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Con Thien: The Hill of Angels (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews

Reviewed by Spencer C. Tucker
By James Coan
University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2004

Con Thien was a firebase and outpost in northern I Corps held by the U.S. Marines during much of the Vietnam War. Only 14 miles from the sea and two miles south of the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Vietnam, Con Thien became the recipient of regular artillery and rocket fire from NVA units located across the Ben Hai River in the DMZ. The Vietnamese called this 158-meter-high isolated hill Nui Con Thien (“small mountain with heavenly beings,” or simply “hill of angels”). The Marine position there, actually comprising three small hills, overlooked one of the principal North Vietnamese infiltration routes into South Vietnam, and as a result, the Marines based there fought numerous engagements with NVA regulars.

James Coan was a tank platoon leader in the 3rd Marine Division at Con Thien from September 1967 to July 1968, and thus present at the base during its celebrated siege of September 1967. The scope of his well-written book, Con Thien: The Hill of Angels (University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2004, hardcover $29.95), is much wider than his own experiences at the base, however. Coan began the book as a therapeutic exercise and enlisted the recollections of others who had served at the base, but he expanded the study to include the entire war, although there is little here on the period after 1969. Coan is unsparing in criticism, both of policymakers in Washington and of MACV commander General William Westmoreland. He believes that Con Thien symbolizes a failed U.S. military strategy of attempting to wage a high-tech war of attrition. The book includes endnotes, as well as a glossary and bibliography. It belongs in any Vietnam War collection.

Coan notes that U.S. Marine leadership, including Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak and Maj. Gen. Lewis Walt, believed that the Vietnam War could only be won through a concentration on pacification. Westmoreland overruled that approach and accepted NVA commander General Vo Nguyen Giap’s invitation to battle in the sparsely settled Vietnamese interior. Westmoreland hoped for World War II–style large, decisive battles and, to secure the manpower necessary, he removed forces from pacification. Walt and Krulak both believed that attrition warfare worked to the NVA’s advantage. While Westmoreland was thinking in American terms of what would be unacceptable in casualties, North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh had declared that 10 Vietnamese killed for each American slain would be considered an acceptable ratio

In the spring of 1967, Westmoreland ordered construction of an anti-infiltration barrier across the DMZ. Known as the “McNamara Line,” for Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, it consisted of manned strongpoints located on prominent terrain features that overlooked NVA infiltration routes. Barbed wire, land mines and electronic sensors augmented the system, as did positions to provide both artillery fire support and quick-reaction forces.

Con Thien was one of the most important outposts in this line, and by mid-1967 the U.S. Marines had established a major presence there. Dong Ha had the region’s major Marine logistics base, and Con Thien provided a clear view of it. If NVA forces were to seize Con Thien, they could subject Dong Ha to accurate long-range artillery and rocket fire.

Throughout the period of its occupation, Con Thien remained a primary target for NVA artillery. During September 1967, however, NVA forces in the DMZ subjected the base to some of the heaviest shelling of the entire war. An average of 200 artillery rounds fell daily on the base, and more than 1,200 rounds landed there on September 25 alone. There was also heavy ground fighting at and near the base as NVA forces attempted to seize it. The Marines then reinforced Con Thien, and NVA forces responded with more artillery fire. In a period of only nine days during late September, more than 3,000 artillery rounds landed on the base.

Westmoreland reacted to NVA pressure in the I Corps zone with one of the war’s greatest concentrations of firepower. Air Force General William Momyer planned the campaign, dubbed SLAM–for Seek, Locate, Annihilate and Monitor. The bombing occurred on a massive scale. At Con Thien alone, Boeing B-52s dropped 22,000 tons of bombs, in addition to ordnance delivered by fighter bombers, naval gunfire and ground artillery.

SLAM’s success convinced Westmoreland that with adequate bombing and aerial resupply, U.S. outposts could survive even larger Northern forces. Westmoreland characterized Con Thien as “a crushing defeat for the PAVN [People’s Army of North Vietnam],” and “Dien Bien Phu in reverse.” He believed it demonstrated that sufficient massed firepower alone could defeat a besieging force.

As Coan makes quite clear, however, the situation for the defenders on the ground at Con Thien remained hellish. Northern I Corps is the rainiest part of Vietnam, with more than 100 inches of precipitation yearly. The monsoon turned the shell-pocked earth into a quagmire, as constant battle at and near the base exacted a growing human toll in dead and wounded, along with stress-related casualties. During two months of combat, the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines’ strength dropped from 952 to about 300 men.

Much of Coan’s bitterness is directed at decisions from Washington and MACV that prohibited the Marines from entering the DMZ, despite clear evidence of NVA violations of that “neutral zone.” In any case, in 1969 the Marines turned Con Thien over to the ARVN 1st Division. In November 1971 the poorly trained ARVN 3rd Division replaced the 1st Division, and it was this unit that was forced to surrender the base in the March 1972 Communist offensive across the DMZ.

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