FIRST COMBAT
by Col. R. D. Camp, Jr. with Eric Hammel

Copyright © 1989 by R. D. Camp, Jr. and Eric Hammel



Leatherneck Square, Vietnam, August 21, 1967


Captain Dick Camp, a professional Marine, had taken command of Lima Company, 3d Battaion, 26th Marine Regiment, in the field near Khe Sanh at the end of June 1967. Through July and the first half of August, the company had patrolled extensively around Khe Sanh and escorted convoys to the highlands base from supply dumps near the coast. In mid-August, Lima and another company of the battalion were temporarily transferred to the 9th Marine Regiment to take part in sweep opertions in the Leatherneck Square area around Con Thien, just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). On August 20, the other company returned to Khe Sanh and Lima Company was attached to the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (2/9).

It was late in the afternoon, August 20, and 2/9 was moving along a trail in the area immediately north of the sector in which our half of 3/26 had been operating the week before. I was starting to get anxious because I didn't know the people from 2/9 and I didn't like the way they operated.

As we moved along the trail and were pulling up over a hill, there was a terrific explosion behind me. The whole column stopped as I thought, "Oh damn. I wonder what the hell's happened this time." I worked my way back in the column to discover that an Ontos we had with us was blown all to hell. An Ontos was an ungainly tracked fighting vehicle mounting six external 106mm recoilless rifles. It was not armored at all. In fact, a .50-caliber round could go right through it. As far as I knew, bad things always happened to Ontos and the men around them.

It looked like our Ontos had been the victim of a command-detonated mine, which usually amounted to a dud 500-pound bomb dropped by our side and salvaged by the other side for use against tanks, Ontos, and amtracs. This mine--thankfully something lighter than a 500-pound bomb--had gone off beneath the Ontos and sheared the track, driving wheels, and all three recoilless rifles off one side. When I arrived, the three crewmen were sitting on the ground beside the trail, dazed but unhurt. Everyone else was just standing around.

It was starting to get dark and we were still on the road. I was getting concerned and the troops were, too. Finally, as we moved up and over the hill, the battalion command post me to move in on the right side of the road and form a perimeter. As we got in, I saw that there was a large open area right behind us.

Fortunately, I had an SOP worked out so we could form a perimeter in the order of march. The lead platoon moved first, straight into the nearest designated position, followed to the right by the middle platoon, and then by the rear platoon. As soon as we got the word from Battalion, I called the platoon commanders back and verbally sketched it in for them. They each said, "Right," and we literally started running the troops in so we could dig in before the sun set.

I checked in with the platoon commanders, each of whom escorted me as fast as we could walk around his platoon's section of the line. As we went, I checked the position of each fighting hole and particularly the field of fire of every M-60 machine gun. I tightened up here and there, but the platoon commanders had known me from my first day with Lima Company, and they had trained their troops in my ways. It took only a few minutes to check the entire company and make sure we were tied in with the companies on our left and right flanks.

After dark, as my troops were settling in, without telling me, Battalion sent its 81mm mortar platoon right into our company position. It was full dark by then, but the mortar platoon walked in on us with flashlights on and portable radios blaring. I was really upset, so I walked back to the 81mm platoon commander and said, "If you don't knock that bullshit off, I'm going to shoot you myself."

I hated being with 2/9. I had not been favorably impressed from the first day we had operated with their Echo Company a week earlier, I was not impressed with the battalion commander, I was not impressed with how late we had started setting in for the night, and I definitely was not impressed with the 81mm platoon's sense of noise and light discipline. Fortunately, and despite sleepless hours of concern, we spent an uneventful night. Nothing happened.

At stand to the next morning, August 21, the battalion CP gave me the word that Lima Company was going to move out on an independent company-size sweep. I didn't want to be around 2/9 and I was used to operating on my own. I couldn't have been happier.
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Bright and early, Lima Company found itself moving along a ridgeline through a dense bamboo thicket that channelized us on the only trail. The bamboo was so thick that we had to stay on the trail to get through it. Unbeknownst to me as we moved along the little ridge--it was only 14 or 15 feet high--the point bent around a little bit too far to the right and started down off the ridgeline toward an open area, a complex of rice paddies.

As the first four or five men of the lead element approached the nearest rice paddy, they took several sniper rounds. As soon as I heard the pop of the sniper rounds, I got on the radio to the lead platoon commander, the 3rd Platoon's Gunnery Sergeant Juan Almanza. "Okay, Gunny, what's going on, what's going on?" I knew that he was already trying to find out from his vanguard squad, but I wanted news as soon as possible.

We had all of four or five scattered sniper rounds, but that was good enough. They stopped the point and the point stopped the whole column on the ridgeline inside the bamboo. We main body of the company never got out in the open, probably had not been seen.

When Gunny Almanza confirmed that the point had been fired on, I said, "Okay, hold your position. I'll come forward." I worked my way through the troops angling down the slope. As I neared the point, I saw the rice paddies for the first time. Beyond them, directly across from us, was another low hill. Another low hill was to our rear.

I called the rear platoon and told Little John (2nd Lieutenant John Prince, the 2nd Platoon commander), "Move back along the trail, hook a left, and see what you can see along the ridgeline to our rear. We'll look around down here."

Little John's platoon backtracked, as ordered, and Little John eventually came up on the net with his report. He had worked to the left and had located a bunker complex. That made me extremely nervous. The main body of the company was on the side of a hill. To our right rear was another ridgeline with a bunker complex. Out ahead was an open area of rice paddies. There were snipers out there, probably on the ridge beyond the open area. Lima Company was in a box. There was no way out.

Normally, Lima Company would have rated a forward air controller (FAC), a fully qualified naval aviator, a pilot ranked lieutenant or even captain. This time out, however, we had no FAC. There weren't enough in 2/9 to go around. What we had was a tactical air-control party (TACP) operator, Private First Class Terry Smith, who was trained primarily to guide resupply and medevac helicopters. As I pondered my options, Terry came up beside me and said in a very calm, collected voice,"Skipper, how'd you like some air?" I said, "I'd love some air." I didn't know it then, but Terry had never actually run a tactical air strike. He had been cross trained to call in jets, but he had never really done so.

Terry got on the tac air frequency and called for any aviator to respond. Fortunately, there was a Bird Dog--a light observation plane with an aerial observer aboard--in the area, and he responded to Terry's first call. He said he was right over us and that he had some fast movers--jets--standing by. Terry told him that we had received some scattered sniper fire from our front and gave him an azimuth. I switched over to the tac-air frequency and added, "I'll fire my mortar section on the rice paddy if you'll make sure the ridges are fairly well clear."

The aerial observer (AO) flew around our flanks and reported that he could not see anything on the hills. Meantime, I ordered the mortar section to deploy and gave the section leader an azimuth to fire on. After he eyeballed the range and said the guns were ready, I told him I would spot for him.

We threw several rounds into the far edge of the open area and the AO came right up on the air in a jubilant voice, "My God, you just blew a couple of them into the trees!" I immediately shouted back to the mortars, "Let 'em have it. You just blew some NVA into a tree!" That was all those gunners needed to hear. They went into automatic overdrive. They were throwing mortar rounds down the tubes as fast as they could. They were really going through their supply of mortar rounds, no doubt encouraged by the ammo humpers' desire to lighten loads.

The AO kept reporting, "My God, you're right on target. I can see them running. They look like they're ants scurrying from a broken nest. You just blew a couple more of 'em into the trees." Then he added, "I'm gonna get some air on this."

Not five minutes after the AO called for fast movers, Lima Company had ringside seats for the greatest air show any of us probably had ever seen. The AO was bringing in flight after flight of fixed wing. They were using napalm and 500-pounders. They really dusted off that hill. They worked it over for twenty or thirty minutes without let-up.

During the whole thing, I kept updating Battalion. The CO was really into it, but when I said, "I want to go up on the hill," he replied, "No, no, no! Wait a little while longer. Bring in some artillery." So we waited a little while longer and called in some artillery. When I reported that the artillery had really dusted the hill off again, the CO said, "Okay. "I'm sending up two tanks. Wait for them, then go take the hill."

The tanks worked their way up to us and, as soon as they arrived, I started Lima Company moving out to the edge of the near rice paddy and on toward the hill, which was to our right front as we walked, about 250 meters away. The company was in the open, well spread out, but we didn't take any fire. As we started up the hill, we entered the bamboo again. It was so thick we had to stop and wait for the tanks to knock down a pair of trails we could walk along. I didn't like having the company forming up in two columns behind the tanks, but there was no other way for us to plow through that really thick vegetation. Talk about tunnel vision: Except for what we could see ahead, past the tanks, we were completely hemmed in by the bamboo.

Suddenly, the tank that I was following fired its 90mm main gun. That really rang our chimes. I was on the phone attached to the tank's rear fender, yelling to hear myself over the ringing in my ears, "What the hell did you do that for? What are you doing?" The tank commander told me that the tank had just broken through onto an unseen trail when the gunner had spotted a North Vietnamese RPG team just in time to push the firing button on the 90mm. After I acknowledged, the tank commander added, with considerable glee, "We just dusted them off. There's just a spray of blood and guts where those guys were."

The tank started up again and we followed it the rest of the way up the hill, which had really been blasted. Napalm had burned off most of the growth and there were deep bomb craters everywhere. We couldn't find anything, but we could smell death. We couldn't find a sign of any NVA or their positions. I had no idea what the AO had seen, but I could smell death.

As the platoons set in and continued to search the hill, my company radioman, Corporal David Johnson, sat down at the edge of a huge bomb crater and took off his radio. I went over to join him, but as I approached I smelled something terrible. "Goddamn, John, there's something dead around here somewhere." He said, "I know, sir, I can smell it, I can smell it." He stood up and looked around. Right where he had been sitting was a big chunk of meat that had obviously come from a body of a North Vietnamese soldier. Johnson had been sitting right on it. Grease from that chunk of meat had penetrated into his trousers and he smelled to high heaven.

As soon as I realized what had happened, I said, "Get away! Just get the hell away!" And he was muttering, "Oh, my God! Oh damn! My utilities!"

Little John's 2nd Platoon started moving off the top of the hill, toward a little shoulder to the left of our former line of march. Down the back side of the hill, the Marines started hitting ground that hadn't been burned off or bombed. A Marine suddenly yelled, "Hey, I got some bunkers over here." And a few other people said the same thing. One of the Marines, Private First Class David Francis, stuttered every time he got excited. As the other Marines were yelling about the bunkers, I heard Francis yell even louder, "I-I-I-I s-s-s-see th-th-th-them! I s-s-s-s-see th-th-them!" He no sooner got that out than a terrific burst of fire came in on us. It sounded like on the rifle range, when everybody shoots at his target at once. Everybody went to ground--except me.

There I was, kneeling on the ground beside the command radio. I was just kneeling there like an idiot when it dawned on me: This was the very first time I had ever been shot at. The troops--even the green ones--were a little smarter than me. They were all on their bellies by the time my little pea brain was thinking, "Hey, they're shooting at me." Like a broken record, my mind was stopped on that one central fact, "They're shooting at me. They're shooting at me!" Leaves and twigs knocked loose from a tree were falling down on my head.

As I realized what was going on, I started getting lower and lower. Finally, I was down on my stomach. By then, if I could have cut the buttons off my shirt to get any lower, I would have.

My two radiomen, Johnson and Sergeant Donald Vogt, were in the bomb crater behind me. They had been yelling from the moment the first shots were fired, but it took awhile for me to realize that they were yelling at me: "Skipper, come here, come here. Get in this bomb crater." So, I crawled backward and jumped into the bomb crater beside them. As I focused on wider vistas, I heard how much shooting was going on, how much yelling and screaming there was. Machine guns are going off, and dozens of rifles. It was mass confusion. As I recomposed myself and tried to figure out how to respond, I realized that I could not begin to decipher all the sounds and voices.

I jumped into the bottom of the bomb crater. As soon as I did, a bullet plunked in beside me. Obviously, it had come from somewhere up in the treetops. As I was articulating the thought in my mind, an M-60 gunner crawled up to the edge of the crater, got up on one knee, looked in, and announced, "There's one! In that tree!"

With that, the M-60 gunner stood up on both knees, put the weapon into his shoulder, and started firing. From my place at the bottom of the crater, I could see chunks flying off of a palm tree about fifty or sixty meters away. The M-60 gunner sprayed forty or fifty rounds into the palm tree and then stopped. He looked down, right at me, and said, "I think I still see him." Then he blasted the tree again with another fifty rounds. I called up, "Jesus Christ, if that NVA is still alive after that, don't shoot at him again. You're just gonna get him mad." The M-60 gunner looked down at me again and said, "Oh, yessir." Then he crawled off.

I was still trying to get a handle on the situation when, above the sound of many M-16s and a few M-60s, I heard someone nearby yelling threats. I climbed back up to the lip of the crater and saw our senior corpsman, LarryBratton, beating a Marine on the chest, swearing as loud as he could, "Goddammit, you're not gonna die! Dammit, you son of a bitch, breathe! Breathe!"

As the firing died down--it was all ours by then--I found another Marine lying on his rifle in another bomb crater. He was sort of kneeling at the edge of the crater, with his arms and hands in a firing position on his rifle, but his head was leaning against the rifle on the ground. I said, "Are you all right, Marine?" I took him by the shoulder and pulled him back. It was Private First Class Francis, the stutterer. His eyes and mouth were wide open, but a second look revealed that he had been hit right in the back of the head. He was dead. He was the first dead Marine I had ever seen.

I called one of the corpsmen over to take care of Francis and then I went over to see how Doc Bratton was doing with the wounded man. Doc was beating on the man's chest to try to keep his heart going. I saw that the Marine was one of my squad leaders, Corporal Pat Cochran, formerly a semi-professional football player, a handsome six-footer with enormous, wide shoulders. Cochran had taken a round in the initial burst of enemy fire that sort of creased his scalp. Doc Bratton was standing right next to him when Cochran turned to him and said, "Doc, I'm hit." Bratton said, "Right," and reached down to pick up his aid bag. By the time the doc straightened back up, Cochran had been hit again--right in the head. The second round had penetrated Cochran's skull and gone right into his brain. He was clinically dead, but his body functions were still going on, so Doc Bratton was trying to keep him alive.

Though the firing was dying off, Lima Company was still beset by enormous confusion. Staff Sergeant Marvin Bailey, the company gunny, was yelling for stretcher bearers and Sergeant Vogt was starting to call casualty information to the battalion CP. The CP said it was trying to lay on a helicopter for emergency medevac. Then the NVA started shooting again and all the Marines on one side of the hill returned the fire. There was an enormous amount of confusion. The battalion commander kept calling, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I was trying to get reports from the platoon commanders, but I couldn't quite make sense of the confusion, so I couldn't relate much to the CO.

Suddenly, I realized that we were the only ones shooting. So did a bunch of other people. I yelled, "Cease fire! Cease fire!" and, pretty soon, everyone was yelling, "Cease fire! Cease fire!"

As the last rounds were fired, Little John came up to me to report. There were tears rolling right down his face. I said, "What's the matter, John? What's the matter?" He told me he had been advancing toward the sound of the original gunfire, his radioman in tow, when an NVA soldier had jumped right up in front of him and shot the radioman. Little John had had a clear shot at the NVA, but his rifle had jammed. He still was so angry that tears were rolling uncontrollably out of his eyes.

The helicopters started coming in for the casualties, who were being staged beside the big burned-out area on top of the hill. The litter teams Gunny Bailey had organized were really sweating. It takes six or seven men to lift a makeshift poncho litter. We got the two serious WIAs on the first helo and Cochran and Francis waited for the second. Two other Marines who were lightly wounded opted to stay with the company.

I looked up briefly from a conversation with a platoon commander and spotted the 2/9 CO just as he was walking up. He must have come out on one of the medevac helos. "Hey, Captain," he said as he arrived at my side, "what's going on?" I tried to explain what I knew, which apparently satisfied him because, after hearing me out, he ordered, "Okay, I want you to continue on in this general direction." I acknowledged the order and he left the hill aboard the second helo.

By the time we reorganized the company and got going again, it was the middle of the afternoon. I was getting worried about having to set in again after dark, but the battalion commander's order to track down the fleeing NVA had been firm. Nevertheless, just as the point pushed off the hilltop and started along the ridgeline bordering another rice paddy to our right, the battalion CO ordered us to come back, because it was getting too late in the day to be pushing our way across hostile territory. He got no argument from me.