|THE CRUCIAL TEST: Just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that runs along the border between North and South Vietnam, U.S. marines and North Vietnamese regulars are now locked in one of the most crucial campaigns of the Vietnam war. For more than a month, units of North Vietnam's crack 324B Division have been seeking to seize control of "the Rockpile"-a rugged, 700 foot high outcropping which dominates the main valley approaches to northern South Vietnam. By last week the fight for the Rockpile had become the focal point of Operation Prairie, a marine spoiling attack against North Vietnamese penetration from the DMZ. At stake in Operation Prairie is nothing less than a decisive test of whether the U.S. can defeat the North Vietnamese in their own backyard-and thus perhaps force Hanoi to accept that its only realistic choice is a negotiated peace. As a result, the fighting has grown so fierce that two weeks ago American casualties soared to a record 142 killed and 825 wounded. In the midst of the swirling battle last week was NEWSWEEK Senior Editor Arnaud de Borchgrave (left), who was slightly wounded. Below is his report.|
I hope to occupy that hill by tonight," says Col. William Masterpool, the soft-spoken commander of the Third Battalion of the Fourth Marine Regiment It is the morning of Sept.27 and we are standing on the top of "Hill 363" (so designated because of its altitude in meters). The colonel is pointing to "Hill 400"-control of which is vital to control of the Rockpile itself. Eight hundred yards of jungle separate us from the objective. Everyone already has a three-day beard. We are handed a C-ration pack and rationed to one canteen of water each. Here is the record of the next 31 hours:
0930-As we thread our way along the ridgeline between the two hills, I notice a few bone fragments on the trail. Then dried, bloodstained Marine flak jackets and fatigues. "What's this?" I whisper to the man behind me. The answer chills me. This was where a Marine company took 60 per cent casualties during an earlier operation.
0940-We pass a skull on a stake at the side of the trail. A few yards further a crudely penned note on a branch says in English: "We come back kill marines." K for Kilo company is ahead of us.
1005-After an exhausting climb, we reach the top of Hill 400. Point man stumbles over bamboo pole. It triggers claymore mine 3 yards back of him as well as several grenades strung from branches. Four casulaties. Suddenly, machine-gun fire opens up. Impossible to see where it is coming from. Marines return fire forward and on both flanks. Shouts of "Corpsman [medic]!"
102O-As I emerge in small clearing, there's deafening explosion followed by shouts of "Incoming mortar!" I run a few feet, see old artillery hole and fall in. Five marines land on top of me. Mortar shells impact all around us. I can't move and have trouble breathing. Mercifully, shelling stops after four minutes. One marine is lying with his head half severed 3 feet from a hole he didn't quite make. Everyone seems to be shouting at once: "Quick! More ammo forward!" "Corpsman!" and "John's got his foot blown off." "Where's Mathews?" someone calls-and is answered by "He's KIA [killed in action], sir."
1025-Capt. "Jay Jay" Carroll of Miami, commander of Kilo company, sees me without a helmet. He says he never wears one, unhooks his own from his belt and throws it to me. I also pick up a flak jacket from a KIA.
1030-Casualties stagger back across small clearing where marines have set up a 20-yard-wide perimeter on both sides of trail. Marine gives me two hand grenades, saying "You may need these soon. Single rounds coming in from three sides of perimeter. Some marines digging furiously while others provide covering fire. I peer over my hole and spot four NVA's [North Vietnamese Army troops] crawling past no more than 50 feet below. I yell to Captain Carroll who is standing up ramrod straight under heavy fire a few feet away, giving orders to his radioman. Carroll pulls the pin from a grenade and hurls it over my head, throws three more before going back to his radio. I toss another one for good measure. A marine shouts at me: "Release the spoon or the gooks may have time to toss it back."
1035 The chaplain, Capt. Stanley J. Beach of Sass City, Mich., stumbles by with wounded man slung around his shoulders. Marine in nearby hole shouts to a buddy: "I got a feeling they don't like us." "Personality conflict," says the other.
1040-Lead squad falling back on perimeter. Carroll leads reinforcements forward-forward being less than 100 yards away. Two machine guns keep up intense fire. NVA now have us almost surrounded. I have a terrible feeling I will never see my family again.
1043-First air strike. Two Phantom's scream in at treetop level, dropping napalm, then, on their second pass, 500 pound bombs. Fragments fly over our holes, thudding into trees. Two men get hit by shrapnel. "Not close enough," says Captain Carroll to the FAC [Forward Air Controller]. I feel if it's any closer, we'll all get killed. But Carroll says the ordnance fell 200 meters away and he wants it 100 meters closer. Next strike comes in at 75 meters. This must be what an earthquake feels like.
1050-Captain Carroll leads his men forward again. We have a whole company, but only a few men can go forward at a time single file. Almost sure death for the point man. No sooner out of the perimeter than NVA machine gun fire starts up again. NVA still clinging to our positions. The closer they stick, the safer they feel from the napalm.
1105-Second mortar attack. I crawl out of my hole to the rear of perimeter, hoping to be closer to the battalion CP -[Command Post] if and when lull in fighting comes. I dive under thick tree trunk that was blown down by artillery. Nine more terrifying mortar explosions followed by the sickening cries of "Corpsman, over here." Chaplain Beach is still carrying wounded back to a bomb crater where we have requested a hoist lift by basket for the critical cases as soon as the choppers can make it in. Carroll says to one wounded man: "Nice going, marine. Sure appreciate what you did up there."
1115-More air strikes, still just 100 meters away. I am going deaf. I can't hear what wounded marine is asking me. Water, I think. He has a stomach wound so I just give him a few drops to 'wet his lips. Another marine tells me NVA bodies are stacked up waist-deep on the trail, but no one can get near them because of automatic crossfire from both sides of jungle. He could see NVA dragging bodies away with vines tied to their ankles.
1130-Grenade rolls down to where Derek Taylor, the correspondent for Britain's Guardian, is crouching. Taylor, quick as lightning, grabs it, throws it downhill and flips back into his hole. It explodes a second later and doesn't so much as scratch him.
1145-Two MIA [missing in action] just outside the perimeter. "Richard Burgess taken prisoner on Hill 400 after being wounded attends first reunion with 3/4 Richard spent 7 years in various North Vietnamese prison camps and is one hard corps dude!!!...97 San Diego Richard is on the right with Dinner Jacket, that's me on the left..."Five volunteers go forward to look for them. One gets cut down by automatic fire. Captain Carroll hurls a smoke bomb, tells FAG to drop ordnance 50 yards beyond where bomb lands, then takes cover. More air strikes.
1215-Finally, thank the Lord, a brief respite. Just occasional incoming sniper rounds. Keeping my head down I make my way back to the bomb crater where emergency cases are waiting in the broiling sun. My remaining water canteen is shared among the wounded. Most of the men from Kilo company, who left Hill 363 before me, have not had food or water in 24 hours.
1310-First chopper tries to hover overhead while basket is lowered. He is driven away by ground fire. On second try, pilot radios air too thin to hover and drops back into valley. On third try, one man is hoisted. Corpsman tells me he has about 30 minutes to live. Pilot radios he died in chopper on way to hospital at Dong Ha. Ten minutes later, two more are taken out. Rest must be carried back along trail to headquarters. NVA ground fire getting heavy.
1430-Arrive at Colonel Masterpool's CP. Engineers are carving an LZ [landing zone] out of the jungle with twenty-pound charges of high explosive. Every few minutes an engineer yells "Fire in the hole" and everyone scrambles for cover as another charge of TNT rattles your teeth and covers you in dust and tree bark. Colonel Masterpool is lying on the ground studying his map, quietly giving orders to artillery, air and his company commanders. His calm voice restores my confidence, by now badly shaken. I catch his eye. "Do you think you've got a story yet?" he wisecracks.
1500-Fierce fighting again at Kilo which is taking place on the lip of Hill 400. All hell seems to be breaking loose 200 yards away in straight line (about 400 yards by trail). Sniper rounds begin whistling across the CF. Once again the NVA appear to be working around our flanks. Marines spray the bushes below the CF. Wounded still coming. After blasting some 250 pounds of TNT the LZ still looks depressingly small. I figure that it won't be completed before sundown and begin digging my own hole.
1630-After 90 minutes of intermittent digging, my hole also looks depressingly small. I lie in it to try it out, but it's a foot and a half short and only 2 feet deep. Blisters on both hands are open and bleeding. Six feet from my hole, UPI photographer John Schneider has found an NVA hole with log roofing. I am envious.
1700-Hungry, nothing to eat or drink. Schneider shares his last sip of Water with me. We agree mortar attack is coining as the enemy can pinpoint our position from all the LZ blasting that is still going on. Schneider goes forward and I crawl into my hole and wait. Sniper fire continues, punctuated with the (latter of Marine machine guns. Still rough at Kilo. Air strikes almost continuous. Word is that the fighting is still seesawing across 100 yards of terrain. Marine bodies are being laid out just behind our holes.
0220-Beautiful, cloudless night but cold (low 5Os). Smell from decomposing bodies makes me nauseated and I pull my poncho over my face. Now immune to sound of gunfire and confident will pull through and get out by chopper tomorrow. Then, I think that it won't be possible because there are too many wounded to go first.
0230-Musings interrupted by first shattering mortar blast. It knocks me out of my hole. I quickly roll back in as second, third and fourth-all the way up to twelve-impact in CP area. Again heart-rending shouts of "Corpsman!" Twenty feet below my hole, six marines are wounded six men of a seven-man squad knocked out of action.
0820-Fourth mortar attack. I lose count of number of rounds. Fear is a hard thing to dominate wounded hobbling in from bushes. figure it won't be long before my number comes up. Terry Sicilia of Pasco, Wash., bleeding and waiting for corpsman, tells me it's his third Purple Heart in six months. "I guess it's home for me."
0900-Artillery now whistling in just ahead of us. One of our own 105-mm. shells falls short-smack into CP perimeter, 4 yards from Chaplain Beach's hole. Five more wounded. Beach's left leg shattered. He's also bleeding from his stomach. All he says is: "My God, I hope the choppers make it today." "Chaplin's doing fine now, here he is (on right), reunion San Diego 97 ." One marine begins crying when his buddy dies. Artillery is instantly called off. Air strikes ordered instead. FAC reports enemy mortar position spotted. In minutes direct hits are reported.
1010-Fifth mortar attack catches me some 50 yards from my hole. I zigzag back and literally throw myself into my hole. A marine lands on top of me and is hit in the back with the third burst. I push the marine off me and lift up the top of his fatigues. A piece of shrapnel is sticking out of his back. Someone says my arm is bleeding. I don't feel anything, but there are three small holes in a neat little row just below my elbow. Mortar fragments. My helmet, already peppered with dents when I got it from a KIA (I had returned my first one to Captain Carroll), now has a few more holes in it. James Bourgoin of Great Falls, Mont., is the wounded marine next to me. He is 19. He tells me that he and the chaplain were going to have a long chat soon about a personal problem; his fiancee is Catholic and he is Protestant.
1045-UPI's John Schneider brings good news from Kilo where he had gone for the third time (I would like to believe he doesn't know what fear means, but know I am wrong). The marines have overrun several NVA machine-gun nests and captured a Chinese gun mounted on Wheels. Intelligence also reports we have forced the CP of the 42nd NVA Regiment off Hill 426 the lip that protrudes from Hill 400.
1205-LZ is getting bigger 450 pounds of dynamite have gone into it by now. Chopper should be coming in soon. Barely have time to sigh in relief.
1210-Sixth mortar attack. Back in my hole. It's now almost routine and I am no longer quite as scared. Nearest one this time landed 20 feet away. I am now convinced that one can survive anything but a direct mortar hit.
1355-The worst yet. NVA have infiltrated back. Firing breaks out on all sides. "Quick! All ammo forward!" yells a sergeant. Kilo is being battered again. "All corpsmen to Kilo," comes another order. The ground-air liaison team at Kilo-three men-has just been wiped out by a mortar hit. Someone shouts, "We've run out of battle dressings." I hand over my first-aid kit.
1440-"Every available man in the line," shouts a lieutenant. Grenades are issued to the correspondents. Another voice says: "We need more men to hump amino over to Kilo." A wounded man tears off his WIA [wounded in action tag and lifts two boxes of ammo in each hand. As he passes the CP on his way to Kilo, Colonel Masterpool calls out: What's your name, son?" I can't hear the man's answer, but I see Colonel Mastepool pat him gently on the back. Several shrapnel casualties are now moving into the firing line.
1445-Air strikes coming every 30 seconds. The ground trembles continuously. Once again, I feel the end is near-at least for me.I get an uncontrollable case of shakes. I wonder if I ever had what it takes to he a marine and conclude that I never did and don't now.
1500-Miraculously, the firing dies down. Choppers are ordered in fast. They had been hovering one mountain range away. The first one is once again driven away by ground fire. Rocket-firing Hueys silence the fire. Then the choppers begin coming every two minutes, dumping ammo and water-the first water in 48 hours for most marines-and taking out the casualties.
1600-The KIA are now being loaded. The rotor downdraft blows the ponchos off the bodies. There is one man without a head.
and I jump into a chopper with two new casualties just up from
Kilo. Schneider only leaving because he has run out of film.He
plans to return tomorrow morning.
Newsweek, October 10, 1966
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