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Con Thien: The Hill of Angels (Book Review)

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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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.


17 Responses to “Con Thien: The Hill of Angels (Book Review)”


  1. 1
    Jack says:

    The Marines turned Con Thien over to the 1st of the 11th, 5th Inf Div in 1968–I was one who was there–they left 5,000 cases of C-Rations and a mess.

  2. 2
    J. Gregory Smith says:

    Boo hoo for the 1st of the 11th. They should have been dammed thankful not to have to have paid the check for the base back in 67 and early 68. Just like those dog faces to cry over a few free boxes of chow……
    S/Sgt J.G. Smith 2/5 Quang Nam 1969.

  3. 3
    G. Eugene Brewer says:

    Those 5,000 cases of c-rats must have been recently delivered (If they were there at all?)

    My Uncle was KIA 9-21-67 in Con Thien and in every letter sent back home, he spoke of a "Need for EVERYTHING!" and the ONLY THING in big supply was NVA! (He also needed a serviceable M-16 – Thanks McNamara, you J*ck*ss!)

    BTW, our family sure as hell "Paid our part of that check…" And we would sure like to have my Uncle and all of the Other Heroes back (you can keep the change – Obama's "New McNamara's" need it. But, they'll probably give it to Acorn! "New J*ck*sses!")

    Semper Fi!

  4. 4
    Archie Haase says:

    I do not want to get into a contest on who suffered more, however I was with 2/4 Marines outside the wire at Con Thein during all of the September and October siege. Hell could not have been worse. We had no bunkers only fighting holes. Incoming daily maybe 2 times a day. We moved every three days to prevent the NVA from zeroing in on us. We fought raging gun battles against a foe who had better rifles then us US Marines. Bagged our dead Marine bodies and waited for water food and ammunition on the next helicopter. Rain rain and rain. Dig a hole to fight in and hold your breath when you had incoming.

    Conservatively 2nd Bn 4th Marines went from 935 down to under 400 and that was including replacements in three weeks. 2/4 had 2 Medals of Honor in this three week fight.

  5. 5
    Marty Phillips says:

    I would like to thank all of you who sacraficed in so many ways that those of us back home can't even immagine what you went through. Thanks for keeping America safe.

  6. 6
    E.L. "Tim" Craft says:

    I arrived in Viet Nam, in August 1967 a few days later I was sent to Con Thien to join a line company. I had just met my commanding officer a mustanger named Dallas Thompson, and he was showing me where our ammo was kept and hidden and our positions then he took me to meet the men i would be with I was a PFC. Thirty minutes later Lt, Thompson heard it coming in and moved right in front of me as the rocket exploded he was dead.

    The next day a L/Cpl and myself were sent out to kill the bastards that were raining mortars, rockets and artillery shells on us and the F16's that verified the report confirmed that the two of us had killed 162 of the enemy. The L/Cpl was Arther Kennedy, he earned the Congressional Medal of honor that day but like was typical for Marines he got screwed out of it because Marines could not spare the manpower to go receive such a medal he didn't get a damned thing for doing more than Audy Murphy. That was typical of how Marines were regarded during both the siege for Con Thien and the siege for Khe Sanh. I know, I was there and I witnessed it.

    • 6.1
      Charles Presler says:

      I don't doubt anyones courage, collectively or individually, but in 1969-70 when I was there, one saw F-4 Phantoms and A-4 s in support. F-16s weren't even created til '74…..

    • 6.2
      A. Diane Thompson says:

      Tim, I am the wife of Dallas Thompson and still living in San Diego. I read what you wrote about Dallas and it was so like me to do what he thought he should do. I have never married again and we had one beautiful daughter who is married and I have two Grandchildren. So the blood line of my Dallas lives on in my heart and in his fellow Marines. God Bless. A. Diane Thompson

    • 6.3
      Micheal Ashby Mgysgt Ret says:

      I can believe your story about your CO, but the rest of your story about you and one other man going out and killing162 enemy is a bunch of bull shit all the incoming was coming from the North side of the DMZ. I was there in Sept of 67 with 2/9. Try looking at the Command Chronology for your unit. The Marine Corps could'nt spare a L/Cpl to go pick up a medal of Honor ?? What a joke. If your going to lie about you accomplishment make it a little more believable

  7. 7
    Charles Presler says:

    I was sent to Nui Con Thien in Summer of 69, as an officer of the 1st of the 5th mech. I found the marines there to be unparalleled in training, bravery and effectiveness. Concurrently, I found them initially to be woefully lacking in heavy fire support (which was we were sent there–our 105s and 8 inch howitzers more than evened the score), many wonderful marines had suffered accordingly. To argue over who suffered more, and when, beggars my imagination. The unit which lost the most people in WWII was neither marine nor army; it was the singularly couragious 8th Air Force in Britain, Did that make the suffering on Omaha Beach, at Monte Cassino, at Peleliu, Okinawa or at Iwo Jima qualitatively less? The marines and soldiers in Viet Nam were brothers in arms, and grudgingly, but willingly, gave up their lives for each other, and for their nation. When Nixon pulled out the 3rd MarDiv, I was left alone on Con Thien with the 1st ARVNs. Anyone who didn't appreciate the marines at that point was a patent fool. We profited from their presence and they from ours. Hardship was shared, perhaps at times unequally, but mutual respect was axiomatic from those of both services who retained their sanity and their reason.

  8. 8
    Cpl Jacinto Diaz says:

    I was at con thien in sept 12 and I asked my platoon sgt to shoot from my bunker becouse I knew were they were firing I soon that I starred hitting them they returned the fire All I remembered that I got shot in my leg and I cound not move and they kept throwing motar round at me. I recieved multiple wound.I spent two or three day at Con Thien before I was evacuted I dont know what happened after that if some one knows more I wish let me know all I know is that after that the shit hit the fan.I was with mike co. 3/9 third Marine.

  9. 9
    Cpl Jacinto Diaz says:

    I was wounded Sept 12 1967 It was my birthday back in the world Sept 11 1947 I was a good present .

  10. 10
    Daryl Eigen says:

    I was with 2/9 from May 67 thru the month of September and into Oct 1967 as a Cpl Radio Operator (FO). Before that I was in 3/26. Con Thien capped my tour of duty. Note: 2/9 was also located outside the wire in foxholes.And we suffered with everyone else.

    As my wife always says, you cannot compare suffering. It is an unavoidable truth if you think about it. The shame is that Con Thien and those that served there are still not given the recognition they deserve. To this end, I think Coan did a fine job of telling the greater story.

  11. 11
    steve durbin says:

    I was a squad leader with 3/4 and spent all of my 13 months north of Dong Ha. I was on Operation Hickory ( the 1st in DMZ) spent May, June, July, Aug, in the Con Thien area, and was wounded at Con Thien We then moved to Cam Lo, then to Camp Carroll, back to the trace, then to A3, then to Gio Linh, wounded again when I stepped on a foot trap, medevaced to Dong Ha, did the mine sweeps ,back to Cam Lo Headquarters, and then on to Khe Sanh. We fought at the marketplace at the catholic church…all of those places. I can still visualize the entire Leatherneck Square area. The only battalion that spent more time in the Con Thien area, other than the 4th marines, was the 9th marines, especially the "Walking Dead, 1/9.

  12. 12
    Vincent mendoza says:

    I was there starting in 1/10/68, echo co. 0331 squad, intense bombing, rats the size of puppies, daily close call to death. I pray we all get over the bitter loss of friends.

  13. 13
    Phil Sutherland says:

    I was there from late September when we relieved the 4th Marines on Con Thien, until I was medivaced out of there on October 13, 1967 when the A-4 Skyhawk dropped bombs on us when the pilot got the wrong coordinates and instead of dropping bombs on the NVA, dropped them on us. This part of our history seems to be lost, as well as the fact that 1/9 (The Walking Dead) was on Con Thien twice, once in mid summer and once in the fall, taking heavy casualties both times.

  14. 14
    Robert Cunningham says:

    That's a beautiful life Diane, brought about by great sacrifice. God bless you and your family and the man whom your husband saved with his life.
    ~RCunningham



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