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Operation Hastings









Images from Operation Hastings

 


In 1964 during his election campaign, Lyndon Johnson had affirmed his conviction that "American boys" should not "do the fighting for Asian boys." By June 1966 two hundred eighty-five thousand American troops were on combat duty in South VietNam, and another hundred thousand would be pouring in by the end of the year. With draft calls rapidly approaching forty-five thousand men per month, the largest quota since the Korean War, there seemed to be no end in sight.
Through 1966 and 1967, Americans would read newspaper accounts of American military operations, such as Masher-White Wing, Malheur, Attleboro, and Birmingham, to name only a few. Yet these would not be the dramatic, set-piece battles Americans were familiar with from World War II and Korea. For above all, VietNam would eventually become the battlefield: the dense jungle and rugged hills near the DMZ, the wet- lands and impenetrable forests north of Saigon, and the myriad waterways and rice fields of the Mekong Delta. In these diverse and hostile environments General Westmoreland was calculating that his search and destroy tactics could work. The application of that strategy was demonstrated, in part, by MACV's efforts in South VietNam, namely Operation Hastings near the DMZ,


The Marines and Operation Hastings


May 17, 1966. After a three-hour truck ride and a night march from the North Vietnamese coastal town of Vinh Linh, two hundred NVA soldiers waded across a shallow section of the Ben Hai river, the demarcation line dividing North from South VietNam. Once across, the soldiers followed a narrow jungle trail through the lower half of the six-mile-wide demilitarized zone. Their mission was not to fight but to reconnoiter four districts in central and eastern Quang Tri Province. And they knew something big was in the works: an invasion of Quang Tri in late May by the ten thousand men of NVA Division 324B to annihilate the ARVN 1st Division assigned to defend the province.
Division 324B, commanded by General Nguyen Vang, was a relatively new unit, untested in battle. It had been formed a year earlier, brought up to strength with draftees, and trained for combat. Despite the division's past inexperience, General Vang was confident his men would acquit themselves well against the South Vietnamese or, if need be, the Americans. Even after recent set-backs in South VietNam, NVA morale was high. A song on Radio Hanoi summed up the soldiers' mood:


Yankee, I swear to you
With words sharp as knives
Here in VietNam, it is either you or me
And I am already here
So you must go!


The political and military crisis affecting Quang Tri and other northern provinces of South VietNam in the spring of 1966 made them ripe for takeover. Since March, the hostilities between Buddhists and the government had paralyzed the military and weakened the defense of I Corps. Non-Communist areas of Quang Tri and Thua Thien had been held by dissident ARVN units in sympathy with Buddhist factions. The North Vietnamese proceeded with customary caution, organizing a complicated logistic effort to "prepare the battlefield." Lacking anything comparable
To U.S. air mobility to resupply troops already in the field the NVA had to establish advance logistical bases with food and armaments for incoming troops.
The NVA relied primarily on their VC allies already in Quang Tri to collect and store rice. But General Vang poised to cross the Ben Hat River in the last week of May discovered that his VC supply unit had not done its job Reconnaissance reported that rice depots were few in number and poorly stocked. As a result Division 324B's mission was delayed while several of its battalions shutfled back and forth to North VietNam for rice. While 324B stood stalled in the DMZ, the American commanders monitored its activity and speculated about its intentions.
The unprecedented infiltration of the DMZ by an NVA division created a stir at MACV headquarters in Saigon The specter of an invasion, Korean-style, across the DMZ had preoccupied American and South Vietnarnese commanders since 1954. To General Westmoreland in the spring of 1966, such aggression appeared imminent. In February he had told President Johnson and Premier Ky that if he were NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap he "would strike into Quang Tri. to seek a quick victory."
In the ensuing months MACV, at the war rooms in Saigon, had compiled data on NVA activity near the DMZ indicating that an invasion was in the offing. By May, Vietnamese agents were tracking 324B's movements through the DMZ. Aerial observers spotted troops and trucks in the eastern sector of the zone, and infrared aerial photo-graphs revealed nighttime fires in the jungle and probable encampments. A lucky break provided further evidence when an NVA soldier surrendered to an ARVN outpost and disclosed preparations for 324B's invasion.
Still, Westmoreland was unwilling to mobilize his forces and commit them to immediate counterattack. He later remarked, "I had to have more intelligence on what was going on up North, and there was no better way to get at it than by sending in reconnaissance elements in force."
The marines, whose tactical area of responsibility included Quang Tri, shared MACV's concern about the NVA build-up in the North. But they disagreed with MACV that the build-up constituted preparation for an all-out invasion of Quang Tri and Thua Thien. Some marine estimates suggested that an invasion was unlikely because of the insurmountable logistics and supply problems a division-size NVA force would incur. Several marine commanders also speculated that 324B was bait to lure the marines' limited forces away from their successful clear and hold pacification efforts near Da Nang and to bog them down indefinitely in a static defense of the DMZ. While acknowledging the Marines' progress in pacification, Westmoreland was impatient with their stubborn devotion to it. To spur them to action, Westmoreland ordered General Walt's Marines to conduct the reconnaissance needed to ascertain the purpose and scope of NVA infiltration into Quang Tri.


 


July 1. A few minutes before nightfall, marine Lieutenant Terry Terrebone and about a dozen marines, their faces blackened with grease, carefully checked their gear and weapons on the airstrip at Dong Ha. After boarding two CH-46 helicopters, they headed in a northeasterly direction. Their destination: two miles south of the DMZ at a junction of two known infiltration trails. Their mission: to locate 324B.
As reported by Robert Shaplen in the New Yorker, Terrebone was not optimistic about contacting 324B in the thickly wooded foothills below the DMZ: "We intended to stay forty-eight hours" and "find out what we could." He and his men were in for a nasty surprise. They had been on the ground only twenty minutes when fifty NVA soldiers approached them from over a ridge. The NVA quickly moved to surround the marines. Scrambling back to the landing zone, Terrebone called for helicopter gun ships and waited to be picked up while the NVA encircled the LZ only fifty yards away. Terrebone recalls: "They were holding their fire, which showed good discipline. Ten minutes later, two A-4 Skyhawks and another helicopter gun-ship arrived. They sprayed the area with heavy fire and received automatic weapons fire in return. Two CH-46's were right behind them, and they came down and lifted us off."
Terrebone's reconnaissance party checked out several other sites over the next two weeks. Besides spotting three hundred fifty NVA regulars, the marines sighted fortifications, including mortar pits, trench lines, and foxholes. General Walt of the marines concluded, "General Giap and Ho Chi Minh had decided to slug it out with us." Westmoreland was now "convinced that the better part of 324B had moved across the DMZ."
General Westmoreland swiftly ordered Walt to ready as many as seven marine infantry battalions (eight thousand men) to stop 324B. Reinforced by five ARVN infantry and airborne battalions (three thousand men), backed by artillery and aircraft, and covered by the long-range guns of the U.S. 7th Fleet, Walt's marines fanned out in mid-July toward the DMZ. Operation Hastings, the largest marine operation up to that time, was underway.
The marines had embarked on one of their first major operations near the DMZ. The conditions of the battlefield could not have been less favorable. Mountains make up roughly half of Quang Tri, dropping off eastward into foothills separated from the sea by a thin stretch of paddy land and sandy beaches. The hill the marines called the Rockpile, with sheer cliffs straight up and down, dominates relatively flat terrain just north of the Cam Lo River. An almost impenetrable jungle blankets Quang Tri's razor-backed ridges with thick brush topped by a double canopy of deciduous trees, one thirty feet high and the other a hundred. So thick was the canopy that according to one observer, "bombs explode harmlessly' on it.


Hastings was commanded by Brigadier General Lowell English, a combat veteran of World War II and Korea His battle plan was to repulse NVA penetration by cutting their access to two key infiltration trails converging some four miles below the DMZ. He deemed control of the Rock-pile, overlooking the entire operational area, a particularly important objective. Aggressiveness was the crux of English's plan to take "the enemy by surprise on his key trails and behind his own lines and to smash and destroy him before he had a chance to regain his balance and his momentum."
That the marines were coming after them, however would be no secret to the North Vietnamese. For three days before Hastings, B-52s pounded the trails, hillsides and ravines near the DMZ to "soften up" NVA entrenchment's. Meanwhile, on a broad plain west of Dong Ha, the staging area for the operation, huge four-engine planes disgorged a million pounds of supplies and equipment. As the planes skimmed the runways, rose-colored dust clouds billowed into the sky, a portent surely not missed by the men of 324B.


 


D-day


On July 15 at first light, a squadron of CH-46 helicopters. resembling mammoth grasshoppers, lifted off from Dong Ha with members of the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines (3/4) of the 3d Marine Division. Their operational zone was the Song Ngan Valley, within rifle range of the DMZ. The first wave of helicopters set down in the river valley without incident. Sniper fire ended hope for a quiet landing as the second wave swooped toward the LZ. The third wave met disaster. In the LZ, choked by jungle, two helicopters collided and crashed. A third, trying to avoid them, rammed into a tree, killing two marines and injuring seven. Snipers downed one more. Lieutenant Colonel Sumner Vale, the battalion commander, remembers the grisly sight of several panicked marines being slashed to death "by the helicopter blades as they were getting out of the helicopter." The Song Ngan Valley earned that day an infamous place in marine lore as "Helicopter Valley." It was an ominous beginning.
Vale's 3d Battalion initiated a sweep through the valley, while the 2d Battalion landed at the other end about three miles to the northeast. The 3d was to serve as a blocking force on a suspected infiltration route. The 2d commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Arnold Bench, moved southwest to take Hill 208 overlooking the 3d's position The almost impassable jungle combined with oppressive heat slowed the 2d's progress to a crawl. By mid afternoon it had covered barely two miles. Captain J.W. Hilgers vividly recalls the difficulty of negotiating the terrain particularly the thick vegetation: "Though we knew our location, we could not see where we were going, trusting only to our compasses. The heat with no breeze and unlimited humidity was devastating."
Delays erased whatever tactical surprise General English had counted on. And the marine battalions, now isolated behind NVA advance positions, were quickly thrown on the defensive. At four in the afternoon, after unsuccessfully trying to cross the Song Ngan, Vale radioed that his men were "under heavy fire" and were in trouble." By seven-thirty the 3d was surrounded, awaiting the inevitable NVA night attack. It did not have to wait long. Shortly after eight an NVA company tried to overrun Company K's position, igniting a wild three-hour fire fight. "It was so dark," said Captain Robert Modrzejewski, "we couldn't see our hands in front of our faces, so we threw out trip flares and called for a flare plane overhead. We could hear and smell and occasionally see the NVA after that. When the firing stopped, we heard them dragging the bodies of their dead away, but in the morning, at the first light, we found twenty five-bodies...... On the basis of the dragging we had heard... we figured we got another thirty of them, which we listed as probably killed."
The 3d's problems were not over. The next evening, still unable to ford the river, the marines dug in while the NVA picked up where they had left off, lobbing mortars at their perimeter. At this point the 2d Battalion changed the direction of its advance to assist the 3d. When it finally did reach Vale's unit, the 2d too was pinned down by the intense mortar attacks. The marines returned fire, directing ear-shattering air and artillery strikes to within a few hundred yards of their own positions, and killed a hundred of the enemy, some at close range with pistols and even bayonets. After two more days of incessant bombardment, the 2d and 3d got new orders: pull out.
In the early afternoon of July 18, Vale and Bench moved their units toward the eastern end of the valley. Captain Modrzejewski's battle-weary Company K stayed behind to destroy the crippled helicopters at the LZ. Instead of pursuing the main body, the NVA massed to attack Company K. Around two-thirty, several hundred NVA infantrymen charged the LZ, blowing bugles and whistles and waving flags. Company K stubbornly held its ground. The 1st Platoon, cut off in the confusion, bore the full brunt of the assault. First Platoon Sergeant John McGinty and his rifle squads threw everything they had at the NVA force but it was not enough: "We started getting mortar fire, followed by automatic weapons fire from all sides.... [Charlie] moved in with small arms right behind the mortars.... We just couldn't kill them fast enough." So close were the NVA to overrunning the company that Modrzejewski called air strikes virtually on top of the marines' position. One marine forward air controller, less than fifty feet from the enemy, had to plunge into a nearby stream to escape being burned by a napalm strike. The shower of bombs and napalm sent the enemy scurrying for cover. In three hours of close combat, the bloodiest of the entire operation, a beleaguered Company K suffered over fifty casualties, with some marines hit in five or six places. When reinforcements from Company L arrived to cover withdrawal, Modrzejewski 'men "formed a column of walking wounded ... and then proceeded upstream, where the wounded were evacuated that night." For their actions, Modrzejewski and McGinty each received the Medal of Honor.
The 2d and 3d Battalions had not seen their last of Helicopter Valley. General English, after evacuating the wounded, immediately sent these battalions back to the valley from the south to join the 1st Battalion of the 1st Marines commanded by Colonel Van Bell, in blocking NVA infiltration. All the battalions saw action in a deadly game of cat and mouse. A marine summed up NVA tactics: "a probe followed by an attack with mortars, automatic weapons and small arms, then disengagement's and flight." What happened on Hill 362 is a classic example.


On July 17 Lieutenant Colonel Edward Bronars's 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, began patrolling south of Helicopter Valley. A week into the patrol, Bronars ordered Captain Samuel Glaize's Company I to establish a radio relay station atop Hill 362, three miles below the DMZ. After hacking its way to the crest with two-foot-long machetes, Glaize's 2d Platoon descended the other side of the hill to scout defenses. It had not gone far when it met a hail of mortar and machine gun fire. "They had everything zeroed in on the trail," First Sergeant Bill Chapman recalled. Other platoons rushed to aid the 2d but were ambushed. Soon the entire company was trapped near the crest of the hill by a steady mortar barrage. "We could only dig small trenches," said Second Lieutenant Robert Williams. "We put a wounded man in with a man who could fight. Every third man was wounded, but they still tried to man the weapons.
It was a harrowing night for Company I as NVA soldiers probed to within fifteen to twenty feet of the marines' perimeter. Corporal Mack Whieley remembered, "The Commies were so close we could hear them breathing heavily and hear them talking." For Private First Class Michael Bednar, it was hell. Struck by a bullet, he fell near another wounded marine just as some NVA soldiers emerged from a clump of trees. Both marines played dead, but the NVA wanted to make sure. After the soldiers plunged a bayonet into the marine beside Bednar and he groaned, they shot him through the head. Three times the soldiers jabbed Bednar with bayonets but he refused to cry out. Leaving him for dead, the soldiers snatched Bednar's cigarettes and watch and moved on to other wounded marines. According to another wounded survivor, Corporal Raymond Powell, "it was damn near like a massacre.
The next day, U.S. artillery struck at NVA emplacements. Helicopters whirred in to remove the wounded, including Private Bednar, who had managed to crawl back to his lines "with his guts hanging out." Glaize's unit suffered a casualty rate of 45 percent-eighteen dead and sixty-five wounded. As for the force of NVA, the New York Times reported that it "vanished into the countryside."


 


The View from the Rockpile


Along with the assault on Helicopter Valley, General English launched a corollary offensive, the occupation of the Rockpile. There was not much to occupy, only a narrow ledge a few feet wide at the summit. With a lookout post perched on one of the region's highest peaks, English could monitor NVA infiltration trails for miles in all directions. Lieutenant James Hart of the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company got the mission. Hart, and his men trained as parachutists and scuba divers- faced a tricky drop by helicopter onto the Rockpile's tiny promontory. On July 16 two helicopters hovered above the Rockpile while Hart, twelve of his men, and a demolition's team made jumps of six to eight feet to the ledge. Just as Hart jumped, a gust of wind jerked the helicopter upward. He fell thirty feet to the ledge and was temporarily stunned.
Hart and his men were on the Rockpile an hour when they spied thirty-eight NVA on a trail below. A well-directed artillery strike killed all the NVA soldiers. Before lifting off the mountain two weeks later, their observations enabled artillery and air strikes to keep important trails free of further infiltration.
By month's end, it appeared that 324B had abandoned its offensive and was pulling back through the DMZ. Marine patrols discovered bodies, weapons, and ammunition left behind. The marines overran an NVA regimental base camp containing a 100-bed hospital and twelve hundred pounds of medical supplies. An account in Time magazine noted that "one North Vietnamese unit apparently pulled out so fast that 500 men abandoned their field packs and left their rice still cooking in open pots." As enemy contacts tapered off, General English terminated Hastings at noon on August 3.


In his after action report to MACV, General Walt was effusive in his praise for Hastings: "As a result of the battle, the 324th NVA Division suffered a crushing defeat: and enemy designs for capture of Quang Tri Province were thwarted. ... It was a significant victory for the United States and represents a tribute to the courage, skill and resourcefulness of the personnel and units involved.' General Westmoreland was no less pleased; he was convinced that the timely execution of Hastings had spoiled NVA strategy and foiled an invasion.
The marines exacted a stiff price from 324B for its incursion: 882 killed, 17 captured, and the seizure of two hundred weapons, three hundred pounds of documents and over three hundred thousand rounds of ammunition
The soldiers of 324B, described by General Walt as "well equipped, well trained, and aggressive to the point of fanaticism," also showed themselves a formidable foe In all 126 marines were killed and 448 wounded.


From a long-term perspective, Hastings demonstrated.


The problems faced by MACV forces fighting in the rugged hills of northern I Corps. Although its invasion fizzled in the jungles below the DMZ, 324B was able to withdraw successfully across it into North VietNam, its offensive capability virtually intact. By exploiting their continuing ability to move across the DMZ into South VietNam, 324B and other NVA divisions were able to control the tempo of combat in I Corps. Their options included full-scale invasion and hit-and-run attacks, in addition to attempting an increasing flow of infiltration to the south. These types of NVA offensive threats caused a steady build-up of U.S. Marines from 1966 to 1968 near the DMZ. Operation Prairie, which immediately followed Hastings, confirmed the trend the marines had feared, proving Walt and Westmoreland overconfident in their assessment of Hastings. This time, more marines-eleven thousand of them-would be reacting to renewed thrusts by NVA Division 324B and would become tied down to a string of defensive positions along the DMZ. As a result, one army report concluded, "General Walt, with his forces stretched to the limit and short of helicopter and logistical assets, was unable to do more than hold his own." NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap described the situation in I Corps this way: "The marines are being stretched as taut as a bowstring."


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