Military history

CHAPTER 7

ASSAULT FROM THE AIR

While the Marines of 3/3 were crossing the beach, BLT 2/4 was staged for pickup. The number of helicopters that came for them was amazing to the Marines. Most of them had never seen so many in one place before. They kept coming in, one after the other.

Major Homer Jones, a former helicopter pilot and now fighter jock, approached Maj Al Bloom, the HMM-361 operations officer. Jones was an old friend of Bloom’s and wanted to know if he could go along as co-pilot. Bloom quickly assented. On their way from the ready room to the aircraft, MSgt R. M. Hooven, the maintenance chief, intercepted Bloom. Hooven wanted to fly as crew chief and, moreover, he wanted to bring along 1st Sergeant Dorsett as gunner. Dorsett, an old infantry type, had just joined the squadron and was less than impressed with what he regarded as the unmilitary appearance and attitude of “Airedales,” a pejorative that ground troops used to describe aviation Marines. Master Sergeant Hooven wanted to show the first sergeant what his Marines could do. Major Bloom agreed and loaded up his high-priced and over-qualified crew, lifted off, and followed Lieutenant Colonel Childers’s lead in the fifty-minute flight to the pick-up area.

Golf Company was loaded first to make the run into Landing Zone Red. The company landed on the zone without incident beginning at 0645. The troops were all on the ground by 0715 and headed toward their first objective to the northeast.

Echo Company boarded next and took off for Landing Zone White. The company quickly disembarked and set up a perimeter to await the battalion command group, which was to land directly after it.

2/4. 0700

Lieutenant Colonel Bull Fisher; GySgt Ed Garr; Captain Riley, the assistant operations officer (S-3A); and the colonel’s radio operators were on one helo team, and all boarded together. In his months in Vietnam, Garr learned to check the deck of a chopper for spent cartridges to see if the door gunners had fired their weapons. If they had, it was a sure sign that they had been into a hot landing zone. All Marines dreaded going into a hot LZ. There is no more helpless feeling than dropping into an LZ under fire and having bullets pop up through the floor of one’s helicopter. This time there were no spent cartridges, and the crew chief had no news about what was happening on the ground. Garr was greatly relieved.

Fisher’s command group flew to LZ White and, after it landed, followed Echo Company in the direction of its first objective, to the northeast. The VC, who manned firing positions on a ridgeline east and northeast of the LZ, engaged Echo Company with a moderate amount of mortar, automatic weapons, and small arms fire.

The last company to board was Mike Jenkins’s Hotel. Pfc Jim Scott, Lieutenant Jenkins’s company radio operator, and Pfc Morris Robinson, Jenkins’s battalion radio operator, piled aboard with their skipper. Scott looked out to see Pfc Henry Jordan run by to get on his chopper. Jordan had a smile on his face, and his thumb was pointed up. The day before the operation, he had received a bunch of pictures of a family reunion from home. Jordan was a happy Marine.

Back in LZ White, the call came over the radio for Sudden Death 6, Bull Fisher’s radio call sign, to remain in the LZ because Colonel Peatross was coming in and wanted to talk to him.

While it waited, the battalion command group had visual contact with Echo Company, which was still engaged and taking casualties. They could see Marines under small arms and mortar fire going up the hill. Echo was a fine company, not one to back down from anything, so the troops doggedly kept at the enemy.

Some of the helicopters had already made multiple trips, so those lowest on fuel peeled off for a refueling stop prior to picking up their last load, which was Hotel Company, bound for Landing Zone Blue.

INTO A HOT LZ

Private First Class Dick Boggia was a Marine with a big job. He was an eighteen-year-old who had never had an eighteenth birthday. He had crossed the Pacific by ship, and when they passed the International Dateline the calendar had jumped a day ahead and skipped the anniversary of his birth. Boggia was the junior man in his machine-gun squad, an ammo humper who was burdened with 400 rounds of the heavy 7.62mm ammunition for the M60 machine-gun. Inasmuch as the squad was shorthanded, he also had to carry the tripod and the traversing and elevating (T&E) mechanism for the gun. This was in addition to his rifle, ammunition, and personal gear. Despite the enormous load Boggia was proud and excited to be going on the operation. He had been told that Hotel, 2/4’s mission would be to force the VC into a blocking position set up by other Marines. This was one of the few times Boggia had ridden in a helicopter and he enjoyed the ride. By chance, he drew the seat opposite the door gunner, so he could look out the door at the countryside. He was amazed at how beautiful it was as the mist burned off and revealed the greenery below. As they got closer to the objective, he could see helicopter gunships strafing nearby hills.

Corporal Dick “Nootch” Tonucci was an infantry squad leader with Lt Jack Sullivan’s 2d Platoon. On the way into the landing zone he worried about getting linked up with the others and finding some cover while forming a 360-degree perimeter around the LZ to protect the subsequent waves that landed. He did not think it would be a routine landing; he was ready for the worst. It would not have comforted him if he had known in advance that the landing zone they selected was, by pure chance, within the defense perimeter of the 60th VC Battalion. He had been told the LZ would not be hot, but his blood ran cold on the approach to the landing zone. He could not stand helicopters.

Corporal Ernie Wallace was Corporal Tonucci’s machine-gunner. Wallace’s ammo humper, Pfc Jim Kehres, was not even supposed to be there. He was only seventeen years old, and while the Marine Corps permitted the enlistment of seventeen-year-olds, regulations forbade sending them into a combat zone until they were eighteen. Somehow Kehres had gotten by the administrators.

Machine-gun squad leader Juan Moreno knew that they were going to make contact with the enemy, but he tried not to think about dying, because he was afraid it would keep him from concentrating on what he must do. He worried about his men and thought that they were a great bunch of happy-go-lucky kids. Once a fight started they immediately turned into men. But after it was over he had to get on top of them again: “Clean your weapon, brush your teeth, take your malaria pill …”

Tonucci’s bird was one of the first to touch down, and the Marines all jumped off. As team leader, Tonucci was first out. He directed the men to their spots on the LZ. Jimmy Brooks the tall, thin lance corporal they called “Buzzard” was off, Lou Grant was off, and a couple of other guys.

They were just getting oriented and setting up around the landing zone when enemy fire tore into them from Hill 43, to the southwest. The Army Huey gunships from the 7th Airlift Platoon took the VC on the hill under fire as the Marines completed their defensive perimeter around the landing zone. Three VC were killed at this position as the Marines struggled to attain fire superiority. When one of the Army pilots, Maj Don Radcliff, was shot through the neck and killed and another crew member was wounded supporting the Marines on LZ Blue, his section of aircraft withdrew. The major was part of a site selection team looking for a camp for the 1st Cavalry Division, just then en route to Vietnam. He had volunteered for the mission and had become his division’s first KIA in Vietnam. The 1st Cavalry Division named its first base Camp Radcliff in Vietnam in his honor.

Tonucci had just started moving his squad toward a dike, which would provide some cover, when LCpl Jimmy Brooks appeared to trip. “Nootch, I’m hit. I’m hit in the shoulder.” Tonucci carried Brooks to the dike and, while he was ripping the Marine’s shirt open, noted that there was blood all over the place. Where was it coming from? Then he saw that Brooks shoulder wound was merely the entry point for a .50-caliber round that had gone all the way through the young man. A .50-caliber projectile, a, half-inch across and two inches long, packs a very lethal punch. Tonucci cradled Brooks in his arms as the corpsman gave Brooks a shot of morphine. The mortally wounded Marine turned blue and his life passed out of him. Brooks was the first man Nootch had ever seen die. He would not be the last.

The helicopters kept coming in, adding the roar of their engines, the clattering of their blades, and the smell of exhaust to the hammering of gunfire and the stench of cordite and blood. The VC fire mounted as the remainder of the company landed. When a mortar round detonated near Tonucci’s position the young corporal got on the radio and passed the word to get some elevation on the mortars, that they were coming up short and endangering friendly troops. He quickly found out that they were not friendly mortars. Lieutenant Mike Jenkins heard the same explosion and yelled to one of his radio operators, “Find out what the hell they are doing over there. Who threw that damn grenade?” Jenkins, too, quickly found out that the explosion was an enemy mortar round.

Other Marines died in the first few minutes of the operation. One was Henry Jordan, who had happily boarded his helicopter, pictures of his family in his pocket.

As one of the last few waves came into LZ Blue under fire, SSgt Coy Overstreet, a helicopter crew chief, spotted khaki-clad man with a weapon racing toward his bird on the LZ. He figured it was a friendly interpreter until a black-pajama-wearing man jumped up and joined the man in khaki. It was the first time Overstreet had ever seen the enemy run toward a Marine helicopter. He swung his M60 machine-gun around to bear on the two and prepared to fire when the pair passed a dike. As they did, what Overstreet had thought were about twenty small bushes jumped up and also ran toward the LZ. They were well-camouflaged enemy soldiers in echelon formation, firing their weapons right at him. The Marine opened up, nailed the original two, and caused havoc among the others. As his helicopter began to lift off it was severely jolted when what appeared to be an anti-armor weapon detonated immediately beneath it. The pilot poured on full power and got out of the LZ as quickly as possible. Once he got the helicopter in the air and stabilized, he came up on the company radio net and told Jim Scott, Mike Jenkins’s radio operator, that the Marines were surrounded by Viet Cong, who were disguised as bushes and could be detected from the air.

The .50-caliber machine gun that got Jimmy Brooks was directly in front of Hotel Company, on Hill 43, and it and some snipers were able to pin down the Marines. Like most of the others, Cpl Victor Nunez was firing back at the Viet Cong, but the enemy was well camouflaged, very hard to see. Only the fact that their positions were so close to the LZ allowed Nunez to pick out the brief yellow-blue muzzle flashes on which to train his machine gun.

The Marines were taking a lot of fire from a nearby hootch. A 3.5-inch rocket team fired a round at it but missed. Lieutenant Sullivan grabbed the rocket tube from the gunner, had a round loaded, and fired the weapon himself. His aim was off; the rocket hit the ground just in front of the target. Luckily it took a perfect bounce off the ground and flew into the hootch, where it detonated.

The VC got the range of the helicopters that were bringing the last of Hotel Company into the LZ. One Marine had his jaw shot off, and one of the choppers took hits from five or six rounds of automatic weapons fire. A pilot, Capt Howard Henry, noted that the Marines just shut their eyes and dropped to the ground in order to ignore the fire.

Shrapnel wounded 1stLt Ramsey Myatt, a co-pilot with HMM-361, as he flew a medevac mission. He bandaged the wound and continued to fly. The enemy gunfire damaged a rotor blade, which Myatt’s crew chief, SSgt Dale Bredeson, changed in about ten minutes. Later that morning Myatt took a bullet in the leg, but he refused to leave the controls and kept flying until he became too weak to continue. The enemy fire seriously damaged the aircraft, so it limped back to base, where it was grounded for the rest of the battle.

Another pilot, Stu Kendall, was shot through the leg and right hand. His co-pilot took over and got the aircraft to a safe area.

No flight crewmember becomes accustomed to bullets popping through the skin of his ship, but on this day it became commonplace. To the airmen it sounded like being in the butts of the rifle range.

After one of the early medevacs, Maj Al Bloom was lifting off and gaining speed when he spotted a row of prone VC, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder to his left and firing at the Marine infantry to his front. 1st Sergeant Dorsett, the infantryman-turned-door-gunner, knew what to do. Because of the relative position to the target Dorsett was in perfect enfilade alignment. He got off a long burst that raked the entire enemy line. Bloom was not sure how many hits were made, because he decided it would be a bad idea to circle back for a body count. The VC had not seen them coming but undoubtedly would be looking for them if they made a second pass.

As planned, the 2d Platoon of Hotel Company began its attack against Hill 43, and the 3d Platoon moved to attack Nam Yen 3. Lieutenant Jenkins traveled with the 1st Platoon, his reserve, and moved off in the direction of Nam Yen 3, which was his company’s main objective.

The Viet Cong who occupied both objectives stood and fought. Both assaulting platoons ran into stiffer opposition than anticipated, and both attacks stalled.

Lieutenant Sullivan’s 2d Platoon, which tried to take Hill 43, got no further than the bottom of the hill.

Alert for the enemy, LCpl Ernie Wallace spotted a large number of Viet Cong moving down a trenchline toward the Marines’ rear. He came upon them in a storm of machine-gun fire, rushing them as he fired his gun from the hip and from the shoulder. The big gunner was good at his trade. He single-handedly killed an estimated twenty-five VC.

In the confusion, Wallace became separated from his ammo humper Pfc Jim Kehres. Unsure about what to do, Kehres helped out wherever he thought he was needed and was later awarded a Navy Commendation Medal for evacuation of casualties under fire.

Mike Jenkins halted the attack and requested additional air strikes against Hill 43. F4 Phantoms from VMFA-513 and VMFA-342 pounded the hill with high-explosive bombs and napalm. When the Marines were lucky they got Snake Eye bombs, which were particularly effective when used with napalm in a “snake-and-nape” attack. The napalm would drive the enemy into the open and render them vulnerable to the fragmentation bombs that quickly followed. The Snake Eye bomb was especially developed for close air support. When Snake Eyes are released from an airplane, their large fins open to make a distinctive “pop” and slow the descent to the ground. This gives the plane time to get away and avoid being hit by the fragments of their own bombs. If you were a Marine on the ground, and close enough to hear the fins pop open, you were getting close air support indeed. Napalm is simply gasoline mixed with a thickener that jells the fuel. It not only burns with the heat and intensity of gasoline, it sticks to its targets. It creates a fiery hell and is a terrifying weapon.

While his 2d Platoon was struggling with Hill 43, Lt Mike Jenkins and his other two platoons formed up and moved toward Nam Yen 3. They started a slow winding trek down a long ravine into a series of tree lines surrounded by rock- hard, dried-up rice paddies covered with stubble. There were still helicopter gunships available, and fixed-wing Skyhawks and Phantoms that bombed and strafed everything that looked like a target. Black smoke billowed out of the ground and tree lines hit by previous fire missions. While skirting a large dried-up rice paddy by following the surrounding tree line the Marines took some sporadic sniper fire. Despite the danger, Pfc Dick Boggia, who was moving with his machine-gun team leader, Corporal Renfro, and with LCpl Ken Stankiewicz, the gunner, felt fairly secure. After all, his fellow Marines were all around him. Sergeant Jerry Tharp, inspired confidence and stood out among the NCOs by walking around upright, ignoring the sniper rounds that were snapping about.

THE ATTACK ON NAM YEN 3

As Hotel, 2/4’s 1st and 3d platoons closed on Nam Yen 3 the first sign of life from the village was a black-pajama-clad man who emerged from nowhere and ran along the edge of the little settlement. Several Marines shot at him as he disappeared into some high grass, apparently unscathed. It may have been the man’s purpose to encourage a number of Marines to follow him into an ambush. The Marines were to learn the hard way that this was a favored enemy tactic. One or two of the enemy would leap up and run through a killing zone well covered by other Viet Cong. Pursuing Marines would be trapped as they crossed the zone. In this case the Marines from Hotel Company only pursued by fire.

Mike Jenkins ordered the 1st Platoon to assault the village and the 3d Platoon to provide a base of fire. Nam Yen 3 remained quiet. No one was shooting at the Marines from the village, but as they drew closer they found camouflaged punji pits and other signs of defensive preparation.

This all changed in a split-second. Fire suddenly poured into Jenkins’s men. Without warning plants came to life. Every place the Marines looked there were dozens of bushes moving in all directions. The situation became very, very intense. The VC shot at the Marines from spider holes, hootches, and bunkers. The Marines countered with gunfire and grenades. Snipers tied to trees fired at the Marines from twenty feet in the air.

The 1st Platoon moved past the edge of the village as the VC small arms fire sharpened. Many of the houses in the village doubled as bunkers. When the action started, the sides of the houses dropped down to enable the occupants access to their pre-planned fields of fire. The village was also pitted with cleverly camouflaged one-man spider holes.

The 3d Company, 60th Viet Cong Battalion, commanded by political commissar Nguyen Ngoc Nhuan, occupied the village. The VC’s practice of digging in paid off; they were very well organized for a defensive battle.

Jenkins’s 3d Platoon and the company command group moved toward Nam Yen 3. There was an open field between them and the village until they ran into a perpendicular stretch of semi-wooded terrain. The point men started toward the village as other Marines hugged the tree line, waiting to advance. The VC let the point get almost on top of them before dropping Pfc Harry Kaus and LCpl Eddie Landry in a fury of automatic weapons fire. Lieutenant Bob Morrison put his platoon into the assault, and his Marines savagely went after the occupied hedgerow, firing as fast as they could from the hip.

Without really realizing what was happening Pfc Dick Boggia found that his platoon was in the assault. He was alongside his gunner, Ken Stankiewicz, as they got down in position to set up their M60 and cover the advance when their section leader Corporal “Rat” Renfro, was hit by enemy fire just a few feet away. Renfro was lying on the ground with his pack spewing fire and smoke from flares he was carrying. Everything was happening too quickly. Stankiewicz turned the M60 over to Boggia and tried to pull Renfro’s pack off. The incoming fire was very intense, and seeing what was happening with Renfro terrified Boggia, but he hung in there and got the gun operating against the enemy. Renfro’s pack began to burn even more fiercely.

Boggia knew there was other ordnance in the pack, and he expected an explosion momentarily. The unfazed Stankiewicz ignored the danger and finally separated Renfro from his pack. Renfro was then dragged away and medevaced. Boggia never knew what became of him.

The VC gunfire increased, and grenade after grenade exploded among the Marines. The Marines, too, turned up the volume of rifle fire, and reinforced it with machine guns and 3.5-inch rocket launchers. When they got up to the hedgerow they could see large, ghastly piles of enemy bodies. But they could not see into the village itself and could not staunch the torrent of enemy fire. They could get any further into Nam Yen 3.

The rounds seemed to be coming from everywhere, cracking overhead and tearing up the ground around them. The intensity of the fire forced the Marines to withdraw back to the tree line to regroup. Boggia passed the bodies of the two Marines who had been covered with ponchos.

The fire was confusing, particularly so to the young Marines for whom this was the first taste of combat. Grenades seemed to be going off everywhere, there were casualties on both sides; and the smoke, noise, and smells of combat caused a lot of bewilderment.

In the face of overwhelming fire, the 1st Platoon was pulled back out of the village. Mike Jenkins finally reached Lieutenant Colonel Fisher, back at LZ White, and admitted that he had his hands full. This report went back to the RLT headquarters at about the same time Capt Bruce Webb, the commander of India Company, 3/3, reported fire from An Cuong 2, which was out of his area of responsibility but between himself and Jenkins’s Hotel Company, 2/4. Webb requested permission to cross over his boundary to attack An Cuong 2 in the hope India could take some of the pressure off Hotel Company. Permission was readily granted.

Mike Jenkins came upon Lt Chris Cooney and told him to get his 1st Platoon back away from Nam Yen, because he was calling more air strikes. The Hotel Company Marines had no sooner moved back toward the paddy area than the aircraft came in and pounded the village with snake and nape. The aviators laid their 250-pound bombs dangerously close to the Marines on the ground. Although the friendly lines were marked with yellow smoke, fragments from one bomb cut down a small tree right next to Jenkins. A hot, sharp, high-velocity fragment of that type will cut a human body in half. The Marines continued to receive small arms fire from the village as the air strike continued.

Fragments from the bombs also made their way over near An Cuong 2, where India Company, 3/3, was attempting to advance to the aid of Hotel Company, 2/4. They wounded several India Company Marines. Jenkins’s men saw several human torches—VC covered with jellied gasoline from the napalm run out of the village. The Marines shot them down.

Inasmuch as Hotel, 2/4, was catching fire from all directions, Lieutenant Jenkins decided to handle just one objective at a time and opted to secure Hill 43 first. The hill was the highest piece of terrain within range of small arms, and it was still bedeviling his rear.

Hotel Company recrossed the 500 meters that separated the objectives and, as soon as the air strikes were complete, renewed the attack on the hill. This time Jenkins threw all three of his platoons against the hill.

The Marines encountered heavy fire and had initial problems securing the crest of the hill. The VC fought back tenaciously, but the Marines fought forward just as hard. A timely reinforcement by tanks that had landed over the beach and more Marine air support helped carry the hill.

As the final air strike was conducted Hotel Company evacuated eleven of its own wounded and one KIA. While loading a wounded Marine on a tank Pfc Jim Kehres, who had been helping with with wounded since becoming separated from his gunner, Ernie Wallace, was shot through both buttocks and knocked to the ground. He was himself evacuated.

WITH SUDDEN DEATH SIX

The radios with the 2/4 battalion command group were very busy. They reported that Golf Company was moving to its assigned objective from LZ Red with relatively little contact, that Echo Company had a handle on what was confronting it, and that Hotel Company had stepped in it. Lieutenant Colonel Fisher learned that Hotel had been taken under fire immediately and had problems, but poor radio communications prevented him from getting a clear picture of what was going on.

Waiting in the LZ for Colonel Peatross seemed like an eternity, especially because Fisher’s command group was under fire from small arms and the occasional 60mm mortar round.

Peatross flew in, and he and the Bull talked. They were extremely concerned with what was happening to Hotel Company. Although Hotel was just over the next short ridgeline there was no way they could find out what was going on. They knew that 1stLt Mike Jenkins was in a major fight, but the Bull trusted him and was doing what he could to make sure that all the supporting arms knew the priority was for Hotel Company. After hearing that, Peatross flew back to the regimental CP and Fisher and his group went up the hill behind Echo Company.

In the original attack on the first hill, Echo Company had suffered two KIA and three WIA while three fleeing VC had fallen to a direct hit from a 3.5-inch rocket launcher. As Echo’s attack continued the Marines sustained another twelve WIA. It was a constant fight over ground that reminded Gunny Garr of the hill country in Texas, but with hedgerows.

Garr, Captain Riley, Bull Fisher, and the radio operators walked abreast, fairly well spread out. A mortar round landed in front of them and Riley was the only one to get hit. He was able to run to a ditch about twenty yards away along with the Bull and the radio operators. Garr hit the deck and stayed there for a moment. Then, remembering from Korea that two rounds never land in the same place, he crawled over to where the last one had impacted and lay there. The ground was extremely hot, but Garr stayed there for a bit, although the Bull was hollering, “Gunny! Gunny! Are you okay?”

A squad of MPs from the 7th Marines CP was along to act as prisoner security. A Marine from this squad was behind Gunny Garr. Garr asked him if he was okay. He said that, yes, he was, but he sounded a bit uncertain. Garr said, “Crawl over to where I am and we’ll wait this out.” The Marine, glad of the company, joined him. Colonel Fisher was still yelling; he wanted to know if Garr was okay. Garr yelled back that he was and that he was going to stay in the little depression in the ground with the MP.

Bull and his command group couldn’t move, and Echo was temporarily halted by fire. When the VC fire subsided a bit, Garr told the MP, “You follow me and we’ll jump into this little ravine.” They got over to where the Bull was. Everyone was glad to see Garr because they thought he had been badly hit.

Mortar rounds started impacting along the little gully in which the command group had gone to ground. In addition to Riley there were soon four other wounded in the command group. A staff sergeant who was the acting S-4 for the operation was among them. There was no personnel officer (S-1) on the operation, no sergeant major, and no XO. Now, that Riley was hit, there was no S-3, other than the supporting-arms officers, and there was no staff other than Garr. Bull Fisher looked at Ed Garr and said, “Now, my good gunnery sergeant, you are my S-3 officer.” The colonel often prepped his remarks with his officers or staff NCOs with “Now my good lieutenant,” or captain, or whatever. It was a sign that the Bull was thinking hard about you.

INDIA COMPANY LEAVES ITS ZONE. 0900

Captain Bruce Webb’s India Company, 3/3, had come ashore using a streambed to mark its left flank. The stream ran inland for about 1,800 meters before bending to the north and running parallel to the beach. By about 0900 India had covered the ground to the curve in the streambed and had wheeled around toward the north. Just beyond the stream, and outside India’s area of responsibility, was An Cuong 2, now on the India Company left flank.

Within minutes, Captain Webb’s Marines spotted a group of about fifteen VC, and then a second group, numbering about twenty, in the center of the village. The VC opened up with small arms and automatic weapons. Webb had an immediate need to protect his flank, so he requested permission to cross over into the 2/4 sector and go after the Viet Cong who were firing at his company. By this time news was coming into the regimental headquarters about Hotel, 2/4’s dilemma, so permission was quickly granted. An Cuong 2 lay between India Company and Hotel Company, and Colonel Peatross thought Webb’s Marines might be able to relieve the pressure on Hotel as well as guard their own flank.

Permission received, the India Company Marines all took off at high port, running as hard as they could toward the enemy. Downhill and across a flat they went, until they came under fire from a line of small trees. Their attack so surprised the defenders that they overran them and took several prisoners. One of the captured VC, either frightened or unwilling to cooperate with his captors, lay stiff as a board and bit his tongue so badly that blood ran out of his mouth. When 1stSgt Art Petty began evacuating prisoners, he had one of the bigger Marines pick the man up and carry him to a helicopter, so he could be interrogated in the rear. The VC remained in a nearly catatonic state as the aircraft lifted off of the ground.

India Company Marines were busily trying to kill the VC troops they were not able to capture. Lieutenant Richard Purnell, the company XO, spotted a number of VC trying to go around the flank and escape from the Marines down the riverbed. He was attempting to stop them, blazing away with his .45 as fast as he could, yelling, “Get them!”

First Sergeant Petty stood with Captain Webb and watched one of the India Company platoons start across the riverbed. There was a sloping hill on the other bank that was covered with knee-high brush. The two Marines had a grandstand seat as a number of Viet Cong broke and run. Hunters who have seen quail would be familiar with the scene. One VC left his position, ran over to another VC, and stopped for a split second. Then both VC ran over to the next position, and so on until a small group of them was fleeing into the brush together. This may be because the VC broke their forces down into three-man fire teams, that were trained to move together. The Marines cut them down in bunches as they fled.

First Sergeant Petty joined a group to the left of the advance CP group. As they crossed over the riverbed, he heard what he believed were mortar rounds coming in. He hit the deck until the explosions stopped.

The streambed to the company’s front ran parallel to the beach. Perpendicular to that was a trenchline or drainage ditch, which ran east and west. Captain Webb’s lead elements had crossed to the other side of the trench and a lot of fighting was going on.

The India command group halted briefly before the riverbed and pretty much stretched out on line. One of the nearby Marines took a bullet on the inside of his upper left thigh. The man was screaming and hollering because he thought he had lost his genitals. A corpsman struggled to get the man’s pants down and discovered that he had a serious gunshot wound to the thigh but that his manhood was intact. Captain Webb called in a medevac and sent Pfc Glenn Johnson back to get the other evacuees, thinking that they could move up more easily than this Marine could move back. Johnson who stripped off his pack and the satchel charge he was carrying and became the target of the day the instant he got up and started running. Bullets hit all around his feet. He dove into the brushy area to the rear and told the other casualties and those helping them to move up.

One of the Marines hit was Sergeant Massey, the 1st Platoon guide. The bullet glanced off a shovel and went through the fleshy part of Massey’s upper arm. Massey decided to stay in the field. He fought through the day and survived Starlite.

THE 2/4 COMMAND GROUP 0900

The 2/4 command group called for a medevac for Captain Riley and the other wounded. As it was inbound, Gunny Garr got on the radio and told the pilot that they were still receiving incoming mortars, then he popped a green smoke grenade in the area where the mortar rounds were landing in order to mark the zone. The pilot brought in his aircraft without hesitation. As the ground troops were loading the casualties Garr noted empty shell casings rolling around on the chopper’s deck. It was clear that this bird had already seen some action this day.

ECHO COMPANY, 2/4

Echo Company, 2/4, was getting too far ahead of the command group, which was burdened with a section of two 81mm mortars and several .50-caliber machine guns. Despite the load, they picked up the pace. They also had along a number of Vietnamese Popular Forces troops from the Binh Son District who had been attached to the operation at the last minute.

Echo continued its move to the northeast. At one juncture the Marines spotted about a hundred of the enemy in the open and asked for an artillery fire mission. The Viet Cong were running at a fast trot in the opposite direction, but parallel to the Marines, at a distance of a few hundred yards. They were dressed in dark blue uniforms; carrying weapons, including mortars; and making a strange noise. It sounded to Gunny Garr as if they were grunting.

The Echo Company Marines quickly looked for a way to bring fire to bear on them. They were too distant for effective fire from small arms, and there was a deep ravine between the two forces, which prevented a direct attack. The radio traffic was so thick on the nets that they could not get through using ordinary procedures. Finally they used flash precedence, the designation reserved for extremely important messages, to get through. In this manner they called an artillery fire mission.

The 107mm howtars from 3/12, helilifted into the position occupied by Mike Company, 3/3, poured overwhelming fire into the enemy ranks. Lieutenant Colonel Fisher, who later flew over the impact area in a helicopter, estimated that the howtar mission accounted for ninety enemy dead.

The artillery took the starch out of the enemy resistance and Echo Company was able to continue its push against only minimal opposition.

O’MALLEY’S SQUAD

A section of M48 tanks that had landed in the second wave caught up with India Company, 3/3, just as it was approaching An Cuong 2. Captain Webb assigned Cpl Robert O’Malley’s 1st Squad of the 1st Platoon to the tanks.

As the company pushed on and neared the outskirts of the village, enemy fire stiffened and the Marines quickly deployed in assault formation, with the 1st Platoon on the left, the 2d Platoon on the right, and the 3d Platoon was in reserve.

South of the village was a trench about ten feet across and six or seven feet deep. It appeared to be very old, not built especially to be a tank trap, but it was too wide for the tanks to cross, so they were sent along the edge of the trench to the west. The lieutenant in charge of the tanks was aggressive; he led his vehicles, with O’Malley’s men on board, away from the main body of India Company. While India Company assaulted into the village to the north, the tanks continued along the trenchline to the west.

Corporal O’Malley had split his squad into three groups. O’Malley, LCpl Chris Buchs, and Pfc Robert Rimpson, rode the first tank; Cpl Forrest Hayden, LCpl James Aaron, and LCpl Merlin Marquardt were in the middle; and the remainder of the squad brought up the rear.

Casualties began to mount elsewhere in the company, but at this point O’Malley’s men were not getting enough fire to worry about. They heard a large volume of shooting flare up in the India Company sector and could hear Hotel, 2/4’s fire fight in the distance.

The two lead tanks moved out a little faster while the third tank hung back a little as rear security. As they drove around a large hedgerow that gave them some minimal concealment to their right, three BAR rounds suddenly came out of the foliage and stitched Marquardt. O’Malley quickly stopped the tanks and yelled for Hayden and Aaron to get Marquardt off the tank and administer first aid. Then he sent Chris Buchs off to find a corpsman as he and the rest of his squad poured suppressing fire into the hedgerow and worked on Marquardt.

Buchs raced back across the paddies and found a corpsman who was tending another casualty. When the doc promised to finish and move up within a few minutes, Buchs returned to his squad. Marquardt was dead by the time help arrived.

Corporal O’Malley, still aboard the lead tank, poured rounds into the hedgerow on the left side, and Buchs opened fire at the hedgerow on the right, to suppress enemy fire. They tried tossing grenades into the thick growth, but these had little effect. The VC were in trenches on the other side of the hedgerows, and the grenades either bounced back or stuck in the bamboo growth before they reached their targets.

Buchs spotted a small opening in the hedgerow on the right and passed the word to O’Malley. “I’ll cover you while you move through,” Buchs shouted.

“Well, let’s go, Buchs,” came the reply. O’Malley, and then Buchs, went through the shrubbery, jumped into the trench, and carried the fight to the VC. Buchs took the left side while his squad leader took the right, and they overwhelmed a dozen of the enemy. O’Malley shot eight of them dead, and Buchs downed the other four.

The pair ran out of ammunition as other VC started down the trench toward them, so they jumped out of the trench and reloaded. Then they rolled back into the trench and resumed their assault. O’Malley called on Lance Corporal Hayden to check the bodies of the downed VC and ordered Rimpson, their M79 grenadier, to position himself at the opening of the trenchline.

As O’Malley went down the left side of the trench and Buchs gave him cover, a VC who was playing possum jumped up and threw a grenade at Hayden. Hayden leaped back and fell as Buchs killed the VC. Hayden was hit with a grenade fragment in the hip, and O’Malley took one in the foot. Buchs collected the VC weapons, then helped O’Malley get Hayden out of the trench.

Rimpson joined them in the trench and killed another advancing VC with his grenade launcher from about fifteen yards. The Marines were lucky that they were not hit, too, because they were well within the bursting radius of the round from Rimpson’s M79.

They finished collecting the enemy weapons and loaded them on a tank to be taken to an LZ and evacuated by helicopter. Although wounded, O’Malley decided to stay with his men and refused to be evacuated.

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