Over the River and Through the Woods to Uncle Ho’s House We Go

2/1 Seizes Hill 80

During October 1967 3rd Marine Division obtained intelligence that indicated the possibility of a North Vietnamese Army weapons cache containing 122mm rockets in the jungle covered rolling hills southwest of Quang Tri city. The specific location was a hill near the southeast border of Trieu Phong District; Hill 80.

At this time Second Battalion, 1st Marines was operating in an area south and southwest of Quang Tri in an area roughly bounded by Highway 1 to the east, the Hai Lang National Forest to the south, and the Thach Han River to the west (see map below). The battalion, along with 1st Marines Regimental headquarters, and its 1st Battalion, had recently moved north from the 1st Marine Division area around Da Nang and were under the operation control of 3rd MarDiv.

                                                                                      

2nd Battalion, 1st Marines Operating Area

Hill 80 was several kilometers west of the Thach Han River just beyond the far southwest boundary of 2/1’s operating area. Thus the battalion was tasked with investigating and seizing the rocket cache if it could be located. On 31 October 2/1 (minus) launched the operation by being helo lifted across the Thach Han. Three rifle companies were used; Hotel, Fox, and Charlie Company, 1/1. I commanded Fox Company during this operation. This was planned as a two day operation, and thus rations and ammo were allocated accordingly.

Upon insertion into the landing zone west of the Thach Han, the battalion proceeded toward Hill 80. We stayed off of trails, cutting our way directly through the jungle. It was slow going and a heavy rain started to fall. As I recall we travelled in two columns on a compass azimuth. After several hours of slow progress I heard a ruckus from my lead platoon. I moved forward and saw my platoon leader, Tom Lang standing shirtless with blood pouring down his back. There had been no enemy fire and I was initially confused at what had happened. The blood came from numerous leeches that dropped off the trees and latched onto Tom’s back. He was frantically trying to remove the vile creatures. This alerted the whole column to be alert for the blood-suckers as they dropped from the trees.

We finally reached our objective, Hill 80 as the day was coming to an end. We had only covered about a kilometer and a half as we cut our way through the jungle. It was still pouring rain as we dug in for the night. That night was the coldest I had ever been as a Marine up to that time. Of course it wasn’t Chosin Reservoir cold, but my radio operator and I sat huddled together in a foxhole half full of water, wrapped in ponchos and shivered the night away. We got no sleep. I had experienced much lower temperatures during cold weather training at the Mountain Warfare Training Center near Bridgeport, California, but then we had cold weather gear to combat the low temperatures.

By morning the rain had stopped and the sun was peeking through the clouds. We were able to warm up and dry out some before searching the Hill 80 area for the rocket cache. We never found any sign of life or any rockets on or around Hill 80. In fact we found no sign of human activity anywhere in the area. About mid afternoon we departed for our return to the landing zone for extraction. At this point the rains started again. We arrived at the LZ, but the choppers could not fly because of an almost zero ceiling. Thus, with no way to cross the river, we would spend another night in the bush. We dug in around the LZ and spent another miserable rain soaked night.

Since the battalion had planned to complete the operation in two days, we had run out of rations. We had no evening meal and no breakfast for next morning. Battalion headquarters requested a resupply but the weather prevented the Marine helicopters from flying. So we sat stranded and hungry on the west side of the Thach Han. Our regimental commander, Colonel Herb Ing did his best to get our choppers airborne to get us some food, or better yet, to extract us, but the Air Wing would not budge…to dangerous to fly in this weather. The Colonel finally located an Army helicopter unit that was willing to risk delivery of rations to his stranded battalion. The next morning a crew of young, crazy Army Warrant Officer pilots and crewmen loaded a UH-1 with as many cases of C-Rations as the aircraft would hold, and headed for the vicinity of Hill 80 regardless of the weather closely resembling soup.

I can remember hearing the Huey’s cautious approach, and finally seeing it appear through the low ceiling only about 50 feet above ground level. It hovered over our position and kicked out it cargo of C-Rats, and disappeared again into the soup. There wasn’t enough for each Marine to get an entire ration, but everyone got at least one can of something. As I recall, I got a can of crackers. It wasn’t much but it was something, and we were eternally grateful for those crazy Army airmen.

Colonel Ing hadn’t been idle in his efforts to extract his lost battalion. He had somehow arranged for an ARVN mechanized infantry unit to help us back across the Thach Han. We moved to the west bank of the river and saw ARVN M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers swimming toward us. We loaded aboard the APCs and were ferried to the east bank of the Thach Han. I remember that there seemed to be less than a foot of freeboard as the heavily loaded 113s traversed the river.

The battalion was finally assembled back in our area of operations with a 10 kilometer hike ahead of us to the 2/1 CP located just south of Quang Tri near the village of La Vang. We arrived home a tired, wet and hungry band of Marines, but there was hot chow waiting when we got there.

And thus ends another saga of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines. It was hard work and we found nothing, but not a single shot was fired in anger over the entire three days. And the only blood shed was due to leeches.

  Semper Fi,

  Dirck Praeger sends