Tragic Valor of Marines at Con Thien

(Photo: David Douglas Duncan)

Tragic Valor of Marines at Con Thien

Memorial Day is exploited by politicians glorifying war and armed services recruiting new soldiers, but it should be a time to reflect on the ugly reality of warfare and the tragic valor of the combatants, says war correspondent Don North.

It was known to local missionaries as "the Hill of Angels," but to the occupying Marines, Con Thien was a little piece of hell. Just two miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (the DMZ dividing line between North and South Vietnam), it was a barren, bulldozed plateau of red dirt 160 meters high and ringed with barbed wire, studded with artillery revetments and crisscrossed with trenches and sand bag-covered bunkers.

To the east stretched the "McNamara Line," the 600-meter-wide "barrier" ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara which the Marines had cleared and sowed with seismic and acoustic sensors and minefields.

At Con Thien in 1967, American commanders in Vietnam failed to recognize that loyalty should flow downward as well as upward. The commanders' loyalty should have been to their Marines facing the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) as much as to their superiors in Washington. U.S. Marines died in droves at Con Thien; they deserved better of their commanders.

I was there. My ABC News team - consisting of cameraman Nguyen Van Quy, soundman Nguyen Xuan De, and myself - was next on the list for an assignment out of Saigon. We drew Con Thien, the most dangerous place in Vietnam that week. Nearly a half century later, as Memorial Day 2016 approached, I thought back on that assignment.

In that part of Quang Tri Province, the McNamara Line was anchored in the east by Firebase Gio Linh and in the west by Con Thien. Secretary McNamara, ever on the lookout for clever, logical and arms-length solutions for defeating the enemy, floated the idea of the barrier in March 1966, at a meeting of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

High-ranking U.S. military professionals pretended to take his myopic vision seriously and construction began in April 1967. But anchored by those two fire bases, the McNamara Line could be flanked on either side of the combat bases. And the North Vietnamese side of the DMZ was off-limits from U.S. ground attack. NVA divisions, operating within range of their 135mm artillery, were free to target firebases and roving Marine patrols with deadly accuracy.

A Flawed Strategy

So, why was there a base at Con Thien in the first place? Simply because the 160-meter hill, if taken by the NVA, could have facilitated hits on the key U.S. staging area at Dong Ha. Aside from denying the hill to the enemy, there was little reason to protect Con Thien. But its vulnerabilities also made it an inviting target.

The commander of NVA forces, the renowned General Vo Nguyen Giap, victor of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, was trying to replicate that victory along the DMZ. But the battle doctrines he followed were based on a rigid command structure and similarly rigid thinking, reflecting someone "unschooled in the art of war," according to Marine historian Eric Hammel. Nevertheless, Hammel concluded that "all of Giap's flaws as a planner and leader were more than compensated by the self-defeating policies and attitudes in the camp of his enemies. At least Giap took responsibility for his setbacks."

My news team found the First Battalion, Ninth Marines at Con Thien suffering from blazing heat and choking dust as they were targeted by snipers and under constant threat of ground attacks.

What made duty at the outpost a special misery was the hail of artillery from NVA batteries tucked away in the northern hills of the DMZ. The 135mm guns were well camouflaged and sheltered in caves; the NVA quickly rolled out the artillery to fire, then just as quickly rolled them back again to shelter. Although Americans retaliated with artillery and air strikes of their own, they were not able to stop the hundreds of shells that each day took a toll of Con Thien's defenders.

Heavy Casualties

On July 2, 1967, the Marines' Alpha and Bravo Companies launched Operation Buffalo, a sweep in the area north of the base. But faulty reconnaissance and inadequate observation allowed an undetected NVA force to ambush the Marines.

Eighty-six Marines of Bravo Company were killed and 176 wounded; only 27 members of the Company walked out of the battle unaided. An estimated 1,290 NVA were killed, even so, by anyone's definition, including that of the Marines, it was the enemy's victory. Although American casualties in Vietnam were rarely specified, the Marines acknowledged that it "was the worst single disaster to befall a Marine Corps rifle company during the Vietnam War."

The NVA were well aware of the U.S. Marines tradition of not leaving their dead behind, and they prepared for the Marines' return. On July 3, air strikes and Marine artillery were directed to the battle area in preparation for retrieval of the bodies. Marine reinforcements lifted off from the carrier USS Okinawa, and early the morning of July 4, they attacked on a six-company front to reach the dead. Marine Skyhawk attack aircraft lay down suppressing fire as our ABC crew recorded the recovery operation.

As we slowly advanced with two battalions, it soon became obvious that the NVA had pulled out during the night but left numerous booby traps behind to further bleed the Marines. Many bodies had been rigged with grenades and almost all had been mutilated or desecrated in some way. The bodies were spread over a wide area of low bushes. Two days lying in the blistering sun had bloated the bodies and burned them black. One dead Marine had his genitals cut off and sewn to his face, with a photo of his girlfriend stabbed to his chest.

Many of the recovery teams wore gas masks as some protection from the ghastly stench, other Marines retched and vomited. They placed the corpses in green rubber body bags and carried them to a clearing where the remains were loaded on Marine tanks. Personal effects were collected and placed in upturned helmets.

Many in the work party made it forcefully known they were not pleased that a TV news crew was accompanying them on a mission to reclaim their dead. We shot sparingly and from a distance so as not to upset them. In any event, those grisly scenes would never be used in a U.S. news program.

The Aftermath

The next morning, our ABC News crew entered the base at Con Thien. It felt like being at the heart of the war. We could look north across the Ben Hai river which marked the Seventeenth Parallel and see the North Vietnamese flag waving from a tall pole. We could look beyond the flag to see puffs of white smoke and hear the rumble of shells being fired in our direction, giving us about 20 seconds to find the nearest bunker.

Late in the afternoon, one of the Marine artillery pieces took a direct hit; its crew had not been able to retreat to a bunker in time. As rockets and shells continued to drop in, an Army Special Forces medic jumped out of a bunker and joined a half dozen Marines trying to save the life of a badly wounded comrade. They took turns pumping his chest to strengthen a weak pulse and giving him direct mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while shouting encouragement. "C'mon Sidell, you can make it buddy! Don't give up!" Lance Corporal Jimmy Sidell from Atlanta, Georgia didn't respond with either a gasp or a pulse as his Marine buddies worked on him for almost an hour.

Another NVA shell hit with a deafening impact just a few yards away. Our film camera was blown off the cameraman's shoulder; Sidell's buddies recoiled from the concussion but never missed a beat pumping his heart. Finally with the body growing stiff, it was clear Sidell wasn't coming back. Through sobs and curses, the Marines tied an identification label to his boot laces and carried him to a tank waiting outside the wire that would serve as his hearse.

I cried too, even as I tried a "standupper" to conclude my report. In New York, ABC News located Sidell's parents in Atlanta and warned them the report of their son's death would be on national TV the following evening.

It was clear that what motivated these Marines to endure the daily hell of Con Thien was not victory or satisfying the chain of command but their strong devotion to each other.

High-Level Complaints

The MACV Commander General William Westmoreland was not satisfied with the effort the Marines were putting into making the barrier work. In October 1967, he complained, "the barrier has not been accorded a priority consistent with operational importance."

Engineer companies showed enormous courage working in daylight hours, in the open with heavy equipment and suffered a higher percentage of casualties than the rifle companies at Con Thien.

Another part of the problem was that Marines are traditionally an offensive organization. Building in-depth defenses is not their forte, especially questionable ones like the "McNamara Line." Marine Corps generals complained that the barrier plan was a constant irritant. Holding static defensive positions prevented the Marines from conducting "pacification programs" and from attacking the enemy's infiltration routes.

Major General Rathon Tompkins, commander of the Third Marine Division, referred to the McNamara Line as "absurd." Lt. General Robert Cushman, the Marine commander in Vietnam, later admitted, "We just weren't going out getting everyone killed building that stupid fence."

After the Tet offensive which began on Jan. 30, 1968, and demonstrated the resilience and determination of the NVA and the Vietcong, Secretary McNamara agreed to step down. At the end of February 1968, a broken and distraught McNamara attended a farewell luncheon at the State Department and spoke tearfully of "the futility, the crushing futility of the air war." Perceiving him as growing soft on the war, President Lyndon Johnson quietly arranged for McNamara to take over the presidency of the World Bank.

General William Westmoreland was replaced on June 11, 1968, as commander of MACV. On Oct. 22, his successor General Creighton Abrams ordered all construction associated with the McNamara Line halted. The fate of the barrier was finally sealed on Nov. 1, 1968, when President Johnson announced a bombing halt in the DMZ and North Vietnam. Marine units were under orders not to set foot or even fire into the DMZ.

Tallying Up a Folly

During the period of the McNamara Line construction from September 1966 to October 1967, 3rd Marine Division casualties were 1,400 killed in action and 9,000 wounded.

Forty-six years later, I am reviewing my scripts, video and notes from Con Thien. I see now that the anger I felt at the misguided strategy and the compassion we felt for the Marines' suffering was not fully expressed. It should have been much clearer that the U.S. strategy was not only flawed but resulted in an unnecessary waste of lives.

I am reminded of an observation by Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for the New York Times: "Reporters who witness the worst of human suffering and return to newsrooms angry see their compassion washed out by layers of editors who stand between the reporter and reader. The creed of objectivity and balance ... disarms and cripples the press and transforms reporters into neutral observers or voyeurs."

As Marine historian Eric Hammel concluded, "Americans were bound by the moral poverty of their political leaders, and the North Vietnamese were bound by the intellectual inflexibility of their Communist Doctrines. The soldiers of each side suffered mightily in the stalemate that ensued."

We need to pay tribute this Memorial Day to those who served at Con Thien and learn from their sacrifice. It can be fairly said that anyone who seeks glory in battle would not find it in the mud and heat of Con Thien, but anyone who seeks tales of extraordinary valor need look no further.

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