February 2017

ANGLICO Marines at Tra Binh Dong

Volume 100, Issue 2

Sgt Stephen M. Cook, USMC
ROK Marines stand over dead bodies of the enemy on Feb. 15, 1967.
COURTESY OF JIM PORTA

The Battle of Tra Binh Dong is one of the most acclaimed battles fought by Korean forces during the Vietnam War. From Feb. 14-15, 1967, Republic of Korea Marine Corps (ROKMC) Marines of the 11th Company, 3d Battalion, 2d Marine Brigade—the “Blue Dragons”—defeated a regimental-sized attack force in four hours of close combat.

Tra Binh Dong is studied in Korean staff colleges and taught in boot camp. Artifacts from the battle are displayed at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul. For nearly half a century, veterans have gathered annually to remember the fallen. Over time, the names of the U.S. Marines supporting the 11th Co disappeared from the official histories. Yet Lance Corporals Jim Porta and Dave Long, radio operators assigned to Sub-Unit One, 1st Air/Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO), were critical to defeating the attack. The Americans coordinated air support, killed the infiltrating enemy, counterattacked to restore the perimeter and aided the wounded.

ANGLICO in Vietnam And Early Operations

In April 1965, 1st ANGLICO sent four shore fire control parties and a spot team to the Republic of Vietnam. Eleven officers and 103 enlisted Marines and Sailors were assigned to Sub-Unit One, 1st ANGLICO. The ANGLICO Marines found it effective to acquire targets using air spotters in U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force O-1 and O-2 aircraft; Marine OV-10 Broncos later assumed the mission.

Sub-Unit One worked with allied units, including the Australian Army, New Zealand Navy, ROK Army, South Vietnamese Army and Marine Corps, as well as supporting U.S. Army units. Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MACV) assumed operational control of Sub-Unit One on Sept. 15, 1966.

Ten officers and 75 enlisted Marines were assigned to the Brigade Air Naval Gunfire Platoon, established in the summer of 1966 to support the 2d ROK Marine Brigade. Two radio operators were assigned to each company. One Marine operated the PRC-25 radio while the second provided cover or marked the landing zone. Because the ROKMC lacked organic aviation assets, the ANGLICO Marines were the critical link to close air support, medical evacuation (medevac) and resupply.

The Radio Operators

New Jersey native Jim Porta enlisted in the Marine Corps while in high school. He was the high shooter at Parris Island, and later trained in communications. He graduated from airborne training, earning his naval parachutist badge and was later assigned to 1st ANGLICO.

Dave Long, meanwhile, grew up in Huntington, W.Va. Like Jim, he was a crack shot. While serving with the 10th Marines, Dave shot with the regimental rifle and pistol teams and advanced to the All-Marine Championship and was classified as a Master by the National Rifle Association. The two Marines met in ANGLICO in Hawaii where they volunteered for service with Sub-Unit One. They arrived in Saigon in the fall of 1966.

Wanting to serve together, the two Marines met with Lieutenant Colonel Carroll Burch, officer in charge, Sub-Unit One, and told him that Long was engaged to Porta’s sister. While it’s unclear as to whether Burch, a veteran aviator who had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in Korea, actually believed the story, ANGLICO Marines were needed in I Corps’ area so he assigned the pair to the 3d ROK Marine Battalion.

Porta’s and Long’s arrival coincided with the arrival of several new ANGLICO officers assigned to the Blue Dragon Brigade—future Medal of Honor recipient Captain Stephen Pless assumed the duties as brigade platoon commander, while Capt Larry Oswalt served as the 3d ROK Marine Bn air liaison officer.

Arriving with the 3d ROK Marine Battalion, Porta and Long rotated among the battalion’s companies, as well as an outpost defended by a squad. They typically stayed with a company for three to four weeks, accompanying the unit on weeklong patrols or remaining within heavily fortified positions. The ANGLICO Marines worked closely with company commanders as few Korean Marines outside the officer ranks spoke English. Most ANGLICO Marines supporting the Blue Dragons frequently wore ROKMC uniforms to reduce their chances of being targeted by snipers.

Capt Oswalt described conditions in the battalion’s area of responsibility at the time: “My team members experienced enemy operations almost every day to include mortar and rocket attacks along with snipers and multiple firefights. In addition, Viet Cong units had infiltrated the area in which we operated. Antipersonnel mines and booby traps were a daily experience. The South Korean Marines suffered many casualties from these devices. One of our team members was killed by one of these antipersonnel weapons in November 1966.”

In addition to fighting an elusive enemy, the Marines battled malaria, snakes and rats. Porta and Long subsisted on C-rations and usually ate with the Koreans, who cooked stew by adding edible greens to the C-rations and water. Rice was prepared in a separate ammo can. Despite the language barriers and cultural differences, the American and Korean Marines formed friendships based on mutual respect and shared hardship.

In early 1967, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units began attacking the Blue Dragon Brigade. Armed with the AK47s, the NVA soldiers outgunned the Korean Marines who carried the M1. On Jan. 10, they ambushed the 3d ROK Marine Bn headquarters group as it was returning from a weeklong rotation with the 9th Co, seriously injuring Capt Oswalt and Corporal David Lucht, another ANGLICO Marine. U.S. Marine LCpl John Houghton joined the 70-man force sent by Blue Dragon Brigade headquarters to rescue the trapped Marines. Arriving at the site, he secured a radio that had not been damaged by enemy fire and requested medevac for the casualties. Four helicopters successfully evacuated the injured, but the fifth was damaged and its crew chief badly wounded. Houghton crossed open terrain to treat the injured aviator, coordinated a sixth medevac for the remaining casualties, and guarded the downed aircraft through the night. He later received the Silver Star for his actions.

The Battle of Tra Binh Dong

Emboldened by the success of the ambush, the 2d NVA Division sent two battalions from the 1st and 21st Regiments and a battalion of VC guerillas to attack the U.S. Marine base at Chu Lai. American and Korean Marines defended the critical aviation and logistics center. Under the command of Capt Jung Kyung Jin, 294 Korean Marines of the 3d Bn, 11th Co, operated near the village of Tra Binh Dong. Trenches crisscrossed the 200 x 300 meter outpost with claymore mines placed throughout the concertina perimeter. Preparing for the impending attack, Porta and Long slept near the company command post (CP) atop a small hill, waiting for the NVA to continue its assault.

Shortly before midnight on Feb. 14, the company went on alert after detecting enemy soldiers near the third platoon’s position. Long grabbed the radio, and the two Americans met the 11th Co officers at the sandbag bunker that served as an alternate CP. Capt Jung allowed the platoon-sized unit to approach the perimeter before ordering his Marines to shoot. Although the Vietnamese withdrew, the Marines sensed that a larger attack would likely follow. After meeting with the Korean officers to review their preparations, Jim and Dave returned to their bunker and went to sleep.

At 0410, the sound of mortars and recoilless rifles woke the Marines as more than 2,400 North Vietnamese soldiers attacked the 11th Co. One battalion advanced on the 1st platoon’s position while two others attacked the 3d platoon. Long again shouldered the radio as he and Jim ran to the bunker that served as an alternative CP, shooting three enemy soldiers who approached the wire. After none of the Korean officers showed up, Long and Porta left for the main CP. Seconds later, a rocket destroyed the bunker.

After locating Capt Jung, Long contacted an AC-47 Spooky gunship flying in the vicinity. The gunship dropped illumination flares, banked left and unleashed its Gatling gun on the enemy in the tree line. Unfamiliar with the gunship and concerned the flares allowed the enemy to see his Marines, the captain told Dave to order the plane away. As he continued to circle, the pilot described the combat below as “the biggest fight [he had] ever seen.”

First Lieutenant Kim Se Chang began to coordinate artillery support from the brigade’s 105 mm and 155 mm batteries. The forward observer directed fires close to the company’s perimeter in an attempt to stop the waves of attackers. Porta and Long accompanied Capt Jung as he assessed the situation, providing updates to other ANGLICO Marines. Jim Porta recalled that, during the attack, “[t]he noise was deafening. I lost my hearing for periods of five to 10 minutes on several occasions. The NVA fired mortars and machine guns from a very close range. It was obvious they knew the location of the command post, mortar pits and other key areas. They destroyed the bunker with a rocket. I remember dirt running down my back when a mortar landed nearby. The enemy fired so many tracer rounds that I was surprised nothing caught fire.”

Enemy fires quickly destroyed all landlines. The PRC-25 radios carried by Capt Kim and LCpl Long became the company’s sole means of communication.

Attacking in human waves, the NVA and VC breached the platoon’s perimeter with Bangalore torpedoes. Third Platoon Marines and enemy soldiers fought hand-to-hand in the trenches and mortar pits. An enemy soldier came within 10 meters of the company CP, only to be shot by Jim Porta.

Fighting in the 1st Plt’s sector was equally fierce. Second Lieutenant Shin Won Bae led an assault force to destroy a mortar position 100 meters in front of the company perimeter. Returning to his platoon, he saw soldiers armed with Soviet-made flamethrowers entering the breached perimeter. 2dLt Shin and his platoon sergeant killed the attackers with machine guns and hand grenades. Using rifles, entrenching tools and their fists, the Korean Marines fought to contain the breach.

After two hours of fighting, the attackers held nearly a third of the company’s position. Although the North Vietnamese continued to attack the 1st and 3d Platoons, their advance slowed due to the fanatical resistance of the 3d Plt Marines. At the same time, Blue Dragon howitzers destroyed the enemy’s CP and mortar positions. Sensing a shift in momentum, Capt Jung ordered a counterattack. LCpl Porta joined 1st and 2d Plt Marines in a double envelopment. He killed three enemy soldiers with his M14 and helped restore the perimeter.

Amidst the chaos of the attack, Porta discovered 1stLt Kim who lay wounded in a trench with his PRC-25 radio after being shot by North Vietnamese snipers. Although his helmet slowed the bullet, Lieutenant Kim was bleeding profusely from a head injury. Porta stopped the bleeding and summoned the corpsman to tend to the wounded officer.

North Vietnamese support units assembled for one final assault on the 11th Co’s position. In order to lure the company-sized force toward his position, Capt Jung ordered the 3d Plt to withdraw. The skies cleared as the North Vietnamese advanced, allowing Dave Long to contact the forward air controller who had arrived on station. Piloting an O-1 Cessna Bird Dog, Air Force Major Ted Brunson relayed the company’s position to aircraft from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. Four A-4 Skyhawks followed by helicopter gunships attacked the remaining enemy.

As the fighting subsided, Porta came across a Korean Marine standing over his badly injured friend. As he had many times in the past, Porta knelt down and held the injured Marine’s hand, telling him “help was on the way.” Shocked by the battle and distraught by his loss, the Marine fired his automatic weapon into the ground near Porta. Recalling the incident, Jim Porta said, “For some reason, I was not afraid. I showed compassion.”

At 0800, a ROK Marine company arrived via helicopter and began clearing operations. Eleventh Company Marines had killed 243 North Vietnamese and VC soldiers during the battle; over 100 corpses lay within the perimeter. Some of the infiltrators wore ROKMC uniforms, likely taken during the earlier Jan. 10 ambush. Fifteen Korean Marines died and 33 were injured during the fighting. The NVA withdrew from the area, abandoning plans to attack Chu Lai.

Epilogue

LCpls Long and Porta returned to battalion headquarters two days after the battle. After a short stint at battalion, they returned to supporting the three line companies until completing their tours in September 1967. Before departing, the Korean government awarded the In Hun Medal to both American Marines as well as Maj Brunson. In addition, both Marines were meritoriously promoted to corporal.

Capt Jung and 2dLt Shin received the Taeguk Medal, Korea’s equivalent of the Medal of Honor, in what is the only instance in the history of the ROK Marines in which two individuals received the award for a single action. Capt Jung continued to serve, retiring as a lieutenant colonel after commanding the 3d Bn, 6th ROK Marine Brigade

Shin served a second tour in Vietnam, rose to the rank of major general, and commanded the 2d ROK Marine Division. Retired and living in Seoul, General Shin leads the annual commemorations of the battle.

1stLt Kim recovered from his injuries in the ROK Navy Hospital in Vietnam. He returned to duty with his battery in Chu Lai before going home to Korea. Leaving the Korean Marine Corps as a captain, Kim worked as a high school English teacher until retiring in 2003. He credits LCpl Porta for saving his life.

Dave Long returned to his hometown following his enlistment. He worked for the Army Corps of Engineers until retirement. Jim Porta moved to Tucson, Ariz., and spent a career with the municipal transit agency. He and Dave remain close friends.

Author’s bio: LtCol Durand served as an intelligence and East Asia Foreign Area Officer. He graduated from the ROK Naval War College, and served tours with the Special U.S. Liaison Advisor, Korea and the Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Korea.