0615, a reaction force from the 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, including
a reinforced Marine platoon and another detachment of Army Dusters,
arrived on the scene. Later they were joined by another reaction force
from Dong Ha. The Marine infantry intercepted the enemy attacking force
attempting to recross the Cam Lo River north of the compound. According
to the 9th Marines, the Americans killed 111 of the Communist troops,
probably from the 27th Independent Battalion and the VC Cam
Lo Local Force Company, and rounded up 23 prisoners.* The U.S.
forces sustained casualties of 3 dead, two Marines and the U.S. Army
senior advisor, and 18 Marines wounded.
From a III MAF perspective, Colonel Franklin L. Smith described the
defense of the Cam Lo District headquarters as a "hot little action,"
but successful, "largely through the determination of the CAP unit."
Colonel Richard B. Smith, the 9th Marines commander, had a dissenting
view. He believed that the establishment of the Combined Action units
in the DMZ, where the people were relatively unsympathetic to the government,
"a waste of time." According to the 9th Marines commander, he continually
had to divert line infantry units from their main mission of defending
the strongpoints against the NVA to come to the rescue of the CAPs.
He saw the Cam Lo action in that context.86**
For the most part, for the next few days, the 9th Marines units except
for the occasional bombardment of Con Thien had a sort of reprieve along
the barrier. This ended on 7 February with an enemy ambush of Company
K, 3d Battalion, 3d Marines. Shortly after 1230, Company K's 3d Platoon,
patrolling below the main supply route between A-3 and A-2 just west
of Route 1, triggered the trap. Using small arms, machine guns, and
grenades in a sudden outburst of fire, the North Vietnamese killed nine
Marines including the platoon commander and wounded another seven. With
the death of the Marine officer, "confusion set in." Captain Donald
R. Frank, the Company K commander, with his 1st and 2d Platoons, about
500 meters to the north, moved to reinforce the 3d.87
The NVA had expected the Marines to do just that and had set up another
ambush slightly to the north of the first. As the 2d Platoon tried to
maneuver, a hidden machine gun opened up, followed by small arms fire
and then grenades. The platoon suffered 18 dead and 10 wounded in the
first five minutes of the action including the platoon commander and
two radio operators. In the meantime, the 1st Platoon attempted to relieve
the 3d Platoon and succeeded in bringing out some of the wounded and
the able bodied. After the helicopter evacuation of the most serious
casualties, the 1st and 3d joined the 2d Platoon in its shrinking perimeter.
At the 3d Battalion, 3d Marines combat operations center at A-3, Lieutenant
Colonel James W. Marsh, the battalion commander, and Major Raymond F.
Findlay,Jr., the battalion operations officer, monitored the radio.
Upon being briefed on the situation by Captain Frank, Major Findlay
replied "Okay, hang on. We're on our way." He sent Company L to set
up blocking positions and alerted Company M. The battalion then called
for an air observer to assist in bringing in supporting arms. Flying
over the ambush site, the observer, using the codename "Southern Comfort,"
reported: "I've never seen such a concentration of NVA." Remarking on
an extensive NVA bunker system and interconnected trenches, Southern
Comfort estimated the size of the enemy force to be between 200 to 400
men. According to Jeff "TJ" Kelly,*** then a corporal, who was handling
the communications with Southern Comfort, the "AO was running gunships
on the NVA, but it was in the center of the bunker complex, not close
to Kilo [Company K] where it was most needed, he could not get it closer
because Kilo and the NVA were mixed together."88
By late afternoon, Company L had established blocking positions to
the southwest and engaged a number of enemy trying to reach the hamlet
of Phu Tho, about 2,000 meters below A-3. Company M, accompanied by
Major Findlay, had reached Company
* Although the 9th Marines took several prisoners, the regiment's
situation and intelligence reports did not cite the specific units that
carried out the attack on Cam Lo. On the Other hand, the intelligence
section of the regimental command chronology shows only the above two
units operating in the Cam Lo sector. An article in the III MAF newspaper
claims three North Vietnamese battalions participated in the attack.
9th Mar ComdC, Feb68; Clipping "Cam Lo-Hub of the DMZ," Sea Tiger, n.d.
[Feb68], End, Bendell Comments. Colonel Smith recalled that the 9th
Marines claimed 130 enemy and 40 prisoners but would not dispute the
figures in the text: "I have never seen a body count report that I agreed
with." Smith Comments.
** In his comments, Colonel Smith further stated that outside of the
Marines assigned to the CAP, the defenders "could nor find any CAP people
to man their guns. The position was saved by the Marines inside." He
recalled that the senior "Army advisor . . . had called on me the day
before for this support. He knew from his intelligence sources that
he was going to be hit." Smith Comments.
*** According to the unofficial historian of the 3d Battalion, 3d
Marines, Kelly's full name was Thomas Jeffrey Kelly and in Vietnam went
by the nickname TJ. He now prefers to be called Jeff. LtCol Otto Lehrack,
Comments on draft, dtd 29Oct94 (Vietnam Comment File).