No Ambush at Thon Tham Khe
I was the embarkation officer and S-4A of Battalion Landing Team 3/1, and no image has seared itself into my mind more strongly than the sight, on the hangar deck of USS Valley Forge, of the remains of the officer who had replaced me a couple of months before as the commander of First Platoon Lima 3/1. Along with so many others from Lima Company, his body had been returned to Valley Forge during Operation Badger Tooth. Those of us on the staff struggled to understand what was happening. Clarity has been long in coming, and Brad ford Wine man’s effort to provide it (“Ambush at Thon Tham Khe,” August) is helpful— both in pro viding a chronology and in suggesting that clarity may never be possible, given con – flicting memories of the event. But it doesn’t help much with understanding.
Let me offer some additional observations. The first has to do with lessons learned. The men of BLT 3/1 entered a different kind of conflict from the one that most of its leaders were used to. As a platoon commander in that guerrilla war—for the most part I fought south and west of Da Nang—I can say that little readied us for what was taking place near the DMZ. Listening to crackling radio reports from the shore aboard Valley Forge, I sensed that assumptions about the enemy, and responses to him that might have been appropriate to the lower I Corps context, were applied in a place where they were inappropriate.
Even the title of the article, “Ambush at Thon Tham Khe,” implies it. This was no ambush. The 3/1 had witnessed and responded effectively to many ambushes. Lima may have been ordered to respond as though it had been ambushed, but it carried out an attack on a fortified (or at least well dug in) position. Fortified positions don’t ambush units that happen to be passing by. The question is: What did it encounter?
In my judgment, the explanation lies in the strategic context of Tet 1968, which Wineman does not attempt to address and only the North Vietnamese could tell us for sure. Like so many other American units in December and January, we were operating in complete absence of knowledge of enemy strategic intentions. I think it is reasonable to posit that whatever the NVA units in Thon Tham Khe, they were not there to engage a unit they could not have known was coming. The 3/1 arrived unannounced from the sea and air. It is far more likely that Thon Tham Khe was a transit point and the NVA 166th Battalion, or whatever it was, had stopped en route to some other place in which it was to play a role in the Tet Offensive, Hue perhaps. Many units were on the move at that time. My guess is that Lima passed by the location on the first day and the NVA quietly held its fire discipline and its breath, grateful not to have been found. When Lima returned, the NVA leaders had to assume that they had, in fact, been found and they would have to fight. And fight they did.
Of course, we can’t know until someone turns up the NVA’s records. I have asked contacts in Hanoi, but with no luck so far. My hope has been to learn that 3/1 did inflict (as the ARVN report cited by Wineman suggests) a major loss on an NVA unit that was slated to play some important role in Tet and, in so doing, 3/1 made it easier on some other Marine, Army or ARVN unit in January. That may be a small consolation, but for those killed and wounded and their comrades, it would matter.
Dr. Bradford Wineman replies:
Thanks to Mr. Vaart for his complimentary comments and valuable criticism on my article. His assessment raises great questions regarding the battle and operations in I Corps and addresses the dilemmas associated with researching campaigns such as this one. The limitations on resources and archival access does, as Mr. Vaart points out, obstruct a fuller understanding, since the enemy’s intentions and strategic/oper – ational objectives are not always fully understood. Historians attempt to glean what they can from the sources available, oral histories, intelligence reports, etc., but for operations as small as these, gaining this perspective from the enemy presents the author with a daunting challenge.
Obviously, the Marine higher command overseeing and eventually evaluating Operation Badger Tooth created its own ideas of what the NVA intended in December 1967, but often misread or misinterpreted them throughout the campaign—Thon Tham Khe being just one example. Captain John Regal, a veteran of Badger Tooth, revisited Thom Tham Khe recently and spoke to NVA veterans of the battle but was still unable to discern a greater strategic understanding of the enemy that he fought. The absence of a strategic perspective in this article was also a product of its intent and scope: to analyze the tactical action of the battle itself. The “absence of knowledge of enemy strategic intentions” endured by the American units is, unfortunately, often also endured by their historians as well.
1890 Pile-Driving Barge
I am grateful that the story of the 1890 piledriving barge (April 2008) made the pages of your magazine. In the past, when I mentioned what I did on my first tour, the response was “What the hell is that?”
I arrived in country in February 1969 and was assigned to the 1890, which was tied up at the Delong pier in Vung Tau. I helped finish the second floor of the living quarters, loaded supplies and ammo, and headed up the Mekong River to Vinh Long, the first of many stops on my tour.
Many improvements were made in the next few years, but things were very basic in the beginning and lessons were learned along the way. Although the article is accurate and on the money, I live with memories—in the form of nightmares—from the early days. Thank you for a great magazine, and thank you Bill Moyse for writing such a great article.
Lost Battalion Redux
In the April 2008 issue of Vietnam is an interview with Charles A. Krohn, author of The Lost Battalion of Tet. I have read his book with interest and, although I understand his focus on the 2-12 Cav and its lack of support during those rugged days of the Tet Offensive, your readers need to understand that there were a lot more of us involved in the vicious battle for the NVA headquarters in Thon La Chu.
I was the senior medic for D Company, 5-7 Cav, which followed the 2-12 at Thom Que Chu and Thon La Chu on the day after its night departure. The 2-12 was there for two days, got pretty chewed up by the NVA and barely made a dent in the strong defensive perimeter the NVA had built around the American-constructed ferroconcrete bunker that was their headquarters for the whole offensive in Hue.
The 5-7 Cav stayed there for more than 16 days battling the elite 5th NVA Regiment and serving under the capable leadership of our new battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jim Vaught. I wish he or Major Charlie Baker, the battalion operations officer at the time, would write a book about the events surrounding the battle for TT Woods, as it became known around the 5-7 Cav. In the end, by February 21 the NVA were finally routed after many casualties on both sides and some incredible acts of heroism by 5-7 troopers. You can read about this in Eric Hammel’s Fire in the Streets.
The 5-7 Cav didn’t act alone in ridding this area of the NVA. Elements from the 2-12, the 2-501 Airborne and even the 1-7 Cav all fought in severe ground attacks to make this happen. Even though the Marines get most of the credit for clearing Hue, which they should, our efforts to stop the troop and supply flow into Hue were substantial in ending that siege.
Most of us troopers felt we would lose our lives during the huge assaults on February 12, and again on the 21st. I remember guys writing letters to be given to their moms and dads and wives or girlfriends, “just in case.” Four buddies actually made a tape recording of final words on the eve of the 21st. One of our KIAs, Gary Cates, had an LZ named after him a few weeks later as we moved up to Khe Sanh to help out the Marines there.
I revisited the TT Woods area in late summer of 2005. The devastation of war has been erased, including the huge bunker. Only a few old people have any memories of that battle. Rice paddies grow where blood flowed freely and men died.
My Lai Myopia?
Initially I was very happy to see Vietnam recognizing the 40th anniversary of My Lai with a long cover story (April). I was then saddened to read a very superficial article with, I feel, erroneous conclusions. The importance of My Lai, or the questions that should be raised, seem to be glossed over. Although some enlisted men did not participate in the atrocities, there were far more than a few bad apples, as is clear from testimony taken by Lt. Gen. William R. Peers and his team. There were numerous cases of rape, wanton brutality, destruction of all property and so on. And this was not only limited to Calley’s platoon but to the other two platoons within Charlie Company.
Left unmentioned was the fact that Bravo Company (4-3 Bn), a part of the same operation, was replicating this very same behavior at My Lai (1) and My Khe (4), which were located about three kilometers from My Lai on the coast. On the grid map of Quang Ngai, these two hamlets were where “Pinkville” was located. Estimates of slaughtered Vietnamese range from 100 to 200.
I worked this same area of operation about a year after the fact, and whenever contact of any sort was made, the C&C slicks were immediately abuzz overhead. I find it incredible that Lt. Col. Frank Barker, known as a hard-charger, did not land to take part in a “battle” or to ascertain why so many were being engaged and killed without any opposition exhibited.
The events of that day are not disputed. Vietnamese who were unarmed and not resisting were killed in great numbers. The questions that still remain go to the lack of control exhibited by the senior leadership. All the principals were present or were informed. East of Highway One in Quang Ngai, particularly in the area in question, sightlines from helicopters are unimpeded. If Hugh Thompson could see what was going on, then so could others. Very little honor was exhibited on March 16, 1968. As a grunt, it will forever wound me.
William J Kelly Jr.
Vietnam Veterans’ Angel
As I read the article “A Date with Chris” (August), I thought back to Genevieve de Galard, who was called “the Angel of Dien Bien Phu.” I think it entirely appropriate that Chris Noel be called the Angel of Vietnam Veterans. I served two years in Vietnam and never saw or met Chris; however, according to what I read, her sacrifice, honor, courage and support of all of us, which continues today, certainly shows that she is really an angel. Just reading about her has lifted my spirits all these years after my own service. I have ordered her book and shall watch with renewed interest the movie Cease Fire.
I volunteer on USS Lexington and meet people from all over the world. Rest assured that Chris will be in my briefings. God bless you, Chris, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
John R. McCormick
Corpus Christi, Texas
What a great article on Chris Noel! I think we forget that Vietnam was probably the last war where most troops—especially the grunts—were isolated from women for months at a time. As a young Marine up in Leatherneck Square, I can remember coming in from the field and listening to her on Armed Forces Radio. What a touch of home it was; she made those long nights on the wire just a little easier.
Like thousands of other home sick guys, I would sit there in that bunker with my thoughts. The “short version” always went something like this: “Chris was coming up to Con Thien to see us when her helicopter went down. My squad (being the best in the company) was sent out on a rescue mission. Amazingly, she had been thrown clear of the crash and was the only survivor. On the way back, we were ambushed by the NVA, and after killing hundreds of them I somehow managed to get her safely back inside the perimeter. A few weeks later, as I was recovering from my wounds in Da Nang, she and the commandant came by and she was allowed to pin the Navy Cross on my pajamas. I soon rotated to Camp Pendleton and (you guessed it) she looked me up. We began dating, got married, had five children and lived happily ever after!”
Thank you again, Chris. We will never forget you.
James D. Cool
Johns Creek, Ga.
What a pleasant surprise when I opened my August issue and saw an old familiar face (and body). I was in Vietnam in 1966-67 and heard Chris Noel a few times on AFRTS, but never met her.
Later, in 1975, the Veterans Club at Eastfield College, Mesquite, Texas, had the distinct pleasure of working with her. She donated her time for two shows to help us provide no-cost loans to those vets who had run into financial trouble trying to stay in school. As president of the club, it was my honor to give Miss Noel a bouquet of roses as a token of appreciation for coming to our aid. Both shows were standing room only. She is truly a great lady and a true friend to Viet vets.
I did get into a bit of trouble when she leaned into me on stage and kissed me on the cheek. My wife was in the back row, and I heard about it for many months afterward.
Another Nurse Who Gave All
I love your magazine and very much look forward to reading every issue. One note about the August issue. The stark nurse’s cap (“Offerings: Left at the Wall”) was very touching, since I was one of countless GIs who were medevaced out of country and, yes, who saw the nurses before departing 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. I live in River Vale N.J., and our local casualty of the Vietnam War was Captain Eleanore Alexander, an operating room nurse killed in a plane crash in country. That may not be the same as killed in combat, but she gave her life. Information on her can be found at www.virtualwall.org.
River Vale, N.J.
Those Wonderful Wallabies
I’m glad to hear that our allies from Australia were finally given the recognition that they truly deserved (“Wallaby Airlines pilots receive U.S. Air Medals in Canberra,” News, August). During my tour of duty (1966-67) with an advisory team located at Gia Nghia, Quang Duc province, I had the opportunity to be associated with the crews of Wallaby Airlines, as they brought in our mail each week. We all looked forward to the call from “Wallaby 03” that they were inbound.
It was an honor serving with these gentlemen. Of course at Christmastime, as they approached with the mail, they transmitted Christmas carols and called themselves “Santa 03.” To our Wallaby friends, I say congratulations and thanks again for the mail from home.
(Master Sgt., U.S.A.F., ret.)
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.