Version Edited October 3rd
The 1st Battalion, 4th Marines Moves North
September 28, 2010.
Copyright 2010. Ralph E. Sullivan, Ph.D., Licensed Consulting Psychologist. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated without express written permission of the author. email@example.com
“Remembrances take on a luminosity from their repetition in
your mind…what you remember as having happened and what
truly did happen are no less and no more than visions.”
E. L. Doctorow
This article is being made available to those interested because of a communication I had with a Marine who was a member of 1/4 during the Oregon Operation in March 1966. This individual is one of about 550 Marines who participated in Oregon. He is only one of many veterans who now suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. By discussing in emails and telephonically the events of that long ago trauma he reports that it has eased his mind in regards questions that he needed answered for the past forty-four years.
Why didn’t the battalion go into the A Shau Valley? How was it that 1/4 was committed to Operation Oregon? Why was the battalion split up with less than half of 1/4 flying into Phu Bai?
The purpose of this article is to answer those questions, and possibly provide information that will clarify many other points as well.
My guess is that other Marines who were in the battalion at that time may have some of the same questions as did the Marine mentioned above. If so it’s possible that the information provided herein might be what is needed to help them slay the dragon of memories that require resolution.
That is the reason I have written this article.
If you are one of the many veterans who are adversely affected by stories of combat, and you can hear very dimly in your brain housing group the continual crack of rifles, the obscene chattering of machine guns, and the crump of mortar rounds then it might be well that you not read this article any further.
The observation of the behavior of a moth to the flame of a candle could very well be instructive in your case.
When a nation re-awakens, its finest sons are prepared to give their
lives for its liberation. When Empires are threatened with collapse, they are
prepared to sacrifice their non-commissioned officers.
Leader of the Irgun
The Revolt 1951
I arrived in Chu Lai in late December, 1965 as the designated relief of the Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. As I traveled over the positions occupied by the four rifle companies of the battalion, I was able to get a feel for the challenges that faced the Marines of the battalion. On January 1st, 1966, I formally assumed command. Concurrently I also became the Ky Ha Defense Commander. Thus, in military terminology I was “Double-Hatted.”
I had come to Viet Nam in November, 1965, from Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps. I had been there for four and a half years because the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Wallace M. Greene had willed it so. My specific assignment in the Headquarters was that of Deputy Director of the Marine Corps Command Center. With that assignment went both the duty and title of Operational Spokesman for HQMC. In the latter capacity I did all the high level briefings and met some of the movers and shakers of the military and political scenes of the U.S. during that period. Since tracking operations was a significant part of my duties I was intimately acquainted with what had taken place in Viet Nam.
My duties had required my presence during the bi-weekly briefings of the Secretary of the Navy. Since these were “all sources” briefings, I was required to have clearances which went well beyond that which might be considered “normal.” Specifically, I was cleared for “SigInt” (Signals Intelligence) information. Only the personal intercession of the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Paul Nitze, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Wallace M. Greene made it possible to waive the usual travel restrictions in my case for persons who otherwise were limited to travel in the US only. For instance, when I arrived in Viet Nam I knew who in the cabinet of Ho Chi Minh was leaking information to the Canadian Ambassador in Hanoi. This information was then made available to the US CIA representative in Hanoi and from there to the US hierarchy.
My service in Viet Nam in 1965/1966 was my second time in country. Exactly ten years prior to that I was given the mission of taking the rifle company I then commanded, B Company, 1st Battalion, 3d Marines to Haiphong during the French withdrawal after conclusion of the Geneva Accords in 1954. Our mission was to provide guards for the ships that were in process of evacuating Catholics from the Red River Basin to the Rung Sat Zone on the Mekong River south and east of Saigon. These guards were placed on ships one squad at a time, and my young Corporals and Sergeants were totally in command. To observe that they performed magnificently would be an understatement.
When I arrived in country in 1965 I was first assigned as the G-3 (Operations Officer) of Task Force DELTA. DELTA was assigned the task of confronting the 1st PAVN (Peoples Army of Viet Nam) Division in the Que Son Valley. The engagement in which four Marine Infantry Battalions, a Marine Artillery Battalion, and the 5th ARVN Regiment of the 2d ARVN Division participated, had the name of HARVEST MOON. This was to be by far the largest, and as it turned out to be, the costliest of Marine operations in Viet Nam up until that time.
Our mission was to clear the Que Son valley of PAVN troops by driving them west of the ARVN outpost of Viet An at the far western boundary where the coastal littoral met the jungle. I was able to see during this operation, close up and personal, what the 1965 edition of US Marines looked like in the field and in combat. My observations pleased me. Those Marines hadn’t lost a step since the last time I’d seen Marines in combat at the Chosin Reservoir.
Viet Nam was my fourth war/conflict. I’d seen Infantry Combat in WW II, the Chinese Civil War, and Korea. I began this latest tour in a Combat Zone with four Purple Hearts. I was no stranger to the exigencies that infantrymen frequently find themselves surrounded by. I had just celebrated my 38th birthday on December 7th, and while I was the youngest Marine Battalion Commander in the Nam at the time, no one could accuse me of being “cherry.”
INITIAL OBSERVATIONS OF 1/4
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression”
My marching orders from General Walt when he dispatched me to Chu Lai were to get 1/4 up and moving. Walt feared that the enemy was going to move 128 mm rockets, or 120mm mortars onto Hoa Xuan (aka “Snaggletooth”) in the far northern reaches of 1/4’s TAOR, (Tactical Area of Responsibility). His particular concern was the helicopter MAG (Marine Air Group) on the Ky Ha peninsula, and the air strip which made Chu Lai such a valuable piece of real estate. Walt told me in no uncertain terms that he wanted to see some very aggressive patrolling and hinted that if 1/4 dug one more well on the Ky Ha that the entire peninsula just might dissolve itself in the South China Sea.
Years later I learned that 1/4 was usually referred to by other Marines in the Chu Lai objective area at that time as the “Ky Ha National Guard.” My mission was to change that impression. Some of you will recall our repeated missions to Hoa Xuan. I begged for a fifth rifle company to sit on that damnable island. Had we been able to sit on that piece of real estate instead of patrolling it at least weekly, 1/4 would have saved themselves a considerable number of casualties. Twas not to be. The Marines in I Corps were simply too troop poor to provide that fifth company.
You may also recall that during the Double Eagle Operations 2/4 was pulled out of Chu Lai and 1/4 was given the mission of securing the entire northern half of the Area of Responsibility. We were given an additional two rifle companies from the 7th Marines to accomplish this, but to cover a zone that had eight rifle companies in it with only six companies was challenging to say the least.
And then about March 6th 1/4 was relieved of duty on the Ky Ha and moved into III MAF Reserve. That meant that we were placed under the direct Command of III MAF. The battalion physically moved to positions guarding the airfield. I could see General Walt’s fine hand in our being moved into Corps Reserve. He was now going to see exactly how 1/4 had shaped up during the two months I’d had command.
Corps Reserve meant that the next crisis that arose would find 1/4 smack in the middle of it. Who knew when we moved down to the airfield that there would be such a crisis just four days after our move? We had just four days to enjoy swimming in the South China Sea and living in the luxury of being excused from our usual tasks.
THE SPECIAL FORCES CAMP AT A SHAU
There was no doubt about it. During the first months of 1966 the PAVN (Peoples Army of Viet Nam) were bulking up along the trails in Laos leading south as well as into the valleys just within the border of South Viet Nam. During 1965 US Special Forces manned three camps/patrol bases in the A Shau valley. These were A Loui and Ta Bat as well as the camp at A Shau. On December 8, 1965 the A Loui and Ta Bat camps were abandoned without a fight. This left the camp at A Shau as the only US/ARVN installation in the very long and strategically located valley. The valley itself was a major PAVN infiltration route and was located about two miles within the South Vietnamese border. But the latter depended on which map you looked at. Some of our maps put the camp at A Shau right on the border with Laos. As the 1966 Marine history says:
Surrounded by steep, jungle-covered mountains [the key artery in the valley] extended along a northwest-southeast axis for about 15 miles. One branch ran westward and joined the elaborate Ho Chi Minh trail network. Other tributary trails led eastward from the A Shau through the mountains into the populated areas around Hue and Phu Bai….(p. 56, History)
The A Shau camp was manned by a Special Forces contingent as well as representatives of the ARVN. The actual troops were called “CIDG.” The initials meant Civilian Irregular Defense Group. These groups consisted largely of Montagnards and other nomadic tribes which populated the highlands of South and North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The CIDG served primarily in isolated outposts, such as the A Shau camp, and were advised by US Army Special Forces teams. In effect the CIDG provided the “muscle” for those isolated camps.
In late 1965 the A Shau garrison obtained intelligence of the presence of the 9th Regiment, 325th PAVN Division, was operating in the immediate area. Deserters from that division alerted the camp that an enemy attack was planned for either the 11th or 12th of March. As a result the 5th US Special Forces Group committed a single company from one of its mobile strike forces to A Shau. They arrived on March 7th. This raised the number of the defending forces to about 400.
Although General Westmoreland, COMUSMACV, had told LtGen Walt, CG III MAF that the latter had not only the authority but also the responsibility for Special Forces in I Corps, the Special Forces did all they could to resist that authority. To say that the relations between the two commands were cool would be a masterpiece of understatement.
The NVN attack began on the night of March 8th. As were typical of such assaults, first came an attack by heavy mortar fire that all but obliterated much of the defensive installations. Several buildings in the compound were smashed, as well as bunkers on the perimeter. Two NVN companies probed the defensive lines, cutting barbed wire and scouting out the camp’s firepower. On the 9th a “Puff The Magic Dragon” AC-47 gun ship was shot down by ground fire. Fortunately three of the crew were rescued.
Brigadier General Marion E. Carl, second ranking Marine fighter ace during WW II, and now the Assistant Wing Commander, 3d MAW had flown into the valley the morning of March 9th in his UH-1E. He had stopped by the Phu Bai airstrip to refuel, and asked LtCol Charley House, CO of HMM-163, what he thought the chances were of flying in an additional CIDG Company into the airstrip at A Shau. House had anticipated this requirement and had already reconnoitered the route. III MAF finally ordered the lift of the CIDG Company to begin at 1620. By that time the weather had further deteriorated and no lift was possible. Plans were made to make the lift on the morning of the 10th. With the valley sealed by ground hugging clouds there was little anyone could do until then except monitor radio transmissions from the embattled camp.
At 0400 the ground assault on A Shau began in earnest. Smothering mortar fire reinforced by fire from Recoilless Rifles stunned the defenders and breached the southern and eastern defensive positions. The survivors of this attack retreated to positions along the northern wall. Others fought to the death on their positions. The SF commander called for fire on the entire camp except for the northern wall and the communication bunker which was his headquarters.
Dodging both low hanging clouds as well as intense anti-aircraft fire, both Marine and Air Force aircraft did what they could to support the defenders of A Shau. One of the Marine A-4 Skyhawk aircraft made two passes firing his 20mm cannon. On his second pass the pilot, 1stLt Augusto Xavier, failed to pull out and crashed into the side of a mountain. One of the Air Force A-1E Skyraiders suffered heavy damage from ground fire and made an emergency landing on the air strip at A Shau. Another AF pilot managed to land and picked up the downed pilot in an all but impossible situation. That pilot, Major Bernard Fisher, was awarded the MOH for his feat.
ENTER “THE RIDGE RUNNERS” – HMM-163
Studies by Medical Corps psychiatrists of combat fatigue cases….
found that fear of killing, rather than the fear of being killed
was the most common cause of battle failure, and that
fear of failure ran a strong second.
BGen S. L. A. Marshall
No story about A Shau could be complete without mentioning the outstanding contribution that the pilots of HMM-163 would make. After Major Fisher made his dramatic rescue he had reported that, in his opinion, one out of four helicopters would be shot down should they approach the valley. At the same time he said that the US could not abandon the troops encircled there.
BGen Carl, after he had made another recon of the valley the morning of March 10th had stopped by Phu Bai to talk to LtCol House. His purpose was to discuss the feasibility of HMM-163 attempting to fly into the valley and evacuate survivors. House responded that the weather had not improved a bit. Given the circumstances he didn’t believe that such an attempt would be successful. Further House thought that given the terrain and the circumstances that such a mission would not succeed in spite of the loss of helicopters and crews that would attend. However, if ordered to do so, he’d do his utmost to make the mission successful.
House then received a telephone call from the 3d MAW Operations Officer ordering him to fly into A Shau with his squadron to attempt the rescue of survivors. House’s reply was that he would only do so if he had a direct order from the Wing Commander. A few minutes later the Wing G-3 called House again and relayed from the Commanding General: “It’s an order.”
House took off with sixteen choppers from HMM-163, accompanied by six UH-1E gunships as well as fixed wing aircraft. Only one flight was able to make it into the landing zone at A Shau, and they managed to evacuate 69 of the defenders, including four SF Soldiers. House and his wingman managed to land and survivors swarmed over both helicopters. House later reported that SF Soldiers and his own gunners in the cargo space of his aircraft had to shoot and club other survivors off the landing gear in order to get airborne once more.
At about that instant a 57mm Recoilless Rifle round slammed into House’s tail cone and he crashed on the runway. He immediately took command of a ragtag group, including his crew, the gunner from his wingman’s aircraft, SF Soldiers and CIDG irregulars. In accordance with his squadrons’ Escape and Evasion plan, House moved the group to the west (into Laos?) and north. NVN Soldiers pursued, and a couple of sharp fire fights ensued. House had his group clear a landing zone and at noon on the 11th they were spotted and helos ordered to pick them up. Once again, when the helos arrived, there was chaos in the landing zone. House later claimed that the SF Soldiers had to shoot some thirteen of the irregulars. In all, the rescue choppers managed to pick up about 60 of this group, including House, six other Marines and one Special Forces Soldier.
On his return to Phu Bai House was pounced on by the large number of reporters who when smelling death in the air always rushed to a safe distance from the scene. (Reporters such as these were a far cry from a reporter like Joe Galloway who volunteered his way into the ambush site in the Ia Drang Valley, then stayed and fought with that group of Soldiers until relieved. He co-authored the book We Were Soldiers Once-And Young. Joe was the only civilian who received a military decoration in Viet Nam, a Bronze Star.)
House was in no condition to be interviewed even when I talked to him the following day. He was in shock, and understandably so. In his interview he told the reporters of having to shoot and club survivors off his helos, and of course that factoid took center stage in the headlines over the bravery of the Marines and Soldiers who were involved in the evacuation. Investigation of those choppers not shot down at A Shau showed that twenty-one of the twenty-four aircraft in the squadron had to be replaced because of battle damage.
As the Operations Officer of the 3d MAW wrote later, “….House was ‘probably right [in not being anxious to inject his squadron into the A Shau]. But in retrospect I don’t know what else there was to do except either forget A Shau or make an attempt for the pickup of survivors as was done.”
When LtCol House’s interview hit the stateside press there was hell to pay. The interview had appeared on national television where the idea of shooting “co-belligerents” under any conditions was considered anathema. As a result, none other that the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, ordered a full investigation. The investigation, of course, found LtCol House guilty of releasing highly damaging information to the press.
BGen Carl was the investigating officer, and there was no officer better acquainted with the conditions in A Shau when House committed his squadron. The result of the investigation was that House received a formal Letter of Reprimand. Such a letter in an officer’s Qualification Jacket is, of course, career ending.
One further note. LtCol House was also awarded the Navy Cross for his leadership and actions during the evacuation of A Shau. The Navy Cross is right next to the “Big One” that’s worn around your neck. Go figure.
1/4 ALMOST GOES TO WAR IN THE A SHAU
Great battles, like epic tragedies, are not always staged or the product of human calculation; and disaster is less likely to derive from one gross blunder than from reasoned calculations which slip just a bit.
BGen S. L. A. Marshall
Night Drop-The American
Invasion of Normandy (1962)
“During and immediately after the fall of A Shau, the Allied Commanders in I Corps evaluated the idea of launching a combined operation into the valley…” so saith the official history on p. 64. On the morning of March 10th General Chuan, the 1st ARVN Division Commander gave serious consideration to the insertion of one of I Corps’ Reserve Battalions, reinforced by Marines, to relieve the embattled garrison. On March 10th 1/4 at Chu Lai were put on one hour standby for air movement to Phu Bai. I had been expecting such an alert because as the CO of the Corps Reserve I’d been following the situation reports coming out of the A Shau. Given the terrain and the circumstances it followed as spring follows winter that 1/4 was the number one candidate to get their feet wet in that accursed valley.
During the night of March 12th III MAF ordered the deployment of 1/4 to Phu Bai. The orders were very specific. Only two of the rifle companies of 1/4, and a “small” Command Group were to go north. The order specified that I was not to take my Battalion Surgeon or elements of the Battalion Aid Station. I managed to get approval for two sections of 81mm mortars in with my “small” command group. Although I bitched and moaned, I
couldn’t get permission to add any further Marines to my considerably bob-tailed command.
Came the dawn on March 13th and there came to be a half dozen C-130s waiting on the airstrip at Chu Lai ready to whisk 1/4 (terribly minus) off to Phu Bai. The Commander of this flight of C-130s had been a Platoon Commander in B Company, 1st Battalion 3d Marines when I was the Company Commander ten years before. So all the 1/4ers got seats in the 1st Class sections of those C-130s.
Now members of 1/4 at that time will want to know why I chose A and B companies rather than C and D. The answer is easy. Companies had been moved about like pawns on a chess board for the preceding two months.
The reason for this was so that rotation dates would not skeletonize a battalion sized unit. This procedure was known as “Operation Mix-Master” and it certainly succeeded in mixing things up. So the reason I chose A & B companies to go north is simple. I knew both Company Commanders very well. This meant that if the situation got tacky I knew what I could expect from each one should I issue them an order. It is impossible to impress on the reader how important that is in a combat situation where the lead is flying and good Marines are dying.
On arrival at Phu Bai my first action was to proceed to the headquarters of HMM-163. LtCol House, the CO, had been evacuated from A Shau almost two days before, and I badly wanted to speak to him. Charley House and I were next door neighbors back in Springfield, Virginia. In quieter times we’d hoisted many a martini to toast our Beloved Corps. Besides that, some ten years before I had been the S-3 Operations Officer of what had then been HMR-163. The designation and aircraft type may have changed, but it was still the same old “Ridge Runners” that I had known so well.
When I reached the outer office of the Squadron Commander, LtCol House’s office pinkies were tip-toing around as they might in a funeral home. That place was as quiet as a tomb. When I asked for the squadron commander, the Sergeant Major rapped softly on a door closed to the outer office and opened it gingerly. When I entered House’s office the shades were drawn, and House himself was in a fetal position sitting in his office chair. He was wearing his flight jacket and flight suit in an office that must have been 110 degrees. His garrison cap was pulled down over his eyes. When I greeted him he brightened up considerably.
Charley, of course, knew that my battalion was number 1 on the Hit Parade to retake A Shau. He described to me what he had observed when he was there, and then asked if I’d had the chance to look over the objective area. I told him that was one reason I’d looked him up. After all, he was the owner of the only Blue-Bird Taxi Service in Phu Bai, so how about letting me borrow a chopper and crew to go take a look at the boogey-man.
At that Charley shuddered a bit. He then told me that he didn’t think it wise to try to reconnoiter the A Shau in a UH34D. That a Huey or a liaison type stiff wing would have a much better chance to go in and get out in one piece. I asked him if he could whistle one of those crates up from Marble Mountain and he told me that he could, but it would take a day or so to get one “fragged” (i. e. ordered to report) to Phu Bai for my recon mission. Hell’s bells, said I. For all I knew some crazy bastard in III MAF would have old 1/4 (-) in an helo assault mode into A Shau the next day. I at least wanted to look at possible LZs (landing zones) prior to busting in on the NVN in the valley.
Charley suggested that I go down to the airfield. There were Army Hueys and even the occasional liaison aircraft stopping for gas. Maybe I could find some dumb bastard who would agree to fly me into A Shau to meet and greet the folks who could be my neighbors the next morning. So back to the air strip I went, and sure enough there were Army aircraft there. For the most part their pilots seemed to be moseying around with nothing in particular on their mind. So I asked three or four of them standing in a group if one of them would fly me to A Shau to take a look see. A couple of them volunteered, and the one I chose was flying an OE, a small stiff wing used for artillery observation or liaison duties. So we jumped in his aircraft and buckled up and into the wild blue yonder we flew.
The weather over Phu Bai had brightened up considerably. I’d guess we had a ceiling of maybe 5,000 feet or so. As we flew west and south over the jungles and mountains the cloud formations changed rapidly. By the time we hit the northern approach to the A Shau valley the ceiling had closed down to 500feet with hummocks in the clouds forcing us down to maybe 300’. In a way this was a blessing since Charley had told me that most of the AAA guns were on the ridge line to the east of the valley on high ground. So, actually, we were protected by the clouds from direct fire. The most dangerous weapons so far as light aircraft were concerned would have to fire down at us, and the cloud mass concealed us.
So we flew back and forth at maybe a steady 300’. Not a single round was fired at us, but I could see very plainly many, many bodies in and around the positions at the camp. Not only see them but smell them. I tried to communicate to my pilot that I wanted to take a really close look at the terrain just south of the camp since I had a hunch I might find a suitable LZ there. My reasoning was that if I could land essentially intact we stood a fair chance of fighting off even a regiment should the occasion demand. At least I believed that a landing in such a zone would be my best option if the 325th Division was still in close proximity to the former camp.
After about a half hour of sight seeing my pilot tapped the fuel gauge, and back we went east and north to Phu Bai. I thanked my pilot for the buggy ride, but I still wanted a closer look for an LZ at the southern end of the valley. When I made my wants known, a Huey pilot spoke up and said he’d give it a try. So off we went again in the wild blue yonder, and we spent a good half hour looking very closely at maybe heights of 50’ or so at possible LZs which I was marking on my map. I then passed the pilot a note asking him if he would dump me at III MAF Headquarters in Da Nang rather than flying me back to Phu Bai. He said sure, why not? A flight of 20 minutes due east and we were hovering over the landing pad at III MAF.
Now mind you, I was playing hooky. There wasn’t a soul in 1/4 who had a clue as to where I was or what I was doing. I had thought that the pilot of the Huey would want to get to wherever he was going in the first place and I was thrilled when he volunteered to wait for me while I saw LtGen Walt. 1/4 was still Corps Reserve so far as I knew, and Walt was my boss. So I talked to Walt and his G-3, Colonel Ed Simmons, an old friend. I laid it right on the table and minced no words. The official history says as follows:
….Sullivan described A Shau ‘as a place for disasters to occur in….’ and recalled: After an aerial recon, and talking to Chuck House and others, I became convinced that if two bob-tailed battalions were sent into A Shau, that someone had better have a string on a regiment in case we stepped in defecation….
p. 64 History
LtGen Walt was non-committal as I told him that it made absolutely no sense to shed blood to take a position and then walk off it because we didn’t have the man power to keep it occupied and out of enemy hands. But he didn’t throw me out of his office, nor did he suggest that I lacked fighting spirit and therefore could no longer be one of his Battalion Commanders. The latter, of course, was a choice job that virtually guaranteed eagles on your shoulders and maybe someday stars in your eyes. I didn’t tell him then, but I had no interest in either. My hunch, and only a hunch, is that Walt was having second thoughts about retaking A Shau. I hope that he was questioning whether or not the Marines could “afford” such a venture. It’s possible that he needed a little more ammunition to announce his decision. It’s also possible that my something less than enthusiastic reaction to a jaunt into the A Shau was just another nail in the coffin of that enterprise.
What we do know is that Westmoreland and the SVN wanted A Shau back in the worst way. That is why he tasked III MAF with that operation in the first place. What history tells us is that Walt finally told both the SVN and Westmoreland that if they wanted A Shau back they could damned well gin up the forces to get the job done. That Marines just were not going to play that game.
As an aside I’ve always believed that if General Walt had still been in Command of III MAF during the time that the Marines were ordered to defend Khe Sanh, there never would have been a Khe Sanh. Many fine Marines bit the dust during that defense for no justifiable purpose that I can conjure up.
Whatever, I went back to the helo pad and found my ride back to Phu Bai. The word came down the next day that there would be no A Shau mission for any Marine. I personally heaved a sigh of relief. I’d fight my battalion when we had a more or less level playing field. But I’d be damned if I’d be tagged to play Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. One of the real fears that was in the back of every Battalion Commander’s mind at that time was that he didn’t want to supervise over another Dien Bien Phu.
A number of years later, in 1988, Samuel Zaffiri wrote the seminal work on the US Army’s assault on the A Shau Valley. One of the names that history records for this operation is Hamburger Hill, which happens to be the title of the book that Zaffiri wrote about it. Several paragraphs are, in my opinion, worth repeating here:
Westmoreland had closely followed the fight for the A Shau camp and was disturbed by its fall. Although he had earlier rejected a plan calling for the reinforcement of the camp, he left open the option of a large search-and-destoy operation somewhere else in the valley, to be followed immediately by the construction of another Special Forces camp.
The South Vietnamese I Corps Commander, General Nguyen Van Chuan, also supported this last plan. He in fact encouraged Westmoreland to move troops back into the valley before the communists consolidated their power there. Chuan, however did not want to use his own troops, which he had reserved for the defense of strategic coastal installations and cities. He wanted to use the US Marines.
The Marines did not take kindly to Chuan’s suggestion. They, likewise, wanted nothing to do with the valley. They had watched the South Vietnamese bug out of A Loui and Ta Bat, and after participating in the debacle at the A Shau, they no longer had any illusions about the possibility of launching a successful attack into the valley.
For a time the 1st Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment had been earmarked by III MAF for a possible counterattack on the valley. Colonel Sullivan, the 1st’s commander, even flew over the besieged camp to do a preliminary reconnaissance for the counterattack. After seeing first hand the intensity of the enemy fire, though, and after a long talk with Colonel House the next day, Sullivan strongly recommended against the Marines’ launching an assault on the valley.
To Sullivan, the A Shau was nothing but ‘a place for disasters to occur,’ and he reasoned that to return would require at least two battalions with a regiment in reserve, which was nearly every troop the Marines had at Phu Bai, the northernmost of their three base areas. Sullivan‘s recommendation was unanimously endorsed by his superiors and passed on to Westmoreland. For the General this left only the Army, but they likewise were incapable of providing enough manpower for a sustained presence in the A Shau….” pp 29-30, Zaffiri.
Three years later, May 11-20, 1969 the US Army was once again back in the A Shau Valley. They called it Operation Apache Snow. At the northern extremity of that valley was a mountain name Ap Bia. This became the scene of one of the bloodiest, and I’d add the most useless, Battle of the Viet Nam War. Once again Zaffiri returned to the example that I had set three years before:
As Marine Corps Colonel Sullivan had noted back in 1966 following the fall of the camp at A Shau, to neutralize enemy activities in the valley was going to take more than an occasional foray by a couple of battalions, or even a couple of brigades. The failure of all such operations in the past could not be attributed to a lack of tactical expertise by the allied units, but to a lack of troops, logistics, and firepower. What it was going to take to crack the valley was not a brief raid or large reconnaissance in force, but an all-out World War II type invasion. p. 46. Zaffiri
I’ll have more to say about Apache Snow later in this article.
While few men, legislators or otherwise, have felt down the years that
they could command ships of the line or marshal air armies without specialized
training, almost any fool has felt in his heart that he could command a regiment.
T. R. Fehrenbach
This Kind of War
I have no idea how many of the Marines who participated in Operation Oregon realized that the western flank of LZ Robin bordered the most famous road in Viet Nam. Formally it was designated State Route 597. But it had another name.
That road had figured prominently in the Indo-Chinese War fought by the French from shortly after the end of WW II up until France gave up the fight at the Geneva Accords in 1954. The French had a name for this rather short but important road: la rue sans joie (Street Without Joy). That street had been a thorn in their side for years prior to their attempt to eliminate the Viet Minh force that infested the general area. As a result, in July 1953 they decided to pluck the thorn.
The French operation was named “Camargue.” The purpose was to seal off and eradicate Viet Minh elements in the area, and more specifically Viet Minh Regiment 95. This was a unit that had infiltrated behind French lines. That unit, along with locally formed units that supported it, were to prove a formidable foe.
The French did not skimp when allocating forces for Operation Camargue. This was their troop list:
Elements of ten Infantry Regiments
Two Airborne Battalions
The bulk of three Armored Regiments
One squadron of armored launches
One armored train
Four artillery battalions
Thirty-four transport aircraft
Six reconnaissance aircraft
Twelve Navy ships, including three LSTs
The scheme of maneuver was to approach the objective area by land from several different directions. The South China Sea side would be sealed off by the large and impressive Naval Force that had embarked several Battalions of Infantry. Targets of opportunity would be exploited by dropping in the two Airborne Battalions. How could anything possibly go wrong?
The foregoing troop list was extracted from Bernard Fall’s brilliant book Street Without Joy (SWJ) (p. 144). The author was an acquaintance of mine. I met him in Washington, D.C. while Fall was an Associate Professor of History at Howard University, and later American University. Fall was born in France and as a teenager fought in the French Resistance. He later became a student of History and matriculated to the University of Paris, and then the University of Munich.
Obtaining a Fulbright Scholarship, he then studied at the University of Maryland, and in 1951 was awarded a Masters Degree in Political Science at Syracuse University in 1952. He then took classes at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, where he was encouraged to study Indochina. In 1953 Fall traveled to Viet Nam where, because of his French citizenship, he was able to travel and observe the efforts of the French Army to eliminate their opposition. This was the Viet Minh who were led by their charismatic leader Ho Chi Minh.
From his travels Fall produced two classic studies of the French War in Indo China. One of these books, Steet Without Joy, I’ve quoted from above. The other, Hell In A Very Small Place, (HIAVSP) is a gripping story that concerns itself with the battle of Dien Bien Phu, and its eventual fall to the Viet Minh led by General Giap.
In the early and mid 1960s I was a graduate student, and later a Doctoral Candidate in History at The George Washington University. I was also a Professional Marine Officer nearing completion of twenty years of service to the Corps. I’d already decided that when eligible to retire I’d do so, finish my terminal degree, and spend the rest of my life teaching History to the Great Unwashed. In Washington at that time there was a Consortium of Universities which meant to me that I could enroll and take classes at any one of the universities without paying additional tuition.
The Doctoral Candidates at the Consortium Universities, and usually most of the History faculties, gathered once a month to have a “brown bag lunch” together. One of the students, or sometimes a junior faculty member would present a paper for constructive criticism. It was at one of those brown bag lunches that I first met Bernard Fall. As a Professional Officer I’d already read his HIAVSP (Hell In A Very Small Place) and SWJ (Street Without Joy), and been wowed by his perception of combat and the Professional Soldiers that engaged in it. So I sought him out for conversation never thinking in say 1962 or 1963 that I’d ever be personally involved in combat in Viet Nam.
In his book SWJ Fall describes the objective area as follows:
….This zone is followed by the “Street Without Joy” itself, fringed by a rather curious system of interlocking small villages separated one from the other by often less that 200 to 300 yards. Each village forms a veritable little labyrinth that measures 200 by 300 feet and is surrounded by bushes, hedges, or bamboo trees, and small fences which made ground as well as aerial surveillance almost impossible. Regiment 95 had spent more than two years fortifying the villages with an interlocking system of trenches and tunnels, underground arms depots, and first aid station which no single brutal thrust by a
large mobile force could uncover or destroy. Close to 20 miles long and more than 300 yards wide, this zone of villages constituted the heart of the Communist resistance zone along the Central Annam coast.
I had discussed this very zone with Fall who added, that the houses in this zone were built mostly of brick rather than the bamboo and palm or coconut fronds that constituted the sides and roof of the Vietnamese houses that we later became familiar with. And then he added a factoid that I’ve never forgotten. He said that many of the brick houses weren’t houses at all. Instead they were bunkers made to look like houses. The outside of the house was brick. But then the walls were some three feet thick where sand was held in place by another interior wall. Firing embrasures through the thickness of the walls were made to appear to be windows. The embrasure itself might only be two and a half feet long by a foot high. Obviously, directing fire into such an embrasure to take out a machine gun would have been extremely difficult with small arms or even a bazooka type weapon.
You literally had to knock the wall down to get at the people inside. This could have best be done by a weapon such as the 90mm cannon on an M-26 tank. The roof being heavily reinforced, it would take a 500 pound bomb to take the house out of action. Artillery of the 105mm or even 155mm variety would not cause the collapse of the bunker. The embrasures did have one factor that encouraged attack. They obviously had a very restricted field of fire. This was compensated for by making the bunkers, and even machine gun emplacements in the bunkers mutually supporting. All in all targets such as these would be a very tough nut to crack during a ground assault regardless of the amount of support the attacking force had.
Among my must have items when I departed for Viet Nam was Fall’s book SWJ. My first command in Chu Lai was over a hundred miles south of that street, and I never would have believed that it would figure prominently in the History of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines.
1/4 GOES TO WAR – OPERATION OREGON
History will be very kind to me for I intend to write it.
Once the A Shau Operation was scratched it left 1/4 (-) as a Battalion without a mission. About March 15th I was ordered to make an aerial reconnaissance of, you guessed it, the middle of the zone which encompassed the “Street Without Joy.” I accomplished this recon and selected two LZs, Robin and Eagle. These zones lay opposite each other with the SWJ between. Robin was the much preferred LZ. It had a large Buddhist temple at its northwest corner along the road, but what made it a stellar LZ was the fact that a very large and high berm shielded it from direct fire from the south. The Intelligence folks told me that it was likely that the bulk of the enemy force I was to engage would be in that direction. The area to the east of the LZ was in what I’d call a light brush, too light to conceal a large force hiding there in ambush. To the south was another berm that would have provided cover from direct fire but was not as wide or high as the one to the north. To the west was the slightly build up SWJ itself. Again, it would provide some protection from direct fire from that direction.
I was ordered to prepare 1/4 (-) for a helo assault into the LZ(s) I had chosen probably late on the 15th or early on the 16th of March. The weather was, in a word, terminally shitty. We were all camped out in the TAOR of 2/1 and thankfully were not charged with providing anything but our own security.
I carefully briefed my Officers and Staff NCOs on what I’d learned from reading Fall’s SWJ. I’m not sure how seriously they accepted my tale of horror concerning the emplacements that we were very liable to encounter. After all, Operation Camargue had been run thirteen years before. How likely was it that we’d meet with the same type of defensive positions the French did? I thought it very likely, and unfortunately was not disappointed.
On the 18th I received deployment orders. I was to have 1/4 at the airstrip by Oh Dark Thirty the next day (March 19th) ready for a helo ride to LZ Robin. And so we assembled. And it rained. And it rained. About noon the powers that were called off the operation and 1/4 returned to our totally soaked assembly area.
The following day began just as had the one preceding it. It rained. And rained. Again about noon the word came down that we’d have to wait until the following day. And then, mirabile dictum, the sky began to clear. Our orders to disperse were slammed into reverse, and at about 1230 on the afternoon of March 20th the first wave was off to LZ Robin.
I’ve saved the reader from the various dictates I received from higher command. At first I’d been told that the bulk of the enemy force was to our north. Then it would be to the south. Then again, it would be to the north again. I saved my Company Commanders from all this by not telling them anything more than on landing I’d direct their movement in one direction or another.
The good book says that the Battalion Commander should land in the 3d wave of choppers. This I did. One time. That was on “Snaggletooth” back in the Chu Lai sector. When I finally landed it seemed to me that everything was at sixes and sevens. There were two dead civilians in the LZ that had been killed by LZ preparation fires that I had not ordered nor wanted. I then threw the book out the window and forevermore went in on whatever vehicle, LVT or chopper, the battalion was using that day.
So on Oregon I believe that I was the first Marine that stepped off a chopper. As the other choppers came in and the Marines of B Company dispersed to set up a defensive perimeter I received another radio message. The last message prior to that one had told me that we were to advance to the south, and I had so informed my Company Commanders. Now, with my feet barely touching the ground of LZ Robin, I was told to hold everything. The enemy was to our north, not south. I felt like throwing my radio, helmet and myself into the South China Sea at that point. Instead I again went back by radio to my Company COs and told them that there had been yet another change to the change. About face, on account of we were to head south.
At almost that exact instant I heard from my right rear (I was facing north) an eruption of rifle fire. I listened, then got on the horn and announced that we were in contact. Further I estimated that no larger enemy unit than a squad was engaged. I just got off the horn when the fire fight began to build, and I again went back to Higher to tell them we were engaged by at least a platoon. While sending that message the fire fight grew exponentially, and I changed my estimate to a company. By that time, since the fire was coming from our southeast facing north, we all about faced and were waiting to see how the firefight would go that we could all hear very clearly. I began to move B Company behind the large berm on the north side of the LZ while the LZ itself was vacant. The choppers that had brought us in had gone back to Phu Bai to bring in the rest of the Battalion, plus certain hangers-on who I’ll address later.
About that same time 82mm mortar rounds began to land in and around the LZ, and 51mm rounds, usually reserved by the enemy for employment against aircraft, began to purple the air. That did it. I went back to Higher and said that we were in contact with at least one Main Force Battalion, and from the volume of fire directed toward us my guess is that they were strongly reinforced by local yokel Victor Charlies. And here was I with a bob-tailed battalion and an enemy whose size probably at least equaled my own, and very possibly was larger. The thought ran through my mind that, when you go bear hunting, sometimes you get the bear. But if you went bear hunting often enough there would be a day when the damned bear got you. Now our job was to keep the bear in its cage and kill or capture it, if possible.
I moved my CP group in hull defilade behind the northern berm adjacent to the Buddhist temple. I was under the assumption that the people who made up my artillery liaison, forward air controller, naval gunfire liaison officer and staff teams would know what the hell to do without my having to walk them through the process. By the time I got that mess straightened out and everyone in their right pew, I sought out an OP-that is a place from which I could best observe the proceedings. I still only had B Company in contact and chose my OP in a spot forward of the northern berm where I could look to the east to watch the B Company engagement and had a clear view of the SWJ to the south.
Believe me, my choice of an OP was pure serendipity. I must have been in a position where none of the weapons from the houses I described above could hit me. Their arcs of fire were just outside of where I stood and occasionally crouched. During that long afternoon, to my knowledge, the only fire that came close to my position was one 60mm round, and that landed about 20 feet away. I did have a B Company Marine knocked down by machine gun fire about 30 feet to the east, but that was as close as small arms fire ever came to my position.
Actually, I fibbed a bit above. There were six rounds of 105mm howitzer fire that passed close enough over my head to have scratched a match on one of them. They impacted the very top of the berm to my left, and I screamed “Check Fire” over the Command Net. I shuddered to think how many B Company Marines I’d lost in that misdirected fire and was convinced that only the hand of the God of Battle had precluded the loss or wounding of a single Marine.
Those were the opening support rounds from a Provisional Artillery Battalion. The other rounds fired from the two 105mm Howitzer Batteries, and one 155mm How Battery were right on target. I don’t pretend to know how many rounds of artillery support we received that afternoon, but that number had to scare hell out of a thousand. We also had Naval Gunfire Support from the Destroyer Richard B. Anderson, (DD 786). The only time our artillery and naval gunfire rounds were lifted was when Marine Air was on station and ready to drop their ordnance.
What can I say about the CAS (close air support) 1/4 received on that grim afternoon? My FAC would tell me that CAS was on station, and I’d direct all other supporting arms, including my own two 81mm mortar sections to cease fire. And in would come the air. In addition to the usual bombs and rockets it seemed that every other aircraft was carrying two canisters of napalm. I had the first nape strikes directed to enemy emplacements on the edge of the tree line maybe 100 meters south of our berm line. The aircraft would drop two canisters, with maybe 150 gallons of nape in each canister, simultaneously. The canisters, dropped from not more than 200 feet altitude, would sort of lazily fall into the tree line, sometimes making contact and spilling their contents on the target below before exploding in a gigantic “whoosh.” Conventional wisdom had it that even a strongly bunkered enemy would be asphyxiated, with the oxygen literally sucked out of their lungs if caught in a nearby napalm strike.
I didn’t check, but my guess is that very few of us along or in front of that berm line didn’t have our eyebrows singed by those nape drops. The term “Danger Close” is used when you call any kind of supporting fires within 100 meters of where your troops are. That afternoon damned near everything we called for was “Danger Close.”
At one point, maybe about 1500 that afternoon, someone tugged at my sleeve and told me “the General” wanted to talk to me. I turned around, still in my OP, and there stood BGen Marion Carl, the Assistant Wing Commander of 3d MAW. I knew Carl. He had been my Commander when I was briefly in Marine Air Group 15 at El Toro ten years or so before. Carl wanted to know if there was anything more that “his” aircraft could do for me. I told him no, but for God’s sake keep them coming at least through the daylight hours. He said he would and departed for his Huey that was parked in our LZ with an occasional 82mm or 60mm bursting about.
About an hour after Carl’s departure I was told that there was a Colonel in my CP looking for me. I sent back word that anyone who wanted to talk to me could damned well get his ass forward to my Observation Post. So, in the fullness of time, I looked around and there stood a Colonel, whose last name I learned was Fisher. He was dressed in starched utilities and shined boots. He was wearing a cartridge belt and carrying a pistol pouch. He was wearing a utility cap, starched to within an inch of its life, and looked somewhat uncomfortable surrounded by a bunch of grimy Marines.
Fisher was there to tell me that he was my new boss. That I’d been “chopped” (meaning operational control) from III MAF Strategic Reserve to the 3d Marines, of which he was the Commanding Officer. Meanwhile the fight raged on. He asked for a situation report and I gave him what I then knew which wasn’t a hell of a bunch. He then pressed me for a “body count” of enemy dead. I most probably looked at him as though he had totally lost his senses. How the hell could I know how many of the enemy we’d killed? We were hanging on by our teeth to the ground we were sitting on. My first impulse was to tell him just that, or else tell him that when I found out how many bad guys we’d zapped I’d send him a postcard. I was in no mood for stupid questions that didn’t give us direct aid and comfort in the situation in which we found ourselves. He had no suggestions as to how 1/4 could take a wooded area in which the bad guys probably outnumbered us. Whatever, the next time I turned around he was gone. Thank God.
I wondered who the hell else would next appear in my OP. Wouldn’t have been too surprised if it had been LBJ his own self dressed in a tutu.
I had been given a third company that I could call on should I need it on Oregon. That third company was from 2/1. I got hold of the Company Commander and briefed him on what I expected to happen during the operation should we run into beaucoup Victor Charlies. Essentially, if we found the enemy to our south, which we actually did, I’d want him to land at a road junction about four miles down the road to the south. I then wanted him to set up a company sized perimeter and road block in the event that the enemy took off in that direction, which I expected him to do if he was where I thought he might be in the first place. The Company Commander seemed to have his hat on squarely, and even though I didn’t know the gent I hoped that he’d be carrying out the type of order that I’d envisioned.
Shortly after we’d landed in the LZ I received a message that the company that I had expected to have “chopped” to me for opcon had been changed. That meant that I’d get a company whose commander I hadn’t talked to or briefed before. Again, I had the urge to throw the damned radio into the South China Sea, and me after it. I felt that I didn’t dare employ a company in a blocking role, which could be a mighty tricky and maybe sticky one should they be opposed going into their LZ. When I finally did pull the string and have the company from 2/1 inserted into LZ Robin I placed them in defensive positions to protect my battalion from any enemy approach from the north and west. I gnashed my teeth because I felt at some point the enemy to my front would break and surely head south and west. This would have brought him smack into my now “phantom” company since it didn’t exist. I felt that I had a personal grudge to settle with those bastards who were giving us so much grief and causing us way too many casualties.
Another story within a story. Before we took off from Phu Bai I was introduced to the Region Commander of the objective area we were going to assault. This dude was a LtCol in the ARVN, and of course commanded the Regional Forces in his assigned region. Some of you may recall that the first line of RVN defense were the so-called “Popular Forces” who were the troops commanded by the local ARVN Dai-Uy (Captain). The Dai-Uy always had a US Army Advisor, usually a Major.
The District Chief commanded his own “RF” Army. In the case of the RF Commander I was to provide transportation for into LZ Robin, he had a personal bodyguard consisting of about ten of the roughest, filthiest looking characters I’d ever set eyes on. When we landed and missiles began sailing through the air he disappeared with his retinue. On one of my mandatory trips back to my CP, which was in hull defilade from the enemy, he cornered me. He was absolutely wild-eyed and scared three shades of green. He kept motioning to the west, across the SWJ, and to the south along the road. He told me that the enemy was going to attack from that direction and warned me that I’d better position my A Company to repel boarders from that direction. I listened, but felt we already had those sectors covered to the extent that should there be unforeseen visitors from those directions somebody would holler.
An hour or so later that afternoon I was told that the RF Commander and his retinue had crawled on a chopper taking out our wounded to Phu Bai. Thank God for small blessings. At least that moron was out of my hair.
As the situation settled down on the B Company front, I decided that I’d try to have A Company probe from the SWJ east toward the wood line where much of the enemy seemed to be holding forth. I instructed the company commander to refuse (echelon) his right flank so that if the RF Commander had been right, and there were bad guys down the road, that they wouldn’t catch A Company in the flank. I could watch the evolution from my OP and should it appear that it was impossible to flank the force we were in contact with that we’d settle in for an afternoon of more artillery, naval gunfire, and air support and continue to hammer the positions of the enemy.
A Company had barely begun to cross the paddy field east of the SWJ when it became obvious that the approach would amount to charging into concentrated small arms, machine gun and mortar fire. I gave the word to hold what they had, to be particularly watchful of their right flank, and to post security back on the SWJ to keep the enemy from attacking from that direction. About that time the enemy did attack on the east side of the SWJ and south toward the Buddhist temple. A Company stopped them cold. We plastered a number of houses some 200 meters from A company’s right flank with artillery fire, setting them ablaze.
Much later that afternoon, just before dark I and my two “shotguns” (i. e. body guards) walked south down the SWJ, getting past the positions of A Company. About 100 meters in that direction we saw the first enemy dead close up and personal that I’d seen since the beginning of Oregon. One of my shotguns dropped down into the ditch and came up with the identification card of the dead VC. The VC had been carrying a sort of large gunny sack under her….that’s right, her….left arm. Her ID said that she was a Medical Doctor, 62 years of age, and she had an address in Hue. She must have been with the first echelon of advancing VC. She’d never make that mistake again.
Our air support had to quit at dusk, but we continued to pound the enemy positions throughout the night without let up. I knew we had dead Marines where we first made contact, but waited until first light on the 21st to send out a patrol to recover them. The rest of our dead, and I recall a total of nineteen in spite of what the official reports said we had placed in a sort of lean to building behind the temple. Our dead had been stripped of all military equipment, which was expected. I also expected the enemy to di-di during the night which he obviously had done.
We pounded the enemy positions the morning of the 21st with everything we had. When we then advanced through those positions there was little to be found. As I recall there were some dead livestock that had been used to pull carts out of the position, and some busted up carts. Seems to me we did find a few dead enemy bodies. One of the hootches had obviously been used as an aid station and much resembled a butcher shop. Bloody bandages and a few body parts were strewn around.
There was nothing more to do now except pursue the retreating enemy force south, hoping to catch up with them somewhere along the road. We caught a few by holding hands and advancing across waist deep ponds west of the SWJ. The enemy had been breathing though straws until we caught up with them. We found one area about two miles south of our LZ where the enemy had stopped to cut down bamboo poles to use for stretchers. Or so we were told by the local indignant populace. Once again there were many bloody bandages strewn about, but no bodies. All of this was a decided let down. Sort of like what you’d feel like after a snipe hunt.
In the meantime, on the night of 20-21 March, Colonel Fisher, CO 3d Marines, had ginned up an operation in support of 1/4. This operation landed 2/1 in a Landing Zone Duck which was a little more that 2 miles north from our LZ Robin. I was neither consulted as to where another battalion would do us the most good, nor even made aware of this operation. Why in the name of common sense 2/1 wasn’t landed two miles south of our position at first light on the 21st, and along or just west of the SWJ will remain one of those mysteries that will never be solved. I believe to this day that we’d have caught at least a few of the enemy who had given us a very bad afternoon the day before. But maybe I’m just funning myself.
1/4 ended up for the night of the 21st in a schoolhouse a half dozen miles to the southeast of LZ Robin. The following day we aggressively patrolled the area with little result. As time went on we were ordered back up north on the SWJ. It was during this jaunt that we picked up a young Viet of military age whose purpose in life was to attend to the wants of some 8,000 young ducklings. Have you ever seen 8,000 ducklings at the same time? Of course we scoffed up the young man as a VC Suspect and sent him back for interrogation. I heard later from my new boss, Col Don Sherman, CO 4th Marines, that he was going to check my pay for losing those 8,000 ducklings. I told him he couldn’t since they were VC ducklings.
While in that position on the northern end of the Oregon area, I was told that two members of the indignant populace demanded to talk to me. So I saw them. They wanted damages paid for the rice paddy that we’d torn up during our first day on Oregon. My first inclination was to shoot the bastards. I finally told them that I’d see that they were paid for their GD rice paddy when someone paid me for the Marines that we had lost. Never heard another word about that claim.
I’m afraid that I just wasn’t cut out for a role in counterinsurgency operations where you’re supposed to be so good to people they’d just love you to death. Actually, I’d have liked the indignant populace a hell of a lot better if their bloody friends would just stop shooting at us.
And that about was the end of Operation Oregon. Guess we couldn’t call it a wild goose chase because we did after all liberate 8,000 ducklings.
But, Oh My God, at what a cost!
COMPARING OPERATION CAMARGUE WITH OPERATION OREGON
The only relevant test of the validity of a hypothesis is comparison of prediction with experience.
So we know how we did along the SWJ. How had the French done on Operation Camargue thirteen years before:
“….the results in actual loss of enemy combat potential had been frustrating. For French losses of 17 dead and 100 wounded the enemy had lost 182 dead and 387 prisoners….how many of the dead and prisoners were regulars of the 95th Regiment and not merely local farmers or members of the always- expendable Du Kich (Communist Village Militia) remains open to question. “
“….but basically the major defect of Operation “Camargue” was one which was shared by practically all similar operations in the Indochina war: no sealing off of an enemy force could be successful unless the proportion of attackers to defenders was 15 to 1 or even 20 to 1, for the enemy had in its favor an intimate knowledge of the terrain, the advantage of defensive organization, and the sympathy of the population. p. 171-182 SWJ
How much had things changed between Operation Camargue and Operation Oregon? I’ll let the reader answer that question.
REQUIEM AETERNUM DONA EIS FOR PROFESSOR FALL
One other matter I want to address before leaving this section of my article. I want to tell you what happened to Professor Bernard Fall. Initially Fall had believed that with the vast wealth of equipment the Americans had that we’d make a real dent in the North Vietnamese. As he observed actual US operations he changed his mind. He became very pessimistic regarding any favorable conclusion to the US intervention.
Although Professor Fall had premonitions of dire consequences to himself should he revisit Viet Nam, he went again to that country. Wikipedia provides the answer:
“On 21 February 1967, while accompanying a company of the 1st Battalion 9th Marines on Operation Chinook II in the Street Without Joy, Thua Thien Province, Fall stepped on a Bouncing Betty land mine and was killed, along with Gunnery Sergeant Byron G. Highland, a U.S. Marine Corps combat photographer. He was dictating notes into a tape recorder, which captured his last words: “We’ve reached one of our phase lines after the fire fight and it smells bad- meaning it’s a little bit suspicious…Could be an amb–“. Fall left behind his wife and three daughters.  The medical library at the main civilian hospital in Danang was named The Bernard B. Fall Memorial Medical Library in his honor.”
The exact location where death took Fall almost 11 months to the day that 1/4 cut its teeth along the SWJ was about 100 meters south of our LZ Robin. Thus Fall had come full circle….and died on the very road that he had written of many years before.
OPERATION APACHE SNOW – MAY 11-20, 1969.
A final note on Hamburger Hill, or more properly Apache Snow, the Battle for Ap Bia Mountain. The US Army suffered 70 KIA and 372 WIA in seizing their objective. Enemy dead were set at 633. After taking the summit the Army bulldozed a fine road up to the top and poured many concrete emplacements. When the casualty lists began coming in the Commanding General of the operation replied to criticism by saying: “The hill was in my area of operations….that was where the enemy was and that was where I attacked him. If I find the enemy on other hills in the A Shau, I assure you I’ll attack him there also.” When asked by the allies why he stormed the hill rather than hitting it with massive B52 strikes General Zais responded, “I don’t know how many wars we have to go through to convince people that aerial bombardment alone cannot do the job.”
Shortly after making this statement Zais rotated back to the US. The General who relieved him ordered the position abandoned on June 5th. By June 17 there were more than a thousand NVN Soldiers back on the mountain according to allied intelligence. The US Army had controlled the crest of that hard fought for mountain for a total of sixteen days.
Now, Operation Apache Snow had nothing directly to do with either 1/4 or the Marine Corps. Zaffiri however made it the subject of his book Hamburger Hill which I mentioned earlier. Since 1/4 might very well have found itself in the same position as did the 3d Battalion, 187th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division three years after 1/4 had been ordered into the A Shau Valley I’ve included it in this article. Zaffiri wrote:
“….Right after the briefing [for Apache Snow] ….the Kit Carson Scout had ….openly announced that he did not intend to go along on the operation. ‘Why not?’ One of the soldiers asked. ‘A Shau number-one bad place’ Minh had said. ‘Bad, bad place. Me no go to A Shau.'” P. 5
Some of you may recall that a Kit Carson Scout had been either a VC or been a Soldier in the PAVN. They rallied to the SVN side in the war, and often were attached to US units to give the latter an “enemy’s” eye view of a tactical situation.
Zaffiri reports a conversation between a platoon commander, Lt. Bennitt, his RTO and one of his sergeants in Alpha 3/187th after being briefed before going into the A Shau. Zaffiri wrote:
“What the fuck are we going in there for?” the young sergeant asked.
I don’t know Bennitt said. The lieutenant considered his answer honest, for he really did not know. He personally thought the entire operation smacked of lunacy. Every allied unit that had gone into the A Shau in the last four years had met disaster there, and he was sure it likewise awaited the 101st Airborne Division.
‘We oughta just let the NVA have the Goddamn A Shau’ the sergeant continued, ‘and just concentrate on defending the plains around Hue.’
‘You won’t get any argument out of me,’ Bennitt said.
‘Yeah,’ the RTO said, ‘just let ’em have the goddamn place, and forget about it. Just pretend it doesn’t exist.’
It all made perfect sense to Lieutenant Bennitt.'” pp 6-7
The final paragraph in the book Hamburger Hill states the following: “Before long, just as they had after the fall of A Shau Special Forces camp in 1965, the allies once again had to concede control of the valley to the North Vietnamese.” P 249, Zaffiri.
AND SO, AFTER ALL THAT, WAS IT WORTH IT?
And the end of the fight
Is a tombstone white
With the name of the late deceased
And the epitaph drear:
A Fool lies here
Who tried to hustle the East
The Young British Soldier
Just within the last few months I have met and gotten to know a man whom I’ve developed the utmost respect for. He was a newspaperman. He is the correspondent who put his life on the line to join elements of the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry in the Ia Drang Valley. Joe Galloway fought alongside the Soldiers during the ambush, and was the only civilian from the Viet Nam era who was a medal winner, in this case a Bronze Star, for his bravery under fire and his rescue of Soldiers who were wounded. He coauthored, with LtGen Harold G. Moore the book We Were Soldiers Once….And Young. He was also very much involved in the creation of the movie of that same name.
Joe, who has only recently retired, was not enamored of the US intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan. Just for the record, should anyone be interested, neither am I. Sometime ago Joe wrote an article which said in part:
The Lessons of Vietnam
“….In the wake of the Ia Drang Valley battles of November, 1965 — the first major collision between an experimental Airmobile Division of the US Army and regular soldiers in division strength from the Peoples Army of North Vietnam — President Johnson ordered McNamara to rush to Vietnam and assess what had happened and what was going to happen.
…Up till then, just over 1,000 Americans, mostly advisers and pilots, had been killed in Vietnam since Ovnand and Buis [these are the names of the first two American Advisers who were KIA in Vietnam in 1959]. Then, in just five days 234 more Americans had been killed and hundreds wounded in the Ia Drang.
…There weren’t even enough military coffins in the country to handle the dead. McNamara took briefings from Gen. William Westmoreland, the top US Commander in Vietnam, and from Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and assorted spy chiefs and diplomats. Then he flew to An Khe in the Central Highlands and was briefed on the Ia Drang battles by then Lt. Col. Hal Moore who had commanded on the ground in Landing Zone XRAY in the Ia Drang. On the plane home to Washington D.C. McNamara dictated a Top Secret/Eyes Only memo to President Johnson dated Nov. 30, 1965. In that report he stated that the enemy had not only met but had exceeded our escalation of the war and we had reached a decision point. In his view there were two options:
– Option One: We could arrange whatever diplomatic cover we could arrange and pull out of South Vietnam.
– Option Two: We could give Gen. Westmoreland the 200,000 more U.S. troops he was asking for, in which case by early 1967 we would have over 500,000 Americans on the ground and they would be dying at the rate of 1,000 a month. (He was wrong; the death toll would reach over 3,000 a month at the height of the war). “All we can possibly achieve (by this) is a military stalemate at a much higher level of violence,” McNamara wrote.
…On Dec. 15, 1965, the President assembled what he called the “wise men” for a brainstorming session on Vietnam. He entered the Cabinet Room holding McNamara’s memo. He shook it at McNamara and asked: “Bob, you mean to tell me no matter what I do I can’t win in Vietnam?” McNamara nodded yes; that was precisely what he meant. The wise men sat in session for two days. Participants say there was no real discussion of McNamara’s Option One; it would have sent the wrong message to our Cold War allies — and at the end there was a unanimous vote in favor of Option Two — escalating and continuing a war that our leaders now knew we could not win.
…Remember. This was 1965, 10 years before the last helicopter lifted off that roof in Saigon. It’s a hell of a lot easier to get sucked into a war or jump feet first into a war than it is to get out of a war.”
ANCIENT FRENCH JINGLE
Bounce and Dance,
Bounce and Dance,
Jiggle on your Strings,
Whistle toward the Graveyard,
Nobody knows Who or What
Moves your Batten
You’ll Not Find Out.
Frontspiece in Whistle