(1968: The Defining Year)
later awarded the Medal of Honor for both his actions here and on 31 January.24
After securing the school, Smith's Company A maneuvered to the sanctuary
which lay among a grove of trees and houses. Gravel wistfully recalled
that it was 'a beautiful, beautiful, church.' As the troops advanced
upon the building, the NVA threw down grenades, killing or wounding
several Marines. According ro the battalion commander, 'They [the enemy
soldiers] were up in the eaves, the wooden overhead; and they were in
there and we couldn't get them our.' Reluctantly, Gravel gave the order
to fire upon the church. Marine mortars and 106mm recoilless rifles
pounded the building. In the ruins, the battalion found two European
priests, one Belgian and one French, both unhurt, but according to Gravel,
'absolutely livid,' that the Marines had bombarded the building. Believing
he had little choice in his decision, Gravel thought the clerics in
their dark clothing were fortunate to escape with their lives as the
troops were 'braced' to shoot at anyone in a black uniform.25
At 0700 on 4 February, Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham's companies renewed
the attempt to take the public buildings across from the University.
Captain Christmas' Company H blasted its way through walls and courtyards
with 3.5-inch rockets, employing squad and fire team rushes, and captured
the public health building. From there, the company was in position
to support Company F's assault upon the treasury building.
Captain Christmas recounted that his company employed the 106mm recoilless
rifles to cover its movements. At first, the Marines attempted to use
smoke grenades, but the NVA clearly saw through this tactic. As if on
signal, 'everything that was on our flank just opened up on that street.'
To counter the enemy ploy, the Marines would 'pop smoke' to ascertain
the enemy machine gun position or positions and then 'here would come
a mule-mounted* 106 and those Marines would wheel that thing out. Go
through the full drill. . . crank off' a .50-caliber spotting round
and then the 106mm round. The backblast of the 106 raised a cloud of
dirt and the recoilless rifle shell forced the enemy troops to keep
their heads down. Taking advantage of the opportunity and the dust cover,
the Marine infantry dashed across the street. Christmas then explained,
'once we got across that street. . . that first lead element could direct
its fire back toward that automatic weapon [or weapons].'26
*The mechanical mule was a small flatbed four-wheeled drive vehicle which often was used to carry a 106mm recoilless rifle.
Department of Defense (USMC) Phoco A 190301
Top, A Marine from Company A, 1st Battalion. 1st
Marines, armed with a M16 and with two LAAWs (light antiarmor weapons)
strapped to his back, runs for cover. A Marine 106mm recoilless rifle
on a trident can be seen in the gateway to the house in the background.
Below, the ruined interior of the St. Joan of Arc Church appears after
its capture by the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. LtCol Marcus J. Gravel,
the battalion commander, reluctantly gave the order to fire upon the
sanctuary, remarking that it was a 'beautiful, beautiful church.'
Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A190474