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Sapper Attack in the A Shau During the Vietnam War

By Michael R. Conroy 
Originally published by Vietnam magazine. Published Online: November 13, 2006 
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The mission of Operation Dewey Canyon was clear — disrupt and destroy enemy logistics in the A Shau Valley, particularly in the NVA's Base Area 611. As described by Samuel Lipsman and Edward Doyle in Fighting for Time, part of Boston Publishing Company's multivolume Vietnam Experience, Base Area 611 "straddled the Vietnamese-Laotian border just north of the A Shau Valley and south of the Da Drong River….More than three-quarters of the base area was believed to lie in Laos, along Route 922. This route later joined Route 548 to provide easy access for the NVA into the Da Nang-Hue coastal region."

NVA engineering units, inactive for months, had reopened several major infiltration routes. This included increased enemy activity along Route 922 as it enters the A Shau Valley in the Republic of South Vietnam from Laos. The intelligence reports brought additional scrutiny on the border areas. Enemy forces laid down heavy volumes of anti-aircraft fire against U.S. Helicopters and other responding high-performance reconnaissance aircraft. Surveillance reported sightings of sophisticated wire communications networks and major engineering works throughout Base Camp Area 611 with, at times, more than 1,000 trucks per day on the move south.

Evidence strongly indicated that major elements of the 6th and 9th NVA regiments were attempting to work their way eastward through the A Shau Valley. There they could be reinforced by three battalions of the 812th Regiment, which after the Tet Offensive of 1968 had pulled back into the jungle sanctuary on the border for resupply and infusion of replacements, and by elements of the 4th and 5th NVA regiments, which had withdrawn into the A Shau Valley and Laos under constant U.S. and ARVN pressure during 1968.

It seemed obvious that the NVA intended to launch a Tet offensive of some kind in 1969, although probably not of the devastating magnitude of the 1968 Tet. Any form of victory, even one of minor or only temporary tactical value, could have a significant influence upon the civilian population of South Vietnam and the United States, with a more far-reaching effect upon bargaining positions at the Paris peace talks then underway. The enemy's jungle logistics system would therefore have to be destroyed before it could be used.

No longer content to simply hold ground and fight insurgent forces within South Vietnam, U.S. commanders decided that it was time to take the battle to the North Vietnamese Army. To address the threat of a North Vietnamese invasion from Laos they would strike at NVA headquarters and logistics elements in the border areas, thereby denying the enemy access into the critical populated areas of the coastal lowlands of Quang Tri, Thua Thien and Quang Nam provinces.

General Creighton Abrams, the MACV commander, wanted an operation to be conducted during the winter period of 1968-69, believing that it had great tactical promise in advancing the issues of the war. General Raymond G. Davis, the 3rd Marine Division commander, had discussed such an operation with General Richard Stilwell, XXIV Corps commander.

It would not be easy, for the enemy had chosen the site of their base camp well. The terrain in the A Shau Valley was as inhospitable and formidable as any in Vietnam.

Because of its experience operating in the rugged mountains and thick jungle canopy of western Quang Tri province, the U.S. 9th Marine Regiment was selected to conduct Operation Dewey Canyon. The men of the regiment were mentally and physically prepared for the rigors of Dewey Canyon's terrain. They brought to the operation experience in jungle survival and landing zone construction, as well as skills in the conduct of mountain warfare, including heliborne operations and the fire support base concept.

During the five-day planning period allowed for the operation, an XM-3 Airborne Personnel Detector picked up evidence of enemy troop concentrations atop a 2,100-foot-long ridgeline 4 1/2 miles from the Laotian border which would be developed into Fire Support Base Cunningham, the eventual command center for the operation.

Phase One of the operation, including all pre-D-day activities dealing with getting the artillery support established in the area, began with the opening of three fire support bases (Henderson, Tun Tavern and Shiloh) on January 19.

After the area had been mostly cleared by aviation ordnance, Company I, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines (I/3/9), and Company M, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines (M/3/9), conducted heliborne assaults into landing zones (LZs) India and Mike 1700 meters apart on Co Ca Va Ridge. This is a boomerang-shaped ridge approximately a half-mile long, running linearly east to west, with its southern flank an almost sheer cliff to the valley below. Meeting no resistance, the way was clear for Company K, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, and engineers to sweep in and begin construction of the fire support base.

There was no secrecy involved in the creation of a fire support base. It was an anthill of activity, a major engineering feat and the scene of massive organized confusion as chain saws bit into the huge jungle hardwoods. Numerous explosions sent rocks, splinters, tree limbs, even whole trees, raining down through clouds of choking, rising dust.

The rapid buildup of support facilities at FSB Cunningham was impressive, essentially turning the fire support base into a mini–combat base. When placed atop a dominant terrain feature, the fire support bases were defensible but, as "fixed" forward positions established in the enemy's territory by forceable entry, they were beacons and targets quickly placed under constant observation by the enemy.

From the moment the Marines landed on Co Ca Va Ridge and began their construction efforts they were under constant enemy surveillance. It was soon obvious to the NVA observers that this was the operational command center for all Marine operations in the area. Accordingly, an NVA sapper unit was ordered to do a feasibility study upon which to formulate assault plans against the fire support base.

The Marines knew the enemy's tactics well. Accordingly, the infantry dug their fighting holes, usually two-man positions, no more than 50 feet apart. As much barbed wire as could be obtained was strung in several different configurations all around the outpost, with additional barriers, such as flares, trip-wire booby traps and anti-personnel mines, placed at what were perceived to be the most likely avenues of enemy approach.

Interlocking fields of fire for individual and crew-served weapons were established so that the defenders achieved a 360-degree integrated pattern of defensive fire. Outposts with good vantage points were established. Listening posts were also established that would intercept attacks or attempts at infiltration before allowing enemy forces to approach close to the defensive lines. Because of their forward and exposed natures, the location of those outposts was continually changing. Additional protection for the fire support base was provided by constant patrols around the position.

The fire support base in no way resembled a secure area with all the trappings of a permanent installation. As operations proceeded, empty ammunition crates were broken down and utilized as footpaths. Garbage disposal, although a problem, was never a high priority. Plastic and cardboard wrappings, expended artillery shells and empty C-ration cans quickly stacked up. Due to the proximity of large stores of ammunition, engineering explosives and powder charges, trash fires were not allowed. The trash pits and bunkers were almost immediately infested with legions of mice and rats.

The bunkers were dark and musty. Beds were made of whatever could be scrounged or improvised. There were no windows. Available electricity was reserved for communications and equipment. New men soon learned that peanut butter, when burned, made a dim candle. Inside the bunkers the men attracted hordes of voracious gnats and mosquitoes. Insect bites became ulcerated wounds constantly irritated by salty sweat. Every sore turned into jungle rot.

Mail was infrequently delivered. Hot meals were a thing of the past. Supplies were low and, for several days at a time, nonexistent. The men found themselves eating cold C-ration spaghetti for breakfast and being thankful to have it. There was little water for cooking or shaving and not much more for drinking.

Then there was the constant enemy fire. There was nothing routine about being on the receiving end of an artillery barrage, even when the attacks came daily or hourly and there were no casualties. Nerves were constantly frayed. Marines in underground positions held their breath and cast nervous eyes to straining timbers as loose dirt sifted through their accumulation of timbers, runway matting, sandbags and logs overhead. Equipment was damaged and efficiency impaired. The effect was cumulatively debilitating.

Finally, there was the danger of ground attack. A sapper unit of the NVA 812th Regiment had been assigned the mission of attacking FSB Cunningham. Its primary objective was to penetrate the Marine defenses and inflict maximum casualties, destroy equipment, ordnance and installations, and then withdraw. A sapper attack was not designed to seize and hold or occupy a prominent terrain feature.

The sappers took the time to professionally and skillfully plan their attack. A week was devoted to executing a detailed reconnaissance of the fire support base. The terrain was minutely analyzed, defensive patrol patterns studied, crew-served weapons' positions plotted, obstacles sketched and estimates made of the time that would be required to breach defensive barriers.

By February 16, 1969, the NVA sappers wee ready to commence their attacks on FSB Cunningham. The period between their final reconnaissance and the commencement of their attack was allocated to briefings and rehearsals. Sand tables had been prepared from detailed sketches made of all the Marine installations. All possible approach routes had been carefully reviewed and the concept of terrain appreciation utilized in developing the plan of attack. The natural and man-made obstacles had been plotted. The Marines' flares and detonation devices had been located. Each sapper was given precise instructions on his mission. Supporting fire concentrations had been planned, checked and rechecked. The attack signals, passwords, and withdrawal and rally point signals were memorized by all hands. The sappers used a flare system as a source of communications: red — area hard to get into; white — withdrawal; green — victory; green followed by white — reinforcements requested. Personnel, ammunition and weapons were carefully checked.

The sappers were organized into five groups. Group 1, led by Comrade An, consisted of 16 men divided into four-man teams. The first team was assigned to attack the command operations center and mortar positions. The second team was to attack to the right and link up with Comrade Bong's Group 2 at the helicopter landing zone. The third team was to attack to the left, assault through the landing zone and link up with Group 3, led by Comrade Tan. The fourth team was to attack to the front toward the landing zone.

Group 2 consisted of 15 men divided into four teams led by Comrade Bong. His first four-man team was assigned to attack and destroy the artillery fire direction control center and other battery facilities on the east end of the fire support base. The second team was to attack artillery positions to the right while the third four-man team attacked artillery positions to the left. The remaining three-man team was designated the group's reserve force.

Comrade Tam's Group 3 consisted of 12 men divided into four three-man teams concentrating on the west end of the fire support base. The first team was assigned to attack artillery positions to the left. The second team was to attack to the right, advancing and exploiting contact with the Group 1 leader, Comrade An. The third team was to attack directly forward and then link up with a fourth group, led by Comrade Pha, for the mop-up operations. The fourth team would be held in reserve.

Pha's group was organized to function as the extraction force to assist in the withdrawal of the groups assaulting specific objectives. A fifth group of over 100 men would provide the assaulting forces with a base of fire utilizing RPGs, mortars, automatic weapons and small-arms fire.

The attack forces moved out from their various base camps at 7:30 a.m. Using previously reconned routes, they executed a covered approach to their final assembly areas. Movement as initiated many hours prior to the assault phase as the sappers had deliberately chosen the most difficult avenues of approach to the target in order to avoid observation.

By 6 p.m. all the NVA sapper groups were only 100 meters outside the concertina-wire obstacles surrounding FSB Cunningham. The NVA sappers slowly crept to assault positions just outside the defensive wire, aided by reduced visibility. There was little moonlight and a thick blanket of fog enveloped not only the fire support base but all routes of entry to it. Although the approach was slow and cautious, the assault itself would be made with utmost speed. The sappers assumed that the majority of the defenders would be driven into their bunkers by the mortar attack that would precede their assault. The sappers knew that once the defensive obstacles were breached under this covering fire, the bunkers would become death traps for the Marines.

In anticipation of the Lunar New Year (or Tet) cease-fire, the roaring of the big artillery pieces on FSB Cunningham fell silent at midnight, although the allied countrywide 24-hour truce went into effect at 6 p.m. on February 16.

At precisely 2 a.m., the NVA mortar sections commenced placing accurate supporting fire on previously plotted primary targets, mortar positions, the command bunker, artillery positions and communications bunkers. The Marines could hear the mortar rounds as they were tubed. The devastatingly accurate mortar fire forced the Marines into their bunkers where they felt safe due to a minimum overhead cover of at least four layers of sandbags.

In the midst of the noise, damage and confusion, it was immediately obvious that key installations were the target of the intense barrage. The Marines in fighting holes on the perimeter kept their heads down.

The Marine defensive positions were manned on the northern slope by the men of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment (L/3/9). Defensive positions on the flanks and along the southern edge of the ridge were manned by a combination of Marines from the artillery units and Colonel Barrow's headquarters group. In addition, a reaction force of 50 Marines from the communications, engineer and staff sections of the headquarters group were on standby as a reserve defensive force.

The mortar barrage reached a crescendo at 2:15 a.m. as the NVA assault groups began their efforts to breach the defensive obstacles. The initial assault wave came from the northeast. The sappers made liberal use of bangalore torpedoes fashioned from half-pound blocks of TNT lashed together between bamboo sticks. The ingenious attack route lay through one of the many trash dumps with well-worn paths leading to every major battery facility.

Mats, brush and other local materials were thrown across the barbed wire obstacles. As the mortar fire was lifted, rocket-propelled Chicom grenades, satchel charges and the bangalore torpedoes created the impression that the mortars were still firing, serving to keep the defenders on the perimeter positions inside their bunkers. The Marines were suffering from too many head-ringing explosions to notice the difference. For hours before the cease-fire began, the artillery batteries at the fire support bases had been hammering away in direct support of other defensive positions. The cacophony of noise was deafening. The NVA sappers who broke through the defensive wire barriers tossed concussion grenades and satchel charges into every open hole they could find. The RPGs and automatic weapons fire of the NVA base group was concentrated on the firing slits and ports of the bunkers. Although the situation was confusing, the Marines quickly realized that they were under ground attack and responded ferociously, organizing an effort to clear the base in the face of heavy enemy mortar and recoilless rifle fire.

The sapper attack was an unforgettable experience for navy Lt. Cmdr. (chaplain) David Brock, who later told the division chaplain: "During the early moments of the attack, an NVA soldier stuck his head into the tent where I and two others were rising, but fortunately, did not throw a grenade inside. A grenade was thrown into a small bunker a few feet away, killing two men."

Chaplain Brock remembers: "The firefight lasted until almost 7:45 a.m. and during this time I stayed with the doctor in the Aid Station in order to administer last rites and to help with the wounded. For two hours it looked as if the Aid Station would be made a last stand. During the firefight various thoughts went through my mind, such as: Would we live through this? Will the men be able to hold out? How were the young men on the lines doing? I must admit that I was scared but the feeling soon passed because we were too busy. The others were afraid too but not one of them showed his fear. As a matter of fact, it warmed one's heart to see just how well these young men did in the face of death."

Lieutenant Commander Brock was one of the regiment's rather unique lot of chaplains, who almost seemed as if they were handpicked to serve with this particular group of hardnosed Marines. Brock had seen action in the European Theatre of Operations as a U.S. Army sergeant in World War II. He earned a Navy Commendation Medal with combat "V" and a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with a Silver Star in Vietnam.

The officer in charge of the fire support base was partially buried in a caved-in bunker during the mortar attack. As he crawled out, he came face to face with one of the sappers. The Marine had a grenade in his hand but was too close to the enemy soldier to use it. He leaped on the surprised enemy soldier and bludgeoned him to death with the heavy base of the grenade.

Using his personal knife as his primary weapon, the company gunnery sergeant killed several of the sappers in hand-to-hand combat. Marines from the 106mm battery, who had manned a machine gun in the southeast portion of the fire support base, assaulted and killed six NVA soldiers who were attempting to organize a strongpoint inside the perimeter. The cooks from India Battery accounted for 13 enemy killed when they manned a .50-caliber machine gun.

The defensive perimeter had been penetrated by several dozen sappers wearing only olive green shorts and skullcaps. They all carried packs full of explosives and were armed with shoulder-fired RPGs, satchel charges, bamboo mines, small arms and grenades.

The artillery battalion's fire direction control center was put out of action, as was one howitzer. During the period from 4:10 a.m. to daylight only one of the Marines' mortars remained in action. The mortar team stayed with their weapon throughout the assault, re-establishing communications with the commander in the fire direction control center and firing a total of 380 rounds.

Corporal Jim Best recalls the attack as a blur of indistinct memories. "There were red and green tracers flashing overhead, men screaming and explosions everywhere. I lay there hugging the ground thinking I may not get out, wondering if we'd been overrun." Although penetrated, the Marine lines held and at times only a scant five feet separated the combating forces. Men not actively engaged in direct confrontations with the enemy forces were busy coordinating HEAT (high-explosive anti-tank) and illumination artillery fire or providing other support services. Artillery officers were coordinating fire missions while at the same time an air officer was on the radio requesting helicopter gunship support.

Lieutenant Raymond C. Benfatti, commanding officer of Company L, was severely wounded by an impacting rocket-propelled grenade during the initial moments of the attack. Ignoring his painful injuries, Benfatti steadfastly refused medical evacuation and boldly shouted words of encouragement to his men. He directed their fire against the infiltrating sappers and two supporting infantry companies until the hostile sapper unit was ejected from the perimeter.

Despite the enemy rounds impacting all around him, Lieutenant Benfatti quickly organized a reaction force and supervised his Marines in evacuating the casualties and replacing wounded Marines in defensive emplacements. As the enemy support units pressed their attack upon the perimeter, Benfatti continued his determined efforts, repeatedly exposing himself to intense hostile fire as he directed the efforts of his men in repulsing the enemy attack.

A flare ship was called on station to provide illumination outside the perimeter wire. It would remain on station throughout the night as the battle raged until dawn. With flares lighting up the night, a group of clerks, radio operators and engineers began a systematic drive to eliminate the enemy forces within the perimeter. Throughout the battle, Benfatti called for artillery fires from the batteries located on the mutually supporting firebases to surround FSB Cunningham in a curtain of hot steel. This supporting fire prevented enemy reinforcements and exploitation of breaches in the wire and also rendered impossible the retreat of the sappers already inside the compound.

At about 5:30 a.m. the Marines completed the reorganization of their positions and began slowly but methodically to break up the sapper attack. As Dawn broke, the spirited defenders were mopping up the remnants of the enemy assault force. Contact, however, was not broken until 7 a.m.

Jim Best described the end of the battle: "The fighting slowed and it was a few moments before I realized that the fire support base was dead silent. There were no sounds, only the fear of not knowing the exact situation."

As the sun rose, the light and warmth it brought created a calming sense of temporary peace at FSB Cunningham. When it became apparent that the NVA had withdrawn for good, the counting began. Lieutenant Benfatti, who would win the Silver Star Medal for his actions during the attack, supervised the medical evacuation of casualties and ascertained the welfare of his Marines, resolutely refusing medical attention for his own wounds until all the other wounded men had been cared for.

The Marines found a total of 25 NVA bodies inside their defensive wires. One of those bodies was that of a sapper officer. Documents found on his body were examined, translated and analyzed by the 15th Interrogator/Translator Team, revealing the detailed planning of the attack described above.

Searching the enemy bodies, the Marines captured 26 RPG rounds, 25 Chicom grenades, 253 bamboo explosive devices, seven rifle grenades, 12 packs, two radios, 11 AK-47 rifles and numerous signal flares. The packs contained large quantities of marijuana and other drugs.

"The use of narcotics," platoon leader Milton J. Teixeira said, "mad them a lot harder to kill. Not one of the gooks we had inside the perimeter had less than three or four holes in him. Usually it took a grenade or something to stop him completely."

A final tally of the battle damage revealed four Marines killed in action, 46 Marines wounded in action and 37 NVA killed in action. In "E" Battery, 2nd Battalion, 12 Marines, had taken heavy battle damage. Surveying the smoke-shrouded fire support base, Colonel Barrow said: "They'll probably think twice from here on out before taking on another Marine headquarters group. These lads did a fantastic job in what could have been a nasty situation. They were 100 percent professional fighting men; good Marines all the way."


This article was written by Michael R. Conroy and originally published in the August 1991 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today.


16 Responses to “Sapper Attack in the A Shau During the Vietnam War”


  1. 1
    Fred Carroll says:

    I joined Lima 3/9 in March 1969, at the end of Dewey Canyon. I'm trying to find Milton J. Teixeira, my first platoon commander. If anyone knows his whereabouts, please contact me. Memebers of 2nd platoon has had five reunions since 1994. We plan another one the last of July in Branson.

    Fred Carroll 832/876-3103 email: Golf48@aol.com

  2. 2
    Jack Johnstone says:

    It's interesting that the media during the war gave little attention to
    the NVA and Viet Congs use of drugs. However they gave a lot of attention to drug use by our own troops. Conroy's information on the drug's recovered from the NVA packs, coincides with information
    I gathered, while working with DOD contractors, from 1966 to 1973, in Viet Nam.

    In 1969 a Vietnamese woman told me that her 15 year old cousin was recruited into the the Viet Cong, from a market place in Saigon.
    He was taken to a training camp in the Mekong Delta region. He was
    given some training and then ordered to attack a police station in
    Can Tho. He was given two hand grenades, along with a Chicom
    pistol. She said he was also given a large white pill and told to take it 15 or 20 minutes before he attacked. Instead of following
    their orders he became a Chu Hoi and returned to the South Vietnamese cause. He was rewarded with money for his weapons.

    In 1968 not long after the Tet Offensive, I was at the roof top bar of a hotel in Saigon. I met an Australian father who was visiting
    his son at the 7th Field Hospital in Saigon. His son had been seriously wounded, when there unit was over run at Bear Cat,
    near Vung Tao. He conveyed to me the following incident as it
    was told to him by his son. In the early morning hours his unit
    came under attack by Viet Cong forces. A VC ran up on his position and he pointed his weapon and pulled the trigger. His
    weapon was empty. While he pulled out the spent clip and reloaded his weapon, the VC stood over him laughing like a mad
    man. He was able to shoot and kill him while he laughed.

    These incident's along with Conroy's disclosure of the contents of
    the Sapper packs in the A Shau are more than a slight indication
    of the wide spread use of drugs by NVA and VC forces.

    • 2.1
      Judy Snyder says:

      Jack, were you an MP At 2913 DTC in 1946? Please email me. lkgjsg@y
      ahoo.com Glenn Snyder's daughter

  3. 3
    Chip Reid says:

    This is an excellent recollection of what happened to us that night. I was at FSB Cunningham when this attack occurred. My 15th ITT sub-team was with the 9th Marines on Operation Dewey Canyon. A small personal side story: Also we got an NVA radio from one of the dead sappers(who was wearing a marines helment that he had picked up during the attack. He was killed by a marine about 5 feet behind my position, saving my life). The marine (unknown to me)was wounded in the arm when the sappers' grenade exploded as he tried to throw it. They used the radio to keep their attack command group informed of the progress. We tried to listen to further communications but they had pulled back. At daylight we searched the jungle around the perimeter and found drag marks where they had hauled away many more dead and wounded. Lt. Joe Wheeler, Sgt. Scott Sibley and our ARVN Interpreter SSgt Thang were with me. Chip Reid (15th Interrogation Translation Team)

  4. 4
    Bernie Weisz says:

    My name is Bernie Weisz and I am a historian/book reviewer concentrating on the Vietnam War. I am desperately seeking Michael R. Conroy's book "Don't tell America". If you have a copy availablie, or if you have written a memoir and would like it reviewed., kindly contact me at the following address: BernWei1@aol.com
    You may read all of my reviews at the following http:
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/A25HKEGXUN7YPD/ref=cm_pdp_people_name_sel

    Cheers, Bernie Weisz

    • 4.1
      Bernie Weisz says:

      Thanks to Vietnam Veteran Bob Dean of Mississippi, my 5 year quest of trying to find, read and review this book has successfully ended! Here is my review:
      Don't tell America!
      by Michel R. Conroy.
      Published 1992 by Eagle Pub. in Red Bluff, Calif .
      Written in English.
      About the Book
      Review Written by Bernie Weisz Vietnam War Historian, Pembroke Pines, Florida USA May 7, 2011 E Mail: BernWei1@aol.com
      Title of Review: Dewey Canyon: Remembered by the smells of sweat, human blood and gunpowder mixed in a unique way!
      Some Vietnam Veterans that were there remember "Dewey Canyon" by one long uphill 1969 Marine Corps march after another in the Ashau Valley. Some will tell you the only thing that comes to mind is North Vietnamese bullets speeding through the air at 50,000 feet per second tearing indiscriminately at flesh and foliage while recalling the anguished groins of the wounded and moans of the dying. Another Veteran only can reminisce that every round fired by the NVA ended with the same wet, pulpy thud in either Marine Corps flesh or banana trees. Regardless of who you talk to, the fact is that Michael Conroy's book "Don't Tell America" is about "Operation Dewey Canyon" which was the last major offensive by the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. It took place from January 22 through March 18, 1969 and involved a sweep of the "A Shau Valley," controlled by the North Vietnamese Army. It was conducted by the 9th Marine Regiment and reinforced by elements of the 3rd Marine Division. Although a tactical success, the 56 days of combat ultimately failed to stop the overall flow of North Vietnamese men and material into South Vietnam via the "Ho Chi Minh Trail." For their actions in "Operation Dewey Canyon," the 9th Marine Regiment and attached units were awarded the Army Presidential Unit Citation. Before this operation was initiated, Marine infantry units in I Corps (the Northern region), as dictated by agreed upon "Rules of Engagement," had been tied to their combat bases along the South Vietnam border as part of the "McNamara Line." This "line" was named after the Secretary of war at the time, Robert S. McNamara. It consisted of a combination of infantry units and ground sensors devised to stop North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

      When Lt. Gen. Raymond G. Davis took command of the 3rd Marine Division, he ordered Marine units to move out of their combat bases that were fixed in a defensive posture and engage the NVA. He had noted that the manning of the bases and the defensive posture they developed was contrary to the aggressive style of fighting that Marines favor. Conroy noted that the NVA units were always able to dart in and out of privileged sanctuaries in North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos unmolested. In early 1969, intelligence reports indicated that there had been a large NVA build-up in the A Shau Valley. The A Shau was just 6 miles east of the Laotian border and some 21 miles long. Col. Robert H. Barrow, commander of the 9th Marine Regiment, used this intelligence to accept orders to depart Vandegrift Combat Base some 50 miles to the east and sweep west to withhold use of the valley to the NVA. Conroy eloquently explains that Operation Dewey Canyon was divided into three parts: 1) the movement and positioning of air assets, 2) the movement of the 9th Marines south out of their main combat base, called Vandergrift, and 3) sweep the NVA out of the A Shau Valley. Moving towards the A Shau Valley, the 9th Marines established numerous firebases along the way which would provide them their artillery support once they entered it and guarded their main supply route. Because of their distance from the main combat bases and because resupply via ground was very difficult during monsoon season, all of these bases could only be resupplied by helicopter. Conroy details how the Marines encountered stiff resistance throughout the conduct of the operation, most of which was fought under horrific monsoon rain and cloud cover, triple canopy jungle and within range of NVA artillery based in Laos. Marine casualties included 130 killed in action and 932 wounded. If one believes in the accuracy of U.S. "Body Counts," the Marines claimed killing 1,617 NVA and discovered over 500 tons of arms and munitions as well as denied the Ashau Valley as an NVA staging area for the entire span of the operation. They claimed the operation was an overall success.

      One of the most perplexing issues of the Vietnam War was what were called the "Rules of Engagement." Aside from American Troops being barred from perusing fleeing VC and NVA soldiers into supposedly neutral Laos and Cambodia, used as staging areas and sanctuaries on the nefarious Communist supply line into the South, e.g. the "Ho Chi Minh Trail, the restrictions tended to be one of the factors that lowered morale in the military. These restrictions seemed to force the military to fight the with one hand tied behind its back. This was interpreted by individual soldiers as if they were being asked to risk their lives more than necessary (because they couldn't fight back freely) simply for the sake of some rules imposed for political reasons. Hidden from the American public, Operation Dewey Canyon was conducted in 3 phases with raids into Laos being the third and final phase. Although all three battalions were involved with the operation, only elements of the 2nd and Third Battalion actually participated in the raid into Laos. This last phase commenced on February 11, 1969, and by February 20, the 2nd Battalion was on the Laotian border. To the reader not savvy of military language, Conroy quickly switches from one Marine company, battalion and platoon to another to the point of where the reader needs a scorecard to follow the action. However the evolution of the operation eventually concludes in a comprehending manner. The 2nd Battalion's "Hotel Company" could see from their position on the verge of entering Laos that there were numerous NVA convoys traveling along Route 922, which was a road that snaked from Laos straight into South Vietnam curving Southeast. Route 922 was also an integral part of the "Ho Chi Minh Trail." David F. Winecoff was the commanding officer of "Hotel" and knew the only way to stop the NVA's 1969 "Tet Offensive" was to take his Marines into Laos, by any means necessary, even if it put a damper on the ongoing "Paris Peace Talks." Conroy places the reader with Winecoff, as well as all the soldiers that illegally entered "Laos" without America's knowledge, effectively derailing the NVA plans for a big 1969 spring offensive in the I Corps Tactical Zone. In addition, Conroy historically reveals that Operation Dewey Canyon had effectively disrupted a major enemy logistical center in what was called "Base Area 611," including in a Marine haul totaling more than 1,000 NVA small arms, some 807,000 rounds of ammunition and about 220,000 pounds of rice.

      Michael Conroy takes the reader on a day by day trip of what all three divisions of the Ninth Marines did during Operation Dewey Canyon, and the reader is treated to detailed remembrances of over 200 Marines he interviewed for over five years. A significant part of this book was written from Conroy's prison cell, of which as of this writing Michael Conroy has permanent residence, unfortunately shackled with a lifetime sentence. As for the veracity of this book, Conroy states in the introduction his method of creating this memoir: "The process was intricate. Documents, based upon observations and opinions, perceptions , and after-the-event oral histories did not always match up number for number and date for time. I have made every effort possible to resolve conflicting data, oftentimes making a choice based upon the preponderance of the evidence rather than upon the actual documentation. There are going to be differences in any story of this nature. There are going to be inexactitudes and no matter how hard you try to avoid them there are bound to be errors. I apologize for these failings and ask your tolerance of them." This book is out of print and impossible to find. I was fortunate enough to meet a gentleman from Mississippi who was in the "1/9 Marines", also known as "The Walking Dead." This man actually participated in Dewey Canyon and was amiable enough to lend this book to me. While not endorsing nor judging Conroy's character, he vouched for the accuracy of this book's realistic portrayal of "Operation Dewey Canyon," the only book that exists on this aspect of the Vietnam War. There were many operations that occurred during this war. SOG elements and Air America operations in Laos had been covertly operating since the war's inception. Conroy entitled this book as such because this was the first major organized military border incursion into a supposedly neutral country that was hidden from the public and press in the wake of the rapidly increasing unpopularity that this conflict domestically garnered. While Conroy's details of hour by hour and day by day recanting of the operation at times are tedious and trite, the significance of Dewey Canyon cannot be lost. Aside from preventing the NVA from launching another Tet Offensive in the I Corps Zone as the enemy did in 1968, 1969 was the only year in the entire war that the NVA did not launch a major spring offensive.

      Needless to say, anyone can read the history books to find out what happened on Dewey Canyon. Enemy booty captured, sorties, raids and installations seized can easily be looked up. What is priceless in "Don't Tell America" are the stories individual Marines shared about this operation, some communicating recollections that had stayed dormant in their minds due to PTSD issues for over two decades. Conroy makes an interesting statement at the beginning of this book, as to what a new soldier saw and thought after being helicoptered into triple canopy jungle, experiencing his first combat assault: "The newbies generally envisioned a jungle full of roaring tigers, chattering monkeys, and various birds in bright plumage. What they found was a jungle inhabited by voracious gnats, mosquitoes that drilled for bone marrow rather than blood, and a host of similarly hostile insects. They often envisioned the combat experience to be an adventure, having read of the chivalry of medieval knights and fliers saluting the man they'd just shot down in W.W. I. There was no such thing as chivalry or fair play in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, something the newbies often had to learn the hard and tragic way. The NVA snuck through the jungles as quietly as shadows pass across leaves, as part of the jungle itself. The Marines, even when operating in small units, often paraded up and down on small trails, thrashing through the jungle with the knowledge of our superior supporting arms and the might of our great nation, the aura of our mighty and seemingly invincible Army as their shield. This attitude proved dangerously detrimental in the jungle where stealth often thwarted might. Such warfare reduces a man to the basic beastly instinct of survival. Most of the men were only just beginning to understand and be comfortable with the jungle when their tour of duty ended."

      During Operation Dewey Canyon, the Marine Corps built 16 Fire Support Bases and 30 Landing Zones. Mike Conroy gives an unforgettable and inimitable remembrance that really gives the reader a memorable description: "The fire support base in no way resembled a secure area with all the trappings of a permanent installation. As operations proceeded in Dewey Canyon, empty ammunition crates were broken down and utilized as footpaths. Garbage disposal, although a problem, was never a high priority. Plastic and cardboard wrappings, expended artillery shells, and empty C-ration cans quickly stacked up. The trash pits and bunkers were almost immediately infested with legions of mice and rats. The bunkers were dark and musty. Beds were made of whatever could be scrounged or improvised. There was no paint. There were no windows. Available electricity was reserved for communications and equipment. The new men soon learned that peanut butter made a dim candle. Inside the bunkers the men sweat like pigs, smelled like camels, and attracted hordes of greedy gnats and mosquitoes. Insect bites became ulcerated wounds constantly irritated by salty sweat. Every sore turned into jungle rot. Mail was delivered infrequently, hot meals were a thing of the past. The men found themselves eating cold C-ration spaghetti for breakfast-and being thankful to have it. There was little water for shaving and not much more for drinking, and yet a sergeant whose last distemper shot had worn off insisted that all hands dry-shave every day while replacement of clothing and other comfort items were given a low priority. During the monsoon rains a thick green, pungent mold grew everywhere. If a fire support base wasn't knee-deep in mud and shrouded by cotton-ball-thick clouds of fog, it was invariably baked by an unrelenting sun and obscured by clods of thick red dirt. In short, the fire support bases were wounds cut out of the emerald flesh of the jungle bristling with engineer and artillery stakes, communications antennae, and the long, ugly, dark snouts of artillery pieces pointing skyward, periodically snorting flames, sulfurous smoke and death. On top of that there was no respite from death." The aforementioned is "Classic Conroy," which makes this book uniquely informative in explaining the esoteric rarely related in other memoirs.

      Anecdotes of Marines drinking out of water holes decorated by floating corpses of decaying NVA soldiers, friendly fire, Marine aviator cowardice, inept command and even desertion are all there in "Don't Tell America. There is the story even more bizarre than Robert Garwood's ordeal, the peculiar tale of Jon Sweeney. Claiming he collapsed on a trail from heatstroke, and was threatened by a superior officer to "get up and march or be killed," PFC Sweeney alleged that he collapsed on a trail, left by his fellow Marines for dead and consequently captured by the NVA. Conroy relates: "The absolute truth of Jon Sweeney's ordeal will probably never be known. Military records indicate that Sweeney was confirmed a POW in Hanoi on April 23, 1969. In late 1970, the 21 year old Marine surfaced in Sweden and described to United Press International an 18 month long ordeal of beatings, brainwashing sessions, and escape attempts that led to days of wandering in the jungle and eating leaves to stay alive." Conroy wrote that Sweeney, after his capture by the NVA, managed to con his North Vietnamese indoctrinators that he was on their side and be freed so he could go to Sweden and work for peace. The Marine Corps promptly arrested Sweeney and charged him with desertion and collaboration with America's enemies. Sweeney's defense was that was that he was taught by the Marines to always do the unexpected. Sweeney asserted to Conroy: "Who was going to expect someone to con his way out of North Vietnam ?…that's what I did." Sweeney, after a lengthy trial was found on August 11, 1971 not guilty of all charges. I have read many books of the Vietnam War, but this is the first time I have ever heard of this case. One of the most interesting comments Conroy made in this book was his assessment of the ultimate fate of this conflict: "The U.S. didn't lose the war on the field of battle or in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. We lost the war in Berkeley, California and Washington, D.C. One of our missions in Vietnam was to win the hearts and the minds of the local populace for a democratic South Vietnamese government. We didn't do it. We couldn't even win the hearts and the minds of the people back home. The Marines in the field, however, were not as concerned with the battle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people as they were with a high body count."

      One indicator of the eventual destiny of this war was the impact our ally made on one soldier Conroy interviewed. Conroy related this tale of a Marine's first impression: "Although they were a little ways away my first glimpse of ARVN troops were that they looked like Boy Scouts! When someone told me they were elite ARVN Rangers, I really hoped he was kidding. They didn't look like much." Conroy expressed his sentiments: "For the most part, the Marines didn't like the ARVN troops, feeling that they had little discipline. The general feeling was that yes, the South Vietnamese wanted freedom and democracy but they wanted someone else to pay the price of it. And although they experienced a short round from time to time, Marines generally did not trust the training or expertise of the ARVN, an army noted more for its poor pay, corrupt officers, and extremely high desertion rate rather than for its combat prowess." Another soldier told Conroy the following about patrol in the Ashau, the "Valley of Death:" "On patrol, the company was strung out in a column like a giant armed centipede. The heat cooked a rich stew of aromas from the jungle vegetation and sapped the strength of the Marines whose concentration slipped from keenly searching for signs of the enemy to become more absorbed in putting one foot in front of the other than anything else. It was not a bad day, but one that left the men exhausted, tested, wary, and very much aware that they had taken a casualty. Unlike the Oriental, the American views each life as a very precious and every time they lost a man the Marines felt as if they'd lost a bit of themselves." Needless to say, ethnocentrism doesn't equate to victory. Patriotism was domestically lacking, especially on the home scene. One Marine, coming on an abandoned NVA listening post during a patrol related the following to Conroy: "A search turned up clothing, assorted writing gear, and a small bag containing NVA currency. The currency was 100 piasters notes. As would be expected, Ho Chi Minh's image was on one side and the other depicted a mortar assembly plant. The men divided the money up as souvenirs, finding it interesting that the North Vietnamese currency depicted a commitment to war. Their stamps likewise depicted warfare, generally the shooting down of B-52's." Nothing like this existed in the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

      One theme that ran throughout Conroy's vanished book were deprivations Marines suffered in the Ashau Valley, also known as "The Valley of Death." As a result of being dependent totally dependent on helicopter resupply in remote, inaccessible areas of the NVA's backyard, due to either NVA anti aircraft artillery or inclement weather, many times helicopters could not get through. Marines had to go days without food water, or even medical evacuation of wounded or even the dead. One solder lamented to Conroy the following: "The weather was still deplorable. The Marine headquarters staff anxiously waited for the sun to shine. Even when it wasn't raining the air was so thick with humidity you could almost drown in it or reach out and grab a chunk of fog to wring out like a sponge. The lack of food began to tell on all of us, especially noticeable on patrols. Marines were listless and plain exhausted after operating for 2 to 3 hours.The period of deprivation lasted for over a week after an extremely grueling and lengthy tactical march which had beat us to the bone. Marines now attempted to
      "make do." That onion that had been lost in the pack now became onion soup-especially good if one had some hot sauce-and Marines attempted to cook the local vegetation if it looked even remotely edible-generally it wasn't." One Marine told Conroy this: "There were several instances where no meals were available to several units for a day or two at a time. These units were forced to drink water from streams, eat captured rice, and do without the necessities of combat for significant periods of time. This caused a stand-down situation."Operation Starvation" is what we called it. I remember boiling big hard bananas which tasted like cabbage, chewing on twigs and other stuff during this period. The last food Marines had eaten was rice captured from enemy soldiers."

      Conroy's book, if available, which it isn't, would tell America about the character of the enemy, the NVA. They used elephants as transport, some spoke English, always tried to drag their dead away, tied their sniper sharpshooters in trees, engaged in suicidal charges against Marines, and after killed were found to have consumed narcotics. There were times where they were shot 4 to 5 times before they fell dead. About their stealth, one ex Marine told Conroy: "It was hard to detect the NVA units unless you walked right on top of them. In two or three instances the point man came within 2 or 3 feet of the NVA before they would spring their ambush." One Marine remembered after a battle this memory: "The poncho-covered bodies of my gun team laid in the rain on a hill for several days as a solemn reminder of the many faces of the grim reaper and the harvest of war. Twenty years later I can still remember the smells-burned matter and charcoaled human flesh mixed with the smell of burnt blood and human waste." Conroy wrote of Marines firing at their own men in the confusion of Dewey Canyon, drowning crossing monsoon-swollen streams and being killed as a result of a Marine "short round." Reflecting, Conroy told America: " On Dewey Canyon the Marines experienced one of just about every mishap you could imagine in a setting where several thousand young men kept nervous fingers on their triggers for 56 straight days. Conroy even relates a story where a Master Sergeant who newly arrived to the Ashau found a seasoned grunt in his fighting hole without his flak jacket and helmet on. The sergeant ordered the grunt to do so and when the grunt refused, the sergeant, standing eyeball to eyeball with the grunt, pulled his .45 pistol and shot the grunt point blank in the neck. Conroy wrote: An emergency medevac was requested and off went the master sergeant and the grunt. That was our company's first casualty on Dewey Canyon. That was also the only time I was ever embarrassed to be an American, or even a Marine." There are so many amazing, never before facts written in this book, that just like tragically Conroy will never be paroled, neither will this book ever be once again released. Undoubtedly, Michael Conroy, and thousands of Vietnam Vets suffer from PTSD. Some, like Mike, have ended up in maximum security prisons; others still inhabit the netherworld of their nightmares. This book tells Mike's story; it tells pieces of the stories of many like him, in whose minds the war almost 50 year later still rages on. Despite Mike Conroy's lifelong confinement, "Let's Tell America" this book! Reprint this memoir!

  5. 5
    Warner DeFord says:

    I was on the second helicopter to land on the hill that became L.Z. Cunningham and had too move out into the bush with India 3/9 after Kilo company came in behind us… When we were all cut off from air support and unable to be resupplied due to weather conditions, we returned to Cunningham and had to endure the terrible 122mm NVA artillery that was being very accurately brought down on us… At least we had some captured enemy rice to eat but finding dry fuel to ignite for a fire was impossible so cooking it properly was impossible… India company loaded up with a heavy load of extra supplies was sent off to secure Tiger Mountain at the southern most part of the valley and I was glad to be with them and leaving Cunningham behind even though it meant many days of walking and going without food for days at a time…. Within days of the assault on Cunningham we were surrounded by a battalion sized unit of enemy just after dark one night and were fortunate to be able to not take casualties thanks to support from an AC-47 gunship that emptied their guns into them. None of the guys on the lines fired a shot and when first light came that morning enemy soldiers were seen still dragging off bodies and we were able to move on out to take our objective without coming under enemy fire…. I had been with Lima company and with the battalion CP group prior to Dewey Canyon and knew a lot of the guys that are mentioned in the article…. I am also interested in finding a copy of "Don't Tell America"…. There are a lot of things about this operation that were way out of the ordinary and there are questions about the nationality of some of the enemy combatants and technical support personnel of European extraction wearing Russian uniforms….I have also wondered why Made in Russia ( or it may have been U.S.S.R.) was in English on the tires of captured trucks.

  6. 6
    Bernie Weisz says:

    Please let me know if you like my review of Mike Conroy's book. ! If you yourself have written a war memoir and would like me to review it, please contact me to arrange this! Regards, Bernie Weisz e mail: BernWei1@aol.com

  7. 7
    joe helm says:

    anyone from 3/9 kilo 3rd platoon m60 squad, 68-69

    • 7.1
      jim woodward says:

      Joe,I was a corpsman with kilo Co. 3/9 in Nov 68-Feb 69.I remember Clarenece "HOP" Hull and Tom Sawyer as mach.gunners. They both were medavaced before I got hit in Feb.

  8. 8
    Fred Tonge says:

    I would just like to say how two friends of mine
    L/CPL Tommy Noonan Golf 2/9 MOH
    Kevin P. Keilty Silver Star M/39
    From Operation Dewey Canyon

  9. 9
    W 2/9 1969 says:

    Anyone know much about the author of this book? I heard from an acquaintance that he wrote a book called 'The Green Ghosts of Vietnam'. Can't seem to locate this Anywhere?

    Thanks for any tips!

  10. 10
    Bernie Weisz says:

    Anyboby want to contact my friend Mike Conroy? Mike , author of "Don't Tell America" is serving an irreversible life sentence. Please feel free to write him at this address:

    Michael Conroy 157509
    LARC UNIT 3–B-1-13
    P.O. Box 260
    Lexington, OK 73051

    You may use me as a reference: Bernie Weisz

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/A25HKEGXUN7YPD?ie=UTF8&ref_=ya_56

    Green Ghosts is Available aND WAS WRITTEN BY W. Floyd http://www.amazon.com/Green-Ghosts-W-Floyd/dp/0595329195/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1335310900&sr=1-1-catcorr

  11. 11
    Ron says:

    My first assigment as a Corpsman in Vietnam was killer kilo company gateway to hell, August to July 1968 -69. I spent 9 months in the bush. Whenever a Corpsman was killed, I replaced them.. I went from kilo company to lima company to india company as a Corpsman. I remember Doc James in kilo company. I remember going without a bath for 65 days in the ashau valley. I remember in kilo our Lt climbing a tree because he got us loss. . I remember getting lost with the same Lt. at night sleeping on a moutain side. .We were really slammed by incoming in Ashau. When we reached the firebase Cunningham, It was empty. With no food I remember gathering peanut butter, jelly crackers at the bottom of the hill where this type of food was thrown away.I remember Mike co getting overrun by gooks at night, We could hear the screaming and shooting over the radio. T think about alot of guys I ttreated I can see their faces but I can't remember their names.

  12. 12
    Doc Ron says:

    I was there' You refuse to hear my story?



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