When the fighting of April 30-May 3, 1968, was finished, there were two Medals of Honor, many other awards for heroism, and seemingly everyone had a Purple Heart.
The Tet Offensive launched on Jan. 30, 1968, was North Vietnam’s strategic plan to split South Vietnam, cut off critical American military bases and destroy them piecemeal. When Communist forces attacked during the traditional period of truce they caught the allied forces off guard, but the result was not what Hanoi had expected.
In Saigon, 19 sappers who assaulted the U.S. Embassy were defeated. Tan Son Nhut airbase was attacked unsuccessfully. By February 5, the fighting was effectively over in Saigon. Hue City was the largest single battle, hard fought and won back by the Marines and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam by February 25. The dead there included 119 Americans, 363 ARVN and 7,000 enemy troops, as well as some 6,000 civilians who were victims of political mass murder by the Communists. The enemy achieved no significant victory.
The northern Marine outpost at Khe Sanh near the Laotian border had been attacked on January 21 to draw attention away from regions farther south. Ringed by North Vietnamese Army forces with heavy artillery, the Marines endured a siege that lasted 77 days. The defeated NVA retreated into their sanctuaries across the Laotian and Cambodian borders. Communist losses as a result of Tet totaled some 45,000 killed and 7,000 taken prisoner by April. “They had their asses handed to them during Tet,” said General William Westmoreland in retrospect, “and we were pretty sure we had heard the last of them for a while. We were wrong.”
In I Corps in the northeast, Quang Tri Province was hotly contested. If the North Vietnamese Army could sweep down the east coast, cut off the ports and roads, capture the strategically important bridge at Dong Ha and control the Cua Viet and Bo Dieu Rivers, it would choke the American supply routes. Intelligence proved the NVA planned to close off both rivers 2½ kilometers from Dong Ha. Just 13 kilometers south of the Demilitarized Zone and west of the Gulf of Tonkin, it was perhaps the most strategically valuable real estate in South Vietnam.
That region was under the command of the 3rd Marine Division, led by Maj. Gen. Rathvon McClure Tompkins, while Colonel Milton Hull headed the division’s 3rd Marine Regiment. The primary units were the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines; 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion (operating in the South China Sea and Cua Viet River); battalion landing team (BLT) 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines (2/4); and 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (1/3). The 2nd ARVN Regiment was to the west, as part of the 1st ARVN Division assigned that Tactical Area of Responsibility.
At 0400 on April 30, North Vietnamese in the hamlet of An Lac on the Bo Dieu River fired a 57mm recoilless rifle at two Navy LCUs (landing craft, utility) that ferried supplies on the river to the Dong Ha combat base. The NVA killed a sailor and wounded several others, forcing one LCU back toward Dong Ha. Hotel Company 2/4 reported the attack to its battalion commander, Lt. Col. William Weise, and Colonel Hull was then informed. The 3rd Marine Division closed down all river traffic to assess and neutralize the threat.
BLT 2/4, which had been in the area for two months, had detected enemy movement along Highway 1 north of Dong Ha. The South Vietnamese units had already made contact with the enemy during the last few days of April. Captain James E. Livingston’s Echo Company 2/4 was at Dong Ha bridge, placed under 3rd Marine Division command, while the rest of the battalion was given the assignment of investigating the enemy presence.
Golf Company 2/4 had a patrol base in Lam Xuan West to the north and near the adjacent hamlet of Nhia Ha (see map, pg. 55). Foxtrot Company had been placed in reserve with two platoons at Mai Xa Chanh and one platoon east at My Loc. Hotel Company, under Captain James L. Williams, was nestled in a southwest corner. Mai Xa Chanh also was the location of the battalion command post with Headquarters and Service Company, along with the 4.2-inch mortars from the Whiskey Company, 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines reconnaissance platoon, two tanks, an engineer platoon and an amphibious tractor (amtrac) platoon. They had 105mm howitzer support from Hotel 3/12 as well as the Ontos assault vehicle platoon reassigned to 3rd Marine Division. That left about 125 Marines per company in the battalion.
Weise, the battalion commander, was a Korean War veteran, and his operations officer, Major George “Fritz” Warren, was equally seasoned. They suspected something was afoot.
“The enemy usually fired at the riverboats and ran,” Weise said. “This time I had a feeling that the enemy would not run.” After the brief attack on the riverboat, Weise ordered all of his companies to be on the ready. Hotel 2/4 assembled in Bac Vong, a little more than a kilometer from An Lac.
Weise ordered Hotel to take Dong Huan hamlet and then hit An Lac. The reconnaissance platoon and two M-48 tanks remained in Bac Vong to support Hotel. Weise requested permission for Echo to be released from bridge duty at Dong Ha and for Foxtrot and Golf to be moved at his discretion. Two of Foxtrot Company’s platoons and all of Golf 2/4 moved out. Foxtrot troops boarded amtracs for Bac Vong. Golf would be lifted by helicopters later that day, but Echo would not be released to Weise for another 36 hours.
Hotel’s first platoon to reach Bac Vong came under fire from Dong Huan, 200 meters to the south. The Marines also received fire from Dai Do, a hamlet 800 meters to the southwest. The creek and rice paddies offered no cover and little concealment as the Marines continued the 700 meters to Dong Huan.
Weise and his command post moved to Bac Vong to improve command and control. Along with Sgt. Maj. John Malnar and the forward air controller, he boarded a heavily armed flat-bottomed boat, an LCM-6 “Monitor,” for the trip. From this vantage point, Weise could observe the early action.
As Foxtrot moved, its amtracs were to cross a small stream and move through a cemetery to Dai Do, covering Hotel’s right flank. Upon firing into the hamlet, the Marines would engage the enemy positioned there and create a diversion. Once Golf arrived, both companies would attack Dai Do. Fixed-wing fighters bombed and napalmed Dong Huan as Marines used smoke, artillery, naval gunfire and phosphorous to mask their movement until they hit the enemy perimeter.
Hotel Company secured Dong Huan, neutralizing the bunkers, positions and spider holes in two hours. Captain Williams was wounded during the action, and 1st Lt. Alexander “Scotty” Prescott, who assumed command, placed Hotel into a hasty defense.
Weise ordered Foxtrot to attack Dai Do, but its assault was stopped by heavy fire. Golf Company was also engaged from Lam Xuan and Nhia Ha, which prevented the helicopter lift. Golf commander Captain Jay R. Vargas was wounded for the third time in three months. By the end of April 30, his men had been on the move for 36 hours straight.
Colonel Hull, a Navy Cross and Silver Star recipient, left his command post, braved enemy fire and met with Weise. He gave the battalion commander the use of Bravo Company 1/3, under 1st Lt. George C. Norris, to cross the Bo Dieu and attack An Lac. Bravo lost many men, including Norris. Foxtrot was ordered to withdraw from Dai Do and join Hotel in Dong Huan during the night. Bravo reported that the North Vietnamese had vacated An Lac.
On May 1, At 1040 Golf attacked Dai Do after a two-hour shelling and a bomb run by two A-4s. Hotel and Navy Hotel, joined by Bravo, engaged the NVA. craft provided supporting fire. Golf cleared bunkers and swept through the hamlet but suffered heavy casualties, and Vargas was hit again. Weise ordered Golf to fall back and take a defensive position. Vargas called in fire, and 60mm mortars responded, bolstered by naval gunfire. Foxtrot was soon pinned down trying to reach Golf (isolated 500 meters away), and Hotel was also beaten down.
Also on May 1, Livingston’s Echo Company was released back to Weise’s command.
“Our orders were to hump as rapidly as possible toward An Lac,” Livingston said. “My men had been surprised when, earlier, the trucks were unloaded with food, including steaks, soft drinks, and other delicacies. This kind of delicacy was rare in the field and a real treat. No sooner had the items been unloaded than I gave orders to mount up. The chow would have to wait.”
Abandoning their uneaten steaks, Echo’s Marines moved on foot from the bridge at Highway 1 toward An Lac. Avoiding harassing diversionary fire, Livingston pushed on to his objective. Taller Marines passed shorter Marines and their gear across a creek. Reaching An Lac, Livingston found that Alpha 1/3 had taken a beating. He reorganized the survivors, established a defensive perimeter and repulsed several enemy night attacks. The Marines learned from prisoners that 12 NVA companies were in Dai Do.
Livingston received his orders at 0300, and at 0500 on May 2, Echo Company fixed bayonets and attacked Dai Do from the northwest of An Lac, moving through Dinh To and toward Thuong Do, joining Golf and consolidating their position there. Well-concealed North Vietnamese soldiers greeted Echo with heavy fire as Livingston attacked from both the right and front of the enemy.
“We got up and headed straight into the enemy fire and then proceeded to drive right up the middle and through the entrenched NVA lines,” the captain said.
Echo and Golf then engaged a hundred bunkers, holes and positions, killing dozens of NVA and taking casualties as well. Livingston was wounded by shrapnel. He recalled that “the fighting at various times was furious and even hand to hand—really close.” Golf and Echo consolidated their position when Hotel, moving up the left flank near a stream, was heavily engaged. Hearing the calls for help, Livingston took Echo into the new fight. His troops ran into the enemy again head on, and this time Livingston was hit in his leg by heavy machine gun fire.
“The bone cracked, and bone fragments, muscle and skin blew out the exit wound,” Livingston said. “I was again covered with blood. Anyone who saw the event would have probably thought I was dead, sooner if not later.”
Livingston ordered his Marines to fall back and leave him. He refused to be evacuated until all of his casualties were accounted for.
It was lucky for Hotel and Golf that Echo arrived on the scene. Echo saved the day for a lot of Marines. Despite their heavy casualties, the Marines forced the NVA back briefly and the enemy suffered even greater losses. As the day faded into night, Echo (45 men left), Foxtrot (52), Golf (34) and Hotel (64) secured their small perimeters, with Foxtrot and Golf in Dai Do proper. They prepared for whatever the North Vietnamese would throw at them next.
Prescott, who had taken command of Hotel when Williams was wounded, had been wounded as well and was evacuated. Command fell to 2nd Lt. Baynard V. Taylor. Vargas suffered wounds again, but still managed to fight. Weise was ordered join an ARVN mechanized battalion. ARVN forces were assigned to attack Thuong Nghia while 2/4 attacked Dinh To and Thuong Do.
What was left of the battalion after two days of heavy fighting was going into the breach again. The Marines held on, reliably resupplied by skimmer boats.
The NVA sent probes to scout the strongpoints and locate any weak spots to exploit on the defenses. Many times, they would launch sporadic attacks, hurling grenades and firing weapons, only to be killed during the process. The evening of May 2, remaining elements of Bravo 1/3 were ordered to land at An Lac the following afternoon. The North Vietnamese, however, staged a mass assault, which gave the battle-weary Marines the morale boost of a turkey shoot. Aircraft, artillery and riflemen all cut down the enemy by the hundreds.
Following this irrational display by a panicked enemy, Golf led an attack, with Foxtrot in trail. Foxtrot, being stronger, would then pass through Golf and continue the attack. Weise and his command post were with Vargas when the attack was launched at 1500 hours and they entered Dinh To.
Golf was hit from the front and right flank as its men reached Thuong Do. Weise ordered Golf to hold and Foxtrot to move forward, but the Marines were not in position and were pinned down in the rice paddies. At 1700, Golf’s men received heavy fire from their left flank.
The company’s ARVN allies, who were holding that position, decided to leave the area without informing the Marines, allowing the NVA to maneuver and hit Golf from the rear. Golf was then hit with a frontal attack, and more enemy fire came from the right.
Vargas called Golf’s assault element back and formed a tight perimeter. He called in artillery, along with naval fire and air assets, almost on his own position, so close was the enemy. The Marines stopped the assault but suffered more losses. A rocket killed Sergeant Malnar, and most of his men were wounded. Weise and his radio telephone operators were wounded. Vargas was hit again and ordered to withdraw his men while helping carry Weise to the rear as Hilton called in air support. Vargas then collected the remaining Marines from Foxtrot and Golf to help with the wounded.
Weise passed temporary command to operations officer Warren, who reinforced Dai Do until relieved by the executive officer, Major Charles W. Knapp. The night of May 2-3 saw sporadic enemy probing, and on May 3, 1/3 easily entered Dinh To at 1500 hours and Thuong Do later in the afternoon. The NVA had effectively withdrawn from Thuong Do, and An Lac was secured by 1800. The remainder of BLT 2/4 withdrew to Mai Xa Chanh. The battle was over for the Marines. The battered 320th NVA Division retreated across the DMZ to recover.
For his spectacular leadership Navy Cross, and he retired as a brigadier general. De- cades later, Weise learned why the fight was so furious: Weise was awarded the Battalion landing team 2/4 had inadvertently stumbled right on top of the 320th Division’s command post and had engaged the bulk of the NVA force, numbering some 10,000 men.
BLT 2/4 suffered 81 killed and 397 wounded. On May 2, in Dai Do alone, 2/4 lost 40 killed and 111 wounded. The NVA saw 380 killed. The total American losses from April 30 to May 3 were: 3rd Marine Division, 233 killed, 821 wounded and one missing; the Navy, 15 killed and 22 wounded. ARVN losses were recorded as 42 killed and 124 wounded. The NVA suffered an admitted 2,366 killed and an unknown number of wounded, with 43 POWs.
The 2/4 unit was credited with 537 enemy dead, but the exact numbers of NVA killed may never be known because the North Vietnamese tended to drag their dead away whenever possible. One engineer said they buried more than 1,000 bodies from one location in a mass grave. The great imbalance in the casualty figures punctuates the overall historical significance of the three-day battle. The battle created heroes and legends and added a page of glory to the history of the Marine Corps and 2/4.
Just 600 Marines, facing a hardened, experienced NVA division of 10,000 or more, managed to advance and gain ground. Their efforts also had a long-term impact. If the Americans had lost the hamlets, as well as the river access points and the bridge at Dong Ha, the entire northern front would have collapsed. That would have allowed General Vo Nguyen Giap to move many more divisions unchallenged farther south, occupy major towns, fortify them and interdict all supply routes. It would have been the perfect staging ground for a final drive into the rest of the country by 1969.
The loss of the region would have been a tactical defeat but also a strategic debacle. Retaking those areas after the enemy had settled in would have cost at least 10 times the casualties lost in the victory. History also proves that it would have been an unparalleled—and irredeemable—public relations disaster.
For their actions and leadership, Vargas and Livingston were awarded the Medal of Honor. Many Marine, Navy and Army troops received awards for valor, and the Purple Heart was almost a 2/4 unit badge.
The Marines who fought and died are memorialized by the 2/4 Association. They are affectionately called the “Magnificent Bastards” for good reason. Their performance, determination and dedication to their objectives in the face of great numerical superiority were nothing less than magnificent.
Colin D. Heaton served in the Army and Marines. He is a former history professor and has written many books on military subjects. He was also a guest historian on the History channel.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.