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A storied Marine rifle company’s mission impossible against an overwhelming enemy force— and ghastly friendly errors.

On April 21, 1967, Operation Union I was launched, its objective to find, fix and destroy enemy forces in the Que Son Valley, a large, rugged area of mountains, valleys and villages about 40 kilometers west of Tam Ky. Among the critical terrain features within the operations tactical area of responsibility was Nghi Ha Sa, known to the Marines as Hill 110. In early May, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, which had been in Vietnam since late 1965, would engage North Vietnamese Army regulars for the first time on Hill 110. In an excerpt from his new book, Charlie One-Five: A Marine Company’s Vietnam War, Nicholas Warr, who served as a second lieutenant in the company, reconstructs one deadly day in the life of Charlie 1/5, through the eyes of the Marines on the ground.

Early on the morning Objective M, the small hamlet of Nghi Thuong located about a kilometer and a half west of Hill 110, Charlie of May 10, 1967, upon reaching Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, encountered a male and a female Vietnamese of military age. Following standard operating procedures, the Marines detained the pair because they didn’t have the proper identification papers. As the company departed the village, two Marines stepped off a small trail that led out of the hamlet and detonated a booby trap. The explosion severely wounded both Marines, who now required immediate medical evacuation. Captain Russell “Jim” Caswell called in for the medevac. With his injured Marines safely aboard the chopper, Captain Caswell gave the word to move out, moving toward Objective N—Hill 110. Charlie Company arrived at the base of the hill at about 0900, slightly behind schedule but in good shape to continue the mission.

“We had heard small-arms fire coming from the area north of the hill for some time,” Caswell recalls. “When we arrived at the base of Hill 110, we encountered a platoon from one of the companies of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, preparing to take the hill to take pressure off the other companies of 1/3. The platoon commander told me they had three companies pinned down in the hedgerows and tree lines along the river north of Hill 110. These companies were receiving heavy fire from a North Vietnamese Army unit on the hill and the ridge line behind it.

“I told the 1/3 platoon commander to return to his company, that we would take the hill, that it was our objective in our assigned zone of action. He told me he had just called in an airstrike, and then he tossed a yellow smoke grenade that would mark our friendly positions. Almost instantly, the smoke attracted enemy mortar fire, and we started taking incoming. We scattered and hit the dirt, and the platoon from 1/3 departed. The jets arrived on the scene and immediately started their bombing runs, dropping 250-pound Snake Eye bombs on the top of Hill 110. When the airstrikes lifted, I had my 60mm mortars commence firing on the top of the hill, and I signaled for the assault up the hill just as my 60mm mortar teams ceased firing.”

Thus began one of the deadliest days of the Vietnam War for the company of 1/5 Marines, which had already earned the dark nickname “Suicide Charlie.”


CAPTAIN CASWELL  had ordered a classic “two platoons the right up, one back” assault formation for the attack on Hill 110. Charlie Three Platoon had the responsibility of the left side of the attack force, and Charlie Two had the right. The 1st Platoon trailed in the reserve position, responsible for security for the company command post (CP) group and rear security. The Marines advanced toward the sound of gunfire coming from the top of the hill.

Corporal Jim Coxen, with the 2nd Platoon, recalls the hints from villagers of what was to come: “The villagers were telling us not to go up there, because there was beaucoup Viet Cong up there. About 0930 that morning we started up the hill and took a little enemy small-arms fire. It wasn’t a lot to begin with, but the enemy had dug spider holes all over Hill 110. I can remember seeing one of those spider holes open up, and the enemy soldier hiding inside threw a hand grenade at Tom Kintner, and it bounced off his pack but it didn’t go off. Kintner turned around and put a burst into him.”

As Charlie Company moved up the west slope of Hill 110, it made contact with the enemy outposts and drove them back with sharp bursts of small-arms fire. As often happens in combat, Murphy’s Law took hold at the worst possible time, and the new M-16s the company had recently been issued began malfunctioning all over the hill. As Caswell started up the hill, a 3rd Platoon Marine ran down the hill to his position and shouted: “Skipper, the fucking M-16s are jamming right and left, and the gooks got away. Can I borrow your rifle, sir?”

Caswell quickly exchanged rifles with the frustrated Marine, who then turned around and charged back up the hill. Still climbing up the west side of the hill, Caswell started to receive radio reports about a huge volume of enemy small-arms fire and incoming mortars and rockets, but he didn’t need a radio report to tell him that his Marines were under enemy fire; he could hear it clearly—by far the heaviest volume of fire he had ever heard.

The first Charlie 1/5 Marines to fall during the Battle for Hill 110 were Gunnery Sgt. Marcelino Rivera-Cruz and his radio operator, Lance Cpl. Fred Tate, both instantly killed by enemy mortar fire.

Gunny Rivera-Cruz believed in leading his platoon from the forward edge of the attack formation, with only a four-man fire team ahead of him. It was his style, and it had served him well for many months. But this time he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Pfc Richard Schlagel was steps behind Cruz and Tate. “I looked up the hill and I could see the gunny,” Schlagel recalls. “He was about 20 feet above me and a little to my left. Lance Corporal Tate was about 15 feet above me and to my upper right. All of a sudden all hell broke loose. A mortar round came in and landed about five or six feet from the Gunny’s right side. I saw the explosion throwing the earth upward, and forcing Gunny Rivera-Cruz’s body violently downward to the ground. As the dust and smoke started to settle, I first saw Tate, lying face up, motionless. I heard other explosions to my left. We started taking small-arms fire. As I looked around for the enemy, I heard cries from different places on the hill. ‘Corpsman up! Corpsman up!’ Staying low, I went up to Tate. Then I saw Gunny Rivera-Cruz, face down, completely still. His backpack, torn to shreds, oozed bright white shaving cream out of the many shrapnel holes.

“I hollered for a corpsman as I went up to Tate. Someone ran up and said the corpsmen had their hands full tending to other wounded Marines, and it would take a while before they could help, just to do what I could. Looking at Tate, I didn’t see any blood or holes in him, but he wasn’t breathing. I started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Another Marine came by and told me to take off Tate’s backpack. He got out his KA-BAR knife and cut the straps and then pulled the pack out from under him. I continued the mouth-to-mouth. I glanced up the hill and saw the same Marine check out the Gunny. As he continued up the hill I heard him say, ‘We’re not going to get out of this alive.’”


LANCE CORPORAL John “Rusty” Rusth proved his mettle that day on Hill 110, helping to save the lives of 10 Marines. “We had reached the top of the hill  and started down the other side when we realized that the VC we chased had brought us to exactly where they wanted us,” Rusth recalls. “A large bunch of enemy soldiers shot at us from the base of the hill, on the north side, and at one point it seemed like there were some behind us as well, like we had walked past them, so they just permeated the hill. These guys had on khaki uniforms. These were definitely NVA. Incoming enemy fire hit all around us. Most of us just tried to find a place where we could get down, to take cover from the deadly enemy fire. Right away, we heard that we lost two corpsmen, and that meant that we only had one remaining corpsman. Quite a few Marines went down on that forward slope, many badly hurt, and those who were still alive were screaming for help.

“For the rest of that afternoon we spent most of the time trying to defend ourselves and some of the time trying to get help for those wounded Marines. It seemed like we always had to do both, shoot at the enemy and try to get our buddies out alive. At some point the adrenaline kicked in, and the screams got to us, and we just had to get these wounded Marines to the top of the hill, to the limited shelter behind the military crest.”

Rusth took 10 trips from the kill zone at the bottom of the hill to the Charlie Company CP, exposing himself to the horrendous enemy gunfire coming from troops hidden in a sugar cane field, each time helping to carry a wounded Marine to safety before finally being wounded himself.

Sergeant Harold Thrasher remembers snatches and pieces of hellish insanity overwhelming Charlie Company. “The whole rest of that day we engaged in a horrendous firefight, but I never saw any of the enemy that entire day,” says Thrasher. “Once we got over the top of Hill 110, I asked a Marine to my left if he knew the enemy’s positions. He pointed out some bushes at the bottom of the hill, so I aimed at those bushes, put my M-16 on full automatic, and intended to shoot up a full magazine at those bushes, but I didn’t get three rounds out of the M-16 before it jammed on me. I brought it down, cleared the chamber, and started to shoot again. I got hit at the same time, shrapnel in my left hand. I didn’t even know that I was hit at first.

“About that time a very high volume of enemy fire started raking the hill. It didn’t take me long to realize that we no longer fought an elusive VC, but this was a determined enemy force who could really shoot. We all hit the ground, but there was no cover. There for a while, since we were so exposed and under such heavy enemy gunfire, I decided to play dead. When I looked around I saw that all the Marines in that area were also playing dead. No one returned fire. That didn’t last too long, though, and pretty soon the Marines on Hill 110 poured out hot lead at the enemy.”

Jim Coxen, who had seen a lot of combat by this time in his tour, knew they were in dire straits: “If the NVA had wanted us, they could have had us there, right at the start, because we didn’t have any air cover or artillery support.”

For Captain Caswell, not getting artillery support when he needed it was unthinkable. “Over the previous five months we had been offered more fire support than we could ever use,” Caswell recalls. “Whenever we called for heavy support, we had always received an adjusting round in less than five minutes. I believed in the tremendous val ue of coordinated supporting arms in a combat situation, and Charlie Company had become very proficient in its us age. So at that moment when I knew that we had the enemy right where we wanted them, I fully expected that my FOs [forward observers] would be busy adjusting salvos of HE [high explosives] and WP [white phosphorus] within min utes, wreaking terrible damage on the NVA to our front. It never happened.

“First, we found out that the 81mm mortars with the battalion command group were out of range. That was okay for the moment; I really wanted artillery. Around 1300 that after noon, the battalion 81mm mortars finally came into range and dumped all their mortar rounds on the NVA in the cane field in front of Charlie Company. This proved helpful, but the sum total of that fire mission was limited to the ammunition that they carried at the time, about 40 to 50 rounds.”

According to the command chronology for the 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines, the 105mm artillery battery assigned to provide direct artillery support for the 1/5 Marines (Del ta Battery, 2/11), had executed a planned dislocation on the morning of May 10, moving toward a position much closer to the 1/5 Marines, near Que Son.

Their timing could not have been worse. For some un explained reason, neither Captain Caswell nor the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Pete Hilgartner, was made aware of the dislocation of Delta Battery. Neither did the 2/11 command element plan for any temporary artillery support for the Marines of 1/5 during Delta Battery’s move.

With no mortars or artillery available, Captain Caswell called for airstrikes, even though high-explosive bombs and napalm could be very dangerous to his Marines, many of whom were less than 100 meters from the closest enemy positions. Caswell was willing to take the risk, and through battalion he requested airstrikes on positions in the middle of the cane field.

But again Caswell would be frustrated: “After we requested the airstrikes, we received a response that simply said, ‘Wait, out.’ We didn’t hear anything more from our FAC [forward air controller] until many hours later. I found out later that shortly before I called for the airstrikes, Alpha 1/5 was devastated by a mistaken friendly airstrike about two clicks to the northeast of our position, so they canceled our airstrike until the higher-ups could sort out what had happened.”


ALPHA COMPANY was on a search-and-destroy mission on the morning of May 10, well east of 1/5’s combat base. Having marched more than 11 kilometers  since the previous morning, Alpha was now four kilometers east of Hill 110, moving east, when Lt. Col. Hilgartner contacted Captain Jerry McKay and told him that Charlie Company was in trouble and needed help. So Alpha Company turned around and rapidly moved west toward the sounds of gunfire. “As he gave us our marching orders,” McKay says, “Pete told me that as we moved west there would be a river on our right flank, and that the river had been designated as a Fire Support Coordination Line [FSCL]. He told me, ‘The Special Landing Force [SLF], made up of three companies from the 1/3 Marines is on the other side of that line, so do not shoot at anyone on the other side of that river.’ ” As Alpha Company rushed to rein force the beleaguered Charlie 1/5, it suddenly received fire from six automatic weapons and intense small-arms fire from their northwest at a distance of 200–300 meters.

“We could hear the sounds of gunfire ahead of us,” recalls McKay, “so we knew Charlie Company was in a major battle, but as we moved along toward them, we began taking fire from that dry riverbed. There was a bunch of NVA down in that riverbed. We were headed due west, with a fairly steep mountain on our left flank, with an open area on our right, and the NVA were hitting us from our right flank.

“I had no radio communications with anyone except the 1/5 Battalion CP, so I couldn’t talk directly with anyone in the SLF. I had deployed my Marines in an attack formation, two platoons abreast up front and one platoon back, in reserve, and my CP group stayed right behind the attack force.”

What would happen next had tragic consequences for McKay’s Marines—and ultimately for Charlie Company, which was desperate for help on Hill 110.

“That’s when my CP got marked with smoke rockets fired from a Huey gunship,” McKay recalls. “I immediately knew what was going on. As I looked up I saw two F-4 Phantom jets and watched as four 250-pound Snake Eye bombs dropped off those Marine jets and the fins deployed. The Snake Eyes went over my head and got one of my lead platoons. My FAC, a corporal by the name of Madeira, was doing everything he could to get in touch with those jets, and finally he was able to get a green star cluster up above us when the jets started their second run, so they broke off their second run.”

Five Marines in the stricken platoon were dead, more than 20 wounded. Every medevac called in took fire, and McKay’s Marines were running low on ammunition. “We had to call in an emergency resupply by helicopter during the middle of the medical evacuations,” McKay says. “As all of this went on, we continued to call in airstrikes against the enemy positions in the dry riverbed.”

As Alpha Company struggled to deal with the carnage wreaked by the F-4 airstrike, Charlie Company had been engaged with the enemy on Hill 110 for nearly three hours. As a direct result of the friendly fire fiasco with Alpha Company, airstrikes Caswell desperately needed were being withheld. Captain Caswell believed the enemy commander finally figured he had nothing to fear from American artillery, mortars and airstrikes, so he became emboldened, launching the first of many ground assaults on the Marine positions. Caswell speculates that the NVA had tried, unsuccessfully, to break out of the cane fields to the north and was turned back by the other Marine companies now surrounding them, so they tried to attack Caswell’s men on Hill 110.

“I radioed the 1st Platoon and ordered them to move up on line by moving to their right around the hill and linking up with the 2nd Platoon,” Caswell says. “That gave us a horseshoe-shaped defense and freed up all our firepower to the front. As the 1st Platoon accomplished this maneuver under fire, the 1st Platoon’s radio operator, Pfc Jacob Lauff, got shot and rolled all the way to the bottom of the hill. Communications with the platoons came largely by runners. At this point, the outcome of the battle rested firmly in the hands of the platoon commanders, squad leaders and fire team leaders. Alone at the foot of the hill, Pfc Lauff stayed in radio contact with us all day long, even though he was painfully wounded several more times. He reported on the movements of the enemy as they mounted flanking assaults and frontal assaults. We attempted to relay this information to the platoons. The three platoons began repulsing assault after assault, sometimes at point blank range.”

Throughout that deadly afternoon, Captain Caswell called the command groups of 1/5 and 1/3 repeatedly, begging for artillery and airstrikes, but no artillery was fired on the NVA that afternoon, and the airstrikes arrived very late in the day. Caswell asked for the companies of 1/3 to mount some sort of attack on the enemy positions, but no attacks came. Matters were made horribly worse by the constant jamming of the M-16 rifles.

Caswell felt certain that he was witnessing the death throes of Charlie 1/5: “I formed the CP group into a secondary perimeter on the reverse slope of the hill and told them if any NVA came over the top of the hill to kill them. The members of the command group included the radio operators and forward observers, the acting company gunnery sergeant, the 60mm mortar crews and the wounded who had been brought back to the top of the hill. They possessed hardly any rifles among them and no automatic weapons. When I told them we would hold this position, they all just nodded and checked their pistols. They made sure they had a round in the chamber, left the pistol cocked, put on the safety and put it back in their holster. Then they returned to their work. They knew that if the NVA had broken through and attacked our secondary perimeter, they couldn’t have held the hill for 10 minutes. I became absolutely determined that we would not move off the hill or leave any of our dead or wounded behind.

“In order to flank us, the NVA had to move to an assault position on the saddle to our right,” explained Caswell “The NVA couldn’t try our left flank because they would expose themselves to the 1/3 Marines on the other side of the rice paddies. The noise the NVA made climbing the hill, the information we continued to receive from Pfc Lauff, and the vigilance and determination of the Charlie 1/5 Marines demolished every one of their attempts to flank us. The NVA commander finally resorted to frontal attacks, but our machine gun fire, rifle fire, M-79 rounds and hand grenades met each attack furiously and blunted them. The enemy commander knew that we could probably bring our murderous supporting arms into play sometime soon; he knew he was running out of time.”

About 1600, just as the NVA began to disengage, the long-sought air support finally arrived on station. The fixed-wing aircraft struck with Snake Eye bombs and napalm. Under cover of the airstrikes, Captain Caswell began moving his casualties to the top of the hill.

Sergeant Delbert Best remembers those last few hours of the battle vividly: “The napalm hit the grassy area right at the bottom of the hill, just in front of the cane. I could feel the heat from it; that’s how close we lay to the enemy lines. After the airstrike, things started to settle down, and we started bringing up the wounded, and then we went back down the hill and brought up the dead.”

Although Pfc Schlagel managed to avoid any wounds on Hill 110, the memories of that terrible day are seared into him: “We made a couple of trips down the hill to pick up the dead and the wounded. I especially felt bad for Lance Cpl. Tate; he had already been in Vietnam over a year and was about to rotate back home. He only had two or three days left on his tour, and he had said he was too short to be in the field. But then he died on Hill 110. They finally got some choppers in to get the wounded out late that evening. But the dead guys had to wait.”

The combat after-action report of Operation Union I indicates that an estimated enemy strength of nearly 3,000 VC and NVA operated in the Que Son Valley tactical area of responsibility. The Charlie Company Marines who fought on Hill 110 that day believe that they had trapped the 3rd NVA Regiment in that cane field—an estimated force of 1,800 NVA soldiers. But on this day, against huge odds, the Marines of Suicide Charlie had somehow survived its deadliest single day of combat of the Vietnam War.


Nicholas Warr’s first book, published in 1997, Phase Line Green: The Battle for Hue, 1968, was on the Marine Reading List for nearly a decade.

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.