The men and women of the Navy and Marine Corps are brothers and sisters in arms within the Department of the Navy. The Navy’s mission is to maintain, train, and equip combat ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression, and maintaining freedom of the seas. The Marine Corps mission is to defend America at home, protect her interests abroad, and project Naval power ashore. It is a team effort.

It is difficult to describe the avant-garde nature of the Naval establishment. Not all of our lessons have been easily learned but I think the Navy and Marine Corps are blessed with top-notch people who always strive to leave their service in better shape than when they joined it. There are several examples of this, but the one I want to write about today involves the Navy Hospital Corps.

Hospital Rating BadgeIn the Old Navy, medical services were provided to ship’s company by surgeons and randomly selected crewmen detailed to assist him. In those days, it was common to find surgeons and his assistants toiling under the most deplorable of conditions. Expediency led to frequent amputations; lacerations were often cauterized with heated irons. Sand was thrown down to keep the surgeon from slipping on the bloody deck.

In those early days, the surgeon’s medical assistants were called Loblolly boys, an expression that originated in the Royal Navy indicating the daily ration of porridge fed to the sick. The phrase “loblolly boy” was incorporated into US Navy Regulations, 1814. The terminology changed several times over many decades: Surgeon’s Steward (1841), Nurse (1861), Apothecary (1866), and Bayman (1876).

By the 1880s, medical science was progressing at a rapid rate, prompting Navy Surgeon General J. R. Tyron to petition the Navy Department for advanced training for enlisted medical personnel. With the advent of the Spanish-American War, Congress passed a bill authorizing the establishment of the Navy Hospital Corps, passed into law by President William McKinley on 17 June 1898. As a result, three naval ratings were created: hospital apprentice, hospital apprentice first class, and hospital steward (a chief petty officer). Additional ratings were added in 1916 and these would remain in effect until 1947.

The U. S. Navy Hospital Corpsman has distinguished himself aboard ships at sea, on submarines, and at every Navy Base around the world. During World War II, Hospital Corpsmen performed many heroic life-saving feats, often under the most appalling conditions, from treating burn victims to preparing sailors for evacuation from sinking ships. In some instances, these Corpsmen performed life-saving surgeries when there was no medical doctor available. Throughout all these ordeals Navy Corpsmen never broke faith with their motto: Semper Fortis — Always Courageous.”

Navy Corpsmen 002Perhaps at no time has the Navy Hospital Corpsman better acquitted himself than when assigned as a Field Hospital Corpsman with the U. S. Marines. The Marines loved their corpsmen; they didn’t worry about such things as ratings and ranks —they simply called him “Doc.”

Hospital Corpsmen served alongside the Marines in every conflict since the Spanish-American War. They have become part of the combat unit’s table of organization. During World War II, “Doc” landed on every hostile beach along side “his” Marines. In fact, one of the individuals helping to raise the flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima was Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class “Jake” Bradley.

Throughout all of these battles, the Field Hospital Corpsman responded to every call for assistance. It never mattered whether the Marines were engaged in a firefight; when the call went out Corpsman Up, Doc always responded. If he didn’t respond, he was already dead. It is no surprise, then, that Marines always take care of their Doc … and no one ever messes with a Hospital Corpsman when the Marines are around —nobody. One demonstration of the uniqueness of the Field Hospital Corpsman and the Marines is that all U. S. Navy medical personnel serving with Marines are authorized to wear the Marine Corps uniform, exchanging Marine Corps rank insignia with that of the U. S. Navy.

“Doc” has been cited many times for heroism: 22 awards of the Medal of Honor, 174 Navy Crosses, 945 Silver Stars, and nearly 1,600 Bronze Star Medals. During the Vietnam War, 639 Navy Corpsmen lost their lives: here is the story of one of those.

RAY DR 001David Robert Ray was born on February 14, 1945 in McMinnville, Tennessee, the largest town in Warren Country, just 70 miles northwest of Chattanooga. Ray received a scholarship to attend college upon graduation in 1963 and attended classes at the Knoxville campus from 1963 until March 1966, when he enlisted in the U. S. Navy. Following graduation from boot camp, Ray attended the Naval Hospital Corps School in San Diego, California. His first tour of duty was served aboard the USS Haven (AH-12), a World War II vintage hospital ship. Subsequently, he served at the U. S. Navy Hospital, Long Beach, California until May 1968.

Having requested assignment with the Fleet Marine Forces, Ray was ordered to attend Field Hospital School for battlefield training at Camp Pendleton, California. Upon arrival in Vietnam, Ray was assigned to Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment at An Hoa, South Vietnam.

Navy Corpsman 001In the early morning of 19 March 1969, an estimated battalion strength North Vietnamese unit attacked Fire Support Base Phu Loc Six, which was adjacent to Liberty Bridge near An Hoa in Quang Nam Province. During the initial assault, the NVA penetrated the fire base perimeter, gunning down many of the Marines assigned to that sector. Doc Ray moved from parapet to parapet during the attack, rendering medical aid to wounded Marines. In the process of providing this aid, he too was struck by enemy fire. Even though Field Hospital Corpsmen are designated as non-combatants, they are armed for self defense and the protection of their wounded patients. It was under these circumstances that Petty Officer 2nd Class (HM2) Ray engaged the enemy with his sidearm, killing one and wounding and incapacitating another.

Although Bobby Ray was gravely wounded, he refused medical evacuation. Through the darkness of night, through the hail of bullets that surrounded him, Doc Ray continued working to save the lives of “his” Marines. It was at this time that an NVA grenade landed within the parapet where Doc Ray was performing life-saving procedures. Without hesitation, Ray fell upon the enemy explosive and absorbed the full effect of its detonation.

Medal of HonorDavid Robert Ray thereby sacrificed his own life in order to save his Marine patient. John 15:13 tells us, “Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

In recognition of this selfless act of heroism, David Robert Ray was posthumously awarded our nation’s highest award: the Medal of Honor. Ray was one of four Navy Corpsmen so decorated during the Vietnam War.



Groucho Marx

The definitive word in the expression Marine Corps Aviation is Marine. In addition to the development of their considerable aeronautical skills, all Marine Corps aviators go through infantry officer training. This is because there is only one Marine Corps, composed of air, ground, and logistics combat elements. And this is precisely why Marine pilots know exactly what the average grunt is going through down below the clouds.

In fact, many Marine Corps pilots serve a tour with the grunts as air liaison officers, or forward air controllers. When Marine pilots receive a call for assistance or emergency extraction, when they can hear sound of rifles rattling in the background, they know exactly what the ground combat team is going through.

“In modern war you will die like a dog for no good reason.”

—Earnest Hemingway

Razorback Quang Tri 001Phu Bai, Vietnam is located eight miles south of the former imperial capital at Hue. On the morning of 6 August 1966, Phu Bai served as the staging area for an offensive thrust into the coastal flatlands between Hue and Quang Tri, 31 miles further north. The operation was code named Colorado and the assault was determined to drive the enemy out of the now infamous “street without joy.” Three helicopter squadrons were lined up to deliver the grunts into the battle area, including sixteen H-34s, and 20 CH-46s. Before noon, the H-34s had taken nineteen hits and one of the CH-46s had been grounded by a lucky hit that severed an oil line —but the Marines had been landed and the helicopters withdrew to their respective base of operations, one of these being the air facility at Marble Mountain [1].

Meanwhile, in Northern Quang Tri Province, just below the DMZ, the valley eastward from the Razorback was infested with company sized NVA units; Marine commanders decided to whittle away at them with field artillery —less costly than an infantry frontal assault, but the problem is that the use of artillery requires an assessment of battle damage. In order to assess the damage, it was necessary to send in Marine reconnaissance teams—usually consisting of four or five Marines. Their mission was not to fight: it was to establish eyes and ears to discover and report enemy activity. Using battery operated radios, the Recon teams would help direct howitzer fires.

Marine Recon 002One such team was code named “Groucho Marx.” It was led by Staff Sergeant Billy Donaldson [2] and carried with it two field radios (PRC-25 and PRC-10). Beyond standard weapons, the only special equipment was a set of 7×50 power binoculars. They had enough water and rations for three days. Groucho Marx was used to this … they had only recently been extracted from another operation when they came under heavy fire.

A Huey dropped off Groucho Marx in a lush valley twelve miles west of Dong Ha; to the west of that lay dark granite cliffs that formed the eastern wall of the Razorback; the Rockpile jutted 700 feet into the sky just 3 miles to the south. Hill 549 was just east. The team moved to their observation point and settled in for the night.

At 2300 hours the team heard enemy troop movements below them along a streamed; the sound of movement continued for well over an hour and then the silence of the night again returned. It remained quiet until around 1100 hours the next morning.  By then, the Recon Marines could hear the NVA soldiers talking and laughing.  The tell tale smoke from camp fires aided Donaldson in targeting the NVA and he promptly radioed the coordinates to the artillery liaison officer at Cam Lo.  Minutes later, Marine artillery rained down upon the enemy and when the fires ceased, Donaldson succinctly reported, “good cover, out.”

Groucho realized, however, that while the artillery strike had taken its toll on the enemy, the enemy must realize that someone was watching them from somewhere close.  By 1600, Donaldson moved his team to a better vantage point 100 meters (give or take) from their previous position. Soon, Groucho Marx could hear the enemy below them and could detect the scent of livestock [3].  The North Vietnamese commander was no slouch and it wasn’t long before he began sending out probes to locate the position of the American listening/observation posts. The Marines were so well concealed that the NVA did not detect them even when mere yards from their new position [4], but no one in Groucho Marx slept that night.

At daybreak on the following morning (8 August 1966), the NVA commander decided to step up his activities to locate the foreign invaders.  At this point, the Marines weren’t overly concerned; it was a large valley, and the Marines were well concealed.  They believed that the only way the NVA could find them would be if they mistakenly stumbled on top of them in the jungle.  The Marines continued to target the NVA.  A few hours later, however, the NVA had begun conducting on-line search operations. One sweep came within 50 feet of the Marine position.  Donaldson called in artillery within 300 meters of his location. “Good cover” was once more achieved, but now Donaldson knew that the NVA would intensify their search. He reasoned that now would be a good time to radio for air support.

Marine commanders questioned whether it was time to extract Groucho Marx, but the team responded, “Not yet.” The team still might be able to capture an NVA. Plus, Donaldson reported, they were only 150 meters from a suitable landing area. Nevertheless, the Marine commander directed a platoon into the valley, commanded by Second Lieutenant Andrew Sherman [5].  Four CH-46’s delivered their human cargo and departed. Not a shot was fired. Two gunships remained in the area for air support. After the platoon linked up with the Recon team, Lieutenant Sherman wisely organized a defensive perimeter. The fighting holes would come in handy.

A fire team reconnoitered the streamed and reported back that there was no sign of the NVA.  The Marines carefully poked around through the dense foliage within 200 meters of the knoll. They found evidence of the NVA presence, but the enemy had slipped away and had taken their dead and wounded with them.  The problem was Sherman didn’t know how far they had slipped away.

USMC H-34 001By mid-afternoon, the Marine commander decided to extract the 44 Marines; eight H-34 helicopters were fragged for the pickup at the point where Groucho was previously inserted. Sherman reported the landing zone secure, and the first H-34 cautiously made its way and took on its first increment of Marines. No sooner had the aircraft cleared the treetops, the NVA opened fire with automatic weapons.

Four more H-34’s swooped in to extract the Marines, but now the entire ridge line opened up with NVA fire.  Enemy rounds plinked through the helicopter skin as if it was thin paper.  Twenty Marines made it into the H-34s and the barrelhouse birds clawed their way into the air, over the treetops, and back towards Dong Ha. The door gunner of one of the H-34s was shot and killed, his body lying sprawled on the deck as Marines looked on helplessly.

Meanwhile, the remaining Marines noted a sudden increase in the enemy’s rate of fire. The H-34’s remaining on station started to come in for extraction, but Lieutenant Sherman waved them off.  He and the remaining 23 Marines withdrew back to the knoll where they reoccupied their defensive position.  The good news was that the defensive position was a good one; the bad news was that the enemy now knew exactly where these Marines were located.  For the next hour, the Marines readied themselves for the enemy assault; for the next hour, the enemy prepared to make one.

An estimated 200 NVA assaulted the Marine position, transforming the serene countryside into a scene of tremendous agitation and chaos. One Marine reported, “They attacked us; they were screaming like they were crazy drunk or something, so we shot them.”

The NVA attack faltered under a fierce Marine resistance.  The NVA withdrew to regroup and await replacements. The Marines threw back the second assault, but Lieutenant Sherman was shot and killed and nearly every Marines was wounded.  Sergeant Pace assumed command of the remaining Marines, but he was killed in a third assault.  Now command fell to Staff Sergeant Donaldson, NCOIC of Groucho Marx. The Marines were running out of ammunition and daylight, but worse than this was the large numbers of NVA troops filing into the battle area.

By 1900 on 8 August 1966, Pilots and aircrew from HMM-161 volunteered to make an attempt to reinforce the beleaguered Marines.  They made their approach from the Rockpile, but the NVA were waiting for them.  Withering fires drove the helicopters back.  Back at his command post, the Commanding Officer of Echo Company 2/4 knew what had to be done. With six volunteers, Captain Howard V. Lee [6]  loaded two H-34 helicopters with ammunition and all the grenades it could carry and flew to the area between the NVA and the Marines on the knoll. Tossing out all the ammo they could, Lee and three Marines jumped out and began dragging ammo crates to the Marine defensive position.  The second helicopter followed suit, disembarking additional ammunition and three more Marines, but no sooner had that helicopter lifted off, the Marines were quickly surrounded by NVA.

Captain Lee called for close air support from the two gunships circling above. Observing green smoke from the three surrounded Marines, Major Vincil Hazelbaker [7] dove his Huey to the valley floor firing into the NVA with concentrated automatic weapons fire. On his third pass, he flared the Huey and landed and picked up the stranded grunts, taking off again as soon as they were inside the aircraft.

By 2100, Captain Lee was down to 16 Marines, including the wounded that were still able to fight; Captain Lee was himself now seriously wounded by an enemy grenade. The NVA made another assault; the official after action report stated simply, “Enemy repelled.”

Meanwhile, Major Hazelbaker returned to Dong Ha and exchanged his gunship for a slick and loaded with resupply ammunition, decided to try his luck once more on the knoll at the Razorback. He arrived on station at about 22:45 and through gifted night flying, managed to position his slick right above the Marine defensive perimeter. The crew began shoving out ammo crates when a rocket hit the Huey, severely wounding the crew and completely disabling the bird. Major Hazelbaker and his co-pilot joined the fight from inside the defensive perimeter. While Hazelbaker operated the air net, his co-pilot, First Lieutenant Anthony Costa, worked to stop the flow of blood loss in Captain Lee.

Spooky C-47 001A new weapon soon arrived to help the Marines: Spooky was a World War II Era C-47 mounted with three 7.62mm miniguns offering 6,000 rounds per minute to the beleaguered force. Major Hazelbaker aimed his flashlight into the air and asked the Spooky pilot, “What color do you see?” The pilot replied, “I can see your position.” Hazelbaker then requested a fire mission. What the Marines saw was a single finger of fire, a blinding shaft of light slicing down from the sky; what the enemy saw was the angel of death, sitting on a pale horse.

By 0400, Captain Lee could no longer command his Marines. Loss of blood sapped all his strength; he relinquished command of his Marines to Major Hazelbaker. Dawn was still two hours away. The NVA crowded in toward the Marine position; the closer they got to the Marines, the safer they were from Spooky. As the sun began to break over the eastern sky, an A-4 Skyhawk sliced down from the sky. After laying down a dense phosphorous smoke screen between the NVA and the Marines, H-34’s spiraled down and landed within 200 meters, bringing in Marines from Fox and Echo Companies, 2/4 but the rescue force encountered no enemy resistance. The Groucho Marx battle had come to an end.

By now, even the uninitiated should have some inkling about the true meaning of Semper Fidelis.


Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live.  Teach them to your children and to their children after them.  —Deuteronomy 4


[1] The Marines did not realize that the Viet Cong had a fully operational field hospital deep inside Marble Mountain, so close that it was likely they could hear voices speaking in English from their recovery wards (William Boyles, Brothers in Arms).

[2] Awarded the Navy Cross

[3] The Vietnamese frequently used water buffalo to carry military supplies and equipment

[4] If you can’t see it, you can’t shoot it

[5] Posthumously awarded the Navy Cross

[6] Captain Lee was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Johnson on 25 October 1967.

[7] Awarded the Navy Cross

Raw Courage

John J. McGinty III
John J. McGinty III

Born in Boston, Massachusetts on 21 January 1940, John J. McGinty III was raised in Louisville, Kentucky where he enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps Reserve in February 1957.  Following his initial training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina, McGinty received advanced infantry training at the 1st Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and subsequently served with the 7th Infantry Company in Louisville until March 1958.

PFC McGinty reenlisted into the regular Marine Corps in March 1958 and was ordered to Camp Pendleton, California where he attended the NCO Leadership Course and was subsequently ordered to duty at Marine Barracks, Kodiak, Alaska until May 1959.  While stationed in Alaska, he was promoted to corporal.

In late 1959, then Corporal McGinty transferred to the 1st Marine Division, where he served as a squad leader in Company I, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.  McGinty was subsequently promoted to sergeant and ordered to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina where he served as a drill instructor until 1964.  Between 1964 and 1965, he served as a brig warden at Marine Barracks, Norfolk, Virginia.

In 1965, Sergeant McGinty was ordered to the West Coast for pre-deployment training and assignment to the Far East with the 3rd Marine division.  Arriving in Vietnam in April 1966, McGinty was further assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines where he served first as a platoon sergeant, and then later as a platoon commander.

Medal of Honor“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Acting Platoon Leader, First Platoon, Company K, Third Battalion, Fourth Marines, Third Marine Division, in the Republic of Vietnam on 18 July 1966.  Second Lieutenant (then Staff Sergeant) McGinty’s platoon, which was providing rear security to protect the withdrawal of the battalion from a position, which had been under attack for three days, came under heavy small arms, automatic weapons, and mortar fire from an estimated enemy regiment.  With each successive human wave, which assaulted his thirty-two-man platoon during the four- hour battle, Second Lieutenant McGinty rallied his men to beat off the enemy. In one bitter assault, two of the squads became separated from the remainder of the platoon.  With complete disregard for his safety, (then) Staff Sergeant McGinty charged through intense automatic weapons and mortar fire to their position. Finding twenty men wounded and the medical corpsmen killed, he quickly reloaded ammunition magazines and weapons for the wounded men and directed their fire upon the enemy.  Although he was painfully wounded as he moved to care for the disabled men, he continued to shout encouragement to his troops and to direct their fire so effectively that the attacking hordes were beaten off.  When the enemy tried to out flank his position, he killed five of them at point-blank range with his pistol.  When they again seemed on the verge of overrunning the small force, he skillfully adjusted artillery and air strikes within fifty yards of his position.  This destructive firepower routed the enemy, who left an estimated 500 bodies on the battlefield.  Staff Sergeant McGinty’s personal heroism, indomitable leadership, selfless devotion to duty, and bold fighting spirit inspired his men to resist the repeated attacks by a fanatical enemy, reflected great credit upon himself, and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”

Following this action, McGinty was subsequently assigned to the 3rd Battalion headquarters where he served as the Operations NCO, and then later he served as the Regimental Intelligence Officer, 4th Marine Regiment.  Upon his return to the United States in 1967, Staff Sergeant McGinty served a second tour of duty at MCRD Parris Island until commissioned to Second Lieutenant on 8 August 1967.  Captain John J. McGinty retired from active duty in October 1978.  He passed away at his home in Beaufort, South Carolina on 17 January 2014.

Semper Fidelis — Esse apud Deum

A Visit to the Wall

USN F-4J 001I recall visiting with three old friends, a few years back, at a park in the nation’s capital.  It seems like only yesterday that we were all together, but actually, it has been 42 years.  There was a crowd at the park that day, and it took us a while to connect, but with the aid of a book, we made it.  I found Harry, Bruce, and Paul.  In 1970-72 we were gung-ho young fighter pilots on the USS America and USS Constellation off the coast of Vietnam, the cream of the crop of the U.S. Navy, flying F-4J Phantoms.

Now their names are on that 500-foot-long Vietnam War Memorial.  I am hesitant to visit the wall when I am in Washington DC because I do not trust myself to keep my composure.  Standing in front of that somber wall, I tried to keep it light, reminiscing about how things were back then.  We used to joke about our passionate love affair with an inanimate flying object-we flew.  We marveled at the thought that someone actually paid us to do it. We were not draftees but college graduates in Vietnam by choice, opting for the cramped confines of a jet fighter cockpit over the comfort of corporate America.  In all my life, I’ve not been so passionate about any other work.  If that sounds like an exaggeration, then you’ve never danced the wild blue with a supersonic angel.  To fight for your country is an honor.

I vividly remember leaving my family and friends in San Diego headed for Vietnam.  I wondered if I would live to see them again.  For reasons I still do not understand, I was fortunate to return while others did not.

Once in Vietnam, we passed the long, lonely hours in Alert 5, the ready room, our staterooms, or the Cubi Point O’Club.  The complaint heard most often, in the standard gallows humor of a combat squadron, was, “It’s a lousy war, but it’s the only one we have.”  There is a more ribald version of this, not suitable for mixed company.  We sang mostly raunchy songs that never seemed to end; someone was always writing new verses-and, as an antidote to loneliness, fear in the night and the sadness over dead friends, we often drank too much.

At the wall, I told the guys only about the good parts of the years since we’ve been apart.  I talked of those who went on to command squadrons.  Those who made Captain and flag rank.  I asked them if they have seen some other squadron mates who have joined them.

I did not tell them about how ostracized Vietnam vets still are.  I did not relate how the media had implied we Vietnam vets were, to quote one syndicated columnist, “either suckers or psychos, victims or monsters.”  I didn’t tell them that Hanoi Jane, who shot at us and helped torture our POWs, had married one of the richest guys in the United States.  I didn’t tell them that the secretary of defense they fought for back then has now declared that he was not a believer in the cause for which he assigned them all to their destiny.  I did not tell them that our commander-in-chief avoided serving while they were fighting and dying.

And I didn’t tell them we “lost” that lousy war.  I gave them the same line I have used for years: We were winning when I left.  I relived that final day as I stared at the black onyx wall.  After 297 combat missions, we were leaving the South China Sea…heading east.  The excitement of that day was only exceeded by coming into the break at Miramar, knowing that my wife, my two boys, my parents and other friends and family were waiting to welcome me home.

I was not the only one talking to the wall through tears.  Folks in fatigues, leather vests, motorcycle jackets, flight jackets lined the wall talking to friends.  I backed about 25 yards away from the wall and sat down on the grass under a clear blue sky and midday sun that perfectly matched the tropical weather of the war zone.  The wall, with all 58,200 names, consumed my field of vision.  I tried to wrap my mind around the violence, carnage, and ruined lives that it represented.  Then I thought of how Vietnam was only one small war in the history of the human race.  I was overwhelmed with a sense of mankind’s wickedness balanced against some men and women’s willingness to serve.

Before becoming a spectacle in the park, I got up, walked back the wall to say goodbye, and ran my fingers over the engraved names of my friends —as if I could communicate with them through some kind of spiritual touch.

I wanted them to know that God, duty, honor, and country will always remain the noblest calling.  Revisionist histories from elite draft dodgers trying to justify and rationalize their own actions will never change that.

USS Constellation, CV-64
USS Constellation, CV-64

I believe I have been a productive member of society since the day I left Vietnam.  I am honored to have served there, and I am especially proud of my friends-heroes who voluntarily, enthusiastically gave their all.  They demonstrated no greater love to a nation whose highbrow opinion makers are still trying to disavow them.  I hope to find their names also in the Book of Life.


Note: a retired Navy pilot wrote this piece

Hat tip: Koji-san

A Clash in the Mountains

In the summer and fall of 1966, the Marines and the North Vietnamese had clashed in the mountains northwest of Dong Ha.  Soon afterwards, the Marine command placed a company of grunts at Khe Sanh to “monitor” the mountain infiltration routes into South Vietnam.  In the spring of the next year, these grunts attracted two regiments of NVA soldiers into the hills around the isolated outpost.  In April and May 1967, the grunts rushed in reinforcements and had attacked the entrenched enemy northwest of Khe Sanh.  After those brutal battles, commonly called “the hill fights,” the North Vietnamese had withdrawn and the grunts retained only a token force at the Khe Sanh outpost.

Khe Sanh 002The small airstrip had always been the lifeline to Khe Sanh.  In the fall of 1967, engineers had flown into the outpost and had spend almost three months laying crushed rock, asphalt, and steel Marston-matting on the airstrip.  When finally reopened in late October, the new 3,900 foot long runway could handle VFR and IFR landings by any aircraft up to the size of a C-130 turboprop.

The first new alarm signals began in the late fall of 1967.  Helicopters routinely dropped recon teams into the hills, and they began making some startling discoveries.  New trails crisscrossed the mountains and scores of NVA troops columns were spotted as they methodically converged on the plateau.  Often the recon teams accidently landed near these NVA units and had to call the helicopter pilots back for an emergency evacuation.  Looking down from above, pilots saw that new roads had been hacked out of the jungle.  The columns of enemy trucks and troops were all headed for Khe Sanh.

Khe Sanh 001In response to the massive enemy buildup, the grunts raced in reinforcements.  Soon, the entire 26th Marines would be airlifted to the small garrison, marking the first time since Iwo Jima in World War II that all of its battalions had deployed for combat together.  More helicopters flew in to bolster the garrison.  Huey gunships squatted between new protective revetments, and H-46’s stood ready to haul recon teams into or out of the surrounding hills.  Pilots and air crewmen spent their time digging deeper bunkers and waiting for the enemy onslaught that everyone predicted would come.

“Somewhere Out There, within artillery range of the Khe Sanh Combat Base … concealed and silent and ominous, lay five full divisions of North Vietnamese regulars.”  —Michael Herr (Dispatches)

Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam

Marion F. Sturkey, U. S. Marine Corps