ATTACK AGAINST 1ST PLT. M CO. 3/5
I am using the Dec66 3/5 After Action Report and Command Chronology and my experiences on Operation CORTEZ. This will be background for the Dec. 14th attack of the 1st Platoon M Co. on Hill 71 just south of Hill 69. This is my best effort on this battle. I have tried to explain the multiple movements of the company and the relatively short time we had in that area. My description is open for all to comment as they seem fit. ~JD Murray, M Co. 3/5
I would like to dedicate all my graphics for 2004 in honor of Hans Haupt.~JD Murray
(click images to enlarge)
Map showing 3/5 general TAOR just outside Chu Lai from Aug66 until around Jan67. During that time M Co. spent time in the village of Thanh My Trung (1) and some of the surrounding high ground.
66 -BLT 3/5 (Special Landing Force, Vietnam) offloaded from amphibious
shipping and moved into a temporary camp in Chu Lai.
M Co. 3/5, maintaining its position on Hill 49 during early Nov., conducts Operation Mustang (Starvation) from 7-13 Nov 66 to the west of its position.
During mid Nov., M Co. relieves K Co. in Thanh My Trung (1). Nowhere does it specify the exact date. I assume it was on the 14th that M Co. packed up and left Hill 49 and entered Thanh My Trung (1) to relieve K Co. I remember well our short stay in Thanh My Trung (1) and I remember Hill 76 close by. I do not remember Hill 71. It seems to me that we had a platoon in Thanh My Trung (1), a platoon on Hill 76, and the remainder on Hill 69 and maybe Hill 71. I would assume it was a platoon minus on Hill 71 because there were not sufficient positions to support a full platoon. Sometime during the latter part of November, M Co. moved out of Thanh My Trung (1) because of the vulnerability of that position. So, during November, M Co. 3/5 had moved out of the Hill 49 complex in 3/5s old TAOR, moved into multiple positions in the expanded TAOR, and finally moved out of the Company CP position in the village of Thanh My Trung (1).
During Nov. and the first part of Dec 66, the Battalion made many changes to personnel. Most of the members had been with the Battalion for a year and therefore, key officers and staff NCOs were rotated to other billets. The Battalion got a new Commanding Officer, Executive Officer, and a reshuffling of the key staff officers as well as several new Company commanders. M Co. commander, Capt. Harold Pettengill, went on 5 days R and R, and I assumed acting CO of M Co. As I recall, no operations were scheduled for the month of December.
My original map used on the operation. Capt. Pettengill went on 5 days R and R and I had the company.
On 4 Dec. 66 an arclight bombing occurred in the lower Quesons, and K Co., reinforced by Recon units, heloed into the area on the 5th to investigate the damage. They immediately began receiving small arms fire and as the resistance increased, M Co. and the Battalion Command Group reinforced them on the 7th of December. Operation Cortez ran from 5-12 Dec. 1966.
The final elements of M Co. 3/5 returned from 7 days in the Quesons on Operation Cortez around 1815 on the 12th of December. During the time we were on Cortez, another unit filled in on our defensive position on Hill 71. They did not run any patrols or ambushes during that time. The company used that evening and the following day to re-equip, re-supply, and adjust to the changes of the operation and to prepare to re-man and occupy our positions in the TAOR. Hill 71 was not fully developed since our departure from the village of Thamh My Trung (1), a highly vulnerable location near the high ground to the West. A detailed account of the establishment of a Marine Company in Thamh My Trung (1) is found in Capt. F.J. West's book titled SMALL UNIT ACTION IN VIETNAM SUMMER 1966 Page 84-89. Basically, 2/5 replaced 2/4 in the TAOR DURING April/May of 1966. By June a company of Marines had begun defending the Village of Thamh My Trung (1). K Co. 3/5 defended Thanh My Trung (1) during Nov. 66 and was replaced by M Co. during the latter half of Nov. Shortly thereafter, Thanh My Trung (1) was abandoned by 3/5.
ATTACK ON 1ST PLT M CO. 3/5
most of the positions outside Hill 69 were not yet fully established
defensive positions, preparations were made to bring in wire and begin
fortifying the new locations. Hill 71 and Hill 76 were being prepared
as new platoon positions within the TAOR.
During the afternoon of the 13th the 1st Platoon was sent back out to reoccupy Hill 71 and replaces the Marines who filled in during their absense. Another battalion had manned it, and unknown to us, had not run any patrols or ambushes during their stay on the hill.
SSgt. Wilcox, the acting Platoon Commander, took his platoon to the position. After looking over the situation, he requested not to send out the normal ambushes due to the fatigue of the troops but to put out outposts instead. I concurred.
At 3 am on the 14th an enemy force attacked Hill 71. Because all the radios were in the tent areas and hit immediately by 57mm Recoiless Rifle fire and set ablase, communications was lost for the remainder of the night. We could hear the explosions and weapons fire on Hill 69. I requested to take the remaining platoon FROM Hill 69 and move out in support of the 1st Platoon, but was denied by the Battalion. I understand that later a captured member of the VC force said that they were waiting in ambush for the relief force coming from hill 69.
The following information is extracted from Task Force Xray's messages concerning the attack
The hill was a relatively new position that was normally manned by a Platoon of Marines as well as local Popular Force Vietnamese. Normally the platoon would have a squad out on ambush and observation posts as well. That night the ambush squad did not go out. The bunkers and fighting holes were being developed to match the number of Marines normally occupying the hill. Therefore, not all Marines had a fighting hole.
Two Machine Bunkers and fighting holes defended the Hill. All manned by Marines and 2 bunkers under construction manned by local popular Force Vietnamese. The local PFs came from the surrounding villages. I believe they disappeared from their bunkers prior to the attack.
The positions were partually dug in and sandbagged above ground. They extended below the ground approximately 3 ft and 3-4 ft above ground. Some had sandbagged roofs and some were covered by fighting hole covers. The fighting holes were in good condition with others in the process of being constructed. All had walls at least 8 sandbags thick. There was no wire on the position. It had been ordered and delivered while the company had been on Operation Cortez. During the company's absense, nothing had been done to improve the position. The brush surrounding the hill still needed to be cleared before the wire could be laid.
It was later learned that the VC had practiced that attack on a similar piece of terrain prior to the attack. The VC had used vine ropes to follow up the hill and after the attack the area was covered with 57mmRR fins, grenades, and other enemy combat gear. This was the first major attack on a Marine position in that area since the Marines had occupied the Chu Lai area. Shortly thereafter, the Battalion abandoned the platoon positions.
above information has been taken from these sources:
On December 14, 1966, I was a lance corporal and a fire team leader in the first squad first platoon of Mike 3/5. There were 9 Marines killed and one of our corpman whose name is Doc Jones. I always thought that we were on Hill 76 not Hill 71. I know we used to go to Hill 57 and then come back to 76, we also used to go to a village not too far from Hill 76 called No Name because on the map there was no name on the village that we used to patrol by. The morning of the attack on the Hill, I was sleeping in the tent when Suzuki came rushing in and yelled, "VC, VC... we're under attack!" I rushed out of the tent with a rifle that I thought was mine and took a fighting position just outside of the front of the tent on the right side of the entrance. I remember all kinds of explosions and rounds going off. It was so dark and you could not see anything and the tent started to burn. It was after helping some of the wounded to the other side of the Hill that was not under attack when Staff Sgt. Wilcox gave the command to form a 360, it was our last chance. Fighting continued, and we stayed in the 360 until reinforcements came.~Sgt. M. W. J. Zelasco
The morning Hill 71 was hit by the VC, the First Platoon was in a defensive position. There were seven bunkers with a small road coming up the front of the hill. There was a gun bunker on the right. On the left of the road was a bunker with four Popular Forces. Also, on the right side were two large fire team bunkers. On the left side there were two large fire team bunkers. On the back at the top of the hill was an M60 gun bunker. About 300 yards down the hill from the gun was an outpost, fire-team size. In the middle of the hill was a platoon tent, which held the two radios. On the road in front, about 150 yards, was another outpost. There was only one way in to Hill 71, and one way out. During the day, other platoons usually ran squad-size patrols. At night, they ran squad-size ambushes.
I was located at the Blt. defensive area. I do not remember if I was sick or I was going to run the mail, which would have been the reason I wasn't with my platoon. Someone on the hill hollered Hill 71 was being hit. All of us stood on the Blt. Hill and watched the firefight at 3:00 in the morning with all of the flashes and the bright lights. The CO asked me if I could get the company out to 71 safe and quickly because I knew all of the shortcuts. So, I ran point that morning and arrived at Hill 71 as daylight was breaking.
When we came up the road the Marines had four Popular Forces out of the bunker and held at gunpoint. Someone asked what was going on. The Marines were angry and upset because the Sgt. that morning told everyone to stop firing. He was coming out of his bunker to see about everything. One of the Popular Forces jumped up out of the bunker and shot the Sgt. in the back, which killed him. That is the reason the Marines were so angry and were holding them at gunpoint.
Soon after, a Colonel and the rest of the Popular Forces company came up the road and took the four Popular Forces who had shot the Sgt. away because the Marines still wanted to kill them. The CO sent me and a squad to patrol off the left side of the hill and investigate for bodies and weapons and VC. We came up on a cut trail at the bottom in the rear of 71 where they had a rope trail in the thicket. The trail stopped between the outpost and gun bunker. The VC set up a recoilless rifle about 20-25 yards in front of the M60 gun bunker. The first round knocked the bunker out. The second and third rounds took the tent out. The reason the other bunkers did not get destroyed was because they were down over the crest of the hill and the recoilless rifle was shooting over the top of them.
The Marines who fought that night fought fearlessly and held their positions and did not give ground all through the firefight. They were even breaking M60 belts down for ammunition when the firefight ended. The First Platoon made every Marine proud.
The VC did not completely overrun Hill 71. During my investigation we did not find any dead VC or KIA Marines. The gun bunker nearest the recoilless rifle was completely destroyed. After the investigation, I stayed all day and ran an ambush that night.
To sum it all up, Mike Company 3/5 First Platoon held their ground and fought like Marines have done in the past. I believe I heard there were 17 KIAs or perhaps WIAs, because they transferred them out in half-tracks. I do remember when the Second Platoon relieved the First Platoon. We stayed on the hill a short period of time because Ron Czupek was wounded when he ran a patrol with a squad one day.
the best of my memory
Dec. 14th, 3/5 was on Hill 69 north of Chu Lai. "Mike Co." had security for two other hills that were a few clicks out. They formed kind of a triangle, platoons would rotate to man the other two hills. The platoon in the rear would run patrols and ambushes around the other two hills. The night of the 14th, I think, one of the hills got hit by a large number of VC. My platoon was in the rear, so we got ready to go out and help, but got the word to stand down. All we could do was watch the fire fight, and the flashes from the grenades going off.
The fight lasted for quite a while, then a few Marines who survived and made it back to the area told us what happened. The hill was not fortified enough yet and the VC knew it. The VC just swarmed up the hill and overran it very quickly, the PF's (Popular Forces) that were on the hill with the Marines did nothing to help fend off the VC. According to the survivors they just hid in their bunkers, oh yeah, none of them got hurt. Lucky, you think?
We found out a few days later that the VC had an ambush waiting at the bottom of the hill to get any help that might show up. We also got word that the VC had been practicing their tactics on another hill prior to the attack. They had it together that night. It was a terrible thing to have to watch and listen to and not be able to help. That was just one of thousands of battles that went unnoticed except for those who were there.
In Action on Operation CORTEZ
RICHARD CHARLES MARSH
In Action during the VC Attack on 1st Plt. M Co. 3/5, Hill 71