The 3rd NVA Regiment thought they owned the Que Son Valley.
But the 196th Light Infantry Brigade Chargers begged to differ.
By James F. Humphries
"Units of the 3rd Regiment, 2nd North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Division dug in near Hill 63," summarized the flash message into the tactical operations center (TOC) of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (LIB) "Chargers." It was the day before Thanksgiving 1967, and the place was the fertile Que Son Valley, some 40 kilometers southwest of Da Nang. Hill 63 sits in the valley's center, but its numerical designation was as yet unfamiliar to members of the brigade. Colonel Louis Gelling had deployed the Chargers into the valley from Chu Lai a few days before to replace the 1st Brigade, 101st (Airborne) Division.
The 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry (4/31), one of the three infantry battalions assigned to the 196th LIB, was operating in a split mode. Company A secured the battalion's new fire support base (FSB) at the Que Son Valley's western edge, and Company C secured the brigade headquarters at Hill 35, near National Route 1. The two remaining companies were assigned as a part of an armor-infantry task force commanded by the battalion operations officer, Major Gilbert N. Dorland.
As luck would have it--some might call it destiny--Task Force Dorland was conducting search operations only a few kilometers east of Hill 63 when the intelligence report arrived at the brigade TOC. Dorland's task force was quickly tagged to check the validity of the report, and he remembers getting the message late that afternoon. "Many intelligence reports turned out to be inaccurate or old," he said. "However, in this case, brigade noted that they had intercepted a radio transmission from the vicinity of Hill 63, which gave the target more immediacy than normal."
At 29, Gil Dorland had all of the necessary credentials to command a unit in combat. Dorland had graduated from West Point, class of 1959, and attended the Airborne Ranger courses at Fort Benning, Ga., before joining the 20th Infantry in the Panama Canal Zone. Dorland was no stranger to the war in Vietnam, having completed a tour of duty as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Army a year before the first American combat troops arrived in-country. Dorland had joined the 4/31 less than a month before the 196th LIB deployed into the Que Son Valley.
Dorland felt certain of his abilities to do the job; most important, he had total confidence that his men were prepared to meet any challenge. Task Force Dorland was indeed a powerful and well-led force. Companies B and D, 4/31, were commanded by two solid soldiers, Captains James Bierschmidt and Dan Mellon. The two rifle companies formed the core of the task force. Two platoons of armored personnel carriers (APCs) from F Troop, 17th Cavalry, provided Dorland mobility and quick reaction, and four tanks from A Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry, supplied the force a mighty punch. Artillery fire support would be provided by Battery B, 3/82, and Battery C, 3/16, located on Fire Support Base Center seven kilometers to the south. As backup, the brigade had alerted Company B, 2/1, and Company B, 3/21, to be prepared for an air assault into 4/31's area of operation.
While Dorland had confidence in his men, he also knew that the enemy he faced were not garden-variety Viet Cong armed with cast-off French or American rifles of World War II vintage. The 3rd NVA Regiment was a first-rate outfit whose soldiers had a reputation of being tough and resolute. They also knew the valley. The 2nd NVA Division had made the Que Son Valley and surrounding hills its second home when it arrived from North Vietnam in February 1966. The valley's patchwork of rice paddies and wooded islands had served the division as a primary source of rice and recruits, while the surrounding hills and forests harbored the division's rest camps, logistical support areas and training sites.
The 2nd NVA Division was also an elusive enemy. Eight days earlier, intelligence analysts had placed all three of the division's regiments in the rugged hills around the valley. However, the units moved often. Their forte was to infiltrate the valley undetected, establish a textbook defensive position, then wait for an allied unit to find them. Avenues of approach into the site were covered by machine guns and anti-tank weapons and further protected by the unit's mortars. The enemy's purpose was not to defend the terrain in the traditional sense. Instead, the position was used as a bunkered ambush site from which they could inflict horrendous casualties on an unsuspecting allied unit in a very short period of time. The enemy's scheme always included a withdrawal that was executed before reinforcing allied units made the position untenable. The scenario was repeated frequently, but its success was completely dependent on the element of surprise. Unknown to the enemy, an intercepted radio transmission had cost them that most critical component.
Despite the loss of surprise, the terrain around Hill 63 favored the defender, in this case, the 5th and 7th companies, 2nd Battalion, 3rd NVA Regiment, which had slipped into the area sometime earlier. Two hills dominated the surrounding paddies. Hill 63, the most prominent of the two, was a pile of boulders and brush squatting between the Ly Ly River and National Route 534. Hill X was a knobby thicket about 500 meters to the west of Hill 63. The scrub-covered slopes of both hills provided the NVA excellent observation and a green curtain of natural camouflage beneath which they had placed a string of mutually supporting bunkers and fighting positions. A strip of paddies and wooded islands lay between the two hills. The islands were a sinuous maze of straw houses and small gardens crisscrossed with impenetrable hedgerows that channeled foot and vehicle movement to only a few trails. Visibility was limited to 15 meters in any direction. The island's hedgerows, like the rocky mounds above, were a network of nearly-invisible bunkers designed to exact a high price from an attacker. It was a defender's paradise.
By dusk, Dorland had established his command post in a wooded area 1,500 meters southeast of Hill 63 and pulled his units closer to the objective. One platoon of cavalry and the four tanks established a night defensive position several kilometers to the east. The other task force units prepared night defensive positions within a kilometer of the objective area.
Dorland's plan for Thanksgiving was straightforward. The infantry companies, backed by a platoon of "tracks" (APCs), would search Hill 63. Company B would take the southern flank, and Company D would be on the right. The 2nd Platoon, 17th Cavalry, would follow behind Company D. The 3rd platoon, 17th Cavalry, and the four tanks were designated as reserve and scheduled to occupy positions near Hill 63 early the next morning. Dorland and his two-man command group would colocate with the reserve. After Dorland had briefed his commanders on the next day's plans, the task force settled in for an uneventful night.
Thanksgiving dawned colorless and wet. November is the advent of the northeast monsoon in that part of Vietnam. The weather is marked by a period of seemingly unending fog and rain, and temperatures that often slip into the low 60s. The low-hanging, pewter-colored skies and chill temperatures on Thanksgiving morning were representative of the season.
The men in Task Force Dorland warmed a C-ration breakfast, shrugged off the damp chill and prepared to move. Leaders, up long before the first ashy rays of light, made checks of their men and equipment and waited for the word to move out. As the men strapped on their bulging rucksacks, there were probably some who thought the sweep would turn into another meaningless drill of searching for the enemy. Dorland recalls that he really did not know what to expect.
The units departed their night defensive positions in the dirty morning light and started a cautious advance toward Hill 63. Company B crossed the dirt road and closed on the southern end of the irregular hunk of granite from the southwest. Company D approached the hill from the east. The 2nd Platoon, F Troop, followed some distance behind. At 0630 hours, F Troop's 3rd Platoon, accompanied by the four tanks, clanked into blocking positions southwest of the objective. The enemy had not shown themselves.
D Company's Captain Dan Mellon's recollections of the terrain and the events of that morning are vivid. "Hill 63 is bean-shaped. A saddle is formed by the highest elevation on the south, and an oblong-shaped structure of boulders, running generally northwest to southeast, located on the north. The elevation of the boulders is not much lower than the hill's highest point. Dorland couldn't see this formation. By radio, we agreed that I would pass to the left of it while maintaining close contact with his right flank and visual contact with the APCs on my right flank. I ordered my fourth platoon, which was my right flank, to sweep up and along the boulders."
Company D, sweating under their heavy loads, approached the base of the hill and slowly started up the slope. Above, two enemy machine-gunners watched the approaching Americans from positions hidden at the end of a thick hedgerow. The gunners waited until the company's lead elements were within 10 to 15 feet of their positions; then, almost simultaneously, they opened up with a long, ear-splitting burst of fire. Several men from the 2nd and 3rd platoons went down in the fusillade, but the enemy's success was short-lived. Mellon's 4th Platoon, which now occupied the rocky structure on the north end of the hill, took them under fire and quickly silenced the guns.
Company D's encounter with the machine guns had been startlingly abrupt and expensive. The 2nd Platoon lost four men killed and six wounded, and the 3rd Platoon sustained five seriously wounded. It was far from over. Other bold, yet undetected, NVA continued to blaze at them from their brush-covered foxholes only 10 to 20 meters to their flanks.
Mellon remembers: "I advised Dorland of my problem, and we agreed that my fourth platoon would remain static on the rocky structure. He directed that my second platoon slide left and linkup with his right flank. Elements of my first platoon were to fall back and secure an LZ for medical evacuation [medevac] helicopters and also sweep some areas we had bypassed.
"My third platoon was still in trouble, and at that time we had not determined what was causing the damage. I linked up with my third platoon leader at a big boulder located at the lower end of the hedgerow to help him figure out the situation. After the better part of an hour, and two more wounded, we identified and eliminated three spider holes. During this time, my second platoon was sharing C-4 plastic explosive with the APC crews to destroy bunkers along the base of the hill below my fourth platoon's position."
While Company D shucked their heavy rucksacks, found cover and fought the enemy near at hand, the trailing cavalry platoon put the pedal to the metal and roared around the northern end of the hill. As the tracks crashed through the undergrowth and skidded to a halt on the rocky hillside, their gunners blistered the enemy's positions with .50-caliber machine-gun fire.
The metal monsters were no doubt a welcome sight to Delta Company. The NVA were not readily intimidated, however, and intensified their fire. A recoilless rifle cracked from across a paddy west of the hill and slammed a 57mm anti-tank shell into an APC. One cavalryman died and seven others were wounded.
Company B had taken only occasional fire up to that point, and Dorland directed Bierschmidt toward the contact. As the company moved toward the action, one of the men from 1st Lt. Jerome Dickey's 1st Platoon spotted a rifle sticking out of a hole. The rifleman tossed a grenade into the position, killing an NVA officer. The enemy light machine gun was captured. Shortly after capturing the gun, Company B ran into a cyclone of fire from a line of meticulously camouflaged bunkers deep inside a hedgerow. Bierschmidt's advance faltered, and Dorland quickly decided to commit the reserve.
Dorland remembers: "I commanded the cavalry to move rapidly to the battle area, charging into a marsh covered with high grass between the two hills, catching the enemy completely by surprise. Numerous NVA soldiers scrambled (literally beneath the APCs' tracks) for cover. Had we not had the element of surprise, catching the enemy out of their holes, we most likely would have been annihilated like the Marines and other units who confronted the regiment."
For a few minutes, the scene around the personnel carriers was an inextricable mix of friend and foe. As Dorland's group fought the enemy a stone's throw from his tracks, North Vietnamese positions on Hill 63 and Hill X took them under fire with machine-gun and recoilless-rifle fire. An anti-tank round smashed into the APC on which Dorland rode, killed the track commander, and hurled Dorland to the ground. In the chaos of the moment, the driver spun the track into a defilade position and ran over Dorland, who was badly injured and in indescribable pain. The medics treated him where he lay, but the severity of his wounds were beyond their abilities. Despite his agony, Dorland refused evacuation to stay with his men.
Dorland had other problems besides his injuries. Well-aimed enemy fire from the two hills threatened to hold his force in a viselike grip between the lumps of high ground. Dorland remembered: "The NVA was dug in on both hills, with extensive networks of tunnels. A base of fire was initially laid down on the hill to our west. While intense fire was directed on the hill, the two infantry companies were sweeping from the opposite side--thus squeezing the enemy."
As the ceiling lifted, Dorland began directing airstrikes onto the enemy's positions west of his command post (CP). A set of McDonald-Douglas F-4 Phantoms howled low over the CP and delivered the first load of napalm and 500-pound bombs on the flinty slopes of Hill X. The pilots had placed their bombs with remarkable accuracy, but the NVA were back up and firing minutes after the fighters had departed. It would take many more airstrikes before their guns fell silent.
Progress, measured in meters around the rocky real estate, did not come cheap. There were 50 casualties during the first two hours of fighting, and losses continued to mount when the fighting spread from the high ground down into the island hedgerows. As the morning moved toward midday, it became apparent to Dorland that the battle was turning into a virtual standoff. Dorland radioed Colonel Gelling for reinforcements. Shortly afterward, the brigade TOC radioed Dorland that Company B, 3/21 ("Gimlets"), commanded by Captain David Spohn, was on the way.
At 0915, 12 UH-1 helicopters from the 71st Combat Aviation Company ("Rattlers"), carrying the 1st and 2nd platoons of Company B, 3/21, swooped into the valley. Earlier, Dorland had Company B, 4/31, secure a landing zone (LZ) for medical evacuation, and it was planned that the aircraft carrying Company B's troops would land there. For some reason, the Rattlers touched down in a paddy several hundred meters away from Bierschmidt's LZ. Spohn's troops spilled out of the Hueys and into a maelstrom of enemy fire. One of Company B's elements became isolated and pinned down.
Dorland swiftly dispatched a platoon of cavalry and the tank section to assist the beleaguered Gimlets. The tanks ran into immediate problems in the wet paddies, but both elements were able to link up with Company B. Spohn's men got their bearings and pushed forward, supported by the combined fires of the armored vehicles. Company B gained 50 meters before it was stopped by a storm of fire coming from a hedgerow. The North Vietnamese were as determined as ever to hold their ground.
Dorland placed airstrikes on the enemy bunkers and directed Company B, 4/31, to assist Spohn and the cavalry. As yellow and red smoke wafted up through the green hedgerows, marking units' locations, more fighter aircraft shrieked low across the battlefield to strike the enemy's positions. When the fighters had expended their ordnance, gunships from the 71st Aviation Company ("Firebirds") whirled in behind them to unleash a barrage of rockets into the enemy's positions. The soldiers of the 3rd NVA Regiment had constructed the positions with great care, and it took a direct hit by a 250-pound bomb or a near-miss by one of the larger ones to knock out a bunker.
Before the smoke from the rockets and bombs had cleared from the airstrikes, the armor and infantry were back on line grinding their way slowly through the hedgerows. The tanks and infantry worked as teams. The tank commanders had the benefit of height and were often able to see the enemy bunker first and obliterate it with a round of 90mm fired point-blank. If the infantry found the enemy position, the riflemen marked the bunker with tracers for the tank's gunner. Often, however, the infantrymen used fire and movement to pin down the bunker's occupants and destroy the position with grenades or explosive.
As Dorland attempted to suppress the guns on Hill X and deal with the problems comfronting Company B, 3/21, Mellon and the cavalry continued the gut-wrenching job of rooting the enemy from their positions on Hill 63. The fighting between Mellon's company and the North Vietnamese soldiers was fierce, close and deadly. The enemy soldiers held their positions and refused surrender, choosing instead to die in place.
From Mellon's position at the saddle, he could see a number of friendly elements who had advanced faster than he had, and who were now in his line of march. His 2nd Platoon had linked with one of these units and was working to eliminate enemy bunkers along the base of the hill. With his path crowded with friendly troops, Mellon picked up an APC and took his 3rd Platoon on an end run to get behind two NVA bunkers that were badgering him. As they reached the rear of the bunkers, the APC's gunner began pouring .50-caliber machine-gun fire into the larger of the two.
The heavy machine-gun fire must have gotten the enemy's attention. Four NVA soldiers ran from a clump of bamboo beside the bunker, firing their AK-47s. The 4th Platoon, shooting from above, dropped all of them with several quick bursts of fire. Another enemy soldier dashed from the smaller bunker, collided with Mellon's radio operator, then did a 180-degree turn and scurried back into the shelter. When efforts by the company's interpreter to get the man to surrender failed, Mellon tossed a grenade into the bunker and killed him.
Meanwhile, fire from the APC's .50 caliber had punched a hole about the size of a loaf of bread in the larger bunker. Mellon said: "We were out of C-4 so my men borrowed two Claymores [mines] from the APC and duct-taped them to a bamboo pole. After inserting the business end into the hole and detonating it, my men argued whether one Claymore would not have been enough to destroy the bunker."
By noon, Company D, 4/31, had ferreted out the last enemy positions on Hill 63, thus allowing Dorland to concentrate his efforts on the enemy to his west. More reinforcements were also on the way. At 1330, Colonel Gelling inserted Captain Joe Stringham's Company C, 4/31, into an LZ about 800 meters southwest of Hill 63. Stringham quickly cleared the LZ and headed for the fight. Charlie Company had gone only a few hundred meters before it became embroiled in a firefight that would last until dark.
At 1500, Dorland called for the battalion's command and control helicopter. The enemy's attack had slackened, and Dorland wanted to review the situation from the air. Dorland reported that dead NVA soldiers, weapons and abandoned equipment littered the battle area. The helicopter reconnaissance was Dorland's last significant act as commander. He had grown steadily weaker from his wounds, but he fought to stay until the job was done. Late that afternoon Dorland was given a direct order to leave the field. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas, the 4/31 commander, flew into the battle area carrying a PRC-25 radio and took charge of the task force.
As darkness fell, the units established defensive perimeters and prepared for the next day. With Hill 63 secure, the plan was to trap the NVA in the pocket northwest of the two hills and the Ly Ly River. Two additional rifle companies were scheduled to join the task force the next morning to block enemy escape routes along the river. Company C, 4/31, would sweep and clear enemy positions on Hill X that had cursed Dorland during the day; Company D, 4/31, would sweep north; and Bierschmidt and Spohn's companies would continue to push west to clear the islands of enemy.
The operation kicked off the next morning under dingy, low-hanging skies. Company C, 4/31, swept and cleared Hill X with little contact, then established a blocking position west of the hill late that afternoon. The other units were not so fortunate. Spohn and Bierschmidt's companies ran into stiff opposition as they attempted to push west. Company D, 4/31, supported by tanks and APCs, ran into a firestorm when they tried to push north across the open paddy.
Company B, 2/1, and my rifle company, Company D, 3/21, were airlifted into the area shortly before 0930 and established blocking positions northwest of the battle area as planned. By noon, both units reported light contact with the enemy. Later in the afternoon, the two units killed 13 NVA soldiers who were trying to escape from the pocket.
As the battle continued throughout the day, Colonel Thomas concentrated artillery and tank fire on the Communist positions. When the weather improved later that afternoon, Thomas pummeled the enemy with back-to-back airstrikes. The North Vietnamese, unwilling to give ground, fought with the same fierce determination as they had the day before.
That evening, Thomas turned his attention toward two islands near the river that make up the hamlet of Dong Son one. Company C, 4/31, was assigned the southern most island. Company D, 4/31, would take the large island to the north. At 0100 on November 25, Captain Stringham moved his company into position for the attack. Mellon's objective lay across a large rice paddy a few hundred meters from his night laager site. He would jump off from there.
The attack kicked off early the next morning. Company D, with two tanks and a platoon of APCs in support, came under heavy automatic weapons fire as it approached the rice paddy.
Mellon said: "While the fire was totally ineffective at the time, I felt it could get worse. I halted our advance and brought up the two tanks and four APCs on line to bring their fire on the objective. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas couldn't give me artillery, but he had no objection to me bringing in airstrikes. When I dialed up the local forward air controller, the voice that came back was one I recognized well--Sampan Rambler 26. He and I had worked together many times since I had come to work for the 4/31 Infantry in June 1967."
Sampan Rambler 26 was able to divert a flight of McDonnell-Douglas F-4 fighter-bombers out of Da Nang carrying a load of 250-pound bombs and 20mm cannon. The Phantoms screamed out of the eastern sky at treetop level and dumped their loads on both islands, then returned to rake the area with cannon fire. Before the last F-4 had expended its ordnance, Delta Company was up, moving and firing with everything it had. Mellon remembers finding an old lady and two small boys on one of the islands, but no North Vietnamese soldiers.
Light automatic weapons fire coming from the smaller island caused Mellon to turn his attention to the south. It took only minutes for him to sweep the second island, but as before, the enemy were gone by the time he arrived.
Mellon said: "Except for some scrub next to the paddy, the island was bare. We scoured every inch of the ground but found no bodies or pieces of bodies anywhere. However, we did find lots of pieces of weapons, rucksacks, pith helmets and web gear. While we were loading all of this material on one of the APCs, I called Lieutenant Colonel Thomas to give him the news and ask him for new directions. He called us back to the northwest base of Hill X where we spent the night after having Thanksgiving dinner."
The 196th Light Infantry Brigade's baptismal battle with the 2nd NVA Division was over. One hundred and twenty-eight soldiers from the 3rd NVA Regiment's 5th and 7th companies lay dead. Fifty-six enemy weapons were captured. The price of victory was seven Americans killed and another 84 wounded in action. Body count, captured enemy gear and other statistics were the standard measure of success or failure at the time, but the reasons for winning in battle are more than a tally of the number of dead enemy soldiers.
The brigade's victory at Hill 63 can be attributed to superb leadership beginning with Major Dorland and going down to the most junior fire-team leader in the task force. And guts. Dorland was wounded at a critical time in the battle, and though his injuries were severe, he doggedly remained with his men. Had he allowed himself to be evacuated at that juncture, one can only speculate what impact his departure might have had on the battle. The men in the tanks, tracks and infantry platoons also exhibited a matchless, sometimes impetuous, courage against a tenacious enemy. In Dorland's words, "The men fought valiantly, and attacked without hesitation."
(Major Gilbert Dorland was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for the action on November 23, 1967.)
Colonel Humphries served two tours with the 196th Infantry Brigade in Vietnam, first as a rifle company commander in the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry, in 1967-68 during the above action and then as the battalion's operations officer in 1970-71 during the action described in "Walking Point" in the April 1997 Vietnam. Suggestions for further reading: Chargers, by F. Clifton Berry (Bantam Book); and Firebirds, by Chester W. Carlock (Summit).