Saturday, June 25, 2016

Lost in War But Never Forgotten (June 25-26, 1966): Operation JAY

Etched in Granite Forever R.I.P.
(The VN Wall)

The Three Soldiers Statue
(On Duty and Always Alert)

Another group of Marines that I served with and who were killed from 2/1 are laid to rest and their names forever are identified on “Panel 8E, Rows 90, 91, 94, 95, 97, and 99” on the VN Wall in Washington, DC with their places in military history forever. 

Those fine men all died in ugly close up combat on June 25 and 26, 1966. The Operation in which they fought and died took place just south of the ancient capital city, Hue. The same city that would be nearly totally destroyed in the Tet offensive of 1968 in just a few short years. 

Lost in those two days:
Saturday, June 25, 1966

MILLER J. BOURG, LCPL, Age 21, Houma, LA
CECIL E. DAW, HN, Age 20, Anacoco, LA
ROBERT R. EGGLESTON, GYSGT, Age 36, Los Angeles, CA
GERALD V. EPPLEY, PFC, Age 21, Newark, OH
RONALD L. HERBSTRITT, PFC, Age 19, Bradford, PA
BRUNO L. MARTIN, PFC, Age 19, Wayne, MI
DAVID E. REYNER, CPL, Age 21, Houston, TX
SANTOS SANCHEZ, PFC, Age 23, Selma, CA
RICHARD L. STRANGE, SGT, Age 24, Richmond, VA
MELVIN E. TAYLOR, LCPL, Age 20, Paterson, NJ

Sunday, June 26, 1966

JAMES COLEMAN JR, CPL, Age 22, Jacksonville, FL
JOHN M. RISNER, PFC, Age 19, Las Cruces, NM

That combat occurred as we were moving more north toward North Vietnam and just before we moved into the DMZ and commenced the largest operation in VN at the time called Operation HASTINGS that would take place during the month of July and August 1966. 

During this particular operation, my newly-assigned platoon sergeant was Staff Sergeant Robert Cleary (promoted to Gunnery Sergeant that same month). Cleary went on to become Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps. During the operation, he won a Silver Star. He did a great job. I'm proud to have been a witness to his acts that helped him get that award. After his retirement I believe he returned to his beloved home somewhere near Boston.

During the heat of the battle many of us were pinned down under withering NVA fire was coming from a serious of tree lines that 2/4 was pushing the NVA towards us from their northern side of a rather large area.

Cleary did what few men could never do under such fire. He crawled to the wounded, actually a few of them on his back and then crawled with them to the rear for treatment and still under fire.  He would do that several times, by a miracle he was not wounded himself.  His award should have been higher. But as was well known in those early days of the war, the Marine Corps was very stingy with combat awards, for what reason none of us ever figured out. We accepted it and moved on. But, to matters worse about those early days, we heard that people in the rear “with the gear” as we used to call them, were being awarded Bronze Stars for making sure our boxed C-Rations arrived on time.

Far too many fine Marines died and did lots of brave things only to win the Purple Heart and not much else – it hardly seemed fair then and now!  On the same day Cleary was acting out his brave action, so was our Company CO, 1st Lieutenant Charles C. Krulak and Sergeant Richard Strange.

Both also won Silver Stars. Krulak, who BTW would go on to be 4-star General and Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC) in later years, won his for directing close air support so close that he had to call it right on top of his own position during the early hours of darkness and heat of battle – that saved many lives.  Sgt. Strange's story is contained in the section at the end of my book labeled “Reflections and sent to me by his former close friend, Butch Gatlin.

Our advance across rice paddies towards a huge tree line where we were to set up our blocking force for 2/4 started out rather routine as these operations often do at first, that is before the shit hits the fan as they say. This was to be no different in that way.

We got off our 'choppers, quickly assembled back in our squads and platoons, and not far from the area we were going start our advance to the place we had been briefed about.  

This day was no different than the one that had started back during Operation NEW YORK in February. The orders were simple, “land, advance to and take positions and provide a blocking force for 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines (2/4) who was pushing the NVA south out of the City of Hue and towards us.”

Hue as history knows was the ancient capital of Vietnam and a place that had come to be known as the “Street Without Joy.”  So, as I said, the mission sounded easy enough, but, then old “Murphy and his damn laws” happened to drop by with other plans (damn, I hated that when Murphy dropped by).

So, we started moving forward towards the tree line to set up the blocking force.  As we advanced we could hear gunfire ahead and in the distance. Slowly the volume and intensity increased. Then rounds started getting really close. My first thought was “had we been landed in the wrong spot (again)?” Well, hell at that moment, it didn't matter, we were here, and they enemy was there. Suddenly and with some distance still to go before we could get good cover, we started receiving fire directly at and around us. 

Rounds were hitting front of us and over our heads. Initially and like all good Marines are trained, we hit the deck and started looking around. Then we all realized at once it seemed, we were in the open and still had a good distance to go for the tree line and any chance of real cover and not those damn open, shallow dry paddies with little cover and zero camouflage. I thought, here we go again – NEW YORK or worse HARVEST MOON bloodbath again.

Also, this about to take place just a short month before we were hit hard and lost so many on Memorial Day back in May – a short period. But, we also knew what had to be done, and without waiting on orders, we jumped up and started hightailing toward the trees.  We only took a few more rounds, and then a sudden lull. But then just as fast, the whole world seemed to open up as we got closer – the volume of fire was intense. What seemed to have happened was that the fleeing NVA were now firmly trapped between 2/4 pushing them toward us and in fact, us not quite ready for them.

They apparently saw us and held their fire giving us a chance to get up close, and then opened on us as we started advancing their way. At the same time, 2/4 never let up their fire, so we had both NVA and friendly fire falling on us and soon both found their targets. We started taking loses and quickly.

The NVA started to rake us pretty good all across our front with heavy rifle and machine gun fire - back and forth, left to right and then right to left.  It was very effective, but we kept up our advancement until we finally reached the tree line. What made matters worse, the word came down to watch your fire, that 2/4 was not far away. No shit, I thought! At the time it all seemed crazy. Hold your fire, watch your fire, be careful where you fire and the like. Our leaders feared that we would confuse 2/4 and their push with the NVA or that 2/4 would confuse our fire with the NVA and we'd end up shooting each other. Things would really get hot as two Marine battalions plowed into each other not knowing where each other was. For the NVA, it was great - they could shoot as both us and we couldn't shoot back at them. Damn, friendly fire and NVA fire – great I’m sure we had the same thoughts. 

Some of the rounds we were receiving probably were from 2/4 but the sounds of AK-47 make a very distinct sickening ring to them that is nothing like an M-16, so we pretty much knew where the NVA were. The message was cleared up quickly and we were told to return fire but take in targets. The NVA saw what we were about to do, so they held up and started taking their time firing and choosing their targets, too and their fire was starting taking its toll. It looked like another mess was brewing, and initially, it was a mess. There was a lot of confusion and lots of firing from what seemed like every conceivable direction and position. The NVA were trapped and fighting for their lives, 2/4 was pushing like a bunch of madmen, and all we could do was be selective and be careful where we fired.

We had five killed very quickly in my company (Golf Company). Hotel Company on our left flank, also had five killed in short order, one Marine was killed in H&S Company.

My platoon now in the lead for Golf Company managed to get to the tree line first. We had the main road on our left which anchored us to Hotel Company who was on the other side of the road. We could all see each other clearly and that helped in all the confusion. We had wide open rice fields to our far right and plenty of huts and trees in front of us that turned out later to be a rather big NVA stronghold.

Lt. Krulak set up his command post (CP: radios and 60 mm mortars) just to our rear and in Buddhist grave yard. The CP was better off than we were located in the rear and fairly well covered. One of those wounded early from Hotel Company was my old friend and former squad member and my M-79 grenadier from Fox Company, LCpl. Edwin Labotto. He got shot though the upper shoulder with an exit out his back. He was in very bad shape, but he pulled through. I saw him a few years later back in the states while at Camp Pendleton. I went to a movie one night on post and he was an MP on duty at the theatre.  It was great seeing him. He said he was now married and was going for 20 years.  I bet he made it, too.

As the battle raged, we became more pinned down not only from the NVA trying to escape, but from the bullets flying in from 2/4 as they continued to advance all across our front. A sniper fired a shot here or there, a hand grenade was tossed there or nearby, and it remained constant for several hours. When I had the chance, I started to survey the dry rice fields to our right. What I saw, I didn't like.  What I didn't know but suspected, was that that flank was an easy route around us for the NVA to escape.

Eventually, 2/4 either slowed down, got bogged down, or started to dig in because we were told that the friendly fire was being lifted and that we had permission to fire at will, but continue picking targets carefully.  We did stay low, picked off a few NVA whenever we saw then as the battle sea-sawed back and forth for a few more hours. We tossed hand grenades all across our front while Krulak gave us overhead mortar and M-79 fire from time to time keep the snipers off guard because they were now in the trees shooting down on us and wounding just about anyone who moved.  Then something more terrible happened. 

At some point, two CH-46 helicopters landed up front near Hotel Company. They had come in to pick up casualties from 2/4. Some of our wounded managed to get over near the first chopper by crossing Hotel's lines to our left front.

One had just loaded the wounded and started to lift off when NVA hit it hard with both gun fire and an RPG rockets.

The ‘chopper burst into flames and started to crash with Marines who thought they were being lifted to safety falling out the back as it passed treetop level. That was an awful sight but were helpless to do anything. The 'chopper was melting right before our eyes. I'd never seen a chopper burn like that nor did I think they burned that fast. I don't know how many died in that crash from 2/4, but I'm sure most of the wounded now became KIA. Before that was over, another 'chopper a short distance away also went down just like the first.  We had two terrible crashes in about 20 minutes. 

Things didn't start to cool down until near darkness. By that time, many of us had managed to regroup, get more ammo, take care of our dead and wounded and try to shore up that exposed right flank I had been cautious of all day. That was the place I most worried about because of the fleeing NVA we kept seeing from time to time darting to their safety. During the early darkness, Krulak passed the word that F-4's (Phantoms) were on the way with some “snake and nap” (that is bombs and napalm) and he told us to get down and stay down because they would be dropping right over the top of us. They would be making their run from left to right in between us and 2/4 - right across our two fronts on top of the NVV, or at least that was the plan.  Wouldn't you know it, “Murphy came again.” As they say, “if it can go wrong, it will go wrong.” Well it did.

Two Phantoms arrived right on schedule because we could hear them, but as they started their napalm run, it became clear they were coming in from behind us, not from our left as we thought and not across our front. Bingo, they roared right at the CP and were lined up on my platoon's back toward and not across the NVA's front. They were coming in low and hot. We could clearly see their napalm bombs tumbled off their racks and started falling right toward Krulak and his CP, not toward the NVA – they had missed the angle of their targets. The nape hit the ground just short of the CP, and burst into one helluva giant fireball and then if by magic, rolled right over the top of the CP missing everyone below.

That happened as if it had been planned, but it surely was not. Free and clear and not one of our guys was hurt. It looked like a pool player making the cue ball jump over the seven ball and knocking in the eight ball. Even with this fuck up, those F-4's helped save our asses because the NVA didn't do anything the rest of the night. Either they were cooked or managed to flee. They dropped way short and from the wrong heading, nearly wiping out our CP but somehow ended up saving the day. Everyone knew it was damn close. I knew the guys in the CP got their whiskers singed!  Krulak for his bravery that night won his Silver Star. He damn sure earned it.

We mopped up the next and continue to move north towards the DMZ and more fighting. That’s the way this war continued.

Related: Remembrance of Operation JAY from 1st BN, 4th Marines point of view – their page link.

Also, on this date in history (June 25, 1950): Communist North Korea smashed across the 38th Parallel into South Korea, setting off the Korean War. The United States, acting under the auspices of the UN quickly sprang to the defense of South Korea and fought a bloody and frustrating war for the next three years that ended in a cease fire – never a permanent end of the “Forgotten War.”

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