Monday, July 16, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Dig The Foxholes Deep-Old Sarge Wises Up New Marines

October 26, 1966

Dong Ha, South Viet Nam--Sergeant Major John W. Kozak squinted his eyes and looked south toward a hillside less than a mile away which was being pounded by air strikes and artillery fire.

As one of the fighter's napalm bombs exploded and the huge red-orange ball of fire climbed toward the ridge, Kozak blinked and said, "If there are any of them left we'll sure as hell catch a mortar attack tonight."

Kozak is a veteran of 30 years in the Marine Corps, but fighting in the rugged jungles of South Viet Nam and the fact he is pushing 50 years, has nearly convinced him war is a young man's game.

For 30 years he has known no home but the Marine Corps. During World War II, he served in the Pacific and fought on Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and Iwo Jima, and he's been fighting ever since.

Kozak is only 5 feet 10 inches tall, but he's just about that wide and there isn't an ounce of fat on him. His arms are very short and so large he has trouble rolling up the sleeves of his fatigue jacket.

He looks tough and he's just as tough as he looks. His squad, in the field five days, had made a helicopter clearing atop a ridge, within one and a half miles of the demilitarized zone, to take on replacements and supplies.

Three correspondents, one of them a Marine, went in with the resupply helicopters. Sgt. Kozak's voice could be heard clearly above the roar of the helicopters--"Get down the hill and dig a hole...We don't have any holes up here."

He spoke with such authority that even though two of the correspondents didn't have shovels, they were ready to use their helmets to start digging. Staff Sgt. Norman MacKenzie, Brockton, Mass., a Marine Corps battle correspondent, bailed the correspondents out by explaining, "They're civilians, Sarge."

Kozak slapped a swagger stick he'd fashioned out of a tree branch against his leg and said, "OK, but tell them to keep down."

MacKenzie led the reporters forward to the command post bunker where we were met by Maj. Raymond J. O'Leary. O'Leary is a former Marine Corps recruiter from Brookville, Ind.

From 1956 to 1959, O'Leary was the recruiting officer in Indianapolis. He's been in the Marine Corps 22 1/2 years and will be promoted soon to lieutenant colonel. Shortly after our introduction, Capt. Francis (Frank) White, York, Pa., a 1955 Notre Dame graduate, came up with a report on the battle in which one of their platoons was engaged.

The platoon was sweeping a four-hill range 12 miles northwest of Dong Ha in elephant grass eight feet tall, when it ran head-on into approximately 40 North Vietnamese troops.

The Marines exchanged heavy fire with the enemy in an engagement which lasted about 30 minutes. Seven VC were listed as killed. Three Marines suffered wounds though none were killed.

When the enemy broke off the fight, the Marines pulled back with their wounded and ordered air strikes and an artillery barrage laid into the area. Within minutes an artillery spotting plane had pinpointed the fleeing North Vietnamese and marked their positions with smoke rockets.

It was then that fighter after fighter pounded the hills with high explosives, napalm, and machine gun fire, while artillery shells raked the area. After a 30 minute barrage, the Marines went back into the area and found two more dead VC, an extensive tunnel complex, and a large cave with several openings.

(This is the battle which was in progress as the correspondents landed.)

After acknowledging Capt. York's information, Maj. O'Leary said, "The only thing that keeps us in the ball game here is our mobility and fire power. And to increase our mobility, we've got to have more helicopters."

Kozak and Maj. O'Leary knew the battle they'd just won hadn't accomplished much.

The area Maj. O'Leary had chosen to occupy as a command center straddled a major infiltration route for the North Vietnamese. B-52 air strikes and artillery rounds had left dozens of deep craters in the brown and red earth and only shards of trees and vegetation were left.

Maj. O'Leary earlier had requested 30 more Marines to hold the thinly spaced line around the perimeter. Sgt. Kozak left the shelter to meet the fresh troops on the crest of the ridge.

As the major continued to explain the current situation, the sound of helicopters approaching came from the south.

Sgt. Kozak met the helicopters and quickly knocked the new men into line, telling them to start digging holes.

"Deep holes," he bellowed. "Those guys will mortar us tonight, trying to get even for today. So dig'em deep."

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