I own only three things I carried with me in Vietnam in 1967: a pair of well-worn, scuffed combat boots–today they are hard as cardboard; a precious poncho liner–a symbol of safety (and for emergency use) I keep in my car at all times; and two map sheets (taped together in 1967) I used during visits to a forbidding place, a place in which many–military men of both sides and civilians–died, were hurt, and suffered. The map will help with this two-part episode, as will Bud’s remembrance of it from his January 2015 visit.
(photo above courtesy of Ltc. Joe Gibbs, USMC-Ret)
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Part I: Introduction
Of the many books written about the Vietnam War—30,000 by one, probably iffy, estimate—and in particular of the books written about Marines in that war, I dare say the majority have dealt with the bloody, conventional war-like fights in the northern tier of I Corps, the combat zone abutting the “Demilitarized” Zone separating the two Vietnams. First Platoon, Lima Company, would find itself there in December 1967.
Until then, as I’d noted before, Lima patrolled territory just below Danang, serving as part of the shield protecting our major facilities in Danang, which was located along the South China Sea about in the middle of I Corps.
The units then assigned to that part of Danang’s shield, Lima and the other three companies of the 3rd Battalion, First Regiment of the First Marine Division, were regularly pulled out to participate in large regimental or even division-sized operations in areas thought or known to be occupied by major North Vietnamese units. For the First Marine Regiment, most of these operations took place well south and somewhat west of this patrol area. It was territory usually patrolled by the Fifth Regiment of the First Division. (Don’t ask about the numbering system—the explanation is historical.)
At least twice during Bud’s and my tours, Lima was brought into such operations. In each case the territory was in and around the Que Son Valley (also the name of a village in it), which, more or less, is thought of as the space between and above two communities almost worthy to be called cities, Hiep Duc and Tam Ky (see my combined two sheets, “Map 1,” below [give it time to load; it is a large file, and once opened it can be enlarged and scrolled around. And forgive the wrinkles of the folds; it hasn’t been opened in some decades before now.]).
Both the territory—mountains, foothills, and paddies—and the enemy were unfamiliar to us, putting us in something of a disadvantage on each visit—at least at a greater disadvantage than the 5th Marines, who had worked the region, painfully, for months.
We were also at a bit of a disadvantage because the full strategic picture wasn’t totally clear to us, at least it wasn’t in my memory of those days. Perhaps I knew better then, but for years I wondered many times about the larger meaning of our, Lima’s, relatively brief operational efforts in the Que Son region. These were efforts that felt different, very much more important than the toings and froings in the mortar and rocket belts around Danang. We were really part of something much bigger. Still, even though we experienced a notable, even newsworthy, win, I have felt for years that in the case of Operation Cochise, we really missed a big opportunity to damage beyond repair one of the NVA’s best fighting units, its Second Division. And although Operation Pike is hardly worth talking about—only legal trouble would follow me from it months later—Cochise was memorable.
The more memorable to follow in the next installment (together with some references for further reading).
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