, a designation which would persist.
There were sharp actions radiating out from Khe Sanh in May against a resurgent 304th NVA Division. On the 14th of the month, the enemy tried to ambush a convoy moving west from Ca Lu to Khe Sanh. In turn, the ambushers were pounced upon by 2d Battalion, 3d Marines (Davis). Three days later, on 17 May, Company H, 2d Battalion, 1st Marines cut their way through another ambush, this one west of Khe Sanh, half-way along Route 9 to Lang Vei. That same day, 3d Battalion, 4th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Lee R. Bendell) began a two-day fight in the vicinity of Hills 689 and 552 west of Khe Sanh.
On 19 May on Route 9 about a mile east of the base, an NVA battalion was engaged by 2d Battalion, 1st Marines (Duncan). On 28 May, south of the base, an NVA battalion attacked Company F, 2d Battalion, 3d Marines. Company F drove them against Company E and the North Vietnamese, caught between the two companies, lost 230 killed. On 31 May, Company E’s position was again attacked. Company E repelled the attack and then, with the help of Company B, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, they counter-attacked.
Robin North, Robin South. By the end of May, it was obvious that the 308th NVA Division, fresh from Hanoi, with two regiments, the 88th and 102d, had moved south of Khe Sanh and a major attack was in the making. (The 304th NVA Division, badly battered, had been withdrawn to the north for refurbishing; this was not immediately known.)
From the viewpoint of General Davis, in Command of the 3d Marine Division, the new NVA regiments offered a sizable target well inside Viet Nam and an opportunity to test new high mobility concepts now that some of the restraints on the employment of the Division had been removed.
Accordingly, Task Force Hotel (Hoffman) mounted a counter-action using the 1st Marine (Hughes) and 4th Marines (Colonel Edward J. Miller). The plan involved blasting two large landing zones and fire support bases, designated Loon and Robin, in the rain forest canopy some five miles south of Route 9. Loon was to the west and Robin to the east. Because of the tortuous and obscure meanderings of the Laotian border, the projected area of operations was a kind of pocket or salient, and the closest Laotian territory actually lay eastward of Robin. There were enemy 130mm artillery pieces inside Laos that easily reached Khe Sanh six miles away.
"The North Vietnamese still want Khe Sanh and we are still trying to keep them from getting it,” Brigadier General Hoffman told the press. "Our problem here is not like that in other parts of South Vietnam. Anybody out there who is moving and wearing a different kind of uniform is the enemy. We don’t have to decide who is the bad guy and who is the good guy.”
The plan was for 1st Marines (Hughes) to move in first, attack northward (Robin North); 4th Marines (Miller) would follow, then attack southward (Robin South).
There were five days of preparatory air and artillery fires into the objective area; and then on 2 and 3 June, 1st Marines helo-lifted 2d Battalion, 4th Marines (Rann) and 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (Gravel) into Loon and Robin. These battalions then attacked northward against blocking positions established south of Route 9 by 2d Battalion, 3d Marines (Davis). They met little opposition, found many abandoned positions. By 12 June, Robin North was over.
Meanwhile, on 3 June, 4th Marines had moved its 1st Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel James H. MacLean), reinforced with engineers and artillery, into Loon and Robin. At dawn, 6 June, the NVA attacked Companies C and D at Loon. On that same day, 3d Battalion, 9th Marines (Lamontagne) moved by helo into a new landing zone, Torch, three miles southeast of Loon and close to the Laotian border. The 1st and 3d Battalions, 4th Marines, then followed 3d Battalion, 9th Marines into Torch. On 11 June the enemy tried a company-size attack against the first support base. They were stopped after reaching the 105mm howitzers of Battery C, 12th Marines.
On 16 June there was a heavy action between 3d Battalion, 4th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Frank L. Bourne, Jr.) and a North Vietnamese battalion. Two days later, on 18 June, the enemy tried to breach the 3d Battalion's position once again and were severely handled. Next day, 4th Marines re-deployed to Khe Sanh and Robin South was over.
In all, Robin North and South had cost the enemy over 725 troops killed or captured, and large amounts of weapons, ammunition and equipment. During these actions, the two reinforced Marine regiments, including eight batteries of artillery, were totally resupplied by helicopter. It was the first use of mountain-top fire bases by the 3d Marine Division and they worked well. The newly arrived 308th NVA Division had lasted only two weeks against the Marine assault; it withdrew and went north to re-fit.
Abrams For Westmoreland
On 10 June 1968 General Westmoreland held his last press conference in Saigon as ComUSMACV. It was a set-piece conference; the General reviewed the "benchmarks" of the war as he saw them. Then a reporter asked the last, final, question:
"General, can the war be won militarily?"
"Not in a classic sense, because—" Westmoreland paused briefly, "—of our national policy of not expanding the war."
But, said General Westmoreland, even if the United States could not win a "classic" victory, "the enemy can be attrited, the price can be raised—and is being raised to the point that it could be intolerable to the enemy."
Base for Krulak. A little earlier, on 1 June, there had another change of command of at least equal interest to the Marines in Viet Nam. At ceremonies at Marine Corps Air Station, Kaneohe, Oahu, Lieutenant General Henry W. Buse, Jr. relieved Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak as Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. Diminutive, brilliant, sometimes controversial, "Brute" Krulak was ending 34 years in the Corps. Not in the operational chain of command, he nevertheless had had great influence on the size and shape of Marine Corps operations in Vietnam. He was presented the Distinguished Service Medal by Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp. Admiral Sharp himself would retire on 31 July from his post as Commander in Chief, Pacific, relieved by Admiral John S. McCain.
In III MAF, during June, Major General Carl A. Youngdale, who on a previous tour had been J-2 on the MACV stag relieved Major General Donn J. Robertson as Commanding General, 1st Marine Division; and Major General Charles J. Quilter relieved Major General Norman J. Anderson as Commanding General, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.
Special Landing Force Operations
On 7 June, BLT 3/1 (McQuown) lifted by HMM-164 (Lieutenant Colonel Robert F. Rick) went ashore ten miles northwest of Da Nang in Operation Swift Saber. Swift Saber was kind of an amphibious passage of lines; BLT 2/7 (Mueller) re-embarked in amphibious shipping and, along with HMM-265 (Lieutenant Colonel William L. Whelan), became Special Landing Force Bravo. Swift Saber operations ashore continued for a week, but did not develop any significant contacts.
The 3d Battalion, 1st Marines, since landing in the Badger Catch operation east of Gio Linh on 23 January, had been singularly active. Operations against the 803d NVA Regiment in the fortified hamlets of the Cua Viet River had continued through February. Then, on 5 March, the battalion had been moved to the Camp Carroll area as part of Lancaster II, its mission, substantially, to keep its portion of Route 9 open and protected. This had continued until 19 April when the battalion was redeployed to Ca Lu.
Khe Sanh Evacuated
With highly successful Robin North and South actions behind them, the next Task Force Hotel mission was the evacuation of Khe Sanh. As discussed earlier, Cushman and Rosson had argued for such a move immediately after Operation Pegasus. Westmoreland had concurred in principle but had questioned the timing of the withdrawal, asking for a detailed plan and indicating that the decision to execute should come from his successor, General Abrams. Westmoreland had left Saigon on 11 June.
Razing the Base. Meanwhile, the base itself was being dismantled and razed by the 1st Marines (Colonel Ross T. Dwyer, Jr.) and 11th Engineer Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Victor A. Perry). Everything of value that could be removed was removed: supplies, ammunition, salvageable equipment and vehicles, fortification and building materials, airfield matting. Everything else was buried by bulldozer, or burned, or blown up. Working eastward from Khe Sanh to Ca Lu along Route 9, the engineers took out six tactical bridges (the components could be flown back in by helicopter, if needed for a future operation), left the culverts and by-passes in place. The job was completed 5 July.
There was fighting in and around Hill 689 some two miles west of the base. Heaviest contact was on 7 July when Company C, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines ran into a dug-in NVA company just west of the hill. The NVA came back in a night attack shortly after midnight, hitting Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, on Hill 689 itself. After that, things were relatively quiet.
1st Marines, mission completed, left Khe Sanh and redeployed to the Napoleon/Saline operational area, radiating out from Cua Viet.
The obvious questions were asked: Why, if Khe Sanh were worth defending, virtually at any cost, earlier in the year was it being abandoned now? What had changed? Did the decision have major strategic implications? Were we abandoning the northeast corner of South Vietnam to the Communists?
At the White House, the press secretary, George Christian, announced that the abandonment of Khe Sanh had not been decided by President Johnson but was a military decision.
Hanoi was quick to claim that the "fall” of Khe Sanh was a "grave defeat” for the Americans, with "disastrous political and psychological consequences.” Nguyen Thanh Le, spokesman for the North Vietnamese delegation at the Paris peace talks, said that American explanations that the base was no longer essential were just "sour grapes.”
"The United States military commanders once decided to defend the base at all costs,” said Mr. Le. "They are now forced to retreat from the base. The high command pretends the retreat was ordered because the base is unessential now. That makes me think of the La Fontaine fable of the fox and the grapes.”
The official MACV explanation to the press was as follows:
". . . there have been two significant changes in the military situation in Vietnam since early this year—an increase in friendly strength, mobility and firepower and an increase in the enemy’s threat due to both greater flow of replacements and a change in tactics.”
"Mobile forces not tied to specific terrain must be used to the utmost to attack, intercept, reinforce or take whatever action is most appropriate to meet enemy threats.”
"Therefore, we have decided to continue the mobile posture we adopted in western Quang Tri Province with Operation Pegasus in April. The decision makes the operation of the base at Khe Sanh unnecessary.”
In a nutshell, Khe Sanh could be abandoned because the Marines now had enough troops and helicopters, and enough latitude of action, so that they could operate in a mobile mode, dominating the whole region, rather than being tied to the fixed defense of a base in the center of it.
Extending this high mobility concept to the whole 3d Marine Division, General Davis laid down some ground rules. Unit integrity would be reestablished; not only would organic battalions work with their parent regiments, but this would also apply to normal support units, particularly direct support artillery. Unessential combat bases and strongpoints would be closed, and those that were not closed would be made defendable by no more than one reinforced company. The reconnaissance effort was also to be upgraded, with from 30 to 35 teams to be kept out in the field at all times.
Operation Thor. Along the rest of the 3d Marine Division front, the principal trouble came from enemy shellings of base areas during June. The fuel dump at Camp Kistler, Cua Viet, had been hit and sixteen 10,000-gallon fuel bladders had gone up. Worse yet, on 20 June at Dong Ha, light shelling set off an ammunition dump fire which cost the Marines a quarter-million artillery and mortar rounds.
Operation Thor was conceived with the purpose of getting at the enemy's artillery positions and also at his sanctuary, by means of a massive application of air, artillery, and naval gunfire. It was begun on 1 July. The impact area was bounded by the southern edge of the DMZ, then north along the coast ten miles to Cap Mui Lay, then straight west for 16 miles, then a closing leg due south to the DMZ. Marine, Navy, and Air Force attack aircraft; Strategic Air Command B-52s; two cruisers and six destroyers; and some 118 pieces of Marine and Army artillery were all brought to bear in a seven-day barrage.
Exploitation of the barrier of fire created by Operation Thor was essentially the delayed third phase of General Cushman's spring counteroffensive; a general cleansing of the area north of Route 9 to the DMZ.
In the Cua Viet area, in continuation of Napoleon/Saline, 3d Marines (Colonel Milton A. Hull), attacked north on 5 July. On their left, in a coordinated action, 2d ARVN Regiment advanced astride Route 1 in Lam Son 234. First solid contact was by 1st Battalion, 3d Marines (Major Edward J. Rochford, Jr.) that first day at Lai An hamlet, six miles north of Dong Ha. They secured the hamlet by nightfall. July 6 was spent patrolling, seeking new contact. Mid-morning, 7 July, a Marine patrol developed an NVA company position a mile north of Lai An. This led to a fresh action.
Meanwhile, 2d Battalion, 3d Marines (Davis) advancing on the right of 1st Battalion, found the enemy on 7 July in the vicinity of Ben Lan and drove through the hamlet in an attack supported by naval gunfire.
West of Highway 1 in the Kentucky area of operations, 9th Marines (Smith) also sought to exploit Thor, working north and east of Con Thien. Contact was frequent, but small gauge. The largest fight was on 11 July when 3d Battalion, 9th Marines (Lamontagne) caught an NVA platoon in the open three miles north of Con Thien.
Further west, in the Lancaster II area, a three-regiment attack was begun on 17 July; 9th Marines on the east flank, 3d Marines in the center, and 2d ARVN Regiment on the west flank. The scheme was to land close to the DMZ, then push south against Route 9. The enemy did not elect to defend in strength. The biggest action took place on the first day, eight miles northwest of Camp Carroll, where the 3d Battalion, 9th Marines met an enemy company dug in along a ridgeline. Working behind close air support provided by four Marine A-4s and two Marine F-4s, the 3d Battalion assaulted and took the position. The total action was concluded on 31 July. Dozens of fortifications and considerable amounts of supplies were found and destroyed.
Provisional Corps, Vietnam
On 1 July, the 101st Airborne Division was redesignated the 101st Air Cavalry Division. The 101st, has in fact, lost its parachute identity in Vietnam and has become, essentially, a helicopter-borne division. However, apparently, no one was quite satisfied with the new designation; because on 26 August, the 101st became the 101st Airborne Division (Air Mobile).
On 31 July, the 1st Brigade, 5th Mechanized Division (Colonel Richard J. Glikes, USA) arrived in I Corps Tactical Zone from its home base at Camp Roberts, Colorado. The terrain east and west of the axis of Highway One from Dong Ha north to Gio Linh offered good ground for mechanized operations; and the 1st Brigade, 5th Mechanized Division, was put in there. Initially the new brigade was deployed to the quiet Quang Tri city area for training and acclimatization. On a unit-for-unit basis, it was scheduled to relieve the temporarily deployed RLT-27, which was scheduled to return to the United States in September.
On 1 August, Major General Richard G. Stillwell, USA, relieved Lieutenant General Rosson as Commanding General, Provisional Corps, Viet Nam. The Deputy Commander continued to be Major General Drake, USMC. On 15 August, the Provisional Corps was redesignated the XXIV Corps, an historic U. S. Army designation.
While these events were taking place in the northern two provinces, the Communists' main effort was shifting the central province of Quang Nam with Da Nang as the ultimate target.
Two major operations, Allen Brook and Mameluke Thrust, continued to screen the enemy's avenues of approach to Da Nang.
The 27th Marines (Schwenk), in Allen Brook, with its command post near Liberty Bridge, continued to move its two battalions, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, and 1st Battalion, 27th Marines, about in checkerboard fashion in the "Go Noi Island" territory south of the Ky Lam-Thu Bon River against elements of the 308th NVA Division's 36th and 38th Regiments.
On 5 June, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Frederick J. McEwan) had a fight just west of Go Noi itself. Three days later, they met an NVA battalion at My Loc, three miles northeast of An Hoa. They then, on 11 June, moved north of the Thu Bon into "Dodge City” to cover the 7th Marines command post on Hill 55; there was a sharp fight on 15 June two miles south of the hill.
As Allen Brook reduced its radius of action, the 5th Marines (Colonel Paul G. Graham), shifted the focus of Mameluke Thrust southward to An Hoa. By now, it was evident that the enemy was preparing the battlefield for a foray against Da Nang.
On 16 August, 5th Marines with its 2d and 3d Battalions (Lieutenant Colonels Ernest C. Cheatham, Jr., and Donald N. Rexroad) launched a sweep eastward from An Hoa through the old battleground previously worked by 7th Marines in Allen Brook. In blocking position, 13 miles west of Hoi An, was 2d Battalion, 7th Marines (Mueller). BLT 2/7 had come ashore on 23 July in Swift Play, a one-day Special Landing Force operation. Swift Play was the second landing for BLT 2/7 since their becoming SLF Bravo in June; the first had been Eager Yankee in which they had been landed by HMM-265 (Lieutenant Colonel Roy J. Edwards) on 9 July east of Phu Bai.
Blocking for the 5th Marines’ thrust gave more satisfying results than either Swift Play or Eager Yankee. On the second day, 17 August, 200 enemy were pushed by the drive into BLT 2/7’s position; fifty were killed. The action continued through the next day; the enemy ricocheting back and forth between the 5th Marines and BLT 2/7, with at least fifty more being killed.
East of the Mameluke Thrust area, in the general vicinity of Hoi An, Korean Marines and elements of the Americal Division were also engaged.
Despite these spoiling operations, the enemy did succeed in getting his attack force within striking distance of Da Nang. August 18 is the date used to mark the beginning of the North Vietnamese "Third Offensive” of 1968. The pattern was familiar: rocket and mortar attacks against provincial and district headquarters and military installations, followed in some cases by sapper raids. The enemy’s main target in I CTZ was Da Nang. His evident scheme was to move his regular units into the city, once its defenses had been breached by VC sappers. By curious and unrelated coincidence, there were troubles of another kind in Da Nang at this time. From 16 through 18 August, there was rioting in III MAF’s brig, troubles rooted supposedly in protests against cold food and long delays before trial.
Mid-morning, 22 August, the ARVN 21st Rangers made contact with the 38th NVA Regiment eight miles south of Da Nang. Reinforced by 37th Rangers, they killed 82 NVA. But while the North Vietnamese had, for the moment, been intercepted, the more elusive Viet Cong were literally inside the city gates.
Fight at Cam Le Bridge. In the pre-dawn hours of 23 August, the 402d VC Sapper Battalion had gotten across the river, behind a cloud of mortar and rocket shells, had routed the Popular Force detachment guarding Hoa Vang District headquarters south of the air base, and had seized a foothold on the south end of Cam Le bridge.
Cam Le bridge is a long, narrow one-way concrete span, one of two bridges that carries Highway One in from the south into Da Nang. Marine MPs from Company C, 1st Military Police Battalion, moved quickly to the north end of the bridge and stopped the enemy there. At first light, Company A, 1st Battalion, 27th Marines attacked the Viet Cong rear and pried him loose from the bridge.
At Hoa Vang district headquarters, two platoons of ARVN Rangers came charging up to rally the Popular Force defenders and the VC were driven off.
Four miles south of the river, the 38th NVA Regiment was caught between the ARVN and the Marines. After their fight with the Rangers, the 38th next collided with the 1st Battalion, 51st ARVN Regiment. The ARVN, supported by Marine air and artillery, made a dawn attack on 24 August. Company F, 2d Battalion, 27th Marines, got into it on the next day, 25 August.
In the closing days of the month, as the 38th NVA Regiment sought to break off and withdraw, it had to run the gauntlet of ARVN and Marine elements. In all, from 22 to 31 August, the North Vietnamese lost some 1,072 dead south of Da Nang.
Further south, there had been a three-day battle for Tam Ky. The enemy, identified as the 1st VC and 21st NVA Regiments from the 2d NVA Division, was first intercepted five miles west of the Quang Tin provincial capital on the morning of 24 August. With heavy air and artillery support, the 2d Battalion, 1st U. S. Infantry; the 4th Battalion, 21st U. S. Infantry; and the 4th ARVN Cavalry Regiment ripped up the attacking columns.
Along the DMZ. The 3d Marine Division's tactical area of responsibility, Quang Tri province, was almost Viet during August.
On 19 August, 2d Battalion, 1st Marines (Duncan) made a raid into the DMZ in the Kentucky area on the heels of intensive B-52 strikes, landing 4,000 meters west of Hill 56 where Company B, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, reinforced by tanks, was emplaced. There was also fighting in the Lancaster area, some three miles southwest of Con Thien, on 19 August. Two companies of the 9th Marines got into a smart action which went on for three days.
The 1st Brigade, 5th Mechanized Infantry, now thoroughly warmed up, on 26 August, was assigned responsibility for the Kentucky and Napoleon/Saline tactical areas. This permitted the 1st Marines (Colonel Robert G. Lauffer), who had been operating there since redeploying from Khe Sanh, to move back down south and rejoin their parent 1st Marine Division in Da Nang. This, in turn, was a necessary prelude to freeing up the 27th Marines (Schwenk) so that they could depart in September.
The 1st Marines' 3d Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Daniel J, Quick) was already at Da Nang. The regiment now moved into old, familiar, dangerous ground: the triangle fanning out southward from the air base and Marble Mountain, bounded generally by the railroad and the sea, an area in which they had worked in 1966 and 1967.
Just north of Da Nang, Operation Houston, a two to three battalion effort in the Hai Van pass area and in the Phu Loc district lowlands, begun on 27 February to keep Highway One open and permit rehabilitation of the railroad, was ended on 12 September. Traffic was ring freely and almost without impediment between Da Nang and Hue.
Withdrawal of RLT-27 (Schwenk) began on 10 September, lifted off in commercial contract aircraft with an assist from Marine KC-130s. The two battalions and regimental headquarters, reduced to cadre strength and destined for Camp Pendleton, arrived in San Diego on 16 September. Next day, BLT 1/27 (Major Kenneth J. Skipper), also down to a cadre, was back to its Hawaiian base at Kaneohe. RLT-27's vehicles and equipment left Da Nang on 22 September in SS Seatrain Florida, arriving in San Diego on 10 October. BLT 1/27's cargo similarly followed in USNS Brostrom, getting to Pearl on 29 September. The 27th Marines and BLT 1/27 now had to be rebuilt to be ready for other possible contingencies.
South of Da Nang and west of the 1st Marines' sector, 7th Marines (Colonel Herbert L. Beckington) continued its operations north of the Thu Bon-Ky Lam River. There was a sharp action on 20 September, three miles south of the regimental CP on Hill 55. An NVA battalion was caught in a box made up of the 2d and 3d Battalions, 7th Marines; the 37th Rangers; and the 4th Battalion, 51st ARVN Regiment. Trapped in a killing zone near the intersection of the railroad with Route 4, the Communists lost 101 dead.
The 5th Marines (Graham), further west and south in the wider ranging Mameluke Thrust operation, fought no decisive engagements; but it was evident that the 21st NVA Regiment, after its defeat at Tam Ky, had entered the An Hoa Basin. There were small, sharp fights north of the Thu Bon and south of the Vu Gia.
The 3d Marine Division meanwhile was preempting an offensive across the DMZ by all three regiments of the rejuvenated 320th NVA Division. There was a twopronged spoiling attack in the Lancaster area launched from the Rockpile. Moving out on 31 August, 9th Marines (Colonel Robert H. Barrow) went up the Nui Tia Pong ridge, five miles west of the Rockpile, then swung north against Dong Tien Mountain, taking it on 9 September. The 3d Marines (Colonel Richard L. Michael, Jr.) went against Mutter’s Ridge, three miles north of the Rockpile on 2 September, then swung left against Hill 461, securing it on 11 September.
Further to the east, on 13 September, a task force from the 1st Brigade, 5th Mechanized Infantry, jabbed an armored thrust into the DMZ in concert with the 2d Battalion, 2d ARVN Regiment, supported by two platoons of Marine tanks. Boundary between the two columns was Highway One.
Next phase was a sweep by Task Force Hotel, now commanded by Brigadier General William C. Chip, between Mutter’s Ridge and the Ben Hai River; this five-battalion effort yielded over 500 weapons, nearly 5,000 mines, 20,000 mortar rounds, 13 tons of explosives, and a million and a quarter rounds of small arms ammunition. The planned offensive by the 320th NVA Division had been thoroughly gutted.
USS New Jersey. To the delight of the Marines, the long-awaited USS New Jersey (BB-62), with its nine 16-inch rifles and twenty 5-inch guns, took station off the DMZ on 29 September. The 16-inch rifles with their 24-mile range extended the naval gunfire fan almost as far inland as Camp Carroll. The 2,700 pound armor-piercing and 1,900 pound high-capacity 16-inch projectiles were eight times the weight of the 8-inch shells thrown by the heavy cruisers. First fire mission for III MAF was fired on 30 September; 29 16-inch shells and 116 5-inch shells were delivered against eight targets north of the DMZ.
The first mission within sight and sound of the Marines came a little later. On 4 October, 2d Battalion, 26th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel William F. Sparks), operating six miles north of the Rockpile, ran into a small, but well-entrenched enemy unit. USS New Jersey (BB-62) laid in twenty-eight 16-inch rounds, collapsed two bunkers, damaged two others.
BLT 2/26, lifted by HMM-362 (Lieutenant Colonel Walter H. Shaver, Jr.), had landed on 18 August near the mouth of the Cua Viet River in Operation Proud Hunter. The operation had lasted three days and was a zero on both sides. They had landed again on 28 August in Operation Swift Pursuit, with the same negative results. Control passed then to 3d Marine Division operational control, 2d Battalion, 26th Marines, found more profitable employment.
In general, October was a quiet month along the DMZ. The 4th and 9th Marines had fanned out in regimental-size sweeps west and south of Khe Sanh, making almost no contact with the enemy.
Meanwhile, the northeast monsoon was adding its seasonal problems to the conduct of operations throughout I Corps Tactical Zone. On 14 and 15 October, 12 inches of rain came down on Dong Ha, 10 inches on Da Nang. On 15 and 16 October, there were 15 more inches at Da Nang, six inches at Chu Lai.
On 23 October, a task force from the 1st Brigade, 5th Mechanized Division, in concert with a task force from the 2d ARVN Regiment made another armored thrust into the DMZ; essentially, a repeat of the September maneuver. By mid-morning, the ARVN column, supported as before by two platoons of Marine tanks and operating on the right of Highway 1, had made heavy contact two miles northeast of Gio Linh. The next morning, the Army task force operating on the left, sliced eastward. It hit the enemy hard and fast, killing 298 of them, and taking a remarkable total of 268 weapons.
1st Cavalry Redeploys. With the situation along the DMZ no longer critical, ComUSMACV ordered the redeployment of the 1st Cavalry Division (Air Mobile) from ICTZ to III Corps Tactical Zone. On 28 October, the 3d Brigade moved out; last increments of the Division were gone by 12 November. Troops and light equipment went out by 7th Air Force transport aircraft; heavy gear, by Seventh Fleet amphibious ships. The 3d Marine Division and 101st Airborne Division (Air Mobile) adjusted their boundaries to fill in the vacated TAOR. The 1st Cavalry, in their time in I Corps had added some solid battle honors to their standards: Operations Jeb Stuart, Pegasus, Concordia Square north of Dong Ha, Delaware Valley, and Comanche Falls, the last an operation in enemy Base Area 101, begun on 11 September and concluded on 7 November.
Another redeployment from ICTZ was the 2d Light Anti-Aircraft Missile (LAAM) Battalion (Lieutenant Colonel Donald E. Gunther) which departed from Chu Lai on 11 October to return to its home base at twenty-nine Palms, California, without ever having been put to the test of firing one of its Hawk missiles in anger.
Thuong Duc and Maui Peak. Thuong Duc Special Forces camp, another of those camps garrisoned largely by CIDG, commanded by ARVN Special Forces, and advised by U. S. Green Berets, had been established in 1966. It stood in the Vu Gia river valley which is the natural line of drift from A Shau into central Quang Nam province. The enemy started pressuring it hard in late September. On the 28th, there was an attack in which two outposts were captured and then retaken. The enemy had undoubtedly optimistically taken into account the worsening weather, as the northeast monsoon set in, to neutralize, at least partially, tactical air support of the camp. He was wrong. Fire power (artillery and bombing, much of the latter delivered by Marine A-6As guided by radio beacons) broke up his attack.
To clean up the situation further, 1st Marine Division launched Maui Peak on 6 October, a regimental-sized relief under control of the 7th Marines (Beckingon).
The enemy was known to be in strength on the high ground on three sides of the camp. A column moving along Route 4 which parallels the Vu Gia River would have to pass between the enemy on Hill 163 and other enemy positions across the river. It was a classic, predictable enemy tactic: to attack an outpost and then prepare an ambush for the relieving column. To take advantage of the obvious, 7th Marines' plan of attack was to send a column down the axis of the road to develop and fix the enemy, and then to land behind him in strength while he was so engaged.
The 2d Battalion, 5th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel, James W. Stemple) coming overland had, by noon of 6 October, run into a semi-circle of fortified positions four miles east of the camp. Meanwhile, 2d Battalion, 7th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Neil A. Nelson) followed by 1st and 2d Battalions, 51st ARVN Regiment, went in, unopposed, at Landing Zone Vulture, three miles northwest of the camp. 3d Battalion, 5th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Rufus A. Seymour), destined for Landing Zone Sparrow, three miles southeast of Thuong Duc, found it too hot with anti-aircraft fire and after three tries diverted to an alternate landing zone three miles further east. The 2d Battalion, 5th Marines not impressed by the quality of the enemy defenses in front of them, drove through and went up next day onto Hill 163, two miles east of the camp. Fighting in the vicinity of the hill continued through 8 October.
The last solid clash was on 12 October when two NVA companies attempted to overrun Company E’s position on Hill 163. The two battalions of the 51st ARVN Regiment also had a fight on 12 October, two its north of Thuong Duc. The operation continued until 19 October.
Mameluke Thrust Ends. South of Thuong Duc, Mameluke Thrust, which had begun on 18 May, was brought to a close on 23 October and replaced by Henderson Hill. In its five months, Mameluke Thrust had claimed 2,728 enemy killed. A high percentage of the kills were attributed to the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Broman C. Stineinetz until 26 July, and after that by Lieutenant Colonel Larry P. Charon, using Sting Ray techniques.
The 1st Reconnaissance Battalion had become expert at quiet insertions and lying silent in its observation posts awaiting enemy movement. In October alone, they put out 104 patrols, killed 389 North Vietnamese and had no fatal casualties themselves. The best shoot of the month was made by a 21-man patrol inserted on a hilltop above the Vu Gia River some 21 miles southwest of Da Nang. On 22 October, after an eight-day wait, they brought down artillery fire on an NVA company marching along in route column. Next day, the main body of presumably the same NVA battalion entered the killing zone. Air and artillery was brought to bear. Unbelievably, on the following day another NVA Company marched unheedingly into the impact area. The reconnaissance team, having directed 15 air strikes and 12 artillery missions and having killed by their count, 204 enemy, was taken out on 24 October without losses.
The BLT 2/26 (Sparks) landed south of Marble Mountain on 25 October in Eager Hunter. It was a one-day operation and bloodless. The BLT 2/26 then married up with 2d Battalion, 1st Marines (Lieutenant Colonel John E. Poindexter) in Operation Garrard Bay, essentially a series of cordon-and-search actions. There were no great number of kills, but several wanted persons were scooped up, and Da Nang was notably free of mortar attacks from that direction while Garrard Bay was going on. It lasted until 16 November.
In October, Brigadier General James A. Feeley, Jr., an aviator with a strong logistics background, relieved Brigadier General Harry C. Olson, a supply officer, as Commanding General, Force Logistics Command. The original Force Logistic Support Group (or FLSG) which had landed with the 3d Marine Division in 1965, had been built around the Division's Service Battalion with augmentation derived from the 3d Force Service Regiment based on Okinawa. When the 1st Marine Division joined III Marine Amphibious Force in 1966, it brought along the 1st Force Service Regiment; and the FLSG was expanded into the Force Logistics Command, or FLC.
The command itself and the largest of its installations were at Da Nang. Two subordinate FLSGs were maintained. The FLSG A (Colonel Horton E. Roeder) was divided between Da Nang and Phu Bai. FLSG B (Colonel Harold L. Parsons) was at Dong Ha and Quang Tri. Logistic Support Areas (LSA), predicated on amphibious logistic doctrine, were opened and closed as required to support operations. Force Logistic Support Units, or FLSUs, operated from these LSA.
The whole logistic system stood up well to the tests imposed by the Tet offensive, the transition to more mobile tactics, and the vile monsoon weather in late 1968. Ill MAF’s Marines were better fed, better clothed, and better supplied than any expeditionary force ever fielded by the U. S. Marine Corps. (The multiplicity of tasks performed, and performed well, by the FLC deserves far more space than is available in this article.)
On 29 October, General Abrams, called back to Washington for consultations, conferred with the President. Presumably, he was asked if he could accept from a military standpoint a cessation of attacks by fire against North Vietnam. Presumably, he gave his reluctant consent. On 31 October, President Johnson told the nation and the world that he was halting all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam, commencing 8 a.m., eastern standard time, 1 November 1968. The President added the caveat that General Abrams would have the right to retaliate against enemy attacks across the DMZ if he deemed it necessary.
On 3 November, the Vietnamese communists announced in Paris they were ready to participate in peace talks. But then on 5 November, they refused to attend the talks, accusing the United States of breaking its promise by continuing its reconnaissance flights over North Vietnam. The United States, in turn, announced that the reconnaissance flights revealed intensified North Vietnamese efforts to resupply forces in the south, particularly along the routes through Laos.
The bombing halt and accompanying political maneuverings in Paris were not enthusiastically received in III MAF, particularly in 3d Marine Division which had to bear the brunt of North Vietnam’s use of the staging areas immediately north of the Ben Hai River.
Translated into terms of Marine air operations, the bombing halt did not reduce the number of sorties flown by Marine tactical air. Close air support requirements in ICTZ went up, not down. There were also more missions to be flown against NVA base camps and lines of communication feeding into I Corps.
The 1st of November marked not only the beginning of the bombing halt; it also was the beginning of the Le Loi or Accelerated Pacification campaign. This U. S. supported South Vietnamese campaign was designed to regain by 31 January 1969, the pre-Tet level of security within the rural population, off-setting the damage done to the pacification effort by the enemy’s three 1968 offensives. A parallel program was the Phoenix or Phung Hoang campaign, aimed at eradicating the Viet Cong infrastructure infesting the hamlets and villages. The objective was to be in the best possible posture by Tet 1969.
Of the 1,000 hamlets designated throughout the Republic of Viet Nam as Le Loi targets, 141 were in I Corps. The technique, not dissimilar from previous pacification campaigns, was to introduce Revolutionary Development cadre, representing a cross-section of Government of Vietnam services, into the target hamlet, along with security elements provided by either the Popular or Regional Forces. Protecting the effort was an outer ring of ARVN or U. S. forces.
Meade River. Directly related to the objectives of the Le Loi campaign was Operation Meade River, begun 20 November, by the 1st Marine Division. The target area was familiar ground; the troops called it "Dodge City” because of its shoot-’em-up characteristics. Ten miles south of Da Nang, it was a quadrilateral bounded on the south by the Ky Lam River, on the north by the lesser La Tho River, and on the east by Highway 1. The western boundary was drawn one mile west of the railroad. Hill 55 was at the northwest corner; the ARVN fort and district headquarters at Dien Ban was at the southeast corner. Route 4 bisected the area from east to west. In all, it was about five miles wide and three miles deep.
It was low ground, criss-crossed with rivers and streams, honeycombed with caves and tunnels; each hamlet, with its bamboo and thorn hedges and its drainage ditches indistinguishable from fighting trenches, was a potential fortified position.
1st Marine Division tactics were classic cordon and search; County Fair1 techniques raised to the nth degree. To form the cordon, six Marine battalions were used; five organic to the 1st Marine Division and both battalion landing teams from the SLFs. The cordon was literally almost shoulder-to-shoulder, three-man fire teams being positioned every 15 meters around the perimeter.
The 1st Marines (Lauffer) was the designated Command element. Participating battalions were 1st Battalion, 1st Marines; 2d and 3d Battalions, 5th Marines; 3d Battalion, 26th Marines; BLT 2/26 from SLF Alpha; and BLT 2/27 from SLF Bravo.
Enemy forces—elements of the 36th, 38th, and 3688 NVA Regiments—within the target area were estimated at about 1,300. In addition, there were over a hundred named members of the Viet Cong political infrastructure known to be present.
Initially, the fighting was low-intensity, as small disorganized groups of the enemy tried to break out of the cordon. These were easily handled. By 25 November, the Government of Vietnam forces operating within the cordon had evacuated 2,600 civilians to the joint US/ARVN interrogation center.
Fighting became more hectic in the first week of December as the Marine cordon tightened on pockets of last-ditch defenders. The heaviest fighting was on 8 and 9 December when 3d Battalion, 26th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel J. W. P. Robertson) killed 251 enemy caught in a loop of the La Tho River, midway between the railroad and Highway 1.
The 9th of December 'was also the last day of the operation; the score stood at 841 NVA/VC 182 captured (including 71 of the previously identified Viet Cong infrastructure), and 182 weapons taken. A later, more leisurely, count indicated a total of 1,210 enemy killed.
Almost simultaneous with the close of Meade River, Henderson Hill, the 5th Marines' (Colonel James B. Ord, Jr.) follow-on to Mameluke Thrust, was ended on 7 December.
Quang Tin-Quang Ngai Provinces
On 10 November, the Marine Corps Birthday, Special Landing Force Bravo—BLT 2/7 (Nelson), lifted by HMM-165 (Lieutenant Colonel George L. Patrick—had executed Operation Daring Endeavor, landing across the Cua Dai River from Hoi An and driving against blocking positions established along Highway 1 by elements of the Americal Division and the ROK, Marine Brigade. It was the anniversary of Blue Marlin, executed in the same area with a similar scheme three years before.
On 11 November, Americal Division (Major General Charles M. Gettys, USA) declared its year-long Wheeler/Wallowa operation over. The enemy had largely been forced out of rice rich Que Son valley, first entered in force by III MAF in Operation Harvest Moon in December 1965.
New Operations. Taylor Common was the successor to Henderson Hill in the An Hoa basin area. Control headquarters was the newly activated Task Force Yankee (Brigadier General Ross T. Dwyer, Jr.), and assigned troops included six Marine infantry battalions. The venture had a two-phase mission: first to clear An Hoa basin and then to penetrate Base Area 112 in the high ground to the west and southwest.
The prospective enemy was the long-present 21st NVA Regiment, the 141st NVA Regiment, and elements of the 368B NVA Artillery Regiment. It was also hoped that the operation would get at the Viet Cong command and control structure for the southern three provinces in I Corps. Cooperating with the Marines was the 1st Ranger Group (21st, 37th and 39th Battalions).
Taylor Common got underway on 7 December. As of the year's end, the enemy had made no determined defense. The largest fight was that of the 1st Ranger Group, which in four days, 26 through 29 December, killed 286 enemy.
Elsewhere in Quang Nam province, Fayette Canyon was started on 15 December. Also on 15 December, the SLFs made the last of 13 landings for the year. BLT 2/26 (Sparks) landed south of Hoi An in Operation Valiant Hunt. By the end of the year, it had counted 242, enemy killed, 20 weapons taken; our losses were only 2 killed, 4 wounded.
North, along the DMZ, enemy activity continued at a low ebb. Dawson River was launched on 28 November. Also in Quang Tri province, Marshall Mountain was begun on 10 December.
At the other end of the Corps' tactical zone, the Army had a new series going: Vernon Lake.
Out with the Old
Changes were occurring in Washington. The Johnson Administration was in its last days. On 11 December, President-elect Nixon announced that the next Secretary of Defense would be Congressman Melvin R. Laird.
On 28 December, Camp J. J. Carroll was deactivated. Now that 3d Marine Division was freed of the yard-by-yard defense of the strong point/barrier system, the artillery bastion which had contributed so much to the defense of Khe Sanh was no longer needed.
Also on 28 December, the Free World Forces announced there would be no New Year's Truce, that normal operations would continue. On 30 December, the Viet Cong announced that they were observing a 72-hour cease-fire.
As the sands of the old year ran out, there were a series, of command changes within III MAF. Major General Ormond R. Simpson had arrived from the States where he had been Commanding General of the Recruit Depot at Parris Island. He took command of the 1st Marine Division. Major General Youngdale moved up to Deputy Commander, III MAF. Major General Tompkins, his tour over, returned to the United States to become Commanding General, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune.
Summing up for 1968
The year 1968 in I Corps Tactical Zone divides itself sharply into two halves. Certainly, the first half was the period of greatest combat activity of the war with the enemy’s main effort centered on the northern two provinces. Ill MAF, together with the ARVN, defeated him in his excursions across the DMZ, expelled him from Hue, and beat him badly at Khe Sanh. By midMay the enemy had shifted his main attack southward, moving against Da Nang. Again he was defeated as he was also in August.
In the second half of the year, there was a marked change in his strategy and tactics. After his August failure, he pulled his major units back to his bases along and behind the borders. He gave up on his pursuit of military victory through large-scale attacks and reverted to small-unit attacks and harassment with mortar and rocket fire.
Statistics document the shift in enemy tactics. Ill MAF for the first six months of 1968 claimed 40,144 enemy dead; for the second six months, 22,093 dead. Weapons captured from January through June totalled 14,744; for the period July through December, the number dropped to 7,207. Our own casualties were 3,057 Marines killed, 18,281 wounded during the first half of 1968; 1,561 Marines killed, 11,039 wounded during the second half.
Roughly speaking, then, the intensity of ground combat for the second half of the year was about half of what it had been the first half.
Marine air operations, on the other hand, continued to show an increase. Fixed-wing combat sorties went up slightly, from 44,936 to 47,436; helicopter sorties almost doubled, from 388,000 to 639,194. These increases in part reflect the shift to more mobile tactics and our pursuit of the enemy into his remote base areas along the fringes of his border sanctuaries.
Until mid-1968, troop strength in III MAF continued its gradual but steady climb until a peak of 85,520 Marines was reached in September. This trend was reversed with the departure of RLT-27. The number of Marine infantry battalions dropped from 24 to 21; and by the year’s end, Marine and Navy strength in III MAF stood at about 81,000.
On the other side, the number of NVA battalions estimated to be in I Corps had increased from 42 in December 1967 to 68 at the end of 1968. Many of the Viet Cong main force and local forces, old opponents of III MAF, had been shredded by the long war and had been dropped from our estimates of his order of battle as being no longer combat effective. More and more, it was a North Vietnamese foe who was encountered, some of them moving into old Viet Cong units, some fighting under their own colors. Even with the NVA, quality was down. North Vietnamese prisoners were often extremely young and poorly trained. Battlefield discipline had declined. Dead and wounded were being left behind and so were weapons.
General Lam’s I Corps had continued to improve. The ARVN had stood up to the test of the Tet offensive well. In 1968, they accounted for 26,688 enemy killed, more than double the 12,488 attributed to them in 1967. The ROK Marine Brigade in its Victory Dragon series had killed another 2,504 enemy.
Added together, the Free World Military Forces in I Corps in 1968 had killed over 100,000 of the enemy, taken nearly 35,000 weapons.
Pacification Progress. At the year’s end, the Le Loi Accelerated Pacification campaign seemed well on schedule. Of the 141 targeted hamlets, 116 were rated as "secure.” Some 4,000 of the VC hard-core cadre ("infrastructure”) had been reported as eliminated, a good proportion of this number a direct consequence of the highly successful Meade River operation.
Another index of progress was the Chieu Hoi or Open Arms program for returnees to governmental control. There were 3,118 ralliers in ICTZ in 1968, 535 of them in the months of November and December. The total was 23 per cent higher than the 2,539 former Viet Cong who rallied in 1967. These returnees brought with them 723 weapons. Also significant was the defection of 119 NVA soldiers, five times more than the 22 who had voluntarily surrendered in 1967.
One of the most successful U. S. contributions to the pacification effort continued to be the Combined Action Program wherein a Marine rifle squad was combined with a Popular Force platoon to provide local hamlet security. There were 79 Combined Action Platoons or "CAPs’ at the year’s beginning. They were organized into 14 companies under three Group headquarters: 1st CAG at Chu Lai, 2d CAG at Da Nang, 3d CAG at Phu Bai. During the year, a 4th CAG was activated to take over responsibility for coordination in the Quang Tri-Dong Ha-Cam Lo area. Five more company headquarters, and 23 more platoons were organized for a year-end total of 102 platoons, organized into 19 companies, under four Group headquarters. In addition to the Vietnamese Popular Forces involved, some 1,800 Marines and 120 Navy Corpsmen were invested in the program. During the year, the CAPS counted 2,368 enemy killed, 678 prisoners captured, and 780 weapons taken.
Related to the Combined Action Program was the successful introduction of Revolutionary Development cadre, protected by Popular Force and Regional Force units, into an additional 116 hamlets during 1968.
By the end of the year, it could be said that of the three million Vietnamese living in I Corps Tactical Zone, the proportion living in secured areas had increased from one half to two-thirds (the official percentage was 69 per cent secured). The remainder of the population was divided about evenly between areas under Viet Cong control and those areas being contested.
Commandant's Assessment. General Leonard F. Chapman Jr., became the 24th Commandant of the Marine Corps on 1 January 1968, succeeding General Wallace M. Greene, Jr. He left almost immediately for a visit to Southeast Asia. In the summer of 1968, he made a second visit to the war zone as Commandant; and in January 1969, a third visit.
Reporting to the Department of Defense Subcommittee of the Senate's Committee on Appropriations on 23 July 1969, he had this to say:
"The Marine Corps has consistently advocated the principle that the war in South Vietnam can be conclusively won only through convincing the South Vietnamese people in the villages and hamlets that their hope lies with freedom, not with communism. Today, while the search for a negotiated settlement to the war continues, this becomes even more important."
1. County Fair techniques, as first developed by the 9th Marine Regiment early in 1966, are discussed in some detail in "Marine Corps Operations in Vietnam, 1965-1966,” Naval Review, 1968, pp. 28-29.