Even if General William Westmoreland was not literally rubbing his hands together in expectant glee, he certainly had a noticeable bounce in his step as he marched through his headquarters and studied the battle maps of Vietnam during the first weeks of January 1968.
MACV intelligence analysis had recently identified a “cross-over point,” which had reportedly occurred in the fall of 1967. The North Vietnamese Army had reached that statistical moment when their battlefield losses exceeded their replacement ability, and for a warrior trained in attrition, General Westmoreland savored the sweet smell and imminent taste of victory.
Now he needed a massive land battle akin to the European campaigns of the previous two world wars. He sought one decisive military clash designed to drop the enemy to its knees, and he felt he knew precisely where that battle was going to be.
Convinced his nemesis, the brilliant General Vo Nguyen Giap, was about to repeat the strategy that in 1954 had defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, Westmoreland reviewed all fresh battlefield developments. He concluded the war would be won or lost at an isolated Marine outpost hunkered deep in the northern most I Corps Tactical Zone at a place called Khe Sanh. Accordingly, the general ordered the whole of I Corps reinforced. He re-shuffled his deck of military assets and by mid-January nearly fifty maneuver battalions –- half of all US combat troops –- had trucked, flown, or humped their way into the northern zone.
During this same period signs of a mounting enemy presence increased. General Giap instructed large North Vietnamese combat formations to slip over the DMZ and take up positions along strategic fronts. A cat and mouse game unfolded, and Westmoreland grew more obsessed with his plan.
The order of battle:
The 3rd Marine Division cut a defensive east/west line across Vietnam just south of the DMZ hinged on a series of fortified combat bases, which hugged a sixty-three kilometer span of National Route 9.
The strategy produced interlocking bands of artillery fire that were anchored in the east by Dong Ha and the divisional headquarters, then stretched west to within two kilometers of Laos where the line ended in the mist-shrouded Army Special Forces camp at Lang Vei.
Along this route, five strategic outposts unified the line: Cam Lo, Camp Carroll, the Rockpile, Ca Lu and, the focus of Westmoreland’s attention, Khe Sanh. This line had been in the making for more than two years, yet it yawned gaps big enough for whole divisions to pass through.
The ground rode level between Dong Ha and Cam Lo. But trucking further westward toward Camp Carroll, the terrain grew rugged. A succession of ridges and steep hills jutted to elevations of over 1,600 feet.
Camp Carroll sat perched on a high plateau and served as the linchpin of the Marine arty shield. The artillery batteries worked under the operational control of the 1st Battalion 12th Marines. Equipped with sixteen guns, and reinforced by U.S. Army 175mm long-range guns, the Marines directed artillery fire into almost any grid coordinate from the South China Sea to Laos, as well as into North Vietnam. An 80-gun artillery fan faced the north and hammered the enemy.
General Giap wore his poker face the day he studied the buildup of Marine forces along the DMZ. A master of Soviet tactics, he decided to call and raise. He positioned his heavy artillery pieces just beyond the range of the most common guns in the Marine Corps' fire bases, the 105mm and 155mm artillery.
He knew publicly stated U.S. policy prevented American forces from entering North Vietnam. The Marines would not penetrate north of the Ben Hai River.
Holding these political and military restrictions like a trump card, the general dug in his Soviet 152mm guns and his 130mm fieldpieces precisely where U.S. ground observation was limited. He employed Soviet missiles and anti-aircraft weapon systems to hinder aerial observation. He felt confident his most powerful guns were now capable of suppressing Marine artillery fire with near impunity.
When US air reconnaissance spotted the NVA shifting some 130 artillery pieces in the area north of the Ben Hai River, the Marines rushed to reinforce their artillery deployment to 180 tubes.
Nevertheless, Giap’s strategy clobbered the Marine artillery bases with little effective return fire. Then, while holding the Marine fire bases fixated on counter battery missions, particularly at Camp Carroll, the general released his infantry to the attack.
The opening fray:
On Saturday, January 20, enemy units unleashed an almost simultaneous assault on both ends of the Marine defensive line. Communist troops maneuvered along the banks of the Cua Viet River channel east of Dong Ha perpetrating an attack that halted all river traffic, effectively closing the logistical lifeline flowing from the Cua Viet Port Facility.
That same morning, far to the west near Khe Sanh, India Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, unknowingly fired the opening rounds in the battle Westmoreland had predicted. The longest, most controversial battle of the Vietnam War had now begun, while the Marines found themselves in a scramble.
With the presence of large North Vietnamese forces along the eastern DMZ, and a build-up of forces in the west around Khe Sanh, the 3rd Marine Division’s ability to concentrate its forces in any one area was limited. The division was spread out from its Quang Tri base in the south, to Con Thien and Gio Linh in the north, Khe Sanh in the west, and the Cua Viet in the east.
Giap seemed pleased with the unfolding situation. His attacks on both Marine flanks produced the desired results. He tossed out his next card and ordered an assault straight up the middle.
A US “Rough Rider” convoy pulled out of Dong Ha early Wednesday morning, 24 January. Consisting of three trucks and a jeep mounted with a quad .50 caliber machine gun, the Marine complement trundled west, looking forward to completing their routine artillery resupply mission and rolling through the gates of Camp Carroll by the first hours of the afternoon.
Around 1030 hours, however, elements of the elite 320th NVA Division, the 64th Regiment, hastily made last-minute camouflage adjustments and checked their fields of fire. The first trap in Giap’s resolute attempt to isolate Camp Carroll and sever the main supply route was about to snap shut.
Nervous North Vietnamese eyes stared into a deep valley at a curve along Route 9 where any passing convoy had to slow before turning onto the Camp Carroll access road. Silently, the soldiers waited. Listening. Alone in their thoughts. Then just before 1400 hours, a distant whine and clank of Marine vehicles signaled a column’s approach.
The Marine convoy rumbled forward, ultimately passing into the NVA kill zone. As the vehicles reduced speed and geared down in preparation for the turn toward camp, anxious faces seemed relieved to begin the final three-kilometer stretch home. Words of hot chow began to circulate.
Then all hell broke loose. Small arms and machine gun fire sprayed all four vehicles. Recoilless rifles bucked trucks off their wheels as they absorbed the impact of accurate fire. Wrecked machines plumed smoke and the convoy rolled to a listless, floppy stop. Mortar rounds trounced the pinned-down Marines. Cries from wounded echoed through a din of explosions and automatic weapons fire.
Reeling Marines dismounted without delay. They found what cover they could and returned fire. The quad .50 cal machine gun remained serviceable and pelted death at the invisible attackers. The fury of fire crouched enemy heads and bought enough time for the bushwhacked Marines to get a call off for assistance.
Within minutes the 4th Marines, newly headquartered at Camp Carroll, launched a reaction force. A platoon from Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines joined two tanks from Bravo Company, 3rd Tank Battalion, along with two Army M42 Dusters from Charley Battery, 1st Battalion, 44th artillery. The column roared from camp under the command of Captain Daniel W. Kent seated high in the turret of the lead tank.
The enemy anticipated the reinforcements and waited to spring the second trap of the day. When the Marine convoy drew near, a recoilless rifle blasted the lead vehicle, killing Captain Kent and immobilizing his rescue force. The Marines reacted with the full punch of their remaining firepower. Even so, locked in the kill zone, they were compelled to call for additional support.
A second relief force clamored out of Dong Ha while the Marines fought through the afternoon. Then, as sundown loomed, the sudden appearance in the sky of two UH-1E gunships persuaded the enemy to break contact. They slipped away pell-mell, leaving three dead North Vietnamese soldiers behind.
By the time the Dong Ha relief column arrived, Marine casualties were heavy. Eight dead, forty-four wounded. All vehicles in the original convoy, plus the two dusters and Captain Kent’s lead tank, required towing and so were left along the road. The fresh Marines assisted with the evacuation of the set upon troops. Then all hustled up the road to Camp Carroll.
Enter Darting Star:
The 3rd Marine Division commander, General Rathvon Thompkins, received the ambush reports and paced in his headquarters bunker at Dong Ha. The situation was dire. The North Vietnamese could not be allowed to deny access to Camp Carroll. The commander keyed his radio handset, and transferred the battle-toughened 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines into the valley with orders to clear the ambush site and reopen Route 9.
Lieutenant Colonel Lee Bendell, Battalion commander, call sign Darting Star, arrived at the ambush site at 1900 and found the earlier relief force had already evacuated the wounded and, he concluded, all of the dead. With darkness falling and moving with only one of the battalion’s companies, Mike Company, the colonel established a night-time defensive perimeter along a ridgeline overlooking Route 9. He positioned his force to screen Camp Carroll from the NVA patrols and there passed the night.
At dawn, January 25th, Mike Company, under Captain Raymond Kalm, began to sweep the valley. They reached the ambush site to discover four Marine dead from the previous day’s action. They dealt with the bodies, then cautiously proceeded to move west to east. While patrolling near the still abandoned vehicles scattered along the road, automatic weapons fire tore through their ranks. Two Marines lay dead, killed instantly. Two more fell wounded.
But Mike Company was prepared to earn their pay. They gained fire superiority and attacked with aggressive fire team maneuvers. The end of the brief action eliminated nine enemy soldiers. One NVA light machine gun was captured.
Darting Star then ordered Captain Kalm to advance his company to a small hill just north of Route 9, about a thousand meters east of the contact site, set up a defensive perimeter, and wait while the battalion’s two remaining rifle companies choppered in.
In a swirl of red dust several battle-worn Ch-46s touched down on the valley floor and disgorged India Company, commanded by Captain John L. Prichard, and Lima Company, led by Captain John L. McLaughlin. H&S Company (minus) also flew to the scene. By mid-afternoon, nearly eight hundred Marines had established a three-company perimeter along both sides of Route 9 and tethered to Mike Company, which had dug in on the strategic height now being known as Mike’s Hill.
The multiple chopper sorties did not go unnoticed. Enemy forward observers watched the deployment from the stealth of the jungle on a high ridgeline to the north. They trained their 82mm mortar tubes on the Marines, who, just beginning to dig in, appeared like sitting ducks.
Mortar fire poured down. Certain 85mm artillery fire slammed in. Shrapnel thickened the air. Marines curled on the ground and endured the pounding. When a lull finally came, seventeen wounded were ponchoed aboard med-evac birds. Busy Marines set up the night watch while the Battalion maintained a 100% alert.
Dark, tense hours ticked by. Enemy infantry worked their way down the streambeds on the east and crept up the gullies, north and west of Mike’s Hill. Sporadic trip flares ignited. Shadows darted through the scrub brush. Fire-team sized listening posts reported movement all around them. The Marines braced for an attack, but thus far the enemy’s actions proved only preparatory.
On the morning of January 26, relieved by daylight and pumped up on adrenaline, Marines swept across the valley. Regaining the offense rejuvenated the warriors. Each forward step helped shake out the tightness that lay balled up like a fist in the chest, incited by prolonged stares into darkness, waiting on death.
Mike Company patrolled west. India and Lima Companies maneuvered separately toward the north with orders to cross the Cam Lo River and destroy the enemy. At 0845 a Mike Company patrol discovered a small bridge had been blown during the night. Route 9 was “impassable without engineer improvement.” Darting Star was forced to reassess his plans.
Colonel William L. Dick, 4th Marine Commander, radioed new orders from Camp Carroll. There would be no river crossing. The battalion was to “continue to secure Route 9 denying enemy access to bridges and culverts, and to patrol and ambush 375 meters north and south of the road occupying the high ground on either side as necessary.” The Marines leaned into the task.
India Company made contact with eight to ten NVA and opened up with small arms fire. They destroyed a 75mm recoilless rifle with artillery support. A Lima Company platoon patrol, led by Lieutenant John “Doc” Holladay, engaged a reinforced NVA squad, killing six of the enemy and capturing four AK-47s and an RPG. Throughout the day abandoned enemy equipment, consisting of rifle grenades, machine gun ammo, crimped cartridges, mines, and even discarded clothing was found.
Nightfall descended, however, with the battalion reporting only minor resistance. That alone raised the grunt’s suspicions. Silent faces ate from unheated C-rat cans and pondered the possibilities.
Darting Star, concerned about the low ground of the previous night’s defensive perimeter, decided to deploy three detached company perimeters on favorable high ground along both sides of Route 9. He held his Command Group with Company M on Mike’s Hill. India Company moved to a promontory located about 1000 meters to the west. Lima laboriously humped up a steep prominence to the south where, once atop, they overlooked the entire valley sweep.
Accomplished under the cover of darkness the battalion’s redeployment went unobserved.
The battle for Mike’s Hill:
The Marines anticipated another sleepless night. By 0300 on January 27, the enemy probed all sides of Mike’s Hill. An estimated reinforced NVA Company had again infiltrated via dry streambeds, but their poor noise discipline suggested they were uncertain of the Marine’s exact location. When the two forces finally clashed, a wild melee commenced.
The NVA attacked up three slopes of the hill with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and automatic weapons covering their advance. Mike Company responded with its full death-dealing final protective fires. The violent assault quickly evolved into a desperate free-for-all with warriors grappling in hand-to-hand combat. Darting Star, threatened with being overrun, ordered Lima Company into the battle.
Captain John “Mac” McLaughlin led his troops into the valley, leaving the company’s 60mm mortar section on high ground to pummel an exposed enemy flank and open a gap in the enemy’s formation that Lima’s lead platoon exploited in textbook fashion. Then, wheeling toward the west, Lima maneuvered down Route 9. Sharp fighting ensued. Overcoming determined pockets of resistance, the company killed twenty-three NVA and captured three prisoners. By noon, the Lima Marines relieved a Mike Company squad ambush surrounded by North Vietnamese near the destroyed bridge.
Meanwhile, India Company was ordered to attack from west to east and link-up with Lima. This required Captain Prichard’s Marines to cross open ground interspersed with hedgerows and brush. Moving under heavy artillery covering fire, the company immediately made contact. A well dug-in NVA force of at least company size fought from masterfully camouflaged positions and chewed up India’s lead platoon. Soon, the entire company was pinned down. Costly frontal attacks failed to route out the enemy. Captain Prichard committed his reserve platoon but the casualties mounted.
Lima Company maneuvered a platoon two hundred meters west killing eleven enemy and achieving the link-up. Huey gunships circled above. Rockets fired. Automatic weapons sprayed the dug-in force. By 1400, India broke free and over ran the enemy’s positions, killing forty NVA soldiers, and stopping all resistance.
Med-evac choppers descended. Casualties were loaded aboard, including Captain Prichard, who later died of his wounds. India Company, though victorious in the skirmish, no longer existed as a fighting unit.
Darting Star parceled what was left of India to Mike Company and assigned one platoon from Mike Company to Lima Company. Now, instead of having “three short-strength companies” the battalion comprised two “full-strength” ones.
At 1700 hours the enemy, estimated at greater than battalion strength, had been killed, captured, or fled the field. Vehicles rolled down Route 9 from both directions to the destroyed bridge without harassment. Darting Star’s mission was accomplished.
When the body count began, one hundred thirty-one NVA soldiers lay dead. Conflicting numbers of prisoners were taken. Three 57mm recoilless rifles were destroyed. Extensive ammunition and equipment stacked up on a hastily prepared LZ, including two 60mm mortars, one NVA radio, a tripod and barrel for a .50 cal machine gun, thirty-five AK-47s, three RPGs, and eight bolt-action rifles.
Holding the line at Camp Carroll carried a dour price for the 3rd Battalion 4th Marines. Twenty-one men were killed in the action. Another sixty-two were wounded. Still, for most of the battalion’s Marines the Vietnam War proceeded without pause.
Mopping up continued for two more days. Lima Company discovered several tunnels where North Vietnamese dead were found on makeshift litters. The bodies were buried and the tunnels destroyed. The two ad hoc companies patrolled aggressively, but the enemy had withdrawn to the hills in the north.
On Sunday the 28th, Lima Company choppered up to Camp Carroll. Mike Company humped the three kilometers into camp. At sundown, an Air Force B-52 Arclight mission carpet bombed the suspected enemy routes of retreat while the Marine mess tent prepared thick steaks and served up ample gobs of mashed potatoes.
Darting Star sent a personal message to the officers and men of his command. “This battalion fought a well-disciplined enemy, suicidal in intent to maintain control of the road… Every Marine in this battalion has my sincere thanks for his superb performance, and those who were killed or wounded have my heartfelt prayers. You may all take pride in a good job, well done.”
The following day, General Westmoreland sent a message complimenting “the officers and men for the aggressive attack against the enemy’s 64th Regiment… This action undoubtedly pre-empted an enemy attack against Camp Carroll.”
From Washington the Secretary of the Navy took pleasure in presenting the Meritorious Unit Commendation to the troops. “Through their courageous efforts, indomitable spirit, and steadfast devotion to duty… (the Battalion) … upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”
General Giap, however, had not abandoned the table. In deed, he had rolled up his sleeves and leaned forward. On January 30 he dealt the attack that proved to be the turning point of the Vietnam War: The 1968 Tet offensive.
The nation-wide assault hit Westmoreland with tornadic force and left him reaping the wind. His decisive battle at Khe Sanh ground to a draw. By mid-March, the general returned to Washington with his hand played out, the bounce in his step gone, and a disillusioned American President ready to fold.
The following books and materials were used in researching this article: Murphy, Edward F. Semper Fi Vietnam: From Da Nang to the DMZ Marine Corps Campaigns,1965-1975.Presidio Press, 1997. Shulimson, Jack. US Marines in Vietnam: 1968 The defining Year. History and Museums Section, Headquarters Marine Corps, 1997. Stanton, Shelby L. The Rise and Fall of an American Army. Dell Publishing, 1985. Third Battalion Fourth Marine Command Chronology, January 1968.