MARINE CORPS TANKERS VIETNAM HISTORICAL Foundation's
Vietnam Personal Accounts
The Siege of Con Tien
Jim Coan - Alpha Co., 3rd Tanks, ‘67/’68
The U. S. Marine firebase at Con Thien was a key piece of real estate. Whoever held that little hill named Con Thien, two miles south of the DMZ, had an unobstructed view for a dozen miles in every direction. It was an artillery forward observer’s paradise. In 1966, Secretary of Defense McNamara and his Pentagon whiz kids decided Con Thien would anchor a strong point obstacle system below the DMZ. In the spring of 1967, Marine engineers quietly commenced bulldozing a 200-yard-wide strip between Con Thien and Gio Linh, ten kilometers to the east. Con Thien soon became ground zero for NVA gunners in the DMZ. The area around Con Thien was also hotly contested, as battalion and regimental-sized NVA units attempted to disrupt what cynical media types labeled “McNamara’s Wall.”
Commencing in early September, 1967, General Giap’s North Vietnamese Army started regularly shelling Con Thien’s defenders from their artillery and rocket launching sites in and below the DMZ. The 3/9 Marines holding Con Thien were supported by a battery of 105mm artillery, a platoon of tanks from Alpha Company, 3d Tanks, as well as an Ontos platoon and 4.2 inch mortars. Two additional Marine infantry battalions were dug in outside the wire protecting Con Thien’s flanks.
On 16 September, the monsoon season arrived with a bang. Seventeen inches of rain fell in 72 hours. The downpour flooded out bunkers and trench lines, and the MSR from Con Thien to Cam Lo was washed out. Helicopters became the only means of resupply. What follows is an excerpt from my book, Con Thien: The Hill of Angels, University of Alabama Press, 2004.
The Washout. Daylight approached reluctantly the morning of September 16, managing only to change the soaking-wet blackness of night into a sodden, gray dawn. Great, splashing buckets of rain cascaded down upon us, bringing misery upon friend and foe alike. Two of my tanks, A-11 and A-13, had spent the night out at Yankee Station, a little rise of densely vegetated high ground about a half click south of Con Thien. Two tanks stayed out there each night with a 3/9 company designated as the reaction force that would launch a counter-attack in the event of a major ground attack on Con Thien.
I was becoming increasingly worried over our location in an ancient rice paddy. Water had collected several inches deep around us, and it appeared that our treads had sunk nearly a foot into the rain-softened paddy overnight. I was certain that to remain in place much longer would find us too bogged down to move. DuBose cranked over our diesel engine and I directed him out of the paddy on to firmer ground. Sgt. Osborne was right behind me in A-13 as we headed for the MSR where we would be providing security for the morning mine sweep of the road leading to the firebase called C-2, three miles south of Con Thien.
We intercepted the mine sweep team, plus a squad of infantry security, and assumed our position on the road about 25 meters behind the engineers. My tank covered the port flank and A-13 had starboard responsibility. The miserable grunts slogged through liquid mud and rivulets of water beside the road as the rain pelted down even harder. The crushed rock road supported the weight of the tanks nicely, but if anything happened to force us off the road, we would surely get bogged down in that paddy country.
By the time we reached the Rocky Ford, about half-way to C-2, the rain had slowed to a drizzle. Rocky Ford bore that name, even though Marine engineers and Seabees had installed a culvert where the creek intersected the MSR, allowing the creek water to flow unimpeded beneath the graded road. Runoff from the early morning cloudburst had flooded the area upstream of the culvert as the built-up roadbed was acting like a dam. The dual corrugated tin conduits were not large enough to accommodate such a tremendous volume of rapidly accumulating runoff. Two huge fountains sprayed forth under pressure out the other side of the culvert.
Despite the water backed up on one side, the roadbed appeared solid enough for us to cross. We ventured cautiously over the culvert, flanked by grunts from 2/9 crossing in two columns, and proceeded without incident to C-2.
When we reached C-2, the infantry squad and engineer team boarded our tanks for the return trip to Con Thien. As we approached the Rocky Ford, we noted the dirt road on the side backing up the flood waters was crumbling away. The backed-up runoff was almost level with the road and threatening to overflow the dam-like roadbed at any moment. Two columns of infantry were still crossing without hesitation.
All of my premonition faculties were sounding warning alarms. This looked bad. I had DuBose stop the tank so I could jump down and check out the culvert. I feared it might collapse with the added weight of two 52-ton tanks. But not taking a chance and crossing over meant being cut off from Con Thien and the rest of the tank platoon. I went back to the second tank driven by L/CPL Ken “Piggy” Bores, who had a year of experience driving tanks over every kind of terrain possible in Vietnam. “What do you think, Piggy. Can we make it over?”
Bores replied without the slightest hesitation, “Let’s go over, Lieutenant. We can do it if we go now. It’s not gonna hold up much longer.”
“That’s what I’m thinking,” I said, as I trotted around to the front of my vehicle, the lead tank. “Get ready to roll, DuBose. We’re gettin’ set to give ‘er a go!” I scrambled up the front slope plate and jumped into the commander’s cupola. Reaching behind me to retrieve my fallen com-helmet from the gypsy rack, my eyes met the intense, riveting stares of a half-dozen alarmed Marines riding aboard my tank. I hesitated. That old Marine Corps adage from OCS echoed in my mind: Hesitate and You’re Dead!! We had to go now, but I could not make myself give the order to move out. “All these men . . . God help us all if” . . .KAWHOOSHHH!! The Rocky Ford was no more. It had washed away in a roaring torrent of pent-up water pressure.
In shocked silence we gaped at the mighty surge of water as it flipped those two enormous steel conduits around like paper straws, end over end in an avalanche of churning water. Then the horror of it all fully registered. Marines from E/2/9 were on the culvert when it washed away. Men began to shout. Two Marines instantly shed their equipment and flak jackets and jumped into the churning, muddy, swift-moving water to rescue one man who had somehow grabbed onto some tree branches near the bank. They pulled him to safety. Others ran along the bank searching for anyone less fortunate. One man was missing and presumed drowned. “Doc,” their Navy corpsman, had met his fate that morning. Weighted down with all of his gear, he never had a chance. Heavy jungle undergrowth fifty meters from the roadbed prevented rescuers from going any farther downstream without machetes to hack their way through.
I jumped to the ground and threw off my gear, but there was nothing more I could do. Some men stood helplessly on the riverbank, cursing with rage and frustration. My eyes met the shocked stare of L/CPL Bores. His ghost-white face said it all. We had come so very close to losing our lives.
What had been a lazy, meandering creek a day earlier was now a raging river, ten feet deep and 100 feet wide. Rain commenced falling again as NCOs and officers physically restrained several grief-stricken men from stripping down and diving into that deathtrap to search for their revered corpsman. Vietnam itself had claimed the life of another American boy.
With one hard downpour, Mother Nature had accomplished what the NVA could not. Con Thien was cut off and isolated. No more resupply runs could be made on the MSR until the washout was repaired. I had to take my two tanks and the road sweep detail back to C-2 and find a place out of the rain. The monsoon season had arrived.