Page 103

Page 103 (1968: The Defining Year)




area with grenades and cement-type mines. The engineers deactivated the "surprise
firing devices" without incurring any casualties. In a minesweep mission
the same morning on Route 1 further south, just above the Hai Van Pass,
the Marine engineers were less fortunate. A Marine truck detonated a
40-pound cement-type mine which seriously wounded six Marines and badly
damaged the vehicle. That night, Marines of Company D received reports
that a group of 20 VC had the assignment to emplace mines near their
sector. A Marine patrol failed to uncover any enemy, but an 81mm mortar
fire mission resulted in a secondary explosion.54


About 1030 the following morning, 5 January, near the truck mining incident of the previous day, another engineer sweep team, with a squad from Company D for security, triggered a VC ambush. An estimated 25-man enemy force attacked the Marines with grenades and automatic weapons. Two of the grenades landed in the rear of a Marine truck. The driver accelerated but enemy machine gun fire killed him and the truck ran off a steep incline. The remaining Marines regrouped and forced the enemy to break contact. The Company D commander immediately sent two squads supported by two Ontos to reinforce the sweep ream. The following morning, on a bridge close to the ambush site, one of the Ontos struck a mine destroying the vehicle and killing the driver and wounding another Marine. About 1300, 6 January, just west of the bridge, one of the Company D squads, searching for an enemy sniper, came across what appeared to be another mine. As the squad stopped in a small clearing to investigate the object, two VC fired some 20 rifle rounds at the Americans, killing another Marine. The rest of the squad maneuvered through some heavy vegetation to reach the enemy positions, but by that time the VC had disappeared. In the three incidents on 5-6 January, the Marines sustained total casualties of 3 dead and 20 wounded, 17 seriously enough to be evacuated.55


To the west, near Phu Loc, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines conducted two company sweeps without incident, one by Company A to the south of the battalion assembly area, and the other by Company C to the north and east of the assembly area. On the night of 6 January, however, a Company A listening post, about 5,000 meters south of Phu Loc, spotted about four VC attempting to infiltrate the company's perimeter. The Marines fired 60 rounds and the enemy troops fled.56


Through this period, the Combined Action platoons positioned along Route 1 sensed that the enemy was preparing for a large push. Already, the VC had initiated some 30 incidents, mostly minor contacts of various sorts, in the local hamlets or along the highway. As Thomas Krusewski, a former CAP Marine in Hotel 6, several years later observed, "[the] atmosphere around you was tense. We began to have troop movement around [us]." The Combined Action Marines noted motorcycle tracks in the woods which implied that the enemy was paying off the local hamlet chiefs in return for the cooperation of the villagers. Krusewski remarked one "did not need to be a PhD to figure it [the situation] out." The VC were about to attack; the only remaining questions were where and when.57


In the early morning hours of 7 January the Communist forces struck. They hit the Phu Loc District headquarters, the command post of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines south of Phu Loc, the Company D base position north of the Hai Van Pass, and three of the Combined Action compounds between Phu Loc and the Hai Van Pass. Although limiting their attacks on the Marine units to attacks by fire, the enemy penetrated the Phu Loc District headquarters and the nearby Hotel 5 Combined Action compound. The Communist troops overran the other two Combined Action platoons, Hotel 6 and 7, located approximately 6 and 14 kilometers respectively east of Phu Loc.58


At Hotel 6 in the hamlet of Ngoc Ngot during the night of 6-7 January, Corporal Arliss Willhite remembered that the Marines and PFs had just returned from a large sweep operation along Route 1 with CAP Hotel 7. Following the suggestion of one of the Marine squad leaders, the CAP commander decided against putting out the usual listening posts. The CAP Marines, however, posted a small security force including four Marines at a nearby bridge on Route 1. In the compound itself, another four Marines stood watch. At about 0330 on 7 January, over 150 enemy troops dashed into the compound from two different directions, flinging satchel charges and grenades, and firing automatic weapons. From his vantage point near the bridge on Route 1 where he was in charge of the security group there, Lance Corporal Frank Lopez later described the attack: "All of a sudden hell broke loose, mortars are coming in and rockets and everything." The enemy assault force had placed blankets and mats over the concertina wire surrounding the compound and "just hopped over with sappers and automatic weapons." According to Lopez, "it looked like ants coming over a hill or just coming through the wire towards the compound, yelling, screaming, everyone was just yelling and getting hit." By this time, Lopez and his group were also under attack from about 40





Page 103 (1968: The Defining Year)