In the wake of the Tet Offensive, a cobbled together platoon of Marines thrown into the fray had an incredible—but inevitably finite—streak of good luck.
Around mid-April 1968, our 12-man team set up an ambush in the early morning darkness at our patrol’s second checkpoint, where we hoped to surprise some unwary Viet Cong that might be out setting booby traps or readying for a rocket attack against Da Nang. Spread out in two-man positions along a likely guerrilla route, we were on 100 percent alert. Hot and exhausted, we fought off sleep and had to keep poking each other to stay alert.
In only our second month in Vietnam, and many of us newly re-designated Marine infantrymen, we were proud of the fact that even though we were still fairly green we had come together and formed a good infantry unit. Given our inexperience, we’d been lucky so far—and we were counting on that luck to hold until we were experienced enough not to need it anymore.
I settled in with Lance Cpl. Dale Camp on the middle right of our line—the only sounds around were the buzzing of mosquitoes near our ears and our own heavy breathing. After a few minutes, though, we thought we detected another noise—what sounded like snoring to our left rear. Our alarmed squad leader, Sergeant Domingo Deleon, crawled silently from position to position to find which of his men was asleep and snoring, but he found all of his squad wide awake.
As the snoring grew in its intensity, so did our puzzlement and apprehension. Could this be another Marine ambush, or perhaps a friendly freelance recon-killer team that had selected the same site to settle in for the night? Or, could it possibly be our elusive enemy? “What in the hell is happening?” I thought as my heartbeat rapidly increased. The eerie snoring droned on uninterrupted as a rattled Deleon radioed back to our platoon base and anxiously conferred with the squad’s fire-team leaders about our next move.
We were members of the 3rd Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment (3/27), which had been cobbled together and rushed to Vietnam on February 17, 1968, in response to the enemy’s surprise Tet Offensive. Our battalion commander was Lt. Col. Tullis Woodham Jr. Although our regiment was part of the 5th Marine Division, upon deployment to Vietnam we were assigned to the 1st Marine Division. The 3rd Battalion’s command post was a few miles south of Da Nang at Cau Ha.
Our main responsibility was to patrol the southeastern section of the rocket belt around Da Nang to prevent the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) from launching rocket attacks against the city and its strategically important airfield. The sector consisted of rolling sand dunes, jungle, rice paddies and numerous small villages that were mostly aligned with the Viet Cong.
The enemy’s predominant tactics, besides setting up rocket attacks, included saturating the countryside with booby traps and placing large mines along the two roads leading into the command post. We also confronted sniper harassment fire and frequent small ambushes, where the enemy typically melted away soon after the initial attack.
Originally dubbed a “bastard battalion,” most of the 3/27 ranks had been filled quickly with Marines from various military occupational specialties (MOS) other than infantrymen because the regiment was vastly understrength at its Camp Pendleton, Calif., home base when President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the 27th Marines to Vietnam on February 13. As a result, it was common to have only two or three actual riflemen assigned to each 14-man infantry squad.
When the 3/27 was ordered to Vietnam, about 800 Marines were transferred out as ineligible for Vietnam service because they had either just returned from overseas or were close to the end of their enlistment. Nearly 950 were ordered in from small bases around Camp Pendleton to bring the battalion up to strength. The 1st Battalion (1/27) was stationed in Hawaii and went directly by ship to Vietnam. The 2nd Battalion (2/27), also based at Pendleton, received most of the first replacements, which included the majority of available infantry MOSs.
“When our turn came, not many were left so we were saddled with what many experienced Marines thought was a problem, because our Battalion had very few fully trained infantrymen,” Colonel Woodham later recalled. “The Marine Corps has always had the slogan, ‘every Marine is a rifleman.’ I guess this is what started the ‘cooks, bakers and candlestick makers’ situation in which we found ourselves. We were forced to take Marines from the engineers, tanks, artillery, communications, cooks and you name it.” Nearly every available Marine at Pendleton was transferred into the infantry. These Marines all had basic infantry and marksmanship training, but they primarily performed their MOS jobs, while regular infantrymen honed their combat skills every day.
I was assigned to the first squad in the first platoon of India Company, 3/27. Our platoon commander was a converted engineer officer, 1st Lt. Steven Thompson. Fortunately, our platoon sergeant was a grizzled combat veteran, Staff Sgt. Shelby Monk, who was instrumental in holding things together during tough times later on. Sergeant Luciano “Bernie” Bernal was the platoon’s right guide. A second-tour Vietnam vet, Sergeant Domingo “Mingo” Deleon, led my first squad. The squad also included fire-team leader Corporal Gary Massey, who was trained as a heavy equipment operator. I was also a corporal and a fire-team leader, but my basic MOS was topographical surveyor. This was my first tour in Vietnam, and I looked forward to leaving my engineering battalion and becoming an infantryman. Other squad members included an auto mechanic, an engineering draftsman and a cook. Our primary Navy corpsman was Michael “Doc” Lutz.
Well aware of the upheaval and intense fighting going on during the Tet Offensive, we figured that we would either be sent directly to Khe Sanh or Hue City, where Marines had their hands full. After a few hectic days of reorganizing, receiving indoctrination lectures and getting several shots, we left on buses for El Toro Marine Air Base on February 17, 1968. President Johnson actually met part of the battalion that day at El Toro to wish us well. He later wrote that these visits with servicemen were among the most personally painful meetings of his presidency. We then boarded Air Force C-141 transports and, after brief stops in Hawaii, Wake Island and the Philippines, landed at Da Nang.
During our first couple of months in country, my squad and platoon had been very lucky, suffering just one gunshot wound and a few booby trap injuries. Other platoons in India Company and most of the other 3/27 companies had experienced many killed and wounded by April 1968. In March alone, the battalion reported 142 casualties—approximately 10 percent of its entire force.
In fact, the battalion suffered so many casualties from booby traps that 1st Division headquarters questioned whether or not the 3/27 Marines had the knowledge or ability to spot or detect those types of devices. An Army major was sent over to investigate the reason for our large number of casualties. Ultimately, in his final report, the major not only vindicated our battalion’s readiness but also wrote that in his opinion our patrolling area had a higher saturation percentage of booby traps than any other sector in the history of land warfare.
Although we occasionally operated in company-size formations, we usually conducted platoon- and squad-size operations. During the day, we typically patrolled and made sweeps, searching villages and setting up blocking forces for other sweeping units. In the early evenings, we would establish a platoon patrol base (PPB), always at a different location than the night before. Sometimes, in an effort to confuse the enemy, we would move the base to a second location after dark. The PPB was set up with two squads, usually in two-man foxholes, along with two machine-gun teams in a somewhat circular perimeter with the platoon’s commander, sergeant and radio operator situated somewhere in the middle to control activities.
Meanwhile, the third squad in the platoon would be out on a three- to four-hour night patrol or ambush. When this squad completed its patrol and returned, it replaced one of the other squads on line, which would then continue the patrolling operations. There were three such four-hour patrols scheduled every night, usually from about 1830 to 2230 hours, 2230 to 0230 and 0230 until 0630 the next morning. These nighttime saturation patrols were designed to make it difficult for the enemy to operate or attack Da Nang.
On any given night, there could be 30 to 40 such patrols and ambushes conducted across 3/27’s 55-square-kilometer area of operations. These could also range from two-man killer teams dispatched from the headquarters sniper and scout section or a 10- to 15-man squad-size patrol.
The day leading up to our squad’s snoring encounter had been typically hot and muggy, and the evening offered little comfort. After a briefing, Sergeant Deleon relayed the information about our patrol on to the fire-team leaders. We had the second patrol that night, and the route was to the north of our PPB position and was roughly diamond shaped, consisting of three checkpoints with an ambush at the second stop.
Although we left our packs behind at the patrol base at about 2245, we were still burdened by the weight of our rifles, 15 to 20 M-16 magazines, several fragmentary and smoke grenades, two canteens of water, medical kit, helmet and flak jacket. We traveled northwesterly for a little over an hour before reaching our first checkpoint. By then, we were all soaked with sweat from the humidity and exertion of walking about 1,000 meters through a sandy area dotted with medium to heavy vegetation.
We had moved very carefully under the light of a partial moon. The point man’s eyes constantly scanned the ground, looking for any telltale signs of booby traps, as well as observing his immediate front. Deleon guided us, making bearing adjustments as needed. The rest of us kept a five-meter visual distance from the Marine to our front and rear, hoping to reduce multiple injuries should we hit a booby trap or be ambushed. Even in the dark, we tried to stick to the exact same path and step in the same boot prints of the man in front of us. Our eyes constantly switched from side to side looking for any movement or anything that appeared suspicious.
We patrolled silently, at a slow pace, stopping every few minutes to go to our knees, every other Marine facing outward in opposite directions, checking for unusual sounds and smells. When we started up again, we always checked that the person behind us was aware that we were on the move. Whenever a flare went off in the sky above, we quietly hit the ground to avoid casting moving shadows. We avoided passing too close to villages or hamlets so the people or their dogs could not hear us and sound the alarm of our presence. The last man in the patrol, “tail-end Charlie,” was responsible for protecting the rear.
After our short break, we headed off again in a northeasterly direction, neither seeing nor hearing anything unusual as we plodded slowly along. About an hour or so later, we reached our second checkpoint on the patrol and called in our ambush position to the PPB. It was at this point that we all began to hear the unnerving “zzzzzzz” sounds of snoring.
We made some whispered radio calls to see if there were any other friendly troops in or near our area, but there weren’t. This only increased our fear as we speculated on what we had stumbled across. There could be no reason for civilians to be out in the bush in a war zone after dark. The prospect of friendly casualties was too great to try to capture what we now presumed to be the enemy.
Finally, we pinpointed the source of the snoring—a thick bamboo grove to our left rear. Silently, the squad maneuvered to form a half-circle around the small grove. Then, two Marines were given the signal to blast away. Drowning the snoring with a deafening roar, they each emptied a 20-round magazine into the bamboo.
It was over in seconds. A few guys were ordered into the grove, and they dragged out one lucky and completely unscathed Viet Cong and another very dead one, who had the grisly misfortune of taking the brunt of all 40 rounds.
Somehow, Doc Lutz and I ended up with the prisoner, who kept pleading his innocence to us: “No VC Joe! No VC!” Unpersuaded, we blindfolded him with a battle dressing that Doc pulled out of his kit. After finding both he and his dead comrade were wearing belts with explosive booby trap devices and grenades on them— and finding our prisoner had a picture of Ho Chi Minh in his wallet—we knew without a doubt that they were Viet Cong, up to no good. We never found out which one was the snorer, the POW or the dead man. The noise had been so loud that perhaps it was both!
Instead of moving off to the last checkpoint, we immediately headed back to our patrol base. At first, we made the POW try to carry his dead companion, but, being blindfolded in the dark, he couldn’t negotiate the terrain without falling every few steps, making a racket loud enough to be heard all the way to Hanoi. Finally, two Marines were assigned the task of carrying back the dead man. Because the guerrilla had bled so profusely and they did not want his blood and guts all over them, the Marines carried him back in a poncho.
Back at the patrol base, we put the POW and his lifeless friend in an empty foxhole, where they were guarded by a Marine until daylight. The rest of the squad dispersed to their own foxholes and took turns guarding the lines and, during our off-duty shifts, trying to catch some shut-eye.
Still charged by our odd adventure on patrol, it was hard to sleep—especially as we had the chance to reflect on what might have happened had our adversaries been awake. Our squad had just escaped an inevitably deadly encounter. If the Viet Cong had been awake after we had set up our ambush, they easily could have tossed several grenades at our positions. We never would have known where the grenades had come from. We marveled at our good luck thus far.
At daylight, our squad was ordered to take the prisoner and the dead VC to a pick-up point to meet up with a jeep from battalion. It was as we lifted the dead guerrilla to put him on the back of the vehicle, we witnessed a sight that sickened us then and would haunt us forever. His brains spilled out of the back of his head. The two Marines credited with the kill were later rewarded with a one-day R&R at nearby China Beach.
“The one sure thing about luck is that it will change,” author and chronicler of the American frontier Bret Harte was once quoted as saying. It was about a month after our surreal encounter with the snoring Viet Cong when our squad’s three-month lucky streak came to a disastrous end. On May 13, 3/27’s India Company was sent out on Operation Allen Brook to a place called Go Noi Island, 15 miles south of Da Nang and five miles east of An Hoa—where it turned out an entire North Vietnamese Army regiment was staging for attacks against Da Nang. Go Noi was not really an island, but rather an area that was surrounded by rivers, streams and roads. To the south of Go Noi towered the Que Son Mountains, which served the NVA as an infiltration route from Laos.
By this time, Sergeant Bernal had rotated back to the States, and our squad leader, Sergeant Deleon, had replaced him as the 1st Platoon’s right guide. Corporal Steven Zucroft, who had just arrived in country on his second tour, filled Deleon’s position as squad leader. We boarded helicopters at our battalion command post and landed on Hill 148, overlooking the Go Noi area. Late that afternoon, Corporal Zucroft was killed by a large and well-hidden explosive device, which also burst Lance Cpl. Watson’s eardrum. The next day we moved on the island and linked up with portions of the 7th Marines. On May 15, we left the island at Liberty Bridge, trying to give the NVA the impression that we were leaving for good. However, at midnight we slipped back onto the island and headed northeast in a single file along the Song Thu Bon River. After traveling quietly in the darkness for several hours, we stopped and waited for dawn.
At about 0600, May 16, we moved south and ran right into a North Vietnamese hornet’s nest near the village of Phu Dong. There, Pfcs Jack Henderson and Vincent Coles were killed while I was hit in the helmet by a bullet that sent helmet and bullet shrapnel into my head, knocking me unconscious. After the enemy had been soundly defeated and the battle was over, I was evacuated. Although wounded, my luck was holding out.
On the next day, India Company continued south until it reached the outskirts of Le Nam, where, at the edge of a wide dry riverbed, the company was caught in a horrendous ambush. The NVA unleashed a fusillade of machine gun fire from reinforced bunkers, and, hidden in the trees in front of them, several snipers picked off Marines as they scurried for cover. It was a slaughter as more than 20 India Company Marines were killed trying to cross that riverbed and dozens more were wounded. Those who managed to get across were able to use the riverbank for protection from the withering fire.
Among those who made it across was machine gunner, Pfc Robert Burke, who repeatedly exposed himself to the enemy, taking out several of their positions and allowing more men to cross uninjured before he was finally killed. The 18-year-old Burke, who had been assigned to the 1st Platoon and had gone out on patrols with my squad, became the youngest Marine to earn the Medal of Honor in Vietnam.
From my squad, Pfc Phillip Miller was killed and both Corporal Massey and Doc Lutz were wounded. Only Lance Cpl. Camp survived unscathed that day. The India Company CO, Captain Thomas Ralph, was killed, as were two of the three platoon commanders; only 1st Platoon’s Lieutenant Thompson made it out safely. Kilo Company, 3/27, ferried in by helicopters, finally rescued the beleaguered, decimated unit late that night.
In September 1968, because the Marine Corps could no longer sustain the manpower required to support all of the regiments then stationed in Vietnam, the 27th Marines was ordered to return to the United States. Of my original 45-man platoon that had arrived in February 1968, I was the sole member left after seven months of combat; the others having been wounded, killed, transferred or already rotated back to the States. For its seven months in Vietnam, the 27th Marines were credited with killing more than 2,000 enemy soldiers at a cost of 245 of its own men killed. More than 2,000 Purple Hearts were awarded to the regiment’s Marines.
Upon arrival in the United States, the 27th Marines was feted by the city of San Diego with a parade in its honor on September 17— quite unusual considering the unpopularity of the war at the time. It was the first time since the Korean War that such a parade had been held in San Diego. Military hardware and Marines passed thousands of spectators. As the main body of the 27th Marines passed the reviewing stand, the parade halted and the regiment’s dead were honored.
Those of us who had not completed our 13-month tours in country were transferred to other units. I went to the 7th Engineers and returned to my regular job as an engineering surveyor, still counting myself among the luckiest of Marines.
Former Marine Sergeant Robert Simonsen received the Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, two Meritorious Unit Citations and the Presidential Unit Citation for his service in Vietnam. He is the author of Every Marine: 1968 Vietnam, a history of the 3/27 Marine’s Vietnam experiences, and Marines Dodging Death, which was published in 2009.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.