During Tet, Camp Carroll artillerymen were thrust into the chaos and carnage of an infantryman’s war
Ominous reports were coming in to the Marines at Camp Carroll during early January 1968 about major North Vietnamese Army infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Indeed, enemy sappers had been testing Camp Carroll’s perimeter. Claymore mines had been tampered with and turned backwards toward the Marine fighting positions along the perimeter defense.
Kilo Battery, 4th Battalion, 12th Marines, had returned to Vietnam for a second tour in September 1967. From its Camp Carroll outpost, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was within range of the battery’s 155mm rounds. The commander of Kilo Battery, Naval Academy graduate Hal Sullivan, exuded a passionate belief in his Marines and the Irish luck that had been with Kilo so far. On January 23, Sullivan was leading an ammunition convoy east to Dong Ha, about a 20-mile trip along Highway 9. The road was a hot zone for sniper and mortar fire, and the Marines knew too well the gantlet it presented. Ammo supply convoys were essential to support the huge rate of consumption by the several batteries firing from the base. Without a regular supply flowing in, the guns would soon fall silent.
Sullivan’s trip to Dong Ha was routine. On his return trip, however, the convoy was loaded with ammo and as it reached a rise just west of Cam Lo, he caught sight of a large group of NVA. Reacting quickly, Sullivan used his jeep radio to call in supporting fire from his own Kilo Battery. “Troops in the open!” was an artilleryman’s dream.
But as the rounds fell, the NVA quickly spotted the source of the fire control, Sullivan, who continued to adjust the fire from a covered position near his jeep. A well-directed NVA rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) took out the jeep and ended the radio communications. It took several days before Sullivan was able to complete his return trip to Camp Carroll, by helicopter. The rolling stock and precious ammo were left back at Cam Lo, just as the preliminary stages of the Tet Offensive were beginning.
Among the objectives of NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap as the prelude to the countrywide general uprising was to take control of Northern I Corps, and Camp Carroll was his first bite. Giap planned to isolate the westernmost outposts along the DMZ, namely Camp Carroll and the Rockpile, and then lay siege to Khe Sanh. From that juncture, he would attack Cam Lo and Dong Ha while at the same time overrunning Con Thien and Gio Linh—the area known as “Leatherneck Square.” The pincer movement was to be made by the 325th NVA Regiment.
I was the commander of the reaction platoon for Kilo Battery; as part of their standard missions, all artillery batteries formed tactical reaction forces for their own defense. As we formed up the reaction force in the battery area and prepared to move out on the 23rd, I placed two Marines with M-60 machine guns on the point near me. It was then that my NCO, Staff Sergeant Gerald Moore, came up to me and said something I will never forget: “Lieutenant, don’t worry. I’ll be at the rear and will shoot any Marine deciding to retreat.” God bless NCOs who know how to motivate so that officers can lead.
Before we moved out to counterattack the NVA, the orders came down from higher headquarters to lead off with tanks. The tank commander was Marine Captain Daniel Kent, whose very blond hair— almost white—was worn in a crew cut. He was never very talkative, but in the mess hall I once remembered him bursting with pride after the birth of a child back home.
As the tanks moved beyond the perimeter and started working their way down the road, the NVA were waiting for them with RPGs at the ready. Captain Kent, as so many tankers are prone to do, rode in the lead with his upper body exposed above the turret. The most vulnerable part of a tank is at the slip ring, where the turret is mounted on the chassis. As they slowly advanced, an RPG round hit squarely on the slip ring of the lead tank, killing Kent and his entire crew.
By then we had an aerial observer flying out of Dong Ha above us. So many NVA troops were around us that the observer was calling in one continuous stream of fire missions. The observer had witnessed the horror of what had happened to the tank platoon and could see that more was coming from the enemy forces now taking up positions between Highway 9 and the perimeter of Camp Carroll. Losing his composure, the observer began sending his messages in the open, using actual unit names rather than the designated call signs. With the Signal Operation Instructions compromised, new call signs had to be reissued by the end of the day.
For much of the next 2½ months, we were cut off on the ground and had to be resupplied entirely by air. In spite of repeated low-level strafing and napalm runs by Phantoms and high-level B-52 strikes, the fighting was continuous, leaving human carnage all around us. Because our only chance for survival—and going home— was killing other human beings, we became detached from the here and now.
The grisly scene after the initial clash of a battle rarely makes it into the history books but can become seared into the memories of the men in its midst. What Kilo Battery encountered after the first contact during Tet was a macabre sight. The “body count” in Vietnam was an all-dominating factor in what had become a war of statistics, which essentially trivialized human casualties, rendering them much like a box score at a baseball game. On the ground, however, it was not only about corpses. The really significant measure was found in the weapons captured. While a dead enemy cannot fight again, his weapon can, if his side recovers it.
So, in the first few days after the initial chaos ebbed, we conducted sweeps of the killing fields. Marines walked among the dead, systematically removing the enemy weapons and ammunition. It was a horrible task for the Kilo Battery Marines, walking alongside trucks and harvesting the spoils of war. More often than not, the truck drivers were simply unable to avoid the enemy bodies that littered the ground and were forced to run over them. When death is all around, it has a profound impact on you. Not only do you see it and smell it, you also feel it. Many tough Marines assigned to this duty found themselves vomiting uncontrollably.
Then there were the rats, which feasted on the corpses. Just as at Khe Sanh, we had to deal continually with the rats thriving at Camp Carroll. Rats transmit any number of dreaded diseases, the worst being the plague. All U.S. troops were protected from the plague by an inoculation given in the shoulder, but if bitten by a rat they would still have to undergo a painful series of rabies shots.
In our bunker, we slept with the lone light bulb always on. We hung mosquito netting over our bunks and tucked it in around the edges. Some Marines even slept wearing their jungle boots. Nonetheless, rats bit several Marines in Kilo Battery. One was even bitten on the inside of his mouth as he snored in his sleep.
Ironically, the rats may have actually been something of an ally in a perverse sort of way. The enemy soldiers who surrounded us were mostly in the open and far more exposed to the rats than we were. The NVA also did not have the advantage of plague shots, so in the long run the rats took a greater toll on them.
Artillery kills in a detached and sometimes remote way. Only rarely does a gun crew get to look directly at one of its victims. We had such an opportunity when the road from Camp Carroll to Cam Lo was finally reopened in April. As we moved down the road, we saw a dead North Vietnamese soldier, his body propped up on a road marker and decomposition well advanced. By that time in my tour, however, I had reached the point where I was losing touch with my humanity; there would be no more remorse, just the satisfaction of one more dead “gook” between me and home.
In my 13 months with Kilo Battery, we suffered more than 20 percent casualties as death rained down on Camp Carroll. The worst day was February 19, 1968, when we took an estimated 140 rounds of incoming. Serving a complete tour during the most hostile time in the Vietnam War, and having by the grace of God escaped wounds or worse, I have come to consider myself one of “the few of The Few.” I don’t know why; I’m just grateful.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.