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Operation Prairie


During Operation Hastings in July 1966, the U.S. Marines repelled NVA Division 324B's invasion of Quang Tri Province and forced the division to withdraw into the DMZ. But in the first week of August American intelligence discovered that 324B was moving back into Quang Tri and establishing fortified positions in the jungle-covered western mountains. The enemy's goal was to capture the Rockpile and launch an assault on Quang Tri's populous coastal region.


The marines immediately responded to the threat. On August 3, the day he ended Hastings, Brigadier General Lowell English, commander of the 3d Marine Division, launched Operation Prairie. In Prairie eleven marine battalions (nearly eleven thousand men) would face the same opposition and the same kind of combat as they had in Hastings. Their objective was also unchanged: preventing 324B from gaining a foothold below the DMZ for an attack on South VietNam's northernmost provinces.
General English ordered marine reconnaissance teams to explore trail areas for signs of enemy reinfiltration and to call in artillery from Cam Lo and helicopter gunships and air power from DaNang and Chu Lai for support. One top marine planner explained the marines' strategy: "If we sat back in defensive positions along the coast, the enemy would mass very large forces and make it difficult for us. But we are not sitting back, we are moving all the time, searching him out and hitting him before he can become set."
But, as in many large U.S. operations in VietNam, the marines spent most of their time searching out the enemy. NVA units were, for the most part, well concealed, often revealing themselves only when certain they had superior numbers. Reconnaissance units endured long, uneventful marches through some of the densest jungle encountered by Americans in VietNam
When the marines were able to 'fix" the NVA, the fighting proved bloody and intense. Most of Prairie's major action took part in the early going. In one fight, later called the Groucho Marx battle, thirty-two marines held off assaults by some 300 NVA for two days in early August, killing 37 enemy while suffering only five deaths of hteir own. Contact was regular through August and included heavy U.S. tank assaults of NVA positions as well as an appearance by "Puff the Magic Dragon"- the AC-47 gunship over Razorback Ridge.


Battle for Mutter Ridge


The longest, fiercest fight in Prairie took place in mid-September, when General English decided to attack the elaborate fortifications being constructed by 324B along a ridge near the razorback. Hills 400 and 484 were the marines objectives in the battle for Mutter Ridge, named after the radio call signal of the 3r battalion, 4th Marines, engaged in the battle. Resupplied each night by helicopter so they would be unencumbered by food and camp gear, the marines began their assault on September 22. They had to move through undergrowth in murky darkness almost no light double canopy of trees and sometimes bombs had to be used to cut a path through the jungle.
On the morning of Septenber 23, as the 3rd Battalion's lead elements approached Hill 400, one marine captain recalled "moving along some of the lower hills {where} we saw more and more enemy positions, including huts in the ravines to harbor a regiment, and piles and piles of ammunition. NVA bodies lying about and hastily dug graves were signs that we were moving in right behind them." Company K pushed forward to Hill 400 but encountered NVA troops in heavily reinforced bunkers. The enemy countered attacked, assisted by spotters in the trees who directed fire. Yet, at a cost of six marines and fifty enemy, the marines controlled Hill 400 by that afternoon.
On Hill 484 NVA resistance was even stiffer. A frontal assault by the marines on October 4 was thrown back by NVA soldiers tossing grenades from the upper slope. The marines pulled back while air and artillery pounded the hill. The next morning, following another air strike, the 2d Platoon of the 3r Battalion's Company M gained the crest at noon. Fleeing into the jungle, the enemy left behind ten bodies and numerous blood trails that marked the evacuation of many wounded. The battle for the ridge was over. The 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, had driven NVA division 324B back into the DMZ, in the process losing twenty dead but killing one hundred enemy.


Following Mutter Ridge, the action in Prairie tailed off, with a few intense skirmishes in October as the moonsoon brought the first heavy rains. The last marine fighting of the operation took place in November in the Caubretviet Valley, five miles southwest of Dong Ha, when U.S. Marines contacted a reinforced NVA company of two hundred. By January 1966 Prairie became, as the marines history described it, "no longer an operation but rather an area of operations."
Prairie had solved the immediate problem of 324B's reinfiltration. The marines held the Rockpile and forced the NVA to postpone their invasion of Quang Tri for another year. The 1,297 known enemy dead (at a cost of over 200 American killed) convinced the enemy to shift temporarily from Main Force warfare to guerrilla tactics. But if American firepower proved decisive, the enemy despite their losses, was already preparing for future incursions into Quang Tri. General English summed up: "I'am sure of one thing. Although we've definitely killed more than 2,000 in Hastings and Prairie combined and probably a lot more, they haven't quit."

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