Page 169

Page 169 (1968: The Defining Year)

Ray, the new command just established at the Marine base at Phu Bai,
about eight miles south of Hue.15 As part of Operation Checkers, the
Task Force X-Ray commander, Brigadier General Foster "Frosty" C. LaHue
had opened his command post on 13 January* Two days later, as planned,
he took over responsibility for the Phu Bai base from the 3d Marine
Division. LaHue, who had been at Da Nang until that time, serving as
the 1st Marine Division assistant division commander, had barely enough
time to become acquainted with his new TAOR, let alone the fast-developing
Hue situation. This was true as well for most of his commanders and
units at Phu Bai.16

With several changes making the original Checkers plan unrecognizable by the eve of Tet, LaHue had under him two regimental headquarters and three battalions. These were the 5th Marines, under Colonel Robert D. Bohn, with its 1st and 2d Battalions, and the 1st Marines, under Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, with its 1st Battalion in the Phu Bai sector. While Colonel Bohn had arrived with Task Force X-Ray on the 13th, Colonel Hughes did not reach Phu Bai until 28 January. The 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, under Lieutenant Colonel Marcus J. Gravel, began making its move from Quang Tri about the same time. His companies C and D had reached Phu Bai on the 26th while his Company B, and Headquarters Company came three days later. The battalion's remaining company, Company A, deployed on the 30th. Captain Gordon D. Batcheller, the Company A commander, remembered that while most of his troops were at Phu Bai on that date, two of his platoon commanders "had mistakenly stayed at Quang Tri" and the third was at a "Division Leadership School. . . ."17**

On 30 January, the 1st Marines assumed from the 5th Marines responsibility
for the Phu Bai area of operations as far south as the Truoi River.
At the same time, Colonel Hughes took formal operational control of
his 1st Battalion. Companies B, C, and D of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines
had already relieved the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines at various bridges
along Route 1 and other key positions in this northern sector. When
Company A arrived on the 30th, it became the Phu Bai reserve or "Bald
Eagle Reaction Force." Captain Batcheller years later recalled that
the company actually was to "stand down" until 1 February when it was
to assume security of the LCU Ramp in Hue itself, just north of the
MACV compound.18***

In the meantime, the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines had moved into the Phu Loc sector and took over that area south of the Truoi River and as far east as the Cao Dai Peninsula. The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines remained responsible for the rest of the Phu Loc region, extending to the Hai Van Pass.19

In the Phu Loc area on 30 January, about 1730, a Marine reconnaissance patrol, codenamed "Pearl Chest," inserted about 3000 meters south of the town of Phu Loc, observed a North Vietnamese company moving north armed with three .50-caliber machine guns, AK-47s, and two 122mm rockets. "Pearl Chest" set up an ambush, killing 15 of the enemy troops. The North Vietnamese fell back and surrounded the Recon Marines, who called for assistance. Both air and the artillery battery attached to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines at Phu Loc responded to the request. The fixed-wing aircraft, however, could not "get a fix" on the enemy troops and were unable to assist.20

At that point, about 1930, Lieutenant Colonel Robert P. Whalen, the 1st Battalion commander, sent his Company B to relieve the Recon team. As the relieving company approached the ambush site, they heard Vietnamese voices, movement, and someone threw a grenade at them. In return, the Marines hurled grenades of their own and then moved in where they had heard the commotion. The enemy was no longer there, and the Marine company advanced cautiously. Lieutenant Colonel Whalen asked Colonel Bohn, the 5th Marines commander, for reinforcements so as not to uncover his defenses at Phu Loc itself.21

At the direction of Colonel Bohn, Lieutenant Colonel Ernest C. Cheatham,Jr., the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines commander, who had just established his command post on the Cao Dai Peninsula, sent his Company F to reinforce the 1st Battalion. Captain Michael P. Downs, the Company F commander, later recalled that the North Vietnamese ambushed his company as it moved into the 1st Battalion sector. Approximately around 2300, on the 30th, about 1,000 meters southeast of the Cao Dai Peninsula along Route 1, enemy troops opened up on the Marine com-

*See Chapter 6 for the establishment of Task Force X-Ray at Phu Bai.

** Batcheller related that the platoon leader at the division leadership school was there "as a student, although already nominated for a Silver Star! . . . Battalion could not refuse to fill a Division quota." Col Gordon D. Batcheller, Comments on draft, dtd 10Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Batcheller Comments.

*** It is not clear that the 1st Marines planned to assign a company
permanently to the LCU Ramp. According to the Task Force X-Ray operating
orders, the 1st Marines had the responsibility to ensure the security
for road convoys enroute from Phu Bai to the LCU Ramp. It is probable
that Company A was to be assigned to road convoy security to the LCU
Ramp. See TF X-Ray OpO, dtd 26Jan68, End, 1st Mar ComdC, Jan68.

Page 169 (1968: The Defining Year)