Captain William H. Dabney's Company I received orders to search for
the missing radio and codes. At dawn on 19 January, the 1st Platoon,
commanded by Second Lieutenant Harry F. Fromme, departed Hill 881 South
for the scene of the ambush. At 1200, while moving along a finger which
led northeast up to the crest of Hill 881 North, the platoon engaged
a North Vietnamese unit in defensive bunkers. Fromme and the platoon
had patrolled the hill before and noticed that the trail had been altered,
which alerted them to possible danger.53
Lieutenant Fromme called for mortar fire and artillery as he led his platoon through the thick vegetation, attempting to maneuver against the North Vietnamese. When three Marines fell with wounds, Private First Class Leonard E. Newton stood erect in the high kunai grass and fired his M60 machine gun from the shoulder, providing covering fire for others who attempted to rescue them. Even after the wounded Marines were carried to safety, Newton continued to stand, engaging North Vietnamese positions until he was killed in action.54*
Fromme's Marines broke contact and returned to Hill 881 South with total casualties of one killed and three wounded. Eight North Vietnamese were confirmed dead. The platoon did not find the missing radio nor the code sheet.55
Captain Dabney, having a premonition that "something was about to happen," requested and received permission to conduct a reconnaissance-in-force to Hill 881 North with his entire company on the next day. Marine helicopters brought in two platoons and a command group from Company M, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines to Hill 881 South to help man the perimeter during Company Is absence.56
Elsewhere around Khe Sanh, sightings of the enemy continued unabated.
Reconnaissance patrols reported groups of as many as 35 North Vietnamese
at a time and listening posts detected enemy troops moving near Marine
positions.57 It seemed that Captain Dabney's guess was correct: "something
was about to happen."
Sortie to Hill 881 North
Company I departed at 0500, 20 January, moving through dense fog into the valley which separated Hill 881 South from its neighbor to the north. Dabney split his company into two columns which moved along parallel fingers about 500 meters apart. On the left, Lieutenant Fromme and his 1st Platoon led the way, followed by the company command group and Second Lieutenant Michael H. Thomas' 2d Platoon. In the column on the right marched Second Lieutenant Thomas D. Brindley's 3d Platoon and the six Marines remaining from Company B, 3d Reconnaissance Battalion who had participated in the patrol of 18 January.58
At 0900, the fog lifted as the Marines crossed the narrow valley floor and began the climb up Hill 881 North. As during the first part of their journey, the two columns traveled along parallel fingers. Near the crest, four small hills formed a line perpendicular to Company Is advance.
Thirty minutes into Company I's ascent, the enemy opened fire from positions on one of the small hills, forcing the 3d Platoon to the ground. The other column surged forward on the left in an attempt to flank the North Vietnamese, but was almost immediately stopped by heavy fire from another enemy strongpoint which caused several casualties. The company "dug in" and called for fire support. Enemy gunners shot down a Sikorsky UH-34 Sea Horse helicopter from Marine Aircraft Group 36 attempting to pick up Company Is wounded, but the crew escaped injury.59**
As Marine artillery fire fell on the enemy, the 3d Platoon, joined
by the reconnaissance team, advanced once again, assaulting and overrunning
the nearest NVA positions, then continued to the top of the hill. Lieutenant
Brindley charged to the crest of Hill 881 North at the head of his platoon,
only to fall to a sniper's bullet, mortally wounded.*** With the 3d
Platoon now atop the hill but low on ammunition, suffering numerous
casualties, and under heavy machine gun fire, Dabney committed his reserve.
The 1st Platoon held fast and supported by fire, while the 2d Platoon
and command group
*For his courageous act. Private First Class Newton received the Silver Star, posthumously. Lieutenant Fromme remembered that Newton, who was right next to him, was killed in the "first few minutes of the fire fight." The platoon's radioman "tried repeatedly to pull him down." Harry F. Fromme, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 27Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Fromme Comments.
** Lieutenant Fromme remembered that "one of the more daring moments happened after the chopper was hit. It 'slid' off the left side of the finger and down some 50 meters to the draw below." Fromme stated that his platoon sergeant took one of his squads to rescue the crew of the helicopter: "For me, it was 30 minutes of nerves. Still, directing suppressing fire on the hill Brindley's then Thomas' platoons were trying to take. I wonder to this day why the NVA on our finger did not attack at this moment." Fromme Comments.
*** Lieutenant Brindley received the Navy Cross, posthumously, for the action on Hill 881 North.