RT Breaker Patrol, the Hill Battles of Vietnam
March 1, 2006
RT Breaker Patrol does its job, "The Hill Battles" of 1967
The period January - May 1967 was a very important one. The level of combat operations rose sharply inside the DMZ during the early part of 1967.
Welcome to I Corps. An attack, somewhere in I Corps. Posted by Allyn Hinton. Presented by popasmoke.com
Two full North Vietnamese divisions, the 325th and 304th, operating out of the DMZ, launched heavy bombardments of American bases south of the DMZ, including Khe Sanh, the Rockpile, Cam Lo, Dong Ha, Con Thien, and Gio Linh. A third NVA division was moved to Route 9 east of Khe Sanh to cut off land reinforcement and resupply from the east.
It was later learned that General Giap had one goal and two major objectives. The goal was to force the RVN to sue for peace following conditions set down by Hanoi. The two objectives were to defeat and destroy the Marines at Khe Sanh, and launch country-wide attacks in force against every major city in South Vietnam. Of these two objectives, destroying the Marines at Khe Sanh was number one.
The first objective began with the Hill Battles of 1967, which we will soon describe, and extended through the 1968 Siege of Khe Sanh. General Giap did not achieve his first objective. He did not destroy the Marines at Khe Sanh, though his troopers gave the Marines one helluva fight, a cause celeb among many journalists. But the Marines, supported by the rest of the US military, defeated the NVA and VC endeavor.
The second objective ended up as the Tet Offensive of 1968, which we will not address in this report. Here again, Giap did not achieve his objective. His forces caused great havoc throughout South Vietnam, and sent the US media into a tizzy, but when it was over, US forces defeated their enemies in every location attacked.
It is truly regrettable that the US media and anti-war movement were able to distort these realities.
In any event, it is now January 1967 and the Marines first came to Khe Sanh with a ground combat battalion, the 1/3 Marines, four months earlier, in September 1966. These Marines worked to keep the enemy off balance, working to prevent another North Vietnamese attack from the north and the west.
While it seems almost incredible, the suits back in Washington decided it a good idea to construct an unmanned barrier across the DMZ, called the strong point obstacle system (SPOS). This idea was hatched by some professors at Harvard and sold to Secretary of Defense McNamara in 1966. Its unclassified nickname was Practice Nine, later called Dye Marker, but it came to be known as the "McNamara Line."
The anti-infiltration system, popularly known as the McNamara Line or Electric Fence, was envisioned as a 40-kilometer-long physical barrier supported by early warning devices and carefully selected fortified positions constructed on key terrain and manned as appropriate. It was intended to counter the massive infiltration of North Vietnamese troops and equipment across the demilitarized zone. The sensors, early warning devices, were designed to be used in a linear obstacle field. Presented by Department of Army Cnter for Military History, “The War in the Northern Provinces, 1966-1968,” by Lieutenant General Willard Pearson, 1975
General Westmoreland was not fond of the Harvard-McNamara idea, but, over the objections of his other commanders, agreed with it because it matched a plan he had to construct a manned and fortified obstacle barrier. And Westmoreland ordered the Marines to build it, despite protests from General Walt and others. Therefore, it could have been called the "Westmoreland line."
General Walt opposed the idea. He felt he needed reinforcements to hold off a potential North Vietnamese annexation of South Vietnam’s two northern provinces, not expending valuable Marines to build an obstacle system. And he surely did not want to use his Marines to conduct defensive patrols along this fixed obstacle system. It is exceedingly hard to imagine how this high-tech equipment was supposed to survive enemy artillery barrages an US air attacks into the DMZ.
In any event, General Walt initially lost the debate and saluted.
This photo was taken in summer 1967. You can see the firebreak, aka the McNamara line. Gio Linh is at the far end of the clearing, South China Sea just beyond with Dong Ha to the right. To the left is the DMZ. Sgt. William E. Lyell, USMC, Ret. 11th Engineer Battalion "Builders of the McNamara Line." Presented by popasmoke.com
In January 1967 MACV completed its Practice Nine Requirement Plan, and on March 26 General Westmoreland ordered III MAF to prepare a plan for locating, constructing, and occupying the SPOS south of the DMZ. In April 1967 the Marines of the 3rd Division began erecting the barrier, devoting most of their energy to preparatory clearing and construction, though serious work did not occur until later in the year, and would terminate soon thereafter.
In retrospect, Westmoreland's strategy with regard to Khe Sanh had changed over time. First, in 1964, he saw it as a launching point for intelligence gathering into Laos and the DMZ area, even into North Vietnam, by special forces and South Vietnamese irregulars. By 1966, he made it the center-piece of his plan to invade Laos and shut down the logistics pipeline over the trail. At that point, he considered it to be of great strategic importance, which is why he sent the Marines to the base and upgraded the airfield. Khe Sanh continued to carry this strategic importance into 1967, but now, with the SPOS, Westmoreland effectively made it a defensive strongpoint as well, the westernmost point of the system. In an article for Vietnam magazine entitled "Strategic crossroads at Khe Sanh," James I. Marino said this:
"While Westmoreland still hoped to use Khe Sanh in an offensive capacity, it fit into a defensive scheme for I Corps. Hanoi's attacks into I Corps in 1966 and 1967, as perceived by Westmoreland, gave an added defensive dimension to Khe Sanh. The base and its adjacent outposts commanded the main avenue of approach into eastern Quang Tri and, as Westmoreland saw it, formed a solid block to an enemy invasion or motorized supply from the west."
This view was confirmed by Lieutenant General Willard Pearson in his superb study presented by the Department of the Army in 1975, entitled “The War in the Northern Provinces, 1966-1968." General Pearson made the following pivotal statement:
“The western anchor of the defense line was the Khe Sanh Combat Base near Dong Tri Mountain (Hill 1015) in the formidable Annamite Mountains.”
The problem here for the Marines was they will defend, they know how to defend, but their forte is to attack. You will see that the Marines prevailed with regard to defense of Khe Sanh. The Marine defense was largely based on attacking.
In late February 1967, General Westmoreland authorized III MAF to fire artillery against military targets inside and north of the DMZ. The enemy replied with artillery barrages against allied fire bases at Gio Linh, Con Thien and Camp Carroll.
Westmoreland also decided to reinforce southern I Corps with large Army units to free the Marines to move more forces north. Army Task Force (TF) Oregon was organized as a multi-brigade force.
Headquarters, Task Force Oregon, Chul Lai, RVN. Presented by Department of Army Center for Military History, “The War in the Northern Provinces, 1966-1968,” by Lieutenant General Willard Pearson, 1975
The first Army units started arriving in I Corps in April 1967. The Task Force set up shop at Chu Lai, which is where the 1st MARDIV was headquartered. It was commanded by Major General William B. Rossen.
This was the first large Army deployment into I Corps. TF Oregon was under the operational control of III MAF, technically making III MAF a joint command. But it had a great deal of operational independence. That became increasingly true as time passed.
Marine units continued assembling from throughout Quang Tri province and elsewhere to hold the fort close to the DMZ. As they did this, they set up bases and logistics facilities in the DMZ area, the largest of which was at Dong Ha on the eastern terminus of Route 9, where it insects the north-south Route 1. Another was set up at Camp Carroll, eight miles southwest of Dong Ha, a large artillery base, and at a smaller artillery base at a place known as the Rock Pile, ten miles west of Camp Carroll. And, of course, they were already at Khe Sanh and would continue that base's growth.
Photo taken in front of the ready room at Dong Ha, looking north towards the runway. The usual mix of aircraft, H-34s, 53s, some Hueys. Jan/Feb 1967. The first buildings started going up in January. Presented by popasmoke.com
Camp Carroll taken from the air from south side, looking to the north. Upper left is the Cam Lo River. Upper right is refugee camp, Most of the artillery is in the foreground. Just above the gun barrel is Route 9, running through the valley. Photo credit: The Major Ron Losee, April 1968. Presented by 2/9 Marines.
Army 8/4 Artillery supported the Marines from the Rockpile (seen in the background) from 1966 onward. Photo posrted by George Curtis, presented by popasmoke.com
Well, finally we are at May 1967 and Alpha Company, 3rd Marine Recon, 3rd Marine Division, III MAF, Khe Sanh Combat Base, Republic of Vietnam, and its RT Breaker Patrol. Let's look at these two maps just one more time.
Regrettably, neither map identifies Hill 665, where Breaker Patrol conducted its mission. It is, however, located about 5 miles (about 8kms) north of the Hill 881N-881S-861 complex, just off the second map. You might recall Lieutenant General Willard Pearson's description of the area. Here it is again:
“The rugged mountainous countryside provided a natural infiltration route. Most of the mountain trails were hidden by three canopies of jungle up to 60 feet high, dense elephant grass, and bamboo thickets. Concealment from reconnaissance aircraft was good, and the heavy jungle undergrowth limited ground observation to five meters in most places. The most conspicuous terrain feature is Dong Tri Mountain, at 1,015 meters the highest peak in the region. Four smaller hills—Hill 881 North, Hill 861, Hill 558, and Hill 881 South—dominated the main avenues of approach to the base. It was on and around these smaller hills that most of the significant battles were fought during the first phase of what was to become the long and stubborn struggle for Khe Sanh.”
Ray Stubbe, holding services at Khe Sanh, Vietnam. Photo credit: Dick Swanson, 1966. Presented by Khe Sanh Veterans Home Page, dedicated to all who served and died at Khe Sanh 1962 - 1972
Chaplain Rev. Ray Stubbe, a navy chaplain from Wisconsin stationed with his Marines at Khe Sanh during this period, compiled text from official records and personal narratives of those involved in the Hill Battles. These were published in the Khe Sanh Veterans Newsletter’s special edition in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Hill Battles of Khe Sanh. His report is very detailed, superb source document. We need to summarize it to give a better flavor for what had been experienced before Breaker Patrol was inserted on Hill 665.
The photos employed are for descriptive purposes and do not represent the actual event described.
HMM-363's Lucky Red Lions YZ-80 down at Hill 881. Photo sent by S/Sgt Bob Adams "HABU" / 66-67 / 1stSgt USMC Retired. Presented by popasmoke.com
The enemy was in the region in force and contacts began to increase early in 1967. Cpl. Michael John Scanlon of the 3rd Recon was the first Marine killed at Khe Sanh, January 18, 1967. Four Marine helicopters were lost in fighting January 26-27. The B/1/9 Marines arrived to replace the 1/3 Marines on February 6. So, what happened here is that a company, Bravo Co., of Marines replaced a battalion. We believe that from this point on through April 24, 1967, there were never more than two infantry companies at Khe Sanh. We believe G/2/9 Marines was there for a few weeks. The Army had some air defense units there, known as the "Dusters," a Marine Ontos anti-tank vehicle platoon, and various people sent in and out to help man the perimeter of the combat base to free the infantry for their patrols to the surrounding hills.
This is a photo of NVA coming down across Laos toward Khe Sanh, taken in 1968 by a US Army special operations group team operating out of Phu Bai. When asked how many NVA they had observed, the answer was "Thousands of 'em!". This is a clear photo showing the "Rice Bags" used to feed them on the long march down from North Vietnam. Presented by popasmoke.com
Recon patrols reported a significant NVA presence. USAF "Tigerhound" observation aircraft reported "an alarming buildup of fortifications and NVA activity on the hills overlooking the base." The base commander was unconvinced. A Special Operations patrol went out and took a look up near Hills 881 and 861, and reported "numerous bunkers, lots of enemy." The base commander remained unconvinced. The special ops guys recommended laying down a moving barrage of artillery all the way up the hills while Marines walk behind it and take care of what the artillery missed. The commander refused.
He did, howver, send two infantry platoons, the first and third platoons of Bravo Company, 1/9 Marines (B/1/9) over to Hill 861 about a week later, on April 24, 1967, to "clean up" whatever enemy were there. By the time their fight was over, the Marines lost 14 KIA, 18 WIA and two missing, with an estimated 100 enemy killed. The survivors and supporting helicopter pilots talked in terms of companies of enemy. Not everyone was able to get out, so they remained overnight.
The Khe Sanh base commander still refused to believe there to be a significant enemy force in the hills. A NVA soldier surrendered on April 25, and told the Marines he was from the 4th Battalion, 32 Regiment. If true, this meant there was a significant force in the area. Recall the Marines had only two infantry battalions at Khe Sanh when everyone was there. We have seen Marines comment frequently that they were moved around Quang Tri so much it was hard to keep track.
K/3/3 and a 3/3 command group decided to go back to the scene on April 25 to help out B/1/9 and get everyone out. Helicopter medevacs were unable to get in because of heavy enemy fire, and then a heavy fog set in. Fighting broke out everywhere around Hill 861, it started getting dark, and young Marines were engaged with the enemy and at the same time trying to retrieve wounded and the killed. The fighting was fierce. Most interestingly, the enemy began firing rockets at Khe Sanh base, right over the heads of the Marines on the hill. The Marines watched the rockets fly over their heads toward the base and called the base warning of the incoming.
The next day, the Marines found out that the NVA executed an orchestrated, simultaneous attack on multiple Marine bases near the DMZ. Furthermore, they determined that the NVA had moved an entire division into Laos, moved a full regiment into Hills 881N, 881S and 861, and intended to facilitate the attack and capture Khe Sanh base, and the destruction of the Marines located there. The belief was that one regiment would hold these three hills, and pass through one or two more regiments through to attack the base. It is important to emphasize here that US conventional ground forces were not permitted to enter Laos, but a full NVA Division was in South Vietnam for the purpose of destroying the Marines at Khe Sanh. Something wrong with the calculus, thanks to the suits in Washington and the frantic unknowing anti-war movement back home.
This Marine Recon Team has just been inserted near its target operating area, January 19, 1968. Photo credit: Charles "Chuck" Nowotny. Presented by popasmoke.com
RT Hawk, or Hawk Patrol, Alpha Co., 3rd Marine Recon, led by Cpl. Robin Walker, with one more corporal, three lance corporals, and three privates first class as team members, was inserted by H-46 helicopter in an area about five miles north of the three hills described above, on a ridge that led to Hill 665, on April 18, 1967. The team found so much evidence of NVA presence that it decided to move to high ground to observe as much as they could. Hawk Patrol stayed in its covert location for five days, reporting little enemy movement during the day, extensive movement at night.
CH-46 prepares to extract Recon Unit, 1969. Photo from MAG-16 files. Presented by popasmoke.com
On the morning of April 25, a small group of enemy inadvertently walked into Hawk Patrol's kill zone and were engaged. Close combat ensued and quickly the team was down to four effective fighters. Cpl. Rudolph, the assistant team leader, took charge because Walker had been hit. Rudolph told Walker to take LCpl Baker and find a landing zone (LZ) for helicopter extraction. They did so. The first H-46 and attending gunships were rattled with heavy enemy fire and the rescue bird was unable to get in. It turned out he had to abort because both door gunner's weapons jammed. The second H-46 came in, commanded by Capt. House, co-pilot 1Lt Dalton, it hid below heavy gunship fire, and landed and picked up all of Hawk Patrol. House and Dalton babied their heavily battle damaged H-46 back to Khe Sanh and made it only by the grace of God.
It was later learned Hawk Patrol had run into elements of an enemy battalion going to Hill 881 to help out in the battles described previously.
RT Hawk Patrol suffered six badly wounded or unconscious, two still able to operate. Their extraction was anything but simple, receiving automatic weapons fire, and hand grenades as the crew tried to drag the wounded to the helo. The helo was leaking transmission fluid, the first head count of retrieved team members totaled only five, and a crew member had to go back out there to help a Hawk Team member retrieve two other wounded. They did it, and all of Hawk Patrol was medevaced to Danang and made it through.
This is a photo of troops from the 173 Airborne fighting in Hill 875, to give you the idea of what it was like. A reader has told us that the soldier in the foreground under the uprooted tree is Rocky Stone and the guy running is "El Tee." Photo presented by Vets with a Mission.
This kind of fighting continued through early May. By the time it was "over," the Marines evicted the NVA from Hill 861 (April 28, 1967), threw their asses off Hill 881-S (May 2, 1967), and ran them off Hill 881-N (May 3, 1967 and again on May 5).
The Marines control Hill 881. Photo taken fall 1967. A Marine victory, big time. Presented by popasmoke.com
As far as we have been able to learn, the Marines suffered 168 KIA, 443 WIA, and two MIA during this period. They confirmed 807 enemy dead, another 611 probable kills, and six POWs.
"Because of its critical nature, the destruction of the base and forces at Khe Sanh probably has been an enemy objective of long standing. Enemy determination to destroy Khe Sanh or to attack it as a means of attracting US/ ARVN forces into a Dien Bien Phu type situation has been whetted by the fact that Khe Sanh is isolated in an area that favors the enemy in terms of terrain and weather.
“The key terrain occupied and the enemy routed, the battle had been won, won by the determination and heroism of the individual Marine trooper.”
As an aside, "Brute" Krulak got his name during his first days at the Naval Academy. He arrived there at the age of 16, standing 5' 5" short, weighing in at 121 pounds! He proceeded to fight his way through WWII, Korea and Vietnam, retiring at the rank of lieutenant general, USMC. One more point. He very much supported General Walt's ideas, aggressively advocating pacification and civic action programs.
Regrettably, this kind of war and these kinds of battles just don’t summarily end. As Chaplain Stubbe said:
“Major battles may be won and decisive victories achieved, but there nevertheless remain the ‘mopping-up’ operations that are just as deadly as the encounter with death in the decisive battle. The Angel of Death continued to lurk at Khe Sanh.”
Marines experienced that reality right away, on May 9, patrolling near Hill 881-N and Hill 803. Fox Company 2/3 Marines suffered 24 KIA and 19 WIA on that day (N.B. We have seen a list that says 20 KIA in this fight).
Well, we were motivated to do this report by Breaker Patrol from Alpha Company, 3rd Recon, which lost four men that same day. The truth is that these battles continued on through 1967, through the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh, fought from January 21, 1968 through March 30, 1968, and through the time the 3rd Marine Division was ordered to withdraw from Khe Sanh, and Vietnam. In the beginning of this report, we briefly summarized RT Breaker Patrol's day on Hill 665 from May 9-10, 1967, and we said Lynne Duke and others had done a very thorough job of describing their battle. We'll not go over their battle again. We hope you understand why they were there.
"The North Vietnamese still want Khe Sanh and we are still trying to keep them from getting it."
General Westmoreland relinquished command of MACV to General Creighton Abrams on June 11, 1968, and on June 12, General Abrams secretly ordered the Marines to withdraw and the base to be closed. At the time, the NVA was thought to have 40,000 men in the DMZ, two divisions, and effectively these enemy forces were stalled because of the fierce American defense with significantly fewer forces.
For a number of reasons, the US closed Khe Sanh Combat Base in June 1968. The Army used it for a while, and the ARVN used it virtually until the bitter end. The ARVN invaded Laos from this base.
On October 9, 1968 elements of Kilo Company, 4th Marines held the official ceremony paying tribute to those that served and lost their lives at Khe Sanh (Photo presented by popasmoke.com). Many Marines were extraordinarily bitter at leaving the base after they had paid such a high price to defeat the NVA/VC and shatter General Giap's highest priority objective
Robert Topmiller, an assistant professor of history and a student of Khe Sanh, expessed the outrage of abandoning this base:
"After 'over 1,000 Americans died fighting for Khe Sanh in 1968', Marine veterans of the battle witnessed the outrageous spectacle of the US command giving up the position without a fight where so many young Marines had recently struggled and died ... Perhaps ... a metaphor for the frustration and futility felt by those who clashed over thousands of 'patch[es] of ground' throughout the Vietnam War."
During the Vietnam War, 3rd Recon lost over 200 men and suffered a 40 percent casualty rate. Four men received the Congressional Medal of Honor, all posthumously; thirteen the Navy Cross, the second highest award in the Marines, and at least 86 the Silver Star for gallantry in action.
The Medal of Honor recipients were:
Thanks to Jim Jones, webmaster of www.3rdrecon.org for the photo of Richard A. Anderson. The photo was taken approximately 3 days before his death. Presented by Neil Mishalov's web site.
Richard A. Anderson, Lance Corporal, U.S. Marine Corps, Company E, 3d Reconnaissance Battalion, 3d Marine Division. Place and date: Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam, 24 August 1969.
Looking directly at the camera is Lt. Terrence C. Graves. Thanks to Guy A. Pete for the above photograph; which was taken in January, 1968. The location was at Dong Ha, 3rd Force Reconnaissance company base camp area. Presented by Neil Mishalov's web site.
Terrence Collinson Graves, Second Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps, 3d Force Reconnaissance Company, 3d Reconnaissance Battalion, 3d Marine Division (Rein), FMF. Place and date: Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam, 16 February 1968.
RT "Harbor Queen" (3-C-1) patrol members, 1968. Pfc. Robert Jenkins is standing front row, center. Presented by Vietnam Veterans.
Robert H. Jenkins, Jr., Private First Class, U.S. Marine Corps, 3d Reconnaissance Battalion, 3d Marine Division (Rein), FMF. Place and date: Fire Support Base Argonne, Republic of Vietnam, 5 March 1969.
Lt. Frank Reasoner. Presented by Neil Mishalov's web site.
Reasoner, Frank S., First Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps, Company A, 3d Reconnaissance Battalion, 3d Marine Division. Place and date: near Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam, 12 July 1965.
Alpha Recon Association has its own web site. We want you to read the following text presented by that association:
Alpha Company, 3rd Recon Battalion, Vietnam. Presented by Vietnam Veterans Home Page.
"Alpha Company 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion has a very long and honored legacy. Its roots lie with the formation of Company E Scouts, 3rd Tank Battalion, on 16 September 1942 as part of the newly created 3rd Marine Division. During W.W.II early 3rd Reconnaissance Marines distinguished themselves at Bougainville, Solomon Islands, Guam, and Iwo Jima. This gallery will honor those Recon Marines from Alpha Company that carried on the traditions of our Founding Fathers during the Vietnam War.
"The entire company was deployed in Vietnam from 7 May 1965 until 7 October 1969 however many smaller deployments from the company were in country and offshore as early as 1961. During 1964 Alpha Company was assigned airstrip perimeter duty at Danang during a time of the rapid buildup of U.S. Military Forces in Southeast Asia. Alpha Company was deployed in the areas of Chu Lai, Danang, Phu Bai, Dong Ha, Khe Sanh, and Quang Tri.
"During the Vietnam War Alpha Company Marines were awarded one Medal of Honor (Lt. Frank Reasoner), five Navy Cross's, nineteen Silver Stars, scores of Bronze Stars, and a unknown number of Purple Hearts that surely total several hundred. Approximately 650 Marines served in Alpha between 1965 and 1969 with 55 Gallant Marines Killed In Action."
We have one final piece of business. You will recall that Breaker Patrol was forced to leave four behind. Their remains have been recovered, they were returned home, and they have been buried. We'll close with the final section describing their repatriation.
RT Breaker Patrol's heroic four return home after 38 years, 2005