Recollections of Auburn
I've made two visits to the Vietnam Wall, but I've never had the strength to locate and touch all the names I call the Auburn Marines. Henry Morgan. Salome Hernandez. Ernesto Tarrango. John Corr. My quota is about four names before a lump seizes my throat and hot, stinging tears fill my eyes. I remember their living faces. I also remember either seeing them die or get hit on December 28, 1967, on Operation Auburn, a nightmarish day for Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, Third Marines in a hellhole called Go Noi Island.
I was a USMC correspondent attached to the 3rd Battalion, Fifth Marines. I had been on an operation two weeks before with Echo Co. and wanted to make the initial helicopter assault with them on Auburn. However, our correspondents' team leader thought it would be better to go out with the command group and then move to whichever company encountered the most resistance. After all, the Marines were supposed to be blocking for the ARVNs and Mike and India Companies from 3/5 were also on the operation.
Shortly after landing with the Command Group headed by 3/5 CO. Lt. Col. William Rockey, we all came under heavy fire. A radio operator shouted that Echo had already sustained 9 KIAs and 5 WIAs. Minutes later, a Marine came upon the Command Group out of breath and yelling Echo needed help. Several of us followed him about 250 meters from our position. In a small, clearing several bodies lay covered with ponchos and poncho liners. There was withering fire hitting the area. Several of us managed to drag bodies and wounded back to what was to be an LZ. I think I made about four more trips, each time carrying battle dressings and helping to carry back casualties. Just before my last trip back to Echo's position, I realized that of 11 loaded M-16 magazines I had started with, I had half a magazine left. I took some clips from the bandoleer of a casualty and, with some other Marines, crawled and scooted low back to Echo company. By then Echo had begun to consolidate its position. Capt. Ivan Cahill, the CO and an Australian officer with the Marines, was moving about the area. I was impressed with his coolness. As another man and I attempted to put a wounded man on a poncho, we were hit by a burst of AK-47 fire. I received a flesh wound in the back, the other Marine sustained a shattered femur and was in intense pain.
I recall firing two magazines in the direction of the enemy position and we puled back. Just then, I noiced a platoon from India 3/5 moving up. Lt. John Corr, the platoon commander, was a good-looking athletic type who once kidded me about using magazine pouches to keep my film. Someone asked "Where's Echo Company?' Someone replied, "This is it, man. This is all that's left.''
While the India platoon laid down a base of fire, we managed to get the casualties back to the LZ. Still, the enemy fire was so intense, they couldn't bring in choppers. I remember lying next to Tarango, who had a serious abdominal wound. He was alive and we kept talking to him. Later, I learned he had died.
They brought in at least two CH-46s which lifted off loaded with wounded. We must have overwhelmed the triage staff at the NSA hospital in Da Nang, which sent Doc Joe "Hoagie" Brassell, Larry Grant, Stockard, Ayres, Ron Hodge and myself to the USS Sanctuary. I spent 23 days on the ship recovering. Each day we talked about what had happened, but the overall picture was obscured. By the time I got off the ship, the Tet Offense was starting and other matters interfered with attempts to learn more about Auburn. I guess the Auburn experience gained me a certain affinity with Echo Co. I was on two more operations with them, including Operation Ford where I got a second Purple Heart.
Later I was able to learn what had happened. It wasn't intended for Echo to walk into a U-shaped ambush and suffered 17 KIA and numerous WIA. The plan was for Indian and Mike to land and hook up with Echo. Instead, enemy fire was so strong that the other companies had to land further west of Echo's position. Overall, I think the higher-ups underestimated the enemy's strength, which had to have been at least a battalion. The NVA and Main Force VC also had plenty of time to fortify the area, judging by the heavy-machinegun firing pits and punji stakes that awaited us.
Maybe if we had had enough choppers to drop off all three companies at once, the slaughter could have been avoided.
Unfortunately, it's the reality we have to live with. For years I had survivors' guilt. Why did I survive? I still remember the dead, blood dripping through ponchos as we carried them back. I'll never forget one Marine, his right arm and shoulder torn by shrapnel, asking for a .45 so he could fire with his left hand and keep fighting. I often wonder what some of the KIA's could have become. Teachers, mechanics, carpenters or just people who would be loved by others.
Earl, Thank you so much for your recollections of Operation Auburn.
I wasn't on Auburn but I've been told that the Operation was a hammer and anvil operation whereas Echo Company was to be the anvil and two Marine Companies and a South Vietnamese unit were to be the hammer.
I personally see two things wrong here, First of all the South Vietnamese should not have been told what they were going to do until they were air borne. It sounds to me as if the operation was compromised. Echo Company was to be the blocking force. They were helolifted into a hot LZ where the NVA lay in wait. The NVA had fortified, set out anti chopper punji stakes, dug in, established fields of fire and was very well camouflaged. The only ingredient needed was Marines.
Secondly, If the unit was to move overland to a blocking force position a certain amount of stealth would be required. On the other hand if the unit was to be helolifted in the element of surprise would be lost once the choppers started to come in.......My question is this: Why not prep the LZ and bring in the helocopters right in behind the prep fires?
The Commander is responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen.
Major Jim Cannon