“Green Hell”- Operation Dewey Canyon
When I left my office aboard MCB Quantico on Friday, I did so armed with the material to write a very different blog this weekend. There are times when the truth is stranger than fiction, and it was my intention to write the strange story of a young Marine who served with the Haitian Gendarmerie. The best laid plans sometimes go awry, and mine did when I received an email from an acquaintance who asked if I had ever heard of the Song Da Krong, a river near the South Vietnam-Laotian border. I had, indeed, heard of the river. It was in this area that elements of the 9th Marines conducted Operation Dewey Canyon in the first months of 1969…and it was a new kind of war.
So what was the situation faced by the Marine Corps in January 1969? Enemy activity in Northern I Corps was described as “light” and “sporadic.” Along the DMZ, units of the 3d Marine Division faced elements of six North Vietnamese regiments. Enemy activity was generally limited to occasional rocket and mortar attacks on allied positions, ground probes by squad and platoon sized units, and attempts to mine the Cua Viet River. In the central portion of Quang Tri Province, units of the NVA’s 7th Front and the 812th Regiment had largely pulled back into jungle sanctuaries for resupply and replacements. Further south in I Corps, the situation was similar. NVA units had withdrawn into the A Shau Valley and Laos.
While the enemy generally avoided contact, American and South Vietnamese forces operating in northern I Corps continued their efforts to keep the enemy off balance. They struck at traditional base areas and infiltration routes, and increased security within populated areas. Leading the American effort in Quang Tri Province was the 3d Marine Division under the command of Major General Ray Davis. Davis has been described as a “Marine’s Marine.” He was a veteran of Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Peleliu. He was awarded a Medal of Honor for leading a contingent of Marines through bitterly cold temperatures, snow, and wind to relieve the beleaguered men of Fox Company at Toktong Pass during the breakout from Chosin during the Korean War. Now, under Davis’ leadership, tactical disposition of the 3d Marine Division was turned upside down.
Major General Ray Davis took command of the 3d Marine Division in May 1968
When he took command in May 1968, much of the 3d Marine Division was tied down to combat bases, places like Vandegrift and Camp Carroll. They were part of the “McNamara Line” conceived to shut down enemy use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. And according to Davis this simply wasn’t working. Marine battalions were being pulled back into defensive positions at the combat bases at night. This, he felt, was contrary to the way Marines think. Marines attack. They don’t hunker down. He saw combat being broken off when nightfall was eminent so that combat bases could be manned.
All that changed very quickly under Davis. The division would no longer be tied to defensive positions but, with helicopter support, would assume a highly mobile posture. Davis later stated,
“Forgetting about bases, going after the enemy in key areas-this punished the enemy most….The way to get it done was to get out of these fixed positions and get mobility, to go and destroy the enemy on our terms, not sit there and absorb the shot and shell and frequent penetrations that he was able to mount….As soon as I heard that I was going, it led me to do something I had never done before or since, and that is to move in prepared in the first hours to completely turn the command upside down. They were committed by battalion in fixed positions in such a way that they had very little mobility. The relief of CGs took placed at eleven o’clock. At one o’clock I assembled the staff and commanders. Before dark, battalion positions had become company positions….Everyone else was expected to be in the field.”
As the battalion moved from defensive positions to more aggressive operations, the need for helicopters grew. Luckily, the “D” model of the CH-46 was arriving in large numbers in Vietnam. These had significantly larger engines than the previous model and could lift more troops. Major General Davis’ good relationship with his Army brethren secured a promise of Army helicopter support when needed. Even more important to Davis was the creation of Provision Marine Aircraft Group 39 and the assignment of a Marine air commander for northern I Corps. And with that, Marines moved from static positions south of the DMZ and along Routes 1 and 9 into the mountainous regions of Quang Tri in search of the enemy and his supplies.
Also key to Davis’ concept of mobile operations was intelligence, specifically that gathered by recon patrols. Davis employed two very different kinds of patrols. The first was the heavily armed “StingRay” patrol. These operated within the range of friendly artillery. Heavily armed, their mission was to find, fix and destroy the enemy with all available supporting arms and with rapid reinforcement when necessary. The second was the much smaller “Key Hole” patrols. Much smaller in size, armed only with small arms, the function of these patrols was to OBSERVE. The 3d Marine Division “never launched an operation without acquiring clear definition of the targets and objectives through intelligence confirmed by recon patrols.” The idea was to find the enemy, find his caches of weapons, his prepositioned supplies BEFORE any large scale offensive could be mounted…In short, find the enemy and kill him before he has a chance to kill you.
So how did one of these high mobility missions play out? Armed with intelligence supplied by these recon patrols or through radio intercepts, the Marines advanced rapidly into the area of operations. Forward artillery positions, fire support bases, defended by a minimum of personnel would be established on key terrain features-hilltops. These bases were constructed about 8,000 meters apart, and provided ground troops with an umbrella of continuous artillery support. Ground units were inserted in the area and were able to move rapidly and largely on foot throughout the area to be searched-these were search and destroy missions!
By the beginning of 1969, elements of the 3d Marine Division could be found operating anywhere from the Laotian border to the coastal lowlands. Of rising concern was new enemy activity in northern I Corps, specifically along the Laotian border. North Vietnamese Army engineer units had reopened a number of major infiltration routes from Laos into South Vietnam. One of these was Route 922 which enters Vietnam south of the Da Krong River valley. Along this route there was a surge in vehicular traffic. The number of trucks travelling this route more than doubled in early January. Marine and Air Force aircraft had sighted more than a thousand trucks a day. And, in response, the NVA significantly increased the volume of antiaircraft fire in the area. On the night of 17 January, an A-6 Intruder from Marine All Weather Attack Squadron 242 was shot down.
Intelligence tentatively identified the gathering enemy forces as elements of the 6th NVA Regiment, 9th NVA Regiment, 65th Artillery Regiment and the 83d Engineer Regiment. These units were stockpiling material and attempting to work their way eastward through the Da Krong and A Shau Valleys and into areas southwest of Quang Tri and west of Hue. This was a development that did not go unnoticed at Division headquarters. On 14 January, Davis ordered Brigadier General Frank Garretson to prepare plans of a regimental-sized search and clear operation in the Da Krong Valley “as soon as practicable after 22 January”….once again, this brings home Davis’ concept of RAPID mobility.
The Da Krong River Valley was not an area where American forces had been before. There was little familiarity with the area except through agent reports and aerial reconnaissance photos. Located in the remote southwest corner of Quang Tri province, the valley was surrounded by high mountains broken by a few protruding ridgelines. The Da Krong River ran through the valley. To the south lay the A Shau Valley. And between the two were two large hill masses-Tam Boi and Tiger Mountain. This was rugged terrain; west of the river was a mixture of brush and elephant grass. East of the river was triple-canopied jungle. During monsoon season (January through March) temperatures were chilly. Skies were overcast, mountains were shrouded in clouds. The valleys and ravines could be blanketed with heavy fog. ( Keep these things in mind-this is a MOBILE operation. This area of operation was almost 50 miles from Vandegrift Combat Base. The Marines were dependent on helicopters for resupply.)
The Song Da Krong and surrounding terrain
The operation was conducted by the 9th Marines. The first phase of movement into this area was to open three previously established fire support bases- Henderson, Tun Tavern and Shiloh. That accomplished, the Marines were poised to move into the Da Krong River valley. Additional fire support bases were opened. Razor was carved out of thick jungle, the trees three to four feet across. Within the space of a single day CH-46s brought some 1,544 Marines and 46 tons of cargo into the landing zone. A battery of 105mm howitzers was in place.
Marines carved Fire Support Base Razor out of the jungle
On the morning of the 25th, the 3d Battalion, 9th Marines assaulted three landing zones south-southeast of Razor. Construction soon began on Fire Support Base Cunningham. Within four days, regimental command, and five artillery batteries moved into position. A forward logistics support area capable of supplying eight rifle companies with rations, water, batteries and small arms ammo was established. An artillery fan now extended six miles south and southwest to the limits of the operation. From here, close air took 30-45 minutes to call in. Helicopters were 45-60 minutes away if weather permitted. And the Marines were ready to move into the second phase of this operation, now called Dewey Canyon.
Helicopter operations were critical to the mission
The mission of Marines of the 2d and 3d Battalions was to clear the areas around Razor and Cunningham, secure the flanks and gradually move into position along the Da Krong’s east-west axis. This placed the 2d Battalion on the eastern flank, and the 3d Battalion on the western flank near the Laotian border. The 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, known as “The Walking Dead” were introduced in the center. Both units made contact with screening forces for NVA units operating further south.
Movement was hampered by both terrain and increasingly bad weather. Very heavy rains alternated with drizzle and dense fog. Soil turned to mud and visibility was less than 25 meters. Enemy attacks increased. By 3 February, Colonel Robert Barrow, commanding the 9th Marines, ordered the 2d and 3d Battalions to pull in their companies and assume a modified defensive position to wait out the bad weather. Captain Daniel Hitzleberger’s Golf Company was drawn into an ambush. Five Marines were killed, another 18 were wounded. One of the dead was fire team leader Lance Corporal Thomas P. Noonan. He was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor for his efforts to rescue the wounded through intense enemy fire. (His would be one of four Medals of Honor awarded during Dewey Canyon.)Again, treacherous terrain and bad weather made movement very difficult. Carrying the dead and wounded on stretchers, Golf Company was forced to traverse steep slopes and rocky cliffs. Once on the Da Krong, Marine air crews made a heroic effort to extract the most seriously wounded. In dense fog, two medevac helicopters flew in, using the river as a guide. After having been fired on from high ground on both sides of the valley, they landed, picked up the casualties and returned to Vandegrift. In all, nine days of bad weather cost the regiment momentum. It also allowed the enemy to prepare for further attack.
LCpl Tommy Noonan, photographed in Vietnam
By 10 February, the weather cleared and units moved into position, poised to drive southward across the Da Krong river and into enemy Base Area 611. The following morning the 3d Battalion, 9th Marines crossed the river. The 1st and 2d Battalions followed. Each made almost immediate contact with determined NVA forces. Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, was enroute to FSB Erskine. Lieutenant Wesley Fox later stated, “A burning CH-47, down beside Erskine’s HLZ caught my attention as our chopper flared in for landing. The chopper was a clear signal that our rest period had ended.” Lt Fox and his Marines spent the night on a ridge extending out from Erskine. Said Fox, “An enemy probe in one sector caused the entire battalion to open up with automatic rifles, machine guns, M-79s and grenades. The sound caused by this massive eruption of fire was scary. While it made me feel good to know we had such firepower, it also made the skin on the back of my neck crawl.” Despite the enemy resistance, the 9th Marines, employing a heavy volume of artillery fire and airstrikes, moved steadily southward.
Marines move across the river
In observance of Tet, the NVA and VC unilaterally declared a 24 hour truce that went into effect at 1800 on 16 February. One Marine major stated “out on Dewey Canyon you wouldn’t know there was a ceasefire.” Throughout 16-17 February sharp clashes marked the entire front. An enemy sapper platoon supported by a reinforced company hit FSB Cunningham causing major damage to the 2d Battalion, 12th Marines. Within less than 30 minutes, however, the Marines had regained control and throughout the night expended some 3,270 rounds on targets of opportunity, suspected assembly areas and likely escape routes.
The heaviest fighting of the Da Krong campaign took place from 18 through 22 February, the majority in the sector assigned to the 1st Battalion. In his book Marine Rifleman Wesley Fox recalled, “we were dug in for the night of 19 February, and most men were eating their rations when tank sounds were heard. The murmur of diesel engines and the clank of steel tracks was just audible as darkness fell on the ridge. Tanks always get the infantry’s attention, and this held true on our jungle ridgeline….”
The following morning Charlie Company attacked down the ridgeline and discovered the explanation for the noise.
The lead platoon, under 2d Lt Archie Biggers, came upon two 122mm field guns in tow behind two half track prime movers headed toward Laos on the ridge trail. While attempting to withdraw, the lead tractor had broken down on the narrow trail. Those engine sounds had been the NVA trying to get the second tractor around the breakdown but it could not pull out of a deep gully across the ridgeline. Air strikes and artillery had discouraged any serious work on either project. After a quick firefight, 1/9 owned the guns in perfect working order.
As the Marines neared the Laotian border, MajGen Davis requested that the Marines be allowed to enter Laos and destroy the enemy threat. This was initially put aside as the current rules of engagement did not allow the introduction of a large combat force into Laos for the purpose of conducting what was essentially a search and destroy operation. HOWEVER, the rules did allow “necessary counteractions against VC/NVA forces in the exercise of self-defense and to defend their units against armed attacks with all means at their disposal.” It was obvious that the enemy was making extensive use of Route 922, either to reinforce or withdraw his forces. For Colonel Barrows, commanding the 9th Marines, it was a clear choice: “This was a pretty unacceptable situation and it cried out for some sort of action to stop it.”
By 20 February, two companies were on the Laotian border and at least two more companies were expected to arrive within 24 hours. Hotel Company sat on the ridgeline and watched as an enemy convoy moved slowly along the road. Captain David Winecoff later stated, “the company, of course, was talking about let’s get down on the road and do some ambushing…with the Paris Peace Talks going on I wasn’t sure what route was going to be taken.” Army Lieutenant General Richard Stillwell, commanding XXIV Corps, recommended a limited raid into the heart of enemy Base Area 611.
Around noon on 21 February, a coded message was transmitted to Hotel Company. It directed a company raid into Laos that night to ambush along Route 922. The company was ordered to be back inside Vietnam by dawn. Shortly after dark, 1st and 2d platoons of Hotel Company moved toward Route 922. Staying off trails, the column filed initially along a creek bed, then along a small ridgeline. Captain Winecoff sent his lead platoon commander and an experienced Marine sergeant ahead to select an ambush site. Along the road, a steady column of dimmed lights could be seen moving in front of Winecoff’s company. The trucks would proceed carefully for some 200-400 yards. The driver would cut off his lights and motor and listen. After what Winecoff described as ‘an eternity,” the drivers would start their engines, switch on their lights and proceed another few hundred yards. Without excellent noise discipline the Marines could have easily been detected.
The two man recon team returned and the company moved ahead, crossing the stream and then the road. They set up a hasty ambush- 1st platoon was on the right, 2d on the left. Within minutes they heard trucks approaching from the west. Because the claymore mines and flank security were not yet in place they allowed the trucks to pass. By 0100 the ambush was ready. Finally a single NVA soldier was spotted. He was allowed to proceed. A single vehicle entered the ambush site and it too was allowed to pass. Finally at 0230 the silence was shattered by the sound of engines-a convoy. One truck passed into the killing zone, then a second. When a third was in sight, Winecoff detonated his claymores. It was 0303. The official history put out by History Division, Marine Corps described the action:
“With a loud roar and a boiling cloud of thick black smoke, the mine disabled the second truck, killing its three passengers. Winecoff could see that the explosion had also set the first truck afire and forced the third off the road. Small arms and automatic weapons fire poured into the vehicles from the flanks…Within seconds the forward observer alerted the artillery and rounds bracketed the company position. After several minutes of unrestricted fire, Winecoff gave the signal to move forward, making sure everything within the ambush site was destroyed. Once on the other side of the road, the company was given “left face” and “we proceeded in column right back in the same direction we came, crossing the river in the exact area.”
The ambush was dramatic and successful…but its real value was the leverage it provided to request a continuation of such operations in Laos. Colonel Barrow sent an immediate request to higher headquarters stating why the Marines had done what they had done and reiterating the success of the operation. He also made an urgent request for authority to maneuver into Laos as needed. Said Barrow, his request was based upon “immediate and constant” enemy threat to his troops and on intelligence which continued to place enemy troops and equipment concentrations in the area. He also put a final comment on the message that was rather blunt-“put another way, my forces should not be here if ground interdiction of Route 922 is NOT authorized!’
General Abrams finally approved the request but placed tight restrictions on all discussions of the incursions into Laos. One who was not told? The American ambassador to Laos, William H. Sullivan. His objections to incursions into Laos had led to sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail being sarcastically renamed in his honor- Sullivan’s Speedway.
In the regiment’s center, Alpha Company, under the command of Lt Fox headed east of the ridge on the morning of 22 February. About 1,000 meters from the battalion command post near Lang Ha on the border, 1st platoon encountered an NVA squad in well-positioned bunkers. Said Fox,
“NVA in a bunker killed my point rifleman and seriously wounded a second Marine. Without a pause in their forward movement, Jim Davis’ leading squad assaulted, destroyed the bunker and killed the NVA without further loss of Marines…At this point it looked like this was all the resistance we had. Everything was quiet, so I radioed up to battalion to send the water details down to the creek. We were in bad need of water. The helicopters could not get in due to weather and the battalion was low.”
A 20-man detail moved forward and as they started to fill the canteens they came under 60mm mortar and machine gun fire. Said Fox, “Mortars began firing on our right rear, with rounds exploding in the tall trees over us. Because of the jungle density and the tree heights, which provided many layers of limbs, the bursts were not effective.” Fox immediately ordered the detail back, reoriented 1st Platoon toward the south and moved forward, beginning the last large engagement of Operation Dewey Canyon. According to Fox,
“Because of the thick jungle, the only effect of the gunfire was a crazy pattern of ricocheted, skyward-bound, tracer bullets high in the trees. No one was hit or threatened by the machine gun; the enemy was making sure that we found him. Alpha obliged and moved through the jungle in the attack, moving to the sounds of the enemy’s guns.”
The thick jungle and harsh terrain made operations difficult
1st Platoon pushed through triple-canopied jungle, banana groves and dense underbrush. They ran into a reinforced NVA company in well-prepared, well-camouflaged and heavily fortified bunkers. Said Fox, “The jungle swallowed up my warriors…I had only the sounds of weapons fire by which to guide.” On a high ridgeline the enemy had emplaced RPGs, machine guns and mortars. The momentum of the attack faltered. Casualties mounted. Fox could not use air and artillery support as the company was boxed in by a low ceiling, terrain and vegetation. They were locked into combat. Fox later stated,
“An RPG exploded against a bush two feet behind me. Thanks to my helmet and flak jacket I received shrapnel only in my left leg and shoulder….the enemy force was stronger than I expected and I was weak in numbers…My strength was 99 men…Alpha had taken casualties and would have more before the fight was over…My assault stalled and I moved forward to get a better feel for my tactical situation… A sniper fire and missed me by inches. I saw him as his rifle fired, and returned fire with an M-16 that I had just picked up from a fallen Marine. Thought he sniper was close. I did not take a chance with my strange battle sights and fired half a magazine. He slumped into a fork in the tree where his blood flowed down the trunk in a small stream. I moved carefully along my battle line. My estimate left me with two options. I did not like the one of breaking contact while recovering my Marines down under the enemy’s guns. I felt I would lose more men just trying to withdraw and chose my other option: ATTACK!”
It wasn’t long before all of Fox’s officers were out of action but, in the finest Marine Corps tradition, the platoon sergeants knew what had to be done and the Marines were doing it. A PFC, who actually served as one of Alpha Company’s snipers, saw Fox trying to handle three radios and crawled forward to help. Machine gun fire raked their position and Fox later said it was his first moment of genuine fear. “All seemed hopeless.” He said,
“enemy gunners appeared to have every inch of the jungle floor covered. They were everywhere. I felt that we were losing the fight, and I was lost for ideas on how to improve our situation. A deep hole suited my needs, but I had to get my assault moving…I realized that one machine gun had a commanding position that was key to the NVA defense. Somehow I had to knock out that gun in spite of the excellent fire of fire. Otherwise it would hold up my advance…but taking it would cost me Marines. I was saved from the undesirable task. Seemingly all at once, the mist moved out, the jungle lighted up, and overhead were two Marine OV-10 Broncos.”
For his actions, Lt. Fox was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Lt Wesley Fox received the Medal of Honor
With General Abrams’ approval Hotel Company, 2d battalion, 9th Marines once again was instructed to move “back down onto the bloomin’ Route 922.” The plan was for Hotel to move into Laos then drive eastward forcing enemy troops into the waiting sights of the 1st and 3d Battalions. And once again, after a six hour night march, Hotel set up another hasty ambush with success. Another 122mm field gun and two 40mm antiaircraft guns were captured.
On 25 January a company sized patrol was ambushed by enemy troops in fortified bunkers and fighting holes. The patrol pushed through the enemy positions, killing two and capturing another 12mm gun. Marine casualties that day were high. One of those casualties was Cpl. William Morgan, who would posthumously be awarded a Medal of Honor. A Marine reservist, he VOLUNTEERED for duty in Vietnam. He gave his life so that two wounded Marines could be rescued. It is interesting to note that his Medal of Honor citation reads
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a Squad leader with Company H, 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, 3d Marine Division in operations against the enemy in the Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam.”
Corporal Morgan was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor for rescuing two Marines under fire
On 27 February, while searching the slopes of Hill 1044, Delta Company stumbled onto one of the largest weapons and munitions caches of the war. Said Gunnery Sergeant Russell Latona, “there was a bomb crater there, and sticking out of the bomb crater I saw the footpod of a mortar bipod. They dug down about four or five inches and they found boards. They lifted up the boards and they started digging a hole and this is where they found several weapons.” Delta found themselves in the midst of an NVA supply depot-this storehouse would eventually yield some 629 rifles, 108 crew served weapons, including 60 machine guns, 14 mortars, 15 recoilless rifles and 19 antiaircraft guns and more than 100 TONS of munitions.
Large numbers of enemy weapons were captured during the operation
By the beginning of March, all three battalions had obtained their major objectives. Organized enemy resistance had virtually collapsed. Route 922 had been successfully interdicted. Food, medical supplies and munitions had been captured or destroyed. With the extraction of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines on 18 March, Operation Dewey Canyon was officially terminated. While the 9th Marines enjoyed a number of successes during Operation Dewey Canyon it also experienced two critical and persistent problems-resupply of units in the field and casualty replacement. Despite that, Lieutenant General Stillwell, commanding XXIV Corps, called it one of the most successful undertakings of the Vietnam conflict:
“Dewey Canyon deserves some space in American military history by sole reason of audacity, guts and magnificent interservice team play... above all though, a Marine Regiment of extraordinary cohesion, skill in mountain warfare, and plain heart made Dewey Canyon a resounding success….Without question, the 9th Marines performance represents the very essence of professionals.”
Knowledge of Dewey Canyon found its way into the press during the first week of March 1969: “We received word that a number of correspondents have considerable knowledge of that part of Dewey Canyon that has extended into Laos.” Media involved were AP, UP, Newsweek, the New Yorker. But it was Drummand Ayers Jr. of the NY Times who informed MACV that he was filing a story on Marine operations in Laos. It appeared in the Sunday edition of 9 March.
Marine casualties for Operation Dewey Canyon; 130 Marines were killed in action and another 920 were wounded. One veteran remembered those days:
Eleven days of rain and fog;
Their roof a dark gray sky.
Three days no food or water.
The choppers couldn’t fly.
The nights were long and sleepless;
Awake was every man.
The torment dealt by nature,
Was taken in its stride.
And the NVA learned lesson one
About Marine Corps pride.
Pain and hunger, thirst and blood,
Were borne by these brave men;
And if you’d ask them, Do it again.”
They’d only reply, “Say when.”
Combat artist Richard Yaco titled this painting "Green Hell."
(Courtesy of the Marine Corps Art Collection, National Museum of the Marine Corps.)
Dewey Canyon is largely regarded by many historians as the most unusual, challenging and successful large scale operation of the Vietnam conflict. Its success was predicated on a decision to conduct as ‘overland’ assault into an area of operations that had been previously considered a sanctuary for North Vietnamese forces for over a year. Innovative implementation of support and tactics, using lessons learned from a previously unsuccessful vertical assault by the Army’s 1st Cav Division the preceding year. According to Colonel Barrow, “If Dewey Canyon had not been undertaken, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces would have had to fight the enemy at a time and place of HIS choosing.”
Note: As stated, four Medal of Honor were awarded for actions during Operation Dewey Canyon. Lieutenant Wesley Fox survived the action. The other three were presented posthumously to the families of Lance Corporal Thomas Noonan, Lance Corporal William Morgan and Private First Class Alfred M. Wilson.