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Less than a month after landing at Da Nang on July 7, 1965, with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, 1st Lieutenant Franklin Cox found himself on the outskirts of the Viet Cong–controlled complex of villages known as Cam Ne. What was about to unfold was just a foretaste of the frustrations and missteps that would engulf the U.S. forces sent to engage and destroy a formidable enemy that was often indistinguishable from innocents. The iconic CBS Evening News report by Morley Safer from Cam Ne broadcast on August 5, 1965, had a profound impact on perceptions of the war and the role U.S. forces were playing. The action at Cam Ne and its unflattering portrayal was just one instance of the bad luck that beset the Marines during their first months there. The following is an excerpt from Cox’s recently published memoir, Lullabies for Lieutenants.

Look how slowly the green rounds appear to be moving. It’s almost lovely,” Lieutenant j.g. Scott Guy said. He stood next to me as we looked out from the battalion operations shop of 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (2/9) high above the Song Cau Do River flowing in the dark somewhere below us, winding in sweeping turns through the valley, a flat plain of rice fields and villages filled with Viet Cong fighters. Guy was the naval gunfire officer, and I was the artillery liaison officer.

“Scott, the red rounds are not as pretty but just as deadly” I said. “And they are all moving at close to 3,000 feet per second, which is not slow. The laziness of their flight is an optical illusion. Like they say, you never hear the one that hits you, only the ones that pass by.”

Golf Company, 2/9, was locked in a midnight firefight with a platoon of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. It was high drama from our vantage point, several hundred feet higher in elevation and a mile north of Cam Ne, where the fighting was a nightly occurrence. The Marine fire was punctuated by red tracers, which were loaded every fifth round in magazines and belts of ammunition to help the shooters guide the fire in the night blackness. The Viet Cong used green tracers. When the tracer rounds hit something, they bounded away crazily from the path the other rounds took while tracking toward targets, like red and green bursts of water from a fire hose in the night. The crackle of the rifles reached us several seconds after we saw the colored streams of the tracers, along with the gut-rattling concussions of grenade explosions.

“Lovely, but is it not the last place you’d want to be?” he asked.

“Negative, Bob, the last place you want to be is where those Marines are going at first light tomorrow.”

The Cam Ne village complex lay enclosed in a green paradise setting. Emerald rice fields fanned out in all directions from the stately palm trees that comprised the tree lines surrounding each village. The palm fronds rustled gently in the early morning breezes before the terrible heat stilled everything.

The almost impenetrable hedgerows that traced the perimeters of the six Cam Ne hamlets were filled with countless booby-trapped grenades. Just inside the tree lines were 21⁄2-foot trench systems, bunkers, fighting holes and mines; also tripwires ready to spring molten shrapnel from booby-trapped mortar shells, pungi traps with sharpened spikes poised to deeply stab unsuspecting riflemen, Malayan whips with nails and pointed bamboo spike-daggers ready to spring at Marines in most bends in village trails, and gates armed with hidden grenades with quick fuses. Almost all dwellings contained underground bunkers and firing positions. All those things were accoutrements of counterinsurgency warfare that even though painstakingly avoided would still claim thousands of Marine casualties in Quang Nam Province before it was all over.

The worst thing was the enemy, the hard-core Viet Cong fighter, committed to driving the Marines away. He would never quit, not in a million years. His motivation was unquestionable, and the South Vietnamese populace adored him. He and his comrades waited in Cam Ne with Russian SKS and Chinese carbines, 60 and 82mm mortars, 57mm recoilless rifles and machine guns to kill the Marines when they came close. As in all the other villages under Viet Cong control (and they all were in the Tactical Area of Responsibility of 2/9), each villager was required to dig three feet of tunnel each day. Miles of connected tunnel systems below the hamlets allowed the VC to enjoy a will-o’-the-wisp ability to face the enemy with violence and disappear when it became advantageous. You had to live there to know how to employ the tunnel systems; the peasants had been doing it for hundreds of years against many different enemies, and Victor Charlie lived there. The tunnels were not merely shelters; they were fighting bases capable of providing continuous support for troops. Even if a village was in American hands, the Viet Cong beneath it in tunnels were still able to conduct offensive operations.

Upon approaching the Cam Ne complex, every Marine patrol came under fire from VC snipers and infantry units consisting of close to 100 strong. The Marines encountered booby traps or mines every few yards. Marine casualties mounted while requests for artillery and airstrikes were denied. After several weeks of frustration and nine Marines killed in action, the battalion commander, Lt. Col. G.R. Scharnberg, visited 3rd Marine Division Headquarters and made the case to loosen the rigid rules of engagement to give supporting arms immediate clearance to support a heavy Marine assault against the Viet Cong entrenched in Cam Ne.

He must have been a helluva salesman. That evening the colonel paged all members of the Fire Support Coordination Center to the operations tent.

“Tomorrow we awake from the dead,” Scharnberg announced. “All you liaison officers had best get your shit together because at 0600 in the morning we will unleash all the fury we possess at Cam Ne. It better go smooth.” It was the first time I’d ever seen him smile.

At 0600 promptly on the first day of August, 1965, a flight of four Marine A-4D Skyhawks roared over our position and swooped down into the valley below us and attacked the fortified VC positions with 20mm cannon fire, sending grey geysers of smoke into the first beams of day-  light. Scores of high-explosive cannon rounds exploded with sharp, cracking sounds faster than you can count from one to 10. Suddenly a swarm of several F-4B Phantoms appeared, the morning sun casting a dull glow off their pewter-colored fuselages. We could see the signatures of red-glowing afterburners at work sending the jets into Cam Ne. The supersonic jets made shrieking runs, firing Zuni rockets into the middle of Cam Ne (1), (2) and (3), then soared in almost vertical ascents with the strange mournful sounds only the Phantom makes before leveling off and coming again, this time streaking at fantastic speeds, then rising again after hurling 500-pound bombs into the target area.

“Holy shit!” Scott screamed in my ear.

We had a fantastic vantage point on the high ground above the river and Cam Ne. We could see the brilliant red flashes and hear the deep blasts when the bombs exploded.

“The Big Dogs in the rear have turned us loose!” I yelled back.

Our radio operators were dancing little jigs and howling with delight, “That’s the way to deal with those mothers!”

Smoke from the fires of burning hedgerows and hooches mingled with the smoke from the explosions of Marine armament and covered the area with a black-gray umbrella shroud.

As the three Marine rifle companies of 2/9 left the line of departure to assault Cam Ne, the 105mm howitzers of Echo Battery, 12th Marines, delivered high-explosive shells mixed with white phosphorus shells. The Echo Battery forward observers embedded with the rifle companies brought in more than 500 rounds during the infantry assault that was followed by a find-and-kill sweep.

The troopers on the hill roared after each exploding artillery salvo like madmen at a bullfight. Marine M-48 tanks with 90mm direct fire guns joined in to blast enemy strongholds. Marine grunt units locked in with the enemy while 81mm mortars marked targets for airstrikes, adding more volume of fire to what already was an orgasm of Marine firepower.

Despite the short-term success of the Marine assault, which killed a record number of confirmed VC by the battalion to that date, things did not improve in Cam Ne.

On August 3, 1965, CBS News correspondent Morley Safer accompanied Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, a unit that had been added to the mix, for another major foray into Cam Ne. According to Safer’s filmed report, the Marines came under sniper fire and lost their discipline in front of the camera, creating the first divisive incident of the Vietnam War. The report that aired in America during dinnertime two days later showed the Marines burning down dwellings in Cam Ne with Zippo lighters and flamethrowers.

Safer reported: “Shortly after the sniper fire, one officer told me he had orders to go in and level the string of hamlets that surrounded Cam Ne village. And all around the common paddy fields [camera focuses on a roof being lit by a flamethrower] a ring of fire. One hundred and fifty homes were leveled in retaliations for a burst of gunfire. In Vietnam, like everywhere else in Asia, property, a home, is everything. A man lives with his family on ancestral land. His parents are buried nearby.”

Safer did not present the Marine Corps account of the Cam Ne incident. Marine intelligence revealed that a hard-core VC company of approximately 100 men initiated contact with Delta Company with intense fire. The fierce battle lasted more than five hours. Most of the structures were actually burned by Marine 3.5-inch rocket fire directed toward hostile fire from the huts. Others were destroyed by flamethrowers or grenades to neutralize VC positions.

The televised report of the Cam Ne assault opened up an irreparable rift between the press and the American military leadership in Vietnam that smoldered for the rest of the war.

Public reaction to the inflammatory CBS Cam Ne report was instant and powerful. The network’s switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree with calls critical of the negative portrayal of the Marines. Early in the morning after the film was broadcast, the president of CBS, Frank Stanton was awakened by the telephone. “Frank, are you trying to fuck me?” yelled a voice.

“Who is this?” Stanton demanded.

“Frank, this is your president,” answered Lyndon Johnson, “and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag.”

The reporting on the burning of Cam Ne came near the end of a terribly bad-luck first month in-country for the 2/9 Marines. The strange events could never have been fore- cast and seemed to happen so often that the unbelievable soon became believable.

At the start of the Cam Ne operation, the battalion commanding officer rode into battle in an M-48 tank that promptly got stuck in marshy lowland. He had to get out and proceed on foot.

In the initial assault, the troop amphibious tractors tore up rice paddies, angering the peasants the Marines had been sent to help (financial restitution became commonplace). Mines destroyed some of the troop carriers, some just broke down, others got stuck in the mud and rice paddies, and a few sank in the tidal rivers. Marine commanders finally decided the vehicles could not be counted on in that kind of terrain.

In the final week of July 1965, a series of bad-karma events befell the leathernecks of 2/9. Each day I scoured through the S-3 (Operations) reports and almost each day I discovered incredulous events: Hotel Company received incoming rifle fire from nearby Golf Company. A speeding Marine 6×6 truck struck a Vietnamese peasant and sped off, prompting a “hit and run” investigation. Hotel Company got stuck in a rice paddy at night and “Cannot read map,” was the explanation from one of the officers. Viet Cong snipers killed two young riflemen.A defective 105mm howitzer round fired by Echo Battery fell short into Hotel Company, killing, ironically, a member of the artillery forward observer team and wounding eight other Marines.

Lance Corporal Walter Strother with Foxtrot Company was shot through his left arm and the round exited his back, caused by an accidental discharge by another Marine’s rifle. Private first class Richard C. Toll with Echo Company was accidentally shot and killed by another Marine in the fire team who dropped his rifle on a run to a water hole. Another Marine tried to replace the safety on a trip flare and the grenade ignited, causing second-degree burns to his face, hand and arm.

The battalion was forced to change all radio frequencies when an Asian voice repeated over and over across the net: “What’s your name? I want to talk to you.”

A Marine private first class with Echo Company threw a grenade at a suspicious noise just outside his position at night. It did not explode. The next morning he went with a group to find the dud. When he picked it up, it blew off his right hand.

A rifle company commander and three riflemen crossed the Song Yen Ne River, just northeast of Cam Ne (3), in a small boat borrowed from the village chief. A Marine accidentally dropped his M-14 into the river under sniper fire. Then the small boat sank during efforts to retrieve the rifle. The village chief demanded 3,000 piasters for the boat. The next day, the M-14 could not be found in the 20-foot-deep river.

The misfortunes continued through August, long after the infamous burning of the village. On August 16 mortar attacks targeting Marine positions were launched from inside the Cam Ne complex, including a successful coordinated night attack with VC sappers against the nearby Marine tank park. As 2/9 casualties grew in its second month in Vietnam, efforts to pacify Cam Ne became feverish. In a two-day period, 2/9 took some 45 casualties from snipers and booby traps without recording one official Viet Cong KIA.

Finally, on August 31, several episodes typified the month’s misadventures. At 1225 a Viet Cong sniper killed an 18-year-old Golf Company lance corporal with a head shot. Other Marines fired at the sniper and saw his body fall out of the tree, but the sniper’s body was not found after a search. At 1535, while carrying the lance corporal’s body back to the company commander’s position, two Marines were badly wounded by a booby trap. Later two UH-1E gunships fired rockets in support of a patrol from Foxtrot Company. Seven VC were seen to fall by the Huey crew chief during the attack, but no bodies were found. The choppers were fired on from five different positions.

The Marine riflemen became entranced by the bad luck and soon believed it was meant to be. Our sister battalion, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, forever associated with burning the village of Cam Ne, wandered resignedly into the same traps so repeatedly it became known as the “Walking Dead.”

What had happened at Cam Ne was not the exception. Each and every village in 2/9’s domain was, in essence, an armed Viet Cong base. The jungle areas the rifle companies entered after sloshing across the endless rice paddies contained even more danger. Enemy contact expanded almost daily and Marine casualties escalated. All our schooling was OJT—on the job training.

We were the first to operate south of the Da Nang airbase and soon we realized we had locked horns with as tenacious an enemy as Marines had ever faced on the battlefield.

Shortly after the Cam Ne operations, Frank Cox was transferred from the relative tranquility of being the artillery liaison officer to the more dangerous role of forward observer for Foxtrot Company. “It only took a couple of search-and-destroy operations for me to see how easily the Cam Ne incident went down,” Cox would later write. He completed his active duty service in late 1967. A few years ago, he left a long and successful career in the securities industry to devote most of his time to writing.


Excerpted from Lullabies for Lieutenants: Memoir of a Marine Forward Observer in Vietnam, 1965–1966, © 2010 Franklin Cox, by permission of McFarland & Company.

Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.