another helicopter extracted the Marine team. The reconnaissance Marines
sustained only one casualty, one wounded man.81
The incident on the 12th was only a harbinger of what was to come. On the following day, the North Vietnamese sprang an ambush on an engineer convoy bringing Dyemarker supplies and equipment to Ca Lu. Under an overcast sky and a slight drizzle, about 1120 on the morning of the 13th, the 20-vehicle convoy departed the Rockpile area. Marine artillery had already fired 15-minute preparation fires at suspected ambush sites. With two tanks in the lead, the convoy consisted of 10 six by six trucks interspersed with two more tanks in the center of the column, four "low boy" tractor trailers, and two of the Army "dusters" bringing up the rear. The vehicles carried about 200 men including engineers, drivers, the M42 crews, support personnel, and Company I, 3d Battalion, 9th Marines.82
About 1150, approximately 3,000 meters above the Ca Lu, enemy gunners took the convoy under fire with rocket-propelled grenades, small-arms fire, and mortars. At the same time, the NVA ambushers detonated a command mine which set two trucks on fire, one a "low boy" and the other carrying 81mm mortar ammunition. The truck with the mortars exploded which forced the rear section of the convoy to come to a complete halt. The infantry from Company I hastily dismounted from their trucks to engage the enemy, only for many of the troops to trigger several "surprise firing devices" and mines skillfully hidden along both sides of the road.
Lieutenant Colonel Cook recalled several years later that before the convoy had started out he and his sergeant major had moved to an outpost on a hill top just west of Route 9. From there, he remained in radio contact with both his command post and the convoy and could observe the vehicles as they moved south toward Ca Lu. When he saw the convoy stopped after the initial burst of fire, he directed "the lead element to continue on to Ca Lu and return with reinforcements." He then joined the stalled troops. According to Cook, from the site of the ambush, he "called and directed artillery fire through his COC [Combat Operations Center] on enemy escape and reinforcing routes both east and west of Route 9."
In the meantime, Company L, 3d Battalion, 9th Marines boarded at Ca Lu the lead trucks to relieve the embattled column. At the ambush site, about 1215, an aerial observer using the call sign "American Beauty" arrived overhead to assist in calling in supporting fires. The leaden skies precluded the use of Marine fixed-wing jets, but two helicopter gunships strafed the enemy firing positions. Marine artillery fired over 700 rounds including 54 155mm howitzer shells in support of the convoy after the initial contact.
With the arrival of Company L and the continuing artillery bombardment, the Marines disengaged under occasional enemy sniper fire and completed the trip to Ca Lu, arriving there about 1510. The convoy made the return trip to the Rockpile area late that afternoon without incident. The costs, however, had been high. American dead and wounded totaled 19 killed and over 70 wounded. Most of the casualties were sustained by Company I in the first moments of the ambush. The Marines accounted for 10 enemy dead and captured one prisoner. Marine intelligence officers estimated that a North Vietnamese company participated in the attack.*
For a time after the ambush, the 3d Marines' attention shifted once more to the north and east in that area between Camp Carroll and the Rockpile above Route 9. Shortly after 0800 on the morning of 16 January, a 3d Reconnaissance Battalion "Stingray" team there found itself surrounded by about 40 North Vietnamese on high ground about 2,000 meters north of the Cam Lo River. According to the team, the enemy were obviously NVA regulars, wearing green utilities and helmets impressed with a yellow lightning bolt design, and armed with AK-47 rifles and two machine guns. The 3d Marines immediately sent a reaction platoon from Company H, 2d Battalion, 9th Marines to assist the encircled team. Lifted into a helicopter landing zone about a 1,000 meters east of the reconnaissance team, the 2d Battalion reaction platoon came under machine gun fire. The platoon returned the fire and called in air and artillery. After the artillery and air strike silenced the enemy guns, the infantry platoon joined up with the reconnaissance team. By this time, the North Vietnamese troops had disappeared, leaving six dead behind. At 1340 that afternoon, Marine helicopters
*Colonel Robert C. Needham commented that this ambush was very similar to one
that 3/3 had run into in the same area in August and September 1967. Needham
Comments. A survivor of the ambush who visited Vietnam in 1994 wrote in
a veteran's newsletter that on the road to Ca Lu he reached "the 13 January
1968 ambush site .... In my mind's eye I could see the first cloud of
black smoke [when] the ambush was sprung, and I smelled the odor of gunpowder
in the air." Before leaving, he and his companion planted some flowers
in memory of the men killed there. Phil Quinones, "Vietnam-Tour '94',"
Comwire, Vietnam, Oct 1994, v. 4, No. l, pp. 3-4, Encl to Todd Comments.