Con Thien

Inside the Cone of Fire
Mike Company, Third Battalion, Ninth Marines

I had gone to the rear, as if there is any rear at Con Thien to scrounge a carton of milk from Pfc Kenneth Birdsong, the helicopter landing zone controller. Two choppers had touched down, unloaded and shoved off. Enemy spotters must have seen them and radioed their 152-mm guns hidden 10 miles away. There was no warning when the shells came there never is when they come on top of you. The first salvo of three hit 100 meters away. A Marine dived for a trench. Others piled into a bunker. Five of us wedged there with ammo stacked all around.

Impact 50 meters. Shudder of Target Zero.

Charlie was walking his barrage right in upon us. The second salvo erupted 50 meters dead ahead of our bunker. No one spoke, no one moved. There was no place else to go. It was too late. Salvo number three was already coming. We just waited. We all knew, by now, that the enemy gunner was shortening his range by 50 meters each salvo. We were Target Zero. Then eardrums and hearts and dreams burst. My camera shuddered (left photo). Three shells exploded against our bunker’s outer flank, 15 feet away and I was deaf and alive, with muddy Marine boots in my face. Not deaf! Another salvo echoed far away, 50 meters behind us which seemed quite beautiful until we heard the worst sound of all.

Target Minus 50-the cry of Corpsman.

The corpsmen came. The bunker at Target Minus 50 was a shambles. Litter bearers converged from everywhere to carry the wounded to the battalion aid station, nearly 300 yards away. It was very far-the North Vietnamese artillery was raking Con Thien, searching for anyone who moved and for the medevac choppers trying to land. The doctors had only a few minutes to stop the hemorrhaging and clean off the mud. Then, in a helicopter that dropped in with a recoilless rifle, there was an exchange: one weapon for one wounded.

Life below ground and above ground.

Scenes not easy to bare.

In a way, I look on this story as a letter to the families and friends of the men of the Third Battalion, 9th Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. There are some pictures which are not easy to bear-of men wounded and killed. But they are all professionals, practicing a trade for which they volunteered. In ten days at Con Thien-though this seems hard to believe-I never heard any griping at being there. The men view Con Thien in the same light as Tarawa and Iwo Jima and are proud and happy to have this hilltop in a remote land. It is a place every one of them seemed to believe important. Perhaps my pictures will add meaning to the letters the men themselves write home.