The Raid into Hai Lang National Forest
Or, why I canít hear worth a damn and owe my ass to a CH-53
Sometime during November 1967 the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines conducted a one-day helicopter-borne raid into the Hai Lang National Forest south of Quang Tri City in Northern I Corps. During this short operation I commanded Fox Company of the 2nd Battalion. During the previous month my battalion and the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines had conducted Operation MEDINA in the same vicinity as the raid. At the time of MEDINA I was the battalion assistant operations officer, or S-3 Alpha, as the position was called.
During this operation, which was essentially a raid, we made sporadic contact with the North Vietnamese Army and inflicted some casualties on them, and as I recall, we suffered no killed and only a few minor wounded, one of which was from Fox Company.
I do not recall every specific of this operation, but can remember vignettes from that day which I will attempt to recreate in this TINS tale.
The day before the operation we made an aerial reconnaissance. The helicopter used was a UH-1 configured as a gunship, with two M-60 machine guns mounted on each side of the aircraft. Why a gunship was used for this recon I donít know. Aboard the chopper were the battalion commander and all rifle company commanders. If the chopper had gone down the entire command structure of 2/1 would have gone with it. During a check-out of the area we saw some NVA running down a trail toward a grass hut. The battalion commander told the pilot to go for the NVA and we went into an immediate dive and gun run. The muzzles of the four M-60s were even with the open rear doors of the Huey. I was sitting in the outside seat a few feet from the machine guns. You havenít lived until youíve had your unprotected left ear real close to the flash suppressors of two blazing M-60s. We made two or three passes at the hut. It was the loudest sustained noise I had ever heard until we arrived at Con Thien a few months later. Iím sure that day contributed to whatever hearing loss I have today.
The day of the operation started early from an airstrip near Quang Tri City where the battalion was loaded aboard helicopters. There was none of the precision that you saw in footage of the Armyís 1st Air Cavalry Division lifting off in phalanxes of UH-1 Hueys heading to another air assault. There was every type of helicopter in the Marine Corps inventory there; UH-34s, CH-46s, CH-53s and UH-1s. All of my helicopter training had involved building heliteams and loading aboard the choppers, strapping into seats, and sitting there with your rifle between your knees until reaching the landing zone. For this operation we were lined up along the side of the runway, and peeled off based upon how many troops the next helicopter in line could carry on this particular day. My company tactical net radio operator, battalion tac net radio operator, artillery forward observer, and myself jumped aboard an UH-34. There were no seats so we just sat on the deck of the helo awaiting liftoff. Finally the first wave was loaded and we took off into the early morning sunlight. One other memory I have of that airstrip was that a blue and white Air America plane landed as we were loading. Wonder what the CIA was doing in our neck of the woods that day.
The Venerable UH-34
The trip from Quang Tri to the Hai Lang forest was relatively short, but I remember it very well. There was the fear that inevitably gripped me as I headed into combat. It went away as soon as I left the choppers in the landing zone, but when I had time to think about it on the way in, it was always my companion as I contemplated that this might be my last day on this earth. Once on the ground you didnít have time to think about it. I can remember telling the artillery forward observer to make sure that radio contact was maintained within Fox Company and with battalion headquarters if I got it in the LZ.
As our H-34 touched down I heard gunfire above the noise of the birdís engines. Hot landing zone, I thought. Shit! We disembarked from the helo and discovered that we had taken a few NVA rounds upon landing, but that the first of my Marines into the LZ had quickly driven the NVA off. Most of the fire that I heard was from those Marines. Whew! No hot zone after all. We quickly secured our part of the LZ perimeter so the following waves bringing in the rest of the battalion could land safely.
The next thing I recall about this day is that Fox Company was moving down a trail in the jungles of Hai Lang. We came to a sharp bend in the trail. The point man peered around the bend and saw two NVA soldiers sitting beside the trail eating rice. He and the second Marine in column, armed with a 12 gauge riot gun, jumped around the corner and emptied their weapons into the two NVA killing them both. I distinctly remember the boom of the shotgun intermixed with the M-16 fire as they assaulted. We gathered up whatever may have been of intelligence value and proceeded carefully up the trail.
Marines in Hai Lang National Forest
Some time later Fox Company was the point advancing down another trail when my point man came face to face with an NVA point manÖa classic meeting engagement boiled down to its most elemental. They raised their weapons simultaneously and pulled the triggers. The vaunted AK-47 jammed after one wild shot and my point man emptied his 20 round magazine into the enemyís chest and head, taking off half the NVAís head. Then both sides deployed to either side of the trail and opened with a heavy volume of fire. This fight lasted only about 5 minutes. The NVA held us in place and executed a very skillful retrograde and got the hell out of the area. During this firefight one of my grenadiers got a fragment of something just below his lower lip. It was a little more than a superficial wound and it bled like hell. After the fight he walked past me heading for the one of the company corpsman holding his M-79 in one hand and a battle dressing over his chin and swearing at the top of his voice. I have never heard such an eloquent stream of obscenities before or since.
My last memory of that day concerns our departure from the LZ at the end of the operation. My company had LZ security and was the last to leave. The size of our security force dwindled with the departure of each wave of helos. Finally there was one platoon (minus) and my small headquarters group remaining. A single CH-53D approached to haul the rest of us to safety. Our small group filled the troop compartment of the chopper to its limit. As we lifted off I looked out the window, and running down the trail about 50 yards from the LZ was a substantial group of NVA. We had made it out by the skin of our teeth. If anything smaller than a CH-53 had come into the zone our asses would have been toast. We couldnít have held off the size of enemy force I saw running toward the LZ for very long.
Thus ended one of a number of operations I participated in during my tours in Vietnam. I usually try to keep my TINS tales on the lighter side, but something I read last week got me to thinking of the raid into Hai Lang National Forest, and this is the result; another small bit of Marine Corps history that I was able to be a part of.
Dirck Praeger sends