Page 318

Page 318 (1968: The Defining Year)

Route 9, halfway between Khe Sanh and Lang Vei on 17 May, Company
H, 2d Battalion, 1st Marines spotted five enemy soldiers and gave chase.
The five led the company into an ambush where an NVA company lay in
bunkers firing from close range and shouting, "Die Marine!" Company
H withdrew slightly, called in artillery and air strikes, then assaulted
and overran the bunkers. The Marines lost 6 dead and 8 wounded in the
ambush, and counted 52 dead North Vietnamese.30

From 17 to 19 May, two kilometers north of Company H's engagement on Route 9, elements of the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines patrolled the ridge between Hill 552 and Hill 689. A dominant terrain feature overlooking the combat base, the ridge had been occupied or patrolled by U.S. forces regularly since the early part of Operation Pegasus. The 3d Battalion, 4th Marines encountered, nonetheless, several NVA units there, killing a total of 84 enemy and capturing 5 others in a three-day period.31

An even bigger fight was yet to come. During the night of 18-19 May, the enemy moved a battalion to within two kilometers of the combat base. At about 0400, an enemy platoon attacked Company H, 2d Battalion, 3d Marines southeast of Khe Sanh along Route 9. Assaulting from all sides with heavy small arms fire, grenades, satchel charges, and RPGs, the North Vietnamese killed three Marines and wounded three others before retiring. They left behind eight dead. Almost simultaneously, an enemy company, using 60mm mortar support, probed Company I, 3d Battalion, 4th Marines on Hill 552. After a short fight, the Marines heard the North Vietnamese digging in. Exchanges of fire continued through the night. In the morning, the Marines assaulted the nearby enemy, driving them from their positions with 42 dead and 4 taken prisoner. Four Marines suffered wounds.32

At 0710, 19 May, while Company I was still fighting near Hill 552, a platoon of Company F, 2d Battalion, 1st Marines and two tanks headed south from Khe Sanh along the coffee plantation road, sweeping ahead of a convoy bound for Ca Lu. About 300 meters from the road's intersection with Route 9, the Marines triggered an NVA ambush at a range of 25 meters. An enemy company, dug in, forced the Marines to take cover under a storm of automatic weapons fire, RPGs, and grenades. The Marines attempted an assault, but the enemy repulsed them, adding a heavy barrage of mortars to the Marines' discomfort. The rest of Company F, waiting at the combat base with the convoy, immediately reinforced the endangered platoon, then assaulted with the entire company. The Communists not only threw back the Marines a second time, but even left their own positions to counterattack. This time, it was Company F's turn to hold fast, and the Marines repulsed the enemy assault. Lieutenant Colonel Billy R. Duncan, the battalion commander, recalled that by this time he had arrived at the scene with a small command group. The company commander, however, had been mortally wounded and "contact during the next hour was mixed with serious probes by both sides."33

Company G advanced south along the road to join the fight, killing three North Vietnamese who had sneaked to the rear of Company F. After the two companies linked up, Lieutenant Colonel Duncan asked for napalm air strikes. According to Duncan, the enemy was anywhere between 35 to 50 yards distant from the Marine positions and too close for artillery support, therefore the call for napalm. While some of the Marines accidentally also were covered by napalm jelly, the fixed-wing strikes broke the enemy "will to stay and fight."34 As the enemy retreated. Company E, 2d Battalion, 3d Marines struck the NVA from the flank. With the ambush site cleared, the rest of the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines went to the field and searched the area south-southwest of the combat base trying to regain contact until 22 May, but met only minor resistance. During the operation, 8 Marines died, including the commanders of Companies F and G, and 34 fell wounded. The battalion captured 3 North Vietnamese and reported killing 113, of whom 69 were found in the ambush site.35

The enemy troops killed and captured by the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines
were described as "clean, well dressed, and neatly groomed."36
According to Lieutenant Colonel Duncan, one of the prisoners stated
the enemy mission was to "stop all movement along Route 9."37
This did not match the depiction of the enemy forces in the Khe Sanh
area as defeated and on the run. Coupled with the extraordinary surge
in North Vietnamese offensive operations, such reports prompted the
1st Marines to warn of "a high probability of a division-size attack
on the Khe Sanh Combat Base or one of the outlying units."38
According to a rallier, Private (who claimed to be a former Warrant
Officer) Vo Manh Hung, the NVA 308th Division had arrived in
northwestern Quang Tri Province with its 88th and 102d
. The 308th Division was one of the five so-called
"Steel Divisions" of the North Vietnamese Army which could only be committed
by the Joint Military Staff. Claiming that the 308th had been
committed because "the war is going to end," Hung told intelli-

Page 318 (1968: The Defining Year)