Enemy commandos attack a Marine outpost, are pushed back, and attack again
Fear struck the heart of Marine 1st Lt. Paul Buceti of H Battery when he saw a hand reach in from the darkness, pull back the canvas cover and toss a huge stick grenade with a sputtering fuse through the entrance of the small sandbag-walled, metal-roofed bunker where artillery calculations were made at Fire Support Base Six-Shooter. “I thought it was over,” Buceti remembered. The lieutenant, shirtless and barefoot, wearing just his shorts, rushed for the exit, as did the two other Marines in the bunker.
Lance Cpls. Fred Roach Jr. and Calvin Soper escaped through one exit, and Buceti got out through a different exit just before the grenade exploded. When the Marines left the bunker, they were met by AK-47 assault rifle fire from North Vietnamese Army “sappers,” technically combat engineers but functioning as highly trained commando units. Roach and Soper dashed to the communications tent to alert the Marines there. Buceti managed to reach the relative safety of a bunker used for H Battery’s executive officer, or XO. That bunker was the control center for the six howitzers that gave the firebase its name, borrowed from America’s Wild West.
Sometime before 2 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 23, 1969, more than two dozen sappers penetrated, undetected, the defensive wire around firebase Six-Shooter, about 5 miles west of the city of Da Nang. H Battery, 3rd battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, had moved into the firebase about seven weeks earlier. The Marines had not yet completed their work clearing brush around the base to take away the cover for enemy infiltrators. Nor had they put in place the needed additional bands of concertina wire—barbed wire coiled and used as a barrier around the perimeter of a base.
Once inside the base, the sappers—from a platoon of the 25th Sapper Company, part of the 31st NVA Regiment that operated west of Da Nang—hid under trucks in the motor pool behind the howitzer line, waiting for the start of coordinated hit-and-run attacks planned for U.S. facilities in the Da Nang area one week after the 24-hour Tet Lunar New Year truce that had started on Feb. 16. The attacks were concentrated against Marine installations around Da Nang, Vietnam’s second largest city, but also hit other regions of the country.
Firebase Six-Shooter was a tempting target for the North Vietnamese because of its closeness to NVA base camps and staging areas farther west in Happy Valley and to the north in Elephant Valley, both accessed from the Ho Chi Minh Trail in nearby Laos.
Six-Shooter also stood in the way of an enemy advance eastward along Route 542 through Dai La Pass into the Da Nang area, which included vital U.S. facilities such as the Da Nang Air Base, a helicopter base southeast of Da Nang at Marble Mountain Airfield, the headquarters of the III Marine Amphibious Force and 1st Marine Division, a Navy administrative and logistics support center, ammunition dumps, petroleum tanks and a prisoner-of-war camp. The firebase was about 3 miles due west of the 1st Marine Division command post on the eastern slope of Hill 327 on Division Ridge and about a mile west of the command post for the division’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, near Dai La Pass.
Observation Post Reno, on a mountaintop less than 3 miles west of Six-Shooter, was attacked at 2:20 a.m., on Feb. 23. Attacks on H Battery at Six-Shooter, the 1st Division command post on Hill 327, the 2nd Battalion post and other sites started about the same time.
In those early-morning hours, NVA forces also fired more than 50 of their 122 mm rockets at the Naval Support Activity command’s deep-water pier in Da Nang and the Marines’ Force Logistic Command installations. Eighteen 82 mm mortar rounds landed at Marine Aircraft Group 16 and the U.S. Army’s 212th Combat Support Aviation Battalion at Marble Mountain Airfield. Rockets and mortars hit the Da Nang Air Base, igniting four 10,000-gallon tanks of JP-4 jet fuel with a direct hit on a hangar for Marine All Weather Attack Squadron 242. Also struck was a South Vietnamese ammo dump near the III Marine Amphibious Force headquarters, causing out-of-control fires and secondary explosions.
During the attacks, a team of sappers overran the Marine Air Control Group 18 aviation radar site on Hill 347, overlooking the 1st Marine Division command post on Hill 327. Ten Marines from Headquarters Company, 1st Marine Division, died during attempts to retake the radar site before they succeeded on the third try.
Sappers also got inside the wire at Headquarters Battery, 1st Battalion, 13th Marine Regiment, at the Northern Artillery Cantonment just a few miles north of Da Nang, and at Headquarters Company, 26th Marine Regiment, on the northern slope of Hill 327.
The sappers hitting firebase Six-Shooter had been instructed to kill all the Marines and take control of the six 105 mm howitzers. Information gained later from a captured sapper revealed that 40 to 50 Communist soldiers, trained in the operation of 105 mm howitzers, were waiting in a nearby tree line for a successful attack. They would then move into the base, turn the guns around and use the battery’s own ammunition to fire on key U.S. installations in Da Nang. (During an Aug. 14, 1966, mission by 2nd Platoon, C Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, into the “Charlie Ridge” mountains west of Da Nang, the recon team had found, concealed in a jungle training camp for the VC, a full-size mock-up of a 105 mm howitzer constructed out of bamboo but containing rubber tires. The elevation gears on the mock-up were made of metal and could function. The recon team also found a 24-inch-long, 6-inch-diameter wooden replica of a 105 mm shell.)
Lt. Buceti had been awakened around 1 a.m. by one of the Marines in the Fire Direction Center bunker that provided H Battery’s howitzer crews with gun settings for accurate delivery of artillery fire in support of U.S. troops or against enemy targets. The Marine asked Buceti to help him calculate firing data that the FDC bunker would send to the XO’s bunker, which then would relay the settings to the howitzers assigned to fire at sites where enemy rockets had been launched around 12:30 a.m., before the main sapper assaults started.
Buceti recalls that dogs kept as mascots at the battery had been barking incessantly since late that night. Several times he went outside the FDC bunker and peered into the darkness trying to determine what they were barking about. On his last attempt, Buceti lay on the ground to get a look from that perspective, but he didn’t see anything then.
Later, back in the rear of the FDC bunker, he saw the sapper who opened the cover and flung in a grenade, a jungle-made version of a wooden-handled grenade called a “Chicom,” short for Chinese Communists, the source for many of them. Buceti said the version of the Chicom thrown into the bunker was made from a large No. 10 fruit cocktail can (4 or 5 inches in diameter and about 8 inches long) commonly used in Marine mess halls during the war. Most Chicom-style sapper grenades were crafted from small U.S.-made condensed-milk cans.
Buceti speculated that the olive complexion of his Italian decent and his run across the base in shorts with no shirt may have led the similarly attired sappers to think he was one of their own, which enabled the lieutenant to make it to the XO bunker. When Buceti arrived, the battery executive officer, 1st Lt. Bill Sheahan, and the battery commander, Capt. Jim James, were already inside, along with 2nd Lt. Marvin Runyon III, commander of 3rd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, which provided security for the battery.
Runyon and his radio operator had been in a tent that served as the security platoon’s command post when AK-47 fire suddenly hit the sides of the tent. Runyon quickly ran toward the gunfire at the XO bunker, near the center of the gun line, and reached the bunker the same time another Marine did.
Before they could go inside, a large Chicom grenade exploded next to them, wounding Runyon and the other Marine. Runyon helped the more seriously wounded Marine get into the bunker and then went outside and shot the sapper who was trying to throw grenades into the XO bunker. Runyon would receive a Silver Star for his heroic actions that morning.
Pfc. Marcel Ronquille, a cannoneer on Gun 1, asked his gun section chief Cpl. Barry Floyd for permission to go to the Gun 4 area, where his friend Lance Cpl. Larry Poet was assigned. Poet was part of the battery’s reaction force, a team created weeks earlier to respond immediately to any threat and go wherever needed in the battery. If an attack occurred, the reaction force was to assemble at Gun 4.
Before Ronquille arrived, Poet, Cpl. Daniel Bignell and others in the reaction force had already rushed to the gunfire and explosions at the FDC and the communications-motor pool area. Ronquille later learned that Poet, Lance Cpl. Charles Craig Jr., Lance Cpl. Leroy Roach Jr. and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Gregory Koupe, a hospital corpsman, had been killed by sappers at the back and south side of the firebase.
When the gun battle at Six-Shooter ended, the Marines of H Battery and Runyon’s 3rd Platoon, E Company, had routed the invading sappers. First light showed 22 dead sappers scattered throughout the base. One sapper had been taken prisoner. A map found on a dead body showed locations of H Battery’s main operation bunkers, as well as the FDC, XO and defensive bunkers. It was learned later that the husband of a Vietnamese barber who worked at the battery was one of the sappers killed in the attack. The American casualties were three Marines and one Navy corpsman killed and 15 wounded.
Two days later, on Feb. 25, sappers got past the defensive wire at firebases Russell and Neville in Quang Tri province, a few miles south of the Demilitarized Zone that divided North and South Vietnam. More than 149 Marines or corpsmen were killed or wounded in the attacks. On March 19, sappers equipped with flamethrowers and explosives-filled satchels breached the protective wire of D Battery, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines, adjacent to Liberty Bridge, about 15 miles south of Da Nang. That time, 44 Marines or Navy corpsmen were killed or wounded.
Six-Shooter’s defensive perimeter was greatly improved after the Feb. 23 attack. With the enhancements, three rows of razor wire (concertina wire with sharp blades rather than barbs) extended about 55 yards from the gun line. Wooden ammunition boxes, filled with unused powder-bag increments from previously fired 105 mm ammo, were placed throughout the defensive wire. When a tracer round from an M16 rifle was fired into the box, igniting the powder, those boxes would burst into a small inferno that lit up the surrounding area. Trip flares also were sprinkled through the wire. Tied to the wire were empty C-ration cans with pebbles inside that would alert the Marines to any movement within the wire.
Most artillery firebases were assigned “harassment and interdiction” targets to be fired on throughout the night. These targets were trail junctions and likely avenues of approach for NVA soldiers moving toward Da Nang. They were shelled randomly to disrupt enemy movements. When all six howitzers fired, the concussion from the detonation of the 35-pound projectile’s propellant charge was like a small earthquake and the noise was deafening. However, the howitzer noise also drowned out sounds that invaders made while cutting through the firebase’s concertina wire or rattling the pebbles in trip-wire cans—making din-filled artillery bases particularly attractive targets for sappers trying to break in undetected.
A few months after the Feb. 23 attacks, the Communist command decided that another attempt would be made against H Battery at firebase Six-Shooter on May 19, Ho Chi Minh’s birthday. A successful attack would be an 80th birthday present for Uncle Ho.
Late in the night on May 18, the NVA sappers gathered in a tree line in front of Six-Shooter. Local Viet Cong helped them evade the patrols and random listening posts manned by a base security platoon from H Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. The sappers studied their map of Six-Shooter one last time, blackened their bodies with charcoal and discarded their clothing, except for a simple loincloth, to get through the razor-edge concertina wire easier. The sapper arsenal included B40 rockets and launchers, AK-47 rifles, an assortment of locally made Chicom-style grenades, and satchel and funnel-shaped explosives to blow up the guns.
The sappers split into small groups and stealthily moved toward Six-Shooter, making bigger advances whenever the howitzers fired on distant targets or conducted other shelling missions whose loud blasts overpowered the noise of the infiltrators’ movements. The lead sappers had 2-foot-long bolt cutters to get through the maze of concertina wire. They would tie back the cut ends with cords they carried by mouth, creating a tunnel through the wire for the others to follow.
After several hours, the sappers had cut the wire at two locations and crawled through two of the three wire rows. They were within grenade range of the gun line and could see the outline of the sandbagged XO bunker controlling the howitzers’ fire. The sappers had to destroy that bunker to ensure the attack’s success. More NVA soldiers were nearby in the tree line, waiting for their comrades to get inside the position before joining the assault.
Luck blessed the men of H Battery. Around 2 a.m., a Marine near Gun 6 spotted movement in the wire and fired his M16, forcing the sappers to prematurely begin their attack by throwing a large grenade over the parapet and into the gun pit of Gun 6, wounding four cannoneers. Marines along the gun line started firing into the darkness and at the ammo boxes in the defensive wire, igniting the powder that helped illuminate the wire. Several sappers who had been hiding behind the ammo boxes were forced to move. M16 rifle fire from the cannoneers cut them down.
Right flank guns 1 and 2 fired illumination rounds that further lit up the defensive wire. At first light, 2nd Lt. Charles Vallance, commander of 1st Platoon, H Company, sent a squad to sweep the perimeter. The surviving sappers were trapped between the outer two rows of concertina wire and the final row in front of the guns. Five sappers were captured. One of them was their leader. Eighteen sappers lay dead in the wire, including those armed with B40 launchers who were killed before they could fire a rocket at the XO bunker. The total cost to the Marines was five wounded—and the wounds were minor.
The next day, the commanding general of III Marine Amphibious Force, Lt. Gen. Herman Nickerson Jr., sent a message to units in the 1st Marine Division, praising the men at Six-Shooter for the “highly effective and aggressive defense” of H Battery’s artillery position. The battle action, Nickerson added, “stands out as an example of how to deal with sappers and reflects great credit on the individual Marines involved.”
—Jack Wells served in Vietnam during 1968-69 as a forward artillery observer with Alpha and Bravo companies, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, and later as executive officer of H Battery, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
First published in Vietnam magazine’s December 2017 issue.