This is the story of Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment and its 5 years and 4 months in South Vietnam from 1966 to 1971. This is the story of young men trained by the Marine Corps to be well-disciplined warriors and members of a team. They were then severely tested in one of life’s ultimate crucibles–combat. It was in that crucible of combat that they became hardened professional warriors. Mike Company was one of the most bloodied and decorated Rifle Companies that fought in the Vietnam war, earning 4 Presidential Unit Citations, the Navy Unit Commendation Medal with 2 Bronze Stars, the Meritorious Unit Commendation with 2 Bronze Stars, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and numerous other unit and individual awards and medals. At the height of the war in South Vietnam there were approximately 500,000 military personnel in South Vietnam. However, over 80 percent of them were support and logistic personnel. Their job was to support and supply the combat troops. The remaining 90,000 or fewer Marine and Army infantry combat troops did the actual fighting. Mike Company was part of that relatively small force that did the actual fighting. What follows is a brief history of Mike Company’s time in South Vietnam based upon Command Chronologies, excerpts from the official Marine Corps history of the war, the contributions of a few Mike 3/1 Vietnam veterans who made the effort to respond to a request for information, a few books–Semper Fi Vietnam and Guts and Glory, a few articles from Leatherneck magazine and the Marine Corps Gazette, and the author’s own recollection of the time he served with Mike Company in South Vietnam. Even though this history is about the Marines and Corpsmen of Mike 3/1, it has been written as much for their families, friends, children and grandchildren so that they might know something about probably the most significant event in our young lives. To assist them, most military terms and abbreviations have been defined. Also, maps of I Corps (the 5 northernmost provinces of South Vietnam which were assigned to the Marines—pronounced “eye corps”), Chu Lai, Da Nang, and Quang Tri-DMZ areas are attached to keep the reader geographically oriented. Mike 3/1 was directly involved in one of the most critical events in American history. We were part of that history. Any mistake of fact, date or emphasis is entirely the fault of the author who did the best he could with limited resources and time. Comments, corrections and criticisms should be directed to Jim Lupori at (310) 384-7927 email@example.com.
[For those readers not familiar with the organization of Marine Corps combat units in South Vietnam: During the Vietnam War, a Marine Rifle Company—at full strength (which was seldom)—contained approximately 200 men. In each company there were 3 rifle platoons and 1 weapons platoon (whose machine gun teams and rocket teams were attached to the rifle platoons) and a headquarters/command group consisting of a company commander, a gunnery sergeant, radiomen, 60mm mortar personnel and attached personnel who were usually forward observers for supporting fire from artillery and 81mm mortars. The 3 rifle platoons each contained 47 Marines and 2 Corpsmen (again, when at full strength). Platoon personnel consisted of a platoon commander, a platoon sergeant, a right guide, a radioman and a runner, along with 3 rifle squads of 14 Marines each. Each rifle squad consisted of a squad leader, a grenadier who carried an M-79 grenade launcher, and 3, 4-man fire teams. Each platoon would also have a machine gun team and rocket team attached to it. There were 4 companies in a battalion. 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines’ companies were India, Kilo, Lima, and Mike (the military phonetic names for the letters I, K, L, and M). When another Marine or Corpsman asks us what unit we were in, the short-form answer is “Mike 3/1.”]
Mike Company lands in South Vietnam
Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines came ashore in Vietnam on January 28, 1966 in the largest amphibious operation since the Marine landing at Inchon, Korea. Mike Company, led by Company Commander Charles W. Latting, landed north of Duc Pho and the Bong Son plain in southern Quang Ngai Province as part of Operation Double Eagle I. While moving inland to the Tra Cau River only sporadic enemy rifle fire and small unit attacks were encountered during the first few days of the operation. However, as 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines moved farther inland and then turned south into Binh Dinh Province to link up with the Army’s 1st Air Cavalry Division, enemy resistance increased. On February 5 the battalion column was ambushed in the Central Highlands near the border between Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh provinces. A platoon-sized Viet Cong ambush was initiated along Mike Company’s position in the battalion column. After a short firefight, 3rd platoon assaulted and overran the enemy position killing eleven and capturing five of the enemy along with several weapons. The remaining days of the operation consisted of a series of fire team and squad firefights in the Central Highlands during the rainy season.
On February 17, Mike Company moved back to the coast, boarded ships and was taken to Chu Lai where it occupied its temporary new home on the beach at Chu Lai. Since these were the early days of the war there were few permanent bases or strongholds. The Marines and Corpsmen of Mike Company lived in fighting holes and bunkers, only occasionally having the “luxury” of spending a night in a large GP (general purpose) tent.
Three days later Operation Double Eagle II began. Mike Company was taken by trucks north on National Route 1 to a location north of Tam Ky where it off-loaded and then moved inland to the area of the Hiep Duc—Ky Phu—Que Son Basin triangle (an area in Quang Tin province, northwest of Tam Ky, where the 1st Marine Division would conduct many major combat operations in the years to come) in pursuit of the 1st and 18th Viet Cong Main Force Regiments and the 2nd NVA (North Vietnamese Army) Division. Only sporadic contact with small enemy units was made during the 10 days of the operation. Despite the absence of any major battles up to this time, Mike Company’s numbers were steadily declining. Snipers, small unit firefights, mines and booby traps had, by the first days of March, already resulted in 8 Mike Company Marines killed in action and approximately 25 wounded. Mike Company would again get only a few days rest before returning to the field for another multi-battalion operation. During its first 90 days in Vietnam, Mike Company was constantly in the field on large multi-battalion combat operations: Double Eagle I, Double Eagle II, Utah, Texas, Iowa, Wyoming and Hot Springs. These operations were in response to the Viet Cong-North Vietnamese Army build-up and the Viet Cong-NVA 1966 Spring Offensive which began in early February to try to cut in half the Central Highlands and coastal population centers of South Vietnam. On its return to Chu Lai Mike Company was assigned a line of fighting holes and sandbagged bunkers along the perimeter protecting the airfield at Chu Lai. Mike Company spent only a few days at the airfield before its next major combat operation.
During the afternoon of March 4, 1966, Mike Company was loaded onto trucks and rushed to the MAG 36 (Marine Aircraft Group 36) helipad at Chu Lai. This was the first day of Operation Utah, a multi-battalion operation conducted March 4-7, 1966 involving 1/7, 2/7, 3/7, 2/4, 3/1, 1st ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Airborne Battalion and the 2nd ARVN Regiment. The 2nd Division of the North Vietnamese Army had occupied an area near Quang Ngai City and had surrounded and badly mauled an ARVN Ranger Company. The NVA had also inflicted heavy casualties on Fox Company 2/7 which had been sent to assist the ARVN Ranger Company. Mike Company was heli-lifted to an LZ (Landing Zone) 10 miles south of Chu Lai and a few miles north of the Chau Nhai group of villages and hamlets. Landing just before dark, Mike Company dug in and set up a blocking position. Marine artillery fired thousands of rounds of illumination and high explosive shells all through the night. Mike Company’s position was not attacked or probed during that night. One casualty was sustained, though, when the Mike Company 1st Sergeant stepped on a land mine and had the lower half of one of his legs blown off. At 0730 on the morning of March 5, 1966, Mike Company moved out in a southerly direction toward the village of Chau Nhai (3). [Many Vietnamese villages were divided into hamlets which in turn were numbered; e.g. Chau Nhai (1), Chau Nhai (2) etc., Binh Son (1), Binh Son (2) and so on.]
Mike Company was on the left, Lima Company was on the right, with India Company in reserve. Kilo Company provided security for a nearby artillery battery. Mike Company’s mission was to attack and destroy the command post of the 36th NVA Regiment believed to be located somewhere in the vicinity of the village of Chau Nhai (3). At approximately 0900 many heavily camouflaged enemy troops were seen in the distance running across an open area and taking up positions on a small hill. A short time later, as Mike Company approached Chau Nhai (3), it was met by a firestorm of automatic weapon, rifle, mortar, recoilless rifle and RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade; the Soviet shoulder-fired B-40 antitank, antipersonnel weapon) fire. 1st platoon and 2nd platoon took many casualties during the first minutes of the battle. But very soon every Marine and Corpsman in Mike Company was involved in the battle, including both the Alpha and Bravo command groups.
The NVA were firmly entrenched in deep trenches, bunkers, spider holes, caves and tunnels. Mike Company—outnumbered by an estimated NVA battalion–fought a series of battles throughout the day of March 5, 1966. Repeated assaults on enemy positions and the slow and dangerous rooting-out of individuals and small groups of North Vietnamese soldiers at close quarters in areas of heavy cover and tangled hedgerows resulted in many enemy dead but also resulted in heavy losses for Mike Company. The NVA soldiers were a well-trained, well-equipped (all of their equipment, 782 gear–knapsacks, cartridge belts etc.–uniforms and weapons appeared to be brand new) and determined enemy. March 5, 1966 would be the single bloodiest day of the entire Vietnam war for Mike Company. Our losses on that day were 17 Marines killed in action and 47 Marines and Corpsmen wounded. Operation Utah lasted two more days. Those days were spent rooting out individual and small groups of enemy, destroying enemy bunkers and tunnels, searching enemy dead and stockpiling enemy weapons and equipment. On March 7, Mike Company was heli-lifted back to Chu Lai where it was assigned the responsibility of protecting a village on an island near Chu Lai called Ky Xuan.
Mike Company again had only a short time to settle into its new position on Ky Xuan when Operation Texas started on March 21, 1966. This multi-battalion operation was conducted near the same area as Operation Utah. Our enemy was again the 2nd NVA Division. Kilo Company made the biggest contact of the operation, losing 14 Marines and Corpsmen killed in action—7 of whom were lost the very first day when the helicopter in which they were riding was shot down by a large caliber NVA machine gun as it approached the hot landing zone. Operation Texas was followed over the next six weeks by Operations Iowa, Wyoming, and Hot Springs. Between these major multi-battalion combat operations Mike Company Marines and Corpsmen were engaged in constant patrolling, night ambushes, listening posts and small unit firefights that—between major operations—made up the daily and nightly routines for the Marines and Corpsmen of Mike Company in South Vietnam.
In 1966 the areas around Chu Lai and Da Nang were still infested with and controlled by the Viet Cong who had been in those areas consolidating their power and influence over the heavily populated coastal regions since the end of World War II. There were many Viet Cong (formerly Viet Minh) nearly everywhere. And contrary to popular belief, they were well-armed and led by experienced individuals who had fought against both the Japanese and the French for decades. Also, the Viet Cong had many supporters and informers among the population. Between major combat operations Mike Company was constantly engaging these local Viet Cong forces in firefights while, at the same time, pursuing a program of “pacification” in an attempt—as we were told—to “win the hearts and minds” of the people. During these early days in South Vietnam, Mike Company’s TAOR (Tactical Area of Responsibility) was raw and untamed. In the entire Chu Lai area (Quang Tin and Quang Ngai Provinces) the South Vietnamese government and its armed forces had allowed the Viet Cong to control and operate in the area with impunity. Mike Company and the rest of the Marine units operating in the Chu Lai TAOR had the initial mission of clearing the area of Viet Cong and restoring government control of the area.
On April 3, 1966, Captain James J. St. Clair became the new Commanding Officer of Mike Company. At that time Mike Company had been assigned a new area of responsibility on a large island named Ky Hoa located in the intracoastal waterway north of Chu Lai. Because of its shape the island was called “Snaggletooth.” In early 1966 this large island had not yet been cleared of the enemy and was still controlled by Viet Cong local force units. Mines, booby traps and snipers were everywhere. Mike Company made contact with the Viet Cong on almost a daily and nightly basis while operating on Snaggletooth.
When the Viet Cong-North Vietnamese Army 1966 Spring Offensive was finally defeated by late April, Mike Company’s strength—even after replacements–was down to approximately 100 Marines fit for combat duty. Over the next few weeks, prior to the move north to the Quang Nam Province-Da Nang TAOR, the Marines and Corpsmen of Mike Company continued the never-ending patrols, nightly ambushes and small unit firefights. Along with the foregoing were the many other things that combined to become the near universal experience of the Marines and Corpsmen who served in Mike Company during the Vietnam war: the grinding fatigue caused by constant field work and lack of sleep and adequate rest; temperature and weather extremes, from scorching, suffocating tropical heat in the spring and summer to constant rain and damp cold during the fall and winter rainy seasons; going weeks at a time without bathing; carrying a rifle, machine gun, mortar or rocket launcher as well as 50 pounds or more of equipment on one’s back—10 or more magazines of rifle ammunition, 2 or 3 canteens of water, 3 or more C-ration meals, poncho, extra socks, hygiene items, radio batteries, extra mortar shells, LAAWs (Light Antitank Assault Weapon—a collapsible, shoulder-mounted rocket firing tube) and more; the constant threat of land mines and booby traps; snipers; leeches; mosquitoes; scorpions; fire ants; poisonous snakes; giant centipedes; hot, polluted drinking water badly flavored with iodine and halazone water purification tablets; intestinal parasites; diarrhea; cold C-ration meals; malaria; and constant psychological stress–all these things, combined with deadly combat, made up the day-to-day existence of the Marines and Corpsmen of Mike Company during the 5 years and 4 months they lived and fought in South Vietnam.
Mike Company moves north to Da Nang
On May 22, 1966, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines moved approximately 50 miles north to the Quang Nam Province-Da Nang TAOR. Also in May, many of the officers and men of Mike Company and the rest of 3/1 were transferred to the 5th and 7th Marine Regiments in order to stagger the rotation tour dates of personnel throughout the 1st Marine Division. In the Da Nang TAOR 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines and Mike Company were placed under the operational control of the 9th Marine Regiment during the first month after arrival. On September 15, 1966 Captain G. C. Knowles took over as the new Commanding Officer of Mike Company. In the new TAOR Mike Company took part in a temporary shift in Marine Corps’ strategy from multi-battalion combat operations against main-force Viet Cong units and the North Vietnamese Army to the destruction of local Viet Cong guerrilla forces in populated areas and the pacification of the villagers in the heavily populated coastal region near Da Nang. Company-sized combat operations, saturation patrols and ambushes, civic action projects, medcap patrols (where corpsmen and a squad of Marines would go to a Vietnamese village and provide medical services to the villagers); CAPs (combined-action-platoon–where a special 15-man platoon of Marines would join with a local South Vietnamese “Popular Force” platoon. The Marine CAP platoon would live and work with that popular force platoon and help provide security for its village); “County Fair” operations (where one or more Marine Rifle Companies would surround a village–then a group of government officials and ARVN soldiers would go into the village, collect everyone in a central area, and then thoroughly search the village and question Viet Cong suspects; the “fair” aspect of the operation was provided by a group of singers, dancers, puppet show operators etc. who would be brought along to entertain the villagers while the searching and questioning were conducted); and “Golden Fleece” operations in which Marine companies and battalions would provide security for an area during the harvesting of rice and other crops to prevent the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers from confiscating the harvested crops. Despite the shift in strategy, the Marines of Mike Company still continued to fight and lose comrades in the rice paddies, cane fields, foothills and villages around Da Nang–losing another 17 Marines killed in action and many more wounded during these early days in the Da Nang TAOR.
The first few weeks of 1967 were a continuation of the small-unit operations and firefights that made up most of the second half of 1966. That ended when a platoon of Mike Company became involved in a major battle in the early morning hours of January 15, 1967. Late in the evening of January 14, the 1st platoon of Mike Company was sent to relieve a platoon from Kilo Company at a position located southwest of Da Nang in an area known as both “the desert” and “the dunes.” Because of the late hour the Kilo Company platoon decided to remain overnight at the position along with the 1st platoon of Mike Company—which was fortunate for 1st platoon. Shortly after midnight the position was attacked by a combined enemy force of over 300 Viet Cong and NVA. The enemy very soon penetrated the perimeter. Fighting was at close quarters and hand-to-hand for several hours before the Viet Cong and NVA were finally driven from the position. Despite killing over 60 of the enemy, 1st platoon also suffered many casualties—9 Mike Company Marines and 1 Corpsman were killed in action and 17 Mike Company Marines were wounded.
During the spring and summer of 1967 Mike Company alternately occupied a number of different positions around Marble Mountain. These positions were part of a large perimeter west and south of Da Nang known as the “Rocket Belt” and/or the “Mortar Belt.” The purpose of the “belt” was to keep Viet Cong and NVA gunners far enough from Da Nang so that their 122 mm rockets and 82 mm mortars would be out of range of the Da Nang airfield and its fuel depots. This was accomplished by saturation patrols and ambushes in likely areas from which the rockets and mortar shells might be launched.
Mike Company would also rotate among 3 outposts located throughout their portion of the Da Nang TAOR. These outposts were called by the Marines: (1) The “Desert Position,” located several thousand meters (a meter-39.37 inches-is a little longer than a yard; the military uses the metric system of measurement) west of Marble Mountain; (2) “The Island” which was–during the rainy season–an island located in the middle of a large rice paddy near the airfield at Da Nang; and (3) “The Riviera” located on a beach south of the airfield near a POW compound. Between major combat operations Mike Company Marines and Corpsmen were, day and night, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, running patrols, ambushes, listening posts and company-sized search and destroy operations designed to interdict Viet Cong and NVA units, and to protect the local Vietnamese villagers. Another area known as the “Horseshoe” was occupied frequently by Mike Company platoons. The Horseshoe, located near the village of Viem Dong, was a very bad area where, over the years, Mike Company would lose many Marines and Corpsmen from mines, booby traps and snipers.
On March 21, 1967, Captain William M. Wood became the new Commanding Officer of Mike Company. In early April 1967 the North Vietnamese Army began infiltrating more and more troops into the southern part of Quang Nam Province and the northern part of Quang Tin Province 25 miles northwest of Tam Ky. Located in this area were the Que Son and Hiep Duc valleys and mountains—an area that had been, and would continue to be, the scene of many major combat operations and battles between Marines and the combined forces of the 3rd Viet Cong Main Force Regiment and the 2nd NVA Division. On April 21, Fox Company of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines became engaged with a large enemy force near the hamlet of Binh Son (1). It was soon apparent that Fox Company needed help to avoid annihilation. Mike Company was the “Bald Eagle” company (quick reaction force) and quickly loaded onto helicopters and went to help Fox Company. Everyone knew that they were headed for a large battle when 2 combat loads of ammunition were issued to each man instead of the normal single load. This was to be the first day of Operation Union.
Operation Union was a multi-battalion combat operation which, over the next four days, would involve 1/1, 2/1, 3/1, 3/5 and the 1st ARVN Ranger Regiment. As soon as they off-loaded in an LZ 1500 meters north of Binh Son (1), Mike Company began receiving a heavy volume of machine gun and rifle fire. The LZ was nearly surrounded by the enemy. During Operation Union Mike Company lost 7 Marines killed in action and 22 wounded. Among the wounded who had to be evacuated by helicopter was the Company Commander, Captain Wood, who was wounded on April 21. After hospitalization and medical treatment he returned to Mike Company on May 13. Mike Company finally fought its way off of the LZ on April 21 and began a 3-day battle with the Viet Cong and NVA before finally driving them out of Binh Son (1) and back into the Que Son Mountains. On April 25, 1967, Mike Company was relieved by India Company 3/1 and Mike Company 3/5 and returned to the battalion area by truck convoy.
On its return to Da Nang Mike Company resumed a rotating occupation of the outposts Desert, Island and Riviera. From the outposts Mike Company Marines and Corpsmen roamed the countryside day after day encountering mines, booby traps, snipers, enemy ambushes and engaging in small unit fire fights. A typical day (this “typical” day could have been any day in 1966, 1968, 1969, 1970 or 1971) saw the Marines and Corpsmen “humping” under the broiling sun through the rice paddies, cane fields, tall “elephant grass” (taller than a man and razor sharp at times) hedgerows, foothills and villages until approximately 1700 (5 p.m.) when they would locate a defensible terrain feature and would “dig in” and prepare their 2-man fighting holes for the coming night. The location of the fighting holes would be determined by either the platoon commander or the squad leaders keeping in mind the most efficient spacing and fields of fire to prevent the perimeter from being breached if attacked during the night. After the perimeter was established the squad leaders would meet with the platoon commander for a meeting where each squad would be given its assignment for the night. At nightfall 2-man LP’s (listening posts) would be sent forward of the perimeter into likely avenues of enemy approach to detect any enemy movement and give early warning of the enemy’s approach. Patrols and ambushes would be sent out, usually between the hours of 2200 (10 p.m.) and 0300 (3 a.m.). The Marines and Corpsmen remaining in the 2-man fighting holes on the perimeter would stand 1 or 2 hours on watch, alternating throughout the night with their “hole buddy.” Vietnam was an alien and eerie place at night. In addition to the peculiar sounds, smells, and presence of an unseen enemy, the eerie mood was accentuated by many things such as million-candlepower parachute flares shot into the sky near your night position by artillery. As the flare slowly descended it would rock back and forth under its parachute and cast distorted, moving shadows across the ground. Adding to the overall spookiness was the “whoop-whoop-whoop” sound made by the empty parachute canister as it tumbled end over end while falling to the ground.
Assuming the night was without action, morning would bring the muffled talking and moving about as the Marines and Corpsmen began preparing themselves, their equipment and their weapons for the new day. After attending to the needs of hygiene, a quick cup of coffee and a C-ration meal, the command of “Saddle up, we’re movin’ out” would be given and another day of humping in the hot sun would begin. The grunting sound made by Marines as they lifted their heavy knapsacks and equipment onto their backs resulted in Marine infantrymen being called “grunts”—a term of respect. Resupply would be by helicopter every third or fourth day. Once a month they would return to the base area for cold showers, clean uniforms and a few nights of uninterrupted sleep. The only variation in this typical day came with the onset of the rainy monsoon season. Then, instead of being hot and miserable, they were wet, cold and miserable. Despite the seeming monotony of the daily routine, it was still deadly business. Mines, booby traps, snipers and small-unit firefights continued to take a toll on Mike Company. The mental stress was constant. Many situations, such as crossing a wide open area with a tree line on the opposite side, or sitting in a night ambush and suddenly hearing the sound of metal on metal or of a twig snapping, would then raise that stress to almost the breaking point. During this period from May to early December Mike Company lost another 25 Marines and 2 Corpsmen killed in action and over three times that number wounded.
On August 1, 1967, Captain T. H. Shannon became the new Commanding Officer of Mike Company. He was soon followed by Captain Raymond A. Thomas who took over as Commanding Officer of Mike Company on October 25, 1967.
SLF, Quang Tri and the DMZ
In December of 1967 Mike Company entered a different and more deadly phase of the war in South Vietnam. On December 1, 1967, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines received orders that it would be replacing 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines as SLF Bravo (Special Landing Force B). The battalion loaded onto ships and sailed to Subic Bay, Philippines for a short period of training and equipping for SLF duty. On December 17, the battalion again loaded onto the ships of Task Force 76.5 and sailed back to Vietnam. On December 21, Mike Company landed across Red Beach in LVTs (amphibious Landing Vehicle Tracked) in the area of Gio Linh District, Quang Tri Province, approximately 7 miles south of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) which separated North and South Vietnam. The operation was named Fortress Ridge. This was the farthest point north that Mike Company had been since entering Vietnam on January 28, 1966. Soon after the initial landing India Company made contact with a large enemy force identified as the 803rd NVA Regiment near the village of Ha Loi Tay and began sustaining heavy casualties. Mike Company immediately remounted LVTs and moved north to assist India Company. Upon reaching the village of Giem Ha Trung, Mike Company was met by heavy rocket, mortar and—for the first time–heavy artillery fire. The North Vietnamese Army had emplaced and camouflaged artillery inside of and also just above the DMZ. This artillery fire from inside and above the DMZ would account for many Mike Company dead and wounded, not only on this day, but also in the coming months as the intensity of combat increased day to day building up to the TET Offensive of 1968. After a day-long firefight Mike Company dug in and established a blocking position that night. On the morning of December 22, Mike Company swept through and cleared the village. During this phase of the operation large caliber machine gun and mortar fire were received from the west side of a tributary of the Cua Viet River called “Jones Creek.” Those machine guns and mortars would be a constant and deadly threat during the coming months until Mike Company finally crossed the river and silenced them. Mike Company and the rest of the battalion continued search and destroy sweeps through December 23, and then went back aboard the Task Force ships on December 24, Christmas Eve 1967.
On December 26, the battalion began Operation Badger Tooth by landing across the beach near the Cua Viet River again and also on a helicopter landing zone called LZ Finch located approximately 3 kilometers (three thousand meters—or, as Marines would say, 3 “klicks”) inland. On the first day of the operation Mike Company met only sniper fire and spent the day clearing the area around LZ Finch. Based upon information that a large enemy force was in the vicinity of the villages of Tham Khe and Trung An, Mike and Lima companies reversed direction and headed back toward the beach to seek out any enemy in or near those two villages. Both villages were swept but no large enemy force was found in either village. Three Viet Cong were killed and four taken prisoner while clearing the two villages. On the morning of December 27, Mike and Lima companies were ordered to again sweep through the same two villages. Mike Company was assigned Trung An while Lima Company moved toward Tham Khe. Mike Company found Trung An to still be clear of the enemy. However, upon nearing the village of Tham Khe, Lima Company was met with a devastating volume of machinegun, rifle, RPG, recoilless rifle and mortar fire which killed many Marines and also the Company Commander. Tham Khe was occupied by the 116th NVA Battalion in well-entrenched positions. Mike Company immediately went to support Lima Company. As it approached the northern side of Tham Khe, Mike Company was also met by heavy enemy fire. The battle lasted most of the day. Repeated assaults by the Marines of Mike Company were costly. By day’s end Mike Company had suffered its third bloodiest day of the war, losing 12 Marines killed in action and 41 Marines and Corpsmen wounded. With the help of air strikes and naval gunfire the village was finally cleared of enemy on the 28th of December. The remaining days of Operation Badger Tooth were spent clearing the surrounding area, searching enemy dead, and collecting enemy weapons and equipment. On January 2, 1968 Mike Company and the rest of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines back-loaded onto the Task Force ships and sailed down the coast to Da Nang where they rested, refitted and replaced the casualties suffered during the period December 21 to December 31, 1967.
In late January of 1968 the battalion again sailed north to just below the DMZ where the Cua Viet River empties into the South China Sea. This area was located in northern Quang Tri Province where Mike Company would fight several battles in the following months before its return to Quang Nam Province and Da Nang. The Cua Viet River corridor was a main supply route necessary to supply the Khe Sanh Combat Base as well as the Marine bases at Dong Ha and Cam Lo. The mission of Mike Company and the other Rifle Companies of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines was to attack and clear the Viet Cong and NVA positions along the river and Route 9 so that resupply missions could continue. This was an especially important and critical mission since the Viet Cong and NVA had infiltrated thousands of troops into the area and had already blocked Route 9, the only east-west road to Dong Ha, Cam Lo and Khe Sanh.
Near the end of January, high command received information that the village of Mai Xai Thi (East) on the north bank of the river was occupied by the Viet Cong K-400 Main Force Battalion and the 318th NVA Battalion. Operation Badger Catch was initiated to meet this threat to the river supply route. During the late afternoon of January 30, Mike Company and the rest of 3/1 conducted a forced march to a location near Mai Xai Thi (East). Just before dark Mike Company occupied an overnight defensive position in a Vietnamese cemetery outside the village. Before dawn on January 31 the company moved into an assault position near the south side of the village. Shortly after first light Mike Company attacked the south side of the village while Kilo Company attacked the north side. Even though the assault caught the enemy by surprise, and Mike Company penetrated into the enemy position, they responded with withering fire. The close-quarter fighting was costly for the Marines of Mike Company as well as the enemy. A squad from 2nd platoon was nearly wiped out in the early fighting. The battle to clear the village of the enemy lasted all day and into the hours of darkness until the Viet Cong and NVA were finally driven out of the village at approximately 2300 (11:00 p.m.). The battalion had killed over 100 of the enemy by body count and captured 30. Despite the success of the operation it had been another bloody day for the Marines of Mike Company—losing 9 Marines killed in action and 33 Marines and Corpsmen wounded. January 31st had also been the first day of the Viet Cong TET Offensive of 1968. The following 2 days were spent clearing the area around the village and destroying enemy bunkers and tunnels. On February 3, the battalion boarded the Task Force ships to again resupply, rest and replace casualties. On February 15, Captain Richard B. Lewis assumed command of Mike Company.
On February 25, 1968, the battalion returned on Task Force 76.5 ships to the same area and again landed near the mouth of the Cua Viet River on its north bank. The mission of Mike Company and the other 3 companies of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines was to assault inland and clear the enemy from any position occupied on the north side of the river. The 1st ARVN Regiment was responsible for clearing enemy positions on the south side of the river. The first mission of Mike Company was to again clear the village of Mai Xai Thi (East) and the surrounding area of any Viet Cong or NVA that had reoccupied the area since Operation Badger Catch. This task was accomplished in a few days. However, the Viet Cong K-400 Main Force Battalion and the 318th NVA Battalion which had been cleared out of Mai Xai Thi (East) on January 31st were now occupying the village of Mai Xai Thi (West) on the opposite side of a north-south tributary of the Cua Viet River called “Jones Creek” by the Marines. Jones Creek, approximately 500 feet wide, ran through the center of Mai Xai Thi dividing it into the “East” and “West” villages. The enemy was there in force and posed a definite threat to river traffic as well as to the Marines who were constantly taking fire from Mai Xai Thi (West). On the last day of February, Mike Company and the rest of the battalion were given orders to cross the river in an amphibious assault on Mai Xai Thi (West) to eliminate the threat. The attack was scheduled to begin at dawn on the following day, March 1, 1968.
Reconnaissance of Mai Xai Thi (West) by a Navy Seal recon team had found many reinforced bunkers and a maze of trenches surrounding an L-shaped village a few hundred meters inland from the riverbank—and also the presence of an enemy force of at least battalion strength. This was the situation facing the Marines and Corpsmen of Mike Company and India Company who would be in the first wave of Mike boats across the river. (A “Mike boat”—LCM-6–is a flat bottom, steel, landing craft, 56 feet long, 14 feet wide, with a bow ramp, 2 diesel engines, and a crew of five, capable of carrying approximately 80 Marines and their equipment and ammunition.)
Mike Company’s mission was to cross the river in Mike boats, disembark on the opposite shore, assault and neutralize enemy defenses along the river bank, and then move inland and attack the enemy in the L-shaped village. The river crossing was made in 5 Mike boats without response from the enemy. However, when the bow ramp of one of the Mike boats carrying Mike Company Marines and Corpsmen was lowered on the opposite river bank, it was lowered in front of a camouflaged enemy machine gun position. Several Marines were killed and wounded as soon as they left the Mike boat. After the machine gun position was silenced, Mike Company and India Company began moving inland. For the first few hundred meters all was quiet. Then, as they entered the L-shaped village and turned north, the enemy opened up with a firestorm of machine gun, rifle, RPG and mortar fire. Since Mike Company was well inside the village by then, the enemy fire was coming from all directions. The 1st platoon was immediately called forward from its reserve position. All 3 platoons were soon engaged in a furious fire fight. The battle raged the entire day. Finally, by nightfall, the Viet Cong and NVA were driven out of the village. Although many of the enemy were killed and captured, Mike Company suffered its second bloodiest day of the war losing 12 Marines and 1 Corpsman killed in action and another 55 Marines and Corpsmen wounded. Mike Company, by day’s end, looked more like a reinforced platoon than a rifle company. Having begun the day with approximately 110 men, after the day-long battle, Mike Company was no longer an effective fighting force. Following the clearing operation of the next day, Mike Company was withdrawn and sent west to the Ca Lu Combat Base located east of the Khe Sanh Combat Base to resupply and replace its casualties. Mike Company would operate out of Ca Lu for the next 2 months.
Mike Company’s mission at Ca Lu was to secure a section of Route 9 so that the Khe Sanh Combat Base could be kept supplied. Primary tasks were patrolling, mine-clearing, truck convoy—“Rough Rider”—escort duty, and acting as the battalion quick reaction force. On April 18, the 27th Viet Cong Main Force Battalion reinforced with NVA soldiers, in an attempt to interdict Route 9, attacked the guard bunkers occupied by a squad from G Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines at the Khe Gio Bridge on Route 9. The enemy was there in reinforced battalion strength. In the days preceding the attack they had built a bunker complex on the nearby hills from which the attack was launched. Lima Company responded first but immediately found itself outnumbered and heavily engaged. The enemy quickly controlled the bridge. They then set up ambushes along Route 9. A truck convoy tried to break through the ambush but was stopped and forced to withdraw. On the evening of April 19, Mike Company was taken by trucks to a position near the bridge and set up a 360 degree night defensive position near Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines.
On the morning of April 20, Mike Company moved east on Route 9 to a location where they were picked up by helicopters and lifted to the top of Hill 512. Mike Company then began moving downhill toward the enemy bunkers. The hill was very steep and heavily vegetated. The going was difficult and slow. After 400 or 500 meters, Mike Company stopped for the night. The company, however, did not dig fighting holes so as not to alert the enemy of their presence. On the morning of the 21st, Mike Company began attacking downhill and immediately made contact with enemy troops in bunkers and fighting holes. One by one the enemy bunkers were destroyed. Several of the bunkers hid 12.7 mm gun crews (the Soviet 12.7 mm machine gun is equivalent to the U.S. 50 caliber Browning machine gun). The battle lasted all that day and included several attacks by enemy suicide units carrying grenades and AK 47 rifles. One of the suicide units overran the Mike Company CP (command post) and killed the company radioman before it was destroyed in close-quarter fighting. By April 22, the enemy was defeated and retreated from the entire area. This victory, though, was another costly one for Mike Company. Casualties were 10 Marines killed in action and another 29 Marines and Corpsmen wounded.
During the month of May 1968, Mike Company continued its mission of protecting Route 9 and the truck convoys traveling to and from the Khe Sanh Combat Base. Toward the end of the month preparations were begun for the return to Quang Nam Province and the Da Nang area. Mike Company, though, would experience one more heartbreak before its departure from Quang Tri Province and the DMZ. On May 31, a Mike Company platoon was on patrol when a command-controlled land mine was detonated alongside the platoon column killing 7 Marines and wounding many others.
Mike Company returns to Da Nang
On June 3, 1968, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines loaded onto Task Force 76.5 ships and prepared for Operation Swift Saber. The operation was planned for the period June 7 to June 14. The operational area was 10 miles northwest of Da Nang in an area known as “Elephant Valley”—a narrow river plain between some of the steepest mountains in I Corps. This area was also a known enemy infiltration route into Quang Nam Province.
On June 6, Captain Edward F. Dunne became the new Commanding Officer of Mike Company. The battalion and Mike Company were heli-lifted into Elephant Valley on June 7. For the next seven days the battalion moved throughout the area seeking the enemy but made only light contact. Snipers and booby traps were the main threats. Even so Mike Company lost another 2 Marines killed in action.
Following Operation Swift Saber Mike Company was assigned to an area south and west of the Da Nang Combat Base. Mike Company would remain in this general AO (Area of Operation) until the 1st Marine Regiment departed South Vietnam on May 31, 1971. By June of 1968 the TET Offensive was over. The Viet Cong had been destroyed as a cohesive fighting force during the previous five months. The North Vietnamese Army had to not only replace its own dead and wounded but also fill out the ranks of the decimated Viet Cong units. The TET Offensive had been a disastrous defeat for the Viet Cong. Its days as a national military organization were over. To avoid total defeat in South Vietnam the North Vietnamese would have to take over most of the war for the Viet Cong. Nevertheless, the American media, fainthearted U. S. Congressmen, President Johnson, Walter Cronkite of CBS, antiwar protesters and other timid souls began to portray the war as being lost—or, at best, a stalemate. A clear victory had suddenly—by some perverse logic–become the reason to declare failure and begin leaving South Vietnam.
On March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election. On June 10, 1968, General William Westmoreland was replaced by General Creighton W. Abrams. The “Nixon Doctrine” of “Vietnamization”—turning the war over to the South Vietnamese and the gradual pull-out of all U.S. troops—was implemented. The politicians and generals in Washington wanted no more of the high casualty figures reported in the early months of 1968. In September of 1968 the 27th Marine Regiment was pulled out of South Vietnam. By November of 1969 the entire 3rd Marine Division was withdrawn and returned to Okinawa. Several U.S. Army units also began leaving South Vietnam during the second half of 1968. The Khe Sanh Combat Base–the defense of which had cost so many Marine lives—was abandoned and bull-dozed over. The draw-down of U.S. forces had begun. The fighting of the war was being turned over to the South Vietnamese armed forces. Although many battles would yet be fought, the war had entered a different phase for the Marines of Mike Company and the rest of the 1st Marine Regiment in the Da Nang TAOR. Multi-battalion operations would be few. The emphasis for the 1st Marine Regiment at Da Nang would now be on constant combat patrols, ambushes, company and platoon search and destroy operations, the guarding of critical sites, and the security and pacification of the local population.
On July 11, 1968 Mike Company took over security of the Nam O Bridge and the Esso gasoline storage facility. On July 26th the company was also assigned an area of the Rocket/Mortar Belt to patrol. During August Mike Company spent most of the month on Hill 190 doing reconnaissance of the surrounding area and providing support for local Marine CAP (Combined Action Platoon) units. Beginning in September, Mike Company moved north into Elephant Valley west of the Hai Van Peninsula where it established moving platoon patrol bases to interdict enemy infiltration. That mission—interspersed with company-sized search and destroy operations–continued until the middle of December when Mike Company became the battalion quick reaction force.
On October 22, Captain Ronald N. Wilson became the Commanding Officer of Mike Company. Despite infrequent contact with large Viet Cong or NVA forces during the period June-December 1968, Mike Company still lost another 10 Marines killed in action and nearly three times that number wounded.
The year of 1969 was a year of transition and change for the Marine Corps in Vietnam. Emphasis was now on security of the population, improving the combat capability of the ARVN, pacification, and the South Vietnamese government’s accelerated “Revolutionary Redevelopment Program” designed to return government control to areas previously controlled by the Viet Cong. The war of attrition advocated by General William Westmoreland was phased out by the new MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) Commander, General Creighton Abrams. During the summer of 1969, the 3rd Marine Division began preparations to leave Vietnam. There were 55,000 Marines in Vietnam at the beginning of 1969. By year’s end fewer than 30,000 Marines remained. The 1st Marine Division was assigned the defense of Da Nang and its environs south to the Que Son Valley in northern Quang Tin Province.
The 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines and Mike Company operated primarily south and west of Da Nang in areas known as “Fort Apache,” the “Arizona Territory,” “Dodge City,” “the Badlands,” “Go Noi Island” and the “Dunes.” With the exception of Mike Company’s brief participation in the multi-battalion operations Oklahoma Hills (May 1, 1969 to May 11, 1969) and Pipestone Canyon (which was an on-going 6-month land-clearing operation to resettle villagers near the Go Noi-Dodge City area) daily combat operations consisted of combat patrols and night ambushes. The patrols and ambushes would usually be conducted out of a roaming platoon patrol base. The platoon would remain in one location for only a few days so as not to give the enemy a chance to organize and plan an attack on the position. These platoon patrol bases would operate for approximately a month at a time, returning to a secure base area once a month to shower, change uniforms and get a few nights uninterrupted sleep. Then they would either return to a platoon patrol base or conduct company-sized “cordon and sweep” operations (where the company would, under cover of darkness, surround a village suspected of harboring Viet Cong or NVA; then, at first light, have one platoon or attached platoons from another company move through the village searching for Viet Cong and NVA soldiers). The villages of Tan Hanh, Ta Cau, Phong Le, Viem Dong and Ha Tay were frequent targets of cordon and sweep operations. Snipers, mines, booby traps and small enemy units kept the tension at a high level. The stress was always present. Relaxation for the Marines and Corpsmen of Mike Company would have to wait on either a 5-day R and R (rest and relaxation) trip to someplace like Bangkok, Tokyo, Hawaii or Australia–or their return to “the world” at the end of their 13-month tour of duty in South Vietnam.
In between operating out of platoon patrol bases and conducting cordon and sweep operations, the platoons of Mike Company would be tasked with guarding bridges on the roads leading to Da Nang, such as the Tu Cau, Ca Do, Nam O and Liberty bridges. While assigned bridge duty, Marines would also conduct daily “rat patrols” on the roads leading to and from the bridges. These patrols were done in jeeps with .50 caliber machine guns mounted on them. Along the rat patrol route Marine 4-man fire teams would be placed in concealed positions along the road to prevent the enemy from placing mines in or beside the road. These fire teams were called “snake bites.”
Enemy units encountered during this period were primarily the Viet Cong Q82 Battalion, the 36th NVA Battalion, and elements of the 141st and 90th NVA Regiments. Despite the constant patrols and ambushes by Mike Company in the rice paddies, cane fields, tree lines, dunes and foothills, the battalion command chronology reported “enemy contact light and limited to primarily snipers and small groups ranging in size from one to ten VC/NVA.” The majority of casualties were caused by enemy mines and booby traps.
On July 1, 1969 Captain D. J. Robinson took over as Commanding Officer of Mike Company.
During September Mike Company was again moved to the northeast portion of the Da Nang TAOR near the Hai Van Peninsula.
The month of October saw heavy rains and flooding. During this time Mike Company conducted joint riverine operations with ARVN forces along the Son Cau Do River. October turned out to be the month in which Mike Company suffered the most casualties during 1969—5 Marines killed in action and 16 wounded. Mike Company casualties during 1969 were 14 Marines killed in action and approximately three times that number wounded.
The new decade saw the area occupied by Marines in South Vietnam continue to shrink. The area north of Da Nang to the DMZ, previously occupied by the now departed 3rd Marine Division, was taken over by units of the South Vietnamese armed forces and a few U.S. Army units, as was the area around Chu Lai north to the Que Son and Hiep Duc valleys. The withdrawal of U.S. combat troops was increasing with each passing month. On March 1, 1970, the 26th Marine Regiment departed South Vietnam. By the end of March 1971, the 5th Marine Regiment and 7th Marine Regiment would also be gone. The 1st Marines, and 3/1, would be the last Marine combat units to leave South Vietnam.
For the Marines and Corpsmen of Mike Company, however, the war continued. The war was still one of constant combat patrols, ambushes, snipers, small-unit fire fights, rocket and mortar attacks, and, worst of all, booby traps and land mines. The majority of casualties during the final 17 months of the war would be inflicted by booby traps and land mines. The emphasis continued to be on small-unit operations by squads and platoons to deny the enemy his infiltration and resupply routes, and to protect the Vietnamese villagers from the NVA and Viet Cong.
On February 11, 1970, Captain R.H. Mullen assumed the duties of Commanding Officer of Mike Company. On March 1, 1970, the battalion again moved to the northern boundary of the Da Nang TAOR near the Hai Van Peninsula and Elephant Valley. Mike Company, though, had been assigned a new and different mission from that of the other companies in the battalion. Mike Company was designated as the “CUPP” company (Combined Unit Pacification Program) and was placed under the operational and administrative control (OPCON/ADCON) of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. Mike Company would remain in this OPCON/ADCON status until March 19, 1971.
The CUPP program was designed to place more Marines with South Vietnamese Popular Force (“PF’s”) and Regional Force (“RF’s”) units to help them provide security for the South Vietnamese Revolutionary Development Teams that were tasked with building hospitals and schools, providing medical care to the villagers, keeping roads and waterways open, planting and harvesting crops, and many other activities that would improve the economic and social conditions in the villages. High command, by this stage of the war, had finally come to realize that military combat operations alone would not win the war in South Vietnam. The CUPP program was part of the South Vietnamese government’s larger goal which was to re-establish government control in the many villages that had been controlled for years by the Viet Cong cadres and 5-man cells. Destruction of what remained of the Viet Cong infrastructure in and around the villages would be a major part of Mike Company’s new mission. This meant a daily and nightly grind of patrols, ambushes and small-unit firefights. For the individual Marine and Corpsmen it would be a continuation of the same physical discomfort, danger, and mental stress faced by all the Marines and Corpsmen of Mike Company since arriving in South Vietnam in 1966. Most of the fighting from this point on would be done by squads and fire teams.
As part of the CUPP program many Mike Company Marines and Corpsmen were sent to special schools in Da Nang for short courses in Vietnamese language and customs to enable them to be more effective in the new mission. Each squad in Mike Company was then assigned a particular village and South Vietnamese PF or RF platoon with which to work. Each squad then worked closely with its PF or RF counterpart unit in providing security for its assigned village. The Marines and Corpsmen of Mike Company would also assist any Marine CAP unit that might be assigned to “their village.” The company headquarters was located on Hill 37 for most of the time that the squads were on CUPP duty.
Enemy contact was sporadic, but just as deadly. The 3rd Battalion, 368B NVA Regiment and the remnants of the Viet Cong Q82 and Q83 Battalions still operated in small units in the area. Mike Company would lose another 17 Marines killed in action during 1970 and nearly twice that number wounded.
Mike Company leaves South Vietnam
On January 1, 1971, all allied combat units in Vietnam ceased to have TAORs. From that date on they would have only TAOIs—“Tactical Areas of Interest.” The turning over of all of the original Marine Corps TAORs to the South Vietnamese armed forces was completed. The 7th Marines and the 5th Marines would leave South Vietnam in February and March respectively. The 1st Marines would be the last Marine Corps regiment to leave South Vietnam.
Enemy activity in the Da Nang area continued to decline. Knowing that the Marines were leaving, the Viet Cong and NVA actively avoided contact with the Marines and confined their activities to harassment attacks. Even terrorist attacks on the local villagers and the assassination of government officials were infrequent. During 1971, Mike Company suffered no Marines or Corpsmen killed in action. The 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines TAOI during these final days was still operating in the area around the Hai Van Peninsula north of Da Nang.
On March 20, Mike Company was returned from 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines administrative and operational control back to that of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. Also on March 20, Captain M.O. Fletcher took command of Mike Company. He would be Mike Company’s last Commanding Officer in South Vietnam. During March and April, Mike Company operated primarily in the area of Outpost Reno, conducting combat patrols, ambushes and company-sized sweeps. Mike Company was also the battalion quick-reaction force during this time.
On May 1, 1971, the 1st Marine Regiment was ordered to “stand down.” All combat operations ceased. Only limited security activities continued. Mike Company moved to the Da Nang base area and prepared for embarkation. On May 31, 1971, Mike Company boarded ships and began the 8,000 mile journey back to Camp Pendleton, California. It time in South Vietnam had come to an end. The Marines and Corpsmen of Mike 3/1 had—in the words of Rudyard Kipling—“seen the elephant.”