ATTACK ON CON THIEN
On 8 May 1967, the 13th anniversary of the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the NVA tried to overrun the Marine position at Con Thien. The outpost, less than two miles from the southern boundary of the DMZ, was on a hill only 158 meters high in the middle of the red mud plain. It afforded the best observation in the area, overlooking the DMZ to the north and west, as well as the Marine base Dong Ha to the southeast. As a strategic terrain feature, Con Thien was important to the Communists: before the summer was over, it achieved an additional symbolic importance.
At the time of the attack, the outpost contained a small command group of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, reinforced companies Alpha and Delta of the battalion, and a civilian irregular defense group (CIDG) unit. The Marines were there to provide security for the engineers, who having completed the trace on 1 May, were busy clearing a 500-meter-wide strip around the perimeter of the outpost. At 0255, the morning of 8 May, a green flare lit the sky south of the hill, followed immediately by a savage 300-round mortar and artillery attack. Concurrently, Camp Carroll, Gio Linh, and Dong Ha also came under fire.
At Con Thien, enemy units maneuvering under the cover of the barrage breached the defensive wire with bangalore torpedoes, and small elements moved inside. At approximately 0400, two NVA battalions armed with flamethrowers, RPGs, and automatic weapons, attacked through the breach in the wire. The brunt of this assult fell on the right flank of Delta Company. The Marines engaged the enemy force in bitter hand-to-hand fighting. An engineer platoon moved to reinforce Delta Company. The situation became serious when the Marines ran out of 81mm mortar illumination rounds; artillery illumination from the nearest artillery at Gio Linh could not reach Con Thien. (There is no illumination round for the 175mm gun). A flare plane finally arrived and provided much-needed illumination until daylight.
Meanwhile, Alpha Company sent a platoon to help Delta Company, as well as to protect an ammunition resupply convoy composed of an attached Army M42 “Duster,” and two LVTHs, and two ¼-ton trucks. As these elements moved up to support the hardpressed Marines of Delta Company, the relief vehicles came under fire. The Army M-42, which was the lead vehicle, stopped and burst into flames after being hit by an enemy RPG antitank projectile. A satchel charge exploded under the following LVTH. It began to burn but its crew managed to get out. The trailing LVTH, trying to get around the burning vehicles, which now included the ¼-ton trucks, became entangled by barbed wire around its left rear sprocket. The tractor was stuck. Despite their losses, the reinforced Marines continued to Delta Company’s position. With these reinforcements, Delta Company halted the enemy penetration and sealed off the break in the wire just before daylight. By 0900, the enemy soldiers still within the perimeter were either dead or captured.
The recently completed brush clearance around the perimeter paid early dividends. It permitted the Marines to catch the retreating North Vietnamese in the open as they crossed the cleared strip. Tanks and LVTH’s firing both conventional and “beehive” antipersonnel ammunition were particularly effective. Supporting fires of the Composite Artillery Battalion at Gio Linh ripped into the enemy as it withdrew north into the DMZ.
The defending Marines lost 44 killed and 110 wounded, as well as two LVTH’s and one ¼-ton truck destroyed, but the hard and bloody battle cost the enemy 197 killed and 8 captured. The Communists left behind 72 weapons, including 19 antitank weapons, 3 light machine guns, and 3 flamethrowers. (This was the first instance of NVA use of flamethrowers against Marines).
The 8 May attack on Con Thien had been carefully rehearsed, but the enemy displayed an inherent inability to alter plans. The NVA attacked the strongest point of the perimeter and continued to press the attack at this point, even when it was clear that it had encountered heavier resistance than anticipated. The enemy planners were not aware of the arrival of the two Marine companies. Delta Company had replaced an ARVN unit only a few days before the attack.
Following the battle, enemy activity intensified throughout the “Leatherneck Square” area, (a quadrilateral between Con Thien, Gio Linh, Dong Ha, and Cam Lo). The number and volume of artillery attacks increased greatly. More than 4,200 mortar, rocket, and artillery rounds were fired at Marine positions during the month. The enemy revealed the degree and sophistication of its buildup in the area on 10 May by the destruction of a Douglas A-4E Skyhawk flying a radar-controlled mission near the southern boundary of the DMZ. As the plane approached its target, Marines on the ground witnessed the firing of three surface-to-air missiles (SAM) from positions north of the Ben Hai River. One of the missiles hit the A-4E; the aircraft disappeared from the controlling radar screen at Dong Ha.
This was the first reported use of Communist Sam’s over South Vietnam.