Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Con Thien: The “Meat Grinder”

"A miserable little series of 3 hill masses"

August 28, 2018

Con Thien Fire Base


The National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, known as the Việt Cộng (VC) was formed by NVN in 1960 to foment insurrection in RVN. In January 1964, NVN decided to help the VC. In November 1964 NVN ordered the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to infiltrate units into the RVN and conduct joint operations against the RVN government.

The US leadership entered the Indochina War with blinders on. There was no strategy. At the time, US military forces were organized and trained to fight conventional war, not a counter-insurgency. Indeed the Army felt the war would be a conventional one.

The US ambassador to Saigon, General Maxwell D. Taylor, USA (Ret.) commented the "(The American soldier), armed and equipped as he is, and trained as he is, is not suitable as a guerrilla fighter for Asian forests and jungles."

However most in the American leadership thought a war in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) against the VC and NVA would be a cake-walk. It saw the enemy as a “pushover.” President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) pressed hard to deploy US ground combat forces. He wanted to "get something done." The enemy in the RVN was anything but a "pushover."

The US Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and LBJ signed it on August 10, 1964. It granted LBJ the authority to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia. By 1965, less than six months after the Tonkin Resolution, the VC already exercised limited control over the majority of rural RVN.

The story being told in this report focuses on the US Marines and their base at Con Thien, RVN.

In his book
Con Thien: The Hill of Angels, James Coan wrote:

“In some circles, Con Thien came to symbolize America’s failed military strategy of waging a high tech war of attrition against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) … Con Thien also came to represent the US Marine Corps’ resolve to persevere, to stand resolute against a dedicated, well-armed, and highly trained enemy. For nearly three years, the Marines never wavered in fulfilling their mission to hold that piece of high ground at all costs. But the cost was high.”


Despite protests from Ambassador Taylor, General William Westmoreland, USA, the Commander US Military Assistance Command (MACV), asked for two Marine ground combat battalions. They arrived at Da Nang Air Base, RVN in March 1965. They were the first US ground combat forces in the RVN.

Initially the Marines at Da Nang were to simply defend the air base, which began building up at a rapid pace. Here you see USAF F-100s at the base in 1965. The concern was the NVA-VC might attack the base, either on the ground or by air.

As events rapidly unfolded, the Marines were assigned to the I Combat Tactical Zone (I CTZ) also known as I Corps. This was the northernmost region of the RVN, bordering the NVN and Laos. The III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) was organized to be responsible for this area.

The I CTZ consisted of five RVN provinces: Quảng Trị Province, Thừa Thiên-Huế Province, Quảng Nam Province, Quảng Tín Province, and Quảng Ngãi Province.

This report is about the Marine Corps (USMC) base at Con Thien, RVN. The Vietnamese called it “Nui Con Thien,” translated “The Hill of Angels” or “The Place of Angels.”

It was a series of three small hill masses surrounded by flat terrain. The highest hill was Hill 158, not quite 500 ft. high. The base was located two miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North from South Vietnam. This photo shows the N0EFA-1 bunker halfway up the hill for the mobile Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) operators at Con Thien and provides a nice look at the highest hill.

The Marines took over this Army Special Forces base at Con Thien to protect and hold part of an infiltration barrier along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North from South Vietnam. This infiltration barrier became known as the “McNamara Line,” named after its most aggressive proponent, Secretary of Defense (SecDef) Robert McNamara. McNamara was the barrier’s most ardent advocate. Con Thien’s story, and the story of the USMC in the RVN cannot be told without talking about McNamara’s Line.

On January 8, 1975, Walt Rostow interviewed then 59 year old McNamara. This was only eight years after the Marines moved into the base.

Rostow was an American economist and political theorist who served as Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to LBJ. Robert McNamara was the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) from January 21, 1961 - February 29, 1968, the longest serving SecDef, after which he became president of the World Bank.

In that interview Rostow asked McNamara:

“To what extent did the ‘infiltration barrier’ fulfill or fail to fulfill your rather modest hopes?”

This was McNamara’s response:

“Well, this is again a subject on which my memory is hazy and on which there is very little documentation available to me. The infiltration barrier was a barrier suggested by a group of scientists whom I had brought together to examine the effectiveness of the bombing program in Laos and North Vietnam, a program designed to reduce the infiltration of North Vietnamese forces into South Vietnam. The scientists concluded that the bombing program had been ineffective in reducing infiltration and was likely to continue to be ineffective. They suggested that it might be possible to be more effective by developing what is called here the ‘infiltration barrier,’ the use of electronic devices to detect movements and to trigger bombing attacks against such movements. My impression is that the infiltration barrier did substantially increase the effectiveness of anti-infiltration bombing; but I left the department before it was possible to evaluate that effectiveness, and I'm not an expert on it.”

McNamara’s recollection is sadly inadequate, to me, a slap in the face of all who served at Con Thien and the surrounding region.

The story of the Marine experience protecting the McNamara Line at and around Con Thien is a wrenching one. The Marines at the base endured a persistent, often continuous artillery bombardment from the NVA over a long period of time, suffering heart-breaking losses. Additionally, Marines tasked to “sweep” areas outside Con Thien to rid them of the enemy engaged in intense combat with a brand of valor I cannot imagine.

The Marines demonstrated stunning resolve throughout. In the end, they prevailed. The NVA had to delay its planned invasion of the RVN.

In the end the McNamara Line stretched for only 10 miles instead of across the entire 160 mile DMZ as planned. The project was shelved. By November 1, 1968 only one company of Marines remained at Con Thien.

The Marines left Con Thien during 1969.

Official records state that 1,419 US Marine and Navy Corpsmen were killed in action and 9,266 were wounded between 1966 and 1969, at or near Con Thien.

Editor's note: I have researched and written two other stories about the Marines in northern RVN. One is "RT Breaker Patrol, the Hill Battles of Vietnam." The other is "The 'Walking Dead,' the 1-9 Marines in Vietnam." These two stories provide considerable detail about the Marines in this region of the RVN. I commend them to you. As a result, I am going to blast through a lot of history in this story very quickly. I only wish to highlight why the Marines came to RVN, why they started at Da Nang and ended up close to and inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), explain how they got to Con Thien and why, and then convey comments about Con Thien from those who were there.

Essential background

The dominant US foreign policy objective in all its varied forms was to prevent the fall of the RVN to the communists,

Up to 1965 the US had been toe-stepping into war there. As1965 began, the US had no ground combat forces in the RVN. The NVA were crossing into the RVN in steadily increasing numbers.

The indigenous VC communist forces allied with the NVA. They fomented insurgency throughout the RVN with considerable success, scoring multiple major victories over the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), holding significant amounts of RVN territory. At times Saigon was threatened with communist takeover. Finally, there was substantial political turmoil within the RVN government, enough to threaten its very existence.

The hammer fell in Washington on February 7, 1965.

The VC attacked the US Advisor compound at Pleiku, the first such attack against US forces in the RVN. Nine Americans were killed, 128 more wounded, and 122 aircraft damaged or destroyed. Then, on February 10, 1965 the VC attacked a US base at Qui Nhon on the coast due east of Pleiku, killing 23 American soldiers and wounding 22 others.

The Pleiku attack in the RVN’s Central Highlands was of special concern. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, running from NVN through Laos, used this region as a major entry point into the RVN for NVA troops, supplies and equipment. During 1965 the NVA began deploying large units into the RVN through this entry point.

All together, the situation without US ground combat forces in the RVN looked bleak.

  • Intelligence indicated the NVA was planning a general offensive in the Central Highlands.
  • There were also indications the NVA intended to cross the DMZ.
  • The NVN Air Force (NVAF) was adding MiG-17 fighters and IL-28 bombers to its fleet of T-28 fighters, The likelihood of air and/or ground attacks against Da Nang were increasing.

As a result, in late 1964 and early 1965 LBJ made several major decisions:

  • Send a USMC Hawk surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery to Da Nang Air Base to protect against potential NVAF air attack. It arrived on February 13, 1964.
  • Conduct a restrictive eight-week air campaign against NVN that could grow in intensity over time. It was to be “limited and measured,” named “Operation Rolling Thunder.” It began on March 2, 1965 and end November 1, 1968.
  • Step up SF activities with the South Vietnamese. The 5th Special Force Group (SFG) transitioned from an advisory to a mainstay battle force. February 1965.
  • Deploy an Army AirMobile Division to RVN, the newly formed 1st Air Cav Division. Its forces began arriving on September 11, 1965.
  • Deploy two battalions of Marines to Da Nang to protect the air base, and only that. The Marines landed between March 8-12, 1965.

With a brigade of Marines in place at Da Nang, General Westmoreland stepped back to reevaluate the entire American effort in Vietnam. Rolling Thunder was not working to dissuade the NVN to stop fighting. Westmoreland now saw the US buildup as essential to the survival of the RVN. It was no longer assist, advise and defend. It would now become search out the enemy in RVN and destroy him. That required significantly more forces.

  • He asked for two Army divisions to handle the Central Highlands and coastal areas.
  • He wanted more Marines

I’ll focus on the Marines.

  • More Marine ground combat forces began arriving. They set up bases at Da Nang, Phu Bai and Chu Lai. The Marines now had three bases in RVN.
  • By early May 1965, seven of the nine infantry battalions of the 3d Marine Division, supported by most of the 12th Marines, the artillery regiment of the division, and a large portion of the 1st Marine Air Wing (MAW) were in the RVN.
  • The III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) was created on May 7, 1965 to command the forces. On May 11, 1965 the rest of the 1st MAW started to arrive and on May 15 took command of all Marine aviation in the RVN.
  • By mid-May 1965, III MAF consisted of the 1st Marine Division (1st MARDIV), the 3rd MARDIV and the 1st Marine Air Wing (1st MAW).
  • The 7th Fleet Special; Landing Force (SLF) with a headquarters, one Marine battalion, and one Marine helicopter squadron, operated from ships offshore as needed. The SLF was available to support the III MAF wherever and whenever needed.
  • Perhaps the most important change for the Marines was defense of Da Nang would no longer be the main Marine responsibility. Marines inn the RTVN were to conduct active combat operations throughout all five northern provinces.
  • The 3rd MARDIV was assigned to the three northern provinces: Quang Tri, Thua Thien and Quang Nam.
  • The 1st MARDIV was assigned to the two southern provinces of I Corps: Quang Tin and Quang Ngai.

The number one mission was to rapidly counter any threat of NVA invasion across the DMZ. The 3rd MARDIIV with supporting air and offshore shelling would the first line of defense. Then the 1st MARDIV.

LBJ promoted Lt. General Lewis Walt, USMC, the commander III MAF, to four stars. Walt remained the III MAF commander until May 31, 1967. Walt had served in the assault on Tulagi Island, the Battle off Guadalcanal, New Britain and Peleliu in WWII; he fought with the 1st MARDIV in the Korean War. He had received the Silver Star and was wounded several times, always returning to battle.

Lt. General Robert Cushman, Jr., USMC had been serving as Walt’s deputy commander at the rank of major general. He was promoted in June 1967 and succeeded Walt. Cushman remained in command through March 1969. Cushman was in Hawaii when it was attacked. He then commanded the 2-9 Marines in combat in the Pacific including the Battle of Guam and Iwo Jima. He received the Bronze Star and Legion of Merit with a combat "V" device. In Vietnam, he served as Walt's deputy commander before taking command after Walt departed..

By the end of 1965, the Marine division-wing lineup was in place in RVN.

I will focus mainly in Quang Tri Province, the northernmost province and the location of Con Thien.

The threat to Northern I Corps, 1966: The Marines move to the DMZ

Considerable activity unfolded throughout RVN in 1966. For my purposes here, there were two major events:

  • The NVA-VC attack in the A Shau Valley. It opened the avenue for mass infiltration from Laos into northern Thua Thien Province
  • The NVA attack across the DMZ into Quang Tri Province

The NVA now threatened to take over Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces. Together, these events caused the Marines to move far to the north to prevent a full scale invasion from the north.

Attack in A Shau Valley - 1966

On March 9, 1966 two NVA reinforced regiments and VC attacked a Special Forces camp in the A Shau Valley, western Thua Thien Province, about three miles from the Laotian border, 30 miles southwest of Hué, and 50 miles south of the DMZ:

This camp stood in the way of NVA invasion forces that could come down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from NVN through Laos, and cross from Laos into RVN to attack Da Nang and Hué, and take control of Thua Thien Province.

There was an intense 38 hour battle. An AC-47D gunship circled overhead warding enemy forces off, but was shot down. C-123 and CVC-2 aircraft air dropped supplies but they fell outside the perimeter. Some SF soldiers ventured out there to get as much as they could. Bad weather inhibited transport of reinforcements and lethal air attack support though a few USMC and VNAF aircraft were able to get through.

Finally, some 15 Marine H-34 helicopters by UH-1B gunships managed to get in and extract the Americans and as many Vietnamese as possible.

  • The US abandoned the camp.
  • The SF force suffered five KIAS and 12 WIA.

As a result, the NVA moved into the valley, began to construct roads into Laos, and built fortified positions with bunkers:

  • They installed anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns and artillery.
  • Some 50,000 or more NVA, about five divisions worth, infiltrated into the RVN as a result.

These forces were well positioned to take a number of turns:

  • To the east coast to divide the country
  • To the northeast to capture Hué and Da Nang air base
  • Or both in an effort to capture Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces.

The NVA invades across the DMZ

The massive infiltration that resulted from the enemy takeover of the A Shau Valley led American commanders to believe the NVA intended to open a new front in northern I Corps, specifically Quang Tri and Thuan Thien provinces, and draw US forces away from Saigon.

General Westmoreland believed the NVA intended to take Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces with a view toward setting up a “liberation regime.”

The enemy was able to infiltrate enough people to create a fairly strong anti-government movement causing riots and civil disorder throughout the RVN, and most especially in Da Nang and Hué. The photo shows Vietnamese students burning the US Consulate in Hué, June 1, 1966. These kinds of demonstrations diverted the Marines' battle plans.

Add all this up and the NVN was following its strategy: armed struggle and political struggle.

General Westmoreland was persistently critical of the Marines' approach to Vietnam. Major Jerem Swenddal, USA, wrote a paper for the USA Command and General Staff College entitled, “
General Lewis Walt: Operational Art in Vietnam, 1965-1967.” Swenddal argued that “Westmoreland felt that with the exception of a few areas, the Marines allowed the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to move about the I CTZ at will.”

In his book
A Soldier's Story," Westmoreland wrote:

"During those early months [1965], I was concerned with the tactical methods that General Walt and the Marines employed. They had established beachheads at Chu Lai and Da Nang and were reluctant to go outside them, not through any lack of courage but through a different conception of how to fight an anti-insurgency war. They were assiduously [sic] combing the countryside within the beachhead, trying to establish firm control in hamlets and villages, and planning to expand the beachhead up and down the coast."

Westmoreland believed:

"(The Marines) should have been trying to find the enemy's main forces and bring them to battle, thereby putting them on the run and reducing the threat they posed to the population."

I'll talk more about these difference later. They are stark.

Intelligence in April 1966 indicated the NVA had moved a combat division into the RVN's northern provinces. Intelligence sources had indicated the NVA 324B infantry deployed to locations just north of the DMZ and side-saddled with NVA artillery units that fired relentlessly across the DMZ. US Rolling Thunder air attacks over NVN caused the 324B to move closer and closer to the DMZ.

The 324B earned its spurs in Cambodia starting in 1955, and then along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It had three infantry regiments: 90th, 803rd, and 812th.

American defense of the northern provinces was now a priority, especially the DMZ area.


The DMZ stretched across the breadth of Vietnam, roughly on the 17th parallel along the Ban Hai River from Vietnam’s eastern coastline to Laos. It was about 160 miles east-to-west. It varied from about three miles to ten miles in width.

Lt. General Willard Pearson, USA, wrote
The War in the Northern Provinces, 1966-1968, published by the Department of the Army. He prefaced this report:

“The North Vietnamese Army units deployed just north of the demilitarized zone in 1966 posed a serious and continuing threat to the security of Quang Tri and Thua Thien (Provinces).”

As I indicated earlier, the attack in March 1966 against the SF camp in the A Shau Valley opened up an enemy offensive in Thua Thien. NVA forces were now entering the RVN from the west through the A Shau and from the north across the DMZ.

On May 19, 1966 elements of the NVA 324B Division crossed the DMZ and attacked ARVN outposts at Con Thien and Gio LInh.

Anticipating NVA plans to invade across the DMZ, the Marines launched “Operation Hastings” along with ARVN forces in July 1966, Brigadier General Lowell English, USMC, in command. The operation is believed to have prevented a full-scale NVA invasion of the North. By the end of July, the NVA 324B Division withdrew back across the DMZ. The 324B Division would be the thorn in the side of the men at Con Thien later on.

In late August 1966, the 324B Division returned to Quang Tri province, in the western mountains and jungles. The Marines responded with “Operation Prairie,” designed to prevent the NVA from attacking population centers to the east. It was much like Operation Hastings. Most fighting occurred in the Con Thien and Gio Linh areas along the central and eastern sections of the DMZ.

he 1-9 Marines, the "Walking Dead," to defend the east. As an aside, the 1-9 Marines got the nickname "Walking Dead" because that battalion sustained the highest casualty rate in Marine Corps history while in RVN. My story "The 'Walking Dead,' the 1-9 Marines in Vietnam" applies.

It’s May 1966, the NVA had virtual free use of the A Shau Valley to the west; it has invaded the RVN across the DMZ from the north. Recall that the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign began in 1965. It was not adversely impacting the NVA. In short, the NVA was on the move.

More Marines, air and ground, quickly came from Okinawa.

  • The Marines had come to northern I Corps in what seemed to be solid strength. Not enough. By the beginning of 1967, eighteen Marine infantry battalions were in place throughout the I CTZ.
  • Additionally, there were 21 fixed-wing and helicopter squadrons of the 1st MAW there to support them and the ARVN was committed to the zone.
  • General Walt had about 70,000 troops under his command by that time. That seems like a lot, but remember they were responsible for five RVN provinces.

As we press forward in this report, keep in mind the NVA attacked Marine targets near the DMZ from north of the DMZ, from inside the DMZ, and from south of the DMZ, inside RVN.

I need to stop here as we must get Con Thien set up as a US base. I'm a bit ahead of myself here.

Con Thien established as a US base

I found it hard to nail down exactly when the Marines arrived at Con Thien to stay. I have researched excellent historical documents and assembled my best assessment here. For those who know better, please inform me by e-mail, I am anxious to get this exactly right. In fact, please do that for anything in this report for which you might have better information. Accuracy is important to me.

I said the 324B attacked at Con Thien in May 1966 when it was an ARVN base camp. I have not been able to find out how long the ARVN had been using Con Thien nor how many troops it had there. This is a photo of the NVA attack near the DMZ, not necessarily of the 326B attack.

On February 20, 1967, Capt. Craig Chamberlain’s US Army Special Forces Detachment A-110, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) set up camp at Con Thien.

Navy Seabees then built roads, bunkers and connecting trenches. James Coan wrote, “(Con Thien) was now an official American base."

I need to note here Geneva Agreements required all military forces to withdraw from the DMZ.

This photo shows the Ben Hai River through the center of the DMZ. US forces were not permitted to cross the Ben Hai River. The NVA quickly realized the Marines were in a static position, within artillery range, and the NVA was without the risk of a ground attack. They could cross the DMZ and they knew US forces could not come in. Obviously US forces were at a serious disadvantage. At the time the NVA was in the driver's seat.

The arrival of A-110 and its South Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) partners to Con Thien did not go unnoticed by the enemy.

Two battalions of the 812th NVA regiment with sappers attached had crossed to the southern side of the DMZ. They then proceed south. On May 8, 1967 they attacked Con Thien supported bay mortars, rockets and flamethrowers. Their effort had been well rehearsed. It was designed to overrun the base. Friendly artillery and air were employed against the enemy throughout the attack.

Most Marine units were just south of Con Thien at the time. However, D Company 1-4 Marines had moved into the camp to add defensive strength in December 1966.

The Marines found themselves fighting alongside the SF, CIDG, and Vietnamese SF. They were hit hard with a 250-round mortar barrage followed by a ground assault. There was also hand-to-hand fighting. The D/1-4 Marines experienced the most losses among friendly forces, 44 killed in action (KIA) and 110 wounded in action (WIA). Enemy harassment attacks occurred throughout the rest of the month.

In response, General Westmoreland, I assume with approval from Washington, then authorized military ground troops to enter the DMZ. US and ARVN forces entered the DMZ on May 18, 1967 in "Operations Beau Charger," "Lam Son 54," and "Belt Tight." These were combined forces amphibious landing and sweep operations into the Southern half of the DMZ. This followed an enemy attack against Con Thien on May 8, 1967. "Operation Buffalo" of July 2-14, 1967 was also fought inside the southern half of the DMZ. Incidentally, LBJ also resumed Operation Rolling Thunder attacks against strategic attacks against NVN. They began again on May 18, 1967.

James Coan wrote that the 1-4 Marines took responsibility for Con Thien during Spring. And, as I have reported, combined forces had started going into the DMZ to fight the enemy. Con Thien converted from a SF-CIDG camp to a III MAF base on July 25, 1967.

For our purposes, some of the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam War between the Marines and enemy took place in “Leatherneck Square,” bounded by Con Thien, Firebase Gio Linh, Dong Ha Combat Base and Cam Lo. This encompassed an area of about a 54 square miles. Note the section marked "Trace" between Con Thien and Gio LInh. It represents the McNamara Line - Infiltration Barrier. I'll talk a great deal about this shortly.

This is a photo of NVA coming down across Laos toward Khe Sanh, taken in 1968 by a US Army special operations group team operating out of Phu Bai. When asked how many NVA they had observed, the answer was "Thousands of 'em!". This is a clear photo showing the "Rice Bags" used to feed them on the long march down from North Vietnam. Presented by

The enemy favored positioning forces in the rugged mountains of western Quang Tri. In late April 1967 the enemy began preparing to launch an attack against Khe Sanh. Battles with Marines known as the “Hill Fights” ensued. The Marines pushed the enemy away. I have written a report on these, "
RT Breaker Patrol, the Hill Battles of Vietnam."

The Marines spent most of their time on Con Thien and Khe Sanh during 1967. Then the enemy shifted focus to the eastern area of the DMZ, and started with Con Thien. Beginning in May 1967 the enemy began a series of attempts to take over Con Thien. In July 1967 the NVA introduced a new weapon, the 152-mm artillery which could strike Con Thien from north of or inside the DMZ. It was new to this battleground. The Soviets designed it shortly after WWII.

In September 1967 the NVA concentrated attacks by fire against Con Thien. Indeed Con Thien had become a primary target for NVA artillery. The Marine and Army artillery responded and attacks against Con Thien were reduced. This photo shows Marines hunkering down during an enemy barrage in September 1967.

I will stop the “Essential Background” here. I will move on to the McNamara Line.

Why Con Thien?

In the introduction, I said Con Thien was a series of three small hill masses surrounded by flat terrain. The highest hill was Hill 158, not quite 500 ft. high. The base was located two miles south of the DMZ separating North from South Vietnam.

I found myself having to cite a number of sources to get a good picture of Con Thien. They follow. Most sources say the Marines arrived there in early 1967, though one has said late 1966.

The French army felt Con Thien hill was a good observation point. They built a concrete and steel fort there. It then became an outpost for the Army of the ARVN. They set down mines on the northern slopes of the three hillocks.

James Coan wrote that the rationale for placing Con Thien on Hill 158 was not obvious to many, not immediately understood since it was surrounded by flat terrain. However, the view from Con Thien in all directions was described by Coan as “magnificent.'

This photo shows ARVN troops descending from a hill at Con Thien for a patrol. The photo gives you an idea of the view.

This is a view to the North from the battalion headquarters. The tower was an observation post with some range finding electronics. I found this on a page presented by GT International. I photoshopped it from color to B&W. The photos are not too good but they do give a good sense for the view.

James Coan wrote:

“To the north, one could observe the terrain above the Ben Hai River for miles into NVN itself. Looking east down the bulldozed-bar fairway-like Trace, one had an unobstructed view of the firebase at Gio Linh six miles away. A few miles beyond Gio Linh, American warships could be seen cruising off the coast in the South China Sea. West of Con Thien was the open rolling piedmont that stretched for six miles before the ground rose gradually into hills and mountains.

“And, most crucial to the Marines, Con Thien overlooked the sprawling northern I Corps logistical complex at Dong Ha ten miles to the south, as well as Cam Lo and Camp Carroll along Route 9.”

Eric Hammel, writing
Ambush Valley: I Corps, Vietnam, 1967, the Story of a Marine Infantry Battalion’s Battle for Survival, wrote:

“The Con Thien Combat Base was large enough to billet only a single Marine battalion and a single Marine artillery battery at a time."

He said most of the Marines positioned at Con Thien spent a great deal of time outside the base. Hammel wrote:

“At almost all times, Marine infantry battalions operated in the field on both sides of the Con Thien-Cam Lo MSR (Military Supply Route) (marked in red); Route 561. All the battalions of the 3rd Marine Division were at one time or another liable for operations, sweeps, along and on either side of the MSR and for garrisoning at Con Thien.”

The main MSR in this part of the world at that time was Route 9 running east out of Laos to Vietnam's coastal east.

But there was a road between Con Thien and Cam Lo, marked in red, Route 561. This view is to the south. You can see bunkers in the foreground.

The word ”sweeps” was used a lot by the Marines. Hammel describes these as “sweeps in the field:”

"(The sweeps) were central to the US plan. It was a the job of the US Marine ‘maneuver’ battalions to prevent the 324B NVA Division from blocking the Con Thien-Cam Lo MSR or concentrating for a direct assault. However, there was a rub. The needs to secure Dong Ha, C-2, Camp Carroll, and the Rockpile kept enormous resources tied to fixed locations. The need to garrison and guard those bases turned the Marines’ maneuver doctrine on its ear and gave rise to the concept that later came to be called the set-piece strategy.”

Hammel said most battalions stayed at Con Thien for a month and were relieved by another. Once a battalion left the base, it moved to the areas around the base to conduct the sweeps.

In his book
The Four Gates to Hell Dick Culver wrote Con Thien was also known as “The V-Ring.” I believe the "V-Ring" was a sharpshooter's term for the inner part of the bull's eye. I interpret that to mean the Marines felt Con Thien was that inner part of the bull's eye because of furious enemy artillery shelling it received. In his book Siege of Khe Sanh: The Story of the Vietnam War's Largest Battle, Robert Visor wrote about the V-Ring at Khe Sanh:

"Marine rifles had 'an etched steel V for a rear sight and a perfect round bead for a front sight. A marksman sets the bead on the shoulder of a deer, or neck of a squirrel, snugs the bear in the apex of the V, and smoothly pulls the trigger. To be in the V-ring is to be dead.'"

As noted earlier, Con Thien was a series of three hill masses, two of which were continually manned by a Marine battalion. The ARVN held the third hill.

Coan wrote:

“The actual assigned battalion position at Con Thien was only large enough to accommodate two of the four rifle companies … The other two rifle companies had to establish constantly moving petrol bases around the V Ring to monitor (enemy) movements.

“Con Thien was an artillery forward observer’s paradise, and that is the foremost reason why the ‘hill of angels’ had to be held, even if the inane barrier plan had never been devised.”

Don North, writing "
Tragic Valor of Marines at Con Thien” published by Consortium News, had a different perspective. He wrote:

“The 160-meter hill, if taken by the NVA, could have facilitated hits on the key U.S. staging area at Dong Ha. Aside from denying the hill to the enemy, there was little reason to protect Con Thien. But its vulnerabilities also made it an inviting target.”

In their book
US Marines in Vietnam, Fighting the North Vietnamese, 1967 , Major Gary Telfer, USMC,. Lt. Colonel Lane Rogers, USMC, and V. Keith Fleming, Jr. commented:

“Con Thien overlooked one of the principal enemy routes into South Vietnam. Capture of the outpost would open the way for a major enemy invasion of Quang Tri Province by 35,000 NVA troops massed north of the DMZ.”

In his book
Under Fire: An American Story, Oliver North said:

“(Con Thien) had long since (it was French fort) been expanded by Marines and Navy Seabees (Navy combat engineers). It looked like a huge bald circle on a hilltop, and was surrounded by miles of barbed wire, machine gun positions, artillery revetments, and thousands of mines.The original French fort had been demolished and replaced by a warren of underground bunkers which housed troop billets, operations centers, and even an aid station. Con Thien sprouted radio antenna like whiskers, and was used as a strong point from which we launched operations along the northern border of South Vietnam.”

Infiltration Barrier Concept: “McNamara’s Line”

I don’t get any pleasure writing about “The McNamara Line,” or SecDef McNamara for that matter. However, to discuss Con Thien, one must deal with what’s broadly known as the “Barrier Concept” to stop infiltration by the NVA. Con Thien would be set up as one of the Line’s strong point obstacle systems (SPOS). An argument can be made that the McNama Line was the dominant reason for taking and holding Con Thien.

Hemingway commented:

“Instead of an actual fence, a path would be hewn out of the jungle just below the DMZ and anchored by strongpoints. Phase one of the so-called Strong Point Obstacle System (SPOS) would extend from Gio Linh, on South Vietnam’s east coast, to Con Thien, an abandoned French fort located near the DMZ.”

The planned SPOS are noted by black dots.

Peter Brush, writing "
The Story Behind the McNamara Line” published in Vietnam Magazine in February 1996, addresses the evolution of the Barrier Concept in detail. I commend it to you.

The idea of a constructing a barrier across the most narrow points near the center of the country dates back to at least 1620. Brush wrote:

“The Nguyen in the South constructed two enormous walls at narrow points near the center of the country. In seven major campaigns, some lasting several years, the Trinh armies from the North never succeeded in breaking through both of these barriers.”

The French were familiar with this 17th century barrier and its success. They were interested in constructing one but were forced out of Vietnam in 1954 before they could start. The French tried their hand at constructing an electronic fence in Algeria, known as the Morice Line, part of which is shown in this photo. It was to separate Algeria from Tunisia. Fundamentally, it was an electronic fence laced with mines. The fence itself would electrocute anyone who touched it. Sensors could determine the exact location of attempted penetrations, helicopters reconnoitered overhead, and radars were tied to 105 mm howitzers to fire at enemy raiding parties. The French invested some 80,000 troops tasked to destroy anyone who penetrated the border area. The barrier proved successful.

In the late 1950s, RVN President Diem asked for US help to build "a series of strongpoints (concrete) each to hold an infantry squad, across the DMZ from the sea to Laos.

Lt. General Lionel McGarr, USA, was the commander of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) Vietnam, 1960-1962. In 1961 he sent a proposal to SecDef McNamara to set up a five- to ten-kilometer cordon sanitaire along the border of RVN and Laos to prevent NVN infiltration.

Also in 1961, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) Plan 5/61 “proposed to physically seal the border across the DMZ and the panhandle in Laos with an international force."

Furthermore, Sharon Weinberger, writing “
Five Decades Ago in Vietnam, a Different Great, Great Wall.” for the New York Times, said:

“When General Maxwell Taylor, USA (Ret.), (at the time a trusted advisor to President Kennedy) returned from South Vietnam in 1961, he proposed a seemingly simple way to stem the rising Communist insurgency: an impenetrable barrier that would cut off the supply of people and arms coming from the North.”

Weinberger wrote further:

“Taylor instructed the famed counterinsurgency expert Edward Lansdale to ‘put all the American genius to work and have an electronic line or something across the boundary and then down Laos and Cambodia.’ Lansdale had little interest in the barrier, so he handed the task to the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).”

Lansdale was, at the time, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Operations, Staff Member of the President's Committee on Military Assistance, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations.

In 1962, President Kennedy approved the establishment of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). The insurgency had become so strong the MAAG could not fully support the RVN, so MACV was begun to take over the load. It first commander was General Paul Harkins, USA, who also commanded the MAAG.

General William Westmoreland, USA took command in 1964. Others would follow but I’ll stop with Westmoreland.

These proposals did not move off the dime. However, Westmoreland liked the idea of a manned barrier to stop infiltration across the DMZ and from Laos. He too urged an international force do this job, as a regional development effort supported by combat forces. This idea also went nowhere. The view in Washington was aerial bombardment could stop the infiltration.

As you have seen, the assessment in Washington by 1965 was that the RVN was about to collapse. More troops were sent and the “Rolling Thunder” operation intensified bombing of NVN.

General Wheeler while chairman JCS, urged a limited invasion of NVN. JCS had a plan called "Operation Mule Shoe." Four US divisions, the 1st Cav, 82nd Airborne, 5th MARDIV and 2nd MARDIV and possibly the 3rdMARDIV would go into North Vietnam south of Dong Hoi and capture the southern safe havens of NVA forces.

Brush wrote:

“In 1966, Roger Fisher, a Harvard Law School professor interested in arms control, submitted a proposal to Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton that would deal with infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and across the DMZ. Fisher's proposal was to block these routes ‘with a high tech barrier.’ Fisher's timing was perfect; McNaughton and McNamara were shopping around for a better way to reduce infiltration. In April 1966, McNamara turned the proposal over to the Jason Division, a group formed in 1959 by the Institute for Defense Analyses and composed of about 45 of the nation's top academic scientists.”

Fisher sent a memo to Assistant SecDef McNaughton proposing this, according to
The Pentagon Papers:

“The purpose … was to provide the Administration with an alternative strategic concept for arresting infiltration, thereby permitting a cessation of the bombing. He had in mind a primarily air-seeded line of barbed wire, mines and chemicals since the terrain in question would make actual on-the-ground physical construction of a barrier difficult and would probably evoke fierce military opposition. In his memo, Fisher dealt at length with the pros and cons of such a proposal including a lengthy argument for its political advantages.”

Fisher wanted to build it on the 17th parallel, essentially the DMZ.

At roughly the same time, four distinguished scientific advisors to the US government set up a working group in summer 1966. In the summer of McNamara asked the group to study the “technical possibilities in relation to US operations in Vietnam.” The study group consisted of Dr. George Kistiakowsky-Harvard; Dr. Karl Kaysen-Harvard; Dr. Jerome Wiesner-MIT; and Dr. Jerrold Zachariasen-MIT. This group came to be known as the Jason Group. It worked through the Mitre Corp. supported by the Department of Defense (DoD).

The Jason Group recommended two barriers, described by Brush this way:

  • “An antipersonnel barrier manned by troops across the southern side of the DMZ from the South China Sea to Laos.
    “An antivehicular barrier, primarily an aerial operation, be emplaced in and over the Laotian panhandle to interdict traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. “

Brush went on to say:

“(New technology would be employed such as ) remote acoustic and chemical sensors; button bomblets, which were tiny mines designed to make noise when stepped on, thereby alerting the acoustic sensors; and Gravel mines, small, cloth-covered squares designed to wound legs and feet when stepped on by enemy personnel. Gravel mines were not detectable by standard mine detectors, and the plastic pellets they fired into the body were invisible to X-rays.

“The purpose of the sensors was to facilitate the acquisition of enemy ‘targets’ for US aircraft. These target-acquisition sensors would be monitored by aircraft that would relay data to a central computer site in Thailand. The central computer would also guide attack aircraft to their targets.”

McNamara raised the idea of a barrier with the JCS in March 1966. JCS referred the issue to Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, USN, Commander-in-chief Pacific (CINCPAC). Grant opposed the idea.

CINCPAC estimated such an effort would require seven to eight US divisions which would spend some three to four years making the system fully operational.

CINCPAC recommended “no.” He said it was “impracticable.” He said even if the US invested in the project, “It was doubtful that such a barrier would improve appreciably the US position in the RVN.”

According to the report,
US Marines in Vietnam, Fighting the North Vietnamese, 1967 mentioned earlier, CINCPAC felt the barrier would be too much of a strain on logistics facilities in RVN and Thailand. He felt the construction effort would be enormous. The net result in his mind would be a requirement for a formidable increase in troops. Finally, Admiral Grant said the project would deny Marine forces in the northern province maneuverability.

The maneuverability issue was a big one for Lt. General Lewis Walt, USMC, Commander III MAF. He opposed the entire concept, instead wanting to employ a mobile force in mobile operations. Static defensive positions would detract from pursuing a counter-insurgency campaign and prevent pursuit of enemy forces.

Seymour Deitchman, a special assistant for counterinsurgency, felt too many fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters would be needed to make the barrier work; costs would be unacceptably high.

Major General Rathvon Tompkins, Commander, 3rd MARDIV, termed the idea “absurd.”

The JCS disapproved. General Earle Wheeler, USA, the CJCS said in his response:

“The very substantial funds required for the barrier system would be obtained from current Service resources thereby affecting adversely important current programs.”

McNamara was not listening. He appointed Lt. General Alfred Starbird, USA, Director of the Defense Communications Agency (DCA), as head of Task Force (TF) 728 on September 15, 1966. TF 728 was to implement the project. He was to achieve initial operational capability (IOC ) by September 15, 1967, later extended to November 1,1967. TF 728 was to operate under DCA cover as a DCA Planning Group. The effort was called “Project Nine.”

In October 1966 General Westmoreland suggested an alternative to McNamara. Construct a series of strong points across all northern RVN augmented by selective use of air delivered munitions and sensors in Laos. Build observation posts and integrate patrols. Assign reaction forces the task of opposing any breaches.

McNamara was receptive and told Westmoreland to develop a plan. In the meantime, McNamara told Starbird to press on. Lt. General Walt told Major General Wood Kyle, USMC, commander 3 MARDIV to develop the USMC part of the plan, but instructed him to open the plan with a Marine Corps objection and preference for employing mobile defense operations. Walt forward Kyle’s plan to Westmoreland.

On November 26, 1966 Westmoreland forwarded his plan to McNamara:

  • Linear barrier immediately south of the DMZ, from the South China Sea to a point near Dong Ha Mountain, about 30 kms. It would be 600-1,000 meters wide and consist of wire obstacles, minefields, watch towers and a series of stone points. US armor would back it up.
  • Set up about 20 defile barriers from the west end of the linear barrier to the Laotian border. These barriers each would consist of a minefield and wire obstacles extending about 1,000 meters across the avenue of approach. Place manned strong points on the hills and ridge lines overlooking the barriers. One division would man this part of the system.
  • Construct artillery positions along Route 9
  • Position reactions forces with the artillery positions

Pay attention to the persistent concept of a "linear barrier." The Vietnam War was not linear.

Dong Ha Mountain is not to be confused with the town of Dong Ha. Dong Ha Mountain was northeast of "The Rockpile" north of Hwy 9. This map show its approximate location, marked by the red dot. Note Con Thien marked by the green dot. Chuck Truitt, a former Marine was sent there. He said it was only a few thousand meters from the DMZ.

McNamara instructed General Starbird on December 19, 1966 to set up a procurement program to provide materials for the linear section and have them in the RVN by July 1967. Part of the system was to be operational by November 1, 1967

In early 1967 MACV refined its plan with more detail. The manpower requirement was elevated to one division and one armored cavalry regiment for the western section, with one infantry brigade or Marine regiment for the eastern portion.

On March 8, 1967 McNamara instructed Starbird to procure what was needed for a 10 km section of the obstacle system. Note that at least to start, the Line was not going all the way to Laos.

Despite all the negative reactions from his military leadership, McNamara gave the project the go ahead, though the overall system design remained quite unclear. Not only did he give there go-ahead, but he had been planning on doing so since September 1966 when he appointed General Starbird to honcho the project. In effect, he had buffooned a lot of people into thinking they had a say. They did not. Furthermore, that the design was unclear gave the Marines a lot of heartburn.

Sharon Weinberger opined McNamara resurrected the barrier idea out “desperation.”

The project was officially named “Dye Marker” but was more popularly (or unpopularly) known as “The McNamara Line.”

Brush described the construction plan:

“(There would be a) 600-1,000 meter wide stretch of cleared ground (or ‘trace’) containing barbed wire, minefields, sensors, and watchtowers …

Map of Strong Point Obstacle System. The black arrows point to Marine Corps bases hosting infantry and artillery. Red dots depict other strong points in the system. Major Gary L. Teifler and Lt. Colonel Lane Rogers, both USMC and Dr. V. Keith Fleming, in their book U.S. Marines In Vietnam: Fighting The North Vietnamese, 1967, wrote the strong points were to be at key terrain features and serve as patrol and fire bases.

"… backed by a series of manned strong points. Behind these points would be a series of fire support bases (FSB) to provide an interlocking pattern of artillery fire. This part of the system would begin at the coast of South Vietnam below the DMZ and continue westward across the coastal plain a distance of about thirty kilometers to the beginning of a more mountainous area. From this point to the Laotian border the barrier would be less comprehensive. The best routes for infiltration would be marked and blocked by minefields and barbed wire obstacles. Artillery bases located on hilltop positions would provide fire support and sites for the deployment of quick reaction forces to seek out and destroy enemy infiltrators.”

Al Hemingway wrote:

“Phase one of the so-called Strong Point Obstacle System (SPOS) would extend from Gio Linh, on South Vietnam’s east coast, to Con Thien, an abandoned French fort located near the DMZ.”

Con Thien was known as Strong Point (SP) A-04. It and its “sister base at Gio Linh were the northern-most bases, above Route 9.

In my story, “
RT Breaker Patrol, the Hill Battles of Vietnam,” I described the McNamara Line:

“The anti-infiltration system, popularly known as the McNamara Line or Electric Fence, was envisioned as a 40-kilometer-long physical barrier supported by early warning devices and carefully selected fortified positions constructed on key terrain and manned as appropriate. It was intended to counter the massive infiltration of North Vietnamese troops and equipment across the demilitarized zone. The sensors, early warning devices, were designed to be used in a linear obstacle field. “General Westmoreland was not fond of the Harvard-McNamara idea, but, over the objections of his other commanders, agreed with it because it matched a plan he had to construct a manned and fortified obstacle barrier. And Westmoreland ordered the Marines to build it, despite protests from General Walt and others. Therefore, it could have been called the ‘Westmoreland line.’ “General Walt opposed the idea. He felt he needed reinforcements to hold off a potential North Vietnamese annexation of South Vietnam’s two northern provinces, not expending valuable Marines to build an obstacle system. And he surely did not want to use his Marines to conduct defensive patrols along this fixed obstacle system.

“General Walt lost the debate. He lost a lot of debates with Westmoreland. Basically, Walt wanted to run a counterinsurgency campaign, while Westmoreland preferred conventional warfare, 'search and destroy' as you might recall.”

Major General Tompkins, USMC, commander 3 MARDIV concluded, in 1968:

“Dyemarker was a b
ête noire (a thing that one particularly dislike) that influenced almost everything we did and they wouldn’t let us off the hook ... The 3d Division was responsible for Dyemarker and if we were responsible for Dyemarker … then we had to have Carroll, we had to have Ca Lu, we had to have Con Thien, we had to have Khe Sanh. These are all part of this bloody thing … it had a great deal to with the 3d Division being tied to static posts.”

You’ve heard from the brass. I thought it appropriate to pass on what two Marine enlisted men thought about the project. Al Hemingway, writing “
Con Thien: Hell on the Hill of Angels” published by the Warfare History Network in January 2016, conveyed their thoughts:

“To sum it up, we’re not enthusiastic over any barrier defense approach to the infiltration problem. We believe that a mobile defense by an adequate force would be a more flexible and economical approach to the problem.”

“With these bastards, you’d have to build the zone all the way to India, and it would take the whole Marine Corps and half the Army to guard it. Even then they’d probably burrow under it.”

Except for a few, the project was not viewed favorably. It's bizarre that McNamara, as I quoted him in the introduction, had such a vague memory of the project.

I want to add that there was an air component to the Line. It would be an anti-vehicular system, later called “Muscled Shoals” and an anti-personnel system later called “Dump Truck.” These systems were to be used in Laos, mainly along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Aircraft would drop sensors along the trail, as well as mines. The sensors would be seismic and acoustic sensors and convey the data back to a main processing and exploitation site. The schematic was drawn from an official Operation Igloo White document of January 10, 1970 report ADA485166.

The bottom line was that the McNamara Line underscored the US was going to fight a defensive war, a strategy which had already been applied in Laos. Westmoreland had wanted to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail by sending in ground forces. That proposal, “Operation El Paso,” was rejected.

The McNamara Line acknowledged the US did not intend to send offensive ground forces into NVN. This gave the NVA freedom to do what it wanted to do throughout eastern Laos, up to and around the McNamara Line, and throughout the rest of the RVN, a point driven home by the Tet Offensive of 1968.

National Security Action Memorandum No. 358 of January 13, 1967 assigned Project Nine the “hjghest national priority category.” It was signed by Walter Rostow, National Security Advisor to LBJ. That meant the project went to the head of the line for all resources needed. It would be the single-most expensive high technology project of the Vietnam War, authorized about one billion dollars. It is not clear why Rostow signed for LBJ. The effort along only a six mile stretch of eastern RVN cost about $1.8 billion, almost double the authorization.

I want to mention as an interesting aside, highlighted in the book
The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency by Annie Jacobsen. Jacobsen notes that Starbird had been Director of Military Applications of the Atomic Energy Commission and commanded Joint Task Force 8 in the conduct the "Operation Dominic" series of nuclear tests in 1962. Furthermore, the Jason Group had issued a highly classified report, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia.” And, the Pentagon sent a nuclear weapons expert, Dr. Richard Garwin of Columbia University, to Vietnam. All together these events generated rumors the US was considering employment of nuclear weapons.

John T. Correll, contributing editor of
Air Force Magazine, in a an article entitled “Igloo White” published in November 2004 said TF 728 generated multiple “bizarre ideas” such as training pigeons to carry munitions to NVA trucks, land on them and blow them up; develop sensors resembling dog excrement for concealment. Correll said the problems were pigeons could not differentiate between NVA and friendly trucks, and there were no dogs in the NVN.

The bottom line was the needed technology was not available. More sensor research and development (R&D) was needed for virtually all the sensor system requirements.

U.S. Marines In Vietnam: The Defining Year, 1968" by Jack Shulimson, Lt. Colonel A. Blasiol, UMC, Charles R. Smith, and Capt. David Dawson, USMC highlighted something Westmoreland wrote in his personal journal:

“I have had no end of problems with the strongpoint obstacle system. The reason seems to be that the Marines have had little experience in construction of fortifications and therefore lack the know-how to establish them in the way I had visualized. I thus have been remiss in taking for granted that they had the background; hopefully it is not too late to get the project on a solid track.”

The authors of the aforementioned report then wrote:

“In a formal message to General Cushman, the MACV commander laid out in detail what he wanted relative to the barrier. He stated at the outset that a strongpoint was ‘to be virtually an impregnable defensive position.’ Westmoreland noted that it was to be emplaced so that an ARVN battalion with supporting arms could withstand an attack by an enemy division. He wanted the primary defense to be based on ‘two-man fighting bunkers, that are hardened, mutually supporting, [and] protected by a dense field of defensive wire and mines.’ Radars, sensors, night observation devices, and searchlights would complement the defenses. General Westmoreland finally reminded the III MAF commander that he could consult Army Field Manuals 7-11 and 7-20 for further guidance on preparing defensive positions.”

This photo shows Marines building one bunker in 1968, "Marine style" I presume. These bunkers provided some cover.

This is another style built at a SPOS called Charlie-2, or C-2, about halfway between Con Thien and Cam Lo to the south. Building this kind of bunker created huge logistics problems for the Marines. The heavy timbers used in this partially completed bunker had to be acquired and then hauled by escorted trucks over dirt roads made virtually impassable in the monsoon rains and always vulnerable to ambush.

This message from Westmoreland was not well received by the Marines. They saw the barrier as an “impediment to fighting war. The Marines built bunkers for living, with fighting positions outside. Westmoreland looked at them and said they were foxholes and instructed changes. Senior Marine officers suggested Westmoreland was too focused on “trifles.”

The Marines pressed ahead as well as they could. The 9th Marines were responsible for all the strongpoints except for A-1 and A-4, which extended from Gio LInh to Con Thien. Throughout the Marines worried about their ability to defend themselves. Requirements were vague, and considerable dispute centered on design.

Initial work began in April 1967 and extended into 1968.

The Marine 11th Engineer Battalion came in and rapidly cleared a 200-meter swath (656 ft) of land between Con Thien and Gio Linh, over a distance of 10,560 meters, about 6.5 miles. Some called it “the trace,” others the “Firebreak,” and still others the “death strip.” The battalion started operations on April 11, 1967. It had to first remove all vegetation. It finished that job on May 1. The battalion employed 20 USMC tractors and four ARVN tractors, each used daily. This photo was taken in summer 1967. You can see the firebreak, aka the McNamara line. Gio Linh is at the far end of the clearing, South China Sea just beyond with Dong Ha to the right. To the left is the DMZ.

As soon as construction of the McNamara Line began, the NVA started attacking all the Marine bases and facilities along Route 9 such as Con Thien and Khe Sanh, and three fire bases at Calu, Rockville and Carroll.

The 9th Marines were tasked to provide security in the area between Con Thien and Gio Linh. By late April 1967 the NVA appeared hell bent on disrupting this area. This photo shows NVN artillery hitting close to Con Thien.

The enemy shelled both bases regularly, and according to Coan, the NVA did this from positions within the DMZ. As a result, helicopter resupply became more risky especially as the NVA targeted their landing zones (LZs). The LZs came to be known as “Death Valley.”

I'll ask you to use your imagination with this photo. The photo actually shows a USMC helicopter opening fire at night on suspected enemy movements on the perimeter of Con Thien. And you see artillery going out from Con Thien. Imagine a similar picture when the artillery was coming in targeted at Con Thien. One Marine said, "I'm not scared stiff, but I'm scared." One can understand why.

While on the subject, beginning in May 1967 the NVA tried multiple times to capture or destroy the base. Again in September 1967 the NVA concentrated attacks against Con Thien. From September 19-27, 1967, the NVA launched a massive artillery attack against Con Thien, firing more than 3,000 heavy artillery, mortar and rocket rounds at the two battalions of Marines posted there. This was one of the heaviest North Vietnamese artillery bombardments against American troops during the war. Army and Marine Artillery along with US air responded and forced the NVA to throttle back.

USMC fire bases had 175 mm self-propelled artillery in order to support all activities all the way to the farthest Marine base, Khe Sanh. Attacks against Khe Sanh began in April and against Con Thien in May 1967. NVA units ambushed and attacked Marine supply convoys going to the bases along Route 9. The photo shows Army 175mm guns attached to the 11th Marines firing at enemy positions near Da Nang — you get the idea. Big guns with a maximum range of about 25 miles.

Van Nguyen Duong, author of
The tragedy of the Vietnam War, said the NVA massed large numbers of forces along the DMZ to test US reactions and prepare a strategy for the winter-spring offensive planned for 1967-1968. The JCS could see right away that MACV would need more forces for the planned construction of the McNamara Line.

Once again, the 11th Engineers pressed on. The 11th began Phase II on May 5, 1967. This phase came to be known as “Operation Firebreak.” The engineers cleared a circle with a 500 meter (1640 ft) radius around both Con Thien and Gio Linh. They completed that by May 29.

Following that the 11th moved into Phase III by widening the 200 meter strip to 600 meters (1958 ft). This took two days. The 11th also upgraded roads and built new ones during May and June.

Shulimson et al said the “11th Engineer Battalion contributed more than 10,000 man hours and 4,500 tractor hours to this hazardous effort.”

The Engineers were also tasked during this time to put on their infantry caps and fight in what were called “security missions.”

I do not know exactly how many casualties the 11th suffered. I do know by the end of the battalion’s first year of operations (1967), nearly 300 Marines received Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars, and three Navy Commendation Medals.

The McNamara Line was to have been completed and operational by January 1968. But the NVA had congregated around the Marine base at Khe Sanh, shown here, to the west of Con Thien, not far from the Laotian border. Defense of Khe Sanh became top priority. All sensors and related equipment to have been installed along the DMZ was given to Khe Sanh. USAF aircraft dropped seismic and acoustic sensors on likely enemy approaches to Khe Sanh. Colonel David Lounds, USMC, said “I think the casualties would have been almost doubled (without the sensors).”

Employment of the sensors at Khe Sanh highlighted a huge lesson. Attacks against Khe Sanh were not linear. The enemy attacked from multiple angles and positions around the base. That the McNamara Line was envisioned as a linear barrier from the outset would not be workable. This simplified schematic tells the story. Khe Sanh was virtually surrounded by mountains and hills. The NVA 325C and 304 Divisions came from all sides.

US efforts in Quang Tri during 1967 focused on Con Thien and Khe Sanh. By the end of 1967 Lt. General Victor Krulak, USMC, the commander Fleet Marine Force Pacific (FMFPAC) noted that the Marines had 956 casualties at the end of the contest for Con Thien and for the year nearly 5,000 dead and wounded in the DMZ area alone. He and Admiral Sharp opined those kinds of casualties were not sustainable. As a result, Westmoreland reinforced III MAF with a brigade from the Army's 1st Cavalry Division and convinced Admiral Sharp to allocate the bulk of B-52 missions to the enemy areas near Con Thien.

By January 1968, both Generals Westmoreland and Cushman agreed to break off installation of the linear obstacle system along the trace. In effect, command emphasis terminated. General Cushman would later acknowledge he “just quit” building the “fence.”

On March 1, 1968, Lt. General William Rossen, USA decided to launch a major operation to eliminate the enemy threat in the Con Then-Go Linh area and followed that immediately with the relief of Khe Sanh. The Con Thien operation was to be a deception plan for the relief of Khe Sanh. It was initiated north of Dong Ha on March 30 and terminated on May 1. The relief of Khe Sanh was achieved on April 8.

Khe Sanh proved to be the end of the McNamara Line. By spring 1968 the barrier was far behind schedule and it appeared that all work had stopped.

There was no evidence the sensor approach was going to work along a linear, straight line as was envisioned across the DMZ. The technologies and concept were adapted to stopping the vehicle flow along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

The McNamara Line across the DMZ was never constructed as planned and was abandoned. It was not a success in the RVN. It covered only 10 miles, from Gio Linh on the east coast to Con Thien. The enemy simply skirted it to get into the South.

McNamara announced he would resign as secretary of defense on November 29, 1967. His resignation was effective on February 29, 1968. He would then became president of the World Bank on April 1, 1968. Melvin Laird replaced him and in March 1968 Laird announced the project had been canceled, saying, “It did not work as expected.”

Some 1,400 Marines died trying to build and defend it.

Here you see Marines at Con Thien using their tank to transport KIA.

On March 30, 1972 the NVA launched its largest military operation yet, invading the RVN across the DMZ.

Westmoreland and Walt

I need to say a few words about the opposing views held by Generals Westmoreland and Walt. Major Jeremy Swenddal, USA, wrote a paper for the USA Command and General Staff College entitled, “General Lewis Walt: Operational Art in Vietnam, 1965-1967.” Swenddal wrote:

“In combat, III MAF faced a hybrid threat of North Vietnamese regular forces and entrenched Viet Cong main force and guerrilla units. Apart from the significant challenges of combat operations, General Walt found himself confronted by vague and restricting U.S. policy, ineffective U.S. and South Vietnamese civilian and governmental agencies, a complex South Vietnamese civilian and military operating environment, and competing warfighting strategies and inter-service rivalries between his U.S. Army combat chain-of-command (Westmoreland) and internal Marine Corps leadership.”

Swendaal added:

“The core disagreement (between Westmoreland and Walt) can best be understood as a divergence in emphasis. Westmoreland emphasized large unit offensive operations before pacification and the Marine leaders believed that pacification and security of the population was the best method for defeating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese.”

In his book,
A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland wrote:

“I believed the marines should have been trying to find the enemy’s main forces and bring them to battle, thereby putting them on the run and reducing the threat they posed to the population.”

What is striking here is that at the same time Westmoreland's acceptance of the McNamara Line pinned down the Marines to static positions.

Swendaal wrote this about Walt’s objectives:

“Walt pursued operations in the I CTZ along three lines of effort. Simply stated it consisted of a counter-guerrilla campaign within the TAORs (Tactical Area of Responsibility), search and destroy operations against enemy main force troops outside the TAORs, and a pacification campaign within the hamlets to eradicate the VC ‘infrastructure’ and win the loyalty of the people to the government’s cause.”

In short: counter-guerrilla and pacification-civil action programs. Walt favored the latter, but found a balance between the two,.

In the Marine Corps
History of the Marine Corps participation in the Vietnam War, the authors put it this way:

“Even with its influx of Marines, a manpower shortage plagued III MAF, compounding an already difficult mission. Senior Marine commanders expressed strong disagreement with the conduct of the war by the leadership of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. The Marines pushed for a small-scale unit pacification program along the populated coastal areas, while the Army leadership in Saigon advocated large unit search and destroy operations against North Vietnamese units. These disagreements further hindered the ability of III MAF to conduct effective combat operations.”

Each man read the intelligence differently: Westmoreland believed major NVN Army (NVA) combat efforts would occur in the northern provinces while Walt did not see an all-out NVA offensive in the works.

Nonetheless, MACV instructed the Marines to shift their emphases away from pacification and towards the DMZ where Westmoreland believed the NVA would cross in strength into Quang Tri.

In 1966-1967, the major effort of the Marines in the northern Quang Tri was to stop the infiltration. Swenddal argued that “Westmoreland felt that with the exception of a few areas, the Marines allowed the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to move about the I CTZ at will.”

There would be no major, all out enemy offensive in 1966. That said the NVA would continue to infiltrate at high levels.

As I indicated previously, Walt protested the barrier but at the end dutifully obliged. Walt relinquished command in June 1967, replaced by Lt. General Robert Cushman, USMC, who had served as Walt’s number two.

The Marines began shifting their forces to northern Quang Tri in 1966 and stayed there through 1967. In turn, the enemy began attacking more and more in the southern provinces of I Corps. That resulted in Westmoreland sending in what would amount to an Army division to work these southern areas while the Marines worked the DMZ region.

The bottom line problem for the 3rd MARDIV is its leadership felt tied down to static positions to defend a linear system for which it lacked the resources. But resources were not the only problem for the Marines. As I indicated previously, the Vietnam War was not linear. Instead it required considerable maneuver to deal with a host of enemy moving parts.

Lt. General Victor "Brute" Krulak, USMC, the commander Fleet Marine Force Pacific (FMFPAC), viewed the war much the same as did General Walt. Krulak was a major advocate for pacification. In July 1967, he said:

"We have seen what we sincerely believe to be the maldeployment of forces, a misapplication of power." He would later say that the difference between the Marines and Westmoreland over pacification went "to the heart of the war."

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an editor and historian, wrote "
A Noble Soldier, Not a Great Soldier," published in the National Review in 2005. He highlighted Krulak's position:

"Krulak pointed out that the Marines employed an approach in Vietnam–the Combined Action Program–that they had first used in Haiti (1915-34), Nicaragua (1926-33), and Santo Domingo (1916-22). 'Marine Corps experience in stabilizing governments and combating guerrilla forces was distilled in lecture form at the Marine Corps Schools . . .beginning in 1920.'

"According to Krulak, the Marine Corps approach in Vietnam had three elements:

  • "emphasis on pacification of the coastal areas in which 80 percent of the people lived;
  • "degradation of the ability of the North Vietnamese to fight by cutting off supplies before they left Northern ports of entry;
  • "and engagement of PAVN and V.C. main force units on terms favorable to American forces.

"Westmoreland, according to Krulak, made the 'third point the primary undertaking, even while deemphasizing the need for clearly favorable conditions before engaging the enemy.'”

In his book
Strategy in Vietnam: The Marines and Revolutionary War in I Corps, 1965-1972, Michael Hennessy outlined the bottom line for the Marines:

"Although the official strategy (Westmoreland's) had now been decided, the Marines followed a different approach.,. Apparently without ever establishing the cost or ramifications or receiving authorization from the US Embassy, MACV, or anyone else, Generals Greene (Commandant Marine Corps), Krulak and Walt set about pursuing their own strategy. Termed the 'balanced approach' by USMC official histories, the Marines' strategy entailed a multi pronged effort employing three operational-tactical formulas:

  • "Battalion, or larger, operations would be directed toward destroying main-force concentrations once positively located (as opposed to searching the hinterland for them);
  • "Aggressive counter-guerrilla patrols within, and in proximity took the population centers; and
  • "Employing USMC forces as a general shield behind which training of local security forces and other pacification programs could take place unimpeded."

Hennessy contended that Westmoreland's attrition strategy had failed in Quang Tri at the least, and most especially at Con Thien. He wrote that Con Thien took the worst of the enemy artillery shelling. Overall, the continuous shelling of Con Thien, Dong Ha, Camp Carroll and Cam Lo tied down the Marines such that they were limited in securing the DMZ.

Walt's great fear was that he would be caught in a "trap of expending troops unduly seeking prevent the entry of … units who pose a lesser threat to our ultimate objective, which remains the people of South Vietnam."

“Voices from Con Thien:” Marines who were there

Con Thien’s Marines endured direct enemy assaults. But arguably the greatest threat was the near daily enemy artillery bombardments which to many seemed to have no end in sight. Enemy positions ranged from 700 meters (0.4 miles) to 10 miles away, The enemy shelled Con Thien despite persistent US bombing of enemy positions and USA artillery fires against the enemy on the north side of the DMZ and within the DMZ.

There is plenty written about the battles and bombardments of Con Thien. It’s not my purpose to rehash those. Much of what has been written provides substantial detail. I want to concentrate on the views of the Marines who were there. They fought and endured bravely despite plethora of inept civilian and military leadership above them.

As you read their remarks, you will come across the term "shell shock" more than once. This is technically called Neuropsychiatric casualties. Shell shock was not a normal occurrence in the rest of RVN. That says a lot about the enormity of the artillery barrages that fell on Con Thien. I will also say that the Marines who follow were not afraid to fight. Many were eager to move out,. find the enemy, and defeat him. Their problem centers on having to sit tight and wait for the artillery to come, hoping they won't get hit.

So let’s get started.

In 1967, CBS did a special report, hosted by Mike Wallace, “The Ordeal of Con Thien.” Several Marines were interviewed:

“We can’t reach those (enemy) big guns, and they just keep dropping in, there’s nothing you can do. It’s like being a big bullseye on top of a hill. And you’re just sitting there, waiting. You can’t be safe. You can be lucky. That’s it.”

“Stuff landing all the time, bouncing off you, and, uh, you’re just as scared every time. And it gets worse. Closer they come, the more they throw, the more you get scared. Then you get up. It’s a wonderful feeling just to be alive and be able to walk around after one of those.”

“If I ever live a hundred years, I’ll just never ever be able to tell the story the way it really happened. These young kids, you just run up them and, uh, when we were all boxed in and they (enemy) were all around, they were all over our perimeter and we were throwing hand grenades, and it got pretty close and, um, you just run up to one of these kids and say, ‘Marine, we’re gonna get out of here, aren’t we?’ And the kid looks up at you and says, ‘You damn right we are skip.”

“What happened to your squad?” “Uh they was hit, most of them was hit by shrapnel, and they was medevac’d. I had 13 men when I came. Six (are still here).”

“I think we’re uh, just occupying ground and uh losing too many men. I’m losing too many men. We’re gonna stay here too much longer we wouldn’t have much left out of this platoon, let alone the company. Uh, I say about three to four people get it per day. Not real bad, but enough got to be medevac’d. Cut my platoon down. Sure it is (all part of war), but for seven months up here one battalion ain’t gonna have much left. If that’s part of war, they outta rotate a bit more I think. Send us back where we can get new men and train ‘em. See we’re gettin’ new men out here. They're comin’ out of, well, what you might call green, and they really don’t know how to act.”

“The rifles have been jamming, the mud’s been slowing everything down, and the artillery is coming in from everywhere, and it just gets pretty futile and frustrating.”

“The real depressing part about it is that there’s not really much you can do, you know what I mean? You see a round come in and see your buddies get blown away and wounded and stuff like that.”

“Well, I can’t say I’m scared stiff, but I’m scared. I mean after a while, you know it’s gonna come. You can’t do nothin’ about it. And you just look to God. That’s about the only thing you can do.”

“If we, uh, if we don’t get some more people up in this area real quick, and we don’t get some more B-52s, real fast, then these people (the enemy) are gonna be all the way down to Da Nang before anybody knows it.”

Mike Murdock was at Con thien in 1969, with the 1st Radio Battalion. His story, “
A True Birthday Story, November 10, 1969,” was about how the Marines managed to pilfer Army beer. November 10 is the Marines Corps birthday after all. But it was the last week of October 1969, and he provides a good description of what it was like at Con Thien in the pouring rain in late 1969:

“The fire support base at Con Thien, the ‘Hill of Angels’, was a quagmire. Days of heavy rain had turned the red earth into gruel. On the tank trail and other places churned by tracked vehicles the yard deep mud had the consistency of pudding. Passing vehicles splashed parallel channels which quickly refilled with the oozing, relentless, muck. The soupy substance was level with the running boards of trucks and flowed into the floor boards of smaller vehicles.

“Marines trying to cross the road were forced to wait until a tank or armored personnel carrier passed, momentarily clearing two semi-solid footholds in the sea of sucking, clinging mud. As a vehicle passed, the young men would jump into the closest track, regain their balance and leap to the second track. Men too slow or with legs too short to clear the sometimes waist deep furrows found themselves encased in the slime, tugging mightily to extricate themselves before the next speeding vehicle approached. Boots hastily pulled on without being tightly laced were frequently left behind, and once the mud closed over anything in it's grasp, all trace of the item disappeared. Woe be unto the individual who had the misfortune or poor judgment to allow his weapon to slip below the surface.

“The single track road leading south towards Cam Lo and Route Nine was all but impassable. Nothing moved north or south except absolutely essential men and materials. Men trudged forward, bent from the waist, laboriously pulling each foot from the mire only to plunge it once more into the filth, driven downward by the weight of weapons and equipment. Vehicles slewed and slid along, spraying everything and everybody with the ever present mud.

“The low weather, coupled with a high tempo of operations further west, severely limited the helicopter transportation available. The limited air lift placed an increased burden on the ground transport wallowing up ‘ambush alley’ through the fire support bases at Yankee Station and Charlie Two. Anything other than ammunition, fuel and the inevitable ‘C’ rations remained in the marshaling areas at Dong Ha, the 3rd Marine Division 'rear.' As the supply line stretched thinner and thinner, items other than essentials began to disappear. Eventually, an evening arrived when the last warm Black Label was consumed. Searches through the bunkers buried in the soggy hill side confirmed that the Marines at Con Thien were out of beer.”

Bob McIntosh

"It (Con Thien, 1967) was a completely different world … Two sergeants and two lieutenants drowned saving their men (who were being overwhelmed by rushing water from the monsoons in their position.) They were free, they were out of there and they went back to make sure their men were safe. They actually gave their lives trying to save other Marines … To me they represent the best this country has to offer. I don’t know how to put into words how I feel about it. Those are the [men] that stick in my mind more than any others, the ones that not only gave their life, but gave their lives either saving their own men or risking their lives to save someone else. You don’t find people with that type of character and that type of caliber in life very often.

"It’s like an arrow going through your heart when you lose some of your men as a platoon commander … I made three promises to myself when I left Con Thien: I promised as I go through life enjoy every day because you never know when your final day is, because I saw it snuffed out very easily; as you go through life, try and give something back to the community; and if I ever had the opportunity [to] try and make it harder for old men to send young men to war.

"Any challenge you face is not going to come anywhere close to what that is. Life has been a piece of cake after that.”

Scott Harrison

"Rockets were raining down outside of the Marine outpost of Con Thien on a late afternoon. The rockets were coming from the North Vietnamese Army, across the DMZ. As usual when the rockets screamed down too close to me, I had been yelling at God to get himself down here and help me, now, or it would be too late. He must have been listening because the rockets stopped and I had not received a scratch. But I am kidding here about how He was listening to me. He was not even in the area. As I lifted myself out of my 'hole,' I saw pieces of Marines everywhere. I saw others with their hands reaching up calling for the corpsman. But I didn’t see god. Ever since that day, I have stopped asking him for stuff. If he can’t come down to help out a few dying Marines, I don’t see why we should continue our friendship.

"As we left the perimeter in the early pre-dawn hours, I noticed a Catholic priest standing at the barbed wire, talking to each of the Marines as they passed by him on their way out of camp. He said something to me as I passed, apparently they were the same words he was giving everybody, and he giving the sign of the cross. I whispered to the guy behind me, who was looking quite scared, asking him what the priest had said to him. He said the priest was giving last rites to everyone leaving on the patrol.

"Here we were leaving on one more routine patrol, and what? Did this priest know something we didn’t?"

Rick Eilert

Rick Eilert was with the 3-26 Marines

"It (3-26 Marines battle with an NVA regiment near Con Thien) was God awful, but on the other hand one of the proudest events of my life. Yet I still feel a terrible sense of guilt … I was amazed at how calm and collected young Marines were from start to finish. In my case I was certain my heart would explode in my chest because I was so frightened … Swarms of NVA came directly toward us. If they got up to our line, we drove them back every time,. However, NVA dressed as Marines made it into our lines. I found one dead NVA so disguised. When we pulled back to form a tighter perimeter, the area was covered with dead and wounded Marines; they just seemed to be everywhere. Next day, when we went out to retrieve our dead, I came across the bodies of four Marines I knew personally."

NB: Rick Eilert was severely wounded on Nov. 26, 1967, near Thua Thien as part of Lima Company. Hit by shrapnel from two grenades and shot at point-blank range, he survived only to undergo an incredible number of painful operations over the next 43 years. He chronicled his recuperation at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in
For Self and Country in 1983. He died of a heart attack in 2011 after having a leg amputated in 2010, age 64.

Tom Evans

Tom Evans was with A/1-9 Marines.

"Two of my men died while I was a section leader, both at Con Thien. One new guy was killed so soon after he arrived that nobody knew his name. We were sitting along a trench line, cleaning weapons. At first, all three new guys dove into the trench at the sound of artillery, incoming or outgoing. To a veteran, the sound of incoming is as distinct as a drill instructor’s marching cadence. To a new guy, there is no distinction. Eventually, one of the new guys steeled himself not to dive into the trench when outgoing was fired. He would flinch, but not move. Suddenly, there was a bang-bang–recoilless rifle fire–and the rest of us dove into the trench. That fire was the worst incoming of all, since it was a direct-fire weapon and the NVA sometimes snuck up to the wire about 100 yards away. The round had hit just above our trench line, slamming into the hillside. The new guy’s head was completely gone. The other two new guys vomited into the trench. After a few minutes, I lectured them: ‘Follow your instincts. If he had, he might be alive.’

"The second Marine killed was a black man from Alabama who we called ‘Lightning.’ He kept buttoned up at all times, helmet and boots on, flak jacket zipped up to the neck, even at night in the bunker. One day at dusk he got a small shrapnel bruise in his Adam’s apple. He wanted to register his wound with the company corpsman, but I told him dusk was an especially bad time to be moving around the hill because the NVA fired their big guns out of North Vietnam from the west, knowing we couldn’t spot them in the setting sun. We told him that we would verify his wound the next day. Lightning … headed out.

"A minute later there was a tremendous explosion, an airburst right over the company command post (CP). We ran up there. Captain Ryan (the CO), the executive officer, the company radioman and the company corpsman were all killed. The company runner lay talking calmly. I held him. He asked for a cigarette and asked if he would be OK. Sure, I said. The back of his head was completely gone. Shortly afterward, he died.

"We found Lightning in the CP bunker. The others had been outside, filling sandbags. He was sitting on a cot, apparently knocked out. We shook him and checked his pulse. No pulse, yet no sign of any wound. I took off his helmet and held it up to the setting sun. A tiny sunbeam poked through. We searched his scalp and found a needle-sized shrapnel hole. He got his Purple Heart."

Roger Harris

“I vividly remember trembling with fear from the incoming shells in the mud-filled holes at Con Thien, wishing the shelling would stop and we could fight hand-to-hand. I remember those feelings like it was yesterday.

“I, along with others, witnessed deaths unimaginable. We picked up the pieces of Marine bodies obliterated by direct hits. We stacked green body bags. I often wondered why others died and I lived.”

Sponson Box,” an official publication of the USMC Tankers Association,” devoted almost all of its April-June-July 2013 edition to Con Thien. I will draw from it.

Greg Kelley

Greg Kelley was a private first class (Pfc) with Alpha 24, 3rd Tank Battalion, assigned to defend the Con Thien base perimeter for most of 1967.

While on a road sweep out of Con Thien with two tanks and a handful of “grunts,” meaning Marine Corps infantry, his group was attacked:

“We got hit badly. As I recall, we were ‘suckered’ into it by small arms. The tanks were committed deeply into the tree line a hundred yards or so off the road, and one was pretty much knocked out … I was the gunner on (tank) A-24. We were firing .30 cal. and canister rounds like crazy and one of the canister rounds broke open a breach of the 90** when we were rocketed, disabling it with the slugs jamming it.

**A tank breech is where the canister was loaded from the rear. It should close before the shell fires. In this case, I think a canister round broke the breech open, a rocket hit, and the canister shells jammed up the system.

“I remember the air-strike that was so close that it sucked the loader’s hatch open. I recall jumping out with my loader (a fellow lance corporal) to attach a cable and hooks to the other tank to pull it out while we were getting showered with small arms and machine gun fire. I recall one or more crewmen from the ‘other tank’ were wounded, and one was hit in the thigh pretty badly. I recall thinking ‘he got a million-dollar wound.’ I recall having to leave one of the grunts in the trees screaming. I recall sweeping the area a couple days later with a couple of squads and a few tanks, and finding the grunt who had been screaming. The NVA tortured him badly before he died.”

John Lee

John Lee was with Hotel Co. 2/3 Marines. His company came into a LZ near Cam Lo, and swept in the direction of Con Thien.

“At the sound of gunfire I hit the ground, facing outboard. I recall Cpl. Farley saying, ‘It’s Charles...he come to get us.’ (He said it, I swear on the Bible). Anyway, I hadn't been prone more than 30 seconds when a squad of NVA started coming down the road about 10 yards from me. My first thought was, ‘Why don't they see me?’ And then I thought, 'When they do, I'm screwed!’ because I was lying right in the open. Without aiming, I fired two quick shots and missed. Then my damn rifle jammed. It was the classic M-16 jam where the spent casing stayed in the chamber (that is, it was not extracted as the bolt came back) and as the bolt came forward it stripped a fresh round out of the magazine and jammed it behind the spent casing. The NVA then jumped off the road and into the bushes. I rolled off of the road and yelled to LCpl. Gene White to throw me his cleaning rod … I got the rod, cleared the jam and
shot an NVA that stood up in the grass about 10 yards or so away. I guess that he was trying to figure out where we were...that was a dumb move on his part. I then threw a couple of frags into the area where I'd seen the NVA and I tossed the M-72 LAAW (Light Anti-Armor Weapon) that I was carrying to Farley.”

Dick Culver

Dick Culver was with the 2/3 Marines and part of the SLF.

“Con Thien was not a nice place. Known to the Marines in Northern I Corps as "The V Ring", it sat within easy reach of the NVA Artillery located just across the Ben Hai River. To orient those not familiar with the geography of the Vietnamese DMZ, the Ben Hai acted as the dividing line between North and South Vietnam. I had learned to hate high angle fire weapons while sitting on the south side of Freedom Bridge (spanning the Ben Hai) during Operation Hickory in May. When our ‘birddog’ (O-2 aircraft) artillery spotter plane left to refuel, the NVA used the battalion radio antenna for aiming stakes, dropping approximately 185 rounds of mixed calibers of heavy artillery on our collective fannies shortly after our landing. Crouching in a half dug hole in rock hard dirt, I silently cursed the artillery gods and their ugly handmaidens, the mortar fairies. As the old saying goes, I understand the round with my name on it, but the 'to whom it may concern' stuff is scary as hell. High angle fire falls into the latter category. The residents of Con Thien lived with this threat constantly.

“Con Thien is a miserable little series of 3 hill masses, two of which were continually manned by a Marine Battalion to deny it to the NVA. The ARVNs held the 3rd hill with the enthusiasm of a slug and were not well regarded by the Marines. Anyone who held Con Thien, however, could look down the entire strip to our 8 in batteries at Cam Lo and control the area using the artillery batteries on the NVA side of the Ben Hai. In short, it made a heck of a good FO (forward observer) position. This would then have allowed the NVA free run on the south side of the Ben Hai River and made Cam Lo untenable. This, of course, we could not allow to happen. The actual assigned battalion position at Con Thien was only large enough to accommodate two of the four rifle companies that comprised a Marine Battalion without drawing constant bombardment from the NVA batteries. The other two rifle companies had to establish constantly moving patrol bases around the ‘V-Ring’ to monitor the movement of any NVA attempts to infiltrate the area. If the screening companies were lax in their patrol and ambush techniques, the NVA would take advantage of the sloppiness. Slipups would allow the bad guys to mass and launch an attack to take the coveted high ground. Needless to say, being assigned as the ‘duty battalion’ to occupy and defend the ‘V-Ring’ was not a favorite assignment. The patrolling companies were rotated with the two occupying the lines, but there were no days off. “

Ben Cole

Sgt. Ben Cole was with the 3rd Platoon, Alpha Co., 3rd Tanks.

“The road at our rendezvous point a year earlier was typical of the Quang Tri bush. Rutted and unpaved, it connected the small river town of Cam Lo to the old French outpost Con Thien a few miles to the north. When the Marines first came to this area it was only a wide path bordered on both sides by trees and undergrowth making it perfect for a close ambush. To remedy this, a swath thirty yards wide on both sides was bulldozed and cleared of all vegetation (for McNamara’s Line).

“This solved one problem but created another. This wide bare strip of red ground now was visible from the hills in the distance. Before the widening, the drill was to creep along quietly to avoid being discovered. Now that it was open, you were more likely to be seen, and driving like hell became the rule of passage. It’s harder to hit a moving target …

“… I relaxed and lit a cigarette. Just as I took my first drag, I heard it. At first it was just one report then a few more hollow thumps in succession. The sounds came from a northwesterly direction, meaning there was no chance of them being our guns. I looked at my loader sitting beside me and he nodded, he heard them too … A second round hit close to a group of Marines twenty yards to my right. Then others shells followed, finding men running to cover or hugging the hard red clay. Shells fell at random, some harmlessly on the far side of the road, others nearer. After the first shells, the screams for corpsmen (Navy medics) started, but no one moved as a second barrage insured a few more customers for him.”

Lance Corporal Chuck Bennett, I/3-26 Marines

"Camp Carroll was up on a big hill. It had a lot of elevation. My friend and I were standing around talking and he pointed out to the distance and asked me, 'See that dark spot out there?' I could see a big spot where they'd dropped bombs and napalm. It was all burned up. 'That's Con Thien. You don't want to go there.'"

Lt. Bob Simpson, I/3-26 Executive Officer

"During August (1967), it became clear to me that contacts with the enemy were getting larger … Anyone who was paying attention could see that they were building up. They were building up everywhere, all around us and to the east, toward Con Thien and Gio Linh."

Jack Hartzel, I/2-9 Marines

“(Con Thien) was the northwest anchor of what we called the 'McNamara Line' (or The Strip or The Trace). Mac’s Line was actually a 600-meter clearing constructed by the 11th Engineers and intended initially as a buffer zone from the Laotian border to the South China Sea. It was originally constructed for the placement of sensors to detect infiltrating enemy troop movements, but the project was called off in favor of fortifying Khe Sanh.

“Con Thien was clearly visible from 9th Marine Headquarters located at Dong Ha to the south. We could also see Gio Linh, a ‘firebase’ east of Con Thien. We knew that if the NVA overran Con Thien and Gio Linh they would have a clear path to the south. It was our job not to let this happen.

“We would run patrols and ambushes every day to keep the NVA on the move. We wanted to make certain they couldn’t build fixed positions in and around the area. It was a very hard job for us. We would destroy a bunker complex one day and a couple days later it would be rebuilt. We actually found bunkers as close as 1500 meters to Con Thien. There was not much we could do about the NVA in the area though. We were very short-handed and had such a large area to patrol that the NVA could move around freely without much chance of detection. We would patrol an area and they would return as soon as we were gone. We had a couple of nicknames for Con Thien. We called it ‘Our Turn in the Barrel’ or ‘The Meat Grinder.’

“Almost daily we would receive at least 200 rounds of NVA (mostly artillery) incoming. I don’t remember a day in which we didn’t get hit with incoming rounds of some sort. We also suffered something that was almost unheard of elsewhere in South Vietnam. It was called ‘shell shock’ and it was not unusual. The constant pounding every day could make you go nuts. You would sit there on edge, wondering if the next round that came in would have your name on it.

“In official Marine Corps history they make mention of the ‘dye marker’ bunkers. They were Navy Seabee-built bunkers that were supposed to be well reinforced with timbers and steel. My unit never got to live in any of those. We were in holes in the mud!

“Echo Company 2/9 was on one of the small hills on the southern edge of Con Thien, right next to the LZ and the main gate. We had hardly any protection at all. We caught more than our share of incoming because every time a chopper would land or a truck convoy would arrive, the NVA would shell the shit out of us. From September 19th to the 27th, 1967, we received over 3000 rounds of incoming during that eight day period.

“I will never forget specifically September 25th 1967. I thought the NVA were going to blow Con Thien off the map with artillery, rockets and mortars. We took over 1200 rounds during that one day! I don’t think there was hardly a spot on that hill that was not hit by an incoming round of some sort. To that point and time in the war, this was the most incoming rounds ever taken by a unit in Vietnam in one day. That’s a lot of incoming rounds for such a small place!

“There was almost no place to hide! Every time a helicopter would arrive, incoming rounds would follow. That made it very hard for us to be resupplied. During that week in September a helicopter didn’t touch down at Con Thien except for a medevac; instead of landing they just dropped the boxes of chow and mail out the doors. The Marine Corps thought the choppers were too valuable to lose. Every night Charlie would probe our lines to try and find a weakness they could penetrate, and there was always the ever-present threat of NVA snipers …

“… The one thing about September 25th that really sticks in my mind is a picture of a Marine sitting in a puddle of blood and battle dressings on a poncho with his legs blown off from the waist down! He was numb from morphine and in shock from a loss of blood. He was smoking a cigarette very calmly as if nothing had even happened! He was waiting for a medevac.

"He probably died on the chopper ride back to Dong Ha. I hope to God he did. Our platoon arrived at Con Thien with 45 men and when we left we only had 12!

"Now you know why we call it, ‘The meat grinder!.’”