3rd Battalion, 26th Marines Fight With the NVA 324B Division in September 1967 During the Vietnam War

7/18/2006 • Vietnam

Captain Matt Caulfield’s understrength company labored through the brush and scrub growth of an abandoned rice paddy toward its objective, a low ridgeline 200 to 300 meters away. Corporal Mike Norcross’ squad had the point and followed an old tank trail across a dry watercourse and up a slope. Thick foliage 7 to 8 feet high lined both sides of the track, severely limiting observation. The trail unexpectedly opened into a clearing. As the squad started across, a burst of fire hit the second man in the column, mortally wounding him. ‘As the point was moving through the open area,’ recalled Second Lieutenant Bill Cowan, ‘there was a burst of AK-47 fire, followed by several more little bursts. I immediately rushed forward and saw that one of the Marines in the point squad was down.’

Norcross reacted quickly and got his squad on line to push forward. Before the Marines could advance, heavy fire wounded the 1st Fire Team leader and stopped the squad in its tracks.

As Caulfield evaluated the contact, he heard a Marine scream, ‘God, the whole mountain is coming.’

Caulfield looked up. ‘Two columns of the enemy — between 200 and 400 of them — started on a direct diagonal toward us,’ he recalled.

First Lieutenant Ron Zappardino, India Company’s FAC, was behind Cowan. ‘The next thing I knew,’ Zappardino recalled, ‘Cowan and the three or four other India Company Marines slammed into me and I was backing down the way I had come, firing my M-16 with one hand and my .45-caliber pistol with the other. Every hand was needed, every bullet counted. We were toe-to-toe, punching it out!’

It was September 1967. The 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines (3/26), would fight two major engagements with elements of the NVA 324B Division early that month, suffering almost 350 casualties — four out of 10 Marines killed or wounded. The actions took place just south of the Demilitarized Zone in an area that became known as the ‘Leatherneck Square,’ a quadrangle just below the Ben Hai River, which marked the boundary between North and South Vietnam. The ‘Square,’ bounded in the south by Cam Lo and Dong Ha and in the north by Gio Linh and Con Thien, was one of the most hotly contested areas in South Vietnam.

The first deadly encounter began on the afternoon of September 7, when volleys of rockets and artillery slammed into the Marine positions. Waves of NVA infantry closely followed, threatening to overrun the embattled leathernecks. Three understrength companies, India, Kilo and Mike, battled elements of the NVA 812th Regiment throughout the long night. Finally, toward morning, the fighting tapered off and the NVA withdrew to lick their wounds. The haggard Marine survivors emerged from their fighting positions to find a battlefield littered with more than 100 NVA bodies. The struggle had not been without cost; 20 Marines had been killed in action, while another 70 were wounded.

The next day, Lima Company was detached from escorting convoys and ordered to reinforce the battalion. The company moved by truck from Dong Ha to a location north of artillery position C-2 on Highway 9. The men disembarked and waited for guides to lead them into the battalion position. A short time later, a long column of infantry and tanks appeared out of the scrub growth. As it approached, Lima’s Marines could see that the tanks carried a gruesome load. ‘A casualty on one of the tanks had his hand out from under the poncho, and I could see a wedding ring on it,’ 2nd Lt. John Prince observed. ‘I thought about the wailing and gnashing of teeth. Somebody back home was going to be mourning.’

Captain Tom Early, the battalion communications officer who had accompanied the column, shouted: ‘Spread out, spread out! The NVA are going to shell us.’

Staff Sergeant Russ Armstrong heard the telltale boom-boom-boom of artillery being fired. ‘Oh no,’ he thought, ‘it’s incoming!’

Corporal Charles R. Whitkamp was helping to unload casualties onto a truck. ‘The first round blew me off the top of the tank and I ended up under it. The incoming was heavy stuff, and lots of it.’

The NVA had the road registered. They fired 35 rounds of artillery without having to adjust. Prince remembered, ‘Everybody was running for cover, but there was no cover because the entire area had been bladed flat and clean.’

First Lieutenant Harry ‘Zero Fingers’ Dolan saw ‘rockets and artillery rounds impacting at the front of the convoy. They were just busting everything up. Some troops were hit and trucks were destroyed.’

Whitkamp crawled around the back of his tank and froze as he noticed a nearby truck. ‘Between the tailgate and truck bed, there was a gushing stream of blood about 24 inches wide,’ he remembered. ‘Marines were screaming in agony.’

More incoming snapped him out of it and he climbed back aboard his tank. ‘This poor corpsman had one arm blown off and he was just about ready to fall off the back,’ said Whitkamp, who had been trying to assist him as the tank sped toward help. ‘We got to C-2, but I’m lost as to what happened to the corpsman. I just pray that he made it.’

Mercifully the shelling stopped, allowing the casualties to be evacuated. Most were simply piled aboard any passing vehicle — anything to get them off the exposed roadway and into the artillery firebase, which had a medical bunker. Altogether, 28 Marines and corpsmen had been wounded and one Marine killed. Lance Corporal Mike Hefflin summed it up: ‘I was aware of the trucks running down the highway…but I didn’t pay much attention. We were scared to death.’

Lima Company joined the battalion without further incident and dug in on the perimeter. Zappardino recalled that while he was on a patrol, his ‘radiomen dug my hole 5 feet down and 3 feet in. They were scared after what had hit us….The whole perimeter was like that. Everyone who could dig dug for hours.’

‘It was a relatively quiet night,’ 1st Lt. Bob Stimson remembered. ‘I had finally fallen asleep…when a large-caliber round detonated right over our position. The rifleman right next to me cried out. By the time I got back to my CP position, he was dead.’

Captain Andy DeBona, the Mike Company commander, sensed it was friendly fire and became ‘a little hostile.’ He threatened to do bodily harm if it wasn’t stopped: ‘I waited until the next bang and had battalion get hold of Camp Carroll to see if they had just fired. I was told they had, just as the next shhhhm-boom sounded. Artillery fire then was stopped.’

The remainder of the night passed uneventfully. The battalion relocated to Hill 48 the next day and conducted local patrols. Most of the time was used to reorganize, resupply and integrate new replacements. India received a new captain. Matt Caulfield came in on the back of a tank. ‘It was raining,’ he remembered. ‘I was a replacement for a company commander who had been killed the night before. The tank lurched to a halt, I jumped off, walked over to a hole and asked, ‘Where’s the CP?’ A filthy, soaking-wet Marine continued bailing out his hole with a C-ration can and answered, ‘You’re in it.’ I asked for the battalion commander. He answered, ‘You’re looking at him.”

Another personnel change occurred on the 10th, when Major Carl Mundy replaced Captain Bill Wilprett as the operations officer. ‘At that particular time, India Company was on the move,’ Mundy remembered. ‘Lima Company had moved out, but on a little different course. Kilo Company was in the perimeter, around the battalion CP, and Mike Company was just in front of Hill 48.’

‘Our mission was to sweep a ridge 2,200 meters due north,’ Caulfield recalled. ‘I distinctly remember thinking…that the avenue of approach was not the place to be if the enemy was on the objective.’

Corporal Steve Greene was with the India CP group. ‘I clearly recall a deep feeling of apprehension as we left our night position,’ he said. ‘It was understood by everyone that after the events of 7 September, we were operating in an area that contained numerous NVA forces that were more than willing to engage large numbers of Marines. What turned out to be a mistaken hope was that we had bled them…to a point where they might not be willing to seek further combat.’

As Cowan and Zappardino were punching it out with the NVA, Lima Company hurried forward to help. Prince’s men were on the right flank. ‘As we moved off our hill into the rice paddy, we got rocketed,’ said Prince.

Hefflin took cover in a Vietnamese graveyard. ‘The first volley of rockets fell in on the 3rd Squad,’ he recalled. ‘I looked down and saw a steel sliver 10 to 12 inches long struck through my right foot.’

Prince hoisted Hefflin onto his shoulders and carried him up the slope. ‘We made contact with India Company up there and started taking small-arms fire.’

Corporal Frank Garcia, who was the last Marine up the hill, remembered: ‘By the time I was moving up to the company position on top of the hill, there was a line being set up. The men were spread out, dispersed over a lot of ground.’

Caulfield struggled to form a defense: ‘I yelled to my XO to establish a perimeter with the rear platoon and extract everyone back to that position.’

Cowan’s 3rd Platoon pulled back under heavy pressure. ‘The move almost got out of control,’ Greene recalled. ‘Many of the men ran right through the area where the new perimeter was being formed. If Lieutenant Stimson and Captain Caulfield hadn’t taken forceful action, I don’t think the company could have survived subsequent attacks.’

Stimson was afraid the men would pull back too far: ‘I started grabbing men, turning them around, facing them toward the enemy.’

As Caulfield moved around the perimeter, ‘a round came whizzing over my head, actually creating a vacuum as it sped by,’ he said. ‘Enemy mortars began to crash around us. By this time I was screaming for air and artillery.’

Zappardino got on the radio and requested air support, reporting ‘enemy troops in the open.’ His call went out to Landshark Bravo, call sign for the Dong Ha Direct Air Support Center (DASC), which diverted several flights of fighter-bombers. ‘I had air coming on station in just 90 seconds. Air in 90 seconds! I couldn’t believe it!’

Caulfield was jubilant: ‘Air was magnificent. The ground between us and the enemy simply disintegrated again and again and again.’

Army pilot Captain Charles Larry Deibert, radio call sign Cat Killer-46, with his observer, Marine 1st Lt. John Haalaud, arrived on station to direct the air support. The airborne controllers braved intense groundfire to pinpoint enemy positions. One of Deibert’s marking rockets hit dead on, in the center of three .51-caliber positions. It disabled the guns and killed most of the crews.

‘I was glad to have that AA knocked off,’ he remembered,

‘it looked as big as grapefruit sailing just off my wingtips.’

As Zappardino later wrote in an award recommendation for the Army pilot: ‘In less than 15 minutes, [Deibert] had [the] fixed wing on target. As the fixed wing rolled in on the enemy, at least seven .50-caliber automatic weapons opened up and attempted to destroy the [Cessna] O-1C and the strike aircraft. Through this hail of enemy fire, Cat Killer-46 continued to direct strike aircraft on the target. At approximately the same time, a human wave attack took place. Cat Killer-46, in the midst of heavy fire, directed strike aircraft against several hundred NVA assaulting our position.’

Greene looked out into the rice paddy. ‘I saw hundreds of NVA troops in the open,’ he recalled, ‘advancing in formation toward the area where the remainder of the battalion was located. I had never seen NVA troops in these numbers.’

Corporal Bill Hayes saw rows and rows of NVA advancing toward him in formation. He remembered thinking, ‘What is this, the American Civil War?’

Caulfield was astonished: ‘They were in an open field headed straight for my flank. The enemy paused, then made a precise left oblique and headed toward the battalion and Mike Company.’

Mundy saw them coming: ‘I was struck by the almost theatrical fact that coming across from the high ground to the west of us…was an almost perfect formation of NVA…firing their weapons as they came.’

‘It was almost too good to be true,’ remembered Caulfield. ‘The enemy was offering me his flank. I had perfect fields of fire; it reminded me of bears in a shooting gallery. The only problem was that as soon as we shot one, two more seemed to take his place.’

Prince took up a kneeling position with his rifle: ‘I saw a group of men jogging 30 yards in front of my platoon’s lines. The leader…moved across my front. I fired one round into his chest….Then I did the same to the second man. I fired at four men and then my M-16 jammed.’

Unknown to Prince, a tank moved up close to him and took the NVA under fire. ‘I was lying on the ground and I felt an explosion. I looked up and realized that a tank had moved up to my left, had swung its gun right over me, and fired a round.’

Lieutenant Stimson remembered seeing ‘two tanks behind me, to my right rear, moving toward me, the flame tank in the lead. The tank commander, in the turret, was firing his .50-caliber machine gun out at the NVA in the paddy.’

Caulfield watched it fire: ‘The tank got off a burst of .50-caliber fire, and 20 to 40 enemy soldiers were knocked into the air.’

Just then, an NVA assault squad came out of the scrub growth, right in front of Stimson, who later recalled ‘a man with an RPG on his shoulder and, behind him, his ammunition humper. As I was reaching for my pistol, he let go. The RPG went flying over me and hit the tank.’

Zappardino was looking at the first tank when it was hit. ‘As soon as the tank turned down the hill — boom, boom — it was history,’ he said. ‘One guy jumped out of the turret on fire and started rolling around on the ground. Meantime, everything around me stopped as it dawned on us — this was for real; we were in real trouble.’

First Lieutenant Paul Drnec, the tank platoon commander, reported: ‘B-25 [a gun tank] and F-23 [the flame tank] took RPG penetrations, which started fires in both vehicles. B-25’s fires were the result of ammunition in the ready rack exploding, which killed the loader and seriously wounded the gunner and the tank commander. F-23 was abandoned when the fire spread to the main napalm tank [which contained 450 gallons of gasoline and napalm mix]. In half a minute it erupted in a 25-meter-high mushroom cloud.’

Zappardino summed up the loss of the armor: ‘That heavy steel weapon had represented the heart and strength of the organization to me, and it had just disappeared. The loss of that tank was demoralizing to whoever saw it.’

The battalion was being assailed on all sides and was in danger of being overrun. The NVA had succeeded in splitting it into two separate perimeters, which could not provide mutual support. Major Mundy summarized the precarious situation: ‘What we had at that time was what I would characterize as a pretty good, well-planned and pretty well-coordinated attack by the NVA engaging all of our elements, which were strung out. They were keeping India and Lima companies engaged over on the high ground to our southwest and keeping Mike Company pinned down between the battalion and an attempt to move onto that ground behind Lima Company.’

NVA reinforcements swarmed toward the battlefield. Captain Deibert recalled that ‘thousands of North Vietnamese were headed for the fight.’ Rocket, artillery and mortar fire pounded the two perimeters. Marine casualties were mounting and ammunition was running short. Survival was at stake.

Zappardino described the situation in more pithy language: ‘They were coming right at us. They had us by the short hairs!’

Rifleman Dean Cosby lay on his side firing his M-16. In between shots, he scraped desperately at the ground with his entrenching tool ‘trying to get some kind of cover,’ as he later recalled. Bushes and shrubs around him disappeared under a hail of enemy bullets. The roar of gunfire was deafening. Suddenly, a line of NVA soldiers emerged from a treeline, firing their AK-47s as they advanced across the rice paddy. He watched in astonishment as hundreds more poured into the open field, until rows of NVA stretched from one side of the field to the other.

Lance Corporal Chuck Bennett could not believe it. There were hundreds and hundreds of NVA coming toward him. ‘They were kind of jogging, firing from the hip, and yelling, all at the same time,’ he remembered. ‘Some hit the deck and fired from the prone position, while others kept coming at us.’

Stimson observed a ‘hell of a lot of North Vietnamese in the open rice paddy to our immediate north. I could see them all over,’ he said, ‘in front of us and off our right front. We were being engaged by this huge force.’

India Company’s 60mm mortars and machine guns opened up on the enemy soldiers, killing and wounding scores of NVA. Cosby exclaimed, ‘We wore them out!’

Bennett was spraying them with his M-16. ‘The NVA were attacking right at us in human waves. There were too many to aim at. There was just one big target out there.’

Lima Company’s Corporal Garcia recalled seeing ‘the NVA — just a lot of green uniforms — charging right at me.’ Then, said Garcia, ‘My rifle jammed.’

He was not the only one whose weapon malfunctioned. Lance Corporal Anthony Zawicki, one of 2nd Lt. Prince’s squad leaders, was down on one knee trying to clear a jam with his cleaning rod. Prince yelled over to him. ‘As I was speaking to Zawicki, he got shot in the forehead,’ remembered Prince. ‘He fell down on his back and just lay there.’

Zawicki’s buddy Garcia covered the wound with a bandage but really didn’t know what to do. Zawicki was beyond help. Zappardino described ‘firing my M-16 with my right hand at the same time I was scraping a fighting hole with my left.’ He was also on the radio calling in air support: ‘The first flights were F-4s with 250-pound bombs. As the first F-4 pulled out, he drew fire from NVA .51-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns. His wingman started his run when the world opened up on him. I never saw a pilot pull back on the stick so hard. He must have popped every rivet in the aircraft.’

Zappardino worked the planes closer and closer to the peri-meter. Cosby remembered, ‘The FAC brought the air in so close I could feel the heat of the napalm.’

One aircraft was not so lucky. ‘Two Marine F-4s worked over the opposite ridgeline,’ recalled 2nd Lt. Chan Crangle. ‘The second pilot flew into a solid curtain of .51-caliber. At least three positions poured green tracers into the aircraft. The plane seemed to stop in midair, with pieces flying off in all directions. Smoke and flame immediately erupted, and he began to lose altitude.’

Cosby thought he could hear the rounds hit the aircraft.

Crangle watched as the plane cleared the area. Someone shouted, ‘He’s out,’ as the pilot hit the silk.

Bennett suddenly heard someone ‘on the radio yelling to tell the pilots they were dropping short.’

One of the planes lined up the wrong target. Cowan’s platoon was right in the ‘V’ ring. ‘I looked up and saw an F-4 going through a little cloud, coming right at us. It dropped four 500-pound bombs right smack on top of our hill.’

Cosby heard someone yell, ‘Get down, get down!’ Then there was a deafening explosion.

Zappardino screamed at the pilot, ‘You dropped those bombs on Marines!’

Cowan didn’t blame the flier. ‘It was an honest error, and by some miracle, no one was hurt,’ he said — and, more important, ‘the airstrike stopped the NVA who were after us.’

Prince ‘saw a group of men jogging or double-timing probably about 30 yards in front of my platoon’s line. They were dressed in green uniforms, so I thought they were Marines. I wondered, ‘What in the hell are Marines doing out there?’ Then I noticed that they had clean clothes on, so I figured they couldn’t be Marines.’

Cowan thought ‘they looked exactly like Marines, except they were short and taking choppy steps…they were in fact NVA wearing our helmets and flak jackets.’

Prince called up an M-60 machine gun team. ‘As soon as the gunners got up there, a hand grenade hit them.’ He moved forward to see what happened, when ‘something hit the ground about 10 feet from me, and exploded. My mind was going a million miles an hour. I could see the piece of shrapnel heading directly toward my right eye.’ Prince hit the deck and saw ‘blood streaming down the barrel of [my] rifle, boiling away as it hit the hot metal.’ The side of his head was numb. He turned to a Marine and worriedly asked, ‘Do I still have an ear?’

The bemused man answered, ‘Yes, Lieutenant,’ staring at Prince’s nicely pierced ear lobe.

Cosby traded grenades with several NVA. Many of their ChiCom missiles were duds; his were not, to the enemy’s everlasting regret. As the duel continued, a badly wounded Marine crawled up to his position. The lower half of his jaw had been shot away. He mumbled piteously, ‘I need help.’

Cosby did what he could and started back to the fight. The man took him by the arm and said, ‘If we get overrun, don’t leave me behind; shoot me.’

Bill Hayes found a Marine lying in the open. ‘I didn’t see any physical injuries but he couldn’t talk or move. I think he had a broken neck. I felt so helpless and told him I’d get help.’ Hayes found a corpsman amid a mass of dead and wounded. ‘I’ll never forget the look he gave me as he struggled to cope with the severely injured Marines.’

A badly wounded Lance Cpl. Hefflin lay in a bomb crater with several other wounded. ‘I was completely naked except for my pistol belt, but I still had my .45. When I saw all those NVA, I thought, Aw shit, what am I going to do with only a .45?’

A wounded buddy stood over him with a rifle. ‘I’ll take care of you, Hef,’ he said resolutely.

A badly burned tanker staggered up to Prince. ‘His entire back was blistered — one huge blister,’ Prince recalled. ‘He knelt down on the ground beside me and sat down on his heels. He couldn’t touch anything. I told him to stick with me….I protected him.’

The two tanks that accompanied Lima Company were knocked out within minutes. Both took multiple RPG hits, which set them afire. One rolled down the slope. Corporal Norcross and one of his men went out with an M-72 light antitank weapon to make sure the NVA couldn’t use it against them. Norcross warned his man ‘to make sure he came back through the perimeter at the same place. Instead, he came in one foxhole down and walked unannounced into one of Lima’s positions. A Marine shot him with a .45. The big slug hit him in the upper part of the flak jacket, knocked him to the ground and broke his collarbone. It didn’t penetrate the vest but it did leave a heck of a big bruise.’

A heavy volley of rockets slammed into Hill 48. Major Mundy ‘ran to the edge of the brush that surrounded the battalion CP and looked out. It looked somewhat like what Andrew Jackson might have encountered in New Orleans…here was an almost perfectly aligned NVA battalion, moving across the low ground toward us.’

Lance Corporal Ron Burke’s squad was moving toward the paddies. ‘I saw what looked to me like hundreds of NVA coming at us in waves,’ he said. ‘One wave would fall down and another wave would move in front of it. That’s when I began thinking we were doing something stupid!’

Captain DeBona’s Mike Company was outside the perimeter when it started taking fire. ‘After hitting India and Lima head-on, the bad guys made a left-oblique turn so they were pointed straight down the rice paddy at Hill 48. They were headed right for us…India and Lima had clear fields of fire into the right flank…and we [Mike Company] were shooting into their front.’

DeBona was ordered back to the perimeter. Lieutenant Dolan’s 3rd Platoon covered the company’s withdrawal. ‘My radio operator and I began moving in a low squat along each side of the tank trail. We expected the NVA to jump out of the underbrush at any moment. Suddenly I heard someone call my name, and when I looked behind me, Andy DeBona was calmly strolling down the trail, saying, ‘Come on Zero Fingers, we don’t have all day.”

Corporal Whitkamp’s tank threw a tread and was immobilized. ‘As I was examining the track, we got shelled,’ he said. ‘The first rounds hit right on us. The concussion knocked me flat.’ He picked himself up and scrambled back into the tank. ‘From the driver’s compartment, I watched the entire battle as it unfolded, totally helpless to do anything. The gunner was shooting into the hordes of NVA. I’d never seen so many in my life.’

Two lightly armored M-50 Ontos antitank vehicles took the enemy under fire. Staff Sergeant Charles Owens was 30 yards away. ‘The sergeant in the Ontos started firing his .50-cal at them,’ he recalled, ‘mowing those rows of NVA down like they were corn, like he was chopping corn.’

The Ontos took a hit and the sergeant was killed. The driver continued to fire, although painfully wounded.

DeBona made it back to the perimeter. ‘Nearby was the shell of an Ontos. It looked like it had been RPGed. The battalion CP itself was a shambles, except for Master Gunnery Sgt. McHugh and Captain Tom Early. They were on the radios. I saw Carl Mundy walking very calmly and nonchanlantly around the area.’

Early remembered: ‘A wounded Pfc who was shooting NVA point-blank with his M-60 only 5 meters in front of the battalion CP suddenly crawled back to us and asked, ‘Where is Master Gunnery Sgt. McHugh?’ ‘Here,’ McHugh replied and the Marine said, ‘Thanks. I just never saw one.’ Then he crawled back to his M-60. Some Marines were actually shaking hands to say farewell.’

Mundy heard the NVA in the brush around the battalion CP. ‘At one quiet point,’ he said, ‘when I heard a crashing in the thicket, I drew my .45 and pulled the slide back to chamber a round. As the crashing got closer, I got ready to repel boarders. A very beleagured-looking young Marine suddenly emerged [and said], ‘We’re out of .45 ammo; can we get a resupply?’ I had three magazines — 21 rounds. I pulled out two and handed them to him. He thanked me and walked back down the hill. Here was kid who had been down there fighting all afternoon. There was no question whatsoever in his mind about going back down there, even though he only had 14 rounds.’

One squad of Crangle’s platoon tangled with 10 NVA in a hand-to-hand brawl. ‘The platoon had been on a knife kick,’ he recalled. ‘The evenings were full of the sounds of sharpening and bragging about using them in hand-to-hand. My 1st Squad leader had an especially deadly looking kris, wavy blade and all. He and his crew waded in. I saw him bash one NVA with his M-16, which promptly broke in two. I found him later swearing a blue streak. He was absolutely fit to be tied because, in his one chance to use the kris, he had completely forgotten about it!’

Whitkamp’s tank ran out of ammunition and they decided to abandon it. ‘The grunts pulled out, and it was time to bail out,’ he said. ‘We disabled the guns and ran for the perimeter shouting, ‘Marines, don’t shoot!’ I was bare from the waist up, no helmet and carrying a big bad .45 with two extra magazines. Artillery, mortars and small arms pouring all around — how we got back into the line is a miracle.’

Whitkamp pitched in to help with the wounded. ‘One poor guy I helped move back to the LZ was so blown apart I thought the only thing keeping him together was the poncho we were carrying him in.’ Whitkamp equipped himself with a weapon and gear from the wounded and took his place on the line.

By late afternoon, the two perimeters had stabilized. India and Lima companies had consolidated on the high ground southwest of the battalion perimeter. Mike Company had completed its withdrawal and was tying in with Kilo. Staff Sergeant Owens noted: ‘The NVA were still mingled with us but the fight had tapered off. They were still pushing, trying to get through. They still had a lot of people out there.’

The beleaguered Marines poured a torrent of small-arms fire into the enemy ranks. Thousands of rounds of artillery and flight after flight of fighter-bombers boxed the two perimeters with a veritable wall of steel. The enemy attack slackened. Suddenly, a roar filled the night sky and a solid red stream lit the darkness. ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ was on station.

The AC-47 gunship pounded the NVA unmercifully. Lance Corporal Bennett thought it was awesome. ‘Puff firing his mini-gun at night was a hell of a sight. It looked like a straight, solid orange line from the sky to the ground. It was hard to believe there were four to five rounds between each tracer round. Puff had to be the baddest thing over there.’

Zappardino loved it. ‘There is nothing like Puff,’ he said, ‘nothing in the world — not artillery, not fast movers, nothing!’

‘By about 0300, all was quiet,’ Mundy noted. ‘The NVA had disengaged. The troops at the front reported hearing the sound of what they described as bodies being dragged back.

DeBona inspected a bomb crater. ‘I found three lines of enemy dead; each line was formed of bodies stitched together by a meat hook.’

Hefflin survived to see the sun come up. ‘The hill was a horror scene,’ he said. ‘We could see all the guys laying around dead.’

Prince picked up a Marine helmet. ‘There were bullet holes in it. I started retching.’

Caulfield stared at a row of dead. ‘Nothing is as final as a Marine’s boots sticking out of a poncho.’

As the battalion got the word that it would be relieved, Tom Early heard an enemy voice over the battalion radio: ‘Goodbye, 3/26!’ H

This article was written by Colonel Dick Camp (ret.) and originally published in the August 2006 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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