Blackie Cahill’s Fight

Some Background

At dawn on 25 June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) unleashed massive artillery fire into the Republic of (South) Korea (ROK).  On the heels of the barrage, the NKPA invaded the ROK with a force of 135,000 troops organized into eight infantry divisions, 24 artillery regiments, 120 Soviet T-34 tanks, five constabulary brigades, and 180 Soviet aircraft.

Understandably, the South Korean people were terrified, illustrated by a massive surge of refugees heading south from Seoul to safer locations.  However, they wouldn’t find any haven because the NKPA seized the ROK capital in two days and then continued their attack south.  The communists intended to seize the entire Korean peninsula.  Thousands of refugees preceded the NKPA forces — their legs moving as fast as possible to escape the slaughter.  The people were terrified, and by mid-July 1950, the United States and South Korean governments had done nothing to allay those fears.

The U. S. Army occupation forces stationed in Japan did what they could to stop the invasion, but they were young soldiers, untrained, inexperienced, inadequately equipped, poorly led, and sent to confront the NKPA in insufficient strength to stop the onslaught.  Throughout July, US Army forces experienced one defeat after another.  In time, victory over the Americans is what the NKPA commanders came to expect.

Every day, thousands of refugees streamed into the southeastern city of Pusan, seeking protection.  For the most part, the South Korean refugees were simple people.  They didn’t understand any of the reasons for this sudden war.  What they did know was that their lives were in jeopardy.  They had witnessed the NKPA’s ruthlessness; they had seen American Army slaughtered and overwhelmed.  The fear among the refugees was palpable.  One American journalist noted that in Pusan, one could almost smell the fear in the people — their panic worsening with each passing day.

But then, beginning in the late afternoon of 2 August 1950, a remarkable and easily observable transition began taking shape. American ships began arriving in the port city of Pusan.  The word went out.  These ships were carrying United States Marines.  People started crowding around the docks; they wanted to know more.  Unloading operations began as soon as the ships tied up along a pier.

Early the next morning, Marines began to form upon the pier.  They were dressed in combat uniforms, were well-armed, and carried field packs on their backs.  There were close to 5,000 men when assembled—a color guard formed in front of the Brigade.  A large crowd of Korean civilians stood back and observed the goings-on.  The Koreans no doubt wondered if these soldiers would save them; they may have noted that if any of these American Marines were fearful, it didn’t show in their demeanor or expressions.  Word quickly spread throughout the city.  There was still hope.

Although the average age of these young men was only 19½ years, they exuded discipline, confidence, and determination.  There was nothing timid about these youngsters; they understood their mission: find the enemy and kill him.[1]  It didn’t take long for NKPA commanders to realize that the tide was turning against them.

While company and platoon officers and NCOs mustered Marines on the pier, their Commanding General, Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, concluded his meeting with his subordinate commanders and senior staff.  Colonel (select) Raymond L. Murray commanded the 5th Marine Regiment.  Lieutenant Colonel George Newton commanded 1st Battalion; Lieutenant Colonel Harold Roise commanded 2nd Battalion, and Lieutenant Colonel Robert Taplett[2] commanded 3rd Battalion.  Craig issued his “commander’s guidance” (See also: The Fire Brigade), concluding with this strict admonition:

The Pusan perimeter is like a weakened dike; the Army intends to use us to plug the holes as they open.  We’re a brigade —a fire brigade.  It will be costly fighting against a numerically superior enemy.  Marines have never lost a battle; this Brigade will not be the first to establish such a precedent.  Prepare to move.”

Within an hour, the Marines of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade were en route toward a small town named Chang-won, the designated assembly area for the Eighth US Army reserve.

The Tactical Situation

The Battle of Osan was the first significant US engagement inf the Korean War.  Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, ordered Task Force Smith (1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment (reinforced)) (1/21 INF) to set up a blocking position against an overwhelming NKPA force on 5 July.  It was an unreasonable assignment and failed to slow the NKPA assault for more than a couple of hours.  Task Force Smith suffered 180 dead, wounded, scattered, and/or captured.  NKPA soldiers bound some of the American prisoners with their hands behind their backs and then executed them.

As elements of the 24th Infantry Division (24 ID) arrived in Korea from Japan, the NKPA continued to press south, pushing American and South Korean forces back at Pyeongtaek, Cho-nan, and Chochiwon.  At the Battle of Taejon, 24 ID suffered 3,602 dead and wounded.  Nearly 3,000 U.S. soldiers were taken, prisoner.  The NKPA continued their attack.

By the time the Marines arrived on 2 August Eighth Army’s position was unsustainable.  US/ROK forces occupied a tiny section of the Pusan Perimeter’s southeast corner.  General Walton H. Walker, commanding the Eighth Army, had traded space for time.  All that remained in US hands was a small sector 90 miles long and 60 miles wide.  General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), ordered soldiers in by the thousands.  Not only did Walker need fighting units, but he also needed replacements for the dead and wounded.  The first to arrive included the 1st Cavalry Division (1 CAV), 2nd Infantry Division (2 ID), and 25th Infantry Division (25 ID).

Walker faced two critical challenges.  First, because replacements were arriving in piecemeal fashion, General Walker could only plug them into units positioned at critical junctions.  They could not attack the enemy; they could only hold these key positions — and even that was dicey.  The second problem was that Walker’s reinforcements, while fresh from stateside or territorial commands, were still only minimally trained.  Most of these men had no previous combat experience.  Walker worried because if the Eighth Army lost the Pusan Perimeter, there would be no way to land further replacements or supplies — and no way to withdraw any survivors.

The Battle for Hill 342[3]

General Walker designated the 25th ID as Task Force Kean, after the division commander, Major General William B. Kean.  Walker assigned Craig’s Brigade to reinforce Task Force Kean.  Kean’s subordinate units included the 24 INF, 27 INF, 35 INF, and the 5th Regimental Combat Team (5 RCT).

On 6th August, Colonel Murray led his 5th Marines toward Chindong-ni.  General Kean intended to replace the 27 INF with the 5th Marines.  Lieutenant Colonel Taplett’s 3/5 (reinforced) moved toward Changwon to replace 2/27 INF on the line two miles outside Chindong-ni, where the road to Mason takes a sharp northward turn into the village of Tosan.[4]

Taplett effected the relief of 2/27 INF within two hours, establishing his command post (CP) on the first step of Hill 255 co-located with Weapons Company, 3/5.[5]  Temporarily under the operational control of HQ 27 INF, Taplett answered to Colonel John H. Michaelis, the army regiment’s commander.  Taplett’s mission was to provide a blocking force; he needed a tight defensive line to do that.

Lieutenant Colonel Taplett ordered Captain Fegan to set in his Company H (How Company) above his CP to have a good field of observation of enemy movements.  Taplett directed First Lieutenant Robert D. Bohn, commanding Company G (George Company), to set in two rifle platoons on Hill 99, situated west of Hill 255, and one platoon on a small knoll at the base of Hill 255.

Lieutenant Bohn directed the 1st Platoon to take the knoll position.  Commanding 1st Platoon was Second Lieutenant John J. H. Cahill, USMC.[6]  Cahill’s platoon was reinforced by a 75mm recoilless rifle platoon.[7]

The six platoons of George and How companies shared a tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) extending some 3,000 yards. Taplett’s only reserve force consisted of the headquarters element.[8]  Shortly after midnight on 7th August, Colonel Michaelis ordered Taplett to dispatch a rifle platoon to reinforce Baker Company, 1/27 INF atop Hill 342.  Taplett contacted Colonel Murray (CO, 5th Marines) to argue that he could ill-afford lose one-sixth of his infantry force.  Murray explained that General Dean had ordered Hill 342 held at all costs, and Taplett must provide the platoon.

Taplett assigned the mission to First Lieutenant Bohn; Bohn tasked Blackie Cahill.

Hill 342 was a massive molar-shaped structure rising steeply from the MSR west of Chindong-ni, extending northward 2,000 yards to another hill mass that was nearly 2,000 feet in elevation.  Elements of the NKPA 6th Infantry Division occupied the second hill mass.  The terrain was steep, the footing unsure, and the hillside inundated with shrub vegetation.  Before leaving 3/5’s perimeter, Taplett ordered Cahill reinforced with a machinegun squad and a radio operator.  None of Cahill’s men had more than a couple of hours of rest before embarking on this relief mission.

There was one minor glitch: Cahill reached Colonel Michaelis’ CP near a bridge south of Hill 99 at around 03:00.  Michaelis being absent, the regimental operations officer directed Cahill to proceed 700 yards further down the MSR and reported to the CO 2nd Battalion, 5 RCT (2/5 RCT), whose CP was located just north of the MSR at the tip of Hill 342’s eastern-most base. The Army operations officer informed Cahill that he wasn’t reinforcing Company B; he was replacing it.  27 INF needed this rifle company as part of General Kean’s reserve force.  5 RCT could not relieve Company B because 5 RCT was scheduled to begin an offensive within a few hours.

2ndLt Cahill no doubt wondered how a rifle platoon could realistically replace an infantry company, but Cahill was a combat veteran, and he made no bones about it.  After a quick briefing by an operations officer at 2/5 RCT’s CP, a guide led Cahill and his platoon northward, skirting the western base of Hill 352.  A few hundred yards along, the army guide discovered that he had lost his way in the darkness.  A few enemy artillery shells landed nearby, but there were no casualties.  When Cahill’s column reached the end of the valley, rifle fire erupted, wounding two Marines.  The army guide advised Cahill that he should not begin his climb until dawn because of the slippery footing and the nervous condition of Baker Company’s soldiers.  At 0500, Cahill’s Marines had marched 3 miles from Hill 99.

At dawn, Cahill realized that the earlier rifle fire had come from soldiers of 2/5 RCT, spooked by the Marine’s movements in the pitch-black early morning hours.  Cahill took the lead in the climb.  At first, the Marines made good progress, but the heat soon became a war-stopper.  The temperature was around 112 degrees.  Cahill’s Marines began gasping for air, sweating profusely, and stumbling on the steep, slippery pathways.  For every five steps upward, they slipped back three.  Water discipline collapsed, and canteens soon emptied.  It wasn’t long before Cahill’s Marines began collapsing from heat exhaustion, and some of these young men lost consciousness — they were on the verge of having a heat stroke.  Cahill’s platoon became a ragged file, but as Cahill’s NCOs urged the men forward, Cahill increased his pace and proceeded to the crest of the hill.

Cahill finally reached Hill 342’s summit at around 08:30, where he met the Army company commander.  The captain began briefing Cahill on his company’s defensive positions.  Baker Company, he explained, had been under continuous enemy fire within their triangle-shaped perimeter.  All three of the Company’s platoons were shattered.  Just as Cahill’s platoon began straggling into the army perimeter, NKPA forces opened fire from well-concealed positions from an adjacent hill.  Cahill’s NCOs quickly set the Marines into firing positions.  So far, Cahill had lost one man killed, six others wounded.  Considering both combat and heat casualties, Cahill’s 52-man platoon at the base of Hill 342 had only 37 effectives at its summit.  NKPA intensive fire had a demoralizing effect on the soldiers, and it was all the unit’s officers could do to keep them in their defensive positions.  In a brilliant move, Cahill suggested to the Army commander that he set Marines into positions among the soldiers.  Cahill understood service rivalry; knowing that the soldiers and Marines were eyeing one another, service pride kicked in, and the troops on the line, both Army and Marine, settled down to the business at hand.  Cahill lost two additional Marines to enemy fire as his NCOs were setting them into position.

Improvise — Adapt — Overcome

At noon, several companies of NKPA troops assaulted the summit of Hill 342 supported by intense machine gunfire.  Despite the onslaught, Marines and soldiers delivered well-aimed return fire.  However, the situation was desperate, and Baker Company was ordered by 5 RCT to remain in-place until a larger force of Marines could relieve them.  2ndLt Cahill used his radio to call in Army artillery support to silence enemy mortars.  As the artillery unit registered its fires, Cahill looked for and spotted an enemy, forward observer.  Yet, despite the artillery battery’s accurate barrage, NKPA mortars continued to rain down on the soldiers and Marines.  Then, with water and ammunition becoming in short supply, Cahill radioed in for an airdrop.  Within a short time, a USAF R4D flew over Hill 342 and dropped badly needed ammunition and water —  the resupply landed amid the enemy positions.

Cahill was back on the radio in short order.  1stMarBde handed the resupply mission to Marine Observation Squadron (VMO)-6, whose OY-2 aircraft dropped ammunition and water inside the Baker Company perimeter.  But, as the water cans hit the earth, most exploded, and the Marines and soldiers had to make do with only a few mouthfuls of water each.  Cahill’s Sergeant Macy volunteered to lead a patrol in search of water.  With permission granted, Macy and a few volunteers descended the southeastern slope under enemy fire, lugging 5-gallon cans along with them.  Meanwhile, the NKPA was working to surround and cut off Hill 342

While Cahill was making his way toward Hill 342, the rest of Taplett’s 3/5 (set in along the base of Hill 255) came under enemy mortar fire beginning at around 02:30 on 7 August.   Taplett was anxious about the situation with Cahill, but there was nothing he could do about it until sun up.

At around 02:00, Lieutenant Colonel Roise’s 2/5 began moving by truck to its terminus at the base of Hill 255.  NKPA delivered devastating mortar fire.  Roise was fortunate to lose only one Marine killed and eleven wounded — including Captain George E. Kittredge, the CO of Easy Company, 2/5.  Once 2/5 arrived in the vicinity of Hill 255, operational control of 2/5 and 3/5 reverted to Colonel Murray.  Murray ordered Roise to occupy Hill 99.  After repositioning 1/5, George Company 3/5 rejoined Taplett’s main body.

General Keane planned for 5 RCT to begin its assault at 0500, but the advance was stopped cold in the first hour.  The NKPA were not particularly impressed with Kean’s assault; they launched an attack of their own.  Cahill’s fight on Hill 342 constrained the entire 2nd Battalion, 5 RCT, in its attempt to hold open the Chinju Road.  Attaching Cahill’s platoon to Baker Company — and leaving the army company in place — was helping to do that, but the 5 RCT’s second battalion was temporarily lost to the regiment.

General Keane was desperate.  He ordered Murray to provide a battalion to relieve 2/5 RCT, and the mission assigned to 1/5.  Colonel Roise’s mission was to relieve the army battalion and clear the area of enemy forces.  Keane then ordered Craig to assume command of all forward units in the Chindong-ni area.[9]

When 2/5 reached the base of Hill 342, Colonel Roise ordered Dog Company to ascend the north fork toward Hill 342’s eastern spur and seize both the spur and the great hill.  First Lieutenant William E. Sweeney, newly appointed commander of Easy Company, was ordered to pass behind Sangnyong-ni and seize the western spur.  It was a wide dispersal of a light battalion, but Murray needed Roise to protect the valley between the two spurs and this was the only way he could do it.  The CO of D Company was Captain John Finn.  As the company ascended Hill 342, the Marines, having spent a sleepless night, began to experience the effects of rapidly increasing heat.  Thirty minutes into the climb, Finn’s Marines encountered rifle and machine gun fire.  Roise’s Operations Officer, Major Morgan J. McNeely, had previously told Finn that he would encounter no organized enemy resistance.  The constant chatter of Chinese-made burp guns proved McNeely wrong.

Finn called together his platoon commanders, assigning each a route to ascend Hill 342.   2nd Platoon, under Second Lieutenant Wallace J. Reid, was ordered to push through Taepyong-ni and begin his climb at its juncture with the spur.  Second Lieutenant Edward T. Emmelman would lead his 3rd Platoon to the top of the spur from the left.  Second Lieutenant Arthur A. Oakley, commanding 1st Platoon, would hold the right flank and ascend the southern slope of Hill 342.  Enemy opposition was scattered, but before Dog Company reached the crest of the spur, five Marines had received gunshot wounds.  As with Cahill’s Marines, Captain Finn’s men were suffering the effects of heat exhaustion in the triple-digit heat.

Captain Finn ordered his executive officer (XO), First Lieutenant Robert T. Hannifin, to establish the company headquarters and mortar section on the high ground directly above Taepyong-ni.  At dusk, Dog Company was still several hundred yards from the summit of Hill 342.  Finn radioed Roise for permission to rest his men for the night.  While Finn was communicating with Roise, 2ndLt Oakley climbed to the summit and contacted Cahill and the Baker Company commander — both of whom accompanied Oakley to Finn’s position.  The Army CO advised Finn to remain in place until early the next morning and Roise agreed.

During the early morning hours of 8 August, NKPA troops covertly approached the perimeter of Hill 342.  At first light, the enemy assaulted the crest of the hill.  The fight turned into a gruesome hand-to-hand struggle.  Soldiers and Marines repelled the attack, but not without taking serious casualties.  One Marine died from gunshot and bayonet wounds.  Captain Finn’s three platoons assaulted the hill, brushing aside enemy resistance and joining what was left of Baker Company and Cahill’s platoon.  While effecting the relief, NKPA rifle and automatic weapons punished the perimeter with intensive fire.

Once Dog Company was in possession of the summit perimeter, Baker Company and Cahill’s Marines descended the hill.  Cahill had lost one-third of his men.  Captain Finn fared no better.  NKPA fire killed several of his men while setting in their defenses, including 2ndLt Oakley and 2ndLt. Reid.  2ndLt Emmelman received a serious head wound.  As Captain Finn moved forward to recover Reid’s body, he too was struck in the shoulder and head.

First Lieutenant Hannifin, assigned to direct the company headquarters and mortar platoon, moved forward to join the rest of Company D at the summit.  Just below the summit, he encountered the First Sergeant, who was helping to evacuate Captain Finn.  Hannifin learned that he was now the CO of Dog Company.  He was also the only officer remaining alive in the company.  In the absence of officers commanding platoons, the NCOs stepped up.

1stLt Hannifin reached the summit of Hill 342 with just enough time to organize the defenses and set in his mortars before the NKPA initiated a second attack.  The Marines beat back the assault, killing dozens of the attackers, but the company had lost and additional six killed and 25 wounded.  While speaking with Roise on the field radio, Hannifin collapsed due to heat exhaustion.  Master Sergeant Harold Reeves assumed command of Dog Company.  Second Lieutenant Leroy K. Wirth, a forward observer from 1/11 assumed responsibility for all supporting arms, including aircraft from MAG-33 circling overhead.  Both Reeves and Wirth exposed themselves to enemy fire by ranging forward to call in airstrikes and reassess their tactical situation.

Easy Company 2/5 moved forward along the western spur of Hill 342 and dug in.  Colonel Roise dispatched Captain Andrew M. Zimmer, who was serving as 2/5’s assistant operations officer, to take command of Dog Company.  NKPA forces continued to harass Zimmer’s Marines at the summit, but because the enemy had taken a massive number of casualties in the fight, they gave the Marines of Dog Company a wide birth.

Major Walter Gall, commanding Weapons Company 2/5, dispatched a combat patrol to eliminate NKPA machine guns in Tokkong-ni.  Unable to dislodge the communists, the patrol returned to Gall and briefed him on the enemy situation.  With this information, 1stLt Ira T. Carr unleashed his 81mm mortar section and all enemy activity in Tokkong-ni ended.

On the afternoon of 9 August, an Army unit relieved Dog Company at the summit and 2/24 INF relieved Roise’s 2/5 of its responsibility for Hill 342.  Documents later retrieved from enemy dead revealed that the NKPA forces engaged with soldiers and Marines at the summit were members of the 13th and 15th Regiments of the NKPA 6th Infantry Division.  Cahill reported a conservative estimate of 150 dead communists in the hill fight, in total around 400 enemy KIA, but the actual number is unknown.  What is known is that between 500 to 600 communist troops challenged the Marines and soldiers to the right to possess Hill 342 — and lost.

For his effort atop Hill 342, then Second Lieutenant Blackie Cahill received the Silver Star medal and a Purple Heart.  The courageous Marine officer would later receive three additional Purple Heart medals and the Bronze Star.

Sources:

  1. Appleman, R. E.  South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu.  Washington: Department of the Army, 1998.
  2. Catchpole, B.  The Korean War.  London: Robinson Publishing, 2001.
  3. Geer, A.  The New Breed: The Story of the U.S. Marines in Korea. New York: Harper & Bros., 1952.
  4. Hastings, M.  The Korean War.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
  5. Varhola, M. J.  Fire and Ice: The Korean War, 1950-1953.  Mason City: Da Capo Press, 2000.

Endnotes:

[1] Sixty-five percent of the Brigade’s officers and NCOs were combat veterans from World War II.

[2] Bob Taplett (1918-2004) served with distinction as a Marine officer for twenty years, serving in World War II and the Korean War.  He was awarded the Navy Cross and two awards of the Silver Star medal in recognition of his courage under fire.  Retiring in 1960, Taplett authored an autobiography titled Darkhorse Six, which was published in 2003.

[3] Hill 342 stood 342 meters above sea level (1,122 feet), a substantial climb in full combat gear in 112° temperatures.

[4] General Kean’s plan was to withdraw 27 INF to serve in division reserve, replacing it with 5th Marines.  The Army’s 5 RCT would serve on the Marine’s right flank.

[5] The 5th Marines, hastily formed for combat duty at Camp Pendleton, departed California on 7 July.  The regiment was understrength.  Typically, a Marine infantry battalion consists of an H&S Company, Weapons Company, and three rifle companies.  This is the standard configuration for a maneuver unit.  In July 1950, Murray’s battalions consisted of an H&S Company, Weapons Company, and two rifle companies.  These personnel shortages were the result of President Truman’s scheme to gut the U.S. military following World War II.

[6] Second Lieutenant John J. H. (“Blackie”) Cahill (1924-2005) served in the U. S. Marine Corps (1939-1974).  There is not much that we know about Cahill, beyond the fact that he likely served aboard ship during the New Guinea campaign, later participated in the island campaigns of the Gilbert Islands, at Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa as an enlisted Marine.  He may have left active service at the end of World War II to attend college.  In 1950, Cahill was a 2nd Lieutenant with Company G, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines during the battle for Pusan.  He later served with the 5th Marines at the Chosin Reservoir.  He later served three tours of duty in Vietnam, notably at the Battle of Khe Sanh when he commanded 1st Battalion, 9th Marines.  Cahill’s twin brother Vincent also served in World War II in the Army Air Corps.  Colonel Vincent S. Cahill retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1976.

[7] The 75mm Recoilless Rifle was a tripod-mounted weapon weighing 114.5 pounds.  It fired HE, HEAT, and WP rounds, had a range of 7,000 yards, and was effective against T-34 tanks within 400 yards.  A RR platoon consisted of four rifles/14 Marines.

[8] Every Marine, regardless of MOS, is a qualified infantry rifleman.

[9] General Craig was underwhelmed with 5 RCT’s performance; there was, in his opinion, no good reason for the army regiment’s lack of advance — except that the forward area was confused.  In the one-lane dirt roads, military traffic had jammed the MSR and none of the US forces could advance or withdraw.  Craig realized that the slowness of the 5 RCT’s advance had opened the door to the NKPA, which had launched its own attack. 


Operation Buffalo

July 1967

Some Background

As summarized in McNamara’s Folly, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara threw a costly wrench into the contest for control of the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ).  His inane plan not only escalated the material costs of fighting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), but it also dramatically increased the number of Marines, soldiers, and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops who were killed and wounded while building it.[1]

Not a single Marine commander favored the so-called McNamara Line in I CTZ.  Shaking his head in disgust, one Marine officer said, “With these bastards, you’d have to build the [wall] all the way to India and it would take the entire Marine Corps and half the Army to guard it — and even then, they’d probably burrow under it.”  Even the Commandant of the Marine Corps, in his testimony before Congress, rigorously opposed the McNamara Line.

The Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) assigned overall operational responsibility for I CTZ to the Third Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).  In land area, I CTZ involved roughly 18,000 square miles.   III MAF included the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv), 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), 3rd Force Logistics Command (3rdFLC), Provisional Corps, Vietnam, 1st Cavalry Division, 101st Airborne Division, Americal Division, Sub Unit 1, First Radio Battalion, 29th Civil Affairs Company, 7th Psychological Operations Battalion, and several ARVN and Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC) commands.

The McNamara Line placed US Forces in I CTZ in a dangerous position because in order to construct the barrier, III MAF had to divert Marines away from their combat assignments to build it.  With the 1stMarDiv operating near Chu Lai, in Quang Nam Province (65 miles south of Da Nang), responsibility for northern I Corps (abutting the demilitarized zone (DMZ)) fell to the 3rdMarDiv.  Despite the fact that the 3rdMarDiv was the largest Marine division ever formed in the history of the Marine Corps, it still didn’t have the men it needed to defend northern I Corps.

The task of building the McNamara Line fell upon Navy and Marine Corps combat engineers; Marine infantrymen provided much of the manual labor, and 3rdMarDiv regiments and separate battalions had to provide protection to those who labored in its construction.  Beside the already complicated matter of building the line, COMUSMACV wanted to project completed “yesterday.”

NVA commanders watched the construction activities with keen interest, no doubt asking themselves how the NVA could use the McNamara disruption to their advantage.  At the beginning of July 1967, the NVA had 35,000 troops assembled just north of the DMZ.  Their intention was to swarm across the Marine outpost at Con Thien, overwhelm US forces operating in Leatherneck Square,[2] and invade en mass all of Quang Tri Province.

Con Thien (The Hill of Angels) was important to the Marines because the location was situated high enough in elevation to provide an excellent observation post over one of the primary NVA routes into South Vietnam.  Moreover, anyone standing atop the 160-meter hill at Con Thien looking southeast could observe the entire forward logistics base at Dong Ha.

Operation Buffalo

The NVA (supported by heavy artillery and mortar fire) made two thrusts at Con Thien.   The first (and largest) of these attacks specifically targeted the Marine position at Hill 160.  Operation Buffalo commenced on 2 July.  Lieutenant Colonel Richard J. “Spike” Schening deployed his 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9) in and around Con Thien.  Alpha Company and Bravo Company operated north-northeast of a strong point along Route 561, Delta Company and H&S Company occupied the battalion’s perimeter, and Charlie Company was detached to provide security for HQ 9th Marines at Dong Ha.

According to the 9th Marine’s commander, Colonel George E. Jerue, “The TAOR assigned to the 9th Marines was so large that the regiment did not have the option of conducting security patrols on a regular basis.  The NVA, realizing these limitations, would withdraw from the area until after a patrol had completed its mission, and then re-infiltrate the area just cleared.”  It was for this reason that Alpha and Bravo companies were sent to control Route 561.

On the morning of 2 July, Captain Sterling K. Coates led his Bravo Company into its heaviest engagement of the Vietnam War.  Bravo Company and Captain Albert C. Slater’s Alpha Company moved abreast in a northward direction along Route 561.  Both companies stepped off at 08:00.  Alpha Company was on the right.  Route 561 was a ten-foot-wide cart path bordered by waist-high hedgerows.  Unknown to either Coates or Slater, two NVA infantry battalions were waiting for them behind well-prepared fighting positions.  The next few hours would transform the Hill of Angels into a meat grinder.

Within an hour, 2nd Platoon (2ndPlt) Bravo Company achieved its first objective, a small crossroad some 1,200 meters north of the trace.  Enemy snipers began taking 3rdPlt and the company command element under fire as soon as they reached the crossroad.  As Captain Coates shifted the 3rdPlt to suppress the enemy fire, the NVA intensified its delivery.  Coates halted the 3rdPlt’s advance and directed 2ndPlt to shift right in an attempt to outflank the enemy’s position.  At the same time, Captain Coates ordered 1stPlt to move forward for rear area security and/or reinforcement if required.  NVA fire halted 2ndPlt’s advance.  Within a few moments, Bravo Company began receiving heavy small arms fire from the front and both flanks.  With the Marines halted and assuming a defense, the NVA began to deliver artillery and mortar fire.

Alpha Company Marines tripped two booby traps, injuring several Marines.  The company advance was halted while Captain Slater called for a medevac.  Once the wounded Marines had been evacuated, Slater moved forward in an attempt to link up with Coates but was prevented from doing so by heavy enemy fire.

Bravo Company casualties were mounting by the second — its position rapidly deteriorating as the NVA successfully cut 3rdPlt and the command element from 2ndPlt.  With the Marines under heavy fire, enemy soldiers armed with flame weapons ignited the hedgerows on both sides of the road.  2ndPlt launched an assault to help 3rdPlt, but enemy artillery and mortar fire increased.  With a grass fire threatening to overwhelm them, Marines withdrew only to enter into a killing zone of NVA machine guns.

Enemy artillery killed Captain Coates, his radio operator, two platoon commanders, and the company artillery forward observer.  The Forward Air Controller, Captain Warren O. Keneipp, assumed command of Bravo Company, but without a radio operator, Captain Keneipp lost contact with 2ndPlt and had no control over subsequent events (please see comment below).  The company executive officer (XO) (2nd in command) was with 2ndPlt; his radio was the only source of comms with the battalion command post (CP), but cut off from the rest of the company, the XO was in no position to influence the action.

Staff Sergeant Leon R. Burns commanded 1stPlt.  He led the platoon forward to reinforce 2ndPlt and 3rdPlt, but enemy assaults hindered his advance.  Burns called in air strikes and specifically asked for napalm.  The strike delivered the much-needed munitions within twenty meters of the 1stPlt’s position.  After the airstrike, the enemy assault faltered, which allowed Burns to move forward and incorporate what remained of the 2ndPlt.  After placing his Marines into a hasty defense, the company’s Navy Corpsmen began treating their wounded Marines.

Upon learning that Alpha and Bravo companies had run into a hornet’s nest, and the Bravo Company commander had been killed, Colonel Schening dispatched Captain Henry J. Radcliffe (the Battalion Operations Officer) to take command of Bravo Company.  Radcliffe led forward an additional rifle platoon from Delta Company and four tanks.  First Lieutenant Gatlin J. Howell (the Battalion Intelligence Officer) accompanied Radcliffe because his familiarity with the terrain surrounding Con Thien.

Radcliffe’s arrival at the point of contact was timely because his relief platoon foiled an NVA attempt to encircle Bravo Company.  As the tanks and helicopter gunships dispersed the NVA, Delta Company moved forward with its two remaining rifle platoons.  Radcliffe directed the Delta Company commander to secure a landing zone.  Within minutes, Charlie Company began to arrive by helicopter from Dong Ha.

With additional support from Charlie and Delta companies, Radcliffe continued his assault.  When Captain Radcliffe made contact with Staff Sergeant Burns, he asked, “Where is the rest of Bravo Company?”  Burns answered, “Sir, you’re looking at all that’s left of Bravo Company.”

With Burns supervising the evacuation of wounded and dead Marines, Radcliffe continued forward to Bravo Company’s furthest advance.  At that point, Radcliffe established defensive positions and began attending to the 3rdPlt’s dead and wounded.  Lieutenant Howell, who had previously commanded 3rdPlt, quickly searched for Marines and helped move them back to the corpsman for triage.  At that moment, the enemy re-initiated artillery fire and the company’s withdrawal was made more difficult when two of the supporting tanks triggered landmines.

Radcliffe shepherded the casualties into the landing zone for medevac.  While waiting for the airlift, NVA dropped mortars into the LZ, inflicting even more casualties on the medical corpsmen and litter bearers.  By this time, the fog of war had completely descended upon 1/9’s forward elements.  With officers and senior NCOs killed and wounded, corporals took charge.  The NVA’s artillery assault on the landing zone precluded additional helicopter support, so ambulatory Marines began carrying their wounded brothers back to Con Thien.

Throughout the battle, Marine and naval gunfire engaged the enemy in a furious duel.  During that day, Schening’s CP received over 700 enemy artillery rounds.  Marine aircraft flew 28 sorties, dropping 90 tons of munitions on the well-fortified enemy positions.

Meanwhile, Captain Slater’s Alpha Company remained heavily engaged.  The number of Marine casualties brought the company to a standstill, prompting Slater to order his 3rdPlt to establish a hasty landing zone defense in the company rear area.  After the first flight of evac helicopters departed the zone, NVA hit the 3rdPlt with mortar fire and a ground assault.  Slater moved his 2ndPlt and command group to reinforce the 3rdPlt.  The NVA moved to within 50 meters of the company line before Marine fire broke the attack, but owing to the number of their casualties, Alpha Company was relegated to a defensive position until the NVA force withdrew later that evening.

As Colonel Schening moved his CP forward, he sent his XO, Major Darrell C. Danielson, ahead with additional reinforcements and transport to help evacuate the casualties.  When Danielson contacted the fifty remaining Marines, he organized a medical evaluation and called for medevacs.  Several Marines were bleeding out, everyone appeared to be in a state of shock.  Despite on-going enemy artillery and mortar fire, Danielson managed to extricate Alpha and Bravo companies back to Con Thien.

Colonel Schening reported his situation to the Colonel Jerue, the regimental commander: situation critical.  Jerue ordered Major Willard J. Woodring, commanding 3/9, to reinforce Schening[3].  Upon arrival, Schening directed Woodring to assume operational control of Alpha and Charlie companies (1/9).  Major Woodring directed a five-company assault on the enemy flanks while what remained of Bravo and the LZ security platoon from Delta company withdrew into Con Thien.  Woodring’s aggressive assault caused the NVA units to withdraw.  Later in the day, Staff Sergeant Burns[4] reported only 27 combat effectives remained in Bravo Company.  In total, 1/9 had lost 84 killed in action, 190 wounded, and 9 missing.  Of enemy casualties, no precise number exists.[5]

Enemy contact continued for the next three days.  At 09:00 on 3 July, an Air Force aerial observer reported several hundred NVA soldiers advancing on Marine positions north of Con Thien.  Echo Battery 3/12 dropped a massive number of rounds on the NVA position killing an estimated 75 communists.  To the east, Major Woodring called in artillery strikes for twelve hours in preparation for an assault scheduled for 4 July.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter A. Wickwire’s BLT 1/3 (Special Landing Force Alpha) reinforced the 9th Marines and tied in with Woodring’s right flank.[6]  Colonel George E. Jerue, commanding the 9th Marines, planned his assault to push the NVA out of the Long Son area, some 4,000 meters north of Con Thien.  Woodring began his assault at around 0630, encountering heavy resistance from well-concealed enemy positions southwest of Bravo Company’s engagement on 2 July.  A prolonged battle involving tanks, artillery, and close air support ensued for most of the day.  At 18:30, when Woodring halted his advance, 3/9 had lost 15 dead and 33 wounded.  Wickwire’s 1/3 had lost 11 wounded in the same action.

BLT 2/3 (SLF Bravo) under Major Wendell O. Beard’s BLT 2/3 effected an air assault at Cam Lo, joining Operation Buffalo at mid-afternoon on 4 July.[7]  This battalion moved west and then northward toward the western edge of the battle area toward Con Thien.

At daylight on 5 July, NVA artillery began firing on Marine units located northeast of Con Thien but kept its ground units away from the Marines as they advanced.  Meanwhile, search and recovery teams had begun the grim task of retrieving Bravo Company’s dead.

On 6 July, all battalions continued moving north.  Beard’s 2/3 ran into an enemy force supported by mortars less than two miles south of Con Thien.  Within an hour, 2/3 killed 35 NVA, while suffering 5 killed and 25 wounded.  Major Woodring and Colonel Wickwire advanced their battalions under intermittent artillery fire.  At around 09:00, Woodring decided to send a reinforced rifle company 1,500 meters to the north-northwest to cover his left flank.  Captain Slater’s Alpha Company, which now included the survivors of Charlie Company and a detachment from 3rd Recon Battalion, moved into position without enemy resistance and established a strong combat outpost.

Slater’s movement went unnoticed, but that wasn’t the case with the main elements of Woodring’s and Wickwire’s battalions.  Both units encountered heavy artillery fire.  By 16:00, neither of the battalions could go any further.  Wickwire had lost a tank but due to concentrated enemy artillery fire, was forced to pull back without recovering it.  Captain Burrell H. Landes, commanding Bravo Company 1/3, received a report from an aerial observer that 400 or more NVA were heading directly to confront Woodring and Wickwire.  A short time later, accurate NVA artillery fire began blasting the Marines.  As Woodring and Wickwire prepared to meet the approaching NVA under the enemy’s artillery assault, Captain Slater’s recon patrol reported that the approaching NVA was heading directly into Alpha Company’s position.

The NVA force was unaware of Slater’s blocking position until they were within 500 feet, at which time Slater’s Marines engaged the NVA.  Since the NVA didn’t know where the Marine’s fire was coming from, they scattered in every direction, some of them running directly into the Marine line.  Once the enemy had figured out where Slater’s Marines were positioned, they organized an assault.  The Marine lines held, however.  At one point, NVA troops began lobbing grenades into the Marine position.  Lance Corporal James L. Stuckey began picking the grenades up and tossing them back.  Stucky lost his right hand on the third toss when the grenade exploded as it left his hand.[8]  Stuckey remained with his fireteam throughout the night without any medical assistance.

While the Alpha Company fight was underway, elements of the 90th NVA Regiments attacked Woodring’s and Wickwire’s Marine with blocks of TNT.  Marines called in air support, artillery, and naval gunfire.  By 21:30, the Marines had repelled the enemy assault and caused the NVA regiment to withdraw.  At around 22:00, Woodring radioed Slater to return to the battalion perimeter at first light.

Alpha Company mustered before daylight on 7 July.  As the sun began to light the sky, Slater’s Marines discovered 154 dead NVA just beyond the Marine perimeter.  About an hour later, after Slater had returned to Woodring’s lines, the NVA unleashed a terrible barrage on Slater’s old position.  In front of Woodring and Wickwire’s battalion lay an additional 800 dead communists.  Later that morning, however, an NVA artillery shell found its way to 1/9’s command bunker, killing eleven Marines, including First Lieutenant Gatlin J. Howell,[9] who had gone to the aid of Bravo Company on 2 July.  Lieutenant Colonel Schening was wounded in the same incident.[10]

Operation Buffalo ended on 14 July.  Marines reported enemy losses at 1,290 dead, two captured.  Total Marine losses were 159 killed, 345 wounded.  The NVA attack at Con Thien was relatively short in duration but particularly vicious and the communists paid a heavy price.  Since the enemy dead were so horribly chewed up from air, artillery, and naval gunfire, the Marines were forced into counting the NVA solder’s water canteens for a sense of enemy dead.

Sources:

  1. Telfer, G. L. and Lane Rogers.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese, 1967.  Washington: Headquarters U. S. Marine Corps, 1984.
  2. Bowman, J. S.  The Vietnam War: Day by Day.  New York: Mallard Books, 1989.
  3. Nolan, K. W.  Operation Buffalo: USMC Fight for the DMZ.  Dell Publishing, 1992.

Endnotes:

[1] In this context, Robert McNamara was a war criminal.

[2] Located south of the DMZ, Leatherneck Square was a TAOR extending six miles (east-west) by nine miles (north-south); it’s corners were measured from Con Thien (northwest) to Firebase Gio Linh (northeast), and from Dong Ha to Cam Lo on its southern axis (an area of more than 54 square miles).  Between March 1967 to February 1969, 1,500 Marines and Navy Corpsmen were killed in this area, with an additional 9,265 wounded in action. 

[3] Awarded Silver Star Medal for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action between 2 July – 9 July 1967.  Colonel Woodring passed away in 2003.

[4] Awarded Navy Cross for this action.

[5] After 14 July, estimates of enemy KIA ranged from 525 to 1,200.

[6] Colonel Wickwire was awarded the Silver Star Medal for conspicuous gallantry for service on 6 July 1967.

[7] Retired Lieutenant Colonel Wendell Otis “Moose” Beard, a former NFL football player with the Washington Redskins, served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam Wars.  He was the recipient of the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart Medal.  He passed away in 1980. 

[8] Awarded Navy Cross Medal.

[9] First Lieutenant Howell was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on 2 July 1967.

[10] Colonel Schening was also wounded at Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and during the Korean War.  This was his fourth Purple Heart Medal.  He was awarded the Silver Star Medal for service during the Korean War while serving as XO, Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.  Colonel Schening passed away in 1996.


Meade River

20 November — 9 December 1968

Background

Twenty miles south of Da Nang, Vietnam, west of Highway 1, is a 36-square-mile area of flatland.  Numerous waterways and man made canals criss cross this area and these are separated by thick tufts of five-foot high elephant grass.  In 1968 it was an area ideal for concealing two battalions of enemy infantry, which at the time included the 1st Battalion, 36th Regiment of regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) R-20 Battalion.  The area was extremely dangerous to US and Republic of Vietnam (RVN) forces; firefights and ambuscades were frighteningly common.  The Marines called this area Dodge City

OPERATION MEADE RIVER was planned as part of the RVN’s Le Loi (Accelerated Pacification) Campaign [Note 1] — a series of operations designed to search for and destroy enemy forces.  On the morning of 20 November 1968, seven Marine battalions moved overland and by helicopter to establish a cordon around Dodge City.  While moving into initial staging areas, even before the sweeps began, Marines lost one KIA, suffered 25 WIA, and lost two helicopters.  It was not a good omen.  The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines (2/7) jumped off at midday.  Their mission was to sweep from the western side of the cordon toward the rail lines.  At around 1630, Company G (Golf 2/7) encountered an NVA bunker complex in an area the Marines nicknamed The Horseshoe.  Enemy fire from these bunkers was intense and the Marines withdrew with six additional KIA.

On 21 November, Delta 1/1 and Lima 3/26 resumed the assault on The Horseshoe.  Heavy enemy fire stalled the advance.  The enemy had decided they weren’t leaving without a fight and the Marines were equally determined to give them one.  The Marines resumed their assault on 22 November.  Enemy machine gun fire devastated Echo 2/7 at close range as it began to cross a small stream; Marine losses were 7 KIA and 23 WIA.  It took the company ten minutes to disengage.  Concurrently, Delta 1/1 began its sweep from the North but they too were hit by intensive enemy fire with loses of 2 KIA and 17 wounded.

On 23 November, 3/26 moved from the Southwest toward the Horseshoe and joined up with 2/7.  Hotel 2/7 overran several enemy positions and was able to recover the remains of six Marines lost on 20 November.  Early on 24 November, Marines directed air and artillery against the Horseshoe; 2/7 reinforced by Kilo 3/26 renewed its attack.  Again, strong enemy fire halted the Marine advance.

Before jumping off on 25 November, 2/7 directed artillery fire into suspected enemy positions before continuing the attack.  There was no enemy resistance because the enemy had withdrawn during the night.  Over the next four days, the Marines continued to exert pressure on the enemy within the cordon.  It was grueling work for the Marines as they advanced through thick grass that concealed enemy defensive positions.  Meanwhile, 3/5 initiated an assault along Route 4 which necessitated the destruction of several bunker complexes.  As they approached a section called “The Hook,” the battalion encountered stiff enemy resistance.  The battalion lost 2 KIA and 28 wounded before pulling back to allow for air and artillery fire.

3/5 reinitiated offensive operations on 2 December but made no progress.  After additional air and artillery bombardments, 3/26 joined 3/5’s advance on 3 December and the Marines succeeded in penetrating the enemy’s intricate defensive positions during the next day.  After air dropping napalm on the enemy’s defenses on 5 December, Marines overran the bunker complex and discovered the remains of 87 enemy dead.

On 6 December, Echo 2/26 encountered a stubborn NVA bunker complex just south of the La Tho River.  Hotel 2/5 and Alpha 1/7 attacked the complex on the morning of 7 December but were quickly pinned down and suffered heavy casualties.  As forward observers called in for additional air and artillery support, the grunts withdrew to set up night defensive positions.  At around 1130 on 8 December, 3/26 supported by several armored personnel carriers from the ARVN 2nd Troop, 4th ARVN Cavalry aggressively attacked the complex finding 79 enemy dead from the previous day’s engagement.  For a time, Hotel 2/5 was pinned down by a final line of bunkers spewing hot lead through the Marine’s line of advance, but the equally stubborn Marines used explosives to destroy the bunkers one at a time, which killed an additional 39 NVA/VC defenders.

The highly pissed-off Marines of Alpha 1/7 viciously assaulted a series of 12 bunkers killing 47 NVA.  As the Marines pushed through the foliage to the bank of the river, they engaged another enemy unit attempting to escape into river killing an additional twenty NVA/VC.  Alpha gave up six of their men KIA.

On the night of 8 December, Lima 3/26 engaged an NVA unit, killing fifteen enemy with the loss of 5 Marines.  At sundown, India 3/26’s lead platoon found itself cut off from the rest of the company by intense enemy fire.  Staff Sergeant Karl G. Taylor, serving as the Company Gunnery Sergeant, led a rescue team to recover and evacuate the platoon’s more seriously wounded Marines.  After Taylor’s Marines had moved several wounded to safety, he returned with four volunteers to reach another group of wounded Marines who were laying exposed to enemy fire.  Finding the position too strong, Taylor instructed his volunteers to move back to the company line, and then arming himself with a grenade launcher, charged across the rice paddy while firing 40-mm grenades into the enemy position.  Although wounded several times, Taylor silenced the weapon.

Medal of Honor Citation Summary 

Navy Medal of Honor

While serving as Company Gunnery Sergeant on the night of 8 December 1968, Taylor was informed that the platoon commander of the lead platoon had been mortally wounded and that the platoon was pinned down by intense enemy machine gun fire.  Staff Sergeant Taylor with another Marine in support, crawled forward to the beleaguered unit through a hail of hostile fire, shouted encouragement and instructions to the men, directing them to covered positions.

With his companion, Taylor repeatedly maneuvered across an open area to rescue those Marines who were too seriously wounded to move themselves.  Upon learning that there were additional seriously wounded men lying in open area, exposed to the fire of an enemy machine gun position, Staff Sergeant Taylor led four Marines across the fire-swept terrain in an attempt to rescue the cut off Marines.  When Taylor’s advance was halted by devastating enemy fire, Taylor directed his Marines to return to the company command post.  He then took his grenade launcher and, in full view of the enemy, charged across the open rice paddy toward the enemy machine gun position, firing his weapon as he ran.

Although wounded several times, he succeeded in reaching the machine gun bunker and destroying it.  By this time, Staff Sergeant Taylor was mortally wounded, but his actions saved the lives of the isolated Marines.  By his indomitable courage, inspiring leadership, and selfless dedication, Staff Sergeant Karl G. Taylor upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.  

Richard M. Nixon

President of the United States

Who was Staff Sergeant Karl Taylor? 

He was born on 14 July 1939 in Laurel, Maryland.  After leaving high school, Karl worked for a construction company as a scraper operator.  On 15 January 1959, twenty-year old Karl and his brother Walter enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps at the recruiting station in Baltimore.  After recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, Karl completed combat training with the 1st Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Geiger [Note 2], North Carolina.  Taylor’s first tour of duty was as a rifleman with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.  After promotion to corporal, which made him eligible for duty as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor, Karl applied for and was accepted to attend DI School at Parris Island.  He served as a drill instructor until 1963.

In 1964, Taylor joined the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa where he was assigned to Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines.  Taylor served his first combat tour when the division was sent to Vietnam in 1965.  Upon rotation back to the United States, Taylor served as a sergeant-instructor at Company A, Officer’s Candidate School, Quantico, Virginia.  He was promoted to staff sergeant on 1 September 1966.

SSGT Karl G. Taylor Sr.

In 1968, Taylor returned to Vietnam for his second combat tour of duty.  He was assigned as the Company Gunnery Sergeant, Company I, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines.

Taylor’s remains were returned to his family and he was interred at the Independence Cemetery, Washington County, Pennsylvania.  In addition to receiving the nation’s highest award for conspicuous gallantry, Taylor’s family was awarded his Purple Heart medal.  He was also entitled to wear the Combat Action Ribbon (two awards), the Presidential Unit Citation (two awards) [Note 3], and three awards of the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal.

Operation Meade River Terminated

On the evening of 8 December, the enemy still retained a narrow strip of ground between 3/26 and the Song La Tho.  Another push was ordered to eliminate these communists.  Along with Marine Corps artillery, the USS New Jersey directed its sixteen-inch guns on these remaining positions throughout the night and into the morning.  3/26 launched its final assault at 1100 on 9 December.  Despite the assault of overwhelming field and naval artillery during the night, remaining enemy forces tenaciously resisted the ground attack, but the Marines methodically and thoroughly eliminated the enemy wherever found. 

Operation Meade River officially ended at 1800 on 9 December.  The battle was a major event pitting determined Marines against equally resolved North Vietnamese and Viet Cong defenders.  The operation ended with 1,023 enemy dead, 123 prisoners taken, and an additional 71 VC were captured when discovered hiding among local populations.  Marines also destroyed 360 enemy bunkers and captured 120 tons of rice stores — but the cost was high.  108 Marines lost their lives with 510 wounded in action.  ARVN casualties were 2 KIA and 37 WIA.  Although initially vanquished, the persistent enemy soon began infiltrating snipers and before the end of December, Marines observed that communist forces were again preparing to launch assaults against Da Nang and Hoi An from Dodge City.  By that time, the Marines had turned their attention to another problem area which they called “Arizona Territory.”

Sources:

  1. Hunt, R.  Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds.  Westview Press, 1995. 
  2. Shulimson, J.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam, 1968: The Defining Year.  Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1997.
  3. White, J. P.  “Civil Affairs in Vietnam.”  Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D. C.

Endnotes:

[1]  Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) was a pacification program created on 9 May 1967 that included military and civilian components of the US and RVN.  The objective of CORDS was to gain support for the government of RVN from its rural populations influenced or controlled by insurgent communist forces (VC) and regular NVA.  One of CORDS successes was the integration of civilian and military efforts to combat the communist insurgency.

[2]  Named in honor of General Roy S. Geiger, USMC — one of the Corps’ first naval aviators and the only Marine to command a U. S. Army during World War II.

[3]  Although a combat decoration awarded to every Marine in the unit cited, the Presidential Unit Citation is roughly equivalent to the Navy Cross Medal in precedence of other unit awards.  

Flying Sergeants

Aviation history began before there were airplanes and the first use of aviators actually began with lighter-than-air balloons.  In 1794, French observation balloons were used to monitor enemy troop movements.  Balloons were also employed during the American Civil War, as part of the Army Signal Corps, for observing enemy movements and artillery spotting, and this in turn necessitated the development of a system for communicating between aviators and ground personnel.

In 1906, the Commandant of the Army Signal School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Major George O. Squier, began studying aeronautical theory and lectured student-officers on the Wright flying machine.  One of his fellow instructors was a captain by the name of Billy Mitchell, whose expertise included the use of balloons in reconnaissance missions.  Mitchell also became interested in aeronautical principles.

Major Squier later served as an executive assistant to the Army’s Chief Signal Officer, Brigadier General James Allen.  In 1907, at Squier’s urging, Allen created the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps.  In December of that year, the Signal Corps requested bids for a heavier-than-air flying machine.  Not everyone in the Army agreed with this development, but ultimately, the Aeronautical Division became the world’s first military aviation organization[1] when it purchased the Wright Model A aircraft in 1909.

American naval interest in aviation followed the Royal Navy’s interests in developing aviation capabilities in 1908, when Prime Minister H. H. Asquith approved the formation of an Aerial Subcommittee within the Imperial Defense Committee.  At this time, the British were primarily interested in dirigible airships for over-water reconnaissance.

In 1910, American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss contracted with the U. S. Navy to develop and demonstrate an aircraft utility for ships at sea.  One of Curtiss’ pilots, Eugene Ely, took off from the cruiser USS Birmingham anchored off the Virginia coast in late November 1910.  Then, in January 1911, Ely demonstrated the ability to land on a navy ship by setting down aboard the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay —efforts which validated Curtiss’ theory.  At the time, landing and takeoff platforms were crude temporary constructs.  On 27 January 1911, Curtiss further demonstrated the suitability of naval aviation by piloting the first sea plane from San Diego Bay.  The next day, Navy Lieutenant Theodore G. Ellyson became the first Naval Aviator when he took off in a Curtiss grass cutter.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when First Lieutenant Alfred Austell Cunningham[2] reported to the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland “for duty in connection with aviation.”  Lieutenant Cunningham became the first Marine aviator in August of that year when he took off in a Burgess Model H aircraft, presented to him by the Burgess Company of Marblehead, Massachusetts.

In those early days, the Navy and Marine Corps had different concepts of naval aviation and they were substantial enough to lead Marine aviators to conclude that the Marines should have their own section within the Navy Flying School (created in 1914).  In the next year, the Commandant of the Marine Corps authorized the creation of a Marine Aviation Company for duty with the Advanced Base Force.  The company, manned by ten officers and forty enlisted men, was assigned to the Navy Yard, Philadelphia.

A major expansion of the Marine air component came with America’s entry into World War I.  Wartime enlargements resulted in renaming organizations and a substantial increase in personnel.  In July 1918, Marine Aviation Company was divided and renamed First Aeronautic Company and First Marine Air Squadron.  The aeronautic company deployed to the Azores[3] to hunt for German submarines, while air squadrons were activated and assigned to the 1st Marine Aviation Force in France.

In France, Marine aviators in provided bomber and fighter support to the Navy’s Northern Bombing Group.  Within the short time span of America’s participation in World War I, Marine aviators recorded several aerial victories and credit for dropping in excess of fourteen tons of ordnance on enemy forces.  In total, the 1st Marine Aviation Force included 282 officers and 2,180 enlisted men operating from eight squadrons.  Second Lieutenant Ralph Talbot[4] was the first Marine Corps aviator to earn the Medal of Honor for action against the Luftstreitkräfte, the air contingent of the German Imperial Army.

By the end of the First World War, Marine aviators had gained aeronautical expertise in a wide range of air support roles, including air to air, air to ground, close air support for ground troops, and anti-submarine patrolling.  Congress authorized an aeronautical force of 1,020 men and permanent air stations at Quantico, Parris Island, and San Diego.  From that time forward, whenever and wherever Marines confronted an enemy, their aviation arm accompanied them —at the time, in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and in Nicaragua.  It was during the Banana Wars that Marine Corps pilots expanded their unique application air air-ground tactics, resupply of ground forces in remote locations, and air-to-ground communications.

If there was one area where Marine aviation stood apart from the other services, it was in the number of enlisted men serving as pilots, especially in time of national emergency/war.  Enlisted pilots were not a “new” concept.  The French air services employed enlisted men as pilots, but if there was a general rule, it would have been that commissioned officers were the primary source for aviators[5].  The Navy implemented its (enlisted) Naval Aviation Pilot designation in 1919.  The Marines, as part of the Naval Services, also authorized enlisted men to serve as pilots.  First Sergeant Benjamin Belcher was the first Marine enlisted man to serve as a NAP in 1923.  Some of these men later received commissions, such as Marine Ace Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth A. Walsh[6], who scored 21 kills and earned the Medal of Honor during World War II.  Walsh served as an enlisted pilot in the 1930s until he was commissioned in 1942.  In that year, there were 132 enlisted pilots serving in front line (fighter/bomber) squadron.  In later years, enlisted pilots flew helicopters and jet aircraft.

Technical Sergeant Robert A. Hill, USMC performed 76 combat missions as the pilot of an OY aircraft.  Hill earned the moniker “Bulletproof” because he often returned to base after a combat mission with massive amounts of bullet holes in his bird.  Hill was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for evacuating wounded Marines near the Chosin Reservoir while under heavy enemy fire.  Enlisted pilots also flew R4D[7] transports, which were also used to medevac wounded men and the remains of men killed in action.

During the transition from propeller to jet aircraft, enlisted pilots trained in the Lockheed P-80 (also, TO-1) but only after 1949 and not without some objection by a few squadron commanders who did not want enlisted men flying high performance aircraft.  It was a bit confusing and difficult.  Some of the enlisted pilots in the Korean War had been commissioned during World War II and then reverted to their enlisted ranks in the post-war demobilization period.  Some of these temporarily commissioned pilots left the Marine Corps after World War II and then later regretted doing so.  It was possible for these men to re-join the Marine Corps, but only as enlisted men.  Reenlistment within 90 days entitled these men to rejoin at the rank of Master Sergeant (in those days, E-7[8]), and if beyond 90 days, they could be accepted as Technical Sergeant (E-6).

VMF-311 was ordered into the Korea War with its F9F Panthers and several NAP pilots.  Master Sergeant Avery C. Snow was the first NAP to complete 100 combat missions in a jet aircraft.  Snow achieved the rank of captain during World War II while serving with VMSB-232.

In 1952, Master Sergeant Lowell T. Truex was ordered to fly over an area near the Yalu River.  During his pre-flight briefing, Truex was told that Air Force F-86s would fly escort for his mission.  He was not at all happy to learn that he had no escort and he was flying alone in Indian Country.  When Truex spotted several MiG-15s taking off, he started sweating.  He hurriedly completed his photo-reconnaissance mission and returned to base.  Truex had a few unkind things to say about the Air Force during his post-Op debrief, but he was reassured that the Air Force birds were on station and had kept a close eye on the MiG’s.  The problem was service-rivalry; Air Force pilots had little regard for Marine Corps enlisted pilots, so they occasionally went out of their way to make the flying sergeants feel uncomfortable.

Master Sergeant James R. Todd completed 101 combat missions before rotating back to the States.  He flew 51 missions in Banshees, 10 in the F9F, 23 in the F7F, 13 in F4U-5Ps, and four escort missions in F4U-4Bs.  The F4U-4B was an armed aircraft, but in all the others, Todd had only his sidearm for self-defense —and a high-performance engine.  Like many of his contemporaries, Todd had been commissioned as a second lieutenant in World War II.  He was mustered out in September 1946 but returned to active duty in November of the same year.  He resigned his commission as a first lieutenant and then enlisted as a private.  After the ceremony, he was advanced to the rank of master sergeant.  He received photo reconnaissance training at NAS Pensacola, Florida so that by the time the Korean War broke out, he was well-experienced recon pilot.  It was a skill that would come in handy in the Korean conflict.

Note that in addition to their flying duties, NAPs also shared responsibility for supervising their squadron’s various divisions (flight line, powerplant, airframes, avionics, tool shed, and supply sections).

Enlisted Marines also flew combat missions in the Vietnam War, but by this time there were only a few remaining NAPs.  In 1973, there were only 4 NAPs on active duty;  all four of these men retired on 1 February 1973: Master Gunnery Sergeant Joseph A. Conroy, Master Gunnery Sergeant Leslie T. Ericson, Master Gunnery Sergeant Robert M. Lurie, and Master Gunnery Sergeant Patrick J. O’Neil.

A colorful era in Marine Corps aviation ended with the retirement of these flying sergeants.

Endnotes:

[1] The progenitor of the US Air Force.

[2] Cunningham (1882-1939) from Atlanta, Georgia, served in the 3rd Georgia Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War.  Following his voluntary service, he worked as a real estate agent in Atlanta for ten years until 1903.  In 1909, he received a commission to second lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps.  His enthusiasm for aviation was contagious and he soon convinced the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General William P. Biddle, that aviation was well-suited to the concept of the advanced base concept.

[3] An autonomous region of Portugal, an archipelago consisting of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic.

[4] Ralph Talbot (1897-1918) from South Weymouth, Massachusetts, joined the U. S. Navy in 1917.  Owing to his participation in college level artillery reserve training, the Navy appointed him as a Seaman 2nd Class.  After ground training and flight training, he was appointed Naval Aviator #456.  At the time, the Marine Corps was having problems recruiting aviators so Talbot (and a number of other Navy pilots), in realizing that he would be in a better position to receive a combat assignment in the Marine Corps, resigned his navy commission and accepted a commission in the USMC.  He was assigned to the 1st Marine Aviation Force for duty with “C” Squadron.  Talbot was killed in an accident during takeoff at La Fresne aerodrome, France.

[5] At the beginning of World War II, the Royal Air Force would have been even worse off during the Battle of Britain were it not for their enlisted pilots.

[6] See also: A Damned Fine Pilot.

[7] This aircraft became a workhorse for America.  From its first design, the aircraft had several service and mission designations, including DC-3, R4D, C-47, Skytrain, Dakota, RC-47, SC-47, Spooky, EC-47, C-53, C-117, and C-129.

[8] In 1949, the highest enlisted grade was Master Sergeant (E-7).