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Descent into the DMZ

By John J. Galluzzo
3/22/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

The story of a Marine assault force’s tragic landing during Operation Beau Charger is told in a corporal’s letters home.

When Lance Cpl. Robert Francis Galluzzo sat down on May 26, 1967, to write to his parents in Massachusetts, he described how a quirk of fate spared his life less than a week earlier as Marines in Operation Beau Charger boarded helicopters for a flight from the amphibious assault ship USS Okinawa to a battlefield on the border of North and South Vietnam. “I was supposed to go in on the first wave, second helicopter,” Galluzzo wrote, “but the radio went [out], and we didn’t go in ’til the second wave. Before we even got off the ship, a helicopter came back in shot up. Tex had been shot 3 times, Doc Chase 2, and the helicopter quite a few times. No one had even got off, but Rebel.”

Galluzzo, of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, lost many friends during Beau Charger, a mission to drive North Vietnamese soldiers out of the southern end of the Demilitarized Zone that separated the two Vietnams. Even though an international agreement required both sides to keep the DMZ free of all military forces, the North Vietnamese were using the area to stage attacks on American positions in South Vietnam. Galluzzo had escaped death and injury in the initial assault, but there was still plenty of danger to come.

Galluzzo’s journey to Vietnam began in June 1966, five months after his 19th birthday, when he left Hingham, Massachusetts, for Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina. He quickly became a favorite of the drill instructors. When ordered to carry the guidon and march at the head of his column, he slung his M-14 across his back and grabbed the flag. His instructors told him to drop the rifle, but he resisted, saying that no one would ever take it away from him as long as he was a Marine.

Galluzzo graduated from basic training at the head of his platoon. “Well,” he wrote his parents on July 27, 1966, “today I was measured for dress blues! Yup!! I made it! I was chosen ‘Outstanding Man’ in the platoon. This is my one hour of glory.” The dress blues came with a promotion to private first class and the chance to record a recruiting message that would be played on the radio. From Parris Island, Galluzzo traveled to advanced training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and by November he was at Camp Pendleton, California, ready to deploy to Vietnam.

On December 2, Galluzzo wrote a letter from the Marine Corps air station at El Toro, where he had arrived the day before. “I played football almost all day today, and I’m just parkin’ my carcass and decided to write a few letters. We’ll get up at 4 a.m. and will take off at 9 a.m. We’re flying Continental Air Lines. We refuel in Kadena, Honolulu and go directly to Okinawa. We’ll get our gear and final instructions and move out.”

Galluzzo landed in Da Nang, South Vietnam, on December 7. Two days later, the Marine went on his first patrol. He noted in one letter that his unit was the northernmost battalion in Vietnam. The border with North Vietnam was just 6 miles to the north.

On December 15 Galluzzo described the patrol for his parents: “I’ve never humped so many hills in my life. But, I’ve been told that’s the longest hump this company has ever made. We looked for Charlie so much it wasn’t funny….The elephant grass is about 15 ft. high and you can’t see the guy 3 ft. in front of you. When we went down we came to a beautiful waterfall. I wish I had a camera. There were pungi pits and stakes all over hell and the [enemy] had been there for sure.”

While on a routine patrol sometime in late January or early February, Galluzzo was wounded—shell fragments from an errant friendly grenade embedded in his calf. He told his parents the shrapnel would be removed when he went back to Okinawa with the rest of his battalion on Feb. 7, 1967, but it wasn’t.

The battalion trained for almost two months on Okinawa, preparing for deployment as part of Special Landing Force Alpha. Special landing forces consisted of Marine battalions and helicopter squadrons stationed on Navy ships for typically small-scale amphibious assaults.

Two such assaults had taken place earlier in the year: Operation Deckhouse V from January 6 to January 15, followed by Operation Deckhouse VI/DeSoto from February 16 to March 3. Meanwhile, Galluzzo’s battalion trained—and waited.

Galluzzo’s letters generally detailed the monotony of life on Okinawa, but in one he asked his mother to understand why he wanted to walk at the front of his unit when on patrol, a very dangerous position:

“All my life you told me to look out for the other guy first & myself last. Mom, I’m used to doing [it] this way. I can’t change. To myself I don’t mean a damn thing. I can’t live selfish. For now, I have a chance to do my share for God & our country. If it means my life, it means just that & I’m not worried in the least, neither should you….What will be, will be. It doesn’t matter where I am in the column on patrol, if my time comes, nothing will stop it.”

The wait was over on April 4. Galluzzo and the rest of his battalion boarded the San Diego. The Marines performed a mock landing, Okinawa, which had arrived from reboarded and set sail. They pulled into the Philippines on April 20 for three days of training in pouring rain and 100-degree heat and then got underway again. “We’ll be off the coast of Nam tomorrow,” Galluzzo wrote on April 24.

Three days later the battalion began its participation in two heliborne search-and-destroy missions, Operation Union and Operation Beaver Cage, both in the Que Son Valley, south of Da Nang. After two days, Galluzzo collapsed from heat exhaustion and was medevaced back to the Okinawa. When he recovered, he returned to the field until his unit’s mission ended in mid-May.

A few days earlier, a North Vietnamese raid across the DMZ had changed the tenor of the war and the strategies for Marine landings. A 1954 agreement in Geneva, signed after Communist fighters forced France to give up the colony it had ruled for 70 years, established the DMZ as the boundary between the Communist-dominated section of Vietnam and the rest of the country. The DMZ encompassed about 3 miles on each side of an east-west line, slightly south of the 17th parallel, stretching more than 60 miles from the South China Sea to Laos. For much of that distance, the line ran through the middle of the Ben Hai River.

The Geneva agreement required that all military forces, supplies and equipment be withdrawn from the DMZ. U.S. policy forbade attacks in the buffer zone, but the North Vietnamese Army moved divisions and artillery across the Ben Hai in 1966 and used the DMZ’s southern section as a base for launching frequent and damaging attacks in South Vietnam.

Most dramatically, on May 8, 1967, NVA ground forces on the southern side of the Ben Hai had attacked Con Thien, just below the DMZ, along with Camp Carroll, Gio Linh and Dong Ha, farther east and south. They moved on a small force of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, at Con Thien, sometimes engaging the Marines in hand-to-hand fighting, before eventually retiring back across the DMZ, knowing they would not be pursued because U.S. forces adhered to the Geneva agreement’s restrictions. When the battle was over, 44 Marines were dead and 110 wounded. NVA deaths totaled 197.

In response to the attack on Con Thien, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, the organization in charge of all U.S. combat forces in the country, authorized the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force to carry out ground operations in the DMZ’s southern section. The Marines and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam prepared for an assault that would include ground, amphibious and heliborne units.

On May 18, after about 100 Marines had been killed in recent months in attacks staged from the DMZ, American and South Vietnamese forces were ready to initiate three simultaneous operations—Hickory, Lam Son 54 and Beau Charger—sending in 5,500 troops from the 3rd Marine Division and the ARVN 1st Division to clear out the southern half of the DMZ. (A related operation, Belt Tight, started on May 20.) The forces in operations Hickory (U.S. Marines) and Lam Son 54 (ARVN) would hit the enemy from the south by land. Heliborne Marines in Beau Charger and Belt Tight were to fly in from the east, launched from ships in the South China Sea.

Beau Charger had originally been set for May 17, and on the 16th Galluzzo, now a lance corporal, wrote what he knew could be his last letter. He would be taking off from the Okinawa on a first-wave chopper heading for a hot landing zone at first light.

“We pulled in and out of Da Nang harbor during the night and in the morning we are going on operation,” he wrote. “All they told us is that we are going so far north that if we went any further we would be in another country. The terrain is supposed to be flat and we won’t be too far inland. The mission is search, destroy and clear….All enemy contact is to be engaged and the enemy destroyed and we are to evacuate the entire civilian [population] in the 6-10 mile stretch we sweep. Small arms fire is expected at a minimum with 82, 120, 140 mortars and 105 artillery to be expected quite often.

“So here I go again, not knowing when I’ll be able to write or when I’ll hear from you. As long as you’re not visited by a recruiter and don’t receive any telegrams, you’ll know I’m fine and not to worry. That’s it. Say hello to the whole family for me, I love you all very much. Take care, God bless you always.”

Operation Beau Charger was moved from the morning of the 17th to the morning of the 18th to coincide with Operation Hickory to the west and Lam Son 54 to the south. During the night of the 17th, NVA troops concentrated heavy artillery, rocket and mortar fire on all Marine positions along the DMZ. They killed 11 and wounded 91 at Dong Ha. At Gio Linh, one Marine was killed and 12 were wounded. American batteries returned fire, hitting positions north of and in the DMZ, but there was none of the heavy shelling usually undertaken to weaken enemy positions before ground troops rush in. That would have been a tipoff, and the Marines wanted their assault to be a total surprise.

The following morning, 15 Sikorsky UH-34 helicopters from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263 lined the deck of the Okinawa, each ready to transport five Marines from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, to their destination. Galluzzo took his place in the second chopper on deck. The expected landing zone, Goose, was less than 6 miles from the North Vietnamese border, and resistance was expected to be heavy.

The lead chopper, piloted by Lt. Col. Edward H. Kirby, the squadron’s commanding officer, took off at 0800 hours. Galluzzo was supposed to be on the second helicopter, but the pilot hesitated in his takeoff and finally reported that he had a broken radio. He was ordered to stay put. Galluzzo and the other men in the chopper rushed to the next available helicopter, part of the second wave.

Over the DMZ, Kirby pushed his UH-34 at maximum speed for a low-level, quick-hitting approach. He attempted to set down at Landing Zone Goose, but machine gun fire ripped into his helicopter. The co-pilot, crew chief, gunner and three of the five infantrymen were hit. A fourth infantryman fell out and died. Though wounded, the gunner managed to return fire as the pilot struggled to get the helicopter airborne again. With his radio all shot up, Kirby could not warn the other helicopter pilots about the heavy enemy fire. The others moved in blindly as Kirby turned and raced back to the Okinawa.

Galluzzo watched as Kirby landed his damaged helicopter on the deck and ran to tell the special landing force commander about the carnage at LZ Goose. Landings were immediately moved about 875 yards south to LZ Owl. But that didn’t help the Marines in the first wave. All of those helicopters unloaded their troops at Goose. In addition to Kirby’s copter, six others suffered damage.

Up against overwhelming odds, the survivors of the Goose landing set up a defensive formation spread across 800 yards. A request for naval gunfire support went unheeded because no one could pinpoint the enemy’s position, and the ships feared their shelling would endanger the small Marine force on the ground.

By 0855 the second wave had landed at Owl. In one of the helicopters was Lance Cpl. Galluzzo, leading a small team of riflemen, part of the 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company.

“We went out & landed with the rest of the company & moved up to where 2nd platoon was,” he wrote. “I was helo-team leader, in charge of 4 men in my chopper and had picked up two more. That made 7. We got to 2nd plt., I reported to the Lt. and asked for 1st squad. There wasn’t one. There were only 4 people from 2nd plt. there. The helicopter landed too far north.”

The Marines who landed at Owl moved up toward Goose to relieve the troops there. When they reached the site, the hard facts of the abortive assault at Goose became apparent.

Galluzzo recounted the carnage in painful detail: Corporal Richard Land, Private Ed Christensen, Lance Cpl. Paul Doyon, Corporal Russell Keck, Pfc. Mark Dagliesch, Pfc. Charles Anderson, “another machine gunner I didn’t know,” Rebel (Corporal Stanley Godwin) and Doc Smitty (hospital corpsman Michael Smith) were dead. Additionally, “Larsen, Wallace, Funk, Storey, Godwin, Sgt. Martin, Pete Gobaliewski & McEvoy had all been injured. We had an 11 man plt. We found 3 more, safe, so now we had 2, 7-man squads and I was made 1st squad leader.”

But some of the injured would be of little use in combat. “Sgt. Martin’s okay, Ski may lose 1 or both arms, Larsen & Wallace are going home, Tex probably will go home, Funk, Storey & Chase are okay. T.W. Godwin was shot through the pack…Tex was not only shot three times, but his pack stopped 7 rounds from hitting his back.”

For four days, squad leader Galluzzo took his men on patrols and set up ambushes at night. Then replacements arrived from Okinawa, two sergeants and four lance corporals, dropping Galluzzo from squad leader back to fire team leader.

“We swept the DMZ from North Vietnam to south of the DMZ. We were in the desert—just what I said, desert—for just about the entire operation. Nothing but sand. The temp. was 137 degrees and ranged from 120-40 the entire operation. We worked in close support with tank & air strikes most of the time there.”

At 0300 on May 26, the operation ended. The combined American and South Vietnamese operations had killed 789 enemy soldiers, destroyed many installations and captured or destroyed tons of rice and military supplies, according to a tally in U.S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese 1967, by Gary L. Telfer, Lane Rogers and V. Keith Fleming. The Marines suffered 142 killed (85 in Beau Charger) and 896 wounded; the South Vietnamese, 22 killed and 122 wounded. Galluzzo and what was left of the 2nd Platoon marched out of the desert and boarded a troop-transport boat that ran them back to the Okinawa.

Galluzzo warned his parents about operations still ahead: “I hate to say it, but, I hated more to hear it, yup, we’re going on operation again on 2 May [he probably meant June 2]. Somewhere north of Phu Bai from what I can gather. I’ve been praying very hard and ask the same from all back home. It looks so far away now, and like such a hard job, but, I’m giving it my all to make it back safe & sound some day. With God’s will, I’ll make it.

“Mom, dad, you’ll never know how bad war is. You get tight with guys, some I’ve been with now, 6 months, and, in a second, they’re gone. 2nd plt. has taken the worst beating. Seems to always be there at the wrong time. You can’t let it, or try not to let it bother you, but so many so fast, it gets difficult at times. It’s gotten to a point, every time you hear a round go off, you cringe. We left Okinawa with 42 enlisted, 1 officer and are down to 14 and 1 of the original. I don’t know anyone.”

Galluzzo also reported on a friend, a machine gunner, who had landed at LZ Goose and survived physically but not mentally. During the previous operation, three men, actually “20 year old kids,” had died in his arms. “This time he saw Keck & Mark & Anderson get it. He cracked. When they found him, he was sitting in the sand, whimpering, draining sand through his fingers. No one could get through to him. I don’t know how he is now.

“I don’t have anymore joyous news to tell. I don’t write this to make you worry, or because I enjoy it. I have to get it off my mind, and at the same time, I want you to realize what is going on over here.”

Although the future on May 26 seemed bleak, less than a week later Galluzzo interviewed for and accepted a clerk’s job aboard the Okinawa, helping his company handle its correspondence. In the coming weeks he updated his family on the fallout from the ill-fated landing at LZ Goose. Larsen and Wallace went home with fractured skulls, and Staff Sgt. Martin returned stateside carrying a Bronze Star with combat “V.”

The wife of Ed “Chris” Christensen, who had been killed in the landing, was expecting a baby later that summer. That news breathed life into a world rife with the stench of death.

“We received a letter from her today,” Galluzzo wrote to his parents on June 3, “assuring us that even though her child would never have a father, that he’d have the greatest godfathers in the world. You see, Chris had written her & had told her that 1st squad was going to be the godfather to his and her first child. She has written back asking us not to forget and to visit her as soon as we get home. Her house is our house and we are welcome any time.

“I read that letter and can’t tell you how I feel. I feel so humble and yet so proud that I can’t explain myself. This baby is going to be something special to all of us. There are five of the 14 left, Sgt. Os [Burr Osbonlighter Jr.], Tom George, Jim Stevens, Terry Godwin and myself. Jim & Terry are the only 2 in the field.”

Because of his new position, Galluzzo was not involved in any additional operations before his tour ended.

Not long after arriving home he walked with his father to the ticket window at Boston’s Fenway Park on October 5 and purchased tickets for Game 2 of the 1967 World Series between the Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals. Boston won 5-0.

But other days after the war would not be so happy. Galluzzo had trouble sleeping indoors, and for the next year his family would find him asleep under trees in the yard. The shell fragments still in his body from the grenade explosion in early 1967 touched a nerve that caused his leg to kick in his sleep. That wound struck deep, but not nearly as deeply as the memories from that tragic first day of Operation Beau Charger.

 

John J. Galluzzo, a history and nature writer in Massachusetts, wrote this article to honor his father, Robert Francis Galluzzo, who died Jan. 2, 2012, at a veterans hospital in Florida and was interred with full military honors at Bourne National Cemetery in Massachusetts. John Galluzzo made a visit to the grave on Jan. 29, 2012. It would have been Robert Galluzzo’s 65th birthday.

Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.

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