The Vietnam War: To Each His Zone

By Tom Bartlett - Originally Published June 1996

Thirty years ago in Vietnam, everybody had a zone. The North Vietnamese claimed the area north of the Ben Hai River, at the 17th parallel.

The Republic of Vietnam was the area south of that river. A fine line between north and south, encompassing the Ben Hai, was known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

In addition to the DMZ, there were other zones in Vietnam in 1966. Marines were assigned the northernmost sector of South Vietnam's four military areas designated I (pronounced "eye") Corps Tactical Zone. This zone extended 265 miles, from the DMZ through Quang Ngai Province. It encompassed 10,000 square miles, varying in width from 30 to 70 miles, east to west.

During June 1966, three Marine infantry regiments (eight battalions) were based in areas surrounding Da Nang, located roughly, in the center of the I Corps Tactical Zone. Major General Wood B. Kyle commanded the Third Marine Division.

The First Marine Regiment, commanded by Colonel Bryan B. Mitchell, arrived at Da Nang from Chu Lai and was assigned to the eastern flank.

The 3d Marines, under the command of Col Harold A. Hayes, was placed west of the Yen River, south of Da Nang.

The 9th Marines, fresh from Golden Fleece operations (protecting locally grown rice) and County Fairs (pacification operations), was commanded by Col Edwin H. Simmons.

The regiment's area of operation covered 257 square miles and consisted of 27 villages, 150 hamlets and more than 88,000 civilians. Included in this zone of responsibility was the An Hoa industrial complex.

As the 9th Marines patrolled, contact with the enemy increased. Intense but short encounters were common. The Viet Cong would "hit and git."

The three regiments would join in Operation Liberty, which began on June 7, 1966.

The Viet Cong had grown daring. They were part of the R-20 battalion. During late May, Lieutenant Colonel William F. Doehler's 1st Bn, 9th Marines made contact with the enemy near the Yen River. Companies A and C (1/9), accompanied by M-48 tanks and supported by air and artillery, responded.

During the daylong battle, 53 enemy were killed, probably more. However, bodies had "disappeared," and a body count could not be made. Doehler lost a dozen Marines killed, and another 31 were wounded.

Col Simmons realized that his regiment's significant contacts with the enemy were all initiated by the VC. They picked the time and place to battle the Marines. During May, the 9th Marines killed 270 while suffering 75 dead and 328 wounded. More than half of the Marine casualties were caused by enemy mines and booby traps.

Col Simmons rearranged the enemy's schedule. His Marines would perform more search and clear operations, including cordons and searches of every hamlet in the zone.

As the Marines began Operation Liberty, LtCol Van D. "Ding Dong" Bell Jr. (1/1) and his command group climbed aboard three Ontos. South of the Marble Mountain Air Facility, Bell's vehicle ran out of gas. The area was definitely "unfriendly," and soon enemy rounds were impacting into the zone temporarily occupied by LtCol Bell's command section.

Bell ordered reinforcements from his Co B, supported by amtracs and tanks. The armored vehicles roared and rolled to the rescue, and 11 VC bodies and a number of weapons were later found.

As Operation Liberty progressed, the enemy remained concealed, using sniper fire and mines against the advancing and probing Marines. Captain Carl Reckewell's F/2/9 patrolled unknowingly into a large enemy minefield near the La Tho River. Two Marines were killed; 21 were wounded.

As those casualties were being evacuated, another four or five explosions occurred. The adjacent elephant grass caught fire, but there were no other casualties there. The "Fox" Co Marines were withdrawn from the minefield, and Marine artillery pounded the vacated area. Numerous secondary explosions were heard and observed.

Operation Liberty was not one of the "big" operations, but it did clear the area south of Da Nang of organized enemy resistance, and two weeks later, Marine engineers celebrated the opening of "Liberty Road" which wandered south from Da Nang to the industrial complex of An Hoa.

During Operation Liberty, Second Lieutenant Russell H. Sutton's first platoon in Golf Co, 2/9 was providing a blocking force. Its zone of operation was adjacent to the river. Hotel and Echo Companies were on the move, trying to "sweep" the enemy into Sutton's entrenched platoon.

The son of a Blountsville, Ala., physician, Sutton was 25 years old. He wasn't a boot in the Corps, and he wasn't a novice to Vietnam. He had seen his share of Marines killed by mines and booby traps or by enemy gunfire and Viet Cong...many Viet Cong.

He had been in the Marine Corps for two years, earning a commission after receiving a master's degree in physical education at the University of Alabama. In June 1966, he had chalked up 200 combat patrols and crossed out 10 months on his "short-timer's" calendar, en route to the 13 months Marines were required to serve in Vietnam before rotating back to the United States.

As his platoon awaited action, he checked on his men and the placement of weapons. Satisfied, he slid into an abandoned Viet Cong trench and removed Shakespeare's "Richard III" from his pack.

The Marines waited. And waited. Sergeant Jesse "Big Mac" McCoy of Baltimore checked how his machine guns were set up. Navy Hospitalman 3d Class Chris "Doc" Crooker of Lynchburg, Va., was trying to get some sleep. Private First Class Joe Settle, the radioman from New Castle, Pa., was improving his temporary quarters.

Staff Sergeant Steve Stibbens, a Leatherneck magazine photojournalism was accompanying Sutton's platoon during the operation. Stibbens had served in Vietnam prior to the landing of Marines in March 1965. As a photographer on the staff of Pacific Stars and Stripes in 1964, he had covered Army advisers serving in Vietnam.

"I went over to talk with Big Mac McCoy," Stibbens recalled. "He didn't think any VC would be pushed into our blocking force. He figured the operation was winding down, and we'd be leaving the field sometime soon.

"As I walked away, something rustled and slid just behind Big Mac's machinegun position. I figured it was a mongoose, but as I walked nearer, I saw something move again. Then I began worrying. Maybe it was a snake, like a python or cobra."

Stibbens crept up to where the sound came from, and he spotted a thin line drawn on the ground. "It was a hole with a camouflaged lid," he remembered.

He backed off and drew his .45. He called to Mac.

"Mac, I think somebody's in that hole," Stibbens whispered.

Mac approached and looked at the hole. "Man, that's a hole!" he exclaimed.

He signalled for some of his grunts to come forward. They checked for other holes...exits or ventillation shafts, and they checked the river to see if there were "escape hatches" along the river bank. He had a runner move out to get 2dLt Sutton.

The lieutenant arrived, along with a Vietnamese interpreter with a batterypowered megaphone. Sgt Kelly Anderson of Montrose, Calif., approached with a grappling hook. He thought he had it secured, so he yanked. The lid didn't give.

"Let's blast it open," one of the grunts suggested.

"No," the lieutenant replied. "Headquarters wants prisoners."

Anderson tried the grappling hook again. Nothing. He tried using his bayonet to probe open the lid. And then, suddenly, the lid sprang open, and a grenade came out!

Anderson pushed the grenade back down the hole and slammed the lid shut. A muffled blast was heard.

Sgt Ho, the Vietnamese interpreter, crept close to the hole. The smell of acid and smoke was noticeable. The lid had blown off the opening. Anderson looked inside.

"Somebody's moving," he said, "but I can see others. Looks like three of them in there."

"Ho began talking into the megaphone," Stibbens said. "He was telling the survivors in the hole to come out. Then we heard moaning. Ho told them that we had a doctor, telling them to come out for medical treatment."

None emerged. Big Mac took an entrenching tool and began enlarging the hole. It began raining. LCpl Jim Keith of New Orleans volunteered to go into the hole to push or pull the Viet Cong out.

Stibbens recalled: "One of the guerrillas sat near the entrance looking up at us with dumbfounded eyes. His nose and ears were bleeding from the concussion of the grenade. He was almost within reach. Sergeant Ho told him to come out, saying, 'You are dying. You need medical help.'

"The wounded guerrilla replied weakly, 'It is our fate to die.' "

Lt Sutton ordered that a green smoke grenade be tossed inside the hole. The smoke thinned out. Still no guerrillas, and then LCpl Keith yelled, "Here they come!"

Keith grabbed the first VC exiting the hole. He was bitten on the hand. The two wrestled for a minute, and then Keith had a rope around the VC. Two more VC emerged, both ready for a fight. They were quickly subdued and tied.

The hole turned up three dead VC, as well as a carbine, ammo and some Chinese grenades.

"The Marines could easily have blown up the tunnel with explosives," Stibbens reported. "But they gave the enemy a chance for continued living."

There were many "zones" in Vietnam: the DMZ, Corps Tactical Zones and the small area directly in front of a Marine's position. For Sutton's 1st Platoon, G/2/9, their zone was a small indentation alongside a nondescript river.

Lt Russell H. Sutton would continue serving Corps and country. He would return to Vietnam in 1968, serving with F/2/9. He would retire from Twentynine Palms, Calif., as a brigadier general.

Wounded in 1968, Sutton lost an eye. Artificial eyes included one with the Marine Corps' emblem and one with a skull and crossbones.

Imagine a young Marine pfc or lance corporal reporting in front of the commanding officer for a reprimand and looking down to see the "old man" with a skull and crossbones for an eyeball!

BrigGen Sutton was assistant division commander of the Second Marine Division during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Edwin H. Simmons, a veteran of World War II and Korea, would retire from the Marine Corps as a brigadier general and serve 24 years as director of Marine Corps History and Museums.

Steve Stibbens served three Leatherneck magazine tours in Vietnam. He was twice named "Military Photographer of the Year." Presently residing in Texas, he is busy writing a book.