For nearly 80 days, Marines on the hills surrounding Khe Sanh endured one of the war’s fiercest fights.
The top of what became known as Hill 861-A was just virgin land covered with elephant grass and bamboo when I first saw it. My company, Echo 2/26, had to claw through the dense vegetation and up the steep slopes of what would soon be transformed into a bomb-scarred hilltop with trenches reminiscent of World War I.
All we knew in mid-January 1968 was that we were leaving Phu Bai for a place called Khe Sanh and were loaded down with war gear, all that we could carry. I only knew of it as a company operation, and how it affected me, Lance Cpl. Barry Fixler. I was unaware that we were part of a huge, regiment-size operation. None of us had a clue.
As our company piled onto C-130 transport planes, it seemed that this operation might be a little bigger than most. We were going to an area closer to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) than Phu Bai, so it probably would be worse, but I was a seasoned Marine with six months of combat, so I was unworried, confident.
The DMZ was anything but demilitarized. It was intended to exist as a zone free from any military presence by either North or South for a limited period until national unification elections took place. But history didn’t follow the diplomats’ script. The zone and the areas around it saw some of the greatest destruction and carnage of the war.
After landing at the Khe Sanh combat base and getting ourselves organized, we humped outside the lines and into the fields. We dug in on a small hill the first couple of nights. There was no outpost. We were the only Marines there, and we still did not know our objective or what was actually happening.
There was an eerie feeling about the place. Whatever we were doing, it wasn’t routine. We knew that we were in a bad spot; we just didn’t know how bad. We finally ended up at the base of a steep hill, a mountain almost, about 2,500 feet high. There was only one overgrown trail, so the 150 or so of us started up it in a single column. It took hours to climb in the oppressive heat.
I carried a rocket launcher that looked like a huge bazooka, my M-16 rifle and ammunition, all my grenades, my gas mask and a minimum of two rockets. The heavy load required both of my hands, so I couldn’t use them to help myself up the trail, and we still had to be alert for an ambush. We were spread too thin and were very vulnerable. The North Vietnamese troops must have been able to see us. I still think we were lucky to reach the top without being slaughtered.
We were the first Marines on Hill 861-A. Not a soul was there, just wild grass, bamboo and other vegetation all over the place. We had obscured lines of sight, which would make it difficult to find targets if someone started shooting at us. The enemy could have sneaked up to within 10 feet of us and we would not have been able to see him. So the first thing we did was to start digging in.
Darkness was falling on us fast, and we were totally out of water. The only moisture we found was on bamboo shoots that were covered with mites. Desperate, we snapped the bamboo rods and put our tongues to them to catch the drops of water as they trickled out.
For the next two or three days, we continued to entrench ourselves and clear lines of fire. Someone erected an American flag. We didn’t get the barbed wire and concertina razor wire emplaced around our position for about a week. Fortunately, the North Vietnamese didn’t zero in on us quickly.
Nearby Hill 861 was already getting pounded and had been overrun once, and within three days we were catching mortars and rockets on 861-A. As each day grew more intense, we got the feeling that we might be there for awhile; we had no idea that it would turn into 77 days of hell.
The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) became increasingly better at aiming their weapons at us. They would rain mortars up and down the lines. Ba-boom! Ba-boom! Ba-boom! We were even hit by our own artillery a few times. Things like that just happened, and we felt helpless against it.
The first week of February, the North Vietnamese really turned it on. Rockets and mortars were almost constant. On February 4, a helicopter came in to evacuate the wounded and bring in some replacements and supplies. As the new guys ran off the chopper, I ran onboard to offload supplies.
Heavy rockets and mortars showered the landing zone, and as the chopper lifted off, I leaped into a trench and ended up next to one of the new guys. He had been in Vietnam for a day or two, and on the hill for all of one minute. He was clearly shaken by the intensity of the situation.
“How long you been in-country?” he asked.
“Six months,” I told him.
“How could you live that long? How’s that possible?” he wanted to know.
I remember the conversation because the new Marine’s name reminded me of the actor Humphrey Bogart. I also remember he was killed the next day, when we were totally overrun.
Too many Marines were killed on Hill 861-A that day, February 5, 1968. The North Vietnamese swarmed in from all directions and were all over the hill. Three or four Marines were right there when the first NVA popped up, and they just got overrun. The shooting was intense, and waves of enemy soldiers just kept coming, coming, coming.
Everything went down at once: artillery, rockets, mortars, small arms, bayonets, even tear gas. It took us the entire night to kill all the North Vietnamese who had gotten into our lines.
I heard more of the fighting than I saw that night. The enemy was swarming over and through our trenches, and there was a serious risk of shooting one of our own guys. Another Marine and I instinctively ended up with our backs to each other, holding our position in the trench line. It was total chaos, pitch black, and the constant explosions from rockets, artillery and grenades created a strobe light effect.
We used gas grenades on the NVA. Tear gas is heavier than air, and it blew back on us and filled our trenches, forcing us to wear our gas masks. This limited our vision even more. But even looking through the mask eyepieces, one of the first things you could see was that a lot of the guys were dead or seriously wounded. Our ears rang from the constant explosions, and each flash of light from the blasts briefly illuminated a portrait of death.
It felt like I had been blindfolded and spun around 50 times. Then they take off the blindfold, flip the lights on and off, and blast your ears with noise loud enough to make your nose bleed. And, at the same time you have to try to identify and shoot the enemy—all night long. We lost a lot of Marines that day. They can’t simulate that experience in boot camp.
You don’t have time in a situation like that to note individual acts of heroism, but I found out later that my mentor, Corporal Tom Eichler, was a hero that night. Hill 861-A could well have fallen if he hadn’t done what he did. His actions were emblematic of what made Khe Sanh a part of Marine Corps lore: perseverance against overwhelming odds.
When three of our men manning a machine gun were wounded as they were overrun during the initial assault, Eichler dodged enemy fire three times to carry each of the Marines to safety.
Corporal Eichler killed three North Vietnamese soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, stopping them from firing a rocket into a trench that was filled with Marines. When the enemy managed to establish a machine gun position inside our perimeter, Eichler wiped it out with grenades and sprayed cover fire that allowed our own machine gunners to move into a position to defend us.
He stood above the trenches to throw grenades down on the advancing North Vietnamese troops, and the entire time he made sure that the Marines were kept supplied with ammunition. Although Eichler was seriously wounded early on in the assault, his injuries never slowed him down. He was later awarded a Silver Star for his actions that night.
When dawn came, we counted 109 North Vietnamese bodies sliced and diced all over the hill, spread over maybe two acres. We had seven Marines killed, and at least 30 seriously wounded—guys missing limbs, or so damaged that they probably died within a few days. At best, they lived but never fought again.
We waded through the trenches and gathered the wounded and dead. After a corpsman would get a wounded Marine stabilized, we’d wrap him in a poncho and carry him to a staging area near the landing zone to be evacuated to a field hospital. We just kept lining them up, and the helicopters kept coming to take them away.
One of the guys I helped had suffered multiple severe injuries, and I kept talking to him to try to keep him from going into shock. He asked me to find his hand.
“I need my hand,” he said. “Can you look for my hand?”
I asked where his fighting hole was and told him I’d look for it. I meant it, too. But when I got to his area and started looking around, reality set in. Debris and body parts were everywhere.
“It’s hopeless,” I thought. “Even if I find a whole hand, there’s no way to know if it’s his.”
We needed immediate reinforcements, and when they came from other units, they all had looks in their eyes that said: “Oh my God, I’m fucked! I am fucked!”
We didn’t put their minds at ease.
“They’re definitely gonna attack us again tonight,” I told the green Marines. “Be ready because they’re coming back. Those mothers are coming back tonight!”
All the new guys were wide-eyed and solemn, and you could tell that they were thinking, “Ah shit, I’m gonna die tonight!”
Those of us who had been on the hill since the beginning didn’t think that way anymore. I looked at myself and couldn’t see the green Marine who had landed in the country only six months earlier. And, in no way could I show fear to the new guys. I had to raise my confidence to a new level. Those guys picked up on that real fast, and pretty soon, the ones who survived, they talked the same shit. They needed to see the example to have that confidence, and then they fed off of it.
Getting overrun rattled us but it didn’t scare us. I was just hellbent to kill the enemy. It was more like, “C’mon, you gave us your best shot yesterday, and now give us your best shot today!”
And they did. The NVA continued to bring it. They never overran our position again, but they laid siege to us for another two months, throwing everything they could at us: artillery, rockets, mortars and grenades.
Long after the siege, when my ears had quit ringing, I still thought sometimes that I could smell the gas.
Anyone who has ever been gassed will tell you that things can’t get much more fucked up. Unless you’ve experienced it and found the discipline within yourself to apply your training and overcome it, you can’t control yourself. You can have the best rifle in the world, but it’s worthless against gas.
The night the NVA overran us, I was moving from off watch to on when the skies lit up. We scrambled to organize and fight back, and then I smelled the gas. The odor is distinct and unforgettable.
I didn’t know that we were using the gas. I assumed it was the NVA gassing us, or that a Marine had been blown up and his gas grenades had exploded with him.
I was seasoned then and thought I was cool, and I’d let my hair grow nice and long. I didn’t panic, but as I held my breath and put on my gas mask, the band of it got tangled in my hair, and the only thing that I could do was start yanking my hair out by the roots. It was like pulling clumps of grass out of an overgrown lawn.
During boot camp, the last time I had donned my gas mask, my head had been shaved, but doing it with long hair while under enemy fire was a whole different matter. I cleared the tangled spot, fit the mask on and blew to clear the gas from inside and was ready to fight. But I was pissed at myself for not getting a haircut.
I was promoted to a squad leader early on at Khe Sanh, and it wasn’t long before I began asking myself how long I could last. Second lieutenants and squad leaders passed through a revolving door of death at Khe Sanh.
Second lieutenants had to be where the bad stuff was happening at every moment, and so they were vulnerable. The position of squad leader among the enlisted men was based on who had been in the squad longest when rotations came, and on who still was alive and able to fight.
Becoming a squad leader meant the world to me, but I suddenly had responsibility for anywhere from seven to 12 guys. Every morning, squad leaders from my platoon had to report to the command post (CP). The order would get passed down the trench line, “Squad leaders up!”
That meant that I had to run as low as possible through trenches to get to the CP, where Captain Earle Breeding waited. I usually was ducking from mortars and rockets. The command post was a short little sandbag hut—a taller structure would have been a big target— in which six to 10 guys could fit, sitting down.
Captain Breeding barked out orders, telling us our jobs for the day, what our plan was: “OK, 1st Platoon, you’re doing good. Mortars. Where’s mortars? Where’s machine guns?”
Maybe Captain Breeding would want an extra listening post. That was the worst of the worst. They sent two men out at night past the edge of our perimeter, the other side of the razor wire, to listen for the enemy and notify us if they heard anything. It was like throwing them to the dogs. They were cannon fodder.
Or Captain Breeding could order a squad to go out and clean up C ration cans that were carelessly thrown out past the perimeter: “1st Platoon? Send a squad out to police the area south of your line. We have animals out there scavenging your C rats and we’re gonna get complacent. Next time the enemy probes the line, we’ll think it’s rats!”
Or sometimes the captain would order a working party to repair the concertina wire: “Third Platoon, send a working party out there and throw more wire.”
There was always something to do. We never sat around. We survived by staying busy, and if we weren’t assigned to a working party, we had to dig deeper, and pile sandbags higher.
Captain Breeding gave us these orders every morning, and as I got used to being a squad leader, I began to notice: “Whoa, another new face! Oh my God, another new face!” I saw the same faces for a few days, and then one would be gone and replaced by someone new. Sometimes guys just got rotated back to the States, but most of the time they were wounded or killed. I’d wonder, “Who’s going to replace me when I get it?”
Years later I saw the movie Spartacus with Kirk Douglas, and for some reason one of the scenes reminded me of our morning meetings with Captain Breeding. Before they called Spartacus and his opponent into the ring in which one of them would die, the two warriors sat in a little room and stared at each other, knowing that one of them was doomed. That’s the feeling I had when I sat in the squad leaders’ meeting. It was just like the two gladiators in Spartacus. I would look at the faces and think: “Who’s the next one to die? Am I next?”
It’s strange, but a person can get used to being bombed every day. It’s survival of the fittest. It got to a point when we were being mortared that we didn’t ask, “Did anybody get hit?” but rather, “Who got hit?” We took casualties at all hours and from all directions. Sometimes the helicopters would drop in reinforcements, but they were never enough.
One day in mid-February, during a rare break in the incoming, Mike Lucas called to me from two foxholes over. Lucas was one of my best friends.
“Hey Fix! Fix! Fix!” he said. “I got something cool!”
“What the hell could he have that’s cool?” I thought. Nothing had changed for weeks.
“I have cupcakes!” he said.
“How the hell could you have cupcakes?” I asked. We were under siege, living in trenches, men dying. How could he have damn cupcakes?
We would get these tins of compressed pound cake, and every so often our C rations would also include miniature Hershey candy bars. So Lucas got creative.
We always had C4, an explosive that’s a little like Play-Doh. During the day, but never at night, we could use little pinches of it to heat our food. Without a detonator, it wouldn’t explode, but it would burn. We would light the C4, place an empty can upside down over it, then put the can with our food in it on top of that. It was like a little burner, and it made the food a little easier to get down.
Lucas must have formed the pound cake into three little cupcakes, and then melted his Hershey bars and dripped the chocolate over the pound cake. He presented it to me and another Marine, Lance Cpl. James Anthony Wood, really nicely on a piece of cardboard, like he was a chef or something.
Like a jerk, I didn’t catch on right away. “Where did you get those cupcakes?” I asked. It didn’t dawn on me that he had just made the cupcakes.
“Some helicopter guy just flew them in for us,” he said.
It really didn’t matter. Lucas, Wood and I probably spent 10 minutes just admiring those little cupcakes, and then we only ate them in nibbles, nice and slow.
There we were, three tough Marines giggling like school kids and eating cute Khe Sanh cupcakes.
That was James Wood’s last treat.
By February 25, 1968, the NVA had zeroed in on one area on the hill so well that it seemed like it was almost certain death to be there. Around sunset that day, one of the corporals came up to me. “Fixler,” he told me, “we lost three Marines; no one has their hole. Give up one of the men from your squad. Someone has to be in that hole.”
The position was totally vacant. We had lost so many Marines in that foxhole that I just knew whoever I put in that hole was a dead man.
Mike Lucas and I met back in July 1967 in Phu Bai. We were both from NewYork, and we hit it off right away. With similar personalities, we were buddies from then on and stayed on the same operations and in the same platoon.
Then James Wood was attached to our squad, and he and Lucas became extremely close. They shared the same foxhole and always were hanging out and laughing. I was 19 years old, and I got a little jealous. “Jesus Christ!” I thought, “I’m losing my best friend.”
So when the corporal told me I had to give up a man to replace the ones who had been blown out of that doomed foxhole, I had to make a decision real quick. It was almost a certain death sentence.
I made a call—Wood. Lucas immediately volunteered to go with him. “We’re going in together,” he said.
Wood was killed within hours of my decision—his foxhole took a direct hit from a mortar after dark.
“Minutes before, we were talking about home, watching through binoculars,” Lucas told me years later, “and the mortars started coming in and he was completely disintegrated, no head at all.”
Somehow Lucas survived it, and when daylight came, he looked down at his flak jacket and saw part of James Wood’s face. There were pieces of flesh, and the stubble from Wood’s beard was impaled in the protective jacket, little hairs just standing erect.
It was a heavy blow to Lucas, and I could tell it shook him up. Lucas was a tough Marine, a great Marine. And so was James Anthony Wood.
But as hard as it hit him, Lucas had to shake it off, like we all had to. We were fighting a war, in a pitched battle, and we were taking losses daily. There was no time to reflect on our situation.
We simply endured what had to be endured.
Adapted from Semper Cool: One Marine’s Fond Memories of Vietnam by Barry Fixler. Copyright © 2010 by Barry Fixler. Published by Exalt Press New York, LLC. The author is donating 100 percent of his royalties from Semper Cool to veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. For more information visit www.sempercool.com. Semper Cool is available at HistoryNetShop.com.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.