(Posted from Berkeley during Thanksgiving week)
I’ll write this as best I can and to the best of my recollection. Dates and those sorts of facts may be off, but the heart of what I’m writing will be accurate. I’m pasting in writing I’ve done at other times as well as a few things other people have written, and I won’t spend much effort on flow and structure, so if something seems to just appear, well, that’s probably about right. I took some of the photos, but most are captured from the internet. I was too busy fighting to be snapping pictures. There are three parts to this account. Photo: Charles Kemp at the DMZ
Summary: I started at MCRD San Diego, then Infantry Training Regiment & Machine Gun School; Camp Pendleton & las Pulgas for Special Landing Force training. On to Subic Bay & Olongapo in the Philippines (oh, how we partied, like doomed youth); first landing southern South Vietnam (1st casualties); second landing Deckhouse & Prairie for serious battles; Hill 55 & Dodge City (snipers daily, mines, weekly firefights more or less & a few battles); Dong Ha & Hill Fights (168 KIA, but it took awhile); also at Con Thien, Gio Linh, and Khe Sanh, though mostly I was in the boondocks around these places. If there was a sound track to this section it would be Sympathy for the Devil, maybe Gimme Shelter. We won every battle and beat back very attack, but America lost its will and lost the war. All told, 13 months in combat (well, you know, not every day) mostly in the province (Thua Thien) accounting for the greatest number of US casualties; Danang (in our last formation there were less than 40 men left of the original company of about 180 men - I guess we were doomed youth). The World. God. I'm alive.
Battalion Landing Team, C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment
When we finished Infantry Training Regiment and weapons schools we were sent to a holding company at Camp Pendleton. My mates Jeff and Mike Noumov and I were doing the light duty scam, inventing maladies serious enough to avoid PT and marching around like idiots but not serious enough to keep us confined to barracks. In the morning we’d hang out in the upstairs head, smoking, talking, watching the others doing PT and marching around like idiots. Then, after noon chow, we’d be free like everyone else to hang around the PX, eating pogie bait and drinking cokes.
After 3 or 4 weeks we were sent to Las Pulgas, a small satellite base of Camp Pendleton. We became the 1st of the newly reactivated 26th Marines. I was in C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment. The 26th Marines were deactivated after heroic service on Iwo Jima and reactivated in 1966. Our Commanding Officer was Captain Kappleman – very tough, strong, together, distant – a classic Old Man.
We trained as a special landing force or battalion landing team – forced marches through the California scrub, war games, but nobody that I knew thought in terms of a game – it was serious stuff with live ammo, grenades and so on. We made landings on the Cali beaches, clambering down the ropes with all our gear and the landing craft bobbing up and down and somehow I don’t think anyone was badly hurt. We ran up the mountain (Sheep Shit) near the barracks, down and then back up again. We cleaned and re-cleaned our weapons and practiced and practiced in the ways Marines practice their craft.
For liberty we’d go to Oceanside, sometimes to the beach, usually drinking Red Mountain vin rosy we called it, cheap red jug wine. Sometimes we’d go to Mexico, eating tacos ricos with lots of cilantro and onion on the Tijuana streets, headed to the bars, the girls. When nobody had any money we’d scrape together enough to send someone to Oceanside to buy a couple of jugs of vin rosy and we’d sit on the roof of the barracks or in a deserted handball court and do some serious drinking.
At some point I got word that I’d been transferred to headquarters company to work in supply. I went straight to battalion and talked with the Sergeant Major, who, in typical Marine fashion asked me if I thought I knew better than the Marine Corps about where I should be sent. Of course I said, “No sir.” But then I started getting teary eyed and he told me to get out. When I got back to the company I learned that (1) I was in trouble for going outside the chain of command and (2) I was going to stay with C Company.
The battalion shipped out together on three ships, the carrier Iwo Jima and the Thomaston, and Vancouver. C Company was on the Vancouver, a landing platform dock (LPD). The aft half of the ship had a platform for helicopters to land and take off from and beneath that, there was a cavernous space where the amtracks (amphibious landing vehicles) were parked. When we made a landing, the stern of the ship would open and the amtracks would drive down a ramp and into the water.
We stopped at Pearl Harbor for several days. On the way in to the harbor we were mustered on deck to stand in formation and saluting as we passed the Pearl Harbor Memorial which was set over the sunken hulk of the USS Arizona.
We had some good liberty in Honolulu. I remember eating at a cheap Chinese restaurant; spending time at a taxi-dance hall where you paid a dollar to dance with a girl; seeing the first transgender person (“female impersonator”) I’d ever seen; and partying in a bar where we made the bartender lock the door so one of the guys could take his trousers off because the tattoo he’d just gotten was hurting (on one buttock a devil shoveling coals into his ass and flames coming out on the other buttock). Somewhere in all this we saw Holcomb hit someone so fast the other person couldn’t even get his hands up.
From Hawaii we went to the Navy base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. From there we participated in some intense training exercises, including landings and forced marches through the jungles. The landings were interesting in that there were people near the beach who were trading us orange sodas and knives in exchange for ammunition. Now I understand we were playing a part in the Muslim insurgency in the southern PIs. Photo: USS Vancouver
From the troops’ perspective, the main thing that happened was liberty in Olongapo City, which was right outside the base. The way it worked was we would take landing boats from the ship to the base, where we’d sometimes stop off long enough to have something to eat, and then across the bridge from the base into Olongapo. Except for one long main street the entire city was off-limits to US personnel. On that street, however, was everything we could ever want: it was all bars, cafes, night clubs, and women everywhere. There were men along the way, selling whatever, and best of all, grilled “monkey meat” (really pork) on a stick. There was cold San Miguel beer, bands playing American hits, all your buddies, and women.
Deckhouse Operations, the DMZ
Here is a brief history (Wikipedia) of the ship at that time:
During the first week in July, Vancouver embarked tracked landing vehicles (LVTs) and Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1/26 (1st Battalion, 26th Marines) in preparation for her second Seventh Fleet assignment. On 9 July, she put to sea and after a two-day stop at Pearl Harbor from 14 July to 16 July, arrived at Subic Bay on 28 July. There, she became a unit of the newly constituted Seventh Fleet Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), Task Group (TG) 76.5—a self-contained mobile amphibious assault team made up of a Special Landing Force (SLF), marines and support units, and the ships which served as their transportation and mobile bases. In a series of training exercises held in the Philippines, the Navy-Marine Corps teammates honed their skills for an almost instant response to any need for amphibious support or reinforcement in the Seventh Fleet's zone of operations.
Between 16 August and 29 August, Vancouver participated in her first combat action during Operation Deckhouse III which consisted of two landings at a point some 60 miles (100 km) east of Saigon. The first phase, from 16 August to 20 August, saw BLT 1/26 move ashore in both waterborne and airborne modes against minor opposition and later destroy a fortified Viet-Cong-held village. During the second set of landings, 22 August to 29 August, the marines sent ashore changed operational control from the ARG to the authorities ashore to assist in Operation Toledo a search-and-destroy mission to deprive the enemy of valuable caches of arms and supplies. At the conclusion of "Deckhouse III," Vancouver returned to Subic Bay for ten days of upkeep.
Departing the Philippines on 12 September, the ship began her second amphibious assault, Operation Deckhouse IV, on 15 September in the vicinity of the Cua Viet River in Quang Tri province just south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The landings constituted a seaward arm of the larger Operation Prairie being conducted by American and South Vietnamese forces ashore to destroy North Vietnamese Army fortifications, bunkers, and supply caches in the area and to stem intensified infiltration across the DMZ. During their ten days ashore, the marines of the SLF encountered heavy resistance and accounted for 254 of the enemy killed before they reembarked on 25 September. At the conclusion of the operation, Vancouver disembarked her portion of BLT 1/26 troops at Danang.
(End Vancouver history)
We started out down south with a couple of relatively uneventful operations. I remember making the first landings in the amtracks - armored tracked vehicles also known as LVTs. They were basically steel boxes with benches running along the long walls and double benches down the center. The entire front was a door that opened down so that it was like a short bridge from the inside to the beach. Actually, they often opened up in the water so that we stepped off the door into one or three or whatever feet of water – not a small issue for someone in a flack jacket and carrying a full pack, machine gun (23.5 pounds unloaded), and 200 + linked rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition.
We rode from the ship to the beach sitting on the benches so jammed together that our knees interlocked. When the vomiting started, it was bad, because there was nowhere to vomit except in one’s own lap and on the other men. A few men vomited in their helmets, a mistake never made twice. But the really bad part was that the tracks rode down low in the water and water spilled inside so the first thought was that if it sank, it would go straight to the bottom and we would all die trapped inside. The second thought was that if the thing got to the beach, if the enemy was shooting and sighted in on the track, the bullets would ricochet and fragment inside. How could they miss?
We neither sank nor caught more than a little harassing fire. The next issue was whether to oil the gun enough that it wouldn’t rust from the salt water (which takes place with amazing quickness or to have it dry enough that sand wouldn’t clog the works (which happened if there was enough oil to prevent rust. There was no good answer.
The first night in VN we were down south in the forest. Went on-line in the dark and just kind of hunkered down. Didn’t sleep much that night! In the morning realized there were Marines maybe 50 feet right in front of us. Glad we didn’t fire.
The first time I was shot at (bullets make a very loud Pop! when they go past close) there was instant full realization of an important truth of war. There is no turning back. No half measures. The other guys mean to kill you and death is forever. I didn’t really start with any moral questions and I knew I would pull the trigger. (In WW II apparently many men did not actually shoot at the enemy – they needed a serious ass-kicking.) But everything became instantly crystal clear that day. Kill them or they kill me. We were walking on a trail in the woods (not the deep rain forest) and someone fired straight up the trail. I went off the trail and my arm went right through a log full of ants. They were biters for sure and got me moving pretty brisk. That time was no big deal. Nobody hit that I recall. Later in the operation three of our men were killed.
When it was over we were on the beach waiting to be ferried back to the ship. The Navy had brought us some C-Rats and warm beer (Carling Black Label) in partially rusted cans. I gave my two cans to someone else. Some of the men who drank ended up vomiting once we were in the landing craft headed back to the ship. I’m not sure if it at this time (maybe earlier?) that one of the men (L----- from New Orleans) made a spectacle of himself threatening suicide and putting the muzzle of his rifle in his mouth. Someone saying, “Pull the trigger, L----- you chicken-shit mother-fucker.” That was the last we saw of that coward.
I pasted the following on D/1/26 from a 26th Marines site (khesanhvets.org). I'm using what someone else wrote to try to put what I'm writing into context. There's not much context in combat - it's just the battle you're in and not much else.
August 16-29, 1966
BLT 1/26 makes its first combat landings in Vietnam during Deckhouse III, Parts I and II. The area of operations is The Vung Tau Peninsula, 60 miles southeast of Saigon. The landings are made in conjunction with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and Australian units. The target area is the coastal lowland of Binh Tuy and Phuoc provinces, generally an uncultivated plain covered with one and two canopy jungle and swamps. The rifle companies operate over widely separated areas, relying on small unit patrolling to adequately search the area. The enemy forces targeted are the Headquarters VC 5th Division, 274 and 275 Main-Force Regiments, which are seeking to avoid engagement. General Westmoreland visits the CP for BLT 1/26.
Deckhouse III, Phase I, is the first combat landing in Vietnam for BLT 1/26. The 1/26 Battalion CP is located at grid YS 829714. There is no significant contact on this landing during the sweep of this plantation territory.
Deckhouse III, Phase 2, Operation Toledo, is the second combat landing in Vietnam for BLT 1/26 (August 22 to 29). The 1/26 Battalion CP is located at grid YS 645700. The operation locates and then attacks a VC base camp and bunker complex. The VC do not stand and fight; instead, they abandon the base prior to the Marine attack. However, the results of the sweep are good, as tons of rice are captured along with ammunition and other supplies.
Three C/1/26 Marines were killed on August 28, 1966 and they are the first combat deaths for 1/26 Marines. CK writing: Madden was one of the KIA. It was all pretty unreal.
3/4 Marines attack the elaborate fortifications being constructed by 324B along a ridge near the razorback as part of Operation Prairie. Hills 400 and 484 are the Marines’ objectives in the battle for Mutter Ridge. In related actions, BLT 1/26 is OpCon to the 4th Marines and conducts Deckhouse IV/Prairie at the same time.
September 15, 1966
Deckhouse IV/Prairie starts when BLT 1/26 Marines makes its third combat landing as a reconnaissance in force sweep in the area north of Dong Ha. The target is the northwestern portion of the Gio Linh District, and the mission is to screen the northern approaches in support of Operation Prairie. During this operation, BLT 1/26 engages in a series of fights with units of the NVA 324B Division northeast of Con Thien.
September 17, 1966
In the early AM hours a large firefight starts not far away and continues for quite a while. The firing is from the Alpha Co. position as they are being attacked by NVA with heavy small arms fire and mortars. Delta Co. moves out in the morning in a westerly direction through rolling terrain towards the village of Gia Binh. This village is northeast of Con Thien (Hill 158), which is then an ARVN outpost. Photo: Mutter’s Ridge, Operation Prairie
At midday there is occasional gunfire in the distance. In the afternoon, the company goes through what is basically a large bamboo forest, which takes a while to traverse. The north end opens up on a small rice paddy the village on the other side was Gia Binh. The point of 2nd platoon sees NVA soldiers and heavy fire erupts. Delta Co. advances and the surprised NVA pulls back.
The 1st Platoon draws the point next, and Delta Co. moves out in a northerly direction along the cart path, which runs through Gia Binh. After a short advance, the NVA strikes back with heavy fire from fortified positions on both sides of the road (YD 146730). The company returns fire, and air strikes and artillery are called in. The company recovers casualties and pulls back to set up a LZ. Late in the afternoon, a medevac helicopter is shot down while trying to land. The company digs in for the night.
September 18, 1966
The physical setting is tough, with hedgerows limiting movement; the previous day's probe towards the center of the village revealed a series of trenches, tank traps, and fighting positions.
Late in the morning, the company makes heavy contact and receives automatic weapons fire from both sides of the road and the front (YD 146730). The enemy fights from prepared positions and the 2nd Platoon takes very heavy casualties. Several Marines are killed in the initial exchange of fire, including the 2nd Platoon Commander, 1stLt. Geoghegan. There is a lot of confusion on both sides, with the NVA calling out to each other and Marines doing the same. Delta Co is pinned down for quite a while; supporting arms, along with the eight-inch guns of the Navy cruiser St. Paul, are called in to cover its withdrawal.
September 20, 1966
Delta Co. receives early AM sniper fire. The company holds its position waiting for Charlie Co., accompanied by tanks, to approach from the west. One of the tanks hits an AT mine during this advance.
September 21, 1966
An attack by three companies is initiated against An Dinh. In the morning, Charlie Co. and the tanks attack from the west and meet strong resistance from automatic weapons and AT rockets. Air strikes and artillery are called and Delta Co. maneuvers to linkup with Charlie Co. on the left and Bravo Co. on the right. That afternoon, Companies B, C, & D, supported by tanks, attack the village from three directions. An Dinh is secured when the NVA force break contact at the end of the day and pull back to the north.
September 24, 1966
The Marines of BLT 1/26 reembark aboard the ships of the SLF. As September ends, the total NVA killed in Operation Prairie are 943. The number of NVA killed during the ten days of Deckhouse IV/Prairie fighting is 254.
BLT 1/26 casualties are 36 KIA and 200 WIA.
September 26, 1966
The battalion goes ashore at Da Nang to replace 1/9 at Hill 55 TAOR south of Da Nang. 1/26 is placed under the operational control of the 9th Marine regiment.
After completion of Operation Deckhouse IV/Prairie, the decision is made to strengthen the Marine presence on the DMZ. In October 1966, the Marines of 2/5 take over Con Thien from the ARVN.
End khesanhvets.org Hx.
The way I experienced the battles described above was as a series of battles and marches. My memories:
At the DMZ, Charlie Parker, my A gunner and I dug a huge fighting hole the first night (9/15). A few days later, after being mortared we were digging much smaller and narrower holes. The next day we moved out toward the sound of fighting. We went down into a swale and when we came up the other side we were facing an open area with the enemy dug in in the opposite tree line. I remember Jeff running out into the open area and firing his rocket at an enemy machine gun bunker. He lit it up and we were across the field into a trench line, fighting up and down the trenches. At some point I remember being on the deck with a heavy volume of fire coming in and just a few feet from me the 3rd platoon radio man was lying on his back. I was wondering how he could be doing that with so much incoming, but then realized he was dead, lying still, on his back with bullets snapping close above and his freckles and his pale skin. I had this instant and clear understanding of our bodies as clay. I knew he was gone and all that was left was the clay, the vessel. Photo: Mutters Ridge
We battled through the trenches and the next thing I remember was digging in somewhere near the battlefield. Where my squad was there were some old trenches with steel barbs sticking up out of the bottom. We took out the traps and there we were, set for the night. Sometime in the night while I was asleep (we were always 2 hours on watch, 2 off), we were hit with a very accurate mortar barrage. I thought I levitated really fast into the trench and was on my gun in zero seconds (that’s what it seemed like) and as soon as I was up, I saw a flash from the mortars being fired and I cut loose with a 200 round burst and though I could hear someone shouting for me to cease fire I knew I had them and cranked all 200 rounds into the enemy. That was the end of the mortar barrage. Later we realized that the NVA probably had our position registered for mortar fire. Photo: One guy resting, another enjoying something tasty
The next days were a blur to me – then and now. I remember …
Bullets zapping through banana trees and shreds of leaves falling.
Seeing men in a tree line and I opened fire only to later learn that they were Marines. I wounded two of them, but they survived.
We linked up with the rest of the battalion, lines of men sprawled exhausted in the dirt. There were some reporters there and one of them asked Buddero Craze a question and he answered, “Fuck you.” Several of us overheard an old reporter say something like, “I didn’t expect anything like this. Goddam, I was on Tarawa and this is just like it.” (I think he was exaggerating, but still, it was definitely balls-to-the-wall.)
The seams to my trousers split. Our utilities were greasy with dirt and sweat, but mine gave way all the way and I had to tie around the legs to keep them kind of on.
Carver and I (don’t know where Parker was) dug in along a tree line in a wet misty area, digging a primo slit trench just barely big enough for both of us to crouch in or for one, the man on watch, to make a cup of coffee or whatever and have a smoke while the other one racked it on the ground next to the hole. But we aren’t to the night just yet. We were resupplied by chopper and included was a “Sunday box” – a box full of random treats like candy, playing cards, shaving gear (like anyone was going to shave), and so on. My share was a little restaurant package of 2 saltine crackers and on the side package it said, Eating Out is Fun! Several of us reconned a few hundred meters to the front of our line and found a lot of NVA. We crept back toward our line, but somehow were spotted by I guess one of their recon patrols which opened fire and we fired back and then ran (there being many of them and 3 of us). Our guys were starting to shoot and one of the men in our patrol was racing along shouting, “WOOP WOOP WOOOOP WOOP WOOP WOOOOP” which got me started laughing and I was laughing my ass off and running so fast my feet were outrunning my body. Basically, we’d surprised them before they surprised us. Artillery did the rest of the work.
We fought our way through some pretty fierce action. For about a day (it seems) we were marching in a long column with fire fights raging now at the front, now the rear, now a flank. We finally broke out of that and linked up with a platoon of tanks, maybe 6? And we were finally out of it and everyone climbed on the tanks to ride the rest of the way into Dong Ha.
I was lying on the back of a tank, half asleep and it seemed like something flashed across my vision and in the tank behind us the driver’s head exploded and then we exploded and I was just laying there stunned and something hit me in the shoulder – it was a glancing blow from the cannon of tank behind us running into our tank and I was trying to get my gun to get off but the gun strap was pinned. Rockets and small arms fire were intense, but I got it loose. I was on the left side of the tank column and not much fire was coming in from that side. I went to the rear where we were also being attacked and put down some fire. We fought through that, but no more riding for the weary. I helped pull the driver up out of the tank. His head was gone from the jaw up – you could see his lower teeth.
We got into Dong Ha around dark and the tanks lagered and we crashed. In the morning I was awake and I could see men sleeping wherever they lay or fell down. All that was left of first squad weapons was asleep spooned together, all 3 of the men under one poncho.
I remember seeing someone go through the pockets of one of the dead men we’d hauled out and in the man’s chest pocket found a Bible with a hole through it left by the bullet that killed him. He looked at the Bible, showed it to a couple of other Marines, and threw it away, left it in the dirt with the blood of its owner.
36 KIA and 200 WIA in 9 days. For C Company it was about 10 (more) dead and 60 wounded. On the other side of things >250 NVA killed.
I don’t remember an excess of emotion over the casualties. We knew it would happen and it was sad, but we were hard men. Warriors. Later you feel it all, but not then.