In May of 1967, and as a young Marine PFC aboard the USS Okinawa (LPH-3), attached to the 1st Bn. 3rd Marines, RLT 26, I was already years older than my chronological number of 19. Our Battalion had been using this ship as a Combat Assault Base since we left Khe Shan in late February.
After six rapid fire Operations, we were tired, and I can recall that most of my squad members had given up any consideration of going home without serious wounds or in a bag.
On the evening of the 14th, word began to filter down that we were going to deploy again on yet another Combat Operation. Due to the fact that we had only returned to the ship 48 hours previous, everyone was in a pissed-off mood. We needed sleep, and hot chow for a change. It was not to be....On the morning of the 15th, I recall the Captain coming on the ship's PA, "Tomorrow is Ho Chi Min's birthday, we are going to give him a present that he won't soon forget!" I can remember shouting out loud. WE my ass and thinking that while we were ducking & dodging the good Captain of the USS Okinawa would be sipping a nice glass of sherry in the wardroom.
That evening we made preparations as usual. Three days of C-Rats, and 1,000 rounds of M-16 ammo. Clean the weapon, grab an extra pair of dry socks, fill two canteens. In the morning we would get our issue of Frags & WP. Squad and platoon leaders were huddled around maps talking in whispered tones. Did they really think that someone might send a message to the enemy if a lowly grunt overheard something? That night I can remember laying in my bunk, a prayer on my lips, thinking of home. The birthing compartment was so quiet that you could only hear the turning of the ship's screws. At 0330 reveille was sounded, and we gathered and checked our gear. Our squad leader gathered us around and told us that we lucked out, we were assigned the second wave. YES!! about time we caught a break.
As we filed into the chow hall at 0430 on 17 May I couldn't believe what I was seeing or smelling. My God they were serving Steak & Eggs. Real steak, and Real eggs. Not those powdered green eggs as usual. When they serve Steak and Eggs in the Marine Corps, it's the equivalent of the Last Supper. I couldn't even eat for the tightening in my stomach. From the looks we were
getting from the Navy food servers, it was clear that they knew more about the upcoming assault than we did. Ain't that sweet!
At 0530 we were sent to the "Ready rooms" on the Flight Deck. The first wave of 12 CH-34 Choppers had lifted off, and we sat on the steel floor awaiting their return. There were ten of us, each enveloped in our own thoughts. The hatch was opened to the ocean breeze, and the sun looked beautiful as it broke the horizon in a red sky, -Red sky at night sailors delight-Red sky in morning sailors warning. Indeed!
At 0615 six of the twelve choppers from the first wave returned to the flight deck. As they set down, it was clear that they were all shot to s---. We watched in horror, as they unloaded body after body on to stretchers. One of the Marines in our ready room said, "I ain't going." At about that time, the platoon Sergeant yelled from the deck. "Let's go, Let's go!"
As I ran for the nearest chopper, I looked back to see two Marines in a fist fight with the Marine who made good on his promise not to go. With six of us onboard, we lifted off and headed toward shore. As I looked around the chopper I was amazed we were in flight. At least a dozen bullet holes were visible in the side fuselage, what looked like transmission fluid was running from the overhead, and pools of blood and discarded bandages were strewn about the deck. All of my fellow passengers looked like deer caught in headlights, and I'm sure that I was not an exception. We came in low over the water, and when we made the beach took a hard right. "S--- we're going North!" After about six or seven minutes we turned inland about ten miles. The temperature inside the chopper went from about 60 in flight to well above 100 as we set down. The crew chief shouted "Get the F--- Off, Move Move Move." By the second "Move" we were all off the chopper, and floundering around in the sand trying to get our footing. As the bird took off the rotors picked up the sand and whipped it into my eyes and burned my exposed skin. Welcome to the DMZ!
Within a minute the choppers were gone, and twelve of us stood exposed in what can only be described as a desert. Immediately, Cpl. Masterson, our Fire Team Leader had us advance to a sand dune some sixty meters to our front. Once there, he spread us out along the dune at twenty meter intervals. So far so good, no incoming fire. One thing was clear. We were dropped in the wrong LZ. Not only did we not join with a large Battalion sized Unit, but we were only twelve Marines out of the thirty+ that came on this wave. Where was everybody?
As I peered over the dune, I could make out a sparse tree line some 150 meters away. Just as I was about to report the all clear, it hit the fan. From the tree line a barrage of automatic fire was directed our way. It was so intense, that we couldn't hear each other shouting to get low. There was no let up, and the heavy machine gun rounds were coming right through the upper ridge of the dune. My pack was ripped right off my back by a burst of 50 caliber. Two guys to my left were hit in the ass while trying to get lower into the sand. To make things even better, we lost our only radio to gunfire in the first ten minutes. As soon as we got a lull, we returned fire in unison. I just stuck my M-16 over the top and let go with two mags. As I looked down the line everyone else had the same idea. At about this time, the enemy made an assault on our far left flank. This area was out of view due to the curvature of the dune, and was protected by a three man M-60 Machine gun crew and an M-79 man. The fighting there was fast and furious. Then all went quiet.
We then settled in for the lack of a better term to what can be described as a Mexican Standoff. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that we were vastly outnumbered. From the volume of their initial fire I would estimate in excess of one hundred. What we had on our side was that they didn't know our strength. Word was passed along, that our M-60 team and the M-79 man were dead, as well as a considerable number of the enemy. I was amazed that with all the incoming I still didn't have a scratch.
We kept watch on the tree line and prayed that they had withdrawn. We were down to only five guys who had not been hit. I looked at my watch 1100 hours. Where was everybody? Couldn't they hear the gunfire? At about that time, a lone Huey Gunship approached from our rear. I threw a green smoke behind our position, and the team leader threw a red toward the tree line. The Huey hovered, primed his rocket pods as a prep to fire, but before he could shoot, the tree line opened up again and the chopper banked and left the area.
At about 1500 hours, five Amtrack vehicles moved to our position. They drew intense fire from the tree line, but gave as good as they got with their M-60s. They came along side, and dropped their ramps. We scrambled on board bringing our dead and wounded. As we road the length of the dune we continued to take hits from the tree line. As we stopped to drag in our dead from the left flank, we viewed the some fifteen dead enemy who were killed in the assault. They were Red Chinese. We removed their papers and weapons, and later turned them over to the Command Post at the Bn. Headquarters.
Note: As remembered by PFC Joseph C. Connelly, Alpha Co., Ist Bn 3rd Marines.