In the Shadow of the ROCKPILE
By Tom Bartlett - Originally Published September 1991
Vietnam veterans categorized the enemy into two types.
The Viet Cong was generally a local warrior operating with outdated equipment. Charlie was his nickname, or Victor Charlie. Skinny by American standards, he could subsist on a handful of rice for days. He lived off the land, and his weapon and whatever equipment he carried were pitiful compared to the heavy loads toted by Marines. Charlie was often underestimated by his more heavily armed opponents. In combat, sophistication sometimes lost to simplicity. Charlie proved to be cunning, wiry and resourceful, like a wolf in the wild.
Though his weapon was old, he often caused casualties. A Viet Cong (VC) sniper could (and often did) force an allied company or battalion to dive into rice paddy muck. And as Marine fire teams leapfrogged to where muzzle smoke had appeared, Charlie would disappear into the jungle, drop into a well-camouflaged spider trap or melt into thin air with the morning mist.
North Vietnamese Army regulars were sometimes called Nguyen, or simply NVA, and Marines took these combatants more seriously than their inexperienced counterparts. NVA units were often very well-equipped and commanded by combat experienced leaders. Many had fought for or against the French when the country was known as Indochina.
They were armed with modern AK47s or the older SKS rifle. The former was an accurate, reliable assault rifle. Nguyen was supported by rocket launchers, mortars and howitzers. He was "bo doi," or a basic infantryman, and he had been trained in North Vietnam in tactics and weapons.
In mid-1966, Victor Charlie was feeling the heat of aggressive Marine and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) patrols. During Operation New York, the 2d Battalion, First Marines (2/1) helped an ARVN battalion engaged with a numerically superior force. More than 120 enemy were killed. Operation Texas was conducted in the An Hoa industrial area. The 5th ARVN Bn. was joined by 3/7 and 2/4 Marines in counting 405 Viet Cong bodies.
Operation Indiana followed, with 1/7 and the 5th ARVN Bn. accounting for 69 dead VC. Operation Georgia (3/9) was followed by Operation Liberty which grouped the Third, Ninth and First Marine Regiments. Operation Jay (2/4 and 2/1) was successful, as was Macon (9th Marines). The latter was conducted in the An Hoa area near the Thu Bon River. More than 500 VC bodies were counted.
The Vietnam War was about to change. Charlie was learning that the jungle was no longer his alone. Marines were quickly adapting to guerrilla warfare, and when VC units were forced to fight for survival, the superior firepower of the Americans simply annihilated enemy strongholds.
"When we first went into South Vietnam, our principal enemy was the 'black pajama' guerrilla, (the Viet Cong). In mid-1966, the North Vietnamese moved into the south in order to get on with the campaign that the guerrillas were losing," said General Wallace M. Greene, Commandant of the Marine Corps, 1964-67. "Infiltration (from the north) continued at about 4,500 to 5,000 men a month.
"They came down through Laos, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or infiltrated across the border through innumerable ingresses. One was the Ba Long, a deep valley right across from Laos, through the mountains and into the area in the vicinity of Hue."
Reconnaissance Group "Bravo" was structured around Company B of the 3d Recon Bn., reinforced by Company A, and 1st Force Recon Company. Major Dwain A. Colby assumed command. Company E/2/1 and Battery H/3/12 (artillery) were "on call."
Recon teams were sent out to determine "the size, designation and equipment" of enemy units operating near the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Major Colby recalled that every recon insertion "encountered armed, uniformed groups, and no patrol was able to stay in the field for more than a few hours; many for only a few minutes."
For weeks, recon Marines continued observing and encountering increasing numbers of uniformed regulars of the NVA. One patrol (led by First Lieutenant Theard J. Terrebone Jr.) was moving 16 miles west of Dong Ha. There, a 700-foot "sort of toothpick-type mountain struck out in the middle of an open area. It had sheer cliffs, straight up and down," the lieutenant recalled.
Dubbed "The Rockpile," the mountain peak would soon become a familiar terrain feature to Marines operating near the DMZ.
As the Marine recon unit observed enemy activity in the shadow of The Rockpile, they called in artillery fire on well-camouflaged enemy firing positions, trench lines, mortar pits and fighting holes. For 10 days the Recon Marines maintained their motto: "Swiftly, Silently, Deadly." More than 300 NVA sightings were reported.
An NVA soldier was captured. He identified his unit as part of the 5th Bn., 812th Regiment, 324B Division. Three days later, an NVA lieutenant surrendered and provided detailed intelligence on positions and designations of the enemy division. He claimed that NVA units in the area were ordered to "liberate" nearby Quang Tri Province.
It was the policy of the Marines to attack any large scale enemy troop concentration, using helicopter mobility to bring in large numbers of troops quickly.
Lieutenant Colonel Jack D. Spaulding's 2/1 and a recon element joined forces to determine that "yes, indeed, a large enemy force was operating in the shadow of The Rockpile." What followed would involve 8,000 Marines and 3,000 South Vietnamese in what would prove to be the most savage battle of the war, to that point.
Operation Hastings was about to begin. Major General Wood B. Kyle, commanding general of the Third Marine Division, appointed Brigadier General Lowell English as commander of Task Force Delta.
The force consisted of Spaulding's 2/1, LtCol Arnold Bench's 2/4, and LtCol Sumner Vale's 3/4. Maj Samuel Morrow's 3/12 provided artillery support with five artillery batteries consisting of 18 105-mm.- and a dozen 155-mm. howitzers.
The Dong Ha airstrip, 35 miles north of Hue, was used as a staging area. As KC-130 Hercules transports of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 152 flew Marine infantrymen into Dong Ha, combatants stared in disbelief at the lone Air Force security airman wearing pressed utilities, white webbed gear and sporting a .45-caliber pistol (minus magazine). The airman stood next to a small guard shack, watching as Marines, armed to the teeth, emerged off ramps of the large transports, preparing to march into battle.
The terrain in which the Marines would operate varied from coastal plain (flat and open) to dense undergrowth and jungle forest. And, then, there was The Rockpile, with ridges, steep hills and peaks. The rough terrain and heavy vegetation made ground movement difficult and reduced the number of possible helicopter landing zones (LZs).
Gen English explained, "We wanted to take the enemy by surprise on his key trails and behind his own lines, and to smash and destroy him before he had a chance to regain his balance and momentum."
On the morning of July 15, the Marine operation began in earnest. A-4 Skyhawks of Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 12 joined F-4B Phantoms from MAG-11, bombing and napalming two selected helicopter LZs. F-8 Crusaders of MAG-11 also flew several sorties.
Following the aerial assault (in which Skyhawks flew 31 sorties while dropping more than 12 tons of bombs and two tons of napalm), Maj Morrow's artillerymen prepped Landing Zone Crow, located five miles northeast of The Rockpile.
Colonel Richard M. Hunt, commanding officer of MAG-16, assumed tactical air command for Task Force Delta, controlling not only the helicopters of his squadrons, but also the fixed-wing support missions. The helicopter assault began with 20 CH-46 Sea Knights of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadrons (HMM) 164 and 165 swooping toward LZ Crow.
The heli-borne assault was a disaster. Two of the transport helicopters collided and crashed during the initial phase of the operation. As the Marine infantrymen disembarked from the wreckage, the main rotor of one chopper tilted. As it continued to spin, it struck two infantrymen as they ran down the ramp to safety. A tail rotor splintered and motion picture photographer Staff Sergeant Gerry Jones narrowly missed decapitation when he squatted to rewind his movie camera. The section of rotor flew over his stooped body, missing him by less than a foot.
A third Sea Knight swerved to avoid hitting the first two crashed hulks and rammed a tree. Marine grunts began referring to the area as "Helicopter Valley." A fourth Sea Knight was shot down by enemy fire in the same locale later that day.
Results of the initial helo-assault at LZ Crow were 15 Marines dead; 10 injured.
Nearby, at LZ Dove, Sea Knights were transporting 2/4 into the battle. HMM-363 of the Special Landing Force initially flew in support of Battalion Landing Team 3/5, but was later placed under the operational control of MAG-16's forward headquarters.
The NVA were light-infantry units which moved quickly and maintained fire discipline. They were fresh troops, fighting with their backs to their homeland.
The Special Landing Force (LtCol Edward J. Bronars' 3/5) was committed, and on July 20 LtCol Van D. "Ding Dong" Bell's 1/1 went into action. LtCol Robin Dickey led his 1/3 into the battle on July 22. Five Vietnamese battalions were also committed, and American B-52s bombed along the DMZ for the first time in the war.
MajGen Lewis W. Walt, Commanding General, III Marine Amphibious Force, summarized the battle. "The NVA was aggressive to the point of fanaticism. They attacked in mass formations and died by the hundreds. Their leaders misjudged the fighting ability of U.S. Marines and ARVN soldiers together. Our superiority in artillery and total command of the air was also misjudged. They vastly underestimated our mobility."
The enemy forces battling Captain Robert J. Modrzejewski's Company K, 3/4 were fanatics. They did attack in mass formations and died by the hundreds.
NVA snipers coolly and calmly selected targets and fired, concealed by the dense vegetation nearby, as Modrzejewski's company swept near the Song (River) Ngan. "Underneath the jungle canopy, we found a complete 200-bed hospital in a bamboo building, about 30 yards long and 20 yards wide. One man was guarding it, and we shot him. Inside, we found 1,200 rounds of small-arms ammo being guarded by three men. We shot them, too," he recalled.
The tenacity of the battle is best told by survivors.
"We started getting mortar fire, followed by automatic weapons from all sides. The (NVA) were blowing bugles, and we could see them waving flags. They moved in waves with small arms (fire) right behind their mortars, and we estimated we were being attacked by 1,000 men. We just couldn't kill them fast enough. My squads were cut off from each other, and together, we were cut off from the rest of the company. I had some of my men in the high grass where our machine gunners had to get up on their knees to shoot, which exposed them. (The enemy) never overran us, but he got one or two of his squads between us." So recalled SSgt John J. McGinty of K/3/4. He later was awarded the Medal of Honor.
"We were getting mortars right in the landing zone and (our) bombs and napalm were dropping only 50 yards away from us. Napalm got about 20 of (the NVA), and then another 40 in the middle of the landing zone. I remember one kid shouting, 'Here come some Marines,' but they weren't Marines at all. They were NVA, and when they saw us, they ducked into the river on our flank. All we could see were their heads and rifles above water. It was like shooting pumpkins." Capt Robert J. Modrzejewski also won the Medal of Honor.
In an after action report, the captain recalled that an NVA company attempted to overrun his Kilo Co. one night. "It was so dark, we couldn't see our hands in front of our faces, so we threw our trip flares and called for a flare plane overhead. We could hear, smell and occasionally see the NVA. In the morning, we found 25 bodies, some of them only five yards away, stacked on top of each other.
"We could hear bodies being dragged through the jungle for four hours after the shooting stopped. A thorough search at first light revealed 79 enemy dead by body count."
Modrzejewski's Co. K, especially McGinty's platoon, was hit hard. "Our company was down from 130 (Marines) to 80, and I had kids who were hit in five or six places."
Bronars' and Bell's battalions met light but persistent resistance, but then, on July 24, 3/5 stumbled onto an NVA battalion. Bronars ordered that Capt Samuel Glaize take his Co. I atop Hill 362 to establish a radio relay station. The unit walked to the top unscathed, but as the captain prepared forward defensive positions, the NVA attacked, hidden in jungle growth reaching up 90 feet.
Lance Corporal Richard A. Pittman rushed forward with a machine gun to cover the ambushed second platoon. The survivors and Pittman fought their way back to the crest of the hill. They were forced to leave their casualties behind.
LCpl Raymond L. Powell, a wounded Marine of the Second Platoon, recalled that the NVA moved through the American bodies, methodically shooting "anyone who moved. It was darn near like a massacre. I pretended I was dead when they got to me. They took my cigarettes and my watch, but they didn't shoot me."
Glaize's Marines dug in. They were under constant mortar fire for some time, until a Marine Huey (UH-1E) gunship from Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) 2 rocketed the enemy positions. The NVA made repeated assaults against the Marines, often closing to within 15 to 30 feet of India/3/5.
"The Commies got so damned close, we could hear them breathing heavy and hear them talking," Corporal Mark Whieley recalled. By dawn the next day, the NVA were gone. Co. I suffered 18 dead and 82 wounded.
LCpl Richard A. Pittman survived and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts.
During Hastings, Marine aviators flew Phantoms, Skyhawks and Crusaders at a rate of 100 sorties a day, averaging 32 close air support missions, 40 interdiction missions and 28 radar-controlled missions. In all, Marine air completed 1,677 tactical missions against the enemy. MAG-16 helicopters flew nearly 10,000 missions and lifted a daily average of 620 troops.
Maj Morrow's batteries of 3/12 fired nearly 34,500 rounds in support of Marines and ARVN infantrymen.
"Rough Rider" truck convoys on Route 1 brought 120 tons of ammo from Phu Bai to Dong Ha. KC-130 Hercules of VMGR-152 and -352 hauled more than a million pounds of supplies to Dong Ha during the Hastings build-up, and from July 18 to the end of the operation, averaged 115 tons a day, supplying the Marine task force.
When the Sea Knights were all grounded for mechanical problems, 42 UH-34s and four CH-37s picked up the slack, averaging 75 tons a day, with a peak of 110 tons to supply the infantry battalions.
Gen English remarked: "I was a battalion commander at Iwo Jima and I didn't get anywhere near the support I was able to give these Marines here (on Hastings)."
The operation ended on August 3, 1966, with more than 824 enemy dead and 214 of his weapons captured. The Marines lost 126 killed and 448 wounded, while the ARVN had 21 killed and 40 wounded.
Enemy equipment losses included more than 200 weapons, 300 pounds of documents and more than 300,000 rounds of ammunition.
The NVA withdrew. The battle was over. A small task force remained in the shadow of The Rockpile, built around LtCol Bench's 2/4 at Dong Ha. In addition to his four rifle companies, he would be supported by the 1st Force Recon Co., and Battery G/3/12 (reinforced by a pair of 155-mm. howitzers). Also attached were a platoon from 3d Tank Bn., 3d Antitank Bn., 3d Engineers and a unit from the Force Logistic Command. Two helicopter detachments (one from MAG-16 and the other from the Army's 220th Aviation Co.) were at Dong Ha for support.
Maj Colby's recon Marines went back to work. Helicopters would insert small teams of four or five men in a "Stingray" operation. The recon members would call for artillery, helicopter gunships or Marine jets when they spotted enemy activity in the area.
On August 6, a five-man recon team in a jungle, covering a hill mass near The Rockpile, saw NVA troops moving along trails. They called for artillery. The next day, same story. As time progressed, recon reported more and more sightings.
Finally, six helicopters (HMM-265) landed a 40-man platoon in the area to make contact with the recon unit. It appeared the enemy had disappeared. The call went out for the helicopters to return to extract all of the Marines. The first chopper landed and loaded, but when it took off, NVA troops opened up. In all, five UH-34s landed, but they were able to evacuate only 20 of the 45 Marines because of heavy enemy fire.
The enemy assaulted the remaining Marines on the ground. The NVA was beaten back. Surrounded, the Marines called for artillery and close air support. At Dong Ha, Capt Howard V. Lee (Easy Co. commander) was listening to radio reports. Lee asked LtCol Bench for permission to lead a relief force to the beleaguered Marines. Bench gave the okay, and Lee gathered seven volunteers.
Three HMM-161 choppers flew the small force to the battle site, but enemy fire forced them to land outside the Marine perimeter. Only three volunteers (including Lee) were able to reach the surrounded Marines.
Capt Lee immediately took command, reorganized the defenses and saw to the redistribution of ammo which the choppers unloaded into the defenses. The small unit continued repelling NVA ground probes. That night, Lee radioed Bench, stating he had only 16 men left still able to fight. He, himself, had been twice wounded. One grenade sent fragments into his right eye and the right side of his body.
Maj Vincil Hazelbaker of VMO-2 continued supporting the Marines, pushing out boxes of 7.62-mm. linked ammo. When he attempted an additional resupply inside the Marine defenses, an enemy rocket "impacted on the rotor mast," crippling the helicopter. Hazelbaker and his copilot joined the fight on the ground.
The aviators incorporated the helicopter's M60 machine guns into the defense.
The next morning, Capt Lee (weakened by the loss of blood) relinquished command to the major. Meanwhile, Marine artillery and napalm strikes on enemy positions kept the NVA at bay. Later, Foxtrot Co. and a command group arrived, followed shortly by Echo Co. The newly arrived Marines spread out, but the enemy had disappeared once again.
The Marines suffered five killed and 27 wounded.
Capt Lee was awarded the Medal of Honor. Maj Hazelbaker received the Navy Cross.
Operation Prairie was hastily organized in the same battleground as Hastings.
As September ended, Marines counted 943 enemy dead. The Special Landing Force accounted for 254.
The Rockpile would become a part of the Marine vocabulary, as would Mutter's Ridge, Razorback and Cam Lo. The NVA would be back, in the shadow of The Rockpile.