Khe Sanh Hill Fights of ‘67
Compiled by Ray Stubbe
All Rights Reserved by the Author
AGONY 26 April 1967
26 April began with the 3/3 CP (at XD 805434) receiving approx. 200 rounds of 82MM (mortars) at 0500H. Simultaneously, KSCB received 55 rounds of 82mm and 55 rounds of 75 RR fire, most of which landed outside the perimeter. A flare-ship with miniguns was called on station, delivering a massive volume of fire on suspected enemy positions and movements. There were no casualties as a result of this action. B/l/9 was close enough to the NVA RRs to see and hear their backblast in the fog. Located on the eastern slope of 881-S, Capt Sayers silenced them by directing artillery on them by sound. By 105mm artillery illumination and holes in the fog, destruction of the recoilless rifles was confirmed. The fog was in layers at the time; the hill masses were covered and the valleys were clear.
The sun arose on the Marines of K/3/3 still in place on 861, pinned down by the NVA. Capt Spivey noticed, however, that by 0615H, K-3's presence in close proximity to the enemy's northeast was apparently still undetected. Shortly before first light, K-3 was ordered forward in an attempt to take the enemy position from that direction. K-1 and K-2 were alerted to move out on order, pending developments of K-3's advance.
2ndLt Curtis L. Frisbie led his K-3 of Marines forward, exercising stealth, until the enemy positions could be observed and voices heard. By 0815H preparations for the assault were being made when the platoon came under an intense volume of automatic weapons fire and grenades. The platoon immediately sustained casualties; Lt Frisbie was seriously wounded and subsequently medevaced.
By this time it had also become apparent that B/1/9's platoons were a considerable distance to the west and could not influence the action. it was also apparent to Capt Spivey that he just did not have the horsepower to overcome the extensive and well-organized defense on Hill 861. Due to the close-in fighting, no supporting arms could effectively contribute to the action.
Capt Spivey asked LtCol Wilder for permission to disengage K-3 who was not hit too bad at that time. Wilder agreed, and K-3 pulled back to a secure LZ to extract their wounded. The only access to the area secured for helicopter evacuation was across an open, grassy finger ridgeline exposed to enemy sniper fire from Hill 861 for over 100 meters. The fire was well-placed and frequently heavy. LCPL Miller was one of those wounded in the initial attack, and he had been left behind. PFC Brenton Wilford Allaire, without being told to do so, along with Cpl Contreras, returned to Hill 861 and helped him to safety. As the MGs and snipers opened up on the 100 meters of exposed area, PFC Allaire along with LCPL Barry Lee Duncan continued 5 more trips across the fire-swept area, dragging wounded comrades to safety as well as gather up all the rockets deposited along the trail while pulling the wounded to safety. Each time they drew fire, but kept returning. On one occasion, LCPL Duncan aided a Marine to safety who was unable to walk.
PFC Thomas M. Barrow, Jr. and LCpl Lester Larry Menke also assisted the wounded to safety. On two separate occasions, LCpl Menke successfully braved the concentrated fire to move his fellow Marines to safety. As he maneuvered through the fire-swept area a third time, he was painfully wounded in his leg. Despite his wound, LCpl Menke continued trying to get the man across to safety. After about 10 meters he was again wounded. Another Marine relieved him of his burden, and LCpl Menke began crawling with all his gear and without assistance to the LZ where he was evacuated.
Meanwhile Capt Spivey requested Huey gunship support to assist him in disengaging K-l and K-2 and evacuate their dead and wounded. Gunships arrived about 1030H and provided outstanding support in close proximity to the front lines, and the platoons were able to disengage moving about 25 meters at a time down the hill. Moving down all the dead, wounded and all the gear was difficult, but by leap-frogging short distances and displacing the security, he was able to gather all the wounded and all the dead except 4 which had been ahead of their lines.
At 0800H, K/3/9 moved out from KSCB and at 261315H, a platoon of K/3/9 linked up with K/3/3 (-) at XD 805437, down from the crest of the hill. LCpl Larry W. Umstead, grenadier with 1st Squad, Third Platoon of K/3/9, noted: "Just as we reached the base of Hill 861 we noticed that there was a lot of gear laying around-there were signs there was pretty heavy fighting all up and down the side of the hill. As we approached, we could see them bringing down some of the wounded and dead. And a lot of the men, as they were coming down, were telling us not to go up, how bad it was up there-there's no water, no nothing, and how well the VC were dug in." From there it was fairly easy going back on into the command group position, south of Hill 861. By 1600H, all elements of First and Second Platoons were within the 3/3 Command Group's position and medevacs completed. At about 1900H, Third Platoon linked up with the remainder of the company at XD 806444.
The company, with elements of K/3/9, established a perimeter defense on the night of 26/27 April and returned to Khe Sanh the morning of 27 April, arriving by 1100H. After collecting all their gear and equipment, what remained of K/3/3 boarded aircraft and returned to Dong Ha. There had been 19 men killed from K/3/3, including two Corpsmen and one who later died of wounds, two who were MIA, 36 wounded (evacuated) and 6 wounded (not evacuated). One of those medevaced, Daniel A. Wisley, a squad leader, was greeted with the news: "Your wife just gave birth to twins and she is doing fine." The remaining Marines of B/1/9 did not fare well during the 26th.
B-3 dispatched a fire team of 5 Marines to retrieve the body they had passed the previous afternoon. They were only gone about 5 minutes when they became involved in a firefight. The rest of the platoon gathered their fighting gear and quickly moved to where they were, a path on top of a slope. As the platoon moved, they located one dead man and another wounded in his foot. They attempted to fire a few LAWs, but they misfired. Sgt Rios passed the word to return to where they left their gear. While moving, another man was hit in the leg, breaking it. In about 30 seconds they had on all their gear and began to move up, carrying and dragging whatever they could, fired at by an enemy machine-gunner. They moved from about 0800H until they met up with their "6" and parts of B-1 and B-2 at about 1030H. The rest of B/l/9 had begun the day at 0700H attempting to move east along the trail leading to 861 and immediately encountered enemy resistance (at XD 795449). B-1 and B-3 linked up at 0840H at XD 802443. Enemy small arms fire coupled with sporadic mortar fire succeeded in limiting B/1/9's advance to a bitterly contested struggle for each foot of terrain.
Capt Glen Golden's F/2/12 artillery battery found Capt Sayers in the fog by walking artillery rounds to him, and them and then put a "ring of steel" around the company that was so tight he was taking dirt from the impact. "It was the most professional and accurate piece of artillery work that I have ever seen. No doubt it saved our lives," noted Capt Sayers.
SSgt Leon R. Burns, Platoon Sgt of B-2, described the progress of the day in an interview conducted 8 May 1967, while all was fresh in his mind: ".. at dawn we moved out. We were still heading for Hill 861. We got to a small hill approximately 500 meters to the west of it. We got to the top of it. We took a few sniper rounds. We started down the far side, and then the stuff really hit the fan. The Third Platoon had managed to link up with the First, and my people were in the middle with the CP group. As they started down off this hill, getting right up to the very base of 861, they came under heavy automatic fire. At this time the First Platoon leader was wounded and about four or five other men. I lost one of my squad leaders and the M79 man. Also, one of my machine-gunners, LCpl Puleo, he spotted an enemy machinegun. He fired on it with his rifle, and I'm told that he knocked out at least three NVA. In doing so, he exposed himself to quite a bit of fire. He lost his left thumb and was wounded isn the left side in two or three places. One of the machinegunners, PFC DeKaney-we got some incoming mortars, and he was hit in the face. Sergeant Orton, my squad leader, he was up front. He was cut in half by a burst from a machinegun, and his M-79 man, PFC Hare, was hit by an automatic weapon and a mortar. About that time, one of my men, PFC Blitz, was down there. He was anywhere and everywhere, doing anything that had to be done. Weighs about 150 pounds; he's a big man. He got down there, started putting dressings on people. My corpsman comes up, and about this time my corpsman was shot pretty hard in the leg and in the cheek of his ass. This made him a casualty. We got some people down there to get him out. The CP group was right in the middle. And at one time the company commander was down there with a couple of his radiomen getting these people up almost a sheer cliff. They were wounded or were dead. At about the time they got two men up, we had an Air Force OE come over, who were doing an outstanding job for us, and he fired one of his snake rockets, just missing the company commander, Capt Sayers, and just by a couple of feet. We managed to tell him that we were friendly, and he started looking for other targets."
The Marines of B/l/9 began receiving close air support as napalm (DELTA-9s) and 250-pound bombs (DELTA-1s) blasted the back side of 861.
It was becoming apparent that some of the wounded would have to be medevaced or die. Cpl Payne and Cpl Brown were sent back off the hill to a little ridgeline to start setting up a perimeter for a LZ to evacuate the 5 dead and 15 wounded (at XD 803444). The helicopter came in. SSgt Burns tossed a smoke grenade, walked off, and started waving the chopper into the zone. He had already arranged 3 men to each wounded and warned them to move quickly because incoming was certain; the LZ was in full view from 861. Each of the groups picked up a wounded man and raced towards the chopper. The chopper just sat down. One wounded man got aboard, and an incoming mortar round exploded. SSgt Burns had to wave the chopper off:
"This was the only time we had a chopper around us that could possibly handle us. We had many wounded, but we just couldn't get a chopper to get them out. The chopper left. Things started getting worse. We started catching mortar rounds coming in again near our LZ."
The Company now moved like a mob, everyone just grabbing a wounded man, and headed for the edge of the hill. After the first 10 men moved over the ridgeline, the Marines were blasted by enemy mortars: "Everyone just hit the deck wherever they were and hoped they didn't get hit. And in this thing some wounded men got killed." One of those was Cpl Troy David Payne, Jr. Cpl Payne had not been with B/1/9 when it left KSCB. He had a cold and was on light duty. A Marine Corps General landed at Khe Sanh to receive instructions on how to get to the scene of the battle once B/1/9 made contact. In a characteristic Marine move, Cpl Payne boldly climbed aboard the General's helicopter and accompanied him to the action, where he joined his unit.
Upon reaching the battlefield, Cpl Payne carried wounded to the LZ and fought off repeated enemy attacks with the weapons he picked up from his injured comrades. Now, at this point, Cpl Payne moved right to the center of the impact areas to aid the stricken men to safer positions. He even used his own body to shield other wounded Marines from mortar fragments. He was hit. He died that others might live. He was awarded a Bronze Star Medal.
Some of the wounded, such as LCpl Puelo and PFC DeKaney, were again wounded. The situation seemed impossible. Capt Sayers reported at 1445H to LtCol Wilder's S-3 that he had so many casualties that he couldn't move. The S-3 said Capt Sayers should abandon the dead and just bring out his wounded. Capt Sayers replied that he couldn't even move with his wounded and that he would assume a defensive posture, move into the fog, and fight until it was all over.
Carrying the casualties, now for 3 days, had been an onerous agony. Capt Sayers later wrote: "We were carrying KlAs and WlAs in ponchos four men to a litter. The heat deteriorated the bodies rapidly and they bloated fast. Almost impossible to carry in the dark, the mud and the rain. Many times we stopped our march to retrieve a body that had fallen out of a poncho and rolled down a hill. Identification was difficult. KIA tags were lost. It was not until we arrived back at Khe Sanh and matched our company roster with the evacuation list was I convinced that we had not left a fellow Marine in the hills."
Cpl Frank D. Thompson of B- 1 reflected the emotion by his silence during an interview conducted 10 Oct 1967 by official USMC Oral History personnel:
Thompson: All this time- three days, carrying KIAs and WIAs with us.
Interviewer: What did you think about that?
Thompson: It was bad, but we had to do it.
Interviewer: It was a bad situation, then. What did you feel about it and what did the other people feel about it? What did they think?
Thompson: [LONG SILENCE. NO RESPONSE.]
Interviewer: Did they think it was a hopeless situation?
Thompson: It was.
Interviewer: Were the people scared? Were the Marines scared?
Thompson: You're always scared when you're getting shot at. Night was fast approaching, and SSgt Burns suggested making some stretchers. Some of the men cut poles for stretchers, and about this time, 1800H, reached B/l/9: "About this time we had some visitors, some very nice people from K/3/9. The Company Commander was with one of his platoons. We were all overjoyed to see them. They had water; we had none. We gave the water to our wounded, and we prepared to leave the area."
The 7-man recon unit of K/3/9 gave all the water they had, and their corpsmen began attending their wounded. After all the wounded and dead were staged in one area, litters were made, and the Marines moved out.
"We had so many wounded and dead and extra gear to carry that everyone was carrying something except for the point and rear guard. As we moved out it started to rain and a very large amount of fog. The fog locked us in. Maybe it was a Godsend because the NVA couldn't see us. They fired a few spasmodic mortar rounds but they really didn't do anything. We moved out. I was bringing up the rear. I had one machinegunner with his gun, the assistant machinegunners, and my company commander, bringing up the rear. The company commander of K/ 3/9 was there also a good portion of the time. Everybody carried his load; we carried as much gear as we possibly could. The radiomen even though they were carrying a PRC-25, still carried people on stretchers. The going was very slow. It was muddy. At one time it rained extremely hard. Maybe this was good in one sense because we did manage to get some water for both us and the wounded. We left a very well beaten trail. Why the NVA didn't follow us I don't know."
The Marines humped all through the night, in all the hard-falling rain, through all the slippery and cling-to-boots mud, slipping and sliding with their makeshift stretchers, carrying our sorrows, into all the enemy-infested area, carrying all their dead- weary, in shock, and finally about 0500H arrived at the 3/3 CP (at XD 805428). They were told they could have one hour to sleep and get water for the wounded and the other men that didn't have any.
Choppers arrived at dawn to evacuate wounded, dead, and gear. SSgt Bums had gone out with 22 men; he resumed with 8. On the other hand, the newly-arrived Marines were in such great quantity, like a mass of ants, that Tom Ryan, point man with 3-3, looked out and "I remember coming down off that hill; as far as I could see there was Marines. I mean they were coming in and landing all over the sides of the hills and stuff. As far as I could see! Looked like everybody in the world! Looked like thousands of them!"
Those remaining in B/1/9 walked back into Khe Sanh. Trucks were available for the move, but the remnants of B/1/9 chose to walk. It was a matter of pride after 4 days of constant enemy contact.
2Lt James D. Carter, Jr., wounded with shrapnel in his upper arm and cheek on the hospital ship, USS SANCTUARY later wrote Capt Sayers: ".. those young men, their tremendous will to live, and their ability and courage under fire would be hard to match.. It's surprising any of us got out of there alive considering the odds… that's hard charging Marines for you, though."
As a result of the Khe Sanh battle, Gen Bruno A. Hochmuth choppered the SLF, BLT 2/3, commanded by LtCol E.R. DeLong, then conducting Operation BEACON STAR, back to its parent regiment. Picked up in the middle of operations the morning of 26 Apr, 2/3 was transported by helicopter and fixed wing to Khe Sanh. The lead elements (E/2/3) arrived at noon. G/2/3 and the CP group arrived at 1320H. The command group and two companies commenced movement by foot march to the objective area at 1445H. H/2/3, the third and last company to be moved to Khe Sanh on 26 Apr, arrived at 1600H and commenced movement in trace of 2/3 at 1620H. All 2/3 units arrived in the objective area and set in for the night at 2120H to the east of 3/3 (near XD 812431). F/2/3 was scheduled to arrive at Khe Sanh on 27 April.
Supporting arms for 26 April consisted of 1076 rounds of artillery and 20 air Sorties delivering 58,000 pounds ordnance.
Casualties for 26 April: from B/1/9: 6 KIA and 14 WIA
from K/3/3: 5 KIA and 24 WIA *