The Year of the Monkey
By Joseph Giannini
1968, for all sides, was the deadliest year in the Vietnam War. Over 100,000 American casualties: 16,592 killed in action, 87,388 wounded in action.
In early January the North Vietnamese Army attacked the Khe Sanh Combat Base, just below the DMZ, starting a four-month siege. On January 31, the Vietnamese New Year's Eve, the NVA and Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. It was The Year of The Monkey. At the end of April 1968, the Battle of Dai Do started. My tour in Vietnam, as a Marine infantry officer with the First Battalion Third Marines, included all of the above.
Tet started with a heavy barrage of rockets slamming into our positions at the Quang Tri Combat Base. We ran for cover. The NVA were firing 122mm rockets with delayed detonating fuses. We had no defense, only luck. Maybe. I crunched down, making as small a target as possible. Terrified as "Death" walked amongst us. On us. Praying over and over, "God, please, please." At moments, laughing uncontrollably. Close to insanity. Being exposed to death at any moment changes you forever.
The Offensive was intended to end the Vietnam War. NVA and Viet Cong attacked the whole length of South Vietnam believing this offensive would spark a popular rebellion against the Americans and the government of the Republic of South Vietnam. The Offensive was a decisive military victory for us and our allies. Back in "The World," most Americans were shocked by TV coverage of the fighting, brutality, carnage, and destruction. The light at the end of the tunnel was a hellacious fire burning everything.
In early April 1968, we convoyed up Highway One, the only North-South road in Quang Tri Province. We were heading to Route Nine. It ran west past the Marines under siege at the Khe Sanh Combat Base, then on to Laos. Vietnamese girls stood along the road, patting their backsides. Hatred in their eyes and voices. Yelling over and over, "Hey, Marines you fucking number ten." Meaning we were the worst. We had not won their "Hearts and Minds." Our crusade to bring them freedom and democracy doomed long before the first Marines waded ashore.
The NVA had closed Route Nine by Khe Sahn. Then 40,000 NVA surrounded 5,000 Marines and ARVN in a death trap. We moved down Route Nine, took up positions a few miles from the combat base, then waited. I thought all those Marines were fucked. Did not have a chance. Thanked God it was not us. The siege looked like another Dien Bien Phu, a famous battle in the French Indochina War. In 1954, the Viet Minh, now the NVA, surrounded and defeated 15,000 French soldiers, ending that war and jump-starting our Vietnam War, called the American War by most Vietnamese.
The Marines at Khe Sahn, in vicious hill fights, defeated the NVA attempts to overrun the base. Incessant air strikes, including B-52 carpet bombing, killed thousands of NVA laying siege to the base. The Marines held until the First Air Cavalry joined the fight. Then the Khe Sanh Combat Base was promptly abandoned.
The Battle of Dai Do started at the end of April 1968 when the Second Battalion Fourth Marines encountered, on the north side of the Cua Viet River, a large NVA force moving southwest maybe to surprise and overrun the Dong Ha Combat Base. It was the biggest Marine base near the DMZ, bordering on a tributary of the Cua Viet. On April 30, 1968, 1/3, on the south side of the Cua Viet, was ordered to send one rifle company to the north side. Even though my company, Charlie, was closer to 2/4, Bravo got the mission. They were ambushed halfway across. Decimated by AKs, machine guns light and heavy, RPGs, and mortars. They made it across. Within five minutes of landing their Company Commander was killed and the Gunny seriously wounded. Only one officer survived the landing. Bravo had 50% casualties. They held on through the night.
The rest of 1/3 crossed over in the morning. We walked through the positions of the Second Battalion Fourth Marines, aka "The Magnificent Bastards." They had been in a vicious battle with a large NVA force. The Bastards suffered terrible losses. Held a thin green line. We moved forward to continue the fight and came upon a large deep ditch filled with dead Marines, each facing outboard. Everyone was in a fighting position, killed by multiple small arm wounds. The NVA had pulled back without stripping or mutilating them. Our Chaplin climbed down into the ditch. With the index finger and pinky of his right hand, he closed their eyes. Then we went into the ditch, to wrap each Marine in his own poncho. During our advance, we wrapped 55 KIAs from 2/4. All about to start the long journey home. We called this "Poncho Rotation."
While pursuing the enemy we found a lone dead Marine. He had been captured. He was blindfolded and his arms tied so tight behind, his elbows were touching. Shot in the back of the head. Out here, the Geneva Convention did not protect captured grunts. We were not valuable intelligence sources.
We found the NVA. They made a stand and attempted to overrun 1/3. Not good decisions. The weather was clear and sunny. They were massed in two villes surrounded by dry rice paddies. A large Buddhist graveyard extended from the NVA lines to our position. As we advanced, the graveyard provided great cover. We could see them and they us. We fought a deadly stalemate through most of the day. Our Aerial Observer above coordinated our support. Jet fighter-bombers dropping 500 and 1,000 pound bombs and napalm, artillery firing barrages from every firebase within range and Cobra Gunships. The earth shook. The air above the villes became a brown cloud that rose 200 meters. The NVA held their ground. Then started a large ground assault at us in the graveyard. The AO told us to pull back, that he had never seen anything like this. Thousands were coming at us. We moved back several hundred meters under the cover of our supporting fires. The NVA troopers were stopped meters from our new position.
The next morning we moved up again. The NVA were gone. Only a few remained behind, buried alive in their bunkers. We had fought between 8,000 and 10,000 NVA from their 320th Infantry Division. Stopping them and inflicting heavy casualties. Our losses were considerable. As Marines say, "There it is."
Joseph Giannini is a former Marine grunt who fought in 'Nam 1967-68 with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines.