So, in June 1967, from 3/1’s base area on the beach–where “Circumference’s” companies had patrolled an area within range of mortars (inside the “Mortar Belt”)–Lima was detached and assigned westward to a more distant protection zone, the “Rocket Belt.” Our new, company-sized base area, Hill 41, was located on a piece of high ground just east of a mountain range that provided safe haven for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units.
We were now well-removed from the beach and sand that defined the topography of our lives during the late “winter” and early “spring” of 1967. We were done with a period of experimentation with a new weapon–the Stoner weapon system, another story entirely–but we were still in a life of patrolling. Here, at the edge of territory owned by main force enemy units, we tended to patrol in larger, platoon-sized units. Our goal: stumble on (that is, in more formal language, “engage”) enemy units looking to infiltrate Danang’s defenses and attack, directly or through mortar or longer-range rocket fire, the major installations of the city.
Indeed, we patrolled, and we patrolled, and we patrolled. And much of that patrolling took place at night. What sleep we managed was most often achieved during the hot days of June–to say it was fitful and unsatisfying sleep is an understatement. At night, we moved, we watched, we stopped, we listened, we moved, and hoped we were alert enough to the other dangers, the booby traps, the mines, the ambush, etc. And as Bud will recall below, we took casualties.
Each meant a helicopter medevac, usually with me in the middle of a rice paddy guiding a Huey helicopter to a night-landing, as a corpsman and Marines prepared to rush the wounded to the bird—always anticipating sniper fire from a nearby tree line. Somehow, this impossible scenario always worked out. Those pilots were heroic wonders!
Of course, Lima wasn’t alone in this defensive mission inside the “rocket belt,” and at least once Lima 1 came within a hair of taking under fire a nearby patrolling Marine platoon from another zone within the belt. (I remember some very fiercely spoken four letter words in a radio exchange with a platoon leader of another unit that had strayed into our territory, and which we were poised to wipe out on my command.) It was a period of extraordinarily high tension and great fatigue.
And, even though I had come to believe that, as fighting units, Lima Company and Lima 1 really worked and moved magnificently well together, by mid-month, one could argue we had failed our mission, as Bud’s remembrance of the period will show:
Woke up early this morning [January 2015] and travelled about twenty miles to the vicinity of Hill 41 where Lima spent the month of June. Memories from that month:
SSgt Dean lost his foot to a booby trap and insisted on trying to walk on his own power to the helicopter. SSgt Dean was hard Corps. He had captured the last Japanese soldier on Guam in 1964.
Don Lappegaard was wounded by a booby trap and had about 100 shrapnel wounds including the loss of part of his foot
USMC had run out of M26 grenades and issued us old pineapple grenades which had shorter fuses than the grenades we were accustomed to. One night I was in a foxhole with Harry Gross, he pulled a pin on the grenade and let the spoon fly. He held the grenade too long before he threw it. The grenade exploded too close and Harry got a good-sized hunk of shrapnel into the bridge of his eye. It was pitch black and no one had a flashlight. Harry spent the rest of the night moaning and did not appreciate my muffled laughter.
My squad was detached to a CAC Unit [these were small Marine entities assigned to villages that were important to perimeter defenses to help prevent takeovers of them] which Intel said was supposed to get hit by an attack. Sure enough the next night the V.C. started pushing about 100 civilians carrying lanterns in front of them as cover for the attack. I put some M79 rounds around the flanks of the crowd which resulted in the people dispersing and the V.C. calling it a night.
On June 18th the platoon was set up in the jungle. About 2000 , I took four Marines out to set up listening posts. About 50 meters outside of our position I saw three or four figures moving toward us. We ended up having a running gunfight. We had just returned to our platoon night time position when the ground started vibrating. It turned out that an NVA rocket position was less than a click away. Their first salvos hit the bomb storage area at the airbase in Da Nang. It was pure bedlam and probably the most costly attack on an airfield during the history of the Vietnam conflict. More than twenty aircraft were destroyed and the runways were shut down for days. As we rushed towards the NVA position our own aircraft nearly got us. I had a smoking pipe I had picked up on R and R and never saw it again. It was my only creature comfort.
Bud is right. That night defined “bedlam.” World War II seemed to have erupted again: the rockets, the mass of artillery fire from Danang directed toward the not too distant rocket firing place (but seemingly toward us!!) — the rocket shooters were tucked in a draw at the foot of the mountain range to our west. Then came “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” a C-47 equipped with machine guns that exploded onto the scene. No July 4th scene has ever surpassed the power of what we witnessed, and heard, that night.
I know we ended that night frustrated beyond words. Even though we had a fix on the origins of the rockets, we were not allowed to run them down. A big disappointment, as I remember it.
And, as to Bud’s reference to creature comforts, yes, they were few, amounting only to whatever precious things one might have carried. In my mind, it was a matter of basics: field rations, cigarettes included, a poncho and a nylon poncho liner–a most precious piece of my gear that I possess and treasure, for symbolic reasons, to this day. It is wrapped up and fixed to my belt, behind me, in the below image. Now, I carry it with me in my car, wherever I go,
Enough for now. More reflections next time.
(And as usual, these are my and Bud’s memories so many years later. Corrections, different perspectives, and different interpretations from Lima 3/1 Marines are most welcome. –Lima One Actual sends)