Operation Meade River: Marine Search-and-Destroy Cordon of the Vietnam War

6/12/2006 • Vietnam

Called &#246:Dodge City&#246: by the troops because of its shoot-em-up characteristics, the area 10 miles south of Da Nang was familiar ground for the Marines. It was about five miles wide and three miles long. &#246:It was low ground,&#246: says the official Marine Corps history, &#246:criss-crossed with rivers and streams, honeycombed with caves and tunnels; each hamlet, with its bamboo and thorn hedges and its drainage ditches indistinguishable from fighting trenches, was a potential fortified position.&#246:

Dodge City had been the site of enemy engagements since the Ky Lam campaign of 1966. Many battles of the Tet, mini-Tet and Third (summer) offensives of 1968 took place in the area. The northern boundary was the La Tho River; the southern was the Ky Lam. The eastern boundary was Highway 1; the western boundary was one mile west of an old bombed-out railroad. Hill 55 was in the northwest corner; the Dien Ban district headquarters bordered its southeast corner. Route 4, also called Route 14, bisected the area from east to west.

The major battles of Operation Meade River would take place in the two-square-mile center of Dodge City. The operation was a &#246:County Fair&#246: mission, utilizing a cordon technique developed by the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, and 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. When the Marines mission shifted from defensive to offensive, it became necessary for platoons, companies or battalions to completely and simultaneously cordon off an area and search and clear inward, literally foot by foot, because the Viet Cong (VC) had infested hamlets west and south of the vital Da Nang airstrip. The technique was refined and used often by the 9th Marine Regiment, which operated off Hill 55 in early 1966. Operation Meade River would be the largest mission using the County Fair technique during the Vietnam War.

Intelligence had determined that remaining elements of the decimated VC Doc Lap Battalion, which had operated in the area against the Marines for more than three years, along with other understrength VC units and several hundred NVA (North Vietnamese Army) troops, were again massing in the area. Going northward through Dodge City were two major enemy infiltration routes used by the NVA to supply and assist the VC in the rocket belt, whose main objective had been, and continued to be, the destruction of the Da Nang airstrip. Intelligence also had information that an all-out attack against strategically located Hill 55, the 1st Marine Division headquarters on Hill 327, or the airstrip itself was imminent with this many enemy soldiers staging rapidly in the area.

On November 20, 1968, at 4 a.m., Operation Meade River commenced. The monsoons for this part of Vietnam had started in October. Temperatures were dropping, and the Marines often found the nights cold. The conditions were miserable, and the rains, averaging one inch daily, added to the misery.

The entire helicopter assets of the 1st Marine Air Wing were required to support the operation. Colonel Robert G. Lauffer, commanding officer of the 1st Marines, was designated Meade River commander. He personally supervised elements of seven Marine battalionsthe 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (1/1), the 2nd and 3rd battalions, 5th Marines (2/5 and 3/5), the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines (3/26), and battalion landing teams (BLTs) from the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines (2/26), and 1st and 2nd battalions, 7th Marines (1/7 and 2/7). The Marines surrounded an area 24,000 meters in circumference, with fire teams no more than 15 meters apart. This initial movement of 5,000 infantrymen into a tightly established cordon would be the key to the successful completion of Meade River. Twenty-eight hundred of the 5,000 troops were helilifted; approximately 2,200 more were moved by truck and on foot from Hill 55 and other company and battalion areas from along the north bank of the La Tho River, Liberty Road (Ambush Row), Highway 1 and Route 4. With the troops in place by 8:25 a.m., the cordon snapped shut.

Just prior to landing within the cordons boundary, a Boeing-Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight carrying one of the last elements arriving, a unit from the 3/5, was hit by enemy fire; it crashed and burned, resulting in six killed and nine wounded. In addition, as a truck convoy was moving toward the cordon, a command-detonated mine exploded halfway down the line of vehicles, destroying a 5-ton truck and wounding 19 men. Immediately, prepositioned dump trucks unloaded gravel and matting. The large hole was filled, the damaged truck removed, and the remainder of the convoy continued on into the area with little delay.

At 4:30 p.m. on the 20th, a recon team was inserted 1,000 meters south of the La Tho from the base on Hill 55 and immediately west of the cordon near Liberty Road to look for fleeing bands of the enemy. The team soon encountered enemy troops and opened fire, killing eight NVA and capturing an 82mm mortar from the enemy soldiers trying to escape the cordon. The recon team, with one wounded, was extracted back to Hill 55.

Later, it was learned from captured VC that news of the impending cordon and search operation had been received the previous day, November 19. The VC who reported this information were apprehended when villagers throughout the cordon were screened and sent to the refugee relocation center at the base of Hill 55. Fortunately, few enemy knew in advance of the cordon because of a breakdown in communication between the VC political arm and the Communist military unitsa mistake that cost the enemy many lives.

The Marines were fortunate to have trapped many more of the enemy than anticipated. Found in the objective area was a sizable, well-organized and well-trained enemy force that chose to fight, utilizing solid fortifications throughout the area of operations.

Numerous small elements of larger NVA and VC units located in the cordon, however, tried to slip away. As they found in several unsuccessful attempts, trying to escape was a deadly option, due to the tight, well-coordinated cordon. Throughout the operation, the enemy soldiers tried to conceal themselves underground until sweeping forces had passed. This tactic, however, was seldom successful, since the Marines would probe foot by foot. Throughout the area of the cordon, dozens of freshly dug enemy &#246:spider holes&#246: were found. To help find these holes, the Marines used several thousand metal probes manufactured by the Force Logistics Command (FLC). They were issued to all battalions, and usually one man in the fire team had a probe. The probes were one-half-inch round and 36 to 48 inches long, with a T-shaped handle and forged points. These probes facilitated in the discovery of numerous holes and caches.

Many NVA and VC would try to break the cordon along the northern boundary of the operation area and slip into the La Tho River, which ran along the base of Hill 55. The sniper platoon based at Hill 55 and expert riflemen from numerous combat and support unitsfield artillery, anti-aircraft artillery, supply and engineersmaintained firing positions day and night. These marksmen operated mostly from various sites that reached down to the river. Besides using Starlight scopes, the FLC sent two searchlight teams to the hill, which aided the American snipers. The searchlights would scan the river and the riverbanks, leaving little escape area for panicky enemy forces. The snipers kept a number of the enemy from escaping.

The first major contact of Operation Meade River was made on November 20 by the 2/7. While the troops were moving eastward and attempting to close in on the railroad berm, they encountered a sizable enemy force in well-deployed and fortified positions in the bend of a small river in an area known as &#246:the Horseshoe.&#246: A large-scale VC and NVA force had been caught in the cordon.

On November 22, Echo Company, 2/7, tried to maneuver its way across the river into the Horseshoe, but the volume of enemy fire was too heavy, and the 2/7 resumed its previous position. The 11th Marine Artillery carried out precision destruction missions against the enemy positions during the remainder of the 22nd. On November 23, the objective area was secured. The Horseshoe contained a multibunkered complex of fighting holes and trench lines that had apparently been a battalion defensive position. Many of the bunkers had been constructed by civilians and enemy soldiers using railroad ties removed from under the remaining tracks of the Vietnam North&#249:South Railroad.

After the Horseshoe was secured by the 2/7, Delta Company, 1/1, was attached to the 2/7 to provide security for the engineers who were lifted in to blow the numerous bunkers and level the fortified positions. Many bodies were found in the bunkers in addition to a great deal of equipment and field gear and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Also uncovered were many sacks of lime and lime sprayers used by the enemy to sanitize and hasten the decomposition of dead bodies.

On November 23, the Marines had a second and brief encounter in the hamlets of La Hoa 1 and 2, where the enemy also had well-fortified positions. La Hoa village (a village consisted of several hamlets designated by numbers) appeared to be a site where the enemy consolidated its forces and equipment before moving on to better defensive positions. It was amazing that such well-fortified positions were present in and about La Hoa, since that area had been heavily patrolled by the 7th Marines from Hill 55 on a regular basis. It showed again how well the NVA and VC could conceal a position.

The 11th Marines did an outstanding job of saturating the cordoned area with artillery fire. Of the dozen artillery sites designated for this operation, five fired from Hill 55. Some 1,286 fire missions expended 27,513 howitzer rounds in support of Meade River. Eight-inch howitzers fired precision destruction missionssome called in as close as 200 meters from friendly forcesthroughout the cordon.

Delta Company, 1/1, was ordered to stay in the Horseshoe for the next two weeks to provide security for the engineers, but the 2/7 left the area on November 24, continuing its delayed movement toward the railroad berm. Troops of the 2/7 continued to meet heavy resistance all the way from the Horseshoe to the berm. As they advanced to within 200 meters of the berm, an enemy force commenced firing along their right flank from well-covered positions. This area near the berm became known as &#246:the Triangle.&#246: The 25th was spent reducing this position by artillery and ground attacks. On the 26th, the 2/7 secured the railroad berm, finding once again that heavy enemy bunkers had been constructed from railroad ties and cement. From the empty bags it was evident that the cement was part of the civic action supplies issued to area hamlets by U.S. military forces for building and self-improvement projects.

On the 25th, the 3/26 was spread out south of the cordon to screen and keep the enemy within. That day they killed a 15-man NVA unit that was making a desperate attempt to flee the cordon. Two companies of the 1/7 were assigned the same mission along the north bank of the La Tho, keeping small enemy bands within the cordon.

On November 27, elements of the 2/5 and 2/26 started a simultaneous coordinated move westward from Highway 1, probing and searching every foot of the way. Numerous fresh enemy graves were uncovered as well as a considerable amount of supplies, and the 2/26 found one cache of 180 anti-personnel &#246:Bouncing Betty&#246: mines ready to be emplaced within the area. Other finds included field gear, miscellaneous documents, tons of rice buried in the ground in urns and much more equipment. Meanwhile, Delta, 1/1, which was providing security in the Horseshoe for the engineers, continued to find scores of freshly dug graves and more equipment in that area. In addition, scuba teams searching throughout the cordon found weapons, equipment, ammunition and 122mm rockets submerged in various riverbank caves and in several 20-foot-deep bomb craters that had been collecting water since the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombings during the Tet Offensive.

The cordon diminished considerably in size as the troops inched inward. The north and south boundaries of the cordon continued to be covered by various units, which accounted for many of the kills. From 6 to 7 a.m. on the 28th, the enemy was offered an opportunity to surrender, the offer broadcast clearly and repeatedly for one hour throughout the cordon. The offer was ignored. The enemy chose to fight. An extremely heavy artillery and air bombardment commenced. In addition to the numerous heavy artillery barrages, fixed-wing gunships (AC-47s and/or AC-130s) were on station 72 hours during Meade River, firing 609,000 rounds of ammunition into enemy positions. Bell Huey helicopter gunships flew 884 firing sorties during the 20-day operation. More than 2,100 helicopter sorties moved personnel, cargo, casualties and equipment. The battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62) fired 153 of its monstrous 16-inch, 1,900-pound high-capacity and 2,700-pound armor-piercing rounds against enemy bunkers throughout the cordon. The accuracy of the firepower is demonstrated by the fact that, despite the many friendly troops in the area, there were no reported friendly fire casualties.

During the operation, a platoon of deuce-and-a-half trucks, staged on Hill 55, continuously helped supply the troops via trails, roads and paths throughout the cordon. The platoon would set up &#246:wagon trains&#246: at different areas bordering the cordon. Many of the vehicles came under fire from small, frantic enemy units trying to break the perimeter. Often, drivers were instrumental in stopping bands of enemy soldiers who were trying to escape. Heavily armed deuce-and-a-half trucks were used to patrol Ambush Row and Route 4 day and night. In addition, 10 all-terrain vehicle &#246:otters&#246: from Hill 55, which was designated an LSA (logistical support area), were used to supply the troops deep within the cordon with food and ammunition.

On December 1, the hardest fighting of the operation thus far commenced as the 3/5 encountered a large enemy bunker complex along its right flank, in what would become known as &#246:the Hook,&#246: and received devastating fire from small arms, automatic weapons, grenades and 60mm mortars within the bunker. There were many casualties. The enemy fire came from well-entrenched, reinforced bunkers, and the 3/5’s advance was temporarily halted. On December 3, even after the 11th Marine Artillery had spent most of the previous day and night conducting heavy, precision destruction missions into the Hook, the 3/5 continued taking casualties from well-entrenched enemy fire. On December 3, most of the troops of the 3/26 were moved from their screening positions along Route 4 in order to help the 3/5 in the attack against the NVA entrenched in the Hook. After repeated airstrikes with 750-pound bombs and napalm canisters, the Marines of the 3/26 fought their way into the southern portion of the Hook. By nightfall on the 4th, they had worked around to its rear area. There, the 3/26 and 3/5 called in additional air and artillery strikes very close to their own positions.

On December 5, the enemy was once again given an opportunity to surrender. This time, the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) commanders broadcast surrender-or-die messages to the enemy in the Hook. As before, the hard-core Communists chose to continue to battle. Later that day, when a final assault secured the Hook, more than 100 enemy dead were counted. Fifteen POWs were pulled out of their partially destroyed bunkers and tunnels and numerous weapons were uncovered.

Also on December 5, the 3/5 separated from the 3/26 and started a turning movement north, then commenced a sweep from west to east across the top of Dodge City. On the 6th, because of other commitments and after much heavy fighting, the 3/5 ceased to participate in Operation Meade River. However, Bravo, 1/5, which had been with the 3/5, remained at the northern boundary of Dodge City to keep what was left of the enemy confined and to search the area.

On December 6, the 3/26, having thoroughly mopped up the Hook, also moved on to positions at Dodge Citys northern boundary. The cordon remained intact, but the final, most furious battle had yet to be fought. Elements of the 2/26 and 2/5, in their careful and deliberate search of the cordons northern boundary from Highway 1, ran into a heavy concentration of enemy troops at 2:45 p.m. Those units regrouped and remained in close proximity to the last objectivethe northern bunker complexthroughout the rest of the day and on through the night, forming a blocking position to ensure that the enemy remained trapped within the cordon.

In the meantime, the 3/26 was joined by additional forces. Colonel Lauffer had attached three additional companies to the 3/26Alpha, 1/7, Hotel, 2/5 and Delta, 1/1giving them the mission of completely destroying the remaining bunkers in the Hook and then continuing a full attack into the northern bunker complex. Company E of the 2/26 was relieved of its blocking position at first light on the 7th and crossed the La Tho to join the 1/1, assigned for this assault. The 3/26 was joined by an ARVN cavalry unit, whose APCs (armored personnel carriers) were light and provided mobility for the 3/26 in the final attack. A tight line was drawn surrounding the northern bunker complex. Throughout the day the 3/26, reinforced by attached units, cautiously moved forward, literally inch by inch, maneuvering the APCs toward bunker after bunker and directing small-arms fire against the enemy. At one point, late in the day on December 8, Company I of the 3/26 moved to within 20 meters of what was thought to be the last in the series of in-depth bunker positions. But from those final hidden positions, deep within the northern bunker complexan area that had been heavily carpet-bombedcame unexpectedly accurate and deadly heavy automatic-weapons fire. Despite suffering heavy casualties, Company I silenced those machine-gun positions. The final assault was executed the next day, and a brutal fight ensued that included hand-to-hand combat against a tenacious enemy that refused to surrender. More than 300 enemy bodies were found, and this time the enemy was unable to bury its dead.

On December 9 at 6 p.m. Operation Meade River was terminated. Units were returned to their parent organizations after 20 days of vicious, intense fighting. The 1/1 took over and mopped up the northern bunker complex for two more days. During this post-Meade River period, the 1/1 found additional bodies and killed some 50 NVA who had remained in the bunkers, refusing to surrender. It also recovered numerous enemy individual and crew-served weapons. Although preliminary reports of enemy casualties varied from 1,000 to 1,500, the final count was 1,325 confirmed enemy casualties. More than 360 well-dug entrenched log, railroad-tie and cement bunkers were destroyed, and many more must have been caved in by the bombings. Of the 1,325 confirmed casualties, 1,025 were killed and 300 wounded. Only six enemy troops chose to surrender. It is estimated that 200&#249:300 more bodies went undiscovered, and many more were probably obliterated by the accurate, heavy bombardment from artillery, battleship and fixed-wing aircraft, all of this in an area measuring only three miles by five miles. But this successful operation was not without cost to the U.S. military. One hundred and eight Marines were killed and 513 were wounded.

Despite all the death and destruction wrought against the NVA and VC force in the Dodge City area, it was only a matter of weeks before squad, platoon and company firefights against NVA forces that had re-infiltrated the vital area started once again. Fierce sporadic engagements in Dodge City would continue through 1969 and 1970. The last combat patrol of the war (in August 1972, by the Army’s 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry; see the February 1991 Vietnam) would include Dodge City.

George A. Hill served in Vietnam as a Marine NCO. This article is an excerpt from his book Heart of the Third Sector.

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