Authors: Keith Nolan
Also by Keith Nolan
BATTLE FOR HUE
THE BATTLE FOR SAIGON
SAPPER IN THE WIRE
HOUSE TO HOUSE
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For Kelly and Erik
SCRUB BRUSH AND SAND DUNES
Forged in Fire
A Toehold in Dai Do
No Free Rides
High Diddle Diddle, Right Up the Middle
The Palace Guard
A Village Too Far
Bring the Wounded, Leave the Dead
THE SECOND WAVE
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire
Search and Destroy
The End of the Line
God, Get Us Out of Here
We Took a Lot of ’Em With Us
Black Death and Charlie Tiger
Turning the Tables
It was one of the most prolonged and costly campaigns of the war, but, inexplicably, it never gained the immortality of Hue or Khe Sanh or Con Thien. It should have. It began on the last day of April 1968 when a Marine battalion landing team, reinforced with a company from a regular rifle battalion, locked horns with major elements of a North Vietnamese Army division in the village complex of Dai Do. The enemy infantrymen, entrenched among the hootches and hedgerows, were fully equipped with light and heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and were backed up by rocket and artillery batteries across the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The Marines, outnumbered but superbly led and already battle hardened, dug them out spiderhole by spiderhole. The battle lasted three days, and was Tarawa-like in its intensity. Although the Marine battalion was gutted by casualties, the enemy units were practically obliterated, and their smashed entrenchments were filled with their dead as the survivors retreated back to the DMZ.
Presumably, the enemy regiments blocked at Dai Do had been marching toward the 3d Marine Division headquarters at Dong Ha. To secure the various approaches to Dong Ha, a grunt battalion from the U.S. Army’s Americal Division was attached to the 3d Marine Division and positioned on the right flank of the Marine battalion landing team engaged in Dai Do. The North Vietnamese had indeed moved fresh units into the area, and on the last day of the Dai Do action, the Army battalion ran into a hornet’s nest in the village of Nhi Ha. It took four days to clear Nhi Ha, after which the Army battalion, in its first conventional battle, dug in amid the rubble and repelled several nights’ worth of counterattacks from across the DMZ. The enemy also shelled Nhi Ha, but they never took it, and in the end they left heaps of their own dead around that perimeter, too. By then, Nhi Ha looked like Verdun.
In Vietnam, that was victory.
The reconstruction of this campaign began with archival research, but the reality between the dry lines of official prose was fleshed out by those who survived and were willing to tell their tale. I’m indebted to all of them. Those who were interviewed (or who reviewed the rough draft) from the 3d Marine Division, 3d Marine Regiment, and various supporting units include Maj. Gen. Dennis J. Murphy (Ret.); Cols. William H. Dabney and Bruce M. McLaren (Ret.); Lt. Col. Walter H. Shauer (Ret.); and ex-BM2 Jerry Anderson, USN.
From Battalion Landing Team 2/4 (3d Marine Division): Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston; Brig. Gen. William Weise (Ret.); Cols. James T. Ferland (USMCR), Robert J. Mastrion, J. R. Vargas, and James L. Williams (Ret.); Lt. Cols. Judson D. Hilton (Ret.), Bayard V. Taylor (Ret.), and George F. Warren (Ret.); Maj. James L. O’neill (Ret.); Capt. Edward S. Dawson (Ret.); ex-Capts. Peter A. Acly, James H. Butler, and Lorraine L. Forehand; ex-1st Lts. David R. Jones, David K. McAdams, Frederick H. Morgan, C. William Muter, and Alexander F. Prescott; ex-Lt. Frederick P. Lillis, MC, USN; CWO2 Donald J. Gregg (USMCR); WO1 John J. Kachmar (USANG); 1st Sgts. Reymundo Del Rio (Ret.) and Ronald W. Taylor (Ret.); MGySgt. James W. Rogers (Ret.); GySgts. Pedro P. Balignasay (Ret.), Percy E. Brandon (Ret.), James Eggleston (Ret.), and Ernest L. Pace (Ret.); SSgts. Tom Alvarado (Ret.) and Robert J. Ward (Ret.); ex-SSgts. Dennis F. Harter and Richard J. Tyrell; ex-Sgts. Dan Bokemeyer, Charles M. Bollinger, Nicolas R. Cardona, Phil Donaghy, Van A. Hahner, Doug Light, and Peter W. Schlesiona; ex-Cpls. Dale R. Barnes, Ronald J. Dean, John Hanna, E. Michael Helms, Kenneth G. Johnson, James R. Lashley, and Jim Parkins; ex-LCpl. Philip L. Cornwell; ex-Pfc. Marshall J. Serna; and ex-HM2 Roger D. Pittman, USN.
From the 1st Battalion, 3d Marines (3d Marine Division): Majs. Kim E. Fox (Ret.) and Ralph C. McCormick (Ret.); MSgt. Robert G. Robinson (Ret.); GySgt. Norman J. Doucette (Ret.); ex-Sgts. Ronald E. Lawrence and Robert Rohner; ex-Cpls. Michael R. Conroy, Ross E. Osborn, Doug Urban, and Craig Walden; ex-LCpls. James Dudula and Paul F. Roughan; and ex-HM2 Carmen J. Maiocco, USN.
From the 3d Battalion, 21st Infantry (Americal Division), and supporting units: Brig. Gen. Dennis H. Leach (Ret.); Cols. Robert E. Corrigan (Ret.) and William P. Snyder (Ret.); Lt. Cols. Roger D. Hieb (Ret.), Travis P. Kirkland (Ret.), Richard J. Skrzysowski (USAR, Ret.), and Paul N. Yurchak (Ret.); Majs. John M. Householder (Ret.), Kenneth W. Johnson (Ret.), and William A. Stull (USANG); ex-Capts. Hal Bell, Jan S. Hildebrand, and Laurence V. McNamara; ex-1st Lts. Robert V. Gibbs, John R. Jaquez, Terry D. Smith, and John D. Spencer; ex-Sfc. William F. Ochs; ex-SSgts. Bill A. Baird, Bernard J. Bulte, Don DeLano, James M. Goad, and James L. Stone; ex-Sgts. Jimmie Lee Coulthard, Terrance Farrand, Larry Haddock, Gregory B. Harp, Thomas E. Hemphill, Michael L. Matalik, Laurance H. See, and Roger W. Starr; ex-Sp5s Neil E. Hannan, William W. Karp, and Wallace H. Nunn; and ex-Sp4s Charles C. Cox, Dan Dinklage, Bill Eakins, John C. Fulcher, Ronald F. Imoe, Bill Kuziara, Tony May, Eugene J. McDonald, Don Miller, and Terry Moore.
Many thanks also to ex-1st Lt. Barry Romo, who lost his nephew, Robert, in Nhi Ha, and Dennis L. Barker, who lost his brother, Paul. Great assistance was also provided by Benis M. Frank, Joyce Bonnett, and Joyce Conyers of the Marine Corps Historical Center (Washington, D.C.); Decorations & Medals Branch, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps (Washington, D.C.); James E. Crum and Tony May of the 196th Locate-A-Brother (P.O. Box 531, Phoenix, Oregon 97535); William H. Knight, President, 196th LIB Association; Ron Ward, Vietnam editor of the Americal Division Veterans Association newsletter; John H. Claggett, Military Reference, National Archives (Suitland, Maryland); CWO3 James Garrett, Military Awards Branch, Department of the Army (Alexandria, Virginia); Col. Morris J. Herbert (Ret.), Association of Graduates, U.S. Military Academy (West Point, New York); John J. Slonaker, Chief, Historical Reference Branch, U.S. Army Military History Institute (Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania); and Lt. Col. Tip A. Horsley and Dorothy M. Flowers, Information Support Division, U.S. Army Reserve Personnel Center (St. Louis, Missouri).
Keith William Nolan
“Look, I’m telling you guys—they’re lined up twelve deep here waiting to get infantry battalions,” the 3d Marine Division personnel officer (G1) told the three recently arrived light colonels who stood before the field desk in his tent. It was 12 October 1967, and they were in the division rear at Phu Bai, Republic of Vietnam.
“You’re just going to have to wait your turn.”
Lieutenant Colonel William Weise, one of the three, was not hearing what he wanted to hear. As he had just told the G1, he had come to Vietnam to do nothing but command an infantry battalion in combat.
The silver oak leaf on Weise’s cover was seven days old. His last assignment as a major had been a thirteen-month tour as an adviser to the Republic of Korea Marine Corps. He had waived reassignment to the United States so he could get to Vietnam before the war ended. When he got orders sending him to the 3d Marine Division, Weise wrote ahead to the commanding general, asking to serve as the operations officer of either an infantry battalion or a regiment. Arriving not as a major but as a freshly minted lieutenant colonel, Bill Weise, an intelligent, forceful man, sorely wanted an infantry command. His career demanded it (Weise was very ambitious), as did his sense of duty. He listened, heartsick, as the G1 continued, “… there’s only three slots open in this outfit: the division special services officer, the division embarkation officer, and the assistant base defense coordinator at Dong Ha Combat Base.”
Shit, here I go, Weise thought. Risk my marriage with two overseas tours in a row, and I’m going to wind up as a division office pogue. Weise knew the G1 and implored him, “You can’t do this to me!” But the G1’s hands were tied; the division commander, Maj. Gen. Bruno A. Hochmuth, personally assigned all field-grade officers. The general would soon welcome these three aboard, but it would be another two days before he would meet with them again to discuss their assignments. Weise and his two hard-charging, like-minded compatriots, Edward LaMontagne and George Meyers, thus had time to talk to officers they knew on the division staff about getting battalions.
Their meeting with General Hochmuth was in his command bunker. The 3d Marine Division was an overtaxed organization, and the general, sitting at his field desk, was too busy to ask them to sit or to offer the customary cup of coffee. There was no small talk: “Well, okay, Meyers, you’re going up to Dong Ha to help coordinate the defenses up there.”
“LaMontagne, you’re going to be my embarkation officer.”
God, thought Weise, he’s going to make
the special services officer. But Hochmuth surprised him: “Weise, I see that you’ve had a lot of experience in reconnaissance. I’m not happy with the way my recon battalion is being deployed, so I want you to take over. We’ve got a good young major in there by the name of Bell. He’s going to be transferred in three weeks. Meanwhile, I want you to see as much of the AO as you can. See how we’re deployed. Go around the area. You’ll take over when Bell leaves. Now, does anybody have any questions?”
“No, sir,” said LaMontagne.
“No, sir,” replied Meyers.
“Sir, I don’t have any questions,” Weise blurted out, “but I want the general to know personally that I really want an infantry battalion.”
Weise had been expressly warned during his two days of politicking that it would be unwise to do anything but click his heels when the general made his decision. Weise, however, had picked up the nickname Wild Bill during his sixteen years in the Marine Corps, and he had sometimes gotten his way by being audacious: “… whatever job you give me, I’m going to do, sir—but I don’t want to sit back there with a recon battalion and just send those kids out on patrol. I want an infantry battalion.”
“Weise,” Hochmuth snapped, “you get the hell outta here. When I want your advice on how to run my division, I’ll ask for it. Meanwhile, you get out there and do your job.”
There was a lot of ground for the disappointed Lieutenant Colonel Weise to cover before he took over the 3d Reconnaissance Battalion. The 3d Marine Division’s four infantry regiments (the 3d, 4th, 9th, and 26th Marines) and its artillery (the 12th Marines) were positioned throughout Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces, the two northernmost provinces of the five that defined the I Corps Tactical Zone. The division main command post at Phu Bai was in the Viet Cong (VC) guerrilla badlands of Thua Thien Province. The division forward command post at Dong Ha, in Quang Tri Province, was just below the DMZ, which divided North and South Vietnam. The war on the Z was with the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Dong Ha controlled an eighty-kilometer frontage of combat bases that faced the DMZ from the beachhead at Cua Viet, west to the jungled mountains of Khe Sanh. The Ben Hai River and the DMZ, which for political reasons the Marines could not cross, afforded the enemy a sanctuary for their artillery batteries and a staging area for battalion- and regimental-sized assaults.
Lieutenant Colonel Weise visited every battalion in the division. With a few days to spare before he was to take over 3d Recon, he went to visit a good friend of his who was a battalion executive officer with the 7th Marines in the 1st Marine Division, the only other Marine division in Vietnam. They were dug in along the Hai Van Pass above Da Nang, and at approximately 0300 on 26 October 1967, while sleeping near the battalion command post (CP), Weise was awakened and directed to the covered-circuit radio. The division chief of staff was on the other end.
“Hey, Weise, get your ass back up here,” said the colonel. “You know Two-Four?” Two-Four is shorthand for the 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, which was under the operational control of the 9th Marines and participating in Operation Kingfisher below the DMZ. Weise answered that he had visited 2/4, and mentioned the battalion commander by name. “He’s been hit,” the chief of staff said. “You got it. They’re in a firelight.”
Jesus, Weise thought, expecting to be helicoptered directly into 2/4’s night action. Instead, it took him two days to make his way back north by chopper. By then, 2/4 had been pulled back to the Dong Ha Combat Base. What a sorry sight, Weise thought. The battalion he found really looked wanting in terms of numbers and esprit. They were, however, Marines—and he knew how to breathe fire into Marines. Beat up or not, the 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, was
, and Bill Weise was exactly where he wanted to be.