It was known to local missionaries as “the Hill of Angels,” but to the occupying Marines, Con Thien was a little piece of hell. Just two miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, it was a barren, bulldozed plateau of red dirt 525 feet high and ringed with barbed wire, studded with artillery revetments and crisscrossed with trenches and sand bag-covered bunkers. To the east stretched the “McNamara Line,” the 2,000-foot-wide “barrier” ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, which the Marines had cleared and sowed with seismic and acoustic sensors and minefields.
The Marines at Con Thien were the human equivalent of a tripwire, there to block North Vietnamese ground incursions. In reality, the men became a sitting target for scores of North Vietnamese artillery pieces, which rained down shells on their positions 24 hours a day. Between February 1967, when they arrived, and their departure two years later, 1,419 men were killed and another 9,265 wounded; more than 7,500 North Vietnamese were killed and an unknown number wounded.
At Con Thien in 1967, American commanders failed to recognize that loyalty should flow downward as well as upward. The commanders’ loyalty should have been to their Marines facing the North Vietnamese Army as much as to their superiors in Washington. American Marines died in droves at Con Thien; they deserved better of their commanders.
I covered some of the fiercest fighting, in the summer of 1967, as an ABC News correspondent. Ironically, perhaps, some of the bloodiest engagements came on and around July 4. My team — our cameraman, Nguyen Van Quy; our sound man, Nguyen Xuan De; and myself — didn’t want to go, but it’s the assignment we drew. My weeks spent at Con Thien revealed, to me at least, some fundamental truths about the Vietnam War: that our soldiers and Marines fought bravely; that the North Vietnamese were relentless; and that our military and political leaders had committed us to a war we couldn’t win, and prosecuted it in the most inept way possible.
Take, for example, the McNamara Line. Secretary McNamara, ever on the lookout for clever, logical and arms-length solutions, floated the idea of the barrier in March 1966, at a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. High-ranking officers pretended to take his myopic vision seriously, and construction began in April 1967.
But it had fatal flaws. For one, designed to block North Vietnamese incursions, it merely diverted the enemy around it. And because it wasn’t a physical barrier, it needed large numbers of ground troops to back it up. The result was that thousands of Marines sat within range of the North’s 135 millimeter artillery, which struck firebases and roving Marine patrols with deadly accuracy.
The author reporting from Con Thien in 1967. ABC News
The North Vietnamese had no shortage of targets, but Con Thien was the biggest. Atop a prominent hill and stripped of forest cover, it was an easy mark. It also held strategic value: If the North Vietnamese captured it, the hill could have served as a launching pad for strikes on the key American staging area at Dong Ha. It held a symbolic value, too. The commander of the North Vietnamese forces, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, had defeated the French in a similar situation at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and he was trying to replicate that victory along the DMZ.
My team and I reached the area in late June 1967, to find the Marines of the First Battalion, Ninth Regiment suffering from blazing heat and choking dust, from snipers and from constant threat of ground attacks. But what made duty at the outpost a special hell was the hail of artillery from North Vietnamese batteries tucked away in the hills north of the DMZ. The 135 millimeter guns were well camouflaged and sheltered in caves; the North Vietnamese quickly rolled out the artillery to fire, then just as quickly rolled them back to shelter. Although Americans retaliated with artillery and airstrikes, they were unable to stop the hundreds of shells that each day took a toll of Con Thien’s defenders.
On July 2, Marines from Alpha and Bravo companies began Operation Buffalo, a sweep in the area north of the base. Unfortunately, faulty reconnaissance and inadequate observation allowed an undetected North Vietnamese force to ambush the Marines. Eighty-six of Bravo Company were killed and 176 wounded; only 27 walked out of the battle unaided. Though an estimated 1,290 North Vietnamese were killed, by anyone’s definition, including that of the Marines, it was the enemy’s victory. The Marines acknowledged that it “was the worst single disaster to befall a Marine Corps rifle company during the Vietnam War.”
The fighting wasn’t over. The North Vietnamese were well aware of the Marines’ tradition of not leaving their dead behind, and they prepared for the Americans to return. On July 3, airstrikes and Marine artillery were directed to the battle area in preparation to retrieve the bodies. Marine reinforcements lifted off from the amphibious assault ship Okinawa, and early on the morning of July 4, Independence Day, they attacked on a six-company front to reach the dead. Marine Skyhawk attack aircraft laid down suppressing fire as our news crew joined the recovery operation.
As we slowly advanced with two battalions, it became obvious that the North Vietnamese had pulled out during the night. The bodies were spread over a wide area of low bushes. Two days lying in the blistering sun had bloated them and burned them black. Many of the bodies had been rigged with grenades, and almost all had been mutilated or desecrated. One dead Marine had his genitals cut off and sewn to his face, with a photo of his girlfriend stabbed to his chest.
Some members of the recovery teams wore gas masks as protection from the stench; other Marines retched and vomited. They placed the corpses in green rubber body bags and carried them to a clearing, where the remains were loaded on tanks. Personal effects were collected and placed in upturned helmets.
Many in the work party made it forcefully known they were not pleased that a TV news crew was accompanying them on a mission to reclaim their dead. We shot sparingly and from a distance so as not to upset them. In any event, those scenes could never be used in a news program.
The next morning, our ABC News crew entered the base at Con Thien itself. It felt like being at the heart of the war. We could look north across the Ben Hai River, which marked the 17th parallel, and see the North Vietnamese flag waving from a tall pole. We could look beyond the flag to see puffs of white smoke and hear the rumble of shells being fired in our direction, giving us about 20 seconds to find the nearest bunker.
Late in the afternoon, one of the Marine artillery pieces took a direct hit; its crew had not been able to retreat to a bunker in time. As rockets and shells continued to drop, an Army Special Forces medic jumped out of a bunker and joined a half-dozen Marines trying to save the life of a badly wounded comrade. They took turns pumping his chest to strengthen a weak pulse and giving him direct mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while shouting encouragement.
“C’mon, Sidell, you can make it, buddy! Don’t give up!” Lance Corporal Jimmy Sidell didn’t respond with either a gasp or a pulse as his Marine buddies worked on him for almost an hour.
Another shell hit with a deafening impact just a few yards away. Our film camera was blown off Nguyen Van Quy’s shoulder; Sidell’s buddies recoiled from the concussion, but never missed a beat pumping his heart. Finally, it was clear Sidell wasn’t coming back. Through sobs and curses, the Marines tied an identification label to his boot laces and carried him to a tank waiting outside the wire that would serve as his hearse.
I cried too, even as I tried a “standupper” to conclude my report. In New York, ABC News located Sidell’s parents in Atlanta and warned them the report of their son’s death would be on national TV the following evening.
It was clear that what motivated these Marines to endure the daily hell of Con Thien was not victory or satisfying the chain of command, but their strong devotion to one another. They would risk all to be worthy of their comrades.
It also became clear that the entire plan was a bad idea, especially for Marines. Broadly speaking, Marines are an offense-oriented organization. Building in-depth defenses is not their forte, especially questionable ones like the McNamara Line. Marine Corps generals complained that the barrier plan was a constant irritant. Holding static defensive positions prevented the Marines from conducting pacification programs and from attacking the enemy’s infiltration routes. Maj. Gen. Rathvon Tompkins, commander of the Third Marine Division, referred to the McNamara Line as “absurd.” Lt. Gen. Robert Cushman, the Marine commander in Vietnam, later admitted, “We just weren’t going out getting everyone killed building that stupid fence.”
But they followed orders, and they built and maintained the line at high cost. Engineer companies showed enormous courage working in daylight hours, in the open with heavy equipment, and suffered a higher percentage of casualties than the rifle companies at Con Thien.
Nevertheless, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, back in Saigon, was unsatisfied with the effort the Marines were putting into making the barrier work. In October 1967 he complained, “The barrier has not been accorded a priority consistent with operational importance.”
My team and I left on July 14, but we returned frequently, as the fighting kept up through the fall and into 1968.
General Westmoreland was replaced on June 11th 1968, and on October 22nd his successor, Gerneral C. Abrams, ordered all construction associated with Con Thien halted. He adopted a more flexible position along the border, relying on airstrikes and long-range artillery to check incursions and closing many of the bases around Con Thien.
Fifty years later, I am reviewing my scripts from my days at Con Thien. I see now that the anger I felt at the misguided strategy and the compassion we felt for the Marines’ suffering were not fully expressed. My script should have been much clearer in saying that American strategy was not only flawed but resulted in an unnecessary waste of lives. I am reminded of an observation by Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for The New York Times: “Reporters who witness the worst of human suffering and return to newsrooms angry see their compassion washed out by layers of editors who stand between the reporter and reader. The creed of objectivity and balance,” he wrote, “disarms and cripples the press and transforms reporters into neutral observers or voyeurs.”
Con Thien showed American Marines at their best and American political and military leaders at their worst. As the Marine historian Eric Hammel concluded, “Americans were bound by the moral poverty of their political leaders, and the North Vietnamese were bound by the intellectual inflexibility of their Communist doctrines. The soldiers of each side suffered mightily in the stalemate that ensued.” Anyone seeking glory in battle did not find it in the mud and heat of Con Thien, but those who seek tales of extraordinary valor need look no further.
Originally published in The New York Times on July 4, 2017.