A large-scale attack on 2nd CAG
and CACO 2-7
The commanders of 2nd CAG’s most combat-active company — the 7th in Dien Ban District — were acutely aware of this and struggled with the reality of mounting casualties and dwindling resources. Headquartered alongside Highway 1 in a little ratshack compound of plywood and sandbags, 7th Company’s undermanned field units — the Combined Action Platoons — were forced to come to grips with the new, “ballsier” Viet Cong.
Not only that, but the idiosyncrasies of that peculiar war had caught up with and rocked all of 7th Company earlier in the month. A Marine lance corporal had been gunned down in cold blood by a South Vietnamese Popular Force officer at CAP 2-7-10. While the victim of that shooting, Ronnie Ross, lay dying in a hospital in Japan, the trust built up between 7th Company Marines and their South Vietnamese counterparts had seriously eroded.
7th Company’s young commanders, Lt. Jim Ivy and his executive officer, Lt. Charlie Grebenstein, found themselves in a balancing act. They were trying to hold together a delicate and potentially explosive alliance, deal with a myriad of logistical and political problems and still conduct the business of war: small unit combat operations against an enemy emboldened by the American troop reductions.
If anyone had been foolish enough that March to doubt the Viet Cong’s renewed vitality in 7th Company’s area, they needed only to spend a few white-knuckled days with CAP 2-7-6 just south of the Thanh Quit River. A few months earlier, CAP 6 Marines saw enemy contact every 12 or 15 days, but now they wearily endured Viet Cong ambushes two or three times a week. Those were pretty scary statistics for short-timers.
The night of March 26-27 would also have quelled any doubts.
Around 2100 hours, the first mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades began impacting in and about 7th Company’s dilapidated little headquarters on Highway 1. Exploding shells showered the plywood hooches and sandbagged bunkers with shrapnel and dirt. Marines scrambled from their racks into trousers, boots and flak jackets, and stumbled out into the confusion.
I was one of those sleeping. I had just returned from seven days R&R and was so exhausted with jet lag that I slept through the first 10 minutes of the attack. By the time I got outside, our mortars were manned and firing, LUME had been called up and Lt. Grebenstein was standing in combat gear between the commshack and our “club,” directing Marines to positions on the wall.
Lt. Ivy, meanwhile, was in the commshack, 7th Company’s nerve center — not much more than a plywood box covered by sandbags and bristling with antennae. His eyes were fixed on the Plexiglas-covered map, a radio handset clamped to his ear. There was disturbing news from 2nd CAG in Hoi An, six miles away to the southeast. They were also under what appeared to be a major attack, and reported incoming 122mm rockets, and heavy mortar and machine gun fire.
As the minutes ticked into an hour and the shells kept falling, it became clear that this was not a hit-and-run attack by neighborhood VC, but an organized and sustained effort by a significant enemy force. Now it became imperative to determine the strength of that force, its position, and most of all, its intentions.
2nd CAG commanding officer Lt. Colonel J.J. Tolnay began conferring with his company commanders — most importantly Lt. Ivy. They, in turn, were talking with their CAP team leaders in the field. Eventually, a picture began to take shape. A regiment-sized force of North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong had lodged itself in an area roughly halfway between Dien Ban and Hoi An. This force was concentrating its attack on 2nd CAG, while lashing out at 7th Company to protect its rear.
This put 7th Company in the enemy’s backfield — an enviable tactical position in textbook circumstances — but to Ivy and Grebenstein there were disadvantages. The small size of their headquarters and the scattered deployment of their field units put the entire company, CACO and CAPs alike, in a dangerously vulnerable situation. If an enemy force big enough to take on 2nd CAG decided to wheel about and attack north, it might overwhelm 7th Company.
One strong card in 7th Company’s hand came out of the unfortunate Ronnie Ross shooting incident. Immediately after that shooting and the dicey “Mexican stand-off” that followed, Lt. Ivy had yanked CAP 10 from the field and ordered them back to the company compound. The order was meant for their protection, given the bad blood the shooting created in CAP 10’s area. But it also meant Lt. Grebenstein had an extra dozen combat-tested riflemen to throw into defensive positions.
Luis “Marty” Martinez, one of CAP 10’s “orphans,” found himself firing a rifle over the wall that night and marked how strange it was for Marines who were used to getting shot at in wide-open rice paddies, to have some protection.
“We felt invulnerable behind those sandbags,” he says.
After midnight the American hammer came down in the form of concentrated and punishing artillery fire ordered up from the 7th Company commshack and from 2nd CAG. The fire originated from the muzzles of 155mm and 105mm guns in Danang to the north. Korean Army artillery near Hoi An also got into the act, firing their 105s directly over the 2nd CAG compound.
By 0130 hours, 7th Company was still taking sporadic incoming fire, while rockets continued to impact in the rivers and rice fields near 2nd CAG. In the 7th Company commshack, both the lieutenants and the radio operator (myself) kept working the tactical nets, lifting the artillery at times to clear a path for Cobra helicopter gunships, and bringing the curtain of fire back down once the flyboys had expended their ammo. Lt. Grebenstein periodically left the commshack to check on 7th Company’s defensive effort, but it was becoming clear that the sustained pounding had taken the sting out of the enemy attack.
One last parting shot by some NVA gunner landed an earthshaking rocket blast directly on top of a bunker just behind the commshack, imploding the roof and walls and killing a South Vietnamese PF-liaison officer, the only major casualty in the compound that night.
By 0300 it was apparent the attack had been broken up and the enemy survivors were melting into the jungles and villes, although gunfire and detonations continued throughout the morning like overcooked popcorn.
One ironic footnote to the attack was that, for once, it was CAG’s garrisoned compounds getting hit. The normally action-packed CAP teams mostly sat on their collective “ditty boxes” in their night ambush sites, calmly watching the fireworks. It would have been a different story if the rocket and mortar attacks had been followed up by an aggressive NVA infantry assault. CAP Marines would have found themselves shouldering their gear and racing through the darkness to defend their parent units.
A personal postscript: I staggered from the commshack at 0600 to the little plywood hut that served as our “club,” drank three Schlitz beers and smoked 15 cigarettes, and then staggered back to my hooch and passed out in my rack.
Posted on Nov. 19, 2005