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OPERATION DEWEY CANYON

January 22nd  to March 18th 1969

 

 

 

THE SMELL OF NAPALM from the movie Apocalypse NOW

 

The 45-kilometer-long A Shau Valley, located in rugged country in southwestern Thua Thien province along the Laotian border, was the site of Base Area 611. This base area was a terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a series of roads, trails and pipelines along the Chaine Annamitique mountains that begin in North Vietnam and continue southward along the Laotian and Cambodian border areas to some 60 kilometers from Saigon. On January 20, 1969, after a hardened road into the eastern part of the valley was constructed, Operation Dewey Canyon was launched into the A Shau. Led by the three battalions of the 9th Marine Regiment, the Marines not only advanced to the Laotian border but also launched a battalion-sized raid into Laos itself. They discovered that the NVA had built major roads in the area, and as many as 1,000 trucks were moving east from there. After capturing enormous enemy arms caches, including 73 AAA guns, 16 122mm artillery guns, nearly 1,000 AK-47 rifles and more than a million rounds of small-arms and machine-gun ammunition, the Marines withdrew on March 13, 1969.

In January, 1969, intelligence reports indicated a large enemy buildup in the A Shau Valley south of Vandergrift Combat Base. The 9th Marines, commanded now by Colonel Robert H. Barrow, were given the task of denying the enemy access of the valley. It marked the kick-off of Operation Dewey Canyon which was to become one of the most successful operations in the regiments history in Vietnam.

The 56 days of Operation Dewey Canyon were marked by unparalleled Marine successes and constant frustration and defeat for the enemy. The largest enemy munitions and arms cache of the war, over 500 tons of communist arms and ammunition, were uncovered by the Marines. Among the 215 crew served weapons captured and destroyed were 12 Russian-made 122mm field guns. When the operation ended March 18th, 1,617 of the enemy had been killed. It was a superb display of the effectiveness of the Marine Corps air and ground team in combat. During the operation, the Leathernecks utilized both artillery and air in this now famous operation.

Operation Dewey Canyon was not to be the 9th Marines farewell to the A Shau Valley however. In early May, Operation Apache Snow was initiated in the valley as the regiment, commanded by Colonel Edward F. Danowitz, served as a blocking force for Army and ARVN units driving north. Although enemy contact was light for the Marines, the operation served to verify the effectiveness of the units previous thrust into the area.

 

courtesy of www.popasmoke.com

UH-1Es at Fire Base Cunningham during Operation Dewey Canyon

Fire Base Cunningham

Operation Dewey Canyon was the last major offensive by the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. It took place from January 22 through March 18, 1969 and involved a sweep of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA)-dominated A Shau Valley by the 9th Marine Regiment reinforced by elements of the 3rd Marine Regiment. The 56 days of combat were a tactical success, but did not stop the overall flow of North Vietnamese men and materiel into South Vietnam.

Prior to the launching of the operation, U.S. Marine infantry units in the northern I Corps region had been tied to their combat bases along the South Vietnam border as part of the McNamara Line. This "line" was a combination of infantry units and ground sensors devised to stop North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When Lieutenant General Raymond Davis took command of the 3rd Marine Division, he ordered Marine units to move out of their combat bases and engage the enemy. He had noted that the manning of the bases and the defensive posture they developed was contrary to the aggressive style of fighting that Marines favor. In early 1969, intelligence reports indicated that there had been a large NVA build-up in the A Shau Valley. The A Shau was just 6 miles east of the Laotian border and some 21 miles long. Based on this intelligence, Colonel Robert Barrow’s 9th Marine Regiment was ordered to depart Vandegrift Combat Base some 50 miles to the east and sweep west to deny use of the valley to the enemy.

Operation Dewey Canyon was divided into three parts: 1) the movement and positioning of air assets, 2) the movement of the 9th Marines south out of their combat base, and 3) the sweep of the A Shau valley. As the 9th Marines moved towards the A Shau valley, they established numerous firebases along the way which would provide them their artillery support once they entered the valley and guard their main supply route. All of these bases needed to be resupplied by helicopter due to their distance from the main combat bases and because resupply via ground was very difficult during monsoon season.

The Marines encountered stiff resistance throughout the conduct of the operation, most of which was fought under triple canopy jungle and within range of NVA artillery based in Laos. Marine casualties included 130 killed in action and 932 wounded.

In return, the USMC reported 1,617 killed enemies, the discovery of 500 tons of arms and munitions, and denial of the valley as a NVA staging area for the duration of the operation. They claimed the operation as an overall success.

Operation Dewey Canyon was conducted in three phases with the raids into Laos being the third and final phase. Although all three battalions were involved with the operation, only elements of the 2nd Battalion actually participated in the raid into Laos. This was due to the fact that each battalion was given an area of operation south of Fire Support Bases Cunningham and Erskine with 2nd Battalion 9th Marines area of operations taking them all the way to the South Vietnamese-Laotian border.

The third phase commenced on February 11, 1969 and by the 20th of February, Lieutenant Colonel Fox's 2nd Battalion had both Echo and Hotel Company on the Laotian border. From their position, Hotel Company could see enemy convoys traveling along Route 922. Hotel Commanding Officer David F. Winecoff later reported in U.S. Marines in Vietnam High Mobility and Standown 1969:

"The company, of course, was talking about let's get down on the road and do some ambushing. I don't think they really thought that they were going to let us go over into Laos ... I knew if the military had their way we'd be over there in Laos and the company was all up for it.... With the Paris Peace Talks going on, I wasn't sure what route was going to be taken."

It should be noted that requests had been sent up the chain of command to get permission into Laos by Major General Davis, 3rd Marine Division Commanding General. This led to Operation Prairie Fire conducted by Special Operations Group (SOG) to reconnaissance into Laos. On February 20, Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell forwarded Davis' request to have a limited raid into Base Area 611 up to General Abrams for his approval. Things in the field were moving along much faster and on the night of the 20th Captain Winecoff continued to observe heavy truck traffic and called in a fire mission.

On the 21st Captain Winecoff received a message from Colonel Barrow 9th Marines Commanding Officer, to set up an ambush along route 922. The Captain's men were not in the greatest of conditions and he requested a postponement, one that was denied by Colonel Barrow. The Captain utilized his 1st and 2nd Platoons and at 1610 1st Platoon moved out and made its way to 2nd Platoons position. At 1830 Winecoff briefed his men on the ambush. After dark they moved out towards route 922, about 900 meters away. By 0100 Captain Winecoff and Hotel Company were in place and setting up the ambush. Within minutes of getting into position they started hearing trucks coming down the road and continued to observe as forty minutes later a lone truck and one NVA soldier also walked through the kill zone. Winecoff had not wanted the ambush sprung on one truck or soldier realizing that eventually a bigger target would come down the road. At 0230 the lights of eight trucks appeared and as three trucks came into the kill zone the column of vehicles stopped. Not wanting to give away the ambush or their position Winecoff set off the claymores and the ambush. The Marines poured small arms and automatic weapons fire on the three vehicles. As reported in U.S. Marines in Vietnam High Mobility and Standown 1969 the forward observer alerted the artillery and rounds bracketed the company position.

After minutes of fire, Captain Winecoff had his men move forward ensuring that everything was destroyed. The Company proceeded to then move out to the rally point 600 meters away and waited till daylight. Later it rejoined with 3rd Platoon who had not been involved with the ambush due to the heavy patrols it had been involved with in the previous days. H Company was resupplied and the men rested. They had destroyed three trucks and killed eight NVA soldiers. Hotel did not suffer one single casualty by enemy fire. It would not be their last action in Laos because within days they would be patrolling inside Laotian borders. After Action Reports of the patrol was met with positive reviews and General Abrams formally approved the operation. The success of the operation was more valuable than just the destruction of the enemy, because it allowed Colonel Barrow to request that continued operations in Laos be approved. His reasoning for continued operations was that the presences of the enemy in the area were a threat to his troops. Barrow noted, "I put a final comment on my message, which said, quote, "Put another way, my forces should not be here if ground interdiction of Route 922 not authorized." The message finally reached General Abrams via General Stilwell who had adopted the Colonel's recommendation. General Abrams approved for further action on 24 February but restricted discussions of the Laotian operation. The following days would bring Hotel casualties not encountered in their previous incursion into Laos.

Hotel Company was ordered to go down route 922 on 24 February. Morale was low as the Marines were tired after several days of patrolling. Additionally they didn't want to leave the resupplies that included 60 mm mortar ammunition, C-rations and beer which they consumed as quoted by Captain Winecoff in U.S. Marines in Vietnam High Mobility and Standown 1969. Hotel Company was to move into Laos followed by E and F Companies and drive eastward on the road, forcing the enemy into the hands of the 1st and 3d Battalions. After a six hour night march Hotel setup a hasty ambush, at 1100 on February 24th, six NVA soldiers walked into their kill zone of which four were killed. On the 25th Hotel Company continued to move eastward again engaging NVA, resulting in the capture of one 122 mm field gun, two 40mm antiaircraft guns and killing eight NVA soldiers. Hotel Company suffered nine casualties during this fire fight, two dead and seven wounded. Later that day a company patrol was ambushed by an estimated 15 enemy troops who were dug in fortified bunkers and fighting holes. The patrol was reinforced and was able to fight its way through the enemy positions, capturing a second 122 mm gun and killing two. Casualties were mounting for Hotel Company: three killed and five wounded. Corporal William D. Morgan was one of the men killed in action when he made a daring dash and directed enemy fire away from Private First Class Robinson Santiago and another wounded buddy. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Richard M. Nixon for this action.

Hotel Company, flanked by Echo and Fox Companies continued their drive east which was rapid and didn't allow for the companies to do thorough searches. Advancing much slower would have garnered much more equipment. However, 2nd battalion did capture 20 tons of foodstuffs and ammunition, while killing 48 NVA soldiers. The three companies were within 1000 meters of the South Vietnamese border by 1 March and were helilifted to Vandergrift Combat Base on 3 March officially ending operations in Laos. 2nd battalion sustained eight killed and 33 wounded during the operation. For the record all of the dead were listed as being killed in Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam and for obvious political reasons no references were made about being in Laos.

Lieutenant Wesley Fox was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as commanding officer of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion 9th Marines on 22 February 1969.

Cpl.William D. Morgan was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as squad leader with Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion 9th Marines. Cpl. Morgan was killed in action on 25 February 1969.

LCpl. Thomas Noonan Jr was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as a fire team leader with Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion 9th Marines. LCpl. Noonan was killed in action on 5 February 1969.

PFC Alfred M. Wilson was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as a rifleman with Mike Company, 3rd Battalion 9th Marines. PFC Wilson was killed in action on 3 March 1969.

LtGen Raymond Davis’ son, Lieutenant Miles Davis, was wounded in action during the operation.

In 1971, the South Vietnamese launched an invasion of Laos named Operation Dewey Canyon II. The invasion was repelled and resulted in a major tactical defeat.

In April 1971, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized a protest rally in Washington, D.C. and named it Operation Dewey Canyon III.

REFERENCES

Dewey Canyon. F/2/9 website. Retrieved on 2006-07-06.

Herb, Richardson (2001). Dewey Canyon, Trek Into Former Battlefield Revives Memories and Creates New Friendships. Leatherneck. Retrieved on 2006-07-06.

Sterner, C. Douglas (2001). Operation Dewey Canyon. Wesley Fox. Retrieved on 2006-07-06. (PDF file, posted on the Official website of the 1st Battalion 9th Marines Network, Inc.)

Smith, Charles (1988). in (USMC): U.S. Marines in Vietnam High Mobility and Standown 1969. USMC, p.38-50. 

 

 

 

PICTURE BY TOM PILSCH

Ashau Valley south

 

PHOTO ARCHIVES

Ashau Valley south

Ashau Valley north

 

SAPPER ATTACK ON FSB CUNNINGHAM

Fire Support Base Cunningham dominated the A Shau Valley. The sappers of the North.
Vietnamese Army’s 812th Regiment were ordered to destroy it.

By Michael R. Conroy

The mission of Operation Dewey Canyon was clear – disrupt and destroy enemy logistics in
the A Shau Valley, particularly in the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) Base Area 611. As
described by Samuel Lipsman and Edward Doyle in Fighting for Time, Part of Boston Publishing
Company’s multivolume Vietnam Experience, Base Area 611 “straddled the Vietnamese-Laotian
border just north of the A Shau Valley and south of the Da Krong River…More than threequarters
of the base area was believed to lie in Laos, along Route 922. This route later joined Route
548 to provide easy access for the NVA into the Da Nang-Hue coastal region.”

NVA engineering units, inactive for months, had reopened several major infiltration routes..
This included increased enemy activity along Route 922 as it enters the A Shau Valley in the
Republic of South Vietnam from Laos. The intelligence reports brought additional scrutiny on the
border areas. Enemy forces laid down heavy volumes of anti-air-craft fire against U.S. helicopters
and other responding high-performance reconnaissance aircraft. Surveillance reported sightings of
sophisticated wire communications networks and major engineering works throughout Base Camp
Area 611 with, at times, more than 1,000 trucks per day on the move south.

Evidence strongly indicated that major elements of the 6th and 9th NVA Regiments were
attempting to work their way eastward through the A Shau Valley. There they could be reinforced
by three battalions of the 812th Regiment, which after the Tet Offensive of 1968 had pulled back
into the jungle sanctuary on the border for resupply and infusion of replacements, and by elements
of the 4th and 5th NVA Regiments, which had withdrawn into the A Shau Valley and Laos under
constant U.S. and ARVN pressure during 1968.

I seemed obvious that the NVA intended to launch a Tet offensive of some kind in 1969,
although probably not of the devastating magnitude of the 1968 Tet. Any form of victory, even one
of minor or only temporary tactical value, could have a significant influence upon the civilian
population of South Vietnam and the United States, with a more far reaching effect upon
bargaining positions at the Paris peace talks then underway. The enemy’s jungle logistics system
would therefore have to be destroyed before it could be used.

No longer content to simply hold ground and fight insurgent forces within South Vietnam,
U.S. commanders decided that it was time to take the battle to the North Vietnamese Army. To
address the threat of a North Vietnamese invasion from Laos they would strike at NVA
headquarters and logistics element in the border areas, thereby denying the enemy access into the
critical populated areas of the coastal lowlands of Quang Tri, Thua Thien and Quang Nam
provinces.

General Creighton Abrams, the MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam)
commander, wanted an operation to be conducted during the winter period of 1968-1969, believing
that it had great tactical promise in advancing the issues of the war. General Raymond G. Davis,
the 3rd Marine division commander, had discussed such an operation with General Richard
Stilwell, XXIV Corps commander.

It would not be easy, for the enemy had chosen the site of their base camp well. The terrain
in the A Shau Valley was as inhospitable and formidable as any in Vietnam.

Because of its experience operating in the rugged mountains and thick jungle canopy of
western Quang Tri province, the U.S. 9th Marine Regiment was selected to conduct Operation Dewey
Canyon. The men of the regiment were mentally and physically prepared for the rigors of Dewey
Canyon’s terrain. They brought to the operation experience in jungle survival and landing zone
construction, as well as skills in the conduct of mountain warfare, including heliborne operations
and the fire support base concept.

During the five-day planning period allowed for the operation, an XM-3 Airborne Personnel
Detector picked up evidence of enemy troop concentrations atop a 2,100-foot-long ridgeline 41/2
miles from the Laotian border which would be developed into Fire Support Base Cunningham, the
eventual command center for the operation.

Phase One (1/19/1969 – 1/30/1969), of the operation, including all pre-D-day activities
dealing with getting the artillery support established in the area, began with the opening of three
fire support bases (Henderson, Tun Tavern, and Shiloh) on January 19.

After the area had been mostly cleared by aviation ordnance, Company I, 3rd Battalion, 9th
Marines (I/3/9), and Company M, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines (M/3/9), conducted heliborne assaults
into landing zones (LZs) India and Mike 1700 meters apart on Co Ca Va Ridge. This is a
boomerang-shaped ridge approximately a half-mile long, running linearly east to west, with its
southern flank an almost sheer cliff to the valley below. Meeting no resistance, the way was clear
for Company K, 3rd Battalion, 9th marines, and engineers to sweep in and begin construction of the
fire support base.

There was no secrecy involved in the creation of a fire support base. It was an anthill of
activity, a major engineering feat and the scene of massive organized confusion as chain saws bit
into the huge jungle hardwoods. Numerous explosions sent rocks, splinters, tree limbs, and even
whole trees, raining down through clouds of choking, rising dust.

The rapid buildup of support facilities at FSB Cunningham was impressive, essentially
turning the fire support base into a mini-combat base. When placed atop a dominant terrain feature,
the fire support bases were defensible but, as “fixed” forward positions established in the enemy’s
territory by forcible entry, they were beacons and targets quickly place under constant observation
by the enemy.

From the moment the Marines landed on Co Ca Va Ridge and began their construction
efforts they were under constant enemy surveillance. It was soon obvious to the NVA observers that
this was the operational command center for all Marine operations in the area. Accordingly, and
NVA sapper unit was ordered to do a feasibility study upon which to formulate assault plans
against the fire support base.

The Marines knew the enemy’s tactics well. Accordingly, the infantry dug their fighting
holes, usually two-man positions, no more than 50 feet apart. As much barbed wire as could be
obtained was strung in several different configurations all around the outpost, with additional
barriers, such as flares, trip-wire booby traps and anti-personnel mines, placed at what were
perceived to be the most likely avenues of enemy approach.

Interlocking field of fire for individual and crew-served weapons were established so that
the defenders achieved a 360-degree integrated pattern of defensive fire. Outposts with good
vantage points were established. Listening posts were also established that would intercept attacks
or attempt at infiltration before allowing enemy forces to approach close to the defensive lines.
Because of their forward and exposed natures, the location of those outposts was continually
changing. Additional protection for the fire support base was provided by constant patrols around
the position.

The fire support bases in no way resembled a secure area with all the trappings of a
permanent installation. As operations proceeded, empty ammunition crates were broken down and
utilized as footpaths. Garbage disposal, although a problem, was never a high priority. Plastic and
cardboard wrappings, expended artillery shells and empty C-ration cans quickly stacked up. Due
to the proximity of large stores of ammunition, engineering explosives and powder charges, trash
fires were not allowed. The trash pits and bunkers were almost immediately infested with legion of
mice and rats.

The bunkers were dark and musty. Beds were made of whatever could be scrounged or
improvised. There were no windows. Available electricity was reserved for communication and
equipment. New men soon learned that peanut butter, when burned, made a dim candle. Inside the
bunkers the men attracted hordes of voracious gnats and mosquitoes. Insect bites became ulcerated
wounds constantly irritated by salty sweat. Every sore turned into jungle rot.

Mail was infrequently delivered. Hot meals were a thing of the past. Supplies were low and
for several days at a time, non-existent. The men found themselves eating cold C-ration spaghetti
for breakfast and being thankful to have it. There was little water for cooking or shaving and not
much more for drinking.

Then there was the constant enemy fire. There was nothing routine about being on the
receiving end of an artillery barrage, even when the attacks came daily or hourly and there were no
casualties. Nerves were constantly frayed. Marines in underground positions held their breath and
cast nervous eyes to straining timbers as loose dirt sifted through their accumulation of timbers,
runway matting, sandbags and logs overhead. Equipment was damaged and efficiency impaired.
The effect was cumulatively debilitating.

Finally, there was the danger of ground attack. A sapper unit of the NVA 812th Regiment
had been assigned the mission of attacking FSB Cunningham. Its primary objective was to
penetrate the Marine defenses and inflict maximum casualties, destroy equipment, ordnance and
installations, and then withdraw. A sapper attack was not designed to seize and hold or occupy a
prominent terrain feature.

The sappers took the time to professionally and skillfully plan their attack. A week was
devoted to executing a detailed reconnaissance of the fire support base. The terrain was minutely
analyzed, defensive patrol patterns studied, crew-served weapons’ positions plotted, obstacles
sketched and estimates made of the time that would be required to breach defensive barriers.

By February 16, 1969, the NVA sappers were ready to commence their attacks on FSB
Cunningham. The period between their final reconnaissance and the commencement of their attack
was allocated to briefings and rehearsals. Sand tables had been prepared from detailed sketches
made of all the Marine installations. All possible approach routes had been carefully reviewed and
the concept of terrain appreciation utilized in developing the plan of attack.

The natural and man-made obstacles had been plotted. The marines’ flares and detonation
devices had been located. Each sapper was given precise instructions on his mission. Supporting
fire concentrations had been planned, checked and rechecked. The attack signal, passwords, and
withdrawal and rally point signals were memorized by all hands. The sappers used a flare system
as a source of communications: red-area hard to get into; white-withdrawal; green-victory; green
followed by white-reinforcements requested. Personnel, ammunition and weapons were carefully.
checked.

The sappers were organized into five groups. Group 1, led by Comrade An, consisted of 16
men divided into four-man teams. The first team was assigned to attack the command operations
center and mortar positions. The second team was to attack to the right and link up with Comrade
Bong’s Group 2 at the helicopter-landing zone. The third team was to attack to the left, assault
through the landing zone and link up with Group 3, led by Comrade Tan. The fourth team was to
attack to the front toward the landing zone.

Group 2 consisted of 15 men divided into four teams led by Comrade Bong. His first four man
team was assigned to attack and destroy the artillery fire direction control center and other
battery facilities on the east end of the fire support base. The second team was to attack artillery
positions to the right while the third four-man team attacked artillery positions to the left. The
remaining three-man team was designated the group’s reserve force.

Comrade Tam’s Group 3 consisted of 12 men divided into four three-man teams
concentrating on the west end of the fire support base. The first team was assigned to attack
artillery positions to the left. The second team was to attack to the right, advancing and exploiting
contact with the Group 1 leader, Comrade An. The third team was to attack directly forward and.
then link up with a fourth group, led by Comrade Pha, for the mop-up operations. The fourth team
would be held in reserve.

Pha’s group was organized to function as the extraction force to assist in the withdrawal of
the grou0s assaulting specific objectives. A fifth group of over 100 men would provide the
assaulting forces with a base of fire utilizing RPG’s, mortars, automatic weapons and small-arms
fire.

The attack forces moved out from their various base camps at 7:30 a.m. Using previously
reconned routes, they executed a covered approach to their final assembly areas. Movement was
initiated many hours prior to the assault phase as the sappers had deliberately chosen the most
difficult avenues of approach to the target in order to avoid observation.

By 6 p.m. all the NVA sapper groups were only 100 meters outside the concertina-wire
obstacles surrounding FSB Cunningham. The NVA sappers slowly crept to assault positions just
outside the defensive wire, aided by reduced visibility. There was little moonlight and a thick
blanket of fog enveloped not only the fire support base but all routes of entry to it. Although the
approach was slow and cautious, the assault itself would be made with utmost speed. The sappers
assumed that the majority of the defenders would be driven into their bunkers by the mortar attack
that would precede their assault. The sappers knew that once the defensive obstacles were breached
under this covering fire, the bunkers would become death traps for the Marines.

In anticipation of the Lunar New Year (or Tet) cease-fire, the roaring of the big artillery
pieces on FSB Cunningham fell silent at midnight, although the allied countrywide 24-hour truce
went into effect a 6 p.m. on February 16.

At precisely 2 a.m., the NVA mortar sections commenced placing accurate supporting fire
on previously plotted primary targets, mortar positions, the command bunker, artillery positions
and communications bunkers. The Marines could hear the mortar rounds as they were tubed. The
devastatingly accurate mortar fire forced the Marines into their bunkers where they felt safe due to
a minimum overhead cover of at least four layers of sandbags.

In the midst of the noise, damage and confusion, it was immediately obvious that key
installations were the target of the intense barrage. The Marines in fighting holes on the perimeter
kept their heads down.

The Marine defensive positions were manned on the northern slope by the men of Lima
Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. Defensive positions on the flanks and along the
southern edge of the ridge were manned by a combination of Marines from the artillery units and
Colonel Barrow’s headquarters group. In addition, a reaction force of 50 Marines from the
communications, engineer and staff sections of the headquarters group were on standby as a
reserve defensive force.

The mortar barrage reached a crescendo a 2:15 a.m. as the NVA assault groups began their
efforts to breach the defensive obstacles. The initial assault wave came from the northeast. The
sappers made liberal use of Bangalore torpedoes fashioned from half-pound blocks of TNT lashed
together between bamboo sticks. The ingenious attack route lay through one of the many trash.
dumps with well-worn paths leading to every major battery facility.

Mats, brush and other local materials were thrown across the barbed wire obstacles. As the
mortar fire was lifted, rocket-propelled Chicom grenades, satchel charges and the Bangalore
torpedoes created the impression that the mortars were still firing, serving to keep the defenders on
the perimeter positions inside their bunkers. The Marines were suffering from too may head ringing
explosions to notice the difference. For hours before the cease-fire began, the artillery
batteries at the fire support bases had been hammering away in direct support of other defensive
positions. The cacophony of noise was deafening. The NVA sappers who broke through the
defensive wire barriers tossed concussion grenades and satchel charges into every open hole they
could find. The RPG’s (rocket-propelled grenades) and automatic weapons fire of the NVA base
group was concentrated on the firing slits and ports of the bunkers. Although the situation was
confusing, the Marines quickly realized that they were under ground attack and responded
ferociously, organizing an effort to clear the base in the face of heavy enemy mortar and recoilless
rifle fire.

The sapper attack was an unforgettable experience for Navy Lt. Cmdr. (chaplain) David
Brock, who later told the division chaplain: “During the early moments of the attack, and NVA
soldier stuck his head into the tent where I and two others were rising, but fortunately, did not
throw a grenade inside. A grenade was thrown into a small bunker a few feet away, killing two
men.”

Chaplain Brock remembers: “The firefight lasted until almost 7:45 a.m. and during this
time I stayed with the doctor in the Aid Station in order to administer last rites and to help with the
wounded. For two hours it looked as if the Aid Station would be made a last stand. During the
firefight various thoughts went through my mind, such as: Would we live through this? Will the
men be able to hold out? How were the young men on the lines doing? I must admit that I was
scared but the feeling soon passed because we were too busy. The others were afraid too but not one
of them showed his fear. As a matter of fact, it warmed one’s heart to see just how well these young
men did in the face of death.”

Lieutenant Commander Brock was one of the regiment’s rather unique lot of chaplains, who
almost seemed as if they were handpicked to serve with this particular group of hard-nosed
Marines. Brock had seen action in the European Theatre of Operations as a U.S. Army Sergeant in
World War II. He earned a Navy Commendation Medal with combat “V” and a Vietnamese Cross.
of Gallantry with a silver star in Vietnam.

The officer in charge of the fire support base was partially buried in a caved-in bunker
during the mortar attack. As he crawled out, he came face to face with one of the sappers. The
Marine had a grenade in his hand but was too close to the enemy soldier to use it. He leaped on the
surprised enemy soldier and bludgeoned him to death with the heavy base of the grenade.

Using his personal knife as his primary weapon, the Company Gunnery Sergeant killed
several of the sappers in hand-to-hand combat. Marines from the 106mm battery, who had manned.
a machine gun in the southeast portion of the fire support base, assaulted and killed six NVA
soldiers who were attempting to organize a strongpoint inside the perimeter. The cooks from India
Battery accounted for 13 enemy killed when they manned a 50-caliber machine gun.

The defensive perimeter had been penetrated by several dozen sappers wearing only olive
green shorts and skullcaps. They all carried pack full of explosives and were armed with shoulder fired
RPG’s, satchel charges, bamboo mines, small arms and grenades.

The artillery battalion’s fire direction control center was put out of action, as was one
howitzer. During the period from 4:10 a.m. to daylight only one of the Marines’ mortars remained
in action. The mortar team stayed with their weapon throughout the assault, re-establishing
communications with the commander in the fire direction control center and firing a total of 380
rounds.

Corporal Jim Best recalls the attack as a blur of indistinct memories. “There were red and
green tracers flashing overhead, men screaming and explosions everywhere. I lay there hugging the
ground thinking I may not get out, wondering if we’d been overrun.” Although penetrated, the
Marine lines held and at times only a scant five feet separated the combating forces. Men not
actively engaged in direct confrontations with the enemy forces were busy coordinating HEAT
(high-explosive anti-tank) and illumination artillery fire or providing other support services.
Artillery officers were coordinating fire missions while at the same time an air officer was on the
radio requesting helicopter gunship support.

Lieutenant Raymond C. Benfatti, Commanding Officer of Company L, was severely
wounded by an impacting rocket-propelled grenade during the initial moments of the attack.
Ignoring his painful injuries, Benfatti steadfastly refused medical evacuation and boldly shouted
words of encouragement to his men. He directed their fire against the infiltrating sappers and two
supporting infantry companies until the hostile sapper unit was ejected from the perimeter.

Despite the enemy rounds impacting all around him, Lieutenant Benfatti quickly organized
a reaction force and supervised his Marines in evacuating the casualties and replacing wounded
Marines in defensive emplacements. As the enemy support units pressed their attack upon the
perimeter, Benfatti continued his determined efforts, repeatedly exposing himself to intense hostile
fire as he directed the efforts of his men in repulsing the enemy attack.

A flare ship was called on station to provide illumination outside the perimeter wire. It
would remain on station throughout the night as the battle raged until dawn. With flares lighting
up the night, a group of clerks, radio operators and engineers began a systematic drive to eliminate
the enemy forces within the perimeter. Throughout the battle, Benfatti called for artillery fires
from the batteries located on the mutually supporting fire-bases to surround FSB Cunningham in a
curtain of hot steel. This supporting fire prevented enemy reinforcements and exploitation of
breaches in the wire and also rendered impossible the retreat of the sappers already inside the
compound.

At about 5:30 a.m. the Marines completed the reorganization of their positions and began
slowly but methodically to break up the sapper attack. As dawn broke, the spirited defenders were
mopping up the remnants of the enemy assault force. Contact, however, was not broken until 7 a.m.

Jim Best describes the end of the battle; “The fighting slowed and it was a few moments
before I realized that the fire support base was d4ad silent. There were no sounds, only the fear of
not knowing the exact situation.”

AS the sun rose, the light and warmth it brought created a calming sense of temporary
peace at FSB Cunningham. When it became apparent that the NVA had withdrawn for good, the
counting began. Lieutenant Benfatti, who would win the Silver Star Medal for his actions during
the attack, supervised the medical evacuation of casualties and ascertained the welfare of his
Marines, resolutely refusing medical attention for his own wounds until all the other wounded men
had been cared for.

The Marines found a total of 25 NVA bodies inside their defensive wires. One of those bodies
was that of a sapper officer. Documents found on his body were examined, translated and analyzed
by the 15th Interrogator/Translator Team, revealing the detailed planning of the attack described
above.

Searching the enemy bodies, the Marines captured 26 RPG rounds, 25 Chicom grenades,
253 bamboo explosive devices, seven rifle grenades, 12 packs, two radios, 11 AK-47 rifles and
numerous signal flares. The packs contained large quantities of marijuana and other drugs.

The use of narcotics,” platoon leader Milton J. Teixeira said, “made them a lot harder to
kill. Not one of the gooks we had inside the perimeter had less than three or four holes in him.
Usually it took a grenade or something to stop him completely.”

A final tally of the battle damage revealed 4 Marines killed in action, 46 Marines
wounded in action and 37 NVA killed in action. In “E” Battery, 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines, had
taken heavy battle damage. Surveying the smoke-shrouded fire support base, Colonel Barrow said:
“They’ll probably think twice from here on out before taking on another Marine headquarters
group. These lads did a fantastic job in what could have been a nasty situation. They were 100
percent professional fighting men; good Marines all the way.”

Michael R. Conroy, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, is working on a book on Operation.
Dewey Canyon..
Suggestions for further reading:.

• The Vietnam Experience: Fighting for Time, by Samuel Lipsman and Edward Doyle.
(Boston Publishing Company, 1983);
• The War in the Northern Provinces, by Willard Pearson (U.S. Government Printing Office,.
1975).