Hill of Angels


Con Thien "Our Turn in the Barrel", and "The Meat Grinder" were names given to the fire base just below the Demilitarized zone. The base was under serious attack in September 1967 when the North Vietnamese Army mortared the base and surrounding areas.

The fire base Con Thien “Hill of Angels” had been under pressure since the spring of 1967 but it was not until September 1967 that the North Vietnamese Army started their major assault. 152 millimeter howitzers, 120 millimeter and 82 millimeter mortars and 122 millimeter rockets relentlessly attacked the Marines that guarded Con Thien daily. During the climax of the attack (September 19th-27th 1967) over three thousand rounds of artillery pounded the fire base almost wiping it clear off the map. On September 25th a reported 1200 rounds pounded the hill sides of the 158 meters mound of red dirt.

Some enemy bunkers were as close as 1500m to Con Thien. Eliminating those bunkers could mean either life or death. One marine recounts enemy soldiers dressed as Marines. The platoon sergeant told his platoon not to shoot because they were Americans. He looked through his field glasses and saw that they were North Vietnamese Army with black sneakers on. The North Vietnamese army killed several Marines before the platoon sergeant made his observation. They called in an air strike and napalm which devoured the trees and the enemy base.

The Marine Corps rotated battalions in and out of Con Thien every thirty days. During these thirty days the Marines would guard the fire base. Several other battalions would destroy bunker complexes. At many occasions the Marines would get ambushed and then pinned down with mortars.

The fire base Con Thien played a big part in the history of the Vietnam War. The fire base was in the news during the time it was under attack. TIME reporters wrote stories about the horrors they saw there. Many platoons went there with a group of men and returned with only half of the original group. The constant pounding made the Marines angry and the lack of food left them famished. When the mortars hit the hill side shrapnel sprayed the hill and surrounding areas. The constant threat of North Vietnamese Army increased the paranoia while the emotions of killing men were wearing away at the Marines mentally. It was also cold at Con Thien during the monsoon season.






The following article was written by: Al Hemingway

Al Hemingway is a frequent contributor to The Combat Report. A popular author of combat history, Hemingway is a former Marine who served in Vietnam in 1969


In my studies of the history of warfare, it always has amazed me how seemingly insignificant places take on tremendous strategic importance. The Alamo, Gettysburg and Bastogne are but a few that come to mind. The Vietnam War was no exception: Chu Lai, Khe Sanh and Hue City were important battles during the conflict.

There was one area just below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that was watched closely by the Allies during the fighting. Sadly, few except the men who served there remember it. It was known as Con Thien.

Con Thien, loosely translated, means "a place of angels." But anyone who fought at Con Thien will tell you no angels resided there. It was a mud-covered hill rising just 158 meters that anchored "Leatherneck Square"- consisting of Gio Linh, Dong Ha, Cam Lo and Con Thien. These four Marine combat bases kept a watchful eye on the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in and around the DMZ.

Colonel Richard B. Smith, commanding the 9th Marines, commented: "Con Thien was clearly visible from the 9th Marines HQ on the high ground at Dong Ha ten miles away, so good line-of-site communications were enjoyed. If the enemy occupied it, he would be looking down our throats."

And the enemy wanted desperately to occupy it. The Marines were a thorn in their side. In the spring of 1967, they decided to drive the leathernecks from Con Thien.

In the pre-dawn hours of May 8, 1967, the communists struck with a vengeance at the base. For the first time in the war, the NVA used flamethrowers as two enemy battalions breached the perimeter. Elements of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines fought hand-to-hand to push the enemy back. By dawn, the Marines had succeeded. The price, however, was high: 44 Marines KIA and another 110 wounded.

Having nearly been driven out of Con Thien, the Marines were ordered to conduct a series of operations to keep the NVA away from the all-important firebase. A three-pronged strategy was planned. Operation Hickory commenced on 18 May with a huge 700 round 105mm and 155mm salvo hammering NVA fortifications near the village of Phu An. Fighter aircraft let loose 750 and 1000-pound bombs and inundated the area with napalm. Elements of the 9th Marines and 26th Marines fought the enemy in sharp firefights near the DMZ.

Meanwhile, in an operation dubbed Lam Son 54, several battalions from the 1st Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Division pushed towards the Ben Hai River while three ARVN airborne battalions moved in a westerly direction. The South Vietnamese encountered the 31st and 812th NVA Regiments the following day and killed 342 NVA, snaring 30 prisoners and seizing 51 weapons.

Con Thien 1967
Beau Charger, however, did not begin well. Using the SLF (Special Landing Force) offshore, the leathernecks were choppered into a hot LZ and had to alter their plans. Several M-48 tanks supported the infantrymen as they fought hand-to-hand to drive the NVA from their positions. By month's end, 789 enemy were killed and 37 were captured along with an assortment of weapons. The Marines suffered 142 KIA, and 896 wounded.

In the meantime Hanoi decided to pound the outpost with mortars and heavy artillery to keep the Marines off balance while they maneuvered their forces for another possible assault on Con Thien. This cat-and-mouse game continued through 1967. The combat resembled the trench warfare of World War I. Because of the incessant shelling, some men developed "shell shock", relatively unheard of in Vietnam at that time. Marine battalions were rotated in and out regularly. It became known as one's "time in the barrel" when sent to Con Thien. It was also referred to as the "meat grinder" and the DMZ became the "Dead Marine Zone."

The worst, however, came on 2 July, 1967. In an operation dubbed Buffalo, companies A and B, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines swept an area north of Con Thien. As the infantrymen moved along Route 561 in an area called the Marketplace, the NVA pounced like a horde of fire ants. Company B was cut to pieces. When a relief force finally arrived, CO Captain Henry Radcliffe asked where the remainder of the company was.

"Sir, this is the company, or what's left of it," answered one staff sergeant.

Only 27 Marines escaped unscathed.

Numerous other operations finally made the NVA pull back to the DMZ. The close quarters combat, air and artillery strikes were taking their toll on them as well. Death showed no prejudice at Con Thien.

September 1967 was a particularly bad month. NVA gunners hammered the small base with more then 3,000 rounds. On 25 September alone, 1200 shells roared into the tiny area.

Pfc. Jack Hartzel of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines watched as a young Marine, both legs lost to artillery fire, calmly puffed on a cigarette as he waited his MVAC. Men became numb to the death and pain surrounding them.

When historians discuss the Vietnam War, Con Thien is largely overlooked. Most are unaware of the tremendous sacrifices made by the young men that had to endure the savagery. As to the hundreds killed defending that small piece of real estate, their spirits remain as testament to their bravery.

They are the Angels of Con Thien.



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James Coan ---- [email protected]