21 December 2008


Civil War soldiers referred to being in combat as “seeing the elephant.” It meant that hearing about an elephant (or combat) just did not convey the real sense of the experience. Today we were about to see the elephant for ourselves.

We turned in our B-4 bags (suit cases) containing our service uniforms at 3d Force Service Regiment, receiving a receipt which was placed in our Officer Qualification Records (OQR)—our service record book. Our spare utilities (fatigues,” the army called them), skivvies, socks, spare boots, shaving gear,and a few personal items went into our sea bags (duffle bags) which we would take in-country.

At III MAF (rear), we were treated to the sight of a map of northern I Corps—which was 8 feet tall and about 20 feet wide, with East at the top of the map. US strength in South Vietnam was 530,000,(nearing its April 1969 high of 543,000), including nearly 81,000 Marines.

The Republic of Vietnam had created four “corps” areas (I, II, III, and IV Corps) throughout the country, each of which was a South Vietnamese political as well as military jurisdiction. Each corps commander thus acted as political and military chief of his region, and under him province chiefs conducted both civil and military administration and under the province chiefs in turn were district chiefs. Hue City and Da Nang in I Corps were autonomous cities, administered by mayors who reported directly to the national government in Saigon. I Corps (“Eye” Corps) covered 10,000 square miles. Because it bordered Laos on the west and North Viet Nam at the Demilitarized Zone (“DMZ”) in the north, it was, in military parlance, “key terrain.”

Laos on the west was effectively under the control of the Pathet Lao (Laotian Communist Party). The North Vietnamese established numerous bases in this “neutral” country. Using this phony neutrality, they established the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a vast network of dirt highways from which North Vietnamese troops could easily invade South Vietnam.

The terrain of this region ranged from coastal plains, dotted with small villages, rice paddies and frequent tree lines to rugged jungle-covered mountains along the western part of the country. The jungle was often “triple canopy,” meaning that there were actually three layers of trees. Where there were nearby mountains and jungle, the enemy gained a tactical advantage.

Most of the Vietnamese inhabitants of I Corps lived in the flatlands, either in the thousands of villages and hamlets interspersed among the rice fields or in the large cities of Hue and Danang. Concealed among the civilians were the enemy's political agents and guerrillas (“Viet Cong”), and from the populated areas the enemy drew recruits and supplies. After the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Viet Cong had been effectively destroyed as a military force. Not that it mattered: a 70 year old mama-san or an 8 year old baby-san armed with an AK-47 or a grenade could kill you just as dead as a 30 year old NVA soldier.

Enemy strength in I Corps was estimated to be nearly 80,000, of which about 50,000 were North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars. There were another 6,000 or so main force Viet Cong (VC), over 12,000 VC guerrillas, and about 11,000 supply and administrative personnel. It was thought that about half of these troops, some 42 infantry and 11 support battalions, were massed along or near the DMZ, in the TAOR of the 3d Marine Division.

In the 1st Marine Division TAOR, south and west of Da Nang, enemy strength was estimated to be 15 to 20 combat and 4 support battalions, comprising at least two North Vietnamese Divisions. Intelligence had identified at least five NVA regiments in the area: 21st, 36th, 38th, 90th and 141st. [When LBJ unilaterally ended Operation Rolling Thunder (bombing of North Vietnam) on 31 October 1968, he made the resupply of North Vietnamese units much easier, and their strength was growing.]

Operation Meade River (20 Nov-9 Dec), fought in the “Dodge City” area around Hill 55 (7th Marines combat base and command post) and on Go Noi Island, had just been completed. Fighting against two NVA regiments, US casualties in the three week op were 107 killed-in-action (KIA) and 385 wounded-in-action (WIA) out of over 5,000 Marines involved. NVA/VC casualties were estimated to have been 841 KIA and 182 prisoners of war were captured.

Operation Taylor Common had commenced on 7 December in the area in and around the An Hoa basin (5th Marines combat base and command post), the “Arizona Territory,” and on west into the mountains all the way to Laos (referred to as Base Area 112). We now knew as much as Congressman on a junket.

We had the afternoon “off.” At 1800, busses arrived at the Officer’s Club to take us to Kadena for our flight to Da Nang.

The flight was surreal. We boarded a Continental Airlines 727, complete with stewardesses, for the flight. Most of us slept, leaving the stewardesses with little to do. One of my classmates (who was KIA in February) played poker with three of them, won over $500, and then gave it to them for a “Christmas Party” back in the States. We were going to have little use for money in the near future. (I went in-country with $50 in my pocket. I still had $20 of that seven months later.)

As we neared Da Nang, we got a scare. Someone noticed two flares in the sky, one near Da Nang Air Force Base, and one up near Red Beach, a linear separation of perhaps 5 to 10 miles. At TBS, we had been assured that we had better learn to operate in the dark, because “you’ll never get a flare mission unless “Luke” (aka “Luke the Gook”) is already in your wire. So, here we were, 140 warriors about to be dropped into a huge fire fight with nary a weapon between us!

It turns out that we were victims of hyperbole: we didn’t call for flares out in the bushm for a whole lot of reasons including preserving night vision and the danger of pinpointing our positions. Da Nang was peaceful.

We landed at about 2300 (11 pm) to find that no one knew we were coming!

The plane was unloaded and we began milling around, finding our identical sea bags. Finally, a Gunnery Sergeant drove up in a jeep. He hopped out, clipboard in hand, and shouted “Who’s in charge of this [universal adjective] mob?”

Ted Lewis(a 1st Lieutenant because after graduating from Annapolis with the Class of 1967, he had a Rhodes Scholarship) was the “Senior Officer” entrusted with our travel orders.

“Right here, Gunny.”

“Oh, begging the Lieutenant’s pardon, sir.” He flashed his light across the mob, which set off a light show of sparkles from nearly 300 gold bars on our collars.

“Jesus [universal adjective] Christ! How many f . . . ., er , how many lieutenants do we have hers, sir?” The sounds of our chuckles was increasing.

“There are 138 of us, Gunny,” Ted replied.

“Well, Godalmightydamn! (pause) All right, gentlemen, as your platoon sergeants taught you in OCS, the quickest and most efficient way to move a large body of troops is to march ‘em. Fall In!!!”

Hell, we sure knew how to do that. We were soon in three ranks, dressed (aligned from side to side) and covered (aligned from front to back).

“Pick up your gear. Right, Face. Forward, March.” He marched us to the transient reception center where they found bunks for all of us.

It was mid-night. My first day “in-country” was over. Only 394 to go.

Before I went to sleep, I prayed, the Lord’s Prayer, followed by, “Dear God. Please don’t let me screw up and get some innocent Marine killed or wounded. I’d like to go home in one piece if that is Your will, but please watch out for my Marines. Please bless Mom, Mary and Chris (my siblings), and Maryann. And, of course, God bless Chesty Puller.”

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