U.S. Marine advisors undertake a herculean task to stem the onrushing tide of the North Vietnamese Army.
Marine Corporal Chuck Goggin, 1st Platoon radio operator for Lima Company, was stunned by the transmission he received on March 2, 1967, from 2nd Platoon’s reconnaissance patrol: “You wouldn’t believe what we’ve got here….There’s 500 to 1,000 packs on the ground.” Goggin thought, If there’s 500 to 1,000 packs on the ground, where are the 500 to 1,000 enemy they belong to?
Lima Company, of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, was on a search-and-destroy mission in South Vietnam’s Quang Tri province, which bordered the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Vietnams. The Marines were operating in territory dubbed “Leatherneck Square”—54 square miles of coastal plain and mountainous jungle with the northern corners at Con Thien and Gio Linh, along the DMZ, and the southern corners at Dong Ha and Cam Lo, towns on east-west Highway 9.
The North Vietnamese Army was also in the area, intent on breaking through Leatherneck Square and taking Quang Tri City to the south. After the 2nd Platoon recon unit’s transmission, Lima Company Captain John Ripley left his base camp near Cam Lo with the balance of 2nd Platoon and headed to the recon patrol’s position. The 2nd Platoon came under attack, but was soon joined by 1st Platoon and a squad from 3rd Platoon.
Lima Company had trespassed into a regimental base camp full of NVA troops. “There were over 1,500 of them—200 of us,” Goggin estimates.
In a ferocious battle that extended until nightfall, Ripley’s Marines, helped by airstrikes and artillery from nearby Camp Carroll, held their ground, even though only a fraction of Lima’s men ended the day unscarred. A surveillance flight the next day revealed an NVA column moving north, carrying many wounded.
Goggin was impressed by Ripley’s command of the battlefield. “I was firmly convinced we had the best skipper in the Corps,” he said. Ripley, a 28-year-old former enlisted Marine who earned an officer’s commission at the U.S. Naval Academy, “led from the front and was right there with us—and kept his cool.” A newspaper account of the battle carried the headline, “Ripley’s Raiders Rout NVA Force.”
The Marines had blocked the NVA’s attempt to take Quang Tri, and five years later Ripley would be called upon to do it again.
March 28-29, 1972. Soviet-made rockets and artillery pounded former Leatherneck Square outposts Alpha 2, near Gio Linh, and Alpha 4, near Con Thien, now occupied by South Vietnamese troops from the 3rd Division, Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
In Mai Loc, a South Vietnamese artillery base south of Camp Carroll, U.S. Marine Major Tom Gnibus was looking west at twilight on March 28 when he spotted a small helicopter that dropped down and deposited four people. Gnibus, who was at the base as a co-van (“trusted adviser” in Vietnamese) to the Vietnamese 12th Marine Artillery Battalion, was concerned that the helicopter team might be NVA soldiers. He alerted the tactical operations center at Ai Tu, near Quang Tri. His suspicions were confirmed the next day. “I heard this boom from the west,” Gnibus said. “I yelled, ‘Incoming!’ and looked at my watch. It was 12:15 p.m.”
By then, longer-range projectiles were hitting Dong Ha, at the intersection of Route 9, the Cua Viet River and Highway 1, Vietnam’s primary north-south coastal artery. The Seabees, Navy construction crews, had built a two-lane steel and concrete bridge with a wood roadbed across the Cua Viet at Dong Ha.
The bridge figured prominently in Hanoi’s plans for the new offensive it was launching to take control of South Vietnam.
March 30. On the Thursday before Easter, two NVA divisions supported by Soviet tanks and artillery crossed the DMZ at noon in the initial ground thrusts of an offensive that would move troops into all regions of South Vietnam during the coming weeks as part of Operation Nguyen Hue, named to honor the emperor who united Vietnam in 1788. The NVA wanted the Dong Ha Bridge as a conduit for tanks and tracked vehicles on their way to take Quang Tri.
In the evening of the NVA ground attacks, called the Easter Offensive by Americans, the South Vietnamese marines’ 3rd Infantry Battalion, Brigade 258, stationed 10 miles south of Quang Tri City, was ordered to move north toward Dong Ha. The 3rd Battalion marines—first-rate troops—sported shoulder patches identifying them as the Soi Bien, Wolves of the Sea.
Captain Ripley, now 32, was co-van to Major Le Ba Binh, the Soi Bien’s young but much-decorated battalion commander.
The Marine advisers in Vietnam were under the operational control of the Marine Advisory Unit. The assistant senior adviser for the unit, 41-year-old Lt. Col. Gerald H. Turley, had recently arrived in Vietnam for his second tour. He was paying a courtesy visit to the ARVN 3rd Division headquarters in Ai Tu when “a massive artillery attack hit at noon,” he remembered. “We were completely surprised.”
Turley learned that the North Vietnamese bombardment had caught two ARVN regiments, the 56th and 2nd, out in the open. The regiments were simultaneously—and inexplicably—swapping positions at frontline bases: Firebase Charlie 2 (north of Cam Lo) and Camp Carroll (south of Cam Lo.) The two regiments became entangled on a two-lane highway, and both were badly mauled before the 2nd Regiment reached Charlie 2 and the 56th got to Camp Carroll.
March 31, Good Friday. Early in the evening Colonel Fred Murdoch, Army Advisory Team commander and chief adviser for the ARVN 3rd Division, pulled Turley aside and confided that the Army colonel serving as the staff officer for operations, who had never been in combat, “has declared himself combat fatigued and is being evacuated.”
Murdoch told Turley to take over the operations officer position “for a couple of hours” and assured him, “I’ll have somebody relieve you.”
April 1, Holy Saturday. During the predawn hours, eight firebases along the outermost crescent of northern Quang Tri’s defenses wobbled or fell. The plight of one, Alpha 2 near Gio Linh, was Turley’s pressing concern. The base, close to Highway 1 and directly north of Dong Ha, came under siege around noon on Friday and was teetering. A five-man U.S. Marine forward observer team from the 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company,
ANGLICO for short, was trapped at Alpha 2.
At 11:30 a.m., Marine 1st Lt. Joel Eisenstein, stationed at the Ai Tu operations center, appealed to Turley for permission to evacuate the ANGLICO Marines. “You can have a helicopter,” Turley said, “and you can go.”
During a letup in the fire at Ai Tu, an Army helicopter came in, followed by Cobra helicopter gunships that would serve as escorts. En route Eisenstein radioed 1st Lt. David Bruggerman, the ANGLICO leader at Alpha 2, to alert him, and simultaneously arranged supporting gunfire from two Navy destroyers offshore. As the helicopters got close to Alpha 2 and became visible to the enemy, NVA forces opened fire, and the Cobras began strafing them.
As his helicopter touched down, Eisenstein raced to the ANGLICO team. “Bruggerman was wounded—a round to the back of the head,” he said. Three enlisted men from the team were accounted for, but a fourth was missing. Eisenstein conducted a frantic, fruitless search and then went back to the helicopter.
As the helicopter rose, “I held onto Bruggerman with one hand, the helo with the other. Blood all over,” Eisenstein recalled. Back at Ai Tu, corpsman Tom Williamson arranged a medevac, but it came too late. “Doc Williamson handed me Bruggerman’s tags,” Eisenstein said.
About 7 p.m., Colonel Murdoch again approached Turley. Murdoch and his executive officer were leaving for Quang Tri City, where the ARVN 3rd Division commander was relocating his headquarters to get out of NVA artillery range. Turley was to take charge at Ai Tu. Putting an open cigarette pack in Turley’s hand, Murdoch said, “Good luck.”
April 2, Easter Sunday. At 8:54 a.m., Turley learned that enemy tanks had been sighted at Alpha 2. But good news arrived when Vietnamese Marine Brigade 258 commander Colonel Ngo Van Dinh, who was in the operations center, committed Major Binh’s 3rd Battalion Soi Bien marines to hold Dong Ha. Binh’s infantry would join with the ARVN 20th Tank Battalion, now rumbling toward Dong Ha.
Then, at 10:15 a.m., Ripley radioed the Ai Tu operations center. Looking out from a hill just off Route 9, the Marine captain and Army Major James Smock, the co-van for the 20th Tank Battalion, saw 20 NVA tanks heading for Dong Ha Bridge.
“I ordered Ripley to go forward and somehow blow the bridge,” Turley said.
A 45-minute NVA pre-assault artillery bombardment—in Ripley’s estimation “easily the most destructive attack I had witnessed”—pounded Dong Ha. As the dust settled, rumors spread that NVA tanks were already across the bridge. Retreating ARVN soldiers and civilians mobbed Highway 1.
Coordinating with Lieutenant Eisenstein in the Ai Tu operations center, Ripley called for continuous “danger close” naval gunfire on the far side of the Cua Viet River. Then, as the ARVN battalion’s tanks fired cross-river at the NVA tanks and Soi Bien marines lined the southern bank, Ripley and Smock pushed their way through the fleeing tide of ARVN troops and civilians to reach the Dong Ha Bridge.
When they got to the bridge’s abutment, they found ARVN engineers there. The engineers had positioned 500 pounds of TNT and plastic explosives and had even begun placing charges along the steel I-beam girders. But Ripley noticed that the work had been done incorrectly. The explosives needed to be reset so the bridge span would warp and crumble with the blast. The ARVN engineers, however, had fled shortly after Ripley and Smock arrived. The two Americans would have to reset the explosives themselves.
A high chain-link fence topped by razor tape blocked the bridge undercarriage. Ripley shouldered C4 plastic explosives and cleared the fence to reach the I-beam girders. He sliced his back and legs as he skimmed his lean frame past the razor tape. Meanwhile, Smock hoisted crates of TNT over the fence. After placing the C4, Ripley grabbed a crate and shoved it along the “channel” between a pair of girders.
Bleeding now, he began hand-walking out over the river, clinging by his fingers to the girder flanges. He dangled in plain view of the NVA, but remarkably, instead of firing, “the enemy watched with…humor and amazement,” Ripley said.
The I-beam flanges were wide enough that Ripley could brace himself on his hands and knees as he shoved boxes of TNT in place along the channel. There were seven girders—six channels—and about 30 crates of TNT. Ripley was concealed from the enemy while on his hands and knees inside a channel, but he had to expose his legs and swing to the next channel to repeat the process. From the far side of the bank, a big North Vietnamese T-54 tank fired flat-trajectory salvos that ricocheted resoundingly but harmlessly off the girders. The other tanks idled at the side of Highway 1.
Rigging the bridge took about two hours. It left Ripley and Smock exhausted—and still without a way to safely trigger the blast. Ripley settled on a poor substitute: lengths of fuse that had to be “jawbone crimped” to detonators. Each crimp risked exploding Ripley’s jaw, but he succeeded and soon resumed hand-walking the bridge to insert detonators into the charges. Then he lit the long fuses.
The two co-vans momentarily caught their breath. Then Ripley spotted electronic detonators not 5 feet away. Knowing the fuses might sputter out, Ripley returned to the bridge undercarriage. He installed the electronic caps and connected their leads to a communications wire. Ripley and Smock then raced for cover as Binh’s Soi Bien laid down protective fire. Shouts propelled them through a hail of bullets: “Dai uy, Dai uy, dee dau, dee dau!”—“Captain, captain, move your ass, run, run!”
As Ripley, Smock and the Soi Bien defied death at Dong Ha to stop the enemy advance, Lt. Col. Pham Van Dinh, commander of the decimated and demoralized 56th Regiment at Camp Carroll, was secretly radioing the NVA to negotiate surrender. Dinh approached his Army co-vans, Lt. Col. William Camper and Major Joe Brown, at 2 p.m. to break the news.
Camper was shocked: “I told Dinh, ‘Joe and I aren’t surrendering.’” Dinh offered two alternatives to the Americans. “We could hide in the grass and crawl out after the surrender—or we could commit suicide,” Camper remembered. “I thought I would just kill him then. But I couldn’t do that.”
Instead, as discreetly as possible, Camper alerted the operations center. As he recalled later: “I didn’t want to say ‘surrender’ [on the radio] because I knew we were being monitored. I said, ‘They’re running the white flag up.’ Turley ordered me to stay there. I just said, ‘Yes, sir. Out.’”
Turley remembered his order this way: “I said, ‘Go back and do your damn job!’” Later he regretted his brusqueness. Army higher-ups had just rebuked him for ordering the Dong Ha Bridge destroyed. They wanted to save the bridge for a counterattack and, it seemed to Turley, didn’t understand the importance of stopping the NVA tanks immediately.
About 3:20 p.m. Camp Carroll’s 56th Regiment stacked its weapons. Camper and Brown, after finally securing Turley’s permission to evacuate, rigged their bunker with incendiary grenades, poured a trail of kerosene, ignited it and left. As the bunker exploded behind them, the two co-vans ran for Camp Carroll’s southeast perimeter, bound for firebase Mai Loc with two ARVN radio operators. Within minutes they ran afoul of a company-size NVA unit. Desperate for help, Camper radioed Ai Tu. Even if the path to Mai Loc had been clear, Camper and Brown would have found no safe haven. The troops there, Gnibus said, had “shot out all the ammunition and couldn’t bring in any more.” Gnibus, the other co-vans and the battered remnants of Mai Loc’s Vietnamese marine battalions plotted a breakout east from the cratered landscape.
Ironically, Mai Loc’s imminent downfall contributed to the rescue of Camper and Brown. An Army CH-47 Chinook resupply helicopter bound for Mai Loc, was sent on to Camp Carroll by Turley’s staff at Ai Tu.
Camper radioed CH-47 pilot Captain Harry L. Thain, “We’re just outside the perimeter by the helicopter pad.” The CH-47 emerged over a small hill, and two Cobra escorts silenced the enemy fire as the two ARVN radio operators and Brown climbed aboard. Camper, meanwhile, threw off ARVN deserters trying to get a ride out. “I kind of went berserk,” he said. The big Chinook lifted off, tilted and escaped east.
Ripley and Smock were huddled in a small bunker set back from the bridge. Ripley had stripped insulation from the end of the communications line and needed a power source to trigger the blast. He spotted an upended jeep near the crest of a hill. Flames licked around its engine, but they weren’t yet close to the gas tank. The jeep’s key was in the ignition, set in the on position, and the front seat was knocked forward, exposing the battery.
Dropping to all fours, Ripley made his way over to the jeep. The surrounding heat was intense, but he managed to wrap the communication line’s copper wire around the battery’s positive terminal. Bracing himself, Ripley carefully touched the silver wire to the negative terminal. Nothing happened. He scraped rust and sodium crust from the battery terminals, reattached the copper wire and touched the silver wire again. “I tried a second, third time,” he said later. “I switched the wires, scraped the terminals—still nothing.”
Except for small-arms fire and the occasional explosion of an artillery round, Dong Ha went eerily quiet. Across the river NVA tanks throttled to life. When heavier artillery resumed, they would cross the bridge.
The blast’s shock wave came first.
When the noise arrived, it grew ever louder in a series of explosions. Debris chunks rose hundreds of feet before thudding onto streets and clattering against tin roofs. The slow-burning fuses had done their job after all. The bridge’s near span had fallen, leaving a 100-foot gap between the south bank and the rest of the bridge.
Along the south bank, Major Binh’s Soi Bien waved their helmets as though the war were over. Ripley called the Ai Tu operations center: “The bridge is down. I say again, the bridge is down. They won’t cross at Dong Ha.”
Colonel Turley was at Ai Tu when the Dong Ha Bridge fell at 3:30 p.m. The next day he flew to Saigon where Army, Navy and Marine brass called him on the carpet, questioning his authority for the decisions he had made, including demolition of the bridge. Turley produced documentation of the authorizations received from Murdoch—and proof of what had been accomplished—and then returned to Ai Tu.
As the Dong Ha Bridge exploded, Camper and Brown were most likely farther south on Highway 1. The CH-47 rescue helo, its hydraulics damaged by small-arms fire, had deposited them there, leaving the Army co-vans to fight their way out of an ambush to reach Ai Tu.
Gnibus, at Mai Loc, too far away to hear the blast, was busy preparing for the breakout. At 6 p.m. the garrison began a grueling 24-hour forced march to Ai Tu through rain-soaked, pitch-black jungle.
The co-vans’ Easter stand in Quang Tri blunted but could not block the tide of Operation Nguyen Hue. The destruction of Dong Ha Bridge forced the NVA’s tanks west to a bridge near Cam Lo. This bought time and, with improving weather, the chance to bring massive American airpower to bear. It also allowed an ordered U.S. withdrawal from Ai Tu to Quang Tri City on April 30 and thence to Hue and a mid-May stalemate.
Years later Ripley, who died in 2008, shared his thoughts of that Easter Sunday with sons Steve and Tom, both Marine officers. Reflecting on his mindset under the Dong Ha Bridge, Ripley might have been speaking for all the Army and Marine front-line advisers, when he told his sons: “I figured I wasn’t going to survive. Realizing that, I instantly became more effective.”
David Sears is a Vietnam veteran who has written for Vietnam magazine and HistoryNet publications MHQ, World War II and Aviation History.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s October 2016 issue.