An Incident in Vietnam

In the Spring of 1968, I was a twenty-three-year-old U.S. Marine Second Lieutenant, serving in Vietnam.  At the time of this incident, I was the Fire Support Coordinator of an infantry battalion, on a hilltop near the Khe Sanh Combat Base in the mountainous region of northwestern South Vietnam.  The famous siege of that base was over, and my battalion had been sent up to the hills north of the base to clear North Vietnamese forces that had been rocketing the base.  We had done that, and the battalion was to be air-lifted to another base on the plains between the highlands and the sea. 

In preparation for the airlift, the battalion had come together on Hill 881S.  This hill had been occupied by companies of our battalion throughout the siege, and it had been the target of constant attacks by North Vietnamese mortars and rockets and, at times, by infantry and snipers.  The hill was ringed by deep trenches all around its defensive perimeter.  Not a trace of vegetation remained within the perimeter, and very little remained outside it.  The constant pounding the entire area had received, mostly by American artillery and air strikes, had covered the landscape with white pockmarks that merged into a blanket of white around Hill 881S, the base, and one or two other outposts.  At greater distances from the base and outposts, the pockmarks thinned out in the green jungle-covered hills.

This was still hostile territory, and the marines were in the trenches around the perimeter of the hill.  The plan of our departure was for the units to go down into a small flat-bottomed valley on the side of the hill toward the combat base and there to run aboard big twin-rotor helicopters as they came in and flew out, barely touching down. 

This operation was proceeding when a pair of enemy rockets roared over the top of the hill and exploded in the area below, where the Marines were assembling.  I had not heard rockets passing close overhead before; it was terrifying and impressive, like something tearing huge sheets of canvas.  The rockets are bigger than artillery projectiles, and louder in passing.  These killed one man and wounded several.

Since the rockets had come over the hill from the side away from the helicopter landing place, all the Marines moved around the hill into the trenches on the protected side.

The Battalion Commander ordered me to call artillery and put a stop to the rockets.  That required my radioman and me to do the last thing we wanted to do, to go around to the slope facing the direction from which the rockets had come. 

Alone with my radio operator in the trench on the side of the hill facing the enemy, I peered into the distance with my binoculars, hoping to spot the rocket site.  I soon did.  I saw two tiny sparks rise from a grassy area near a treeline, perhaps two miles away.  I realized that those sparks were the flames of another pair of rockets, and that those rockets were on the way to us.  I felt as if they were aimed specifically at me and my radio operator.  He and I dropped to the bottom of the trench and lay there dreading their arrival.  After a long time—perhaps 7 or 8 seconds—the rockets exploded against the hillside, this time below our trench.  Since the first ones had gone over, this meant that the enemy gunners were adjusting, and I figured that, not knowing that the trenches were empty—except for me and my radio operator—on the side of the hill they could see, they were trying to hit them.  When they got the range, they would fire many more. 

Thus personally motivated, I called to my battery at Khe Sanh for a fire mission.  I gave them a target description, the direction, and my best guess at the map coordinates.  The battery fired one of its six guns, with a white marking projectile, and I saw that my initial estimate was quite short.  I called in an increase of the range, trying to get a bracket on the rocket site.  At the same time, I saw more sparks and dropped to the ground again to wait another very long time for the next rockets to hit and explode. 

This time the enemy gunners had established their own bracket; their rounds hit above us on the slope.  I knew the next ones would be closer.  My second adjustment round was beyond the rocket site, so I too had a bracket, and I dropped the range and called for another.  The following adjustment shot by the North Vietnamese gunners was much closer, hitting just below the trench, showering us with dirt, and leaving my ears ringing.  Fortunately, my own next marking round was just barely short.  

Losing no time, I added 100 meters and called for the battery to “fire for effect,” all six guns twice, a “battery two,” with high explosive projectiles and fuses set to detonate them 20 feet over the ground. 

Our barrage was on target.  I saw its flashes and a lot of dust and smoke, and a rocket corkscrewed off wildly from the site.  

I knew we had won our little duel, and that threat was no more.  I felt some satisfaction, but mainly I felt great relief that that danger, at least, was gone.

We returned to the back of the hill, where the battalion was continuing to depart, apparently unaware of what had passed on the front side, except that the rockets had stopped.  The operation was not troubled by rockets again that day, and the rest of the airlift went smoothly.