Thuong Duc

Command Chronology – Kilo 4/11 – May 1968

Monday, May 27, 1968

Highway 4 continued from Hill 52 through a narrow pass.  The Song Vu Gia river was strong and deep in this area, and the road ran through a sandy beach for a few hundred yards.  From the shore to the village of Thuong Duc, the path was a straight 3 miles of open dirt roadway surrounded by rice fields.  The ville was at the confluence of two rivers (Song Vu Gia / Song Con).  Adjacent to this was an abandoned French airstrip, “Ha Tan” airfield.

Overlooking the two river valleys was a Special Forces compound (A-109).  The Green Beret camp was built to monitor and assess NVA/VC movement and infiltration.  It helped alert and protect Da Nang from enemy encroachment from the Laotian border.

Reports of increased enemy forces in Thuong Duc led to Marine units being positioned to do search and destroy operations.  The 7th Marines were assigned as security in the area.  All of this activity was part of Operation “Mameluke Thrust.”

The four guns of Kilo (-) battery were moved from Hill 52 to the Ha Tan airfield to support these activities.  The position was surrounded on three sides (north, west and south) by the rivers wrapping around the landing strip.  A substantial concrete bridge crossed the Song Con into the heart of the Thuong Duc village.

Travel from Hill 65 to Thuong Duc was now an all-day trip.  Supply/ammo runs would have to “overnight” before returning to Hill 65.  In addition, Doc Furman was flown in by helicopter to set up a field casualty station (a tent with 12 cots).  Everything in the Kilo compound was basic, and there were no preexisting bunkers or fighting holes.  It was, in a word . . . primitive.

Thuong Duc Map

Thuong Duc

Next Edition:  Power Generator


Successful Ambush

Command Chronology – 3 Battalion / 7th Marines – May 1968

Sunday, May 26, 1968

Early in the morning I heard a firefight coming from the Arizona area.  There were tracers and explosions near the river where the NVA had crossed during TET.  We referred to the location as “The Sand Bar.”  After a lull in the action, there was a fire mission targeting the area, and the battery was using VT (Vertical Timed fuses).  These high explosive rounds were timed to detonate 10 feet above the position (air burst).

The Marines from this patrol/ambush were first in line for breakfast and still full of adrenaline from the incident.  Their story was:  At 2200 on the 25th the patrol left Hill 65 and made their way to the river.  They set up an ambush on a berm above the beach and waited.  A sampan crossed the river and came ashore in the sand 15 yards from the ambush site.  There were three NVA in the sampan and seven in the water (holding on).  As the NVA beached the sampan and retrieved their weapons, the Marines opened up, killing all ten of the enemy soldiers.  The squad leader pulled out of the position and called in artillery to finish the job.

Later in the morning Lieutenant Nowicki led a platoon to the ambush site, planning to retrieve weapons and make an after action report.  The Marines were spread out along the river’s edge and were in the open with no cover.  On the opposite side of the river, only 100 yards away, was a solid tree line.  A single sniper round was fired, and a Marine fell.  The patrol backed away from the river and called in artillery on the sniper position.  The Marine was KIA with a head wound.

I had already learned to “mind my own business” * and made no effort to find out the identity of the Marine killed.  During our steak BBQ a Grunt squad leader approached me and asked, “How well did you guys know Murphy?” **  I said, “He has a four-month-old daughter.”  He answered, “Yeah, she will never meet her Dad.”

*  See previous “Mind Your Own Business” blog  March 26, 1968

** See previous “Murphy Joins India Company” blog  February 15, 1968


Next Edition:  Thuong Duc

Hill 52 Attacked

Command Chronology – Kilo 4/11 – May 1968

Friday, May 24, 1968

Leggs came to the mess hall before we opened and said he planned to do maintenance on the refrigeration compressor.  It needed to have dust blown out of the filters.  We talked as he completed his work, and he relayed to me about an attack on Kilo battery at Hill 52.  A truck driver was wounded, and his M-37 truck destroyed.  The attack came from inside the wire perimeter.  B-40 rockets and grenades were the only weapons used.  It was a quick hit-and-run probe.

I showed Leggs the machete I had received from Papa-San’s belongings, and he said it could use a good cleaning and the blade needed some work.  He invited me to come to his shop later in the day to work on it.

Lunch was becoming our slow meal of the day.  There was much activity with convoys and resupply runs . . . the roads were busy, but we weren’t.  This led to big lines at dinner for the “Southern meal,” and Reb was occupied serving his Carolina chowder . . . some would eat chowder while standing in line for the full meal.

I received a letter from Jenny and saved it to open in the evening.  We always sniffed the letters as we opened them.  Jenny said she never put any fragrance on the stationery, but it was there . . . an unmistakable scent.  She was back at Fresno State finishing the Spring semester.  Final exams were approaching, and she was making plans for summer school in San Diego.

Sumo received letters from his wife in Japan, and Reb got mail from his girlfriend in Charlotte, North Carolina.  We never shared our letters; they were personal, and the details were intimate.  It was OK to show a photo, but feelings and emotions in letters were never talked about.

Next Edition:  Successful Ambush

Cook Off

Thursday, May 23, 1968

The guns on Hill 65 were now referred to as Battery KY which included two 155mm and two 8-inch Howitzers.  Tandem fire missions were slightly more complicated and took time to coordinate but were deadly on enemy positions.  The increased number of units in Arizona Territory added to the amount of fire missions.  Occasionally they had to be prioritized, and some requests were put on standby.

The competitiveness of the gun crews was expanding, and they started to compete in a contest to see who could finish firing (“fire out”) first.  Safety was always top priority, and everyone knew that shortcuts were deadly.  After each round was fired, the powder chamber behind the gun tube had to be “swabbed” with water to cool it and prevent excessive heat buildup before the next powder bags were loaded.

A gun chief from an 8-inch gun got behind in the competition and took the shortcut of not swabbing the chamber.  He tried it a second time, and the powder bag flashed back (a cook off) in his face, severely burning his eyes, ears and lungs.  He was medevaced in critical condition, and it was an event no one would easily forget.

Battery KY would undergo an inquiry regarding this event, and Lieutenant Martin would have to answer for the tragic outcome.

During lunch Captain Robb made the comment, “Tough day for the gun gooneys” (artillery nickname).  We had heard stories from the Grunts about Robb’s insensitive remarks.  I kept my head down and didn’t respond . . . it was an awkward moment, and the Grunts in the chow line were embarrassed.

Next Edition:  Hill 52 Attacked

Massive Build-Up

Wednesday, May 22, 1968

The increased activity in the Thuong Duc Corridor brought men and equipment to Hill 52.  With this movement, there were skirmishes and more fire missions.  Across the river in Arizona Territory, the 5th Marines from An Hoa were patrolling by day and setting new perimeters at night.  The mobilization south of us was spreading like a spiderweb.

In the afternoon, a squad-sized party of Grunts worked below the mess hall.  They were reinforcing the perimeter wire.  I filled a thermal container with our Rainbow Jello and carried it down to them, and started a conversation with the squad leader.  I’d seen him before and knew he was a machine gunner.  He was getting short and only had a month left before leaving for CONUS.  He spent some time showing me how to tighten loose wire . . . it was tricky work, and he wore special protective gloves.  I learned how to set up illumination flares and attach tripwires.

A Marine came over to refresh himself with the Jello cubes, and I realized he was Lance Corporal Murphy. *  He had served on mess duty back in January before TET and had taught us how to sharpen knives.  He took a handful of Jello and went back to where he had been working.  I could tell something wasn’t quite right and asked the squad leader about it.  He said, “Yeah, Murph’s been real quiet and doesn’t talk much.”

I got permission to talk with Murphy and asked how things were going.  He said, “It don’t mean nothing.”  I questioned, “What means nothing?”  He looked all around and said, “All of this is crap!”  It was as if the young energized kid I knew was gone.  This 20-year-old Marine had spiraled into a dark place . . . I wanted to help but didn’t know how.

The exchange with Murphy was troubling.  The issue was called combat fatigue in WWII, and it was obvious Murphy was mentally detached.  I made a comment about his condition to the squad leader, and he said, “You stick to cooking Sarge, you got no business with our mentality.”  I knew he was right and let it go.

*  See previous “Murphy Leaves for India Company” blog (February 15,     1968)

Next Edition:  Cook Off

Route 4 to Hill 52

Early Morning Road Sweep – Route 4

Tuesday, May 21, 1968

The road to Hill 52 (Route 4) was being swept daily by a platoon from India Company.  Combat Engineers with sensitive detectors would scan the road, and if a mine was found, it would be blown up with an explosive charge.

Another unit (Charlie Company 1/7) would sweep from Hill 52, and the two units would meet halfway.  Route 4 between the two hills was usually cleared by 0900, and then convoys could make supply/ammo runs.  The road was given the nickname, “Ambush Road.”  It was a narrow 8-mile stretch with heavy growth of foliage.  There were places where only one vehicle could pass, and all traffic was monitored to prevent congestion.  It was a passage no one wanted to travel.

Four of our guns were now in place on Hill 52, and our two guns on Hill 65 were joined by a pair of 8-inch Howitzwers.  The gun crews were competitive, and the fire missions were coordinated by one FDC.  All of this was under the command of our XO Lieutenant Martin (Captain Cavagnol was on Hill 52).

There were many new faces, and our temporary guests were pleasantly surprised by our food.  Reb’s to-go window was a success and seemed to have a following of Southern boys.

The biggest difference of opinion Reb and I ever had was over the issue of a small Confederate flag he wanted to place above his to-go window.  I had been to North Carolina and knew its significance.  He gave his best argument, but in the end I said, “NO, wrong war; this is Vietnam, not the South.”  He wasn’t happy with my decision and pouted for a day.

Explosive Device – “Fire in the Hole” – Road Sweep Engineer

Next Edition:  Massive Build-Up


Papa-San’s Rice Bowl

Monday, May 20, 1968

Hua showed up as we were securing breakfast.  He parked his new bike (the Helyett) * in Papa-San’s spot.  Apparently all of Papa-San’s possessions were sold off at a Vietnamese version of an estate sale and Hua got the bike.  There was no immediate family, and the money raised would pay for a proper grave marker.  Mama-San had initiated this effort.

After the trash pickup, Mama-San made her rounds delivering bundles of clean laundry.  She came to the mess hall with Hua as her interpreter and presented a blue ceramic rice bowl to each of the cooks.  They were part of a set of wedding china belonging to Papa-San.

Other gifts were presented by Hua.  I received a French “coup coup” machete in a leather sheath, Sumo was given the leather strop used for blade sharpening and Reb got a small cloth rolled bundle of carving tools.  All of these gifts were part of Papa-San’s personal belongings.  Hua said, “You Papa-San’s friends, he would want you to have.”

Hua had no father, Mama-San had taken him in as an orphan, and Papa-San had no son (Papa and Mama-San were not related — just friends).  It was an arrangement of necessity and convenience.  Although only 14, Hua was approaching military age and I worried about his future.  Trust was a difficult issue between the Vietnamese and American troops.  No one on either side wanted to be conned or taken advantage of, and there were con artists on both sides.  We were there to protect them, but there was no confidence in this endeavor.  The Vietnamese had been abandoned in the past.

We accepted these gifts in memory of Papa-San.  The machete was used, but a very functional tool.  The strop had been borrowed by Sumo many times and now would be in his care.  Reb, (the artist) would put the carving tools to good use.

*  See previous “Helyett” blog (February 16, 1968)

Next Edition:  Route 4 to Hill 52