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Defending Da Nang

By Roger Mulock
4/7/2017 • HistoryNet, Mag: Vietnam Featured, Vietnam Magazine

During the Communists’ Tet Offensive, the Army’s Task Force Miracle and U.S. Marines fought the NVA to save South Vietnam’s second largest city.

Waves of attacks initiated on Jan. 30, 1968, by North Vietnamese Army regulars and Viet Cong guerrillas swept through more than 100 towns and cities across South Vietnam, including its capital, Saigon, and second-largest city, Da Nang, an important seaport. Da Nang was the place where the first U.S. combat troops landed when the Marines came ashore in March 1965. By January 1968, it hosted high-level U.S. and South Vietnamese operations, including the headquarters of I Corps, the military zone encompassing South Vietnam’s northern provinces. The city also had the largest air base north of Saigon. Da Nang was a target that could hardly be ignored in the NVA offensive launched during the Tet festivities celebrating Vietnam’s lunar New Year.

After the attack, Marine leaders in Da Nang sought reinforcement from the Army. The 23rd Infantry Division (Americal) sent its 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry, 198th Light Infantry Brigade, and the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, where I served as a platoon leader in A Company.

The two Army battalions, designated Task Force Miracle, were to provide “closely coordinated offensive action” with the Marines. The ensuing engagements were fierce, costly and ultimately successful, but far from “closely coordinated,” a failing that might have contributed to the loss of almost every member in a Marine patrol, as events unfolded during the days immediately after the Tet attack.

 January 30-February 6

On Jan. 30, a 15-man commando squad penetrated Da Nang Air Base and another squad blew up the “Sector Bravo Combat Operations Center,” just 1,000 meters from I Corps headquarters. Those infiltrations prepared the way for NVA ground attacks in the surrounding areas. In the first six days, the NVA engaged Korean marines some 29 kilometers south in Hoi An and 1st Marine Division units 15 kilometers south of Da Nang. The NVA then suddenly disengaged from the U.S. Marines and attacked South Vietnamese forces at an Army of the Republic of Vietnam compound 5 kilometers up the path to Da Nang. Other attacks occurred to the west and north.

As the threat to Da Nang increased, the 1st Marine Division commander, Maj. Gen. Donn Robertson, contacted III Marine Amphibious Force commander Lt. Gen. Robert E. Cushman Jr. on Feb. 6, and a generals’ meeting was set for the next day.

February 7

Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. combat forces in South Vietnam, met with Cushman and Robertson as well as the Americal Division’s Maj. Gen. Samuel Koster. The meeting on Da Nang’s defense was complicated by disagreement about whether relief units should have been dispatched earlier that morning from Khe Sahn to support the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp being overrun near the border with North Vietnam, according to accounts in U.S. Marines in Vietnam, The Defining Year, 1968, published by the Marines’ History and Museums Division. Westmoreland believed they should have, but Cushman thought sending the relief forces into a likely ambush “wasn’t the thing to do.”

Turning to Da Nang, Westmoreland, “in exasperation” sent the two major generals out of the room and told them to return “only when they had worked out a viable plan for closely coordinated offensive action against the enemy threatening the airfield.” The generals decided that the Americal Division would bolster the Marine forces. The division dispatched the two battalions that became Task Force Miracle to conduct search-and-destroy operations south of Da Nang.

Americal’s A and C companies of the 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry, were airborne within an hour. They were the division’s “ready reaction force,” standing by for rapid deployment to wherever more troops might be needed. The two companies were dropped off in late afternoon at the Marines’ Landing Zone 410, at Duong Song, 6 kilometers south of Da Nang Air Base. The landing came as a surprise to the LZ 410 commander. It was his first notice that reinforcements were coming.

At 10 p.m., the 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry’s commander, Lt. Col. William Baxley Jr., sent A and C companies on night marches, by the light of the waxing moon, to the Cam Le Bridge over the Cau Do River. North of the river were Da Nang’s urban core and the air base. South of it were rural villages and NVA units. The battalion’s A Company, commanded by Capt. Francis Brennan, established a defensive position south of the river on the east side of the bridge, while C Company, led by Capt. Max Bradley, set up on the same side west of the bridge. Those positions denied the NVA an easy way into Da Nang. Friendly forces unaware of two companies’ movement fired parachute flares that revealed their positions about 2 a.m. on Feb. 8.

Troops in the 1st Marine Division patrol an area southwest of Da Nang in 1968. (AP Photo)

February 8

At 3:45 a.m. the NVA began a mortar attack against Echo 4, a Marine position under the command of Sgt. B. Keith Cossey in Lo Giang, south of the Cau Do River, about 4 kilometers from the air base. A ground attack followed at dawn.

The Marines at Echo 4 were part of the Combined Action Program, which placed a Marine squad with a platoon of Vietnamese Popular Forces—essentially local militia—at moderately fortified locations in villages around Da Nang. Those locations were labeled Echo 1-6. The Marine CAP squads formed bonds with villagers hoping to eclipse their relationship with the Viet Cong.

As an example, in mid-January, 1968, Greeno (an aptly nicknamed newly arrived Marine whose real name is unknown) noticed a skinny and exhausted 10- or 11-year-old crouched under a tree. Assuming the kid was too young to be harmful, Greeno invited him into the compound for food, a medical check and a sheltered place to sleep. We shall see how this kindness was repaid.

At first light on Feb. 8, Lance Cpl. Mike “Tiny” Readinger, a radioman and driver for CAP headquarters in the Hoa Vang part of Da Nang, drove Staff Sgt. Frank Ramos from the headquarters to Echo 2, north of the river, just east of the Cam Le Bridge and a couple of kilometers west of the ARVN compound.

At Echo 2, Readinger heard an O-1 “Bird Dog” observation plane report to the Da Nang military police—responsible for coordinating fire support in the area—that 400 to 600 NVA soldiers about 15 kilometers to the south spotted the plane and tried to conceal themselves. For unknown reasons, the MPs did not pass this information along or otherwise react to the report.

At 8:30 a.m., Brennan’s A Company, still in its position east of the bridge, received automatic weapons fire from Lo Giang and responded with mortar fire. The company saw a large number of NVA, and civilians forced to march with them, heading north from the village and toward the river. The Americal troops took no action because the group was moving away from them and included civilians

Readinger, at Echo 2, observed the NVA and civilians crossing the shallow river toward the ARVN compound. He contacted the MP battalion leaders but could not convince them that the enemy was so close and firepower was needed. The ARVN, however, must have called the South Vietnamese air force because soon two small World War II-vintage aircraft dropped 500-pound bombs, routing both the NVA and civilians.

As the Marine defenders at Echo 4 continued their fight, they called for assistance. With no aircraft available and apparently no knowledge of Brennan’s company being nearby, the Marines put together a 17-man reaction force to resupply and reinforce the outpost. Led by Capt. Howard Joselane, the volunteers included Sergeant Ramos, riflemen, a medic, field artillery crew, an M50 Ontos anti-tank vehicle crew, freight operations personnel, motor vehicle operators, communications wiremen and Popular Forces troops.

Hauled in trucks out of Da Nang, over the Cam Le Bridge and 3 kilometers down Highway 1, Joselane’s men proceeded east on a local road until they came to an irrigation ditch, which they used for cover until they were within a few meters of the tree line of Lo Giang.

Awaiting them was a well-concealed 200- to 300-man ambush. Back at Echo 2, Readinger heard Joselane’s transmissions: “We’ve just started taking heavy fire. I’ll give you some numbers in a minute.” Thirty seconds later: “We’re getting chewed up. See if you can get Echo 4 to come from the north and help.” Ten seconds later: “We aren’t gonna get out…. There are too many…. They are all over us…. No way out…. Don’t send anyone else in here…. Tell my wife I love her.” Only one man, Sgt. Ed Palmer, was able to escape from the ambush.

At 9:40 a.m. Bradley’s C Company started its search for the NVA by crossing Highway 1 where Joselane’s Marines had been dropped off earlier. The company heard automatic weapons fire in the distance—not knowing it signified the demise of a Marine patrol. Bradley sent his 2nd Platoon toward Lo Giang. The platoon found and destroyed a booby-trapped anti-tank weapon. Then at 10:15  a.m. the troops spotted three NVA soldiers running into the village. They wounded one. While they were trying to question him, the NVA opened up from 50 meters or less. Several NVA sharpshooters were concealed in trees.

At 10:50 a.m., the 1st Battalion’s B Company, under Capt. Dan Prather, arrived at LZ 410 from Chu Lai, southeast of Da Nang, and joined with G Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, to relieve Echo 4. The post’s defenders had temporarily resupplied themselves with arms and ammunition from the dead NVA.

Brennan’s A Company, meanwhile, began receiving more automatic weapons fire from Lo Giang at 11:32 a.m.and responded with mortar fire. The captain decided to check out the village and at 12:30 p.m. called for artillery support as his men started their advance, with two rifle platoons in a 200-meter skirmish line, followed by a third rifle platoon.

“As we moved across the open field, we came under heavy mortar fire,” Brennan explained for the after-action report. “An NVA company that had low crawled behind an 18-inch rice paddy dike sprang up when our line was 10 to 20 meters distant, firing rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.” Then the enemy moved forward, he said. “Hand-to-hand fighting ensued, and some U.S. soldiers were captured.”

Brennan’s unit not only faced a frontal assault but also was flanked by an NVA company on each side. “The enemy elements were attempting to link up at our rear, thus encircling us,” Brennan said. “My only hope for the company was to pull back to our mortar position and reorganize.”

In Lo Giang, the C Company platoon popped smoke to mark its positions and guided eight sorties of air support from the 1st Marine Air Wing, which blunted the NVA attack. As Captain Bradley assembled his platoon leaders to plan their next move, a mortar round wounded all the officers. The company moved back across the highway.

The command helicopter of 198th Infantry Brigade leader Col. James Waldie was used to help evacuate the wounded during the afternoon of Feb. 8, recounts the door gunner on the UH-1 Huey, Michael Shehorn, in Vietnam One Tour—A Door Gunner’s View. Piloting Waldie’s copter, Warrant Officer Edward Fitzsimmons and 1st Lt. David Ewing of the 176th Assault Helicopter Company flew 21 sorties into the battlefield, evacuating 31 wounded and resupplying all companies.

At 3 p.m., to the north of Lo Giang, NVA troops continued their attack on A Company. Brennan and his two radio telephone operators were wounded. Both radios were knocked out, and communication with the battalion headquarters was lost.

About 50 minutes later, Marine helicopters, covered by gunships and fixed-wing aircraft, were able to evacuate Echo 4.

To the southwest of Lo Giang, Prather’s B Company had run into resistance far from its Echo 4 objective. A heavy mortar barrage landed within 10 feet of the command group. The rounds dug into the wet rice paddy before detonating, spraying mud but no shrapnel. At 4:15 p.m., the troops located the enemy mortar position and pounded it with their own mortars. Riflemen took fighting positions behind dikes, while the NVA soldiers left their covered positions to attack. “We just cut them apart,” Prather said. B Company counter-attacked and overran the mortar position.

In Brennan’s A Company, Pfc. Victor Girling, an artillery radio operator, carried one of the wounded radio operators back to the defensive position. At 4:15 p.m., he was able to re-establish contact with battalion headquarters and coordinated artillery and gunship strikes as the company consolidated its position. Up to that point, A Company had suffered 10 killed, 35 wounded and four missing. Brennan was evacuated.

The 1st Battalion’s E Company recon platoon came from LZ 410 to reinforce A Company. In another failure to coordinate, the platoon was fired on by Marine helicopter crews that were patrolling the south bank of the Cau Do River and did not know that Army units were in the area. Two soldiers were wounded.

By 5 p.m., Task Force Miracle’s other battalion, the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry, completed the airlift of its four companies to LZ 410. The after-action report indicates the Army battalion’s briefing was based on information from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. The 2nd Battalion was told: “No enemy units were located in the Area of Operations for Task Force Miracle. Only anticipated contact was small local units.” Given the events of the previous eight days, this information was terribly stale.

The 2nd Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Lionel Hammond, laid out the plan for the morning, focusing on areas south of the Cau Do River’s crossing to the air base—B Company to the northwest, A Company to the north, C Company to the east and D Company to the south.

That evening, the Marines’ Combined Action Group at Hoa Vang attempted to organize a relief force for Joselane’s patrol. The mission was deferred until the next morning, much to the anguish of the volunteers.

If left unprotected, the Cam Le Bridge over the Cau Do River, shown here in August 1968, would provide the NVA on the south side an easy entry to Da Nang and the U.S. air base on the north side. (AP Photo)

 February 9

At first light the Marine relief force, about the same size as Joselane’s team, crossed the Cam Le Bridge by truck and turned onto the local road. A roadside bomb blew up the truck and wounded Readinger, who was evacuated to Japan. The others followed the culvert that Joselane’s patrol had walked and came upon Greeno—in the ditch where he had been all night with seven shrapnel and bayonet wounds. The Marine had bandaged himself and applied a tourniquet.

Greeno, also evacuated to Japan, told Readinger: “They let us get right to the tree line before they hit us. We thought because of the ditch we had excellent cover, but that wasn’t true. There were so many of them. They had good coverage of the ditch and just kept firing rocket grenades. I saw Hammond, Zawtocki, and Talbot captured and led away. Gregory Gifford [the Navy medical corpsman] was a hero. Every time I saw him he was moving to a new position to treat someone else. He moved as though the heavy fire was the least of his concerns.”

Greeno was knocked out. He explained to Readinger: “When I came to, it was dark and the NVA were walking all over the area. Anytime they came close to me, I played dead. They searched and kicked me several times that night. At one point, in the early morning, I thought they had left. I raised my head to look. There was a lone radioman not more than 10 feet away, looking directly at me. He motioned with his hand for me to lay back down.”

Sergeant Cossey, the Echo 4 leader, also talked to Greeno and said: “An NVA soldier spotted Greeno and started in his direction. But then a radioman ran over, intercepted the other soldier, gesturing he would do the job. The fully helmeted and uniformed radioman came over and stood over Greeno. It was the youth that he had cared for two weeks before. He motioned for Greeno to lay his head down and pointed his rifle at him.…The kid then fired into the ground and strode off, and soon the NVA cleared the area.”

Greeno was one of only three survivors of Joselane’s 17-man patrol, joining Palmer who had evaded the ambush and prisoner Talbot, who escaped on Feb. 11 and returned to CAP headquarters. Hammond and Zawtocki died of disease and malnutrition in captivity. The bodies of 12 Marines were found at the ambush site.

Also in the morning, Prather’s B Company conducted sweeps through the southern portion of Lo Giang. The men found abandoned equipment and arms, as well as the remains of C Company’s missing. One had been bound and executed. Companies A and E swept the site of the previous day’s action in the north, finding much equipment, both U.S. and NVA, and the remains of their missing.

The 2nd Battalion’s sweeps from LZ 410 started according to plan. At 11 a.m., C Company began receiving sniper fire from Quang Chau 2 kilometers west of Lo Giang. At 1:15 p.m., as the fighting escalated, the unit’s forward observer called in artillery fire. D Company was trucked from its search area to join the fight. The NVA waited until the American troops got close before firing. An NVA sharpshooter in the trees killed artillery radio operator Cpl. Darrel Bondrowski. The artillery forward observer, 1st Lt. Robert Byrnes, went to Bondrowski, who had been best man at Byrnes’ wedding on Jan. 24. The lieutenant too was killed.

My A Company and B Company of the 2nd Battalion were trucked to the area at 3:30 and came up on C Company’s right flank. We advanced in a skirmish line but were halted by automatic weapons fire while in rice paddies just 50 meters from Lo Giang. Sharpshooters in the trees killed Spc. 4 Charles Martin and Staff Sgt. Donald Haile. As I adjusted the artillery firing from LZ 410 onto the NVA positions in the village, sharpshooter rounds were deflected by my and my radio operator’s “steel pot” helmets.

Our assault, plus the well-directed artillery, caused the NVA to break off. We were able to withdraw while offshore naval gunfire punished the fleeing NVA forces.

 Aftermath

On Feb. 11, Marine General Cushman observed that the 2nd NVA Division “appeared to be withdrawing from contact southward” and ordered his commanders to continue pressing the attack. He released Task Force Miracle from the operational control of the 1st Marine Division. Some attacks later occurred in the month, but they largely were “an attempt to maintain the facade of an offensive,” the report stated.

It is easy to speculate how things could have been different if unit coordination had been better. The 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry, might have all been transported to LZ 410 on Feb. 7 rather than being split. Flares might not have revealed its movements. Battalion commander Baxley might have had a helicopter on Feb.8 to better coordinate the action on the ground. Coordination 

between Marine and Army units might have made all the difference to Joselane’s patrol. E Company might not have been fired upon by Marine helicopters. The 2nd Battalion briefing might have reflected current conditions. Regardless, the U.S. forces still prevailed in protecting Da Nang.

Roger Mulock was a second lieutenant and 3rd Platoon leader in A Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, September 1967 to March 1968. He was awarded a Bronze Star with V device for his part in Task Force Miracle and another for actions during the evacuation of the Kham Duc Special Forces camp in May 1968.

First published in Vietnam Magazine’s February 2017 issue.

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