August 2017

“For Their Gallantry and Intrepidity”: The Marines of 3/26 in Operation Meade River

Volume 100, Issue 8
Author: 

Maj Allan C. Bevilacqua, USMC (Ret)

Sgt Brittney Vella, USMC
Marines return fire while on the move through Dodge City where little to no cover was available. Bomb craters were often the best protection available.
Courtesy of USMC History Division

The Tet Offensive, Khe Sanh and the battle for Hue City were important and defining moments of the Vietnam War in 1968, and Marines carried out countless other less-remembered and less-publicized operations throughout that year. Many of these battles, though shorter in duration and smaller in scale, proved consequential to the United States military’s broader plans for success.

The warriors of Third Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment fought in many such lesser-known engagements. If 1968 had been a busy year for the Marine Corps, it was especially so for 3d Bn, 26th Marines. In fact, 3/26 had been busy ever since their arrival in Vietnam two years earlier.

“Every time something came up, they said ‘Send in the 26th Marines,’ ” remembered Lee Solomon, a veteran from “Lima” 3/26. “We lived in the jungle. We didn’t have an area of operations. We were nomads in country and everywhere we went, we were in a fight. I spent 19 months in combat there and that’s all I did the whole time.” The unit fought through numerous smaller operations and played central roles in large-scale engagements such as the battle of Con Thien and the siege of Khe Sanh.

Experiences in the bush ranged from hilarious to harrowing. These moments shaped the battalion’s spirit and cemented the Marines’ dedication to each other through every successive operation. During one example from late summer 1968, the battalion found itself on the side of a mountain in the middle of a typhoon, while moving through the Hai Van Pass. After several days soaked and submerged, with many Marines dealing with the pervasive ailment known as trench foot, the battalion began hiking out. Staff Sergeant Karl Taylor of India Co moved up and down the column, enthusiastically encouraging everyone. “Come on Marines! This is no worse than anything you experienced in boot camp!” “Gunny T,” as Taylor was affectionately known, had been a drill instructor at recruit training and Officer Candidates School. He knew how to properly motivate a group of Marines. The battalion made it to Da Nang, adding a typhoon to their ever-growing list of Vietnam life experiences.

Like Gunny T, everyone had a nickname—“Muddy Boots,” “Tumbleweed,” “Stretch” and “Bambino” to name a few. Some were earned and some were bestowed unwillingly upon the recipient. Many times, a nickname was intended to make things less personal just in case the Marine was killed. Other times, the nickname originated as a term of endearment and bolstered camaraderie.

By November 1968, 3/26 was a battle-hardened brotherhood of infantrymen. Their warfighting skills were soon called upon to help clean out a notoriously dangerous area known to the Marines as Dodge City.

The area occupied less than 15 square miles of ground southwest of Da Nang. The terrain was flat, bounded by rivers, and covered in rice paddies and elephant grass. The most prominent feature was a high railroad berm running like a spine straight across the entire sector. Considering its relatively small size, Dodge City held a disproportionately large number of enemy combatants. The region acted as a staging area and command post for Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units moving toward the United States military installations at Da Nang. Over the years, the enemy turned the landscape into an intricate network of dug-in bunkers that connected underground tunnels, hidden spider holes and innumerable concealed positions. Given the terrain advantage afforded to the enemy, Marines in Dodge City usually were taking fire before ever identifying the origin.

Marines had been in Dodge City many times before. Even 3/26 had fought there just a few months earlier, in July 1968, during Operation Mameluke Thrust. Dodge City always proved its reputation as a wild, free-fire zone full of action. Marine commanders finally had enough and decided to clear it out for good.

The operation, known as Meade River, was set to commence on Nov. 20. Overall, the plan was straightforward: surround the area, squeeze the circle tight, and kill every bad guy until the Marines met in the middle. To conduct this massive cordon-and-search operation, six infantry battalions from three Marine regiments and a Battalion Landing Team were brought together. Enough helicopters to create the largest Marine air assault of the Vietnam War were still not sufficient to move everyone into place. Some battalions were trucked into position, while others still humped on foot.

Commanders designed the cordon to place a Marine every 15 to 20 meters surrounding Dodge City. Inch by inch, hole by hole, the Marines were to shrink the cordon, thoroughly searching every hiding place and eliminating any threats. In the early morning hours of Nov. 20, the operation commenced. Shortly after 0800, Marines sealed off Dodge City and snapped the cordon shut.

The Marines of 3/26, settled into position on the southwest side of the cordon near the junction of the railroad berm and Route 4. On their left flank, 2d Bn, 7th Marines initiated the opening moves. For 3/26, the first two days were relatively quiet. As the battalion maintained its portion of the line, 2d Bn, 7th Marines moved into the attack and South Vietnamese troops worked to evacuate the remaining civilians from Dodge City. At night, VC and NVA fighters attempted to escape the trap. Numerous times, the enemy was discovered moving through the darkness and was fired upon by the Marines. Sometimes they fell and their bodies were found the next day. Other times, the figures melted back into the shadows. The Marines of Kilo and India companies engaged in nightly firefights, taking sniper rounds, grenades, and 60 mm mortars. Casualties were sustained on both sides.

On Nov. 23, 3/26 began pushing north and east from Route 4 into an area known as “the Horseshoe.” The size of one grid square and named for the distinctive U-shaped stream that bounded the area, the Horseshoe proved to be the first enemy stronghold Marines encountered in Dodge City. On the opening day of the operation, 2/7 hit resistance there almost immediately and was thrown back multiple times. The Marines of Lima 3/26 were sent in direct support of the next assault. Lima encountered the same stiff resistance during which four Marines were killed and many others were wounded.

The following day, Marines made a fifth attempt to overrun the enemy dug into the Horseshoe. Kilo 3/26 was tasked with supporting 2/7 in the assault alongside Lima. Intense machine-gun and sniper fire raked the Marines as they attempted to move less than 200 yards from their starting point. As Marines endured heavy fire and moved through dense foliage, the attack stalled yet again. Kilo received the brunt of this round, sustaining half of the overall casualties for the day.

Resistance in the Horseshoe was tougher than anticipated. If this opening act of Meade River was any indication of how the entire operation would go, it did not bode well for the Marines. Clearly, more VC and NVA occupied Dodge City than had been anticipated, and they made it clear that they would not surrender.

Recognizing the futility of another infantry assault, the Marines pulled back from the Horseshoe and let loose an artillery barrage. Howitzers decimated the area during the entire morning of Nov. 25. That afternoon, Marines finally overran the Horseshoe and reached their objective at the railroad berm.

The battalion had been bloodied early while entrenched in the middle of the heaviest action. Unfortunately, this would not be the last enemy stronghold they encountered, nor the last time they found themselves in the middle of the action. Their path to the center of the circle would be unlike any other participating battalion.

Over the next few days, Marines all over Dodge City shrank the cordon inch by inch. Many Marines carried 3-foot long probes with a “T” handle on top to help locate the enemy beneath their feet. Marines stabbed the probes into the ground as they walked, and if the probe slid easily into the dirt, the Marines knew they were standing on top of an enemy tunnel, spider hole, weapons cache, or any one of the numerous dwellings the NVA had burrowed into the landscape. The battalion’s command chronology for this period noted that supporting arms fire was often ineffectual: “It was found that the enemy had to be ferreted out by individual Marines, using tactics similar to those used during World War II during the Island Campaigns.”

It was also difficult to coordinate air support. With Marines closing the cordon on an already cramped area, any bombs or napalm dropped were considered “Danger Close.” Additionally, many of the enemy fortifications were deep in the ground, reinforced with concrete, and covered in several feet of dirt and railroad ties stolen from the berm running through Dodge City. From these fortifications, the enemy could wait out any barrage and emerge to ambush infantry units passing through the open rice paddies.

Despite these challenges, 3/26 pushed on. Probes revealed weapon stocks, tunnels, booby traps, shallow enemy graves and spider holes. Often, the enemy revealed their positions only after the Marines unknowingly walked over their hiding places. Sometimes, the best way to locate enemy positions was for a Marine to expose himself, wait to be shot at, and look for the muzzle flash.

Some Marines had their own methods for locating the enemy. At one point during the operation, Corporal Felipe Torres and other Marines with India Co were moving through elephant grass scouring the ground. Torres stopped India’s forward observer, Larry “Beaver” Gore.

“Beaver,” he said, “I think I smell them.”

“You smell them?” Beaver replied.

“Yeah, they’re over there in that brush,” said Torres.

“Well, go get them!” said Beaver.

With the platoon leader in tow, Torres low-crawled into the brush. After several meters, he stumbled upon two VC creeping out of a spider hole. They were in the process of handing up a grenade to throw at passing Marines. Startled at the sight of the VC popping out of the ground right in front of him, Torres yelled, “Hey dude!” and immediately shot both enemy soldiers at point-blank range with his pistol. Torres backpedaled through the brush as fast as he could into his platoon leader, who opened up over his head with a submachine gun. The enemy fighters fell back into their hole, dropping the grenade.

Several yards away, the commander of India Co, Capt Ron Hoover, was talking on the radio when he heard Torres’ shout. The shout was immediately followed by the loud bang of a .45, rhythmic explosions of a submachine gun, and finally the overwhelming detonation of a grenade. Still trying to take in the events of the last few seconds, Hoover watched a foot tumble through the air and land on the ground next to where he was standing. “Great,” he thought, “I’ve lost another lieutenant.” Much to his relief, both Torres and the lieutenant emerged unscathed from the brush. Cpl Torres would later be awarded the Silver Star for heroic actions demonstrated throughout Meade River, and eventually he rose to the rank of colonel.

Thanksgiving Day came and passed as a brief respite for the battalion. On their right flank, 3/5 prepared to punch into the heart of Dodge City. Their destination was a small bend in the Suoi Co Ca River. Since the river was smaller than 400 meters across at its widest point, the Marines didn’t know this tiny pocket of land housed the NVA command center for the whole Dodge City area. To them, it was simply “the Hook.”

For two days, 3/5 battled for position. An entrenched enemy repulsed each new assault wave, leaving the battalion with many casualties. The type and number of enemy bunkers within the Hook were unlike those faced in the Horseshoe and were defended even more tenaciously. On Dec. 3, 3/26 was called in to replace 3/5 on the front lines.

The previous assaults had demonstrated two things. First, an infantry assault into the Hook without air support was essentially suicide. Second, the bunkers in the Hook were so well-constructed that many of them could withstand artillery and air strikes. Given these facts, 3/26 chose a new, more risky tactic: bombarding the Hook while the infantry assaulted. This was the only way to keep the NVA’s heads down long enough for the Marines to maneuver into position. “Danger Close” was redefined as 500-pound bombs and napalm began falling within 100 yards of the Marine line.

Just across the river from the Hook, 2/5 and BLT 2/26 had closed the cordon from the east up to the Suoi Co Ca’s banks. They watched as Marine F-4 Phantoms screamed in overhead unloading their ordnance. Showered in dirt and debris from the explosions, the battalions pulled back from the river while simultaneously trying to avoid friendly fire.

Into this maelstrom, 3/26 surged. From the ground, India Co’s Second Platoon leader, Lieutenant Chris Tibbs, watched as one F-4 flew in low and fast along the river. On its first pass, one tank of napalm tumbled to the ground and exploded on target. On the second run, Lt Tibbs watched in horror as the Phantom’s remaining tank of napalm released from the front, but hung up on the back. Finally the tank released, overshooting the target and heading right at the Marines’ position. As Tibbs watched the tank barreling towards him, he was hit—not by a bullet or bomb— but by Gunny T. At a sprint, Taylor speared Tibbs to the ground, screaming, “Hold your breath, lieutenant!” Miraculously, the napalm exploded without harming the Marines.

The battalion fought along the south side of the Hook. Casualties mounted and some platoons were reduced to squad-sized elements. Enemy snipers and machine gunners took their toll ambushing Marines in the open as they advanced merely 20 yards away. Hospitalman James C. Tarrance moved throughout the field administering first aid. When one Marine fell wounded, HN Tarrance courageously moved forward, positioning himself in full view between the enemy and the injured man. He was shot through the neck and killed. For his heroism, Tarrance was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. Another Marine armed with a M72 Light Anti-Tank Weapon stood to fire his rocket at an enemy bunker. Simultaneously, an enemy soldier stood and leveled his rifle to fire. The Marine adjusted his aim and managed to pull the trigger faster than his enemy, obliterating the soldier and his AK47.

The battalion continued fighting in this fashion for two more days before they finally overran the Hook. On Dec. 5, nearly 100 dead enemy soldiers were found as the Marines consolidated and mopped up any remaining tunnels and bunkers. Some dead could not be counted as they were buried deep under destroyed fortifications. Fewer than 10 prisoners were taken.

The NVA and VC proved they were not giving up and would not go down without a fight. The cordon squeezed the enemy into the center of Dodge City with their backs to the La Tho River. As 3/26 pushed them north out of the Hook, Marines from 1st Bn, 1st Marines along the north side of the cordon picked off any NVA who attempted to ford the river and escape the trap. The enemy knew the end was near and prepared to fight to the death. This last holdout became known as the “Northern Bunker Complex” and proved to be the bitterest fighting of the entire operation.

With the cordon now significantly smaller in size, some participating battalions were sent home. The Marines of 3/26 thought they would be among the homeward bound units due to their fierce fighting experiences and depleted numbers. This presumption, however, was not correct. Two battalions east of the Suoi Ca Co departed. Still in the center of the circle, 3/26 remained in place to finish the job.

To reinforce their dwindling numbers, two additional rifle companies were assigned to 3/26 for their assault into the Northern Bunker Complex. On Dec. 7, the battalion began the 1,000-meter drive north into the last enemy stronghold to complete the pacification of Dodge City.

As expected, the initial assaults were met with heavy resistance. Moving through waist-high brush and elephant grass, Marines were frequently within feet of enemy positions before their locations were identified. By nightfall, the battalion was forced to halt and dig in. The battalion had taken many casualties, and Marines spent the night searching through the darkness for their fallen. The numerous bomb craters marking the landscape offered the only protection against the enemy emplacements.

By this point, air support was impossible to coordinate. With 3/26 to the south and 1/1 across the river to the north, the enemy was confined to a very narrow strip of land. One attempted napalm strike went awry, hitting Lima Co positions and burning four Marines. Eventually, even mortars were forbidden due to the extreme likelihood of friendly fire incidents. The Northern Bunker Complex would have to be taken by Marines on the ground with rifles, grenades, pistols and Ka-Bars.

The Marines could sense the end of the battle was near and were eager to complete the mission. A tree line concealing enemy bunkers stood less than 100 yards away from the Marine front across an open, dried up rice paddy. Just beyond that was the La Tho River and 1/1 in their blocking position. In the late afternoon of Dec. 8, commanders ordered the battalion into the attack, hoping to crush the remaining NVA with one final push. Preparing to dig in for the night, 3/26 hastily readied instead to advance once more. They had not had time to attempt a reconnaissance of the area to determine what they were up against, but they knew it would be fearsome.

As the sun set over their left flank, all companies began the creep forward. Standing exposed and inching across the paddy, an eerie silence pervaded the battlefield. “It went dead quiet,” said Tibbs. “There was not a round fired by the bad guys, the most quiet we’d had all day. Talk about foreboding!” Punctuated only by the ringing in their ears and the sound of their footsteps, the calm continued until the Marines moved approximately 30 yards ahead of their position. The crack of a single sniper’s bullet ripped through the air. Marines heard over a radio transmission that a platoon leader from India Co was hit. As the call crackled over the radio, all hell broke loose.

NVA machine guns concealed in bunkers caught 3/26 in the open. Marines dove or fell into the numerous craters or against a small rice paddy dike. “Every time I’d lift my head, that gun would open up and the rounds would come zinging,” said Mike “Diddybop” DiGiampaolo. “It’s like a weed whacker going through the bush.”

All over the field, Marines were cut off and pinned to the ground. Tibbs’ platoon, now barely a squad, occupied a bomb crater. Calling it their “Alamo,” Tibbs told the Marines to bring all the dead and wounded back the crater, where they would hold their position.

Hearing Tibbs’ order, Taylor crossed the kill zone, finding Capt Hoover, the commanding officer of India Co.

“Skipper, give me that blooper,” he said. “My men are in trouble. I’ve got to go help my Marines.”

Hoover handed him the single shot M79 grenade launcher they had found abandoned earlier in the operation.

Taylor took off into the twilight. Turning to Larry Gore, Hoover said, “Beaver, don’t let him do anything stupid. Go with him.”

Taylor and Beaver moved from cover to cover, finding wounded Marines at each stop along the way. They began directing those who could move and assisting those who could not back to the crater occupied by 2d Plt. As Beaver and the other Marines moved and carried the wounded, Taylor lobbed a steady stream of grenades from his M79 into the enemy machine gun positions.

Multiple machine guns pinned down the Marines that night, but one in particular wreaked the most havoc in India Co’s section. An NVA soldier skillfully operated a 12.7 millimeter heavy machine gun. “He was good with it,” said Beaver, “He knew enough to fire 6 inches off the ground and small bursts.” The gunner found Taylor in his sights as the Marine moved about the field. Taylor found him as well and kept the gunner’s head down with the M79 as Beaver and the others rescued the wounded.

After multiple trips from the crater into the field and back with wounded Marines, Taylor and Beaver crawled out one final time. They joined some of the Marines who were farthest ahead of the others and trapped close to the enemy bunkers. By this time, Taylor had successfully silenced two enemy guns. The last remaining machine gun maintained a steady rate of fire. The Marines were trapped on the ground, with several already wounded. Taylor took all the M79 ammunition the Marines with him had left and ordered Beaver to get everyone else back to the crater. They began to fall back, when suddenly through the darkness behind him, Beaver heard the dueling explosions of grenades versus machine guns. “It was horrible just hearing that,” he remembered. “We said, ‘Oh my God, he’s still alive. He’s still alive!’ We kept hearing ‘BLOOP. . . .BOOM,’ then, ‘BOW BOW BOW BOW BOW!’ ” Charging through the open rice paddy, Taylor assaulted the NVA heavy machine gun, launching grenades as he ran.

The Marines heard the blooper fire once more, a retort from the heavy machine gun and then the field fell silent. When they finally reached his position, the Marines found Taylor dead, killed by the enemy machine gunner. They also discovered that although wounded, Taylor succeeded in knocking out the machine gun with his last shot. For his heroic actions, supreme sacrifice and dedication to his Marines, SSgt Taylor was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Following the duel, the Marines spent the remainder of the night engaged in hand-to-hand combat. The remaining NVA and VC in the area made their final attempts to break through the Marine lines with the intent to escape or die, but never surrender. By daybreak on Dec. 9, few of the enemy remained to fight.

The battalion launched the final assault of the operation, overrunning the Northern Bunker Complex all the way to the La Tho River. The resistance they encountered was determined, but lacked the scale and organization of the previous day. At 1800, Operation Meade River was officially declared complete.

The Marines fell back out of the Northern Bunker Complex and waited for their ride out of Dodge City. Helicopters dropped the remainder of the battalion back at the Rock Crusher outside of Da Nang. Tibbs marched with his platoon through the gates.

“Who are you?” shouted a guard.

“India 2,” replied Tibbs.

The guard continued questioning. “Where is the rest of the platoon?”

“This IS India 2!” Tibbs fired back.

Only 10 Marines remained out of 44.

Meade River dealt a tough blow to the NVA. More than 1,000 enemy soldiers were killed. Just over 100 were captured. Nearly 400 fortified bunkers were destroyed, along with innumerable tunnels and spider holes. Meade River also exacted a high cost on the seven participating Marine battalions. More than 100 Marines were killed and 510 were wounded. Of those totals, 3/26 suffered 33 killed and 141 wounded. For their gallantry and intrepidity, Marines from 3/26 received 10 Silver Stars, one Navy Cross, and the Medal of Honor. President Richard Nixon also awarded the battalion the Presidential Unit Citation for their role in the operation.

The pacification of Dodge City minimally affected the long-term goals of the U.S. military in Vietnam. Following the operation, no Marine units were tasked to remain in the area to sustain the hard-fought victory. Enemy forces quickly moved back into the area and regained strength.

Fifty years ago, 3/26 wrote the story of Operation Meade River. Today, for many of the veterans who fought there, its story continues writing them.

“I saw the real Marines come out,” said Hoover. “I did not have to tell them anything. We had a camaraderie there that I’ve never seen in any other infantry outfit that I was with in my 20 years. They were second to none. Karl [Taylor] was a hero that stood out among heroes. He was not the John Wayne type, but Karl had a dedication to the Marine Corps that all drill instructors have, and his troops were most important in his mind.”

For the Marines of 3/26, Operation Meade River received mixed reviews. To some, their time in Dodge City was no different from the rest of their tours. For Marines accustomed to living in the bush and advancing from operation to operation in constant combat, the events of November and December 1968 blended in with the rest.

For others, Meade River remains the fight they will never forget. No span of time can erase the memories of the Hook and Northern Bunker complex. No other point of their time in Vietnam can be more meaningful than the night Taylor gave his life for them.

Author’s note: To the warriors of 3d Battalion, 26th Marines: Always on point. Thank you for your service, your sacrifice, and entrusting me with your stories. I wish you and your fallen all of the honor you deserve. Semper Fidelis.

Kyle Watts is a veteran Marine captain and communications officer.  He currently resides in Richmond, Va., with his wife and two children.