Hell in a Helmet

Hell in a Helmet
Hell in a Helmet

This is what the Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines call themselves. There is a reason for this; the battalion has participated in some of the most horrific battles in our nation’s history since World War I. Since its initial activation in 1917, 2/9 distinguished itself during the Battle for Guam and Iwo Jima during World War II; in the defense of Khe Sanh in the I Corps region of Vietnam, the ill-fated attempt to rescue the crew of the SS Mayaguez, and Operation Desert Storm. The battalion also played a role in the evacuation of civilians caught between opposing forces in the Chinese Civil War, Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, and various other non-combat operations relating to providing relief to victims of natural disasters.

The second battalion was deactivated on 2 September 1994 to make room for one of three new light armor reconnaissance battalions, reactivated again in 2007 to serve within the 6th Marines as an anti-Terror Battalion, and again deactivated in 2015 as part of President Obama’s post war victory lap.

During the Vietnam War, 2/9 operated under the Third Marine Division. In early July 1965, 2/9 was ordered to Vietnam from its training base on Okinawa and soon after their arrival began rigorous combat operations at Da Nang, Hue, Phu Bai, Dong Ha, Camp Carroll, Cam Lo, Con Thien, Than Cam Son, Quang Tri, Cua Viet, and the Vandergrift Combat Base. Its most vicious engagement was the Battle for Khe Sanh, which was actually a series of engagements that today’s historians call “the hill fights.” The convention for naming hills involves labeling them according to their elevation in meters. Throughout these campaigns, the Marines of 2/9 (and other participating battalions) held firm in spite of an overwhelming enemy force of two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) infantry divisions.

In the early spring of 1967, 2/9 was operating in an area south of the old imperial city of Hue (pronounced way), when the Marines suddenly became aware of a growing enemy presence around the Khe Sanh Combat Base. Intelligence officers believed there were two NVA regiments operating in the area. No one believed this; it had become a standard conclusion each and every time someone found an NVA element. This time, however, the reports and suspicions were true. Company E (Echo 2/9) was sent to Khe Sanh to reinforce the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. The operational areas included Hill 881 North, Hill 881 South, and Hill 861.

Combat Patrol 1967
Combat Patrol 1967

Combat patrol leaders reported considerable radio traffic in Vietnamese; there were NVA all over the place and the 40 Marines on one combat patrol became very nervous. Suddenly, Hill 861 erupted into a bloody crescendo of rifle fire and grenade explosions. The patrol leader called for artillery and close air support. It wasn’t long after that the entire side of Hill 861 was aflame in napalm. Marine medevac helicopters started coming in to evacuate the wounded; the dead would have to wait. Medevac flights were escorted by gunships. One helicopter was bringing in reinforcements from Bravo 1/9, but it was shot out of the air and seen tumbling down the side of the mountain coming to rest 700 meters below. And then just as suddenly, the enemy disappeared —it was as if they all vanished into thin air.

It took the rest of the night to evacuate the wounded; the dead were removed during the next morning. The Marines sent out more patrols, combing the area between 881S and 881N … but there was no sign of NVA. The Marines had lost 19 dead, 59 wounded; NVA contact had rendered Echo Company ineffective.

In early May, Con Thien situated south of the DMZ came under heavy attack; enemy activity in the “Leatherneck Square” area intensified and while clearing Route 561 between Con Thien and Cam Lo, 1/9 made contact with a large NVA force. MACV authorized the Marines to conduct operations within the DMZ; it would be a combined Marine Corps and RVN Army (ARVN) force. The operation was code named Hickory/Lam Son 54.

The hill fights, which ended on 11 May 1967, produced 155 Marine killed in action and 425 wounded. NVA losses were 940 confirmed killed in action.

Getting the wounded to the Landing Zone (LZ)
Getting the wounded to the Landing Zone (LZ)

Operation Hickory launched on the morning of May 18, 1967. 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines and 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines were supported by tanks as they moved forward into Con Thien. 2/26 made contact with an estimated two battalions of NVA regulars who had positioned themselves in well defended bunkers and trenches. Marines began receiving murderous automatic weapons and mortar fire from the right flank. Casualties were immediate and heavy. 2/9 moved up to reinforce the right flank, immediately engaging the enemy. As night fell, the Marines pulled back to evacuate the dead and wounded. Air strikes were called in during hours of darkness; with daylight came Marine artillery fires. Both Marine battalions went into the attack at 0700. 2/26 was stopped in its tracks within minutes due to withering fire to the front and right. 2/9 moved forward against light resistance and was able to relieve the pressure on 2/26. Within four hours, the Marines had successfully overrun the enemy bunker complex and continued the advance.

Mid-afternoon of the same day, Hotel 2/9 operating on the eastern-most flank of the advance came under heavy enemy fire near the intersection of Route 606 and 561. Several Marines in the point squad were down; one Marine gallantly ran out to carry them to the safety of Marine lives, but he too was hit three times and later succumbed to his wounds. Corporal Robert Gillingham was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions.

Tanks moved up to join the attack, but the NVA efficiently employed RPGs against them. The gunner and tank commander of the first tank were mortally wounded. A second tank was also destroyed. Hotel 2/9 aggressively moved forward so that all the dead and wounded could be evacuated, and as he withdrew he called in for supporting fires. Seven Marines were killed, 10 more wounded.

The war continued: Operation Kingfisher in July lasting until October. Out of five battalions participating (3/3, 2/4, 3/4, 2/9, and 3/9) Marine casualties included 340 killed; 3,000 wounded. NVA losses were 1,117 killed, 2,000 wounded. In the late fall, Operation Kentucky, Operation Scotland, the Second Battle of Khe Sanh, The Rockpile, and Vandergrift.

From January to mid-March 1969, 2/9 participated in Operation Dewey Canyon —a sweep of the A Shau Valley and the last major offensive by the Marine Corps in Vietnam. Second Battalion, Ninth Marines … Hell in a Helmet and a band of extraordinary brothers.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

5 thoughts on “Hell in a Helmet”

  1. I had the good fortune to be in 2/9. Circa 1977 I was assigned a CO of G/2/9. We were at Camp Schwab for much of my 13 months unaccompanied tour, however, we also went to Camp Fuji twice. Further, we did exercises in the ROK and later sailed S to Singapore…including crossing the Equator. It was a good unit and my luck to be around some great Marines….including, but not limited to: GySgt Paul Kellog and First Sergeant Mario Silverstrini. The officers, SNCOs, NCOs and Marines were solid.

    Earlier (if you read Mustang’s history of 2/9 above) you will note the 2/26 was involved with 2/9 in Operation Hickory. I just missed this. I had been in F/2/26 for 6 months as a Sergeant, including being the platoon commander of one platoon for while. My CO knew I was pressing to go to OCS to gain a commission and with the increase of new lieutenants from The Basic School arriving in VN, I had to “give up” the platoon. He opined that I would get continued experience as the de facto boss if I went to the Combined Action Program. I did. The result, among many other things was I missed a very, very tough operation in which our battalion and my old company suffered big numbers of causalities

    There is no doubt in my mind, they while lots of MOS’ are vital and many are mega dangerous, the infantry battalions are the work horses of the Marine Corps. They mostly suffer the hardest living conditions, are deployed often and there is rarely anyone else between them and the enemy.

    It is an honor to be part of all that.

    If I have my way – but rarely do – I would put Marines into one Regiment (and where possible) just one battalion and they’d serve the bulk of their time in the same unit….going back to them at different times during their careers….between schools, Special Duty Assignments, etc. This would enhance camaraderie and unit cohesiveness. All would attempt to retain the best Marines for “their” unit and all would know that all others were watching them to see if all were pulling their weight. Just a thought. More work for personnel types, but better in the long run….or so I think.


  2. I joined E 2/9 at the end of Jan. 1967 formally with H Co. 2/26. I was with E Co. 2/9 when our reinforced platoon was hit on Hill 861 mentioned above aritcle. We had 12 KIA’s and all wounded once or more except for 5 Marines. Will never forget the day I thought I might die along side my brothers. The napalm mentioned save us from all being killed that day. Would love to meet that jet pilot. I am blessed, I made it home. My duty and obligation is to carry on for my lost brothers as they would for me. I will laugh, love and have fun for them when ever possible. I realize that if possible any one of them would return from guarding the streets of heaven for one day to be in my shoes. It could be on my worst day, they’d jump at the chance. Reminding myself of this makes my bad days better. God Bless Them and I will join them later Guarding the Streets of Heaven.
    Semper Fi,
    Tom Crites

    P.S. How did 2/9 become the title of, “Hell in a Helmet”? I was reading in a Marine Corps Historical book that when 2/9 first went to Vietnam in 1966 the battalion officer at that time would not allow the Marines of 2/9 to remove their helmets while in the rear areas and wear soft covers like the rest of the troops not in 2/9. This was regardless of heat or where… thus those Marines complained, as it was Hell In A Helmet… Just like the 1/9 the “Walking Dead” when in 1965 1/9 or part of was coming in from a week long patrol to the rear base, some Air Force guys watching them come in dragging butt, said they look like the Walking Dead. … Funny how we get our tags and the story behind is nothing like one would think at times.


  3. The two entries above really do speak to what really furious close combat is like. I have served (long ago now) in some companies and battalions in which damn near everyone had at least one Purple Heart Medal. NO ONE really knows what that is like unless they were with them on the day(s) they earned that distinction.


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