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October/November 1998

Marine Maelstrom Above Dong Ha

By John Prados

Unlike most I Corps firefights, this one started with boats, when North Vietnamese troops fired on a river patrol boat and later, a landing craft. Both vessels were just below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the Bo Dieu River, which turns to the north and west past the town of Dong Ha. This was 1968, the height of the war, when the so-called McNamara Line was being emplaced, and Dong Ha was the key command center behind it.

Just outside that town stood the 3rd Marine Division main base, named Camp Hochmuth in honor of its former commander, who was killed in a November 1967 helicopter crash. The river flowed into the Cua Viet, which emptied into the South China Sea. A new beach supply complex in the Cua Viet handled more than 90 percent of the tonnage that supported the Marines in the DMZ region. When boats started getting shot up before dawn on April 30,1968, the Marines reacted quickly.

The moment of this battle also would be critical. Many 3rd Marine Division troops were located far away near the Laotian border where the siege of Khe Sanh had been broken three weeks before. The U.S. command was engaged in mobile operations to comb the surrounding countryside. Soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division, who were also near Khe Sanh, were shifted south to the A Shau Valley near Hue. From the North Vietnamese point of view, the situation around Dong Ha could hardly have been more favorable.

Some leaders on the American side of the Dong Ha action, principally the boss of the primary engaged rifle battalion, Lieutenant Colonel William R. Wiese, returned to Vietnam in 1997 to revisit the battlefield. Wiese met both a Viet Cong chief for the sector and a North Vietnamese who had been the staff operations officer. Mr. Ann, the guerrilla chief, described the area below the DMZ as "100 percent" dominated by the Viet Cong. The civilians were pretty much moved out of the villages; they returned by day to tend their fields or help the Viet Cong and NVA.

One major initiative, planned by the North Vietnamese 320th Division, was an offensive to capture Camp Hochmuth. According to Colonel Not, the operations staffer, three full regiments of the division participated—a number substantially greater than reported in U.S. accounts, which claim four North Vietnamese infantry battalions, a force less than half the size. As a foundation for their offensive, the North Vietnamese prepared a complex of five hamlets along the Bo Dieu north of Dong Ha.

Hanoi's forces did not simply march into the villages one night and attack the next. Judging from the extent and quality of the defenses, this complex had to have been constructed over a long period of time. There were bunkers so strong that an M-48 tank could rock back and forth on top of them without causing any damage. Landline telephone wire had been dug into the earth to connect command posts. Barbed wire obstacles had been created between positions; the bunkers and other emplacements had mutually supporting fields of fire. The fortifications also had been laid carefully to take advantage of the hedgerows that delineated the perimeters of the hamlets.

In short, these Vietnamese strong points were located only about three kilometers from the U.S. Marine base in the very heart of the American-South Vietnamese defense area. The complex stood in the sector of the 2nd Regiment of the South Vietnamese 1st Infantry Division. Some believed that unit had to have been lax for this degree of infiltration to occur. But the 2nd Regiment had been thinned out by the Tet Offensive, when one of its battalions was diverted to Hue for a month. Most likely, both of these factors contributed—the South Vietnamese were not notably aggressive and they had been further weakened by dispatch of reinforcements during a critical period. When Hanoi's forces were fully established in the vicinity of the hamlet of Dai Do, South Vietnamese patrols undoubtedly recoiled and did not return.

That was the situation on April 30 when U.S. Navy boats were fired upon. The call then went out to Col. Wiese's 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines to investigate the scene. Wiese believes the battle was touched off prematurely by an over-enthusiastic enemy gun crew that opened fire. Had there been no such incident, the North Vietnamese could have quietly assembled their assault forces and moved on Dong Ha. A little to the west that day, the 3rd Division's small armored reserve, an ad hoc formation called "Task Force Robbie," had engaged NVA 320th Division troops in a stiff fight at a place that also could have served as a jumping-off position for a move against Dong Ha. An attack may have been preempted by the sudden battle of Dai Do.

Nicknamed the "Magnificent Bastards," the troops of the 2nd of the 4th were hardly in an optimal situation to respond to the call. As much as eight kilometers separated Wiese's companies. One of his companies guarded a bridge; another was temporarily assigned to another unit. The initial machine gunning of landing craft gave no indication of seriousness and no incentive to commit all the force immediately. Wiese's troops ended up joining the battle piecemeal.

The South Vietnamese 2nd Regiment controlled this area. Therefore, before the Marine operation could happen, there needed to be a change in the unit boundaries. Approved soon after dawn, the modified boundary enabled Capt. James L. Williams' H Company to move on the enemy complex. More time passed while Williams gathered his men, who had been dispersed on patrols. The first platoon to advance came under fire. Wiese called a halt while the rest of Company H came up and then asked his regiment to approve the recall of his other companies.

With radio operators, observers, and a few as assistants, Wiese boarded an armored landing craft that could stand offshore from the enemy strongpoint and give him a better view. Williams moved men across open ground to their final positions, a difficult maneuver in flat terrain, and got them ready for a renewed attack. By mid-afternoon Capt. James H. Butler joined up with Company F and the combined force overran one of the hamlets in the North Vietnamese complex. Williams was wounded by a grenade in this action.

Efforts to bring in Company G by helicopter failed when the North Vietnamese hit the landing zone with artillery and mortars. Late in the afternoon, Company B reached the scene by crossing the Bo Dieu aboard its amphibious tractors (amtracs), several of which were damaged. The company commander was killed.

That night. North Vietnamese feelers were repulsed, and the Marines held their ground in the three hamlets they had taken. Fighting remained tough and losses heavy; on the first day, 16 Marines were killed and 107 wounded. Wiese still lacked two of his rifle companies and was not satisfied with the weight of artillery and air strikes used in support of his battalion. With full strength and good support, Wiese might have overrun the entire North Vietnamese strongpoint on the first day of combat.

Steadily mounting casualties continued through the next days. Marines assaulted the hamlets one after another, often discovering North Vietnamese bunkers only by their fire. Losses among officers were particulary high. All the companies in 2/4 and the attached Company B had their leaders hit; some companies lost several commanders. The highlight on May 1 was the fight for Dai Do hamlet, a fierce one that went on all day.

Both M-48 tanks that formed part of 2/4's battalion-landing team suffered damage and had to be sent to the rear. The North Vietnamese counterattacked with a full battalion and drove back Capt. Manuel S. Vargas' Company G. Wiese reinforced with his attached company, Bravo of the 3rd Marines, but it had to be rescued by Capt. James E. Livingston's E Company. The day ended with a Marine toehold in Dai Do and losses of twenty-four dead and forty-four wounded.

In many ways, May 2 was the climactic hour of this battle. Marines inched their way north toward the DMZ, while higher command sent in South Vietnamese mechanized troops and ordered up U.S. Army units. In the early morning, Livingston's men completed the capture of Dai Do. Regiment ordered Wiese to keep up the pressure, so the 2/4 Marines began to assault the hamlets of Dinh To and Thuong Do. Company H joined in this endeavor, after E Company had been reduced to only about thirty men.

In Dinh To, where Company H lost its second leader in as many days, the arrival of Livingston's small E Company, which had to cross half a kilometer of open paddy under intense fire, was crucial. It coincided with the strongest North Vietnamese counterattacks yet. Wiese joined his F and G Companies to make a parallel thrust into the hamlet and relieve the other Marines. In the late afternoon, with Marine artillery and air covering them, the riflemen moved off. Company F ran into a wall of fire and hunkered down.

Vargas managed to get G Company forward, only to be fired upon from the flank and rear. Wiese suffered a bad wound and had to be pulled to safety by Vargas. The latter remained in the open encouraging his men, although he was hit for the third time in three days. Finally, the Marine spearheads, pressed by more heavy counterattacks, had to withdraw to the perimeter at Dao Do, now held by E and H Companies. The battalion operations officer, Major George F. Warren, took temporary command of the force until that night when 2/4's executive officer, Major Charles W. Knapp, arrived on the amphibious ship Iwo Jima to assume command.

Once more. Marine losses were severe. After reorganizing and adding replacements, 2/4's companies mustered no more than forty men each. Casualties since April 30 totaled eighty-one dead and some three hundred wounded. The "Magnificent Bastards" did not feel like a typical battalion, but they were given some rest. Wiese was decorated with the Navy Cross; and Livingston and Vargas received the nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.

General Rathvon McC. Tompkins, commanding the 3rd Marine Division, recognized the North Vietnamese in the corridor below the DMZ as a true threat. The South Vietnamese 2nd Regiment sent out company and battalion columns, while the Marines used the battalions 1/3 and 3/9. Tompkins further reinforced with the Army's 2nd Battalion, 21st Infantry. This was the first time in the Vietnam War when a major U.S. Army maneuver unit fought in the immediate area of the DMZ. Fierce fighting continued around the hamlet of Nhi Ha. A week later, a brigade of the 1st Calvary Division, returning from Khe Sanh, was sent into the Dong Ha sector. For two weeks, there would be a major engagement, on average, at least once a day.

The Dong Ha campaign tapered off after that, although further combat actions soon started near Con Thien, about fifteen kilometers northwest of Dong Ha. The campaign was one of the bloodiest of the war, with American losses of 1,500, including 327 dead, more than the official number of fatalities during the siege of Khe Sanh. It was estimated that the North Vietnamese lost more than 3,600 killed. The Marines considered the campaign a victory. It was overshadowed, however, even as the fighting raged around Nhi Ha, by the second wave of the Vietnamese Tet Offensive, when again the issue of the war seemed to hang in the balance.

 

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