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Ambushed In Leatherneck Square

By Richard Camp
4/16/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

Just two miles from the DMZ, a battalion of Marines paid a heavy price but finally overcame a ferocious NVA onslaught.

Packed with troops, the long column of trucks maneuvered over the rutted, hard-packed dirt road. Many of the vehicles were fitted with .50-caliber machine guns, their threatening muzzles jutting menacingly from cab mounting rings. Gunners peered intently into the ground-clinging fog that limited visibility to the edge of the cleared brush. Rain pelted the poncho-draped Marines sitting in the open, overcrowded truck beds, adding to the misery of sore butts and cramped muscles. They faced outboard, rifles in hand, but half-asleep from boredom and fatigue. Suddenly, just off the side of the road, the distorted silhouette of an LVTP-5 (landing vehicle, tracked, personnel) materialized out of the fog, and there was a stir—heads snapped up, hands tightened on weapons. The aluminum hulk was blasted and burned, barely recognizable from multiple rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) strikes. The sight of the destroyed armored vehicle—believed by grunts to be indestructible—inspired a new awareness. “I told my platoon sergeant that we were about to get into a very different war from the farmer-and-pitchfork stuff down south!” remembers Lieutenant Chan Crangle, the platoon commander of Mike Company.

On September 6, 1967, Mike, India and Kilo companies of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines were on their way to a location just north of Charlie-2 (C-2), an artillery firebase southwest of Con Thien, where they would soon fight two engagements against what proved to be elements of the North Vietnam Army (NVA) 324B Division’s 812th Regiment, a crack veteran unit that had been living and fighting just south of the DMZ for more than a year. In battles fought on September 7 and 10, the three under-strength companies suffered almost 350 casualties— four out of 10 killed or wounded. The actions took place just south of the DMZ in northern I Corps. Bounded in the south by Cam Lo and Dong Ha, and in the north by Gio Linh and Con Thien, the area known as Leatherneck Square was one of the most hotly contested in South Vietnam. The 3/26 was about to find out just how hot that could be.

“We got word we were going to reinforce Con Thien,” said Captain Andy DeBona, the profane, snuff-dipping skipper of Mike Company. “About all I knew was that it wasn’t a routine rotation,” said India Company’s executive officer, 1st Lt. Bob Stimson, “that we were going there because of increased enemy activity.” When they got to C-2, the soaked Marines dismounted, and guides took them to their new position.

It was one of those pre-monsoon days when the heavy rain turned the reddish loam into mud that stuck to the boots, making them weigh a ton. Visibility was less than 100 yards. “The guides from 1st Battalion, 9th Marines—later nicknamed the Walking Dead— were wearing ponchos,” said Lieutenant Crangle, “and as they moved out ahead of us, it seemed surreal, with those green ghosts walking toward the treelines. Noiseless. No chatter. No clatter of equipment. The silence was striking.”

The 3/26 Marines moved into position, and the rest of the battalion it replaced (1/9) shoved off, anxious to get back to the rear for hot showers and food that didn’t come out of little green cans. “The unofficial word, grunt to grunt, during the relief, was that there was nothing around there—no VC or NVA, no action,” said India Company’s Staff Sgt. Russ Armstrong.

It was getting dark and the Marines needed to dig new holes. “Unfortunately,” said Captain Tom Early, the 3/26 communications officer, “it’s sometimes easy to take the lazy way out and put yourself into a hole that’s already been dug, and just try and change things around a little bit so that maybe you won’t take fire from the enemy.” The companies shifted about, trying to find the best ground to dig in. The 81mm mortar platoon had marched in with the 3/26. Under the command of Chief Warrant Officer Dick Holycross, the platoon was thoroughly annoyed when everyone had to pick up and move to new positions before digging in— once again.

The battalion finally settled in for the night on ground that was the highest around but was more a mound than commanding terrain, bordered on two or three sides by dense growth. A half-destroyed church stood in the middle of the battalion perimeter, its ruined, fogshrouded tower jutting into the air, “like it was right off a movie set,” said the forward air controller, Ron Zappardino. The only thing it lacked was a graveyard—but that would change in the next couple of days.

DeBona’s forward observer (FO) called in night defensive fires— planned artillery concentrations in case of attack—and the defenders settled down to the usual 50 percent alert—one man awake in each twoman foxhole—but there was uneasiness. “The NVA were testing us, I think,” said India rifleman Lance Cpl. Chuck Bennett. “They were out there; in front of our perimeter…I could hear movement.”

September 7 dawned bright and clear, the previous day’s rain just a memory. The troops completed their morning ritual—pee, Cration breakfast, weapons maintenance—and saddled up. Battalion wanted to check out the area—India, minus one platoon to the northwest, while Mike Company scouted generally south. DeBona wasn’t happy with the assignment and wanted to get out and back into position as quick as he could. His Marines reconned by fire— shooting artillery and mortars onto suspicious terrain—and returned to the battalion perimeter by late morning. They spotted nothing but old NVA fighting pits.

Two platoons of India—about 80 men and three officers— trudged through the heavily overgrown cultivated area. “Our job was to take a morning walk in the sun, see what we could see, and return to the battalion perimeter,” said Armstrong. But, with the tough terrain and the dense growth, it took the slow-moving formation more than three hours to travel a little over 1,000 meters.

Armstrong discovered four distinct beaten-down trails in the grass, where a military unit had marched through four abreast. Then Corporal Bennett spotted some smoke and came across a big black kettle with rice cooking in it. The company crossed a large, open rice paddy and dropped down into a dry drainage ditch—8 feet deep and 10 feet across. Progress remained slow because fire teams and squads had to advance through the brush on either side of the ditch to provide security for the rest of the men.

Suddenly, at about 1150, small-arms fire broke out on the left, and Bennett saw Lance Cpl. Gary Lindsay go down, shot in the head about 20 feet away. “He never knew what hit him,” said Bennett. The company set up a hasty defense, pushing troops out of the ditch to form a perimeter. Sporadic small-arms fire wounded three men, and another was shot dead, tumbling into an old bomb crater.

The North Vietnamese were moving around, probing and searching for any weakness in the Marine defense. “Our fire was reactionary; whenever they fired out from the woods, we fired back,” said Armstrong. The aerial observer (AO) requested immediate air support, and several flights of fighter-bombers arrived to hit NVA positions. The enemy fire stopped suddenly, and India was able to move its wounded to a landing zone. A medevac helicopter arrived at 1320—90 minutes after the opening shots were fired—and took out the wounded, but had to leave the two dead Marines with the rest of the company.

Meanwhile, Battalion assembled a relief force consisting of Kilo Company and a platoon of tanks. Mike Company stayed at the battalion perimeter, and DeBona continued to monitor the radio. “The entire tank platoon—all three gun tanks and the one flame tank— was assigned the mission of linking up with India Company,” said 2nd Lt. Paul Drnec, commander of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 3rd Tank Battalion. Kilo Company and the tanks headed west from the battalion perimeter, but when they got to the open rice paddy, the tanks couldn’t get across and had to stop. India’s commander, Captain Wayne Coulter, ordered his company to withdraw from its position in the ditch and link up with Kilo. Retracing its route from the drainage ditch, India started across the rice paddy in the open, carrying its two dead in body bags. “As we reached the break in the woods and saw the open paddy, I could hear the tank engines,” said Armstrong.

“If we keep coming straight from here, are we going to link up with you?” asked Armstrong, in radio contact with Kilo. “Yes, come across that berm and we’ll be together,” Kilo responded. Meanwhile, the tanks ventured partway into the rice paddy to cover India. Kilo and the lead elements of India then linked up and started back to the battalion perimeter, heading due east. India’s 1st Platoon stayed in position to provide rearguard cover and the 2nd Platoon passed through it and went to the head of the column to link up with the rear elements of Kilo. “My rearguard element was successful in getting across the paddyfield without any problems,” said Stimson. “ I did not see anyone from Kilo then, but I knew we were in touch with them.”

As Stimson passed the tanks, Captain Coulter told him to go forward and keep in contact with Kilo, and that he would head to the tanks and fire the 90mm guns back across the rice paddy. Stimson was concerned because Kilo kept moving farther and farther away from the column, “like a train going down the tracks,” and he didn’t have radio contact with Kilo. Coulter climbed up onto the lead tank at the edge of the open area and ordered Drnec to fire into the company’s old position, back across the rice paddy. Drnec warned Coulter: “Hey look sir, let’s get the hell outta here and then we can start playing games.” Overruled, Drnec started firing. Stimson heard the tank firing and feared losing contact with Kilo if he stopped. Suddenly the NVA opened up with their entire arsenal—artillery, 60mm and 82mm mortar fire, RPGs, 140mm rockets, .51-caliber machine gun and small-arms fire. Coulter toppled off the tank with a severe head wound.

Stimson heard NVA rocket batteries firing from the north toward the tanks and the rear elements of the company, and he started back along the column. “The company was in as vulnerable a position as anyone could have feared,” Stimson said, “strung out, burdened with casualties, in incredibly bad terrain, part in the open, and with no one in charge.” Drnec turned the tanks around and headed back toward the treeline. Armstrong had the radio handset, attempting to talk to someone, when an explosion went off beside him, injuring his face, arm and leg.

“As I was trying to gain control of myself,” Armstrong said, “my wounded leg, my radio, and the situation—as the rockets and mortars were still coming in—the NVA launched their ground assault. I saw a dozen to about 20 people in green uniforms trotting— double timing—across the paddies, from the way we had come. I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, this is the end of the line.’”

The company split and about a dozen Marines made it to the thin cover of trees off to the side of the paddies. “There were human waves of NVA coming at us,” Bennett said. “It looked like they had us completely surrounded.” Two Marines with him were blinded by white phosphorus. The tanks had just pulled back about 100 meters into the treeline when the flame tank commander, Corporal Guy Wolfberger, yelled to Drnec, “For Christ’s sake, they’re all around me!” Drnec barked back, “Are you sure they’re not Marines?” “No sir,” Wolfberger yelled, “they are definitely gooners. Can I zap them with the flame?”

Drnec had a tough call to make as he knew there were Marines still out there. “No, spray them with your .50!” he screamed. Then as he peered through the vision slits in the tank’s cupola, his heart stopped as he saw an enemy RPG team stand up right at the edge of the treeline, less than 25 meters away, and take aim. Drnec hit the trigger of the 90mm main gun and blew the NVA away.

India gradually formed a perimeter as many Marines were still in the brush fighting for their lives. “My main concern was not its shape, but its strength,” said Stimson, who had taken charge after Coulter was shot down. Wounded who could hold a rifle were put in the line—and others who kept drifting in filled still more gaps. Badly wounded, Armstrong somehow made his way to the perimeter and took over a radio to call in artillery.

The situation grew more desperate by the minute. The company forward observer was killed when an ammunition can exploded. A Navy corpsman was shot in the throat—then wrapped a battle dressing around the wound and carried on. An RPG took out Drnec’s tank. The Marines were running out of ammunition, guns were jamming and the NVA were in the next rice paddy—some as close as 15 meters. Lieutenant Stimson could literally see the faces of the enemy and ordered his men to fix bayonets.

Heavy .51-caliber machine gun fire now raked the Marine lines, pinning them down. Stimson radioed the AO and begged him to hit the machine gun positions and a company of NVA that was threatening the position. Shortly, the first F-4 made its run along an eastwest axis and dropped all its bombs on the NVA company. The second F-4 worked on the .51s, knocking out at least one and causing the remainder to stop firing. “That was a big event, silencing those machine guns,” Stimson said. “We could move around better.”

Drnec radioed Battalion and asked for a relief force to link up with them and India Company troops who were pinned down, but no help was available. It was around 1700 and getting dark. Drnec decided to abandon their gun tank. After disabling its main gun and machine guns, he and his crew stuffed themselves into one of the other tanks and made their way into India Company’s position, adding valuable firepower to the defenders’ perimeter. “We were no longer vulnerable; we had good tactical integrity, we had the tanks, the air, and the indirect artillery fire,” said Stimson. “And we had taken a heavy toll on the NVA.”

Back at the 3/26 command post (CP), about 500 meters away from the bombardment, a slight breeze had carried the crackle of smallarms fire and the heavy booms of exploding artillery to the Marines manning the battalion perimeter. Kilo had returned to the battalion perimeter, tired and spooked, with only a few people from India—its rescue mission a failure. Just about that time, the enemy had hit India Company out in the rice paddy and split the force. Even the most skeptical defender inside the battalion perimeter was soon scooping an extra shovelful of dirt from his foxhole.

The infantry companies made a 360-degree perimeter around the battalion CP as best they could. Mike’s three companies were set up in front of the church tower; India-3, the India platoon that had remained behind at the perimeter, was in front of the CP; and Kilo was set up to the left of India-3. At about 1720, the battalion perimeter started taking some large-caliber fire in the area that the India patrol had vacated. The men also began getting heavy fire across their company front. It was now a free-fire zone where anyone not wearing Marine green was shot—no questions, no warning.

“We could hear the India Company fight quite clearly,” said Lieutenant Crangle, within the battalion perimeter. “Then I started to take incoming mortar, rocket, and small-arms fire….my 1st Platoon got a few 140mm rockets, which made a very loud blast, fire, and black smoke.”

Men dove or simply fell into any depression that offered protection. Most just curled up, hands clutching the sides of their helmets, trying to pull them down to their ankles. In 30 minutes an estimated 60 140mm rockets and 70 82mm mortar rounds hit the perimeter, killing three Marines and wounding 25. While this enemy bombardment was pounding the perimeter, NVA infantry crept to within 10 meters of the frontline foxholes. “They knew exactly how to do three or four things at once,” said Captain Early, “and they could do them very effectively.”

By around 1800, India was still unable to get in. Staff Sergeant Dave Nugent was in the 81mm mortar position inside the perimeter when “the NVA started opening up on us, and Dick Holycross was yelling, ‘I think they’re up in the trees!’” Mike’s second platoon, Mike-2, moved to reinforce the battalion perimeter, to cover the area between Mike-3 and Kilo, where India-3 was.

As Mike-2 shifted, the NVA flooded in right behind it and broke through the perimeter, and the already furious fight intensified even more. Sergeant Roy O’Neal, charging the North Vietnamese with his .45, was cut down by AK-47 fire. When an ammunition carrier was hit in the leg, Nugent tried to stop the bleeding. “Before I was done, I saw this Chicom grenade coming. It blew up just before I could get my hand on it,” Nugent said. It tore up his left hand and the upper left side of his head.

The North Vietnamese also shot several mortarmen in their holes. Seeing this, an enraged Holycross charged the assailants—shooting them in the head at point-blank range. DeBona rushed over and saw a lot of bullets coming from a treeline approximately 60 meters away. He scraped together a reaction force and sent it into the treeline. Ten minutes later, the reaction force returned and proudly reported, “We got them all, sir.”

“Everybody in the CP who didn’t have to have a handset in his hand and a radio stuck in his ear was given a weapon and put on the line around the CP area,” said Early. “Once the enemy attacked and penetrated into the trees, we had a tremendous problem of identification and trying to get any type of clear field of fire.” At this point, it could cost a man his life to leave his foxhole.

The intense enemy fire didn’t stop the indomitable DeBona, who roamed the perimeter and was, according to Early, “kicking ass and taking names.” DeBona’s luck held out until, on the way to the CP, he got hit in the leg with shrapnel.

On the radio, Zappardino called for air support but it was overcast and getting dark. Early worked the artillery nets. Con Thien and Gio Linh were being shelled. Zappardino, who relayed firing information over the radio nets, said, “We had support from every gun at every fire base that could reach us.” Marine artillery from Dong Ha, C-2 and Camp Carroll finally opened up, putting a ring of steel around the battalion perimeter and India’s perimeter in the rice paddy. The Army pitched in with its 175mm guns, adding to the weight of metal from 105mm howitzers and 8-inch self-propelled howitzers.

The battle saw incredible acts of courage and tragic losses. Lieutenant Bill Cowan’s best squad leader, Sergeant Bruce Krage, his first time under heavy fire, was killed while clearing a jammed M-16— a too-common occurrence that cost more than one Marine his life. Another Marine came up to Lieutenant Crangle and asked for a cleaning rod. He seemed a little groggy, and Crangle noticed a bullet hole near the top of his helmet. “I held my breath while I took off his helmet,” said Crangle. “The kid had a permanent part where the bullet had just creased his skull—one more inch and good night!”

Casualties were crowded into a small area between the CP and the 81mm mortar position. Navy corpsmen desperately struggled to treat the wounded in the darkness, rigging ponchos so they could use flashlights because an exposed light could mean instant death. Battalion put the call out for an emergency medevac, and a gutsy Marine helicopter crew responded. Zappardino talked it down through heavy fire. The most seriously wounded were quickly loaded aboard and then the bird rose into the darkness, escaping without a scratch.

Zappardino made contact with an Air Force Special Operations AC-47 gunship, “Puff the Magic Dragon,” armed with 3 miniguns that could fire 6,000 rounds a minute. When the aircraft got overhead and fired, the red stream of tracers looked like a water hose. With that, the battlefield quickly settled down.

Tension was high throughout the night. “Every once in a while someone would think he saw something out there,” said Lance Cpl. Ron Burke. “We’d lay down a little fire and wouldn’t have any problems for a while.” The NVA were busy retrieving their dead. “We could hear the noise of the hook going into the body and the body hitting other objects as it was being dragged,” Tom Early said.

Finally, toward morning, the fighting tapered off and the NVA withdrew to lick their wounds. Isolated and out in the open, India Company had managed to survive, and at first light the haggard Marines emerged from their foxholes to see the grim results of the fighting. More than 100 dead NVA littered the battlefield. The struggle had been costly for the Marines too; 20 had been killed in the action, while another 70 were wounded. Kilo Company helped India move back to the battalion perimeter.

Lance Corporal Bennett was given the grisly task of retrieving the dead. “We were tired and it was very hot,” he said. “Some of the guys were already decomposing. They smelled terrible and some were blown all to hell.”

Andy DeBona’s Mike Company swept through the treeline that had caused so much trouble the night before and found seven dead NVA and a wounded youngster, who was scared to death and begging for mercy. He was treated and evacuated—the only POW taken during the battle.

As morning progressed, the battalion commander called a meeting of his surviving commanders and staff and, as he started to give them new orders, a roaring tank engine interrupted him. The group turned and watched pensively as the battle-scarred armored vehicle ground slowly past, its rear deck piled high with dead Marines.

When the noise faded, the commander finished the brief, “…continue the mission.”

Two days later, the 3/26, reinforced with Lima Company, would fight a second bloody engagement, again with the NVA’s 812th Regiment. Another 200 Marines were killed and wounded, while the North Vietnamese suffered several hundred casualties.The significance of this vicious September ambush and battle—and others at the same time—was that there was no significance. It was simply the way the war was waged in northern I Corps…grisly engagements between two opposing forces that typically resulted in heavy casualties. The Marines would then withdraw to one of the fixed positions (Dong Ha, Camp Carroll, C-2, Con Thien), to be replaced by yet another battalion, while the NVA would withdraw across the DMZ to rest and refit. As for the 3/26, shortly after its bouts with the NVA 812th Regiment, the battalion was pulled out of the area, returning to Khe Sanh just in time for the storied siege of that combat base.

 

Richard Camp is vice president for museum operations at the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation in Quantico, Va. He is the author of several books, including the autobiographical Lima Six: A Marine Company Commander in Vietnam. For further reading on the 3/26, he recommends Ambush Valley, by Eric Hammel.

Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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