Wednesday, July 18, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: 7th Marines Dig In-Monsoon Slows Buildup In South Viet

November 1, 1966

Dong Ha, South Viet Nam--The monsoon rains have begun here, and they come at a critical point in the American arms buildup designed to stop an invasion of South Viet Nam by North Vietnamese forces.

The rains came late this year, according to many of the Vietnamese. And every day that the rains held off, American strength grew. With almost perfect weather, reconnaissance planes were able to spot small bands of North Vietnamese moving south along infiltration routes.

And, once the enemy was spotted, artillery fire and air strikes were called in to wipe them out. Marines of the Third Division led several patrols with good success into many different sections of the rugged terrain and chased the enemy back across the demilitarized zone, while the weather was good. As a result of the rains, no recent major encounters have been reported.

Now, Marine units on top of the Rockpile, to the northwest, and in the Nuy Con Thien region, and in Helicopter Valley, hold wet, lonely vigils at their outposts.

Helicopters can't fly in the heavy rains and low ceilings. Artillery spotter planes can't see the enemy and therefore are unable to mark North Vietnamese camps with smoke rockets to guide air strikes and artillery fire.

On the ground, living in the extreme conditions, many of the men become ill with fevers and begin to suffer jungle rot and trench foot.

The men of the Third Battalion of the Seventh Marines are dug in atop the ridges of Helicopter Valley, about 12 miles northwest of Dong Ha.

During Operation Hastings, Helicopter Valley was a major North Vietnamese infiltration route. The Marines encountered the enemy there and whipped them soundly but suffered heavy losses themselves, including five helicopters, hence, the name of the valley.

Since Operation Hastings, the Marines have conducted another successful campaign. Operation Prairie. Both efforts have driven the enemy further and further west toward the border of Laos.

What the Marines have won they are forced to watch closely. No longer are large infiltration parties discovered making their way across the demilitarized zone, through the coastal plains area, or in the foothills. But the possibility always exists that the North Vietnamese will launch a direct assault to the south through any one of several points.

The Marines have not stayed in the areas they have won in full strength. But they have maintained constant surveillance of nearly every infiltration point through special reconnaissance teams. These teams parachute into the most remote areas and live off the land for weeks, while supplying their headquarters with crucial intelligence.

On the western edge of Quang Tri Province is a village by the name of Khe San. It is in a remote area in the mountains and is manned by a company of Marines. It is considered one of the few major infiltration routes to the south, which is not heavily armed by U.S. Forces.

Some military experts fear that should the North Vietnamese army march in strength toward Khe San, that it would be cut off and become another Dien Bien Phu. But, Khe San, the experts vow, is not going to be a soft touch for the North Vietnamese.

The Marines have constructed an airstrip at Khe San, and U.S. Army Special Forces camps dot the area, on the lookout for a march to the south. If the North Vietnamese come, Marines from Dong Ha and other units will be air lifted into Khe San and landed at the air strip.

Marine tacticians are also counting strongly upon an ace they have up their sleeve that will make the enemy ante plenty if they choose to buck heads with the Marine Corps. Only 12 miles from Dong Ha, an artillery battery of 175 millimeter guns are in place. The guns are located so they will be able to fire the 37 miles to Khe San with devastating effects on the enemy.

The big guns have the range to reach the most distant northwest corner of the demilitarized zone and are also capable of firing far out to sea. Offshore, Navy cruisers and gunships control the seacoast. The Marine artillery batteries are set up to make the enemy pay dearly, no matter which way they decide to come.

All of these plans depend on the weather and our ability to first spot the infiltrators and then clobber them with our firepower.

Brig. Gen. Lowell English, assistant commander of the Third Division, said, "It's going to be just as tough for them as it's going to be for us. In fact it'll be a lot tougher for them. They have to carry everything on their backs."

Then English said, with typical Marine confidence, "every day they wait to launch their attack, we build our strength."

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