combat operating base. The remaining rifle company of the 3d Battalion,
3d Marines, Company M, attached to the 12th Marines, guarded the provisional
Marine artillery battalion situated at the Gio Linh fire support base,
south of the ARVN in the A-2 Strong Point.32
A sea-going Marine during World War II and an infantry company commander during the Korean War, Colonel Smith had definite ideas about the war in the DMZ. He later observed that the Marines were "sitting in defensive positions up there playing strictly defensive combat . . . ." Smith believed that the troops required training in defensive warfare. He claimed that was an unpopular viewpoint since "Marines are always supposed to be in an assault over a beach, but this just isn't the name of the game out there." The emphasis was on good defensive positions and clear lines of fire.33*
With the command interest in the barrier at the beginning of the year,
the strong points and combat operating bases in the 9th Marines sector
took on even more importance. Anchoring the western segment of the cleared
trace, the A-4 Strong Point at Con Thien continued to play a major role
in the regiment's defensive plan.** Located less than two miles south
of the DMZ, Con Thien, although less than 160 meters high, dominated
the surrounding terrain. Colonel Smith observed that if the enemy had
held the position, "he would be looking down our throats" at Dong Ha.34
Lieutenant Colonel Evan L. Parker, Jr. s 2d Battalion, 1st Marines had taken over the responsibility of the Con Thien defense in mid-December. A 1st Marine Division unit, the battalion quickly learned the differences between the DMZ war and the pacification campaign further south. In contrast to the lightly armed and elusive VC guerrillas in the south, the North Vietnamese here often stood their ground, supported by heavy machine guns, mortars, and artillery. By the time the battalion occupied Con Thien, it had accommodated to the DMZ environment.35
The Marines of the 2d Battalion in December worked feverishly on the
A-4 Strong Point defenses. During the Christmas truce period the battalion
added 11 bunkers and dug a new trench along the forward slope. The troops
then sandbagged the bunkers with a "burster layer" in the roofs, usually
consisting of airfield matting "to burst delayed fuse rounds." They
then covered the positions with rubberized tarps to keep the water out.
By the end of the year, all of the new bunkers had been sandbagged and
wired in with the new razor-sharp German-type barbed wire. Protected
by a minefield to its front, surrounded by wire, and supported by air,
artillery, and tanks, the 2d Battalion lay relatively secure in its
defenses at the exposed Con Thien outpost.36
As the new year began, the Con Thien Marines enjoyed a small reprieve
from the shooting war. Both sides more or less adhered to the terms
of the shaky holiday truce, despite a small enemy probe of a Marine
listening post on the perimeter. According to a Marine reporter, on
New Year's Day, a Marine forward artillery observer at Con Thien looking
through his binoculars at enemy forward positions across the Ben Hai
suddenly spotted a large NVA flag with its single star emblazoned on
a bright red background waving "in the breeze atop a rather crude flagpole
...." Other Marines, mostly young infantrymen, crowded around to take
their turn to see for what most of them was their first tangible symbol
of the enemy.*** Secure in their conviction that the Marines would adhere
to the cease-fire, the NVA deliberately taunted the American troops.
Impatiently the Marine gunners waited the few hours for the
*There is dispute among some officers who served with the 3d Battalion, 3d Marines attached to the 9th Marines, whether there were standing operating procedures relating to restrictions on patrolling. A former company executive officer recalled that there were definite limitations on how far platoons and companies could move from their parent unit, 250 yards for platoons and 500 yards for companies. On the other hand, a former battalion commander and company commander with the 3d Battalion recalled no such limitations. The author found no listing of such restrictions in the 9th Marines Command Chronology for January 1968. The consensus seems to be that if there were such restrictions they were not always enforced and perhaps not even known. For the various viewpoints see Chambers Intvw and Maj Justice M. Chambers, Jr., Comments on draft chapter, dtd 17Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File); LtCol Otto Lehrack, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 29Oct94 (Vietnam Comment File); and Col Robert C. Needham, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 7Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Needham Comments.
**Lieutenant General Metzger observed that Con Thien and Gio Linh had been French forts, which indicated very early that both sites were recognized as key terrain. LtGen Louis Metzger, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 17Oct94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Metzger Comments.
***According to Lieutenant Colonel Otto Lehrack, who was a company commander with the 3d Battalion, 3d Marines, it was not so unusual to see a NVA flag north of the Ben Hai River "just about any time you were on the cliffs near Gio Linh." He does concede, however, that the truce period may have been the only time that the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines may have had an opportunity to see the North Vietnamese banner. LtCol Otto Lehrack, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 29Oct94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Lehrack Comments. See also Otto J. Lehrack, No Shining Armor, The Marines at War in Vietnam, An Oral History (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1992), pp. 211-12.