Let me first say, we all look at things from a different point of view. I can only write what I feel I saw. I read Col Carr’s write up and he does a good job giving the overall picture of the day. It is a day I still see as clear as if it were yesterday and bet I could walk over that ground again and point out most everything. Had a few days like that in Viet Nam, Anyways, on the morning of the18th the battalion digging in a cluster of trees just south of the Trace. I think we were to the north east of Con Thien. We had only been there a short time and had just made a small dent in building fortifications. There were signs as we dug in that the area had been used many years before by some other military unit. I had the impression that it could have been as far back as when the French were in Viet Nam – just a feeling I had and it wasn’t a good one. I was a 2nd Lt and the Lima Weapons Platoon Commander.
That morning we (Lima, ¾) pulled out with the 1st Platoon on point, commanded by Lt Tom Hoare. The 1st Platoon had a couple of dog teams (3rd MP Battalion) in support. Since the 1st platoon had been mine some months before, I felt a very strong attachment to the Marines of the 1st Platoon.
An interesting side bar, shortly after joining the company Lt Tom Hoare told me that he was related to Col “Mad Mike” Hoare, the famous mercenary from the Congo. Tom acted like he had to live up to that reputation.
We headed north across MacNamara’s Trace (damn, I hated that strip of barren land) into an area called the Market Place. Since I had the Weapons Platoon I was a platoon or so back in the line with the 3.5. Section Leader (the other 3.5 man was up forward). Short after getting the whole company through the trace we took some fire. We had a few casualties. One wounded was the of 3.5 man. As soon as we came upon him the 3.5 Section Leader had an emotional break down. I tried to shake him out of it but the wounded man was one of his best friends and the Section Leader (in my opinion) could not carry on. So, I took the 3.5 rocket launcher and the remaining one round. The Section Leader took his buddy to the rear for medevac.
There was a lot of fire up front. I came up to a burm apparently cut out in the making of the damn Trace. But it did give us good cover. I got there along with the CO, his radio operators and a few others. Here we found the dog teams and some other Marines. Some one (I think the CO) asked the dog team leader where Lt Hoare and the 1st Platoon were. He said they were a few hundred yards north and taking heavy fire with a lot of casualties. The dog team leader also told us he had strongly advised Lt Hoare not to go any further (from the burm) until he had arty support and backup – the dogs had indicated a very strong concentration of the enemy (the North Vietnamese Army, 2nd Battalion 803 Regiment). He said Hoare ignored him. The dog teams had either refused Lt Hoarse’s orders to move forward or convinced the Lt to let the dog teams stay back.
As we (the CP, the dog teams, and other Marines) laid against the burm for cover we could hear numerous battles going on, mainly to the left (west) of us. We were certain that all of Lima and possibly Mike company were heavily engaged.
Rightful so, our CO, Capt Carr, wanted to get things moving. Just sitting where we were in our ‘protect’ spot was certain to cause losing the whole company. We were in range of NVA arty and the enemy seems strong and all over the place. The CO yelled for the 3.5’s (one of his favorite weapons). I kicked myself in the ass for letting the Section Leader go back and thus I was the 3.5 rocket man (and I had only fired a 3.5 a few times at Basic School). I got firing directions from the CO as to where he wanted the round to hit. I had only one round. Directly in front of us was a large bomb crater. Further in front we could see the remains of a brick or cement structure on the peak of the hill. Sort of looked like a chimney standing where the house had been burned down around it. That was where the enemy fire was coming form, that was my target.
I got in position and asked one of the Marines around to me to load the 3.5 for me. I got blank stares – they knew less than I did about the 3.5. So I pulled it off my shoulder and loaded it myself not sure if I had done it right. As I put it back on my shoulder either the CO yelled “make sure you’re pointing with the right end” or the thought went through my mind. So I double checked, yep it was pointed right. As I sighted I had a clear shot, but two horizontal cross hairs. I wasn’t sure which to use. With only one round and stuff zinging over my head and folks yelling all over I was concerned. I yelled out and asked which cross hair to use and got no answer – all I heard was the CO saying “fire the 3.5”. I fired and hit the far side of the bomb crater thus spraying White Phosphors all over us – I had chosen the top cross hair vs the correct bottom one. The CO then angrily yelled to cease fire with the 3.5 – I said “no problem, we’re out of ammo”. Would have been funny if it wasn’t so sad, both me and the Marines around me had not been trained properly on that simple weapon.
It was obvious something had to happen. We couldn’t get arty support – they were heavily committed supporting other Marines in contact. The CO was real concerned about Lt Hoare. The CO then yelled something about us all making a charge. He gave the order to charge and off he went – as I charged I slipped on the burm and went down and realized no one else had moved except Capt Carr. As the CO, shotgun in hand, reach the far side of the bomb crater (about where my 3.5 round blew up) I heard a single shot ring out and saw than Captain go down. He yelled that he was hit.
I immediately (certainly without thinking) charged forward cursing the CO for making me give up the Grease Gun I had been carrying – all I had was a 45 with three clips. I got to the CO and he indicated that Lt Christy should take the company – I yelled back for someone to get Christy and tell him he was the CO now. I then yelled back for someone to come help the CO and that I’d go forward and give covering fire (real smart – a nut with a 45 and a handful of rounds covering an evac under heavy fire).
Anyways, I moved forward as I saw Marines coming from the rear to help the Captain. As I moved toward the “Chimney on the hill” I immediately came upon the remains of the 1st Platoon. I thought they were all KIA. I shouted at most of them and got no answer. There was Lt Hoare to my left, in front of him and to his right were two of my young machine gunners with all ammo spent. They had obviously used ever round they had firing towards the “Chimney”. Don’t recall anyone behind the Lt. A little further to the right behind a log was Bob McConnell. To the left rear of Bob was a Corpsman with his med kit, I think Jeff Aker who had recently come into country. Bob was one of my radio operators when I had the 1st Platoon and we’d become pretty tight. Bob had his 45 in hand and there were a number of 45 clips laying around him – he had emptied his 45 a number of times in the short battle. I thought he was dead – I had tears in my eyes. Thirty three years later I learned he didn’t die until the next day, doubt it would have made a difference if I’d known.
About that time I took fire from the “Chimney”. I quickly took cover and looked for a ‘real’ weapon. Looked to me like every round in the immedaite area had been fired, all I had was my 45. I sent a number of carefully aimed rounds at the “Chimney”. I would occasionally see an NVA stick his head out to the right of the “Chimney”. So I timed a shot, took very careful aim, and fired. I think I got him. The firing from the “Chimney” stopped and pretty soon other Marines joined me.
I went back to the burm and then located Lt Christy and asked what I could do to help. A number of my Weapons Platoon Marines were unaccounted for and we still had a lot of contact in various areas. We were concerned about being flanked from the left – so I headed that way (can’t recall if Christy sent me or I decided to go on my own). I soon found various pockets of Lima Company Marines and told them to get moving and rejoin the rest of the company, I sent a number of them Christy’s way.
I thought I had reached the furthest left (west) our guys had gone and was about to head back. The whole place was still under heavy fire. Then I heard some Marines further on. I yelled for them and learned they were from Lima Company. I urged them to come join me, they refused. I cursed and ordered but no movement – so I went to them. I quickly learned why they didn’t want to join me – they (and now me) were pinned down pretty well. Didn’t look good at all – I though this is a hell of piss poor place to die.
The Marines were very low on ammo (I was out of 45 rounds). I soon realized that the company was about to move back and no one knew where we were. We could stay and die for sure or try and break out and have a chance. I had known most of the Marines in this crater for some time. I guess they trusted me since it didn’t take me much explaining. Out we went, back to the company with them firing their last rounds, over the edge or one crate diving into the next crater – we all made it. We soon rejoined the company and I still recall a few saying ”thanks Lt, you saved our lives” - that made it worth it.
Things began to calm down a bit. Some enemy arty was landing in the middle of us – I think that was when Capt Carr got hit the second time that day. I recall hearing that one of the dog handlers was killed also – I remember thinking how ironic after seeing him right at the start of the whole mess hugging the burm nice and safe.
I went to medevac choppers to see what I could do to help. The litter cases were pretty much loaded or gone and the walking wounded started piling on the chopper. I ran all the walking wounded off the chopper yelling and hollering. I got in an argument with the crew chief – he wanted to take the walking wounded before the dead. I figured that compassion would kill a lot of Marines. I knew we had a long hike back to our cluster of trees and carrying the dead would slow us down and greatly increase our exposure to the NVA art coming from the north. If we had to carry the dead out, many more would die. Soon the choppers took off with the dead and as many walking wounded as they could carry. Christy ordered the company to head south.
Some how I ended up with a machine gun, probably cause no way did I want to leave it for the NVA. I think Christy told me to cover the rear or I told him I’d cover the rear as we moved out. Soon a Black Marine named Salter (sp) came by. This guys was a real shit bird. Always in trouble and had at least one court martial for assault, smart mouth and a real pain. I handed him the gun and told him to hang with me to cover the rear.. Wasn’t sure if he’d shot me or the NVA. He argued (with plenty of four letter words) that he didn’t know anything about a damn machine gun and hate it anyways. I cursed back and we become a team. He was a wild man with the machine gun. I had to bust my butt to keep him in ammo as we pulled back. But we covered the rear all the way back – Salter is one hell of a Marine.
From my vantage point at the rear of the column I recall it was a very orderly movement but looked kind a sad and ragged. Lot of wounded, lot of guys just dragging, lot of ripped and muddy uniforms. Lima company had one hell of a day. Christy had taken command and was doing great. I recall a thought that I was glad he was running the show and not me.
As we crossed the Trace back to our cluster of trees I could see why we hadn’t gotten NVA arty in the days before. Since moving to the cluster we were within range of the guns from the north and there was enough activity to attract a lot of attention. I could see the choppers were coming in working their way to the LZ in such a way that if you didn’t know exactly where the battalion was you couldn’t find it. Due to the great flying and planning it was hard to get a good location on our battalion area. But, when looking at the ground as we headed back I could see a long line of Marines headed into camp – great “pointer” if some one was watching (and the NVA were always watching). Damn McNamara and his Trace.
We got back, send all the wounded to the LZ, regrouped, chowed down, and started working on our holes. Pretty soon the NVA arty rained down. Almost like clock work for most of the night. A bunch of rounds would land then a pause when we dug deeper, ate, and got out of our hole to relive ourselves. Pretty bad night. A few rounds came near our position on the perimeter, but most hit the middle of the battalion area. H&S company took a lot of casualties that night, thus the long list of casualties on the 19th.
The NVA had found us and the battalion was badly exposed to their atry. The next day we moved south. Spent a little bit of time in a beautiful meadow on the hill. It was a picture of true colonial beauty and looked like it was once well kept. Really nice, except that if felt like a real death trap. I was real happy when we soon flew out.
It was quite a day. Lima ¾ did great. I think the NVA unit we hit (I later heard a regiment or regimental HQ) was the one that I bet would have hit Con Thien on Tet of 68 (they were positioning themselves I think) –my guess (since Con Thien didn’t get hit bad on Tet 68) is that due to our action on the 18th, Con Thien pretty much sat out Tet and helped take a little pressure off of Leatherneck Square (that and two other battles Lima 3/4 was in before Tet helped take the pressure off). Lot of horror and chaos that day but if it had to happen I’m glad I was a part of it, but no one should have to go through that and war in general!
John “Doc” Holladay
Former Captain of Marines