Itching for a fight, a gung-ho rifle company stalks its quarry and finds itself surrounded and trapped by an unrelenting enemy.
Wielding grease pencils, we eagerly marked our objectives and checkpoints on the clear plastic covering our ancient French intelligence maps. No matter that these decades-old maps identified terrain features that had long since vanished in the wind— much like the souls that howled to the heavens during war after war in this green hell of Southeast Asia. Well, screw that! We were U.S. Marines. Yes, we read Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy—and dismissed it. On this sweltering spring day in 1966, we were going to write a new history. Hadn’t we always?
Captain Carl A. Reckewell, commanding officer (CO) of Foxtrot Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, was giving us our marching orders. We were the tip of the spear of Operation Kings, tasked to find and destroy the Viet Cong units safely ensconced in their friendly surroundings 12 miles south of the Da Nang airfield— an enemy we prayed would finally engage us in full-tilt combat. The daily nicks inflicted on Marine patrols by the VC with their cunning booby traps and heavy-trauma two-minute ambushes had enraged us. We wanted to fight.
The swampy humid air at our base camp was now laced with adrenalin. The frenetic clamor of warriors preparing to do battle resounded—metal rounds being fed into magazines, canteens clanking with the rush of water, mumbled sweet short prayers, the seasoned gunnery sergeant cursing while gently touching the cheeks of young Marines, imploring them to “Do what I do.”
Corporal Thomas Barnes, my scout-observer, was an incredibly gifted young man who made his rank at 20 and approached his work with optimism and intelligence—a Marine’s Marine, rare at his age. Having grown up in rural Mississippi trapping and hunting, he never missed a beat in the bush and was as at home in the jungle as the enemy. My artillery forward observer team consisted of Barnes, two radio operators and myself. We would often split up on company-sized operations to offer maximum coverage: Barnes and his radio operator would embed with one platoon, and I would normally join the CO’s group in a different platoon with my radio operator, Lance Cpl. Joseph Sweeney. On this day, March 18, Barnes’ team joined the 1st Platoon led by 1st Lt. Joel Ward. My team attached to Captain Reckewell’s command group positioned with the 2nd Platoon. The 3rd Platoon would follow in column.
Our orders called for us to conduct mobile operations for five to seven days. On the first day, we were to sweep several miles south through a few villages and reach the northern bank of the Song La Tho River late in the afternoon.
We were heading deep into Indian country with no friendlies anywhere nearby.
“Saddle up!” shouted 1st Lt. Everett Roane, Foxtrot Company’s executive officer, at 1300 hours.
Roane was an Ole Miss grad, and each time the company moved out into the fight I would circle behind him and yell into his ears his school’s cheer.
“Hey, Everett, baby!
Hotty Toddy, Gosh Almighty
Who The Hell Are We, Hey!
Flim Flam, Bim Bam
Ole Miss By Damn!”
It always caught him by surprise. I considered the jingle to be a good stress suppressant for the locked-in, squared-away Marine officer. He pinched his lips together and glared at me and finally cracked up laughing.
“Just follow me, cannon cocker,” he said.
“Makes sense, Everett. That way I can read your map for you when you get lost.”
As our reinforced rifle company pulled out, its three platoons heading due south in a continuous column, the white sun’s baking heat wafted up under our helmet liners, the air so thick our sweat would not dry.
Shortly we came upon a rice paddy network of vast emerald fields. To get out of the open expanse, we hustled across the shortest route to a far tree line that was silhouetted by tall palm trees. The palm fronds and the chest-high jungle grass beneath them were still. No birds were to be seen. With our attached combat engineers and a forward air control team, there were more than 130 of us. Captain Reckewell providently placed ample flank security to either side. Heavy weapons included M-60 machine guns, 3.5-inch rocket launchers and 60mm mortars. As we closed toward an unseen enemy—bait to induce a fight—we were loaded for bear.
About 90 minutes after we started, the 1st Platoon stopped, halting the entire company following behind. Lieutenant Ward backtracked to us and whispered to the captain that two fresh replacements were close to death, their body thermostats out of control from the heavy heat, their skin florid, their lips white—can’t breathe, can’t live. These were rugged 19-year-olds, but they didn’t last an hour. At 1440, a UH-34 helicopter powered away from our position, ferrying the men out.
Stealth? Surprise? Gone. Roane and I locked eyes, knowing that now every VC in the I Corps Tactical Zone—even the deaf and dumb ones—knew our whereabouts. The elephant had rumbled into the room, and it was us.
We trudged ahead, and at 1450, from a tree line several hundred meters across a large brown field to our left, enemy carbines cranked off a few harmless rounds in our direction.
We kept our same azimuth when suddenly automatic weapons fire from near the southern edge of the field came in high over us, tearing the air with a sound like weasels in heat. Roane’s eyes again met mine as we fell next to each other at the base of a rusted red fence strung along a hedgerow. His pupils shrank to needle points. My God! We giggled like first-graders, mainline adrenalin-rush pumping into each of us.
Roane called out, “Rockets up!” and Marines pumped 3.5-inch rocket white phosphorus shells to mark the VC position across the field. Through the fence I watched as an A-1E Skyraider dumped high-explosive 250- pound bombs—stomach-tossing ordnance—on top of the snow-white smoke. The VC weapons went silent. Then the 1st Platoon answered a few bursts of small-arms fire that suddenly came in from their front for a brief 15-second firefight.
Continuing our advance, we found blood trails. Random small-arms fire was only a nuisance as we entered the nearly deserted village of La Tho Bac. A few conical-hatted peasants squinted at us through the brilliant sunlight with mistrustful glances. Pigs squealed at us from their filthy pens. We found a body and more blood trails and then destroyed a small bunker system with C-4 plastic explosives. The village cleared, we continued south through some more wide, dried rice fields.
At 1600, two more men succumbed to the heat, requiring more medevac activity that loudly advertised our latest position.
Nearing the river at 1725, mortar rounds crashed into the heart of the 1st Platoon 100 yards in front of me, high-explosive impacts heralding the massive ambush Foxtrot Company had just walked into. It was a terrible trap, out in the open against a concealed, numerically superior enemy with better communications and more firepower. The elite main force Viet Cong R-20 Doc Lap Reinforced Battalion had us in a noose and now they were beginning to tighten the knot.
The late afternoon stillness was shattered by cacophonous noise and steel and flame from interlocked automatic weapons fire, impacting mortar rounds and incoming rocket-propelled grenades. In seconds, sturdy American bones were shattered, and Marine blood poured onto the powdery surface of the potato field and dry rice paddy we were trapped on.
From the trees across the field to our left, automatic weapons fire poured into 2nd Platoon and our command group, felling a number of Marines. Behind the command group, the 3rd Platoon was slammed with earth-pounding 57mm recoilless-rifle shells.
Sweeney, with his radio headset dangling, grabbed me, screaming, “Mr. Cox, Corporal Barnes just got hit!”
After an eerie, several-second stillness, the company’s platoons sprang into action. The 2nd Platoon charged into the left tree line, 3rd Platoon assaulted while firing into the enemy position to the right. No hesitation, just innate Marine reaction to a sudden crisis. Several fell in those dashes, some killed, some wounded.
Sweeney and I galloped at full speed toward 1st Platoon in front of us. There were furrows in the soft brown dirt of the tilled field. “Wow,” I thought while running, “a fucking potato field?” Puffs of dirt from incoming rounds traced our path as gushing adrenalin powered our feet.
Some grunts yelled, “He’s over there!” Four Marines lay side-by-side, dark patches of blood oozing through their green jungle utilities. A corpsman was applying a compress to the abdomen of one of the wounded. Tommy Barnes was on his left side, smoke rising from his back where a 60mm mortar shell had sent most of its mayhem. He looked at me with an apologetic, laconic smile.
I had found it rewarding and mutually beneficial to treat the troops with respect. I would listen and try to help them think through their problems. If you were supportive of your men, they loved you, and would do anything for you. Barnes knew my favorite C ration was tuna casserole. So that morning at base camp, the skinny Marine had jammed every can of tuna he could scrounge into the haversack slung across his back. The mortar shell had detonated on the ground directly behind Barnes and most of the blast impacted into his pack, shredding the tuna cans with white-hot shrapnel. Wounded across his back by scores of tiny metal shards, Barnes was also covered by chunks of smoking blackened tuna.
Ward called for a medevac. First Lieutenant Gary Locke, the forward air controller, had just called for air support to suppress the enemy mortar gunners. (An F-4 Phantom flyboy hotshot, Locke’s orders to Vietnam placed him with the infantry to direct close air support. He repeated a daily mantra, “For this shit I went to fucking flight school?”) Now Locke ordered the scrambling air support to give the medevac the right-of-way. The mortar rounds had been fired from the south, across the river, from the village of La Tho Nam. That would be the first target for our airstrikes.
I requested artillery fire on the tree line to our left, where the huge volume of automatic fire into our whole left flank had come from. Collecting its wounded, 2nd Platoon hustled to a nearby wooded area and hastily formed a perimeter. The 3rd Platoon had stopped the initial VC fire from the right, but suffered six casualties in the assault, including its platoon leader and two of its three squad leaders shot in the cone of incoming fire. The three platoons finally linked up with the command group in the wooded area less than 100 yards north of the river, crawling into existing deep trench lines—laboriously dug in the loamy soil by Vietnamese fighters over decades past. Captain Reckewell and the command group, along with several casualties—the wounded being treated, the dead just there—were in the middle of the large circle formed by the three platoons.
“On the way!” Sweeney shouted. The spotting rounds shrieked overhead and impacted into the coordinates I had requested.
“Fire for effect!” I ordered.
We could hear the howitzers from Echo Battery, 12th Marines respond. Almost instantly the salvos exploded into the tree line.
Locke cursed loudly as his high-tech radio had just gone on the blink. I switched the frequency on my radio to talk with the UH-1E gunship pilots on their way from Da Nang to support us. I had to relay through another radio operator who had access to the air support net. I warned them that a medevac was airborne and to expend their ordnance on an east-west axis just across the river.
The medevac reached the LZ, and we tossed the casualties into its belly. By now the morphine had mellowed out Barnes, and he rolled his eyes at me, mouthing “tuna, tuna” over and over.
This would be the last medevac chopper to reach us until first light the next morning, marking the beginning of a very long and frightful night.
As howling Hueys strafed and fired rockets in passes just across the river, the high explosives rattled our bones even on our side of the river. We cheered. After our artillery shells pounded the target again, my radio operator and I scampered from our open space into the woods to join the rest of the company. Tall clumps of bamboo and thick foliage provided cover. We dived into the command center’s trench line in the middle of the company circle, shrouded by a thick cloud of bomb smoke.
I slumped next to Reckewell.
“Sir, our artillery can help bail us out.”
“I know, Frank. I want you to call in every round they’ll approve in the rear. How can we ruin those mortar tubes on the other side of the river?”
“Sir, I can request area fire missions, large chunks of real estate a lot of our cannons together can totally waste.”
“Go get ’em, Frank. Call it in as close to our position as you see fit.”
“Roger, Skipper. Will do.”
In the dark, the rotor-thud wash noise of an approaching medevac chopper filled our ears. Captain Reckewell’s radio operator left the perimeter and stood alone in the open field with a strobe light, bravely signaling so the chopper could find the tiny LZ. From inside our own perimeter green tracers targeted the approaching chopper and VC bullets snapped the nearby bamboo. As the chopper made a dive and a final swirl about 20 meters above the LZ, it was hit. Making one more awkward circle, it crashed just outside our perimeter. Minutes later the crew was huddled in our trench line, shaking and laughing, thankful to be alive.
At 2100 Captain Reckewell radioed a situation report to the 2/9 commanding officer, Lt. Col. W.F. Donahue: “Because of machine gun and mortar fire, we are unable to have choppers come in. Mortars have the LZ zeroed in. At first light I request close air support, other than Hueys, and emergency med evacuations. Also 40 five-gallon cans of water. We have additional casualties. The medevac crew is safe in my perimeter. We have incoming mortars at the present moment. We have killed four VC by body count, but many more than that in reality. Cannot physically assess enemy body count now.”
As midnight neared, a maddening night of ferocious firepower began with 62 enemy mortar shells pummeling our position, cracking loudly as they burst on impact with the hard ground, creating brief flickers of bright daylight before the night became pitch-black once again.
Shortly after midnight, the VC fired another 30 mortar rounds at us. At 0210, yet another cascade of 42 mortar rounds rained down on us, wounding several more Marines. By then, among our 30 Marine casualties were four dead.
All through the night I continued to call artillery onto the sources of the unrelenting fire coming from across the field and from the river’s south side. We were beyond radio range of my artillery fire direction center, so I had to relay my transmissions through other units. Several times my requests got garbled into wrong coordinates and I had to scream into the handset to abort the fire mission. There were already enough dead Marines, we wanted no artillery blunders.
We became so beleaguered, I radioed in fire missions I had never before considered. At one point, Echo Battery received and responded to the following urgent requests: “Sunrise, Sunrise, this is Echo 2…Fire Mission! Coordinates, from 001607 to 007607, all available!” This meant I wanted every Marine howitzer that could reach the 600-meter-wide target to do so, not just the normal one battery with six guns. “Continuous Fire!” This meant every cannon shooting the mission should continue firing until told to stop; normally in a fire mission each of the six guns in a battery would fire two rounds. “Fire for effect!” This means do it now, no adjusting, I know where they are, where we are, and I need it now!
Within several minutes, 60 high-explosive rounds and 57 white phosphorous 105mm shells lit up the massive target.
We were under constant enemy probes along our perimeter. Our trench line itself was almost 4-feet deep and nearly 3-feet wide. Positioned next to Captain Reckewell, I had plenty of room in the trench to read my map and use the radio handset to request fire missions. I placed my M-14, my .45-caliber pistol and my Ka-Bar utility knife with its honed 7-inch blade on the ground above the trench, within easy reach.
Thirty yards south of our CP, several grenades exploded followed by another urgent exchange of small-arms fire at about 0425. Yet another intense enemy probe had been repulsed but, at that point, Captain Reckewell told me to call in a preplanned fire mission to be used as the final answer—if the unthinkable should happen and the VC overran us. “Frank, better plot a big one on top of us if all fails.”
“Yes, sir,” I responded. That’s when I knew in my heart that the battle wasn’t all just a muddled dream.
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death, amen.
Throughout the desperate night, helicopters tried to provide support but all had to be waved off because of intense enemy fire. The night is terribly wrong when you see tracers from inside your own perimeter racing in green streams toward your hovering resupply chopper. It was too dark, the enemy was too close to request air support. We all prayed for first light.
That night and during the early morning hours, the batteries of the 12th Marine Artillery Regiment fended off the enemy, placing a protective ring of fire and steel around our vulnerable band of Marines with 1,740 heavy-metal artillery shells. Echo Battery fired a record-setting 829 rounds in one nonstop engagement by a single battery. It was the deep trench lines from wars past, combined with pinpoint protective artillery fire, that saved us from disaster. In the end, our company lost four killed and 36 wounded.
The next day, villagers reported the Viet Cong main force battalion had fled south. Many of the black-clad guerrillas were wounded, they told us, and they carried more than 40 of their dead comrades with them.
The morning we were assembling for the operation, a Swedish newspaper correspondent had asked to join us, boldly declaring, “I need to be where the shit is!” Now, he was on the first medevac chopper out at daybreak, pale as a ghost and so weakened from the hellish experience that he had to be helped aboard. The Marines, exulting in their own survival, found comic relief in the scene of the once bold but now terrified journalist stumbling into the chopper.
The rifle company used more than 1,000 pounds of C-4 plastic explosive to destroy some three miles of trench lines, more than 1,000 bamboo covered spider holes, 35 small caves, 40 fighting positions and other underground tunnels and bunkers in the La Tho Nam village complex. Our artillery had significantly damaged the honeycombed tunnels and the fighting positions that were just days old.
For the next four days, we conducted search and destroy operations on the south side of the river. It had been our first large engagement with the Viet Cong R-20 Doc Lap Battalion, which showed great willingness to accept appalling losses in night attacks against Marine rifle companies. The 400-man enemy battalion had withdrawn from the battlefield to lick its wounds. Although out-numbered 3-1, we won round one—but knew we would face them again soon. Foxtrot Company would be more than ready.
Franklin Cox served three years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including duty in the Vietnam War as a field artillery officer. He has written two memoirs, including Lullabies for Lieutenants, and is currently working on a novel.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.