The “Walking Dead,” the 1-9 Marines in Vietnam
By Ed Marek, editor
September 16, 2010
To do this story, I cover the period from when the Marines arrived in the RVN in 1965 through the date Martin was killed, April 1967. There is a great deal of history in between. I cannot describe it all, but I can certainly hit the high points. And of course, there was a great deal of history after, but I’ll not address that here.
At the outset, I wish to say that the role of the Marines in the Vietnam part of the Indochina War changed dramatically during the period we are covering. Not only did their role change, but the manner in which they were employed became very fluid, including their command and control. You will see as we press ahead that the Marines were stretched to the max.
The Marines originally arrived to provide outside-the-fence security for Danang Air Base (AB), but by the time Martin was killed, the Marines were focused on the the near environs of the DMZ in what some Marines termed a “holding action” to prevent a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) full-tilt invasion of the RVN. For his part, Martin was killed in Dong Ha, far to the north of Danang AB and very close to the DMZ. I want to explain why he and so many other Marines ended up being so highly concentrated there.
Cindy L. Taylor “Martin/Tatum,” the “baby sister” of Pfc. Martin, sent me an e-mail and asked if I could help her find specific facts with regard to Greg’s time in the RVN from approximately October 1966 - April 19, 1967. I was not of much help, but I told her I would explain the background to help her and her family better understand why her brother was there. This motivated me to tell this story.
Martin is listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Panel 18E Line 049. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial page lists him as KIA on April 19, 1967 in Quang Tri Province, RVN, “Hostile, ground casualty misadventure.” His body was recovered. The term “misadventure” usually means “friendly fire.”
Greg was born in Ohio on July 24, 1947. His home of record was Simi, California. He was a rifleman with C/1-9 Marines. He was on patrol when ambushed. The family believes he was a radioman at the time. The family knows he was killed by friendly fire, and believes he was shot through the head. His body was recovered and repatriated. The information provided to the family was drafted by Major J.R. Sweeny and released by Lt. Colonel J.J. Kelly.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial page presents the Situation Report (SITREP) describing what happened. It was issued by the 1-4 Marines who, on April 19, 1967, had operational control over the C/1-9 Marines.
Dong Ha Combat Base, 1967
C/1-9 and an element of the 1-4 Marines were conducting local security operations around Dong Ha Combat Base. On April 19, at night, C/1-9 set out to man an ambush position. Why do this? The Marines knew the enemy was close by and might use one of several lines of entry to attack the base. This was a critical logistics base for the Marines in northern Quang Tri Province. So the Marines, who like to go outside the fence to search out the enemy before the enemy attacks, set up what they thought would be a good point from which to meet the enemy and ambush him.
At 6:10 pm the 1-4 forward command post received about nine incoming 82 mm mortar rounds. They returned fire with artillery and 81 mm mortars.
Then at 8:30 pm C/1-9 Marines reported a friendly ambush hit another friendly ambush by mistake. There were no enemy in the area at the time. A South Vietnamese Popular Forces (PF) guide led the Headquarters & Service (H&S) Company element of the 1/9 into the ambush area. A Vietnamese PF soldier opened fire on the C/1-9, the remainder of the H&S Marines spread the fire, and apparently Martin was caught between two ambush patrols and was hit and killed.
Marines inspecting South Vietnamese Popular Forces (PF)
CAP 2-9-2 Marines with PF, two Marines are Andy and Ed, last names unavailable, vicinity Duc To, RVN, photo by Jack Cunningham
Who were the Popular Forces? They were an integral part of Marine strategy at the time. The Marines operated what they called the Combined Action Program (CAP) during the Vietnam War, from 1965-1971. This was a locally developed program that enabled Marine battalions to expand their Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR). A squad of Marines would be combined with local PFs and the Marines would assign them to protect a certain village. The idea was to create a village defense platoon. It was a counterinsurgency concept, not popular with many military planners, especially Army, in Saigon and elsewhere.
You’ll see in this presentation that I provide a lot of maps. I do that to give the reader the lay of the land as they may not be familiar with the geography. The geography was a huge issue for the Marines. At the outset of this war, the younger Marines were more familiar with flat coastal areas than rugged, jungle-laden mountainous areas. Of course the older cadre, those from Korea and even WWII, were well versed in such difficult terrain. As was the case for all the services in the Indochina War, our military as a general rule was not prepared for the kinds of challenges they would face. They learned quickly, as they always have.
Let’s highlight some geographical points with this map.
- This map depicts how the RVN was divided into four corps as shown in the lower left corner. The map’s main purpose is to highlight I Corps. I Corps was for much of the Indochina War “Marine Country” though significant numbers of Army forces were sent in after several years to reinforce the Marines.
- I Corps was the northern-most corps of the RVN. It had five provinces, each highlighted by yellow rectangles. I Corps was known as “Marine Country.” The Marines were in charge of operations here until they left.
- Quang Tri, the province in which Martin was killed, bordered the so-called DMZ. This province would end up to be the main focus of the Marines in this war.
- The combat base he and his brothers-in-arms were protecting was Dong Ha, marked by the red dot. It was the capital of Quang Tri Province.
- Dong Ha was at the junction of Highways 1 (blue arrow) and 9 (green arrow). Hwy 1 was a major north-south logistics highway supporting Allied forces. Hwy 9 was a major east-west logistics route supplying the Marines, it ran roughly parallel with the DMZ, and it extended into Laos. Both highways were frequent enemy targets. It was essential for the Marines to keep these routes open, a difficult chore indeed.
- Dong Ha was located only 12 miles from the DMZ. It was a permanent helicopter and major logistics base supporting the northern area of the RVN. It was the location of the northernmost aviation units in the RVN.
- Da Nang (Danang) is marked by the green dot to the southeast. It hosted a major US air base, arguably among the most important in the RVN
- Chu Lai, marked by the blue dot, was a USMC base and had an airfield that was nearly as busy as Danang. It was also home to the Army’s Americal Division.
- As an editorial aside, there was nothing demilitarized about the DMZ. The enemy operated inside it all the time, and conducted multiple attacks against the RVN and the US Marines through it. Broadly speaking, the Marines remained south of the DMZ, though often sitting right on the line, the Marines were authorized by 1967 to fire artillery into the DMZ, USAF and Naval Air did attack enemy forces in the DMZ and north of it, and Naval special landing teams did enter the DMZ on occasion, flown in from ships offshore. But on balance, the DMZ was enemy territory.
- The 9th Marines legacy is very impressive, filled with untold valor and courage.
The 1-9 Marines was formed during WWI. During WWII, it was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division (MARDIV) and deployed to New Zealand. It fought in the Bougainville Campaign, North Solomons, the Battle of Guam, and the Battle of Iwo Jima. The battalion was deactivated in September 1994. The regiment began reforming in September 2005. It was informally reactivated in October 2005. Alpha Company was the first to come on line and deployed to Iraq in April 2006 for a six month tour. The full regiment was officially reactivated in April 2007 as part of the 2nd MARDIV and deployed to Iraq in March 2008 and remained there through October 2008.
Craig L. Symonds and William J. Clipson, in The Naval Institute historical atlas of the US Navy, wrote this about I Corps:
“Despite the millions of tons of bombs dropped from the air and the thousands of stop-and-search missions at sea, Vietnam was essentially a ground war. And no part of the war was more important or violent than combat in the five northern provinces of South Vietnam collectively known as I Corps (pronounced ‘Eye’ Corps by those who fought there), which was the responsibility of the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).”
The chain of command and the attendant command and control systems employed during the war were about as convoluted as they can get, breaking the age old military rule demanding unity of command. Given the everyday interference in military operations by the suits in Washington, the reality was that the burden of this war rested on the shoulders of each man who fought. They did a spectacular job.
The first Marines landed in the RVN in March 1965 (more on this in a moment).
Lt. General Lew Walt, USMC, Commander, III MAF and 3rd MARDIV
Major General Lew “Silent Lew” “Uncle Lew” Walt, USMC, assumed command of the III MAF and 3rd MARDIV in June 1965. He was promoted to lieutenant general in March 1966 and continued as the III MAF commander until June 1967. He was a WWII, Korean War and Vietnam War veteran, and received two Navy Crosses for his valor in combat.
At the outset, the III MAF operated out of three bases, Danang, Phu Bai, and Chu Lai, each of which was on the coastal plain.
Danang Air Base (AB)
Phu Bai Airfield
The III MAF was responsible for the entire I Corps area abutting the DMZ, an area where major battles persistently occurred. At the outset, the Marines were assigned the task of providing base security at a number of locations in order to free the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to go into the field and fight the enemy. The ARVN could not handle the job, so it did not take long before the Marines were out in the field as well.
The Marines also had a unique perspective on this war, one that might surprise a lot of people who have their own vision of the Marines Corps. Referring back to the Craig L. Symonds and William J. Clipson book:
“The Marines planned to conduct a long-term pacification program based on partnership with ARVN forces and the local populations that would gradually expand pro-government influence through the five provinces. But this strategy clashed with the determination of General William Westmoreland at MACV Headquarters to defeat the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnams units in the field with large-scale operations that would wear down both the capability and the sill of the communists. Bowing to this strategic blueprint, III MAF conducted a number of large-scale operations within I Corps.”
In September 1965, the 1-26 Marines made a combat landing into I Corps and worked as a reconnaissance in force sweep north of Dong Ha. By the end of 1965, III MAF had all its regiments, the 3rd, 4th and 9th Marines on the ground. At the beginning of 1967, III MAF had 18 Marine battalions at bases throughout I Corps. III MAF also had 21 fixed wing and helicopter squadrons of the 1st Marine Air Wing (1 MAW). All together, III MAF had about 70,000 men. This number proved insufficient for the type war Westmoreland wanted conducted.
Generals Westmoreland and Walt did not see eye-to-eye on how to run the war. There was also a political tension between the two. General Walt believed that assignments he received from General Westmoreland were in part designed to force the Marines into static positions to defend against invasion across the DMZ, a mission which would force them to accept an influx of Army reinforcements to southern I Corps, which eventually did happen. I’ll probably overstate the problem this posed for the Marines --- they hate static “Maginot Line” warfare. They far prefer maneuver and mobility.
With that as a broad introduction, let’s narrow the focus to the 9th Marines, especially to the 1-9 Marines.
The 9th MEB landed at Danang (also Da Nang) (Red Beach) on March 8, 1965. The MEB consisted of two Marine Battalion Landing Teams (BLTs).
Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3-9 Marines was the first unit to land in Vietnam, on March 8, 1965, Lt. Colonel Charles E. McPartllin, Jr. in command. BLT 3-9 landed at Red Beach 2.
Some say this was the first conventional ground combat unit in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Others have described the unit as the first battalion-sized ground combat unit to be deployed to the RVN. So there is some word-smithing going on. I’m sensitive to this, because I have in the past mentioned the Marines were the first combat units to come to the RVN and some readers have hopped all over my mess kit, asserting that securing Danang Air Base (AB) was not “combat.” I do not agree with that having read accounts of what the Marines did to secure the base, a bit of which we will discuss later.
BLT 1-9 Marines land at Danang, June 16, 1965
On June 16, 1965, BLT 1-9 Marines relieved BLT 3-9, Lt. Colonel Verle E. Ludwig in command. The 3-9 Marines returned to Okinawa.
2-9 Marines land at Danang, July 4, 1965
On July 4, 1965, the 9th Marines headquarters arrived, Colonel Frank Garretson in command. The 2-9 Marines also arrived at this time, Lt. Colonel George R. Schamberg in command. The 3-9 Marines returned in mid-August, meaning the entire regiment was now committed. The 9th Marines remained in the RVN for four years.
During the period we are exploring in the RVN, October 1966 - April 1967, the 1-9 Marines participated in Operations Macon, Deckhouse, Prairie II, Chinook II, Beacon Hill, Prairie Ill and Prairie IV.
Two from its ranks received the Medal of Honor for their valor in the Indochina War, on the left, Sgt. Walter K. Singleton (posthumous), A/1-9 Marines, and Capt. Wesley L. Fox, A/1-9 Marines. Eighteen others received the Navy Cross.
The battalion was commanded during this period by Major James L. Day (Sep 1966 - Mar 1967) and Major Donald J. Fulham (Mar 1967 - June 1967). Major Fulham was in command when Martin was killed. Major Fulham would rise to the rank of major general and commands great respect from the men of the 1-9 Marines.
The 9th Marines operated in three distinct modes.
- From 1965 through early 1967, the 9th Marines operated in the vicinity of Danang AB, usually a bit to the south.
• Then, on April 15, 1967 the 9th Marines moved north to Dong Ha, closer to the DMZ.
• Finally, in mid-1968 the regiment was converted to the Marines’ primary maneuver regiment and moved throughout the 3rd MARDIV area of operations (AOR).
Let’s talk about the first mission, to secure the Danang AB. As mentioned earlier, BLT 1-9 replaced the 3-9 Marines and was tasked to conduct security operations for Danang Air Base (AB).
VNAF A-1H Skyraider
Danang was a RVN Air Force (RVNAF, better known as the VNAF) base in operation since 1958. Indeed, the USAF began training the VNAF in 1955, shortly after the French withdrew. The French left the VNAF one fighter squadron the the USAF helped it build a second fighter squadron equipped with the T-28 converted into a fighter. Then the USAF replaced the old F8F Bearcats of the first squadron and equipped them with A-1Hs from WWII stock.
Danang was a major base for the US during the entire war. It was the most northerly AB in the RVN, on the northeast coastal area about 85 miles south of the DMZ. The VNAF launched from Danang on its first air attack across the DMZ into North Vietnam in February 1965, employing a squadron of A-1 Skyraiders, among the more famous aircraft of the war. They did so as part of the USAF-USN suite of air attacks against the North.
Danang AB grew almost exponentially, hosting every manner of VNAF, USAF and USMC combat air units and transports. She had a single 10,000 ft. asphalt runway and received a parallel runway in 1966. In her day, Danang AB was the busiest single runway airport in In the mid-1960s, some 1,500 landings and takeoffs were recorded on peak days, besides having two extra traffic patterns for helicopters at the edge of the airstrip. When a parallel runway was added in 1966, Danang rivaled Tan Son Nhut AB in Saigon as the world's busiest airport.
I want to talk a bit about this air base to give a better sense for what was involved in securing it.
Most air attacks against North Vietnam by the USAF launched out of Thailand over Laos while Navy fighter-bombers usually launched from carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin, though they also launched from Danang. The Navy was responsible for all the coastal provinces of North Vietnam, which included Haiphong Harbor, while the USAF was responsible for the northern provinces bordering China, which included Hanoi. This photo shows four USAF F-105 “Thud” fighter bombers dropping their bombs escorted by an EB-66 which provided radar jamming defense. In this case, USAF F-4 air superiority fighters might have been aloft high above these aircraft to provide defense should enemy MiG aircraft go after them, or sometimes they would hang back and await “MiG Warnings” at which time they would proceed toward the enemy aircraft and conduct an air-to-air dog fight before the enemy aircraft reached our bombers. Protecting these F-105s was very difficult during the early stages of the war, but refinements increased MiG-kills markedly as time passed by and procedures and technologies were developed.
Danang’s main job was to provide air-to-air support on combat air patrols, but had a wide variety of other missions as well. Danang also provided a close base for distressed aircraft to recover. It also served as a main logistics center for the entire I Corps AOR.
The American host during the period we are covering, late 1966-1967, was the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) “Gunfighters.” The 366th TFW had mostly F-4 Phantom fighters to provide air superiority support to F-105 Thud fighter-bombers attacking into North Vietnam. This particular F-4C was assigned to the 480th TFS, 36th TFW at Danang, 1966. The red arrow points to air-to-air missiles inboard the fuel pod, indicating she was being equipped for an air superiority mission. The green arrow points to an aircraft painted on the fuselage indicating this aircraft had shot down and destroyed an enemy fighter.
In addition, 366 TFW F-4s would attack targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in North Vietnam. They would also provide close air support to troops engaged on the ground. This photo shows an F4-E of the 366th TFW from Danang releasing two bombs at low level on an NVA truck park on the Ho Chi Minh trail.
A wide variety of Allied aircraft, including CIA, flew in and out of the base. For those who were there, they could wake up in the morning and see some strange aircraft parked on the ramps. The point here is that defending Danang was an important job. Keeping this air base fully operational saved untold numbers of Allied lives on the ground and in the air.
Gary Knutson, 366th USAF Security Policeman with K-9 partner “Eric” on perimeter patrol at Danang. Eric was known as “the meanest junkyard dog you never wanted to come across in a dark alley.”
There was a division of effort to secure the base. USAF Security Police (SP) were responsible for the interior of the base, while the 1-9 Marines worked outside the fence.
Marines with a communications jeep on top a mountain about 40 miles south of Danang, serving as an observation post.
At the north end of the ramp, F-104s, A-1s and B-57s were parked, being readied for attack sorties. There was a bomb dump about midfield. And at the south end, there were F-102s and C-130s. The F-102s were deployed for temporary duty from Clark AB, Philippines, responsible for air defense of the base. They were on various levels of alert, so the crews were in tents close-by. Finally, USMC Crusader aircraft, in 1967 from Marine All Weather Fighter Squadron 235 (VMF(AW) 235) were also located near the USAF side of the runway, later located to the west side of the runways in newly built Marine parking revetments.
So the USAF SPs were to guard the interior, while the Marines were to secure the exterior. When the 1-9 Marines arrived, the USAF SPs were not prepared or trained for what was about to occur at the base. The USAF SPs were lightly armed with M-16s, only three 20 round magazines, and no flak jackets. The atmosphere at the time has been described by those who were there as like a stateside base operation. The SPs were trained to guard high value resources, but they were not trained to fight in major combat engagements, a disservice to them to be sure.
Shortly after the 1-9 Marines took over its security role for Danang, there was a significant sapper attack. It occurred on July 1, 1965. The 1-9 had been responsible for security for about a month. One USAF SP was KIA and one Marine and one USAF SP were wounded in action (WIA).
This attack was by mortars and sappers, the latter of whom had slipped onto the base through a hole cut in the fence. Most attacks that followed against the air base were by rockets. The base came to be known as “Rocket City.” The rockets were unguided, and civilians living near the base suffered enormous casualties. For the duration of the war, the US suffered 45 KIA and 586 WIA as a result of the attacks.
The enemy employed mostly Soviet manufactured 140 mm rockets into the air base from positions within six miles from the runways. The enemy launched them mostly at night and through trial and error learned how to calibrate them better and better to hit the runways and aircraft. This photo shows the 140 mm unguided rocket (top), its fuse (middle) and its launcher (bottom). The rocket was about four feet long, and the warhead contained about 10 pounds of high explosives. The fuse fired on impact. The launch tube was aimed at the target, anchored to the ground, the rocket inserted and then fired electronically using a flash light battery.
The 140 mm rocket might not seem like much, and it was not an accurate weapon, but this was a USAF C-130 transport struck by one of these rockets. As you can see, the rocket could do a lot of damage, destroying this particular aircraft.
While there are many testimonies to the fact that the Marines did a great job defending Danang, it is also true that in the beginning the base security effort was disorganized and uncertain. It was sufficiently bad that General Walt took charge of Danang’s overall defense. He began by removing infantry units and established an air defense battalion. This battalion was formed from various logistics service support units and was to be organized as a traditional infantry battalion. As one would expect, this did not work out too well as these men lacked the requisite training and skills. The regular infantry had to return to the job.
From Life magazine, August 25, 1967, caption reads, “After a fishing trip, a Marine and his young friend return to Hoa Hiep. We believe the Marine is from CAP “Echo Two,” consisting of a squad of Marines and two squads of Vietnamese PF. Life article by Don Moser.
For their part, the Marines defending Danang implemented two unconventional approaches to defending the base.
First, they organized Combined Action Platoons (CAP) which were teams of rifle squads who went into the villages surrounding the base. They trained local villagers to defend themselves and help patrol the area. This in turn led to a strong flow of intelligence to the Marines who were then able to intercept and disrupt numerous enemy attempts at the base. Another huge mission was to protect villagers while they were in their rice fields.
Marines guard bridge on Hwy 1 south of Danang
Second, the Marines also worked to establish law and order inside the city of Danang. The Marines remained at Danang until 1969. Following their departure, attacks against the base increased markedly.
It’s worth mentioning here that when the Marines first arrived, their orders were to not engage in day-to-day actions against the enemy. Their role was to protect the base. The suits certainly drew a fine line there! The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was to engage the enemy instead. But the base grew so fast, and became so important that, as indicated in the preceding paragraph, they were soon patrolling densely populated areas all around Danang, especially to the south.
As has always been the Marine trademark, Marines hate sitting still. They much prefer to go out and find the enemy and destroy him. I wish to highlight two points here.
First, the Marines felt their TAOR needed to be expanded to include the region south of the Cau Do Rver, a few miles southwest of Danang. On July 12, just 12 days after the sapper attack described above, D/1-9 Danang Marines received fire from an enemy force from the hamlet of Cam Ne4 (Cam Ne was actually a group of hamlets tied together mainly by common rice fields, so the Marines numbered each one). The Marines pulled back, and called for air support. This particular event resulted in a great deal of bad press for the Marines and the Vietnam War effort in general, as a CBS crew led by Morley Safer accompanied the 1-9 Marines on this mission and filmed Marines burning village homes after the air attack cleared the enemy force that was attacking the Marines. That acknowledged, the Marines knew they had to operate in this region south of the base and city.
Second, please note the group of mountains numbered 282, 364 etc. to the west of the base. This is a terrific photo posted on flickr by arjayempee of the modern day Danang International Airport. What makes it terrific is that he identified several of the major mountains to the west of the base as shown. The Marines had to hold these mountains to prevent the enemy from hurling rockets down on the base from them. The enemy persistently attacked Marines holding positions on these mountains. I have read stories that indicate the 3-9 Marines spent a lot of time in these mountains.
Marine patrols continued almost daily through July and into August. The Marines considered this a VC bastion. On August 3, 1965, the 1-9 Marines were ordered to search out the VC and destroy them, their positions and fortifications. The Marines did just that, and the VC withdrew not wanting to fight the Marines.
The 1-9 Marines initially patrolled what was called the rocket belt. Later in 1968 more Marines from other regiments were added which enabled them to fan out farther.
During that year, the enemy attempted two major thrusts across the DMZ. The first occurred in late June early July 1966. Marine reconnaissance patrols picked up several POWs and the intelligence they provided indicated that the NVA had started moving forces across the DMZ into the RVN. As a result, General Kyle became convinced the NVA was moving a massive amount of forces through the DMZ into the RVN, and prepared a plan which was nicknamed “Operation Hastings,” to repel such an enemy endeavor, Brigadier General Lowell English, deputy commander, 3rd MARDIV, in command.
Hastings was the largest Allied offensive to date in the war, and deserves its own study. Operation Hastings reflects how the enemy had no regard for the DMZ. The enemy viewed it as a place for it to assemble, fir rtillery and then attack into the RVN. US forces were generally not allowed inside the DMZ, though we know that some did operate in there, mainly on reconnaissance missions. Hastings launched out of Dong Ha which highlights one of the reasons it was so important to the Marines. As we continue, you will see that more and more Marines, including the 1-9, had to snuggle up to the DMZ area to prevent enemy invasions across it.
The green arrows highlight the movement of seven battalions of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 9th (2-9) Marines along with the 1st ARVN Division, an ARVN Airborne Division. The black arrows to the left and center reflect the movement of the NVA 324B Division while the smaller black arrow to the east reflects the 341st NVA Division. I might remark here, and I know the map is hard to read,those Marine thrusts for the most part went behind enemy lines already in place that extended from Con Thien to the north to the west of Camp Carroll and slightly to the south and east of Camp Carroll. They had to do this to engage the NVA 324B coming across. In essence, the Marines sandwiched themselves in between two enemy concentrations. It was estimated the enemy numbered from 8,000 - 10,000, while the Allied force numbered around 8,500, perhaps more. These Allied movements were supported by artillery, air and long range guns aboard 7th Fleet ships off-shore.
The operation ran from July 15 - August 3, 1966. The operation forced the enemy’s 324B Division and other enemy elements back across the DMZ or dispersed to the western jungles and even into Laos. General Walt described the NVA troops encountered during Operation Hastings as follows:
"We found them well-equipped, well-trained and aggressive to the point of fanaticism. They attacked in massed formations and died by the hundreds."
Once again, the Marines differed with General Westmoreland with regard to what was happening. The Marines did not think the NVA could handle an invasion across the DMZ because of long logistics lines. The Marines were also concerned about being sucked into a static battle line just south of the DMZ, a task which would take them away from their other responsibilities, which the Marines felt included counter-insurgency with their CAP and base security efforts. But Westmoreland ordered Walt to stop any invasion attempt by the 324B, so Hastings went ahead.
Indeed, in 1967 the mission plan for the Marines in I Corps changed markedly from 1966. The Marines were instructed to counter rapidly any threat of an invasion across the DMZ, destroy VC and NVA units attempting to disrupt the government’s expanding control over the population, and assure the security of the base areas lines of communication that were enabling this expanding control.
ARVN units were now to be responsible for the pacification program, leaving Marine units to take on the tactical missions previously conducted by the ARVN. The net result was that the Marines had their hands filled with challenging combat throughout the year.
While the Allies prevailed in Hastings, a clear and present danger became obvious to the Allies. The 324B and other enemy units were able to break off and get back across the DMZ and into Laos, and the Marines were not allowed to pursue them there. In the end, it looked like Marine concerns about being pinned down along the breadth of the DMZ were on the mark. The enemy learned he was able to move back and forth through the DMZ just about at will, and could even position troops inside the DMZ. This meant that the Marines had to steadily build-up their forces along the DMZ from 1966-1968. In essence, the Marines were in a “holding action,” antithesis to Marine doctrine calling for maneuver and assault. NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap described the situation in I Corps this way:
"The Marines are being stretched as taut as a bowstring."
Furthermore, as the Marines had feared, they did eventually get stuck along a relatively static battle line just south of the DMZ. This had a negative impact on the Marines’ capacity to conduct counter-insurgency. The red box in the map above, by 1967, was known as “Leatherneck Square.” We’ll refer to this area several times. As time went by, the Marines were extended all the way west to Khe Sanh Base and Lang Vey near the Laotian border.
In late 1966, the 3rd MARDIV took control over all US ground forces committed to Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces. General English’s deputy commander set up his command post at Dong Ha while the 3rd MARDIV set up shop at Phu Bai. This caused the 1st MARDIV to move to Danang, though it did leave a Marine brigade (four battalions) at Chu Lai.
Life now gets even more complicated for the Marines. On February 27, 1967, the enemy launched a major rocket attack against Danang AB employing their Soviet-built and supplied 140 mm rockets. They would attack other bases in March and attack Danang again on March 15. These rockets were easy to transport and set up, and required only a couple troops to fire, then pick up and move. During the March 15 attack the enemy hit the base with more than 15 rockets in less than one minute.
The result was that the Marines had to expand their protective patrol area to a range of 9,000 meters vice the previous 5,000 meters. The Marines also had to learn to respond with counter-battery fire within a minute or two of receiving rocket attacks. The intensity of enemy attacks against the Marines grew over the year. At the same time, the enemy continued to build his forces along and inside the DMZ, holding at least three divisions near the DMZ plus positioning other forces around the area.
Army reinforcements move into Quang Tin and Quang Ngai provinces of I Corps
In February 1967, Westmoreland formed a planning group to organize an Army Task Force to send to the I Corps Area. As the Marines had feared, Westmoreland’s intent was to snuggle the Marines up to the DMZ to prevent and invasion and then position Army units in I Corps which had traditionally been “Marine country.” Major General William R. Rossini led the planning effort and created a multi-brigade force of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. It was named Task Force Oregon, it was essentially sized as a division, and became operational on April 20, 1967, one day after our Pfc. Martin was killed by friendly fire near Dong Ha. We have seen reports that Westmoreland really wanted Army reinforcements to go into all five provinces of I Corps, but had to settle for the southern two, Quang Tin and Quang Ngai, with headquarters at Duc Pho (black arrow).
Beginning on February 21, 1967, the 1-9 Marines conducted the Chinook series of operations to sweep down Route 1 and keep it open to Allied traffic. The French coined Route 1 as 'la ru’le sans joie, or “Street Without Joy.” As far as I can tell, this series has been variously named Chinook and Chinook II. Whatever the case, they ran from February 21 through April 4, 1967. It was a 9th Marines operation.
During the period March through April 1967, the 1-9 Marines were involved in four other major operations. The four operations during this period were:
- Beacon Hill (Mar-April 1967)
- Prairie III (Mar-Apr 1967)
- Prairie IV (Apr-May 1967)
- Chinook II (April 1967)
You will recall that by late 1966 early 1967, the Marines found themselves responsible for preventing a NVA invasion across the DMZ, and that’s what they did, though at great cost. They had to make sure the enemy did not set up a major base in Quang Tri province. Marine units were shuffled all over the place. But the enemy had succeeded at drawing US forces away from the coastal plains and into the rugged center of the province.
Operation Beacon Hill began on March 20, 1967. It was fought in Quang Tri, north of Cam Lo between Cam Lo and Gio Linh and northeast of Dong Ha, “Leatherneck Square.” The 1-4 Marines led the charge here, while the 1-9 Marines led the charge in the closely related Prairie III. Beacon Hill terminated on April 1. Naval bombardment supported the operation. This was a search and destroy mission with combined amphibious and heliborne assault - air insertion operations by the 7th Fleet’s Special Landing Force (SLF) with BLT 1-4 Marines. These SLFs would often go into the DMZ. The USS Monticello ( LSD-35), a dock landing ship, served as the primary command ship for the operation. The US lost 29 killed and 230 wounded while the enemy lost 334 killed and four POWs.
One Marine, who chose to report anonymously, said the fighting was “fierce, ferocious, and intense.” They experienced “fire fights, mortars, mines, artillery and rocket rounds, booby traps, ambushes, acts of terrorism, and hand-to-hand combat.” Much of the fighting was at close range in dense jungle foliage.
III MAF authorized a series of Prairie Operations, beginning on August 3, 1966. This map shows the Prairie Area of Operations (AO) as it existed in November 1966. In the beginning, it was designed to send in small recon elements to scout out where the enemy was. They had no trouble finding them throughout the AO. Among other things, Westmoreland told the Marines to get some strength over to Khe Sanh to the west, off this map.
The net result was that virtually all the operations named Prairie spanned the breadth of the area south of the DMZ. It became an “area operation.” This new AO was now a Marine AO. By now, you recognize many of the names on this map. Prior to this time, the Marines were concentrated on Leatherneck square to the east. But now they were at the Rock Pile, Ca Lu, Khe Sanh and Lang Vei and their near environs all to the west.
Looking across the Ben Hai River into North Vietnam. The DMZ was supposed to extend about 5 kms to either side of the river.
Both Beacon Hill and Priaire III were in response to concentrated enemy efforts targeted at the Cam Lo and Gio Linh Districts of Quang Tri Province. On the earlier map, I circled the main points the Marines had to defend and where they fought. Note they even went so far as to belly up to the Ben Hai River Banks at the DMZ itself. Among Marine top priority concerns was to protect its Dong Ha logistics facilities. The 3rd Marine Division (MARDIV) had the deck and the con in this area, with troops located at company-strength outposts such as the Cua Viet port facilities, Gio Linh, Mai Loc, Ba Long, and Ca Lu, and a two company outpost at Khe Sanh. The Marines aggressively conducted reconnaissance operations throughout the area, attempting to find the enemy and engage him either directly or by calling in reinforcements and/air.
Naval landing craft delivering supplies to Dong Ha
In the case of Dong Ha, all supplies were either brought in by C-130 transports or by LCUs (landing craft utility) up the Cua Viet River to Dong Ha. On March 19, the 11th Engineer Battalion opened Route 9 from Dong Ha to Khe Sanh, which eased the pressure to resupply Khe Sanh from Dong Ha.
Prairie III began when the Marines determined they were up against elements of the 324B and 341st NVA Divisions north of the Ben Hai River. ARVN units reported the 808th VC and 814th NVA battalions east and south of Quang Tri Province. To get Prairie III going, the 3-3 Marines and 1-9 Marines conducted operations in the mountains west of Cam Lo and fairly close to Camp Carroll. Initially, engagements with the enemy were few, but the Marines found plenty of mortar and rocket launching positions. As a result, both battalions were ordered to sweep north from Cam Lo to support Beacon Hill by the 7th Fleet’s SLF (1-4 Marines).
The 1-9 Marines came into contact with a NVA battalion on March 24, 1967. The enemy was well-dug in southeast of Con Thien. After fierce fighting, the enemy withdrew and the 3-9 Marines relieved the 1-9, only to undergo blistering enemy attacks in the same area that ensued for two weeks. The enemy also began ambushing ammo resupply missions.
Gio Linh Artillery Base. Shown are 2.94 175 Guns firing away.
General Walt was not only worried about the logistics facilities at Dong Ha but also the Gio Linh artillery base. He feared the enemy might attempt to overrun Gio Linh.
The Beacon Hill operation, while it ended on April 1, had struck the enemy hard, killing 334. It also tied up a substantial enemy force that made life a little easier for the Prairie III 1-9 and 3-3 Marines.
On March 22, 1967, Major Day’s 1-9 Marines launched off from Cam Lo heading to the east while Lt. Colonel Wilder’s 3-3 Marines went to the west. The 1-9 Marines attacked an enemy bunker complex and the 3-3 faced off with a well entrenched NVA company hidden under camouflaged reinforced bunkers. The enemy tried to halt the Marine advance but failed, and the enemy withdrew on March 26 back into the DMZ. On March 28 the 3-9 Marines replaced the 3-3 so now two battalions of the 9th Marines were in the fight north of Cam Lo.
Here again, fighting was fierce, with one Marine position overrun by the enemy. Even though the enemy had overrun them, UH-1E Huey gunships stuck at the enemy and with the Marines on the ground still fighting, they drove the enemy away. The Marines experienced heavy casualties.
By this time, the Marine concerns had expanded to worries that an enemy invasion across the DMZ might be imminent. They set up positions to stave off a large scale infiltration across the DMZ.
Operation Prairie III ended on April 19. The enemy lost 252 KIA, 4 POWs, while the Marines lost 56 KIA and 530 wounded.
Prairie IV began the very next day, in the same place with the same units involved.
Colonel Robert Jenkins was in command of the 9th Marines and he moved his headquarters from Danang to Dong Ha between April 12-16. The 9th Marines were now in charge of all operations from Dong Ha.
Prairie IV began on April 20, 1967. The 3-3 and 3-9 Marines covered the northwest portion of the area of operations near Camp Carroll and “The Rockpile” while the 1-4 and 1-9 Marines covered the area around Quang Tri City, most specifically tasked to defend the Dong Ha combat base and provide security for the nearby POL facilities, in effect, much of Leatherneck Square.
As was seen so many times, engagement with the enemy was light at the beginning, with the tempo accelerating over the passing days. Enemy attacks were conducted mostly by mortar and rocket fire along with medium and heavy artillery fire. Enemy attacks along the western and eastern sectors of the near-DMZ area were intense. The enemy ferociously attacked Gio Linh and Dong Ha, especially on April 27-28.
My brief summaries of these operations do not do them justice. I urge interested readers to study them more thoroughly.
By early April 1967, it was apparent to all that I Corps had to be reinforced by Army forces, as the Marines had expected. By April 7, the 2nd Brigade, 5th Cavalry, 1st Air Cavalry Division along with two battalions arrived at Duc Pho and relieved the 3-7 Marines. A headquarters was set up at Chu Lai and Army units began flowing in.
As these army units arrived, the Marines began repositioning to concentrate on the three northern most provinces, while the Army for the most part stayed in the southern two, close to II Corps from where many of the units had come. The 7th Marines moved from Chu Lai to relieve the 9th of tactical responsibilities in the Danang area on April 12, 1967, completing that move on April 13. This meant that the 1st MARDIV would concentrate on the Danang area while the 3rd MARDIV (and its 9th Marines) would focus its regiments on the northernmost part of I Corps. The 9th Marines moved its headquarters from Danang to Dong Ha from April 13-30, 1967. Once they got to Dong Ha, they focused initially on area familiarization. The 9th Marines assumed command of the 1-4 Marines and 1-9 Marines at Dong Ha on April 20, acquiring 388 extra square miles of responsibility.
During April 1967, Colonel R.M. Jenkins commanded the 9th Marines. He had a Headquarters Company, two battalions of the 4th Marines, two battalions of the 7th Marines, two battalions of the 26th Marines, and the 1-9 Marines, Major D.J. Fulham in command of the latter.
I came across some Command Chronologies of the Headquarters 9th Marine Regiment that dealt with Prairie IV.
During April 1967, the 9th Marines’ AOR, roughly marked by the blue lines, was situated on the east coast of the RVN in Quang Tri Province. The northern border ran from the southern edge of the DMZ from the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin to the Quang Tri-Thuy Thien Provincial border on the south. The AOR had two distinctive topographical regions, coastal lowlands and a Piedmont Region west of Route 1, rolling plains and hills. Quang Tri City, Dong Ha Combat/Air Base, the Gio Linh Facility, Cua Viet facility, Cam Lo facility, Con Thien CIDG Camp, Highway 1 running north and south through the AOR and Highway 9 running from the western boundary of the AOR to Dong Ha, all bridges and lines of communication were in the AOR.
VC and NVA units were active in the AOR, freely using artillery, rockets, mortars and small arms. The enemy was adequately supplied. The 9th had confirmed that the 341st NA Division, 31st NVA Regiment, 32nd NVA Regiment, 324B NVA Division, 803rd NVA Regiment, 812th NVA Regiment, 90th NVA Regiment, 808th NVA Battalion, 814th NVA Battalion were in their AOR and considered the 33d NVA Regiment and a few companies as probably in their AOR. That meant that the 9th Marines were up against over 32,000 enemy, almost all NVA regulars.
The main focus of regimental attention during April was Operation Prairie IV . The 9th Marines were spread out throughout most of the AOR while the 4th Marines were deployed along the southern edge of the DMZ supporting engineers clearing a trace from Gio Linh to Con Thien. The 1-9 Marines positioned one company south of Quang Tri City ready to react to any kind of enemy attack against her and another company protecting the Cua Viet POL facility. B/1-4 and B/1-9 Marines were under the operational control of the Gio Linh Composite Artillery Unit and the 3rd Marines respectively. The mission consisted of “clearing and security operations.”
It all hit the fan starting on April 28 when the city of Dong Ha and the Dong Ha Combat Base “received approximately 50 rounds of 140 mm rocket fire ... concentrated upon the 9th Marines CP and the Air Force compound adjacent to it.” A/1-9 Marines swept the area and found many fighting holes, rockets buried in holes, and rocket launch positions. The company also found food, rice and rations and a bunch of tools. They also found an enemy route of departure.
During the period April 27-28 the Con Thien CIDG camp, Gio Linh Artillery Outpost, and the Dong Ha Combat Base all experienced heavy enemy incoming artillery, mortar and rockets, and supporting artillery units replied with 2,390 105 MM HE (High Explosive) rounds, 100 155MM HE rounds and 311 175 mm HE rounds.
On April 19, 1967, Pfc Gregory Lawrence Martin was killed by friendly fire in an ambush while on patrol in the Dong Ha area.
The fighting would intensify and more and more military power including the 7th Fleet’s Amphibious Ready Group with it SLFs arrived, along with the 26th Marines who went to Khe Sanh and BLT 3-4 Marines who went to Dong Ha. The shuffling of forces into I Corps seemed to have caught the enemy off guard. Enemy casualties mounted significantly in May and upset his plans. The enemy suffered great losses through the year.
One of the more notable suites of battles were called the “Hill Battles of 1967.” In March 2006, we published a report, “Breaker Patrol, the Hill Battles of Vietnam.” This has a good deal of important history of the battles that raged in the northwest during 1967.
In short, there was still plenty of war to fight in Quang Tri, but we will stop here.