|Platoon Sergeant Paul Weedman (left), C Company, 8th Platoon, 7th Royal Australian Regiment, checks in with his operational command during Marauder, assisted by Private Thomas Hunt. During its first year in Vietnam, the 173rd Airborne was a tri-national brigade. (National Archives)
The 173rd Airborne Brigade started out the new year on January 1, 1966, with a major strike into the Mekong Delta. Operation Marauder, as the mission was dubbed, soon found its quarry, the VC 267th Main Force Battalion, and a three-day battle ensued. An article in the January 14, 1966, issue of Time magazine aptly summarized the significance of Marauder: ‘Members of the 173rd Airborne swept out in Operation Marauder into the Plain of Reeds in the Mekong Delta. Penetrating an area so thoroughly held by the VC that government troops had not ventured in for six months, they killed 114 VC in their major contact, rooting the enemy out of beehive bunkers built into the ground along the canals.’
During its first year in Vietnam, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was a tri-national brigade. Its major subordinate combat units included two U.S infantry battalions (the 1st and 2nd battalions, 503rd Infantry), one artillery battalion (the 3rd Battalion, 319th Artillery), an Australian infantry battalion (the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment) and artillery battery (the Royal Australian Artillery), and a New Zealand artillery battery (the 161st Gun Battery of the Royal New Zealand Army). Armor and cavalry included two American units, Troop E of the 17th Cavalry and D Company, 16th Armor, and an Australian unit, the Prince of Wales Light Horse Troop. The U.S. paratroopers in the brigade referred to themselves as ‘Sky Soldiers,’ a nickname given to them a year earlier by the people of Taiwan. The Australians and New Zealanders used their traditional nicknames–they were known respectively as ‘Diggers’ and ‘Kiwis.’
In 1965-66 the 173rd Brigade’s base camp was located adjacent to the Bien Hoa Air Force Base. Ironically, the Vietnamese translation of Bien Hoa was ‘land of peaceful frontiers.’ The brigade’s initial mission was to secure, patrol and neutralize any threat to the air base, but within months that mission was expanded into conducting multibattalion strikes on major VC targets of opportunity through central South Vietnam.
In late December 1965 the 173rd Airborne was ordered to locate and destroy the 506th VC Local (Province Mobile) Force Battalion, reported by intelligence sources to be near Bao Trai in the Mekong Delta. The 506th Battalion had been operating with relative impunity in the area for a year or more. In addition, units of the 267th VC Main Force Battalion of the Dong Thap Regiment were said to be passing through the area.
The brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Ellis Williamson, planned to launch Operation Marauder on New Year’s Day 1966. His plans called for the establishment of a brigade command post and fire support base near the Bao Trai airfield in Hau Nghia province, 35 miles west of Saigon. On the same day, the U.S. Army 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry (1/503), would be helilifted into an LZ west of the Vam Co Dong River with instructions to conduct search-and-destroy operations to the west. Shortly afterward, the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1/RAR), would be helilifted into an LZ east of the river, with orders to perform search-and-destroy operations in the northeast sector.
The 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (2/503), would then be moved to the brigade base at Bao Trai, with a first-day mission of being prepared to reinforce either the 1/503 or the 1/RAR if either of those units made significant contact with the enemy. If no significant contact was made the first day, the 2/503 would be helilifted the following day into the LZ southeast of the river, with instructions to search and destroy in that sector and eventually link up with the Australians to the north.
On New Year’s Day the forward brigade command post was established at Bao Trai without incident. Then the 1/503 commander, Lt. Col. John Tyler, airlifted his unit to LZ Whiskey at the brigade base and waited until the brigade’s artillery established its fire support base at Bao Trai.
Shortly after noon, the 1/503 was helilifted into LZ Vodka, near Tra Cu on the west side of the Vam Co Dong River. Initially the 1/503 encountered only light enemy resistance, but two hours after beginning its sweep, B Company found between 50 and 60 VC with some automatic weapons in small bunkers near the river. A short firefight ensued, with B Company sustaining three wounded. Artillery fire and airstrikes were called in on the enemy positions, and approximately an hour later the VC broke contact with the Americans and escaped to the south.
On the same day, the 1/RAR battalion commander, Lt. Col. Alex Preece, also helilifted his unit into LZ Whiskey. When the choppers returned from inserting the 1/503 during the late afternoon, the Australians were helilifted into LZ Scotch, on the east side of the Vam Co Dong near the village of Can Thuy. The Australians encountered little opposition but reported finding many unoccupied enemy bunkers.
All the units involved in the operation reported mobility problems because many of the rice paddies and sugar cane fields there were flooded. Crisscrossing the area were numerous streams and canals, which were 5 to 15 feet wide and 3 to 5 feet deep, with a lot of silt on the bottoms. The banks of the canals were formed by dikes, which rose about 3 feet above the paddies and had trees and other vegetation planted along them.
Many unoccupied enemy bunkers were discovered in the dikes bordering the canals and paddies. The bunkers possessed good fields of fire, since elevations in the area were less than 5 meters. An article on Operation Marauder in the January 5, 1966, issue of The New York Times provided a good description of the setting and gave some idea of how difficult search-and-destroy operations were in that area: ‘The gloomy and dismal Plain of Reeds is full of chest-deep canals, standing water, and fetid, nauseating, smelly mud.’ Small forested patches and villages were interspersed among the canals and watery fields.
Up to that point, neither the Americans nor the Australian battalion had made enemy contact significant enough to warrant the insertion of brigade reserve, the 2/503. The events of the first day of the operation were summarized by Tom Reedy in an Associated Press release: ‘Although the enemy offered some brisk skirmishes and steady sniper fire at the start of Operation Marauder New Year’s Day, the Viet Cong withdrew into the marshes of the Plain of Reeds. By late afternoon there was only occasional contact with the guerrillas.’ As a result, the 2/503 remained at Bao Trai overnight.
The next morning, January 2, Lt. Col. George Dexter, the 2/503 commander, planned an air assault into LZ Wine in the southeast sector. After landing, Dexter wanted to move his B and A companies abreast southwest to the river and then northwest to eventually link up with the Australians. Dexter’s reserve was one platoon of C Company. The two remaining C Company platoons had been temporarily attached to the brigade’s D Company, 16th Armor (D/16), which became the brigade reserve at Bao Trai. Brigade headquarters planned to move the mechanized force to Dexter if any significant enemy contact was made by the 2/503.
Prior to the air assault on LZ Wine at 0800 hours, Colonel Dexter sent in airstrikes, artillery fire and helicopter gunships in an attempt to clear the area. As the helicopter gunships were departing the LZ, they encountered heavy groundfire, a sure sign that a large enemy force was somewhere nearby. Consequently, Dexter decided at the last minute to land his battalion 500 meters northwest of LZ Wine. It proved to be a wise decision.
B Company landed first and moved through a cane field southwest of the landing site while receiving sporadic fire to the front and left flank. By the time the next company–A Company–landed, the enemy fire had increased. Two helicopters took many hits–one door gunner was killed and some troopers were wounded as they exited the helicopters. After landing, A Company attempted to move south to get on B Company’s left flank. As it did so, both companies became pinned down by heavy fire from numerous bunkers 100 to 300 meters to the southwest. The 2/503 had found the 267th VC Main Force Battalion. An enemy machine gun, located in a concrete bunker at the point where B and A companies had intended to link up, was pouring enfilade fire into B Company and inflicting heavy casualties on its left flank platoon. The B Company commander, Captain Les Brownlee, had only been in command for two weeks. One of the supporting aircraft dropped a bomb on B Company, killing four troopers and wounding six.
A Company continued its attempts to swing the hinge and come abreast of B Company, but a large volume of fire precluded any significant movement, and A Company remained mired in the paddy marsh and mud, seeking whatever cover was available. The A Company commander, Captain (later Lt. Gen.) Carmen Cavezza, recalled being upset about not getting the artillery support he needed at that point. Because of the close proximity of all battalion units, battalion headquarters retained control of artillery fire at that stage of the battle. The situation changed several hours later, however, when each company was provided an artillery battery for direct support. Cavezza also found the use of his mortars limited because his mortar men were vulnerable to enemy fire in the open paddies.
In an unusual twist of fate, an Air Force FAC who was piloting his Cessna O-1 ‘Bird Dog’ at low level along the line of contact accidentally flew into a volley of outgoing friendly artillery fire. There was a loud ‘pop,’ and the troopers looked up to see an artillery round strike the tail of the little aircraft. The Bird Dog dived into the ground, killing the pilot instantly.
At 1030, Colonel Dexter had brigade headquarters release to him the two C Company platoons and the D/16 Armor. Dexter planned to have this mechanized force move southwest around A Company and outflank the VC positions. However, around noon the armored vehicles bogged down in the mud in the vicinity of Ap Tho, two kilometers away from the 2/503.
The two C Company platoons slogged through the mire. They did not reach the area near the firefight until late afternoon. One of the troopers, Specialist Jim Morton, later remembered that the approach took hours because of ‘the tough going in the muck and water from dike to dike.’ As Morton’s unit neared the battle area, he remembered receiving lots of small-arms fire and seeing the downed spotter aircraft.
Meanwhile, A Company’s Captain Cavezza was eagerly awaiting the C Company reinforcements to come up on his flank. Years later he recalled, ‘It seemed like it was taking forever.’ The January 3, 1966, New York Times summarized this phase of the battle: ‘For eight hours the Americans crouched in the muck behind paddy dikes and watched bombs, napalm, artillery, and mortar shells hit the enemy.’
Around 1600, the two platoons linked up with the 2/503, and Dexter ordered all three companies to attack to the southwest. A massive firefight ensued, but the battalion was still progressing slowly, with A Company obtaining the best results. The key event occurred an hour into the attack, when five men of A Company’s 2nd Platoon managed to overrun a position on the enemy line adjacent to the concrete bunker and then move along the dike, clearing enemy positions one at a time. That enabled A Company to fully penetrate the 267th Battalion’s defense. Captain Cavezza was shot in the stomach and had to turn his company over to his executive officer, Lieutenant Linn Lancaster. Cavezza’s last words to Lancaster before lapsing into unconsciousness were, ‘Win this battle first, then evacuate the casualties.’
When A Company broke the enemy defense line, the VC started to head in various directions throughout the marshy region. As a result, B and C companies encountered problems in their respective sectors. Charles Mohr, in a January 5 New York Times article, captured the difficulty of this part of the battle combat when he quoted Sergeant Charles Brown, B Company, who jokingly said, ‘This is the first time I gave infantry hand signals under water, like hey fellas, swim over this way.’
Specialist Morton of C Company remembered the force of an enemy mortar round coming in and knocking him and others flat. But Staff Sgt. Joe LeBlanc soon had everyone in Morton’s group up and running through the mire.
Morton later recalled that Pfc Robert Smith was running beside him when he suddenly fell down. Morton yelled, ‘Let’s go, Smitty!’ but Smith did not move. He had been shot between the eyes. A few weeks earlier, Smith and Morton had been sharing guard duty at the edge of an airstrip when Smith pulled out his Bible and commented on some of its passages. Smith also said that he and his grandmother, who had raised him, were steady churchgoers. Morton told him then, ‘You keep reading that Bible and you’ll probably make it home OK.’ Now Morton realized, ‘This nice little man is dead.’ The other soldier beside Morton, Sergeant Lenz, also fell from a shot in the head but was still alive.
Morton yelled for a medic and then joined others in his platoon who were assaulting what appeared to be the last dike sheltering enemy troops. Shortly afterward, the VC pulled off that dike and ran to the west toward the Vam Co Dong River. As the Americans climbed the dike, Specialist Vester Reid was surprised to see such a large number of VC bodies on the far side.
When the VC survivors pulled back, they left 98 bodies, six wounded and a considerable amount of equipment. It appeared that the 267th Main Force Battalion had been reinforced by one company of the 506th Battalion. When checking the area, the troopers found that one of their artillery rounds had landed on the battalion command post of the 267th. By the end of the day, all three 2/503 companies had linked up along the dike, facing southwest. Specialist Reid later remembered that during the night he was ‘awakened by people cussing, as the troopers in their sleep rolled off the dike into the water.’
Prior to the successful outcome of the battle on the afternoon of the 2nd, Dexter had considered making a night attack to the southwest, to penetrate the VC defense line, and he mentioned this to AP correspondent Peter Arnett, who had joined Dexter at the battle scene. But after the afternoon battle, Dexter decided the night attack was no longer necessary.
Dexter was a highly respected, courageous leader, and one of his greatest assets was his ability to analyze situations. When he later reflected on the battle, he wondered what the outcome would have been had he ordered the night attack, since the enemy was in disarray at that point and the moon was full–providing plenty of light for a nighttime move. In a monograph he prepared for the Infantry School in 1968, Dexter summarized the factors weighing against the night attack, including the following:
- He had fought off one enemy battalion (267th Main Force), but he had no idea where the remainder of the other (506th Local Force) was.
- He knew that he had already expended his reserve that afternoon, and he knew that he had sustained almost complete turnover of key leadership personnel since he last conducted a night attack. For example, two of the three line company commanders that night had been in command for less than two weeks.
- His troops were exhausted.
While the 2/503 was battling the 267th Main Force Battalion, the 1/503 encountered little enemy opposition in its operating area. The troops had discovered an extensive tunnel system, but no VC remained in the tunnels.
The 1/RAR also had experienced little enemy contact. Small groups of VC harassed the Diggers but were driven off by small-arms fire. An unusual incident was later reported by Australian author Colonel Bob Breen in his book First to Fight: One of the harassing VC was nicknamed ‘H&I (Harassment and Interdiction fire) Charlie’ because of his ability to pin down members of the Digger battalion headquarters, located on a small section of dry ground surrounded by a flooded area. According to Breen, this lone VC ‘kept popping up from the surrounding waters and spraying the area with rounds from a Thompson submachine gun.’ He would pop up, fire, disappear under water and reappear later in a different place.
Eventually, Captain Bob Hill solved the problem when he directed one of his Prince of Wales Light Horse Troop’s armored personnel carriers to drive out in the water and wait. Shortly afterward, when H&I Charlie popped out of the water, he was killed by the carrier’s machine-gunner.
After midnight on January 3, Dexter sent orders to his 2/503 companies to continue the attack to the southwest at daybreak. Just after daylight, the battalion started to move out as planned. Then, suddenly, tragedy struck C Company. The company’s artillery forward observer, Sergeant Jerry Morton, had called in marker white phosphorous rounds ahead of the company from the supporting New Zealand gun battery and then called for ‘fire for effect’ on a suspected enemy position in front of the company. The rounds were passing over the heads of the members of C Company, and Morton, apparently sensing trouble, yelled into his radio handset, ‘Cease fire, cease fire!’
Morton, medic Jerry Levy, Pfc George Geoghagan and Sergeant Johnny Graham were crouched near each other behind a paddy dike. Levy, Geoghagan and Graham were making small talk, and Graham had just tossed Geoghagan a pack of cigarettes. Suddenly, Graham heard a loud ‘Woomp!’ and was thrown into the rice paddy. Two short artillery rounds had landed in the midst of C Company. When Graham looked up, he saw Morton apparently dead from concussion and Geoghagan dead from head wounds. Geoghagan had just joined the unit the day before as a new replacement. Graham remembered that Geoghagan had said that he was married and was from Georgia. Levy was bleeding profusely in the groin area and had part of one leg blown off. Seven other troopers in the company were also wounded, including the company commander, Captain Fred Henchell, Graham himself and Specialist Reid.
Vester Reid recalled that the impact of the rounds sent him flying through the air, and he landed 20 feet away with stomach wounds. Tom Tiede, a special correspondent, reported in a subsequent press release: ‘After the initial explosion Levy crawled to the aid of a wounded soldier. Even though ripped open by the blast, Levy continued to administer to the soldier. Then Jerry looked down at his own body and fell over mortally wounded.’
C Company’s movement ceased. The brigade staff journal indicates that the Kiwi gun battery commander, Major Don Kenning, immediately rechecked the data on the guns and found it to be correct. It appeared that the short rounds were due to damp powder.
The 2/503 Command Group was approximately 600 meters northeast of C Company when word of the short-round incident and casualties were radioed back to the battalion commander. Dexter immediately turned to me, his S-3 air operations officer, and told me that Captain Henchell had been wounded and that I was now the C Company commander. Dexter also told me to evacuate the casualties, reorganize as needed and quickly get the attack moving again. Major Dick Terry, the S-3 battalion operations officer, reiterated the details of the attack plan for the day.
I started moving unaccompanied toward C Company, but I found that movement was extremely difficult because I kept getting bogged down in the mud. Bullets often struck the water around me as I went, and I can remember hearing an occasional ‘crack’ as bullets passed overhead. When I looked to my left, in the direction the gunfire was coming from, I realized that several VC had apparently moved around the southern flank of C Company. I thought, ‘either these guys are toying with me or they are terrible shots.’ In any case, the gunfire provided the impetus to find C Company as soon as possible. Shortly afterward, I reached what was left of C Company’s command group and was able to talk with Henchell about the company situation for a few minutes while he was being treated by medics. In addition, I looked over the other casualties, telling the medics to evacuate the most seriously wounded first. I saw Levy, who was mortally wounded, being treated by the 1st Platoon medic, Specialist Andrew ‘Doc’ Brown. I noted the severity of Levy’s injuries and asked, ‘Can you do something for him?’ Brown sadly shook his head.
The enemy gunfire that concentrated on C Company continued as the medevacs began arriving. As Sergeant Emilio Solis and James Nabors carried Reid, suffering stomach shrapnel wounds, on a stretcher toward the helicopters, Reid was shot in the leg, breaking both bones below the knee.
I quickly reorganized the command group and radioed the platoon to echelon to the southwest so that the VC on C Company’s southern flank would be engaged. That tactic worked, and the survivors of C Company soon caught up with A and B companies. The battalion attack then proceeded as planned.
The 2nd Battalion had pushed what appeared to be an enemy stay-behind force to the west when in midafternoon the enemy stopped firing and retreated to the south. As a result, the 2nd closed in on the banks of the Vam Co Dong and formed a perimeter for the evening of the 3rd. That evening the battalion restocked its ammunition and rechecked its casualty statistics for the past 36 hours–16 killed and 67 wounded.
Jack Foisie of the Los Angeles Times joined the 2/503 that evening and later reported that his ‘neighbor for the night’ was Specialist Ron Robinson, whose C Company resting place oozed with water. Robinson grumbled, ‘This has been just one bad thing after another,’ referring to the deadly short artillery rounds. But as Foisie noted: ‘Robinson was soon sleeping. He was a soldier, and neither sadness nor hardship would get him down for long.’
On January 4, the 2/503 sent out platoon-size patrols throughout its sector, and they returned to the battalion perimeter in early evening with few reports of significant enemy contact. The same mission was conducted the next day. Early on the 5th, the troops got a lucky break. Before the patrol departures, Staff Sgt. Leroy Davis, a squad leader in C Company’s 2nd Platoon, while digging a better night-defensive position in a dike, had uncovered a Browning Automatic Rifle, ammunition, data books and the international Communist flag, red with a white crossed hammer and sickle in the middle. All the items had been carefully wrapped in waterproof blue plastic. When the find was reported to battalion, Colonel Dexter requested mine detectors from brigade, and soon other buried weapons and munitions were discovered within the perimeter.
On January 6, the 2/503 patrols struck a ‘mother lode’ in the vicinity of Ap Xuan Khanh when they discovered the abandoned headquarters area of the 506th Local Force Battalion. The area was heavily mined and booby-trapped, and a special brigade mine detection and demolition team was helilifted in to deal with the situation. After a careful search, six automatic weapons, 400 grenades and a large amount of ammunition were discovered, including 57mm recoilless rifle rounds. Most important, they found more than 7,000 documents, including personnel rosters down to squad level, lists of Communist party members, training documents, maps and even blank letters of commendation.
Between January 2 and January 6, the 1/503 patrolled its sector and apprehended numerous VC suspects. They also questioned residents of the area, who indicated that the 506th Local Battalion had long been operating throughout the brigade sector. They noted, however, that in the past several days they had seen elements of the 506th breaking down into small groups and infiltrating out of the area.
The Australians also were engaged in extensive patrolling activity during the January 2–6 period. They, for the most part, had made small, sporadic contact with the enemy in their sector, killing two VC. However, the Diggers also found an ammunition cache and several large rice caches. On January 5, a Digger patrol made contact with a VC platoon in the vicinity of Hoa Khanh, but the enemy soon broke contact and fled to the southwest.
On January 8, 1966, the 173rd Airborne Brigade terminated Operation Marauder and initiated Operation Crimp, displacing all its combat elements to a new area of operations in the Ho Bo woods and Binh Duong province. The brigade report later forwarded to the MACV commander summarized the results of Marauder as follows: ‘The Viet Cong 267th Main Force Battalion was engaged, outfought and routed from its positions with over 100 VC killed by body count. This Battalion will not be an effective fighting unit again until extensive recruiting and mending is accomplished. In addition, much of the headquarters of the 506th Battalion was destroyed. Intelligence indicates that the bulk of the Viet Cong forces have withdrawn south of the Brigade area of operations.’
During his several tours in Vietnam, Colonel Thomas Faley served as a reconnaissance platoon leader in the 101st Airborne Division, a rifle company commander in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and a senior adviser to a South Vietnamese airborne battalion. Suggestions for further reading: Sky Soldiers, by F. Clifton Berry (Bantam); and Her Majesty’s Vietnam Soldier, by Guy Bransby (SPA Limited).
This article was originally published in the February 1999 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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