Quang Tri Province 1967
The hill was only large enough to accommodate a reinforced battalion. It was the northwest anchor of what we Marines called the "MacNamarra Line." The "MacNamarra Line" was actually a 600-meter clearing constructed by the 11th Engineers as a buffer zone from the Laotian border to the South China Sea. The "Strip" was originally constructed for the placement of sensors to detect enemy troop movements, but the project was called off in favor of fortifying Khe Sahn.
Con Thien was clearly visible from 9th Marine Headquarters at Dong Ha to the south. We could also see Gio Linh, a "Firebase" northeast of Con Thien. We knew that if the NVA overran Con Thien and Gio Linh, they would have a clear path to the south. It was our job not to let this happen.
We would run patrols and ambushes every day to keep the NVA on the move. We wanted to make certain they couldn't build fixed positions in and around the area. It was a hard job. We would destroy a bunker complex one day; and, a couple days later, it would be rebuilt. We actually found bunkers as close as 1500 meters to Con Thien.
There was not much we could do about the NVA in the area, though. We were very short-handed and had such a large area to patrol that the NVA could move around freely without much chance of detection. We would patrol an area, and they would return as soon as we were gone.
We had a couple nicknames for Con Thien. We called it "Our Turn in the Barrel" or "The Meatgrinder." Almost daily, we would receive at least 200 rounds of NVA incoming. I don't remember a day in which we didn't get hit with incoming rounds of some sort. We also suffered something that was almost unheard of elsewhere in South Vietnam. It was called "shell shock," and it was not unusual. The constant pounding every day could make you go Nuts. You would sit there on edge, wondering if the next round that came in would have your name on it.
In official Marine Corps history, they make mention of the "Die Marker" bunkers. They were supposed to be well reinforced with timbers and steel. My unit never got to try any of those. We were in holes in the Mud! Echo Company 2/9 was on one of the small hills on the southern edge of Con Thien, right next to the LZ and the main gate. We had hardly any protection at all.
We caught more than our share of incoming because, every time a chopper or a truck arrived, they would shell the shit out of us. In the month of September 1967, from the 19th to the 27th, we received over 3,000 rounds of incoming.
I will never forget September 25th, 1967. I thought the NVA were going to blow Con Thien off the map with artillery, rockets, and mortars. We took over 1200 rounds that day. I don't think there was hardly a spot on that hill not hit by an incoming round of some sort. To that point and time in the war, this was the most incoming rounds ever taken by a unit in Vietnam in one day.
That's a lot of incoming rounds for such a small place! There was almost no place to hide! Every time a Helicopter would arrive, incoming rounds would follow. That made it very hard for us to be resupplied. During that week in September, a helicopter didn't touch down at Con Thien except for a Medevac; they just dropped the boxes of chow and mail out the doors without landing. The Marine Corps thought the Choppers were too valuable to lose.
Every night, Charlie would probe our lines to try and find a weakness they could penetrate; and there was Always the ever-present threat of NVA snipers.
That was also the time my high school buddy, Louie Torrellas, had a Russian rocket hit right next to his hole. I remember him staggering out of his hole with blood running out of both ears and his mouth. I never saw him again after that day. We medevac'd him out of there!
In a week or so, I received a letter from him on a hospital ship; he said he was going home. I was glad he was going home, but I wished it were Me! I remember rounds hitting all around us that day. I believe God was watching over us, otherwise we'd all be dead.
It was really hard on the "Brain Bucket" (your head) just sitting there waiting for the next barrage, the one that could take your life. The stress of the constant incoming artillery barrages could drive a man insane. It would have been different if we could have shot back at them. Then we would have been able to get a little relief.
As If the situation wasn't bad enough already, we also had to put up with the Monsoon rains. Our holes would fill with water; we'd have to bail them out four or five times a day. We also had "Emersion foot," and your feet would bleed and hurt like hell. Then there was the damn mud! You walked in it, you sat in it, you slept in it, and you even ate it. There was just no escaping it!
I can remember helicopters not being able to land because of incoming rounds. Not only did we run out of Chow, but that also meant no C-Rats toilet paper. So we started to tear strips of cloth from the bottoms of our trousers to wipe our Asses with. At one period, we were not resupplied for over three days. During that time we actually scrounged around in our trash pits trying to find something to eat. The choppers kept flying over us and resuppling other units. At least the choppers came to pick up our wounded!
I know the door gunner to the chopper that finally brought us chow saw the look in our eyes and decided he'd better drop chow out that door. We knew the pilots were only following orders, but that didn't change the fact that we were hungry; and we were mean! There is nothing in the world meaner than a 20-year-old Marine hungry and angry with a loaded machinegun in his hands!
That was also the day I realized the Russians were supplying the NVA. It was one of many rocket barrages that day. We stayed glued to our holes most of the day. The rockets came screaming in; and about 40 yards behind my hole, a Rocket round dud stuck in the mud; and it hit a Marine and didn't go off.
The Marine lived to tell about it! I bet he counts his blessings every single day of his life! How lucky can you get? Why it didn't go off is anyone's guess. It was really eerie, and everyone was afraid to go near it. We didn't know if it was timed-delayed or what!
We finally got up enough nerve to get out of our holes and went up to investigate. It was OD green and about 12 feet long. It had funny looking Russian writing on it. It really pissed us off. Not only did we have the NVA and the Chinese fighting against us; now the Russians were fighting us, too!
I had "The Shits" (dysentery) and decided to take a chance and go out in front of my hole and dig a "Cat hole" and take a crap. Just as I was finishing up, I heard the sound of rockets taking off in the distance. I also heard someone yelling "Incoming."
I was already halfway up the hill by then! I hadn't had time to fasten my trousers yet. I was holding them up with my hand and attempting to run the rest of the way up the hill to my hole; but it was muddy, and I slipped and fell. I scrambled the rest of the way to my hole on my hands and knees, with my pants down to my ankles. I fell into my hole in a heap.
The second my body hit the mud in the bottom of my hole, a rocket round hit right next to it. The impact of the Rocket round threw mud all over us. The concussion made my ears ring; and, for awhile, I couldn't hear anything or, for that matter, even think straight.
When the incoming had stopped, I tried to get out of my hole; but I couldn't. I was stuck in the foot and a half of mud in the bottom of my hole. I had to get my a-gunner to pull me out. When he finally got me out of my hole, I had my pants down to my ankles; and I looked half-brown and half-white from lying in the mud. We all laughed our Asses off at how stupid I looked. It felt good to laugh again; there wasn't much laughing going on at Con Thien during the month of September 1967.
We had a poncho covering the top of our hole we were using for shelter from the rain. It was shredded from the Rocket blast. I believe if I hadn't hit my hole the split second that I did, I would have looked just like our poncho did! Swiss Cheese!
Just because we were receiving incoming rounds didn't mean that patrols stopped going out. I remember a patrol trying to go out of our perimeter right in front of my hole. We started to take incoming rounds again, and the Marines in the patrol were jumping into the closest holes to them. My a-gunner and I hit our hole, and five Marines piled in on top of us. It was great; it was the most protection we'd had in a long time. I remember thinking that I didn't think my hole was capable of holding that many Marines.
In came another Rocket barrage. A CP bunker, 25 yards off to my right, took a direct hit by a rocket round. There had been two Marines in that bunker, a Lieutenant and his radioman. There was the familiar scream for help, "Corpsman Up!" Following that plea, there were at least 4 or 5 more pleas for help with no response. Doc Dave, our Corpsman, said to his hole partner Sutton, "I'm probably going to regret what I'm about to do, but I just can't sit here when a Marine needs my help."
Doc was up and out of his hole and sprinting across the top of the hill and down to the CP bunker, during which time he was totally exposed to enemy fire. The rounds were hitting all around him, and it's a miracle that he wasn't hit himself. He covered the 100-yards plus in record time and jumped into that bunker. The Lieutenant and radioman were barely clinging to life.
A Marine in our unit from "Guns" by the name of Fred Gilham (Angel) arrived at the bunker first and said that, when he arrived, the LT looked up at him and said "Thank You" and then drifted off into a coma. Angel quickly tucked the LT's guts back into his stomach and was holding them in when Doc arrived.
Doc immediately covered the gapping wound in the LT's stomach with a battle dressing, and he worked on both of them furiously to try and stop the bleeding and tend to their burns. He and Angel and some other grunts quickly pulled them from the bunker to the safety of another hole.
The entire time that Doc was there, everyone was screaming at him and Angel and the grunts to get the hell out of that bunker. Doc jumped into the closest hole to him, and almost immediately another Rocket round came screaming in. That bunker had taken another direct hit.
Doc just lay there shaking and thinking about how close he had come to death. Then he decided to look around and see what hole he was in, realizing he had jumped into an Ammo Bunker! He noticed "Willie Peter" rounds lying right next to him and smoke canisters going off all around him. He said, "Holy Shit I'm In an Ammo Bunker!" and jumped up and ran back across the top of the hill and back down to his hole.
Doc said he realized later that those Marines on the other side of the hill weren't even "His" Marines! They were in the 4th Marine Regiment. He said, "All I knew was a Marine yelled 'Corpsman Up;' and I was up and running.
Doc Dave and Angel probably deserved a Medal that day for their Heroic actions, but they got nothing. Hell, if our Corpsmen received all of the Medals they deserved, they probably wouldn't be able to walk from the weight!
The day after the barrage, that bunker was torn down never to be used again, although it was stupid to tear the bunker down. The NVA undoubtedly had every bunker and hole on the hill charted. I think the NVA had a spotter in a tree line about 500 yards away.
I remember lying there at night trying to sleep, but sleep was impossible. I was too nervous. All I could manage to do was close my eyes and hope to get some rest. I would lie there with my eyes closed and my feet dangling in my hole, and I could hear every single sound in the area.
I remember I could hear the Rocket rounds when they were taking off in the distance, and I would be the first one in the hole. We could actually hear them taking off just cross the Ben Hai River in North Vietnam. We were just that close! I can honestly say that I never got any real sleep the entire time we were at Con Thien. If you ever really went to sleep, You Might Not Wake Up!
I remember our Artillery and Mortar crews doing a bang-up job of trying to keep the NVA gunners off our backs. We hit them with everything we had. I heard some mighty big guns firing that day. I do believe I was told that Naval ships were firing support for us. They had huge guns. It must have been hell on the receiving end of those babies!
I also remember being bounced around in my hole by the shock waves from B-52 Bombers dumping their loads of 1,000 lb. bombs. It was truly a sight to behold watching the B-52s at work.
During one bombing run, I remember large pieces of shrapnel flying around. One piece in particular was the size of a VW bug. When we first spotted it coming towards us, it seemed like it took forever to reach us. It was a giant, twisted piece of hot metal.
It was like watching a movie in slow motion. It kept coming and coming and coming, making a whistling, whirring sound, sort of like an Australian Aborigine's noisemaker. As it approached, we all ducked lower and lower and lower into our holes. The last time I remember seeing it, it passed over our heads and continued on in a northerly direction.
I also got to witness something not many people have had the opportunity to observe. A Huey helicopter was being chased by an NVA SAM (Surface to Air Missile). About 100 yards off to our left, we spotted a chopper that looked like it was crashing because it was coming down so fast. That helicopter landed very fast in a zigzag, downward motion. Then this big, slow SAM appeared with a flame coming out of the tail fin section.
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, appeared a Phantom Jet doing a Victory roll right over the top of our heads; and the SAM slowly turned in pursuit. In very slow pursuit! The jet was literally flying circles around it. The jet lead the missile out and away from our perimeter, and the missile exploded. I believe without a doubt that, had we not had supporting arms at Con Thien, we would have been overrun many times over!
The thing about September 25th that really sticks in my mind is a picture of a Marine sitting in a puddle of blood and battle dressings, on a poncho, with his legs blown off from the waist down! He was numb from morphine and in shock from loss of blood. He was smoking a cigarette very calmly, as if nothing had even happened! He was waiting for a Medevac! He probably died in the chopper ride back!
Our platoon arrived at Con Thien with 45 men; when we left, we only had 12! Now you know why we called it, "The Meatgrinder!"
Jack's book is to honor the dead and wounded of Second Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment.