The DMZ War Continues, Operation Prairie
Reconnaissance in Force, 3 August-13 September 1966—Assault from the Sea, Deckhouse
IV— The Continued Fighting for Nui Cay Tre (Mutter) Ridge and the Razorback — The Opening of Khe Sanh and the 3d Marine Division Moves North
Reconnaissance in Force, 3 Aug-13 Sep 66
Enemy intentions in the DMZ area remained a matter of conjecture during the latter stages of Operation Hastings. On 22 July, Lieutenant General Krulak stated his opinion to General Westmoreland that the North Vietnamese were attempting to avoid direct contact with the Marines. Westmoreland replied that "just the reverse was the case and that the NVA forces were not seeking to get away." The MACV commander believed that III MAF could expect to encounter large numbers of the NVA and that elements of the 324B Division, although bloodied, were still south of the DMZ. Furthermore, he had received reports indicating that the North Vietnamese were moving two more divisions, the 3 04th and 341st, into the area immediately north of the DMZ. Marine commanders recognized a buildup of enemy forces in the DMZ, but took exception to terms such as "massive buildup," "go for broke," "significant serious threats," and similar expressions contained in messages originating from Westmoreland's Saigon headquarters. Although MACV, FMFPac, and III MAF used identical intelligence data, they continued to interpret it differently.'
After the closeout of Hastings on 3 August, the Marine command retained a small task force, formed around Lieutenant Colonel Bench's 2d Battalion, 4th Marines at Dong Ha, to monitor the potential threat in the north. Bench's command consisted of his four infantry companies, supported by the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company and Battery G, 3d Battalion, 12th Marines, reinforced by two 15 5mm howitzers. Also attached to the 2d Battalion were a platoon each from the 3d Tank Battalion, the 3d Antitank Battalion, the 3d Engineer Battalion, and a logistic unit from the Force Logistic Command. The battalion CP was established at the Dong Ha air strip, but the attached artillery and tanks were at Cam Lo; two infantry companies, F and G, provided security for the artillery positions. Two helicopter detachments, one from MAG- 16 and the other from the U.S. Army 220th Aviation Company, were at Dong Ha to support the ground force.
The Marine plan for the operation, codenamed Prairie, to determine the extent of NVA forces in the DMZ sector relied heavily upon the reports of Major Colby's reconnaissance Marines. UH- lEs from VMO-2 were to insert four- or five-man "Stingray" teams along suspected enemy avenues of approach. If the reconnaissance teams made contact with any NVA, they could call for artillery from Cam Lo, helicopter gunships, or Marine. aircraft from Da Nang or Chu Lai. The infantry companies at Cam Lo and Dong Ha were poised to reinforce the recon naissance patrols. Colonel Cereghino, the 4th Marines commander, held two battalions on eight- hour alert at Phu Bai to move to Dong Ha in the event of major enemy infiltration from the DMZ.
The first significant encounter during Prairie involved a Stingray patrol. On 6 August, a UH-1E inserted a five-man team in a jungle-covered hill mass 4,000 meters north of the Rockpile, approximately 1,000 meters to the southeast of the Nui Cay Tre ridgeline. The team, codenamed Groucho Marx, reported that it saw NVA troops moving along the trails and could smell smoke from enemy camp sites. The patrol twice called for the artillery at Cam Lo to fire on the suspected locations. On the morning of the 8th, the Marines saw 10 to 15 North Vietnamese troops moving in skirmish line 100 meters away, apparently looking for the American patrol. The team leader, Staff Sergeant Billy M. Donaldson, radioed Major Colby and reported the situation. Colby sent a pair of gunships to cover the patrol and then asked "if they thought we could get some prisoners out of there if I sent in a reaction force. They said affirmative and that there was a landing zone within 150 meters of them."
Shortly afertward, six HMM-265 CH-46s landed in the zone, debarking a 40-man Marine platoon from Company E led by Second Lieutenant Andrew W. Sherman. By the time Sherman's platoon reach ed the reconnaissance team's perimeter, the enemy had disappeared. After a short, futile search for the North Vietnamese, Sherman asked for helicopters to lift the Marines out of the area.
In mid afrernoon, eight UH-34s from HMM-161 arrived overhead to extract the Marines. The first helicopter landed in the improvised landing zone without incident, but when it took off, North Vietnamese troops opened fire from a ridgeline to the north. Five UH-34s landed, but were able to evacuate only 20 of the 45 Marines because of the heavy fire. Lieutenant Sherman waved off the rest of the helicopters and set up a defensive perimeter.
At this point, the enemy,, in company strength, tried to assault the Marine. position. The American defenders turned them back with hand grenades and small arms fire, but Sherman was killed. His platoon sergeant, Sergeant Robert L. Pace, took command, but was wounded during the next NVA assault and command passed to Staff Sergeant Donaldson.
Surrounded, the small Marine force called for sup porting arms. The 155s at Cam Lo responded immediately and at 1830, F-4B Phantoms from MAG- 11 arrived overhead and stopped one NVA assault. Sergeant Donaldson was severely wounded during the last attack.
At Dong Ha, the Company E commander, Captain Howard V. Lee, asked Lieutenant Colonel Bench for permission to take a relief force into the battle area to evacuate the Marines. The battalion commander finally acceded to Lee's entreaties and the captain gathered together seven volunteers besides himself. Three HMM-161 UH-34s flew the relief force to the battle site, but enemy fire forced the helicopters to land outside the Marine perimeter. Only three of the volunteers, including Lee, were able to reach the defenders. A VMO-2 UH-1E, piloted by Major Vincil W. Hazelbaker, evacuated the remaining Marines from the aborted relief expedition and flew them back to Dong Ha. Upon ar riving in the shrinking Marine perimeter, Captain Lee immediately took command, reorganized the defenses, and supervised the distribution of ammunition which the helicopters had dropped inside the position.'
The enemy continued to close in on the Marines, and, at the same time, prevented any more helicopters from landing. NVA ground fire drove off two HMM-265 CH-46s carrying additional Company E .troops and hit one UH- lE gunship killing a crew member and wounding another. The Marine defenders repulsed repeated assaults on their positions, but their situation deteriorated. At 2030, Lee radioed Bench that he had only 16 men still able to fight. The company commander, himself, had been wounded twice, a slight nick on the ear when he first debarked from the helicopter and later severely, when an "NVA grenade. . . exploded no more than two feet" from him, "sending fragments into the right eye and the right side of his body."
Lieutenant Colonel Bench provided what support he could. He ordered all available artillery, firing at maximum range, including a section of 81mm mortars from the Marine outpost on the Rockpile, to hit the enemy-held hill mass north of Lee's perimeter. The 105 battery was out of range and Bench ordered it and a section of M-48 tanks to displace so that at first light they would be able to support the surrounded Marines.
Although Marine high performance close air sup port was called off because of darkness and low ceiling, VMO-2 UH- lE gunships made numerous rocket and strafing runs on enemy positions. A Marine C- 117 flare ship arrived to provide illumination, but each lull between flare drops allowed the enemy to move closer. Later that night, two Air Force AC-47s arrived and strafed the hill slopes outside the Marine perimeter.
Several helicopters from MAG- 16 made repeated resupply attempts. Major Hazelbaker, when he evacuated the stranded Marines outside the perimeter, was able to get in close enough to the defenders' positions for his crew to push out several boxes of 7.62mm linked ammunition. Enemy fire, however, aborted all other such attempts. Shortly before midnight, Lee reported that his troops were almost out of ammunition. Hazelbaker volunteered to fly another resupply mission and successfully landed his aircraft inside the Marine defenses.
While the UH- lE was on the ground and the troops and crew were unloading the ammunition, an enemy rocket "impacted on the rotor mast," crippling the helicopter. After helping two wounded crewmen out of the damaged craft, Major Hazelbaker and his copilot joined the fight on the ground.
The enemy attack which damaged the Huey was the last major effort against the Marine position. The helicopter crew distributed ammunition and incorporated the helicopter's M-60 machine guns in the defense. Major Hazelbaker and Captain Lee waited for the NVA to make their next move. According to a Navy corpsman in the perimeter:
The rest of the night was quiet.. . You could hear them [the NVA] drag off the bodies. Some would come right up to the brush line and just start talking. Every time we shot at them another grenade would come in. They were trying to feel out our position.
In the early morning hours, Captain Lee, weak from loss of blood, relinquished command to Major Hazelbaker. At dawn, the major directed a Marine napalm strike on the enemy positions; NVA fire completely stopped. Two hours later, Company F and the battalion command group arrived at the Marine-held hill, followed. 'shortly by the rest of Company E. The two units fanned out, but the enemy had left the immediate area.
The Groucho Marx fight was over and the last Marines were lifted out that afternoon. The Marines had lost five killed and 27 wounded. Four of the dead Marines were from Company E, while one was a UH-34 gunner from HMM-161, killed by enemy ground fire. Of the wounded, 15 were from Company E, one from the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company, and the remainder from the MAG- 16 helicopter crews including three pilots. The Marines counted 37 enemy bodies on the slopes of the hill, but bloodstains and drag marks indicated that the enemy had suffered much heavier casualties. The Marines recovered a document from one of the NVA bodies, which indicated that the dead man had been a company commander. For the Groucho Marx action, Captain Lee received the Medal of Honor, while Major Hazelbaker was awarded the Navy Cross.
Prairie was just beginning. The action of 8-9 August convinced Colonel Cereghino, an experienced infantry officer who had served in both World War II and Korea, that the enemy had returned in strength.1O On 13 August, he established a forward command post at Dong Ha and moved Lieutenant Colonel Jack Westerman's 1st Battalion, 4th Marines north from Phu Bai. In addition, the infantry was reinforced by Major Morrow's 3d Battalion, 12th Marines and Captain John H. Gary's Company C, 3d Tank Battalion. Westerman's battalion was to relieve Bench's battalion at Dong Ha and Cam Lo. Colonel Cereghino then ordered Bench to conduct a recon naissance in force along Route 9 between Cam Lo and the Rockpile, followed by a search and destroy mission north of that site. Bench's 2d Battalion, 4th Marines left Cam Lo on 17 August after being relieved by Westerman's unit.
The 2d battalion with three companies, Company H remaining at Cam Lo, departed the base area about 0730 on foot. Marine air and artillery pound ed suspected enemy strong points along the battalion's route of march. At 1215, Marine fixed-wing attack aircraft bombed Hill 252, whose steep cliffs overhung a bridge on Route 9, spanning the Song Khe Gio, a small north-south tributary of the Cam Lo River. After the airstrike, Company F, the lead company, pressed forward, but "was stopped dead at the bridge held by a bunker complex carved out of the sides of Hill 252.
With his lead company unable to move, and his other two companies unable to maneuver to support Company F because of heavy enemy automatic weapons fire and NVA snipers well-hidden in camouflaged "spider traps," Lieutenant Colonel Bench called for artillery and air support. The resulting airstrikes and artillery missions, however, had little effect on the enemy concrete and metal- plated bunkers dug into the solid rock of Hill 252. Bench then requested Colonel Cereghino to rein force his battalion with a section of tanks from the tank company at Cam Lo. The two M-48 tanks from Company C arrived at the Company F forward positions about 1600. After another airstrike, the M-48s with their 90mm guns laid direct fire into the enemy bunker complex. With the assistance of the tanks, the Marine infantry company withdrew to the night defensive positions of the rest of the battalion. Another tank from Company C reinforced the infantry and during the evening of 17 August, Marine air and artillery, as well as the tanks, continued to hit the enemy fortifications. About 1940 an air observer spotted about 40 enemy troops moving off Hill 252 in a southwesterly direction and called an air strike "with good coverage on target." For the day, the Marines sustained casualties of two dead and five wounded, all from Company F, while killing about 20 of the enemy.
On the morning of 18 August, following a further bombardment of the enemy bunkers, Company G forded the Khe Gio south of the bridge and took Hill 252 from the rear, while the rest of the battalion continued its advance along Route 9. The Marines of Company G found in the former enemy fortifications three dead NVA soldiers, a light machine gun, and an inscribed sword. Reinforced by yet another tank section, the 2d Battalion completed its recon naissance of Route 9 that evening, encountering only minor resistance, and established its night defensive positions north of the Rockpile. The tank platoon returned to Cam Lo the following day while the 2d Battalion began its search and destroy mission in the high rugged terrain between the Rockpile and the Nui Cay Tre ridgeline. Although employed in relatively poor tank country, the M-48s had proved effective against an enemy strongpoint which Marine infantry and other supporting units had not been able to neutralize.
For the next six days, the battalion found itself heavily engaged with elements of the 803d NVA Regiment. Lieutenant Colonel Bench had establish ed his command post on a mountain some 2,000 meters northeast of the Rockpile and ordered his three companies "to fan out" and search the prominent terrain features 500 to 1,000 meters to the north, northwest, and northeast. On the 19th, Company E in a reconnaissance of a wooded ridge came across two concrete enemy bunkers. As the Marines maneuvered to reduce the enemy defenses, NVA 12.7mm machine guns on each flank and from the bunkers caught one Marine platoon in a crossfire. At the same time, enemy gunners mortared the company rear which had laid down a base of fire. Despite sustaining casualties of two dead and 14 wounded, the Marine company, supported by the 15 5mm howitzers at Cam Lo, Marine fixed-wing airstrikes, UH-1E gunships, 81mm mortars, and 106mm recoilless rifles, destroyed the enemy defenses and gun positions and killed a possible 30 of the enemy. From the 20th to the 22d, and after a B-52 strike in the valley behind the former enemy positions, the companies of the battalion continued to catch glimpses of enemy troops and occasionally were the targets of enemy mortars and heavy machine guns.
At this time, Lieutenant Colonel Bench became concerned with a new turn of events that threatened the 11-man outpost on the Rockpile. The sheer cliffs of the 700-foot outcropping prevented resupply of the Marines there except by helicopter. Indeed, the Marine pilots had to perform the demanding maneuver of landing one wheel of their helicopter on the edge of the Rockpile while the aircraft hovered until the cargo could be unloaded. On21-22 August, an enemy 12.7mm machine gun, positioned strategically midway between the Rockpile and another hill mass, nicknamed the Razorback because of its sharp contours, 1,000 meters to the northwest, opened fire on the resupply aircraft. Repeated attempts by Marine air and ar tillery failed to silence the gun, which imperiled the helicopter lifeline to the Rockpile. Moreover, on the morning of the 22d, Bench and his command group observed enemy troops at the base of the Rockpile and took them under fire with 106mm recoilless rifles and called an airsrrike. Captain John J. W. Hilgers, who had become the 2d Battalion S-3 earlier that month, recalled in 1978, that he and Bench ~"went. on an air recon and came close to being shot out of the sky by the 12.7 whose position we in advertently flew over and located.
At this point, the morning of the 23d, Bench decided that he had to eliminate the enemy machine gun. He ordered Captain Edward W. Besch, who had relieved Captain Lee as commander of Company E after the action of 9 August, to "conduct a recon naissance in force to locate and neutralize the 12.7 and supporting forces." Captain Hilgers recalled several years later that he briefed Besch and recommended that the company commander establish a base of operations near two "knobs" in the vicinity of the gun where helicopters could get in, but not to "count on their availability Shortly after 1000, Besch departed the battalion CP with his company~ which he later remembered consisted of less than 60 personnel, divided into two platoons of two squads each. About two hours later the Marine company arrived in the general objective area, some two miles to the southwest of its starting point. Besch established his base camp in the valley between the two "knobs," some 300 meters to the east of the southern portion of the Razorback. Fin ding little sign of any enemy in the immediate vicinity, he took three squads of the company to explore the "rock face" of the hill mass. To cover his movements, Besch left in the camp site, under his executive officer, the remaining squad, reinforced by 60mm mortars and a 106mm recoilless rifle which had been brought in by helicopter earlier in the day.
About 1400, Captain Besch with the forward elements of his company came upon a bowl-shaped ravine in the southeastern sector of the Razorback, honeycombed with caves. Besch several years later remembered that some of the "cave passageways were large enough to drive two trucks through, side by side The Marines than began a systematic search of the caves. While encountering no enemy, the Marines found evidence, such as spent 12.7mm machine gun rounds, of recent occupation. With the exploration of the caverns taking him longer than he expected, Besch sent one of the squads back to look for the enemy machine'gun on the low ground below the Razorback. The squad found no gun and returned to the company rear position held by the executive officer. Besch, in the meantime, with the remaining two squads continued to investigate the caves.
Shortly after 1630, Besch made preparations to return to his base camp and close out the operation. A Marine helicopter already had lifted out the 106mm recoilless rifle and flew it back to its former positions with the battalion. About 10 minutes later, the Marines heard voices inside one of the caves. Hoping to take a prisoner, Besch attempted to coax out the NVA soldiers. Besch recalled that three shots rang out from inside the cave and: Within seconds, squads of NVA soldiers simultaneously erupted from five or six concealed caves in the craggy rock wall and immediately shot down the surprised Marine squad near the cave.
The surviving Marines on the Razorback took what cover they could. Besch remembered that he and one of his two radiomen jumped into a bomb crater. Realizing that the other man was dying from a wound in the chest, Besch took the radio set and ask ed for supporting fires from the two squads still in the rear camp site. According to' Besch, he and the small group with him survived only by feigning death.20 Other remnants of his small force were scattered all along the ravine. The second radio operator, separated from Besch, radioed Lieutenant Colonel Bench that the North Vietnamese soldiers were, "real close and closing on their flank, still throwing grenades and firing weapons.
At this point, Lieutenant Colonel Bench, already ,concerned by the lapse of time that Besch had been on the Razorback, hastily prepared his plans for the relief of the embattled company. With Company E's forward positions on the outside fringes of the 155mm fan from Cam Lo, thus making the employment of artillery impractical, the battalion commander immediately requested both fixed-wing and helicopter gunships on station. At the same time, he formed a composite company by taking a platoon each from Companies F and G and his Headquarters and Service Company. His operations officer, Captain Hilgers, volunteered to take charge of the relief force and Bench reluctantly assented since he had no one else to send.
By late evening, Marine helicopters had landed Hilgers' makeshift company, reinforced by two 106mm recoilless rifles, flamethrowers, and .50 caliber machine guns, near the Company E base camp. After joining the rear elements of Company E, Hilgers later commented that he had "little choice under the circumstances," but to send the platoon from Company F to the immediate relief of the trapped men and to deploy the Company G platoon "around to the south to protect our highly vulnerable southern flank where known NVA units were located, including the 12.7." He stated that he "took a calculated risk that no enemy units were located on our northern flank as Besch had been in that area. By this time the Marine jets had arrived overhead and bombed a valley to the west that the North Vietnamese were using in an attempt to flank the Marines. Two Marine VMO-2 gunships about 25 minutes later also strafed the enemy.
During the night, the Marines brought their en tire arsenal into the battle. Marine artillery and flareships provided illumination and a U.S. Air Force AC-47 opened up with 7.62mm mini-guns on enemy bunkers. After the first flare dropped, the surviving radio operator of Company E, although wounded, contacted Hilgers and attempted to direct 106mm recoilless rifle fire against the North Vietnamese troops. He died of his wounds while still trying to adjust the missions.
With the assistance of the illumination provided by the flares, the Company F platoon, under 2d Lieutenant Stephen F. Snyder, made its way through the difficult jungle terrain ,to the face of the Razor back. Shortly after 0030 bn the 24th, the platoon reached the eastern lip of the natural bowl where the trapped men were, only to find Besch's Marines scattered below, and the North Vietnamese in control of the remaining three ledges of the ravine. Snyder 'h'astily set up his defenses and then led a four-man patrol toward the western rim of the bowl where Besch had gathered together a few of his men to the side of a North Vietnamese-held cave. A North Vietnamese grenade barrage forced the patrol to turn back, but not before it had come within 15 meters of the remnants of Company E and rescued two of the wounded. Returning to its defensive positions, the Company F platoon laid down a base of suppressive fire and directed 106mm recoilless rifle missions upon the enemy positions."
At about 0600, it became apparent that the North Vietnamese were about to launch a final attack upon the Marines. Snyder, instead of waiting for the assault, ordered a counterattack. Captain Besch several years later recalled that as the North Vietnamese troops came out of the caves and formed in the open, Snyder's men took them under fire. According to Besch, the enemy troops "were very quickly (within seconds, like turning down a radio volume button . . .) annihilated by the Marines, one of whom shouted, 'One of 'em is still moving, shoot the son-of-a-bitch,' and nearly every Marine reopen ed fire. "26 In the exchange of fire, Snyder was killed, his platoon sergeant badly wounded, and finally the platoon guide, Sergeant Patrick J. Noon, Jr., took over the relief platoon.
With daybreak, Lieutenant Colonel Bench was able to bring additional units into the battle. He sent the rest of Company G to reinforce Hilgers' composite force. Later that morning, Marine helicopters lifted two platoons of his reserve company, Company H, from Cam Lo to the battalion sector, thus allowing the remaining elements of Company F to go forward. One platoon of Company H accompanied a platoon of M-48 tanks from Cam Lo along Route 9 to the objective area. With the reinforcements, the 2d battalion went into the at tack, but at a painfully slow pace. Firing from behind rocks and from caves, the North Vietnamese had the advantage of terrain. With the employment of recoilless rifles and the tanks at point-blank ranges, the battalion eventually gained the upper hand. Under cover of artillery, which also had moved forward, and air, the .Marines blasted the NVA out of their caves. By midmorning, the forward elements of the relief force reached the battered Company F platoon and remnants of Company E. Bench's unit continued to scour the ridges for the next two days, searching caves and bunkers for the enemy, but the fight for the Razorback was over.
Losses on both sides were heavy, but the NVA had suffered a serious reverse. They had lost their outpost and no longer were in a position to threaten the Marines on the Rockpile. During the engagement, the 2d Battalion, 4th Marines sustained more than 120 casualties, including 21 dead. Eleven of the dead and 13 of the wounded, including Captain Besch whose arm was shattered, were from Company E. Estimates of enemy dead ranged from 120 to170.
The Marines took one prisoner who identified himself as a sergeant and a member of the 803d Regiment, 324B Division. The enemy soldier told his captors that his battalion's mission was to neutralize the Rockpile and then sweep eastward to join in an attack on the 3d Battalion, 12th Marines positions at Cam Lo.
The NVA sergeant's information proved timely. During the early morning hours of 26 August, the enemy launched a two-company attack against the Marine artillery near Cam Lo. At 0300, 1st Lieutenant Gerald T. Galvin, the commander of Company A, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, whose unit was responsible for the security of the perimeter, reported to his battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Westerman, that three of his outposts had seen movement to their front. Westerman ordered the company to "just sit tight and keep observing" and to report any new development.28 About fifteen minutes later, Lieutenant Galvin called back and declared that five outposts had spotted enemy troops moving toward their positions. According to Colonel Cereghino, who was with the battalion commander at Dong Ha, Westerman was about to send reinforcements to the company. Cereghino decided, however, that it would be too complicated an operation to move the Marines out in the dark. He believed that Galvin and his men "were in good shape, confident and gung ho" and that they could hold their own against any attacking force. The regimental commander told Westerman "to hold up but to be prepared to move troops in a matter of minutes. Lieutenant Colonel Westerman then directed Galvin to withdraw the outposts to the main perimeter and wait for the enemy to come through the wire, about 90 meters to the front.
The idea was to allow the NVA troops to crawl through the wire and then illuminate the area, making the North Vietnamese easy targets. The plan worked, in part. The wire channelized the infiltrators, the artillery fired illumination rounds, and an AC-47 dropped flares. On a prearranged signal, the Marines on the perimeter opened up on the at tacking force, by then 40 to 50 meters in front of the Marine positions.
The enemy, however, was not entirely unsuccessful. Somehow the first wave passed through the Company A positions unnoticed and did do some damage. According to Lieutenant Colonel Wesrerman: They [the NVA] snuck on through before we ever illuminated the area. . . . as you know, they're real proficient at moving at night . . . very silently, very slowly, and very patiently. . . . [the NVA] did get through even though our people were waiting for them. They crawled in between the holes, and our people never even realized that they passed through their positions."
Those enemy troops that did get through placed ex plosive charges all over the positions, blowing up tents, trailers, and one tank retriever.
The destruction could have been much more extensive. Just the previous day, the 155mm howitzers had moved to new revetments further west to pro vide for better coverage of the Razorback-Rockpile complex. At the same time, the 3d Battalion, 12th Marines had also changed the location of its fire direction center. The NVA attacking force had excellent intelligence on the location of the old positions and these moves helped to diffuse the effects of the raid. Yet, the largest factor in keeping the damage to a minimum was the rapid response of the Marine defenders. Within two hours, Company A and a security force from the 3d Battalion, 12th Marines had control of the situation. The Marines captured one NVA soldier. He identified himself as a member of the 812th Infantry Regiment, 324B NVA Division, which in coordination with a local VC unit, had made the attack. Had this unit been able to join with the battalion from the 803d NVA Regiment as originally planned, the attack on the Marine artillery position might well have been much more serious. As it was, nine Marines were killed and 20 wounded. None of Major Morrow's artillery pieces were damaged.
This action at Cam Lo was the last significant con tact in Operation Prairie during August. Lieutenant Colonel Bench's battalion 'returned to Dong Ha on, 29 August to relieve the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. The latter battalion moved from Cam Lo and Dong Ha and conducted a reconnaissance in force along Route 9, but met little resistance.
The month was a bloody one for both the Marines and NVA. According to Marine reports, Prairie ac counted for over 200 enemy dead, while the Americans suffered 37 killed and 130 wounded during this phase of the operation.
Colonel Cereghino realigned his forces. On 27 August he assigned Lieutenant Colonel John J. Roothoffs 2d Battalion, 7th Marines, which had just arrived from Chu Lai, the area of responsibility formerly held by the 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, including the Rockpile. When Westerman's battalion completed sweeping Route 9 into the Thon Son Lam area, 1,500 meters west of the Rockpile, it returned to Dong Ha, arriving on 7 September. It relieved Bench's 2d Battalion of the defense missions at both Dong Ha and Cam Lo.
At this point, Colonel Cereghino decided to ex tend his area of operations to the Con Thien region, due north of Cam Lo and adjacent to the DMZ. Based on new intelligence that a battalion of the 324B Division was moving into the area, the 4th Marines commander ordered Lieutenant Colonel Bench to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine the extent of enemy activity. Company H, accompanied by a platoon of tanks from Company C, 3d Tank Battalion, left Cam Lo on the morning of 7 September. MAG- 16 helicopters ferried the rest of the battalion into landing zones around Con Thien. The first significant contact occurred the next morn ing when Company G ran into an enemy platoon 1,000 meters northeast of the ARVN Con Thien out post. The firefight lasted for three hours before the enemy disappeared. Five Marines were killed.
The next day, Bench's Companies E and F, rein forced by tanks, engaged a NVA company two miles south of the DMZ. The enemy had expected the Marines. Numerous firing positions and trenches had been dug, extending into the demilitarized area itself. Lieutenant Colonel Bench ordered the tanks to fire point-blank into the enemy positions; after stiff resistance the NVA disengaged. The Marines counted 20 bodies and estimated that they had kill ed at least another 14. Bench's unit sustained three killed and 17 wounded. The battalion continued its reconnaissance in the area until the 13th, but met only scattered resistance and then returned to Cam Lo.
Assault From The Sea: Deckhouse IV
The reconnaissance by the 2d Battalion, 4th Marines confirmed that elements of the 90th NVA Regiment, a subordinate unit of the 324B Division, were now operating south of the DMZ. General Walt had already planned an operation to determine the extent of enemy infiltration in the eastern portion of the Prairie area of operations. On 3 September, he requested that General Westmoreland obtain permission from the Seventh Fleet to use the Special Landing Force in the Con Thien-Gio Linh area. After General Westmoreland acceded to the III MAF request, General Walt held a planning conference on 7 September at Da Nang, attended by representatives of the amphibious ready group and the SLF to work out the details. At that time, they changed D-day from 12 September to the 15th. In effect, the SLF operation, Deckhouse IV, was to continue the reconnaissance in force that Bench's unit had just carried out in this area.
The operational concept provided for one company of BLT 1/26 (Lieutenant Colonel Anthony A. Monti to land across Blue Beach, two miles south of the DMZ, north of the Cua Viet River. Lieutenant Colonel James D. McGough's HMM-363 was to bring the other companies into landing zones further inland, west of Highway 1. After the beachhead was secured and the artillery unloaded, Company A was to join the rest of the battalion west of the highway, six miles inland.
The assault phase went almost without incident. At 0700 15 September, the first wave of Company A in 11 LVTs from the USS Vancouver (LPD 2) secured Blue Beach without resistance. Forty minutes later, the first heliborne elements landed from the Iwo Jima (LPH 2); again no opposition. Later that day, HMM-363 lifted Company A and the artillery battery from the beach area to positions west of Route 1, where they joined the rest of the battalion.
Early that afternoon, the Marines experienced the first serious contact with the NVA. At 1330, a platoon from the 3d Reconnaissance Battalion, attached to the BLT for the operation, encountered a NVA company five miles northeast of Dong Ha while reconnoitering the southwestern portion of the objective area. The well-camouflaged NVA soldiers were moving down a trail in single file, and almost bumped into the Marines. Both units opened fire simultaneously. The reconnaissance Marines, vastly outnumbered, called for help. Marine helicopters ar rived to attempt an evacuation, but heavy ground fire prevented them from landing. Five helicopters were hit and two crewmen were wounded in the abortive attempt.
At this point, the Marines on the ground called for supporting arms. The 107mm howtar battery attached to BLT 1 / 26 pounded the area with continuous fire and four F4Bs from MAG- 11 bombed, strafed, and rocketed the enemy positions, allowing the helicopters to make a second attempt to extract the patrol. This time the extraction proceeded smoothly.
During the two-hour engagement, the Marine patrol suffered one killed, six wounded, and one Marine unaccounted for. The troops tried to find the missing man, but enemy fire forced them to give up the search. The patrol claimed that it had killed at least nine NVA and estimated that at least 30 North Vietnamese were killed by supporting arms.
After the extraction of the Marine reconnaissance element, Lieutenant Colonel Monti, the BLT commander, ordered Company A to move from its positions on Route 1 at daybreak and work its way over to the area where the action had occurred. By the evening of the 16th, the Marine company had arrived at its objective and dug in for the night. At 0330 the next morning, the NVA attacked under cover of mortar fire. Company A, supported by naval gunfire and artillery, repulsed the attackers. At first light, patrols were sent out; the Marines found 12 bodies and captured a wounded NVA soldier. The Americans found a cigarette lighter on the wounded man which belonged to the missing reconnaissance Marine. The prisoner claimed that the Marine had died and that he had helped to bury him. The prisoner was evacuated to the Iwo Jima for treatment; he died on the operating table. Later that day, a Marine patrol found the grave of the dead American.
The battalion encountered much more opposition in the northwestern area near the DMZ. On the 16th, Company D came under heavy mortar fire, less than a mile from the DMZ. The mortar positions were so close that the Marines could hear the rounds drop into the enemy tubes. The Marines called for naval gunfire and the heavy cruiser Saint Paul (CA 73) responded with eight-inch guns. During the follow-up search, the Marine company found three destroyed mortars and 14 bodies.
South of Company D, Company B was also hit. One of its platoons walked into an enemy ambush on the outskirts of a hamlet. The Marines, out- numbered, took cover in the rice paddies. Once more air and artillery were called. After a 75-minute engagement, the enemy broke contact. The Marines were unable' to determine enemy casualties; Company B suffered two dead and nine wounded.
The Marines soon discovered that the North Vietnamese had constructed a large tunnel and bunker complex in the Con Thien and Gio Linh areas. Each time the battalion probed the northwestern portion of its area of operations, the enemy responded with heavy fire from well-concealed positions. Although Deckhouse IV officially ended on 18 September, the battalion remained ashore and came under the operational control of the 4th Marines until 24 September. The next day, the 25th, the battalion reverted to its SLF role and left the DMZ sector. During the period the battalion was committed to operations ashore, it killed at least 200 of the enemy at a cost of 203 casualties including 36 killed.
The Continued Fighting for Nui Cay Tre (Mutter) Ridge and the Razorbach
While the SLF explored the swamps and rice pad dies of the northern coastal plain of Quang Tn Province, action intensified in the western sector of the Prairie operation area. In contrast to the relatively flat eastern terrain, this fighting took place in the mountains and gullies north of the Rockpile, centerng on the Nui Cay Tre ridgeline. According to American intelligence agencies, the North Vietnamese 324B Division had established extensive defenses there to protect its infiltration routes. On 8 September, the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines returned to the Rockpile from Dong Ha and relieved the 2d Battalion, 7th Marines. Colonel Cereghino ordered Lieutenant Colonel Wesrerman to conduct a deep reconnaissance toward Nui Cay Tre to determine the extent of enemy operations in the area. On 15 September, Companies B and D left the battalion perimeter near the Rockpile and advanced toward the southern approaches of the ridge.
The enemy struck at noon the next day. At that time, both companies were moving in column, with Company D in the lead. The NVA allowed the first two platoons to enter their ambush position before opening fire. Captain Daniel K. McMahon, Jr., the Company D commander, then pushed his third platoon forward into the fight. Lieutenant Colonel Westerman ordered Company B to move up to the forward company's positions. The two companies established a perimeter and Captain McMahon reported to Wesrerman: "We have 'em just where we want them, they're all the way around us."34 The two Marine companies were surrounded by a North Vietnamese battalion and the fight would last two and one-half days.
The Marines dug in. Marine air and artillery pro vided constant supporting fire. Helicopters from MAG- 16 also played a vital role in sustaining the surrounded troops. The Marines on the ground hacked out a crude landing zone, for resupply helicopters. Colonel Cereghino ordered Lieutenant Colonel Roothoff to move his battalion to assist Westerman's two companies. After a two-day march from Cam Lo, the lead elements of the 2d Battalion, 7th Marines reached the surrounded units the evening of 18 September, later joined by the rest of the battalion, and the relief was completed.
The enemy was gone, but Marine air, artillery, and the two infantry companies were credited with killing at least 170 of the North Vietnamese. Nine Marines from Westerman's battalion were killed in the battle.
The 1st Battalion, 4th Marines units returned to the battalion command post near the Rockpile on 19 September, while the 2d Battalion, 7th Marines continued to patrol in the Nui Cay Tre area. Lieutenant Colonel Roothoff's companies operated south of the Nui Cay Tre ridge for the next two days, coming under increasing enemy pressure, but then the batalion was ordered to withdraw to positions near the Rockpile.
Colonel Cereghino had two reasons for moving Roothoff back to the Rockpile. To attack the ridge from the south was futile; it was apparent that the North Vietnamese were strongly entrenched there, waiting for the Marines. Secondly, the North Vietnamese had returned to the Razorback and were mortaring the Rockpile. The regimental commander decided first to clean out the Razorback.
Lieutenant Colonel Roothoff established a combat base west of the Rockpile on 22 September, and ordered Companies F and G to sweep to the Razor back. On the 24th, a Company G patrol spotted five North Vietnamese soldiers on the western slopes of the hill mass and killed them, but 10 minutes later the company reported that it was under fire and "unable to advance or withdraw." The battalion commander ordered Company F to go to the assistance of Company G, but heavy enemy fire prevented the two companies from joining. Lieutenant Colonel Roothoff then directed both companies to back off so that air and artillery could hit the area.
A platoon of Company F commanded by First Lieutenant Robert T. Willis was moving to the relief of Company G when it came upon a trail which led the Marines into the enemy base camp. As the platoon entered the camp, the point man suddenly stopped because he heard a noise. Lieutenant Willis went forward to see what was happening. An enemy soldier, probably a sentry, fired, killing a machine gun team leader and slipped away. The Marines entered the camp from the rear, destroyed an enemy mortar, and then waited. According to Lieutenant Willis: We sat in their own positions practically and waited for them [the NVA] to come back to their base camp from their attack on Golf Company. Two of my people who had reported to my unit at Cam Lo eight days earlier killed seven of the [NVA] coming up the trail where they were hitting Golf Company. They tried to mortar us—mortar their own base camp . . . We kept moving toward them and finally got them pinned in a gulch.. . We couldn't get into it and they couldn't get out of it. We called for air and artillery and pretty well destroyed it.
The platoon was credited with killing 58 NVA. Company F reported three dead and 17 wounded while Company G suffered 3 Marines killed, 26 wounded, and 7 missing.
The 2d Battalion, 7th Marines participation in Prairie was over. On 28 September, the battalion began moving to the rear. Two days later, Company G recovered the bodies of the seven Marines missing since the 22d, and then left for Dong Ha. At Dong Ha, Lieutenant Colonel John J. Hess' newly arrived 2d Battalion, 9th Marines relieved Roothoffs battalion, which rejoined its parent regiment at Chu Lai.
Earlier in the month, Colonel Cereghino had developed another plan to, drive the North Vietnamese off the Nui Cay Tre ridgeline to protect the Rockpile — Razorback — Thon Son Lam area. He in tended to have Lieutenant Colonel William J. Masterpool's 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, which had arrived at Dong Ha from Phu Bai on 17 September, attack the Nui Cay Tre heights. The attack was to come in from the east to cut into the enemy's flank. This attack was to result in the longest action of Prairie, from 22 September until 5 October.
On the morning of 22 September, Marine air and artillery, in an attempt not to give away the actual landing zone of Masterpool's battalion, bombarded a false target area. Three minutes after the artillery, commanded since the end of August by Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. Kirchmann, stopped firing, eight MAG- 16 CH-46s brought the first elements of the 3d Battalion into the actual landing zone, 4,500 meters to the east of the Nui Cay Tre ridgeline. The battalion secured its two objectives, roughly 1,500 meters northwest of the LZ on the first day and dug in for the night. During the first few days, the Marines had as much trouble with the terrain as they did with the enemy. According to some veteran troops, the ground was covered with the densest vegetation they had encountered. At the foot of the ridgeline, there was a six-foot layer of brush which rose straight up to a canopy of bamboo and deciduous trees. Some of these trees were eight feet in diameter and the canopy was so thick that almost no light penetrated the jungle below.
The lead units of the battalion, Companies K and L, began their ascent, each Marine carrying only his weapon, ammunition, two canteens, a poncho, and two socks stuffed with C-rations in his pockets. The only method of resupply was by helicopter and the Marines had to hack out the landing zones with what little equipment they had. Engineers used chain saws and axes to clear an LZ, but only the smaller UH-34s could land in these restricted sites, thus limiting the amount of supplies that could be brought in at one time. The only way the lead elements could move through the jungle was in column, slashing at the dense growth with their machetes. Occasionally they had to wait for bombs and napalm to blast or burn the jungle so the column could move again.
Lieutenant Colonel Masterpool compared his tactics with the action of a ballpoint pen. According to the battalion commander: The idea was to probe slowly with the tip of the pen and then, when contact was made, retract the point into the pen's larger sleeve; that is, as soon as contact was made, supporting fire including napalm was directed onto the enemy positions.
Two hills dominated the ridgeline, Hill 484, the Marines' final objective, and Hill 400, 3,000 meters east of 484. As the lead element, Company L, approached Hill 400, the closer of the two heights, it became obvious that the Marines were entering the enemy's main line of resistance. According to the company commander, Captain Roger K. Ryman: As we got closer to 400, moving along some of the lower hills in front of it, we saw more and more enemy positions, including enough huts in the ravines to harbor a regiment, and piles and piles of ammunition. NVA bodies lying about and hastily dug graves were signs that we were moving right behind them.
The North Vietnamese resistance was skillful. Ryman recalled: their fire discipline remained excellent. Invariably they'd pick just the right piece of terrain, where it was so narrow that we couldn't maneuver on the flanks, and they'd dig in and wait for us in the bottleneck. Sometimes they'd let the point man go by and then let us have it.
On other parts of the ridgeline trail, where it dipped down through the thickest sections of the jungle, we would suddenly see a patch of vegetation moving towards us, and that was the only way we could detect an enemy soldier. Once, I heard a sudden snicker when one of our men slipped. The sound gave away a concealed enemy position a few fret away, and started a fire fight. The NVA was damn clever. We'd walk the artillery in—that is, direct fifty yards at a time towards us, sensing by sound where it was dropping. Then we'd pull back, opening the artillery sheath, and call for saturated firing in the area. But the NVA would guess what we were doing, and when we pulled back they'd quickly follow us into the safety zone between us and where the shells were dropping. And when the shelling stopped, they'd start shooting again.
In spite of the slow going, by dusk on the 26th, Company L, reinforced by Company K, had secured a portion of Hill 400 and was dug in for the night.
The heaviest fighting occurred during the next two days. At 0730 on 27 September, Company K, commanded by Captain James J. Carroll, moved toward its next objective, 1,000 meters to the southwest, when it ran into the enemy. At noon, the company reported NVA all around its flanks on the lower leg of L-shaped Hill 400. After an hour and half, the North Vietnamese broke contact. Carroll's company already had 7 dead, 25 wounded, and 1 missing. Lieutenant Colonel Masterpool ordered the rest of the battalion to join Company K and set up defensive positions.
The next morning Company K pushed forward once more but immediately encountered enemy troops in heavily reinforced bunkers. The Marines pulled back and called in artillery. Captain Carroll sent a patrol out to search for the Marine reported missing during the previous day's fighting. At this point, the NVA counterattacked. Elements of Companies I and M reinforced Carroll's company and helped to throw back the enemy. One of Captain Carroll's platoon leaders, Sergeant Anthony Downey, described the action: "The stuff was so thick you couldn't tell who was firing, Charlie or us. They had everything — mortars, mines, and heavy weapons — and they had ladders in the trees for spotters to climb up and direct fire. The Marine companies killed 50 of the enemy while six Marines died and nine were wounded. .They also found the body of the Marine missing from the previous day's fighting. By the end of the 28th, the Marines controlled Hill 400 and prepared to advance to Hill 484.
Lieutenant Colonel Masterpool continued his step-by-step approach, alternating companies as the advance units. On 2 October, Captain Robert G. Handrahan's Company M secured a third hill between Hills 400 and 484, 500 meters east of I-Jill 484. The rest of the battalion joined the lead company later that day and prepared defensive positions for the night. The next day Company I found 25 enemy bunkers on "the Fake," the name the Marines gave the hill since it was not specifically marked on their maps. The bunkers contained ammunition, equipment, and documents, but no NVA. The Marines were ready to take the final objective, Hill 484.
At 0930 on 4 October, Captain Handrahan's 1st Platoon led the assault against heavy resistance from well-concealed bunkers. Vise Marines tried a frontal assault but were thrown back. Then, while the 1st Plat Qon put down a base of fire, the 2d Platoon tried to envelop the enemy's left, but this action also fail ed when the North Vietnamese countered with grenades from the upper slope. Because of the steepness of the terrain and the inability of Handrahan to call in supporting arms "without significant damage to . . . (his] company," Lieutenant Colonel Masterpool ordered the company to pull back to "the Fake."" Marine air and artillery then attempted to soften the North Vietnamese positions.
At 1000 the next morning, and after another airstrike on the enemy, Company M advanced once more against Hill 484. Believing that artillery would be useless because of the slope, Handrahan the previous night had arranged for direct fire from the tank company at two concentration points. The company commander recalled that: As we approached the crest, I requested fire on concentration point one, intending to shift as we neared the top. We had agreed on five rounds but only two came at the target and they were well over.
Handrahan remembered that he then heard "explosions to my rear. I again requested support over the TAC net but was informed that they were receiving incoming. I continued without support." Company M's 2d platoon gained the crest of Hill 484 at 1200, followed by the 1st Platoon. The NVA held on until 1330 and then broke contact and fled into the jungle, leaving behind 10 bodies. Captain Handrahan later wrote that his men saw numerous blood trails and recovered some 16-20 weapons.
Handrahan's company sustained only six wounded in the attack, but further to the rear, Marine tank shells accidentally fell upon Hill 400, killing three Marines and wounding 10 others. Among the dead was Captain James J. Carroll who had been directing fire against Hill 484. The young captain, who had arrived in Vietnam only the month before, had described the fight for Hill 400, as "the high point of my career," and ironically, was to die there as a result of American fire. Carroll was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during Prairie and the artillery base west of Cam Lo was renamed Camp Carroll in his honor.
The battle for Nui Cay Tre was over, but the price had been high, both for the Marines and the North Vietnamese. From 22 September through 4 October, the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines suffered 20 dead while killing 100 enemy. Nui Cay Tre thereafter was known as "Mutter" Ridge, after the call sign of Masterpool's 3d Battalion.
The Opening of Khe Sanh and the 3d Marine Division Moves North
Generals Walt and Kyle watched the intensifying action in northern Quang Tn Province with growing concern. In Saigon, General Westmoreland took an even more alarmed view of the situation. He foresaw the likelihood of large numbers of North Vietnamese troops moving south through the DMZ and was apprehensive of what "might occur if the two NVA divisions did, in fact, elect to move into the Quang Tn area." He especially feared that the North Vietnamese might skip around the main Marine defenses keyed on the Rockpile and Dong Ha and at tempt to open a corridor in the northwest corner of Quang Tn Province in the mountains bordering both Laos and North Vietnam. General Westmoreland suggested that General Walt rein force Khe Sanh,17 kilometers southwest of the Rockpile and 22 kilometers south of the DMZ, with a Marine battalion."
The Marine command resisted Westmoreland's suggestion until the matter came to a head. More than one Marine general expressed the belief that Khe Sanh had no basic military value. General English, the 3d Marine Division ADC, declared" When you're at Khe Sanh, you're not really anywhere. It's far away from everything. You could lose it and you really haven't lost a damn thing. Despite Marine protests, it was soon obvious that III MAF would have to move into the area. The catalyst -, was a 26 September intelligence report that pin pointed a North Vietnamese troop concentration and base camp only 14 kilometers northeast of Khe Sanh.50* General Walt bowed to the inevitable and ordered Lieutenant Colonel Peter A. Wickwire's 1st Battalion, 3d Marines, already on the alert to move to Dong Ha from Da Nang, to move to Khe Sanh in stead. This was done reluctantly; the III MAF G-3, Colonel Chaisson, aptly declared: We were not interested in putting a battalion at Khe Sanh... [but] had we not done it. we would have been directed to put it out there . . . we put it out just to retain that little prestige of doing it on your own volition rather than doing it with a shoe in your tail."
In any event, Lieutenant Colonel Wickwire received only 12 hours' notice that the battalion's next location was to be in Khe Sanh.
On 29 September, Marine KC- 130 transports ferried Wickwire's battalion, reinforced with an artillery battery, to Khe Sanh. Its new mission was to determine the extent of the enemy buildup in the area. Lieutenant Colonel Wickwire established liaison with the U.S. Army Special Forces advisor at Khe Sanh who believed that the area was in imminent danger of being overrun. The Marines established their area of operations, coordinated their activities with the ARVN in the area, and manned defensive positions around the Khe Sanh airstrip. The 1st Battalion conducted extensive patrolling out to maximum artillery range, but made little contact with any North Vietnamese troops. The original 30-day stay of the 1st Battalion, 3d Marines was extended into 1967. During this period, the Marines killed 15 North Vietnamese troops, but North Vietnamese intentions remained obscure.
According to Colonel Chaisson: "Since we put it [1 / 3] out there, there has been no in crease in the threat that existed at the time, nor may I add was there any substantial decrease in the threat that was in that particular area. They're still picking up about the same type of sightings. Nothing that alarms you, but enough to convince the people who want to read the mail that way that there could be one or more battalions in the northwest corner [of South Vietnam]."
At the time of the move to Khe Sanh, MACV received reports of an "unprecedented rapid buildup of enemy forces . . - along the entire length of the DMZ." Westmoreland was convinced that the North Vietnamese were preparing a massive advance into Quang Tn Province.
Reacting to this intelligence, III MAF reestablish ed Task Force Delta and reinforced the northern border area. On 1 October, General English, the 3d Marine Division ADC, opened the Task Force Delta command post at Dong Ha and assumed responsibility for the Prairie Operation from Colonel Cereghino. With the positioning of Wickwire's battalion at Khe Sanh and the arrival of Lieutenant Colonel William C. Airheart's 2d Battalion, 5th Marines at Dong Ha from Chu Lai on 30 September and 1 October, English had six infantry battalions under his command, reinforced by Kirchmann's artillery and other supporting units,.
Reshuffling of III MAF units throughout northern I Corps continued during the first weeks of October. On 6 October, General Walt ordered the 3d Marine Division to displace from Da Nang into Thua Thien and Quang Tn Provinces. With this move the 1st Marine Division assumed the responsibility for the Da Nang TAOR in addition to the Chu Lai area of operations. Four days later, General Kyle opened the new 3d Marine Division CP at Phu Bai, but left one regiment, the 9th Marines, at Da Nang, under the operational control of the 1st Marine Division. At the same time, General Westmoreland moved one U.S. Army battalion, the 4th Battalion, 503d Infantry, 173d Airborne Brigade, to Da Nang to reinforce the TAOR there. Two Army artillery battalions, the 2d Battalion, 94th Artillery and the 1st Battalion, 40th Artillery, arrived in the Prairie area. Colonel Benjamin S. Read, the commanding officer of the 12th Marines, who had moved his CP from Da Nang to Dong Ha, had command of both the Marine and Army artillery in Prairie. General Kyle deactivated Task Force Delta and established a 3d Marine Division (Forward) Headquarters at Dong Ha to control the operation. General English still retained command, but received additional staff personnel for his headquarters.
During this same period, the 3d Marines, under Colonel Edward E. Hammerbeck, took over the western half of the Prairie TAOR while the 4th Marines assumed the responsibility for the eastern half. Colonel Cereghino's headquarters was located at Dong Ha and his area of operations extended for roughly 5,000 meters eastward of Con Thien. One battalion, the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, took over Con Thien from the ARVN while the other two battalions of the regiment, the 3d Battalion, 7th Marines and 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, operated closer to Dong Ha and Cam Lo. The 3d Marines was responsible for the defense of the Camp Carroll Rockpile area while Wickwire's unit at Khe Sanh reported directly to General English.
Despite the massive III MAF preparations, or perhaps because of them, the expected enemy offensive never materialized. There had been no major action in the region since the capture of "Mutter" Ridge, although Airheart's battalion experienced some probes in mid-October. During November, intelligence sources indicated that the 324B Dxvtston had retired north of the DMZ, although elements of the 341st Division had infiltrated into the Cua Valley in the southern portion of the Prairie TAOR. Apparently, the mission of the 341st Division had been to strengthen and train guerrilla units in the area. Although the enemy chose to remain inactive in the northern area during the northeast monsoon season, there was every indication that fighting would start again once the rains stopped.
By the end of the year with the diminishing activity on the northern front, the Marine command reduced the infantry strength of the 3d Marine Division in Prairie to one regiment, the 3d Marines, and four battalions. The 4th Marines just before Christmas moved back into the Co Bi-Thanh Tan sector to conduct Operation Chinook.
For all intents and purposes, Prairie was no longer an operation, but rather an area of operations. The Marines had established another base area similar to those at Chu Lai, Da Nang, and Phu Bai. At the height of the Marine buildup in mid-November, General English commanded a force of approximately 8,000 Marines, including eight infantry battalions, supported by the 12th Marines. Marine artillery, reinforced by the two Army 175mm battalions, Navy gunfire ships, and Marine air, covered the entire DMZ area from the western border with Laos to the South China Sea.
Dong Ha had become a forward Marine base and the center of operations in the northern area. Its air field and that at Khe Sanh had been lengthened so that both easily could handle KC-130 transports. The Marines and Navy also developed a sizeable port facility at Dong Ha to accommodate craft bringing supplies up the Cua Viet River. Within the Prairie TAOR, Marine helicopters resupplied individual units from Dong Ha.
During Prairie in 1966, the Marines had prevented the NVA from establishing a major operating base in northern Quang Tn Province and had killed over 1,000 of the enemy. Colonel Cereghino remembered, "At the beginning of Prairie we were fighting well trained and well equipped soldiers. At the end we were running into poorly equipped young soldiers and frustrated commanders.""
Yet the cost had been high in both men and Marine objectives. The Marines sustained casualties of 200 dead and well over 1,000 wounded. A sizeable Marine force still remained in the DMZ sector and the resulting dislocation of Marine units in the southern TAOR's seriously hampered the Marine pacification campaign.