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Ambush at Thon Tham Khe

By Bradford A. Wineman
6/8/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

Within 24 hours of hitting the beach in Operation Badger Tooth, 48 Marines were dead. The question that remains: Why?

Marine Lance Corporal Larry Christensen was exhausted—and greatly disillusioned—from his first real battle as he jumped off the helicopter onto the deck of the Navy attack transport Navarro in the South China Sea on a rainy New Year’s Day 1968. The 18-year-old could not comprehend what he had just been through. Four days earlier, in just a matter of minutes, 27 of his Lima Company comrades had been mowed down in a stunning NVA ambush, following an amphibious landing just east of the “Street Without Joy” in Quang Tri province.

On December 27, Christensen’s company had set out on a fairly routine search-and-destroy mission into two small fishing hamlets. The Marines, however, would suddenly find themselves caught in an exposed position facing a ferocious enemy, sustaining a staggering level of casualties in the operation called Badger Tooth.

Inadequate intelligence, overconfidence, poor decision making, failed equipment and unforgiving terrain had combined with a skilled and tenacious foe to turn the last days of 1967 into a nightmare. Afterward, conflicting accounts of enemy fortifications and casualties mirrored the chaotic and often disoriented battlefield action and left open jarring questions that remain unanswered 40 years later.

Operation Badger Tooth’s legacy is strangely ambiguous among its veterans as well as those who have studied it. There is no consensus on the cause for the operation’s failures, be it the decisions made by commanders, the cunning of the enemy or simply the Clausewitizan fog and friction of combat. In spite of the confusion over the root of this tactical disaster, the most important result came in the lessons learned for future operations. The chaos and resulting high casualties inspired the Marines fighting in I Corps never to repeat their mistakes. Indeed, some officers regard Badger Tooth as a watershed for operations in Quang Tri province and focus on how much Marine tactics changed after the horrors endured in the ambush at Thon Tham Khe.

Two months earlier, Christensen arrived in Vietnam with dozens of other “new joins,” fresh out of boot camp to check into their first unit, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1). On November 1, 1967, the battalion was redesignated Special Landing Force Bravo BLT (battalion landing team) to relieve BLT 2/3. In December, the 3/1 steamed to Subic Bay, Philippines, for intense training and refitting. On December 17, they boarded the ships again for South Vietnam. Their first mission, Operation Fortress Ridge, began December 21 and ended on Christmas Eve. They achieved relative success in several skirmishes, killing 10 enemy; and, as noted by their commander Lt. Col. Max McQuown, they gained “the confidence and experience needed for a newly formed BLT to perform as a professional combat unit.”

When the battalion returned to its ship, McQuown received orders for Operation Badger Tooth, to begin on December 26. The operation called for one company to land by LVT (landing vehicle, tracked) to seize LZ (landing zone) Finch. With the LZ secured, the rest of the battalion was to follow by helicopter and launch search-and-destroy missions on the east side of the infamous Highway 1, also known as “Ambush Alley” or “Street Without Joy.” The Marines enjoyed a brief respite to celebrate Christmas aboard ship. On the morning of D-day, McQuown learned that the original plan for Badger Tooth had been altered. New intelligence reported the potential of sizable enemy forces operating near the LZ in the fishing hamlets Thon Tham Khe and Thon Trung An. Lima Company was now assigned to clear both villages before continuing its original southwest sweep.

At 1100 on December 26, the lead elements of Lima landed on Green Beach and secured LZ Finch with almost no opposition. The rest of the BLT landed by helicopters and by 1415 began heading to the hamlets.

Lima Company reached the south end of Thon Tham Khe at 1735 hours, supported by Mike Company, to begin its search of the village. They swept through Tham Khe in less than an hour and moved quickly through Thon Trung An, finding no evidence of any VC formations or occupation. They met only light resistance, killing three Viet Cong and capturing four others. Since the searches began late in the evening and were conducted hastily, at 1940 hours Mike and Lima companies were ordered to dig in for the night and make a more thorough search in the morning.

Before first light the next day, both companies moved out. Mike proceeded through Trung An from north to south. Lima Company, however, became disoriented and moved toward Trung An as well, then had to reverse its march toward Tham Khe from west to east—a costly error.

When Lima finally reached the outskirts of the village at 1100 hours, it was surprised by a well-sprung enemy ambush of intense machine gun, small arms, mortar fire and shoulder-fired rockets. According to McQuown’s later reporting, when the company was 25 meters from the hamlet, “the lead elements of Lima Company were blown away,” resulting in much of the heavy casualties of the operation. A subsequent investigation reported the enemy had withheld its fire on “all fronts until attacking units were drawn into the killing zones.”

Lima Company Commander Thomas S. Hubbell pulled his men back to regroup and radioed for supporting fire before resuming his attack on the hamlet. Two airstrikes and several naval barrages from the destroyer O’Bannon, however, did little to soften the defenses before Lima launched back into Tham Khe. McQuown later described the hamlet as “a well concealed, skillfully constructed— almost impregnable defensive position that withstood heavy air strikes and naval gunfire.”

Supporting artillery of Whiskey Battery, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines, attached to BLT 3/1, had great difficulty during the engagement. Armed with 81mm and 107mm mortars, the unit had to move constantly because of the sandy terrain. According to Sergeant Robert McDavid, the troops in his battery also suffered from inadequate equipment to deal with the rainy weather. “If Whiskey had gotten hit hard by the NVA during this operation,” McDavid later wrote, “nobody would have made it because most of us were too miserable to fight.”

Hubbell’s company tried to maneuver across the open, terrain but found themselves fixed in their fighting holes by interlocking fire from NVA machine guns and mortars. Frustrated with the enemy ambush and his Marines’ failure to counterattack, Colonel McQuown grew impatient and directed his irritation at Hubbell. McQuown tersely ordered the captain over the radio to get aggressive and launch a frontal assault into the village to dislodge the enemy firing positions. Weighing his options, Hubbell consulted with as many of his officers and NCOs as he could find, all of whom warned against moving forward. In spite of that, Hubbell succumbed to the pressure from McQuown and ordered Lima Company to charge the hamlet.

In the rush forward, Hubbell and his radioman were killed instantly, stalling the attack as command and control quickly disintegrated. After moving only a few yards, most Lima Marines were either hit immediately or dived back to the ground. The company sustained an estimated 25 casualties in the first minutes of the doomed attack.

McQuown frantically tried to coordinate the battle from the battalion command post (CP) about 1,000 meters away, even though he lost all communications with Lima Company. Nearly an hour passed without radio contact before Lima’s acting executive officer finally reestablished communications, updating McQuown on the situation. McQuown then sent Mike Company into the battle. McQuown later said that even after this transmission, the communications remained “sporadic.”

Mike Company fell in on the left flank of Lima and found itself up against equally deadly close-range fire from well-prepared defensive positions around the village. Lima Company was in a desperate situation. “We took cover in a creek bed and put down cover fire for our fellow Marines caught in the open,” recalled Christensen. “We tried to get all our wounded and dead into the shelter of the creek bed. I remember one of our Marines stood up in the open area and kept firing magazine after magazine to try and keep the gooks’ heads down so others could recover the rest of the dead and wounded. He was shot in the rear when he was running for the creek. Our radioman called for reinforcements, and artillery. We were hit bad; it was shocking to us all that anyone could do this to us. They kept calling for the arty round to be dropped in close to our position to knock out the enemy positions that were tearing us up.”

With two of his companies now bogged down in a murderous firefight, McQuown moved his remaining companies around the village. Kilo Company arrived southeast of the hamlet at 1440 hours, preparing its attack with mortar fire. When they advanced after the barrage, however, Kilo met the same stiff resistance. Forced to move across a wide open sandy area without benefit of any fire support or cover and concealment, Kilo also took heavy casualties.

To break the deadlock, McQuown ordered the BLT’s tank platoon from the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) ships to support Kilo’s assault. Of the five tanks assigned to the battalion, only two could be brought into action. One was being repaired at Da Nang, another would not start and a third had “submerged” during the beach landing. The after-action report recorded that the tanks that did arrive operated with no communications equipment, because they had not been waterproofed for the amphibious landing.

To communicate, troops had to climb up on the tanks to give fire direction to the tank commanders or try to use the tank-infantry phone—a long line with a phone on the end. Tank commanders entered the engagement using only voice commands to coordinate the advance. While the tanks succeeded in knocking out a handful of enemy bunkers, progress into the village stalled because of the limited coordination with the infantry units.

The battle for Tham Khe raged on, and as darkness fell McQuown assessed two tactical options. He could either use all available firepower at his disposal against the enemy positions and attack with his own remaining company, India, or extract his wounded, cordon off the village to prevent enemy escape and resume the attack in the morning with all available supporting arms. Given the confused and disorganized state of Lima and Mike companies and their close proximity to the enemy, McQuown chose the latter option. Anticipating that the enemy would use cover of darkness to escape, he sent India Company to the right of Kilo to control the beach side of the hamlet. He also moved Lima and Kilo to the west and ordered Mike to cover the northern portion of the village by fire, thereby encircling the entire village. Lima, severely battered, took much more time than expected to extract its wounded before moving into position. This left the western edge of the village unsecured for several hours.

O’Bannon shelled the village with high explosive and illumination throughout the night. At first light on December 28, aircraft resumed pounding the enemy positions, alternating with the naval barrages. After the extensive bombardment, Kilo and India companies renewed the assault on Tham Khe from the east and west. Unlike the chaotic combat and stymied movement of the previous day, the Marines conducted a flawless tactical assault on the hamlet, maneuvering through the open ground toward the objective without incident. As they reentered the village, the Marines encountered absolutely no resistance. Kilo and India companies swept through Thon Tham Khe, and by 1200 hours it was secured.

With the village cleared, a more thorough search was conducted. It produced astonishing results. After-action reports and official histories detail how the NVA had turned Thon Tham Khe into a virtual fortress, with elaborate defensive positions and bunkers all connected by a complex system of tunnels. Villagers reportedly confirmed that the enemy had prepared the village fortifications for nearly a year.

The 3/1 BLT had paid dearly for mistakes made during Badger Tooth. Forty-eight were killed, 86 wounded— nearly 20 percent of its combat force lost in a 24-hour engagement. Only 31 enemy dead could be confirmed.

Twenty years later in the Marine Corps Gazette, Colonel McQuown wrote: “[Tham Khe] was prepared for defense as well as anything the Japanese constructed in the Pacific. These elaborate defensive preparations simply could not have been concluded without the knowledge of ARVN forces working in the area.” Buttressing that claim was the reported discovery of weapons caches loaded with small arms, ammunitions, RPGs, mortars and rice stores intended to last for months.

Intelligence also confirmed that BLT 3/1 had engaged not local Viet Cong units but NVA regulars of the 166th Battalion, numbering nearly 600 troops. Patrols by American and ARVN soldiers northwest of the village later reportedly revealed more than 100 enemy bodies that had been dragged out of the village, presumably during the night by the retreating village defenders who managed to slip through a gap in the Marine cordon between Lima and Kilo companies.

The extent of the village fortifications as reported by McQuown and the Marine Corps Vietnam operational history, however, do not always coincide with the accounts of veterans of the battle. Several veterans attest to spider holes, fox holes and connecting trenches supplying cover for the enemy, but not as elaborate or solid as what their battalion commander described. The fortifications they reported finding appeared to have been hastily constructed—in hours, not months—and certainly not on the scale of those constructed by the Japanese army in the Pacific during World War II.

These battle veterans also dispute the size of the weapons caches claimed in the after-action report. Paul Young, a recon Marine attached to BLT 3/1, wrote in his 1992 autobiography, First Recon, that the Marines of Lima Company had identified the presence of trenches and fortifications around Thon Tham Khe in their initial sweep, but continued their swift search through the village since they discovered no enemy personnel. Other veterans claim that they discovered a few AK-47s, 10 grenades, B-40 rockets and 82mm fuzes but not a “major cache.”

Once back aboard ship, the Marines of BLT 3/1 mourned the loss of their comrades and began to speculate about who would get the blame for such a botched operation. “The grunts took a beating,” Sergeant McDavid said, “unnecessarily, some people thought.”

Much of the fault was laid on McQuown, prompting rumors that he would be relieved. Many in the battalion gave him the moniker of “The Butcher” for the rest of the deployment. Other rumors circulated that McQuown declared there would be no medals awarded to the battalion for Badger Tooth, further eroding his popularity.

Almost immediately after the horrific losses on December 27, the commander of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade, Brig. Gen. Jacob E. Glick, ordered an investigation. Glick later recalled, “Any time that something like that happened, there was a lot of pressure all the way from the White House down” to know “what happened.” The investigating officer, Lt. Col. George H. Benskin Jr., however, confirmed McQuown’s conclusions about the formidable construction of the enemy’s defenses as the deciding factor in the battle’s outcome, and did not recommend McQuown’s replacement or a formal reprimand.

In fact, McQuown approached General Glick after the operation, claiming that it was the broader conceptual design of the Special Landing Force (SLF) that caused the ultimate failure. McQuown said he opposed the operation from the start because it would not use all of the assets— tanks, artillery, heavy mortars—available to a BLT and around which BLT doctrine was designed. Thus, he argued, it was an SLF mission in name only as 3/1 stepped into the operation with little more than a light infantry battalion lacking the necessary support to complete the mission. McQuown called it a “water-borne/helicopter landing of a ‘bare boned’ unsupported Marine infantry battalion…that lacked even a shred of intelligence to justify the operation.”

In his after-action report, McQuown enumerated the lessons of Badger Tooth. He advised that crew-served weapons be kept in general support rather than attached to rifle platoons, to prevent them from being pinned down with the riflemen. He promoted the use of naval gunfire for illumination. He discouraged deployment of an amphibious force for a nonamphibious mission as, at a crucial point in the battle for Tham Khe, he could not make much use of his mortar and tank assets because they were still slowly being loaded off the LSAs on the beach. He suggested reallocation of machine gun teams in general support of a company, rather than having them attached to rifle platoons. Several teams had found themselves pinned down under the close range of enemy fire, and could not be deployed effectively. Had they been held in the rear, they could have come up to support the fight because of their longer range.

McQuown’s most poignant observation, however, focused on the failure of the original search of the hamlets. “Every defensible position must be assumed to be defended in strength by the enemy,” he wrote in the after-action report. Small reconnaissance parties should be deployed well ahead of the main body to scout potential enemy positions, he added, particularly when moving across unprotected ground in small-arms range. In his Marine Corps Gazette article, McQuown described the adjustments his battalion made after the fight at Tham Khe, explaining that BLT 3/1 used the Badger Tooth disaster as a springboard for successful operations on the South China Sea coast in early 1968.

McQuown’s “glass half-full” view of Badger Tooth only amplifies that operation’s ambiguous legacy. While many officers used lessons learned from the devastating battle, the Marines who fought in it recall the battle in a more solemn, introspective light. Sergeant McDavid succinctly reflected in his diary: “It was the most miserable operation. I’ve never been so miserable in my life.”

The Marines, isolated in their “five-meter world,” had little cognizance of the broader actions and eventual implications of the engagement, knowing only of their comrades’ bravery and suffering during the chaotic struggle. The rumor that no medals would be given for Badger Tooth proved untrue, as men of the 3/1 were awarded several decorations for their actions. The battalion received two Navy Unit Citations and a Presidential Unit Citation for bravery, along with several individual awards for valor, including a Bronze Star Medal to Lance Corporal Christensen.

Ultimately it was complacency on all levels, including the battalion level, that led to disaster for BLT 3/1. Fortunately, the tenacity and bravery of the “Thundering Third” finally saved the unit even though it was outnumbered and pinned down by a well-entrenched enemy force. More than three decades later, former Kilo Company commander John Regal summarized the operation: “I am not sure that we will ever have all the answers regarding Thon Tham Khe and Operation Badger Tooth. It is my opinion that this operation was ill conceived, poorly planned, but valiantly executed by all hands of 3/1.”

 

Bradford Wineman teaches military history at the Army Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. He is also a Marine Reserves field historian. For additional reading, see: U.S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese, 1967, by Gary L. Tefler, Lane Rogers and V. Keith Fleming Jr.; and First Recon—Second to None: A Marine Reconnaissance Battalion, 1967-1968, by Paul R. Young.

Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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