Serving the street without joy
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As 1967 was drawing to a close, Special Landing Force Bravo had one more commitment to round out the year.
In Operation Badger Tooth, the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, was to conduct search-and-destroy operations through 14 towns and villages in Southern Quang Tri province. Intelligence came through that suspected enemy forces were hiding in the villages for Thon Khe and Thon Trung An in the coastal region east of Route 1, named the “Street Without Joy” by French war correspondent James Fells during the French Indochina War (1946-1954).
The battalion was instructed to clear the villages, then continue with the original plan. L Company swept both villages on December 26, with M Company in support, and found nothing. The next morning, both companies set out to sweep the villages one more time before moving on. As 2nd Platoon, the leading platoon of Lima Company, approached the edge of Tham Khe at about 1100, a concealed enemy force opened up with machine guns, rifles, and mortars. When shots first rang out, a grenadier with the 2nd Platoon said, “we started running to the village. We didn’t have much for cover. We would have been sitting ducks where we were.”
Taken by surprise, casualties mounted quickly.
“We took cover in a creek bed and put down cover fire for our fellow Marines caught in the open,” he said. “We tried to get all our wounded and dead into the bed. I remember one of our Marines standing up in the open area, and he kept firing magazine after magazine to try to keep the gooks’ heads down so others could recover the dead and wounded.”
When word came over the radio that 2nd Platoon had come under fire, 1st and 3rd Platoons headed In for support. Cpl. Eugene Wood, fire team leader in 1st Platoon, recalled that the area around the village was deep sand, totally open with no cover. The men were pinned down with machine gun fire. The Captain called for air strikes and naval gunfire while the company regrouped. He ordered a frontal assault and led the charge himself.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the captain fall like a downed grizzly,” Lance Cpl. Laughlin wrote in his book, Guts & Glory. “He had been shot in the forehead.”
With the captain’s radioman down as well, Lima Company lost contact with the rest of the battalion. But the assault on the enemy bunkers continued.
“Dead Marines lay all around, and the air was hazy from the smoke of small-arms fire and grenades,” Laughlin said. “At some point in time in the battle,” said a 2nd Platoon radioman, “as we were pinned down by enemy fire in the creek bed, and our dead, wounded and equipment were everywhere, I realized that no one was coming — no police, no firemen, no Mom, and Dad. All we had was our faith in God and the young Marines to our left or right.”
Lt. Col. Shaffer ordered M Company to join the fight on Lima’s left flank, and it immediately came under heavy fire. He then ordered K Company to attack from the south end of Tham Khe, to take the pressure off Lima and Mike Companies. Like Lima, K Company Marines had to cross a sandy area with no natural cover. “A tree line marked the south edge of the hamlet, and the enemy was dug in and camouflaged,” said the company commander. Third Platoon Commander recalls that maneuvering was reduced to very short running spurts, due to sporadic but heavy fire. For cover, they pushed and dug sand in front of the bodies of Marines who had already been hit.
“It took us all afternoon to take our objective,” he said, “and we did so only with the aid of two tanks that finally made it ashore.”
PFC Snider and A point man of 1st platoon, Lima Company, were within a few hundred yards of the tree line when Snider was shot in the head. Snider tried to dig a hole in the sand with his hands for cover. When he looked behind him, he saw that the rest of Lima had pulled back, but a corpsman ran out to assist him. He later died.
“We were pinned down out there all day with no communication with the rest of the company,” he said. “Every time we tried to move from that position, they would fire on us. We waited until it was pitch dark before we attempted to go look at what was left of the rest of the company. There weren’t many. The breaking up of the enemy’s front line had erased any danger of our being overrun and the destruction of the central bunker had weakened their position to the point that they, like us, were just trying to hold their positions.”
Many remained stuck there. For the rest of the day, we made no appreciable progress. We didn’t find out the condition of the 2nd Platoon until evening, when we were able to advance under cover of darkness. Most had been killed in the initial ambush. We spent the next few hours carrying our dead and wounded to safety. It was the worst night of my life. One volunteer was able to ferry the wounded to a medevac helicopter. Under heavy fire, the Marines jumped into the helicopter for cover. It took off but took fire in its hydraulic line and was forced to land. He helped evacuate the wounded men from the helicopter and set up security.
“If it wasn’t for the rest of the Lima Company and other battalion units, I don’t think any of us from Lima Two would have survived,” said one Marine. “And I salute them. The survivors of our charge were tired but unbeaten. The charge had taken a terrible toll on our company. The majority of our enlisted men (128) were killed or wounded; the captain, two platoon commanders and two staff sergeants were also down. Only one staff sergeant and one lieutenant remained.”
At 1800, all companies were ordered to pull back and cordon off the village for the night. Both I and K companies were able to tie in with each other, but close enemy contact and the presence of the dead and wounded in front of their position kept L and M companies from pulling back until nearly midnight. The next morning, the battalion attacked Tham Khe from the south, met little resistance and had secured the village by noon. They found few enemy bodies. There were 31 known dead, 100 bodies were later found northwest of the village by ARVN forces, but we did discover hidden bunkers and well-constructed, camouflaged fighting holes. Clearly, the village had been properly prepared for a fight by the 116th NVA Battalion. One recalled seeing 10 to 12 dead Marines from Lima Company, including an entire 3.5-inch rocket team killed in place in firing position.
In all, 48 Marines were killed that day, 26 from Lima, 12 from Mike, Six from Kilo, Two from H&S Company and two members of C Company, 1st Engineer Battalion. Gunfire claimed 96 percent of all the lives lost. Some 86 men were wounded. After the battle, It was said “we searched for abandoned weapons and supplies, and then destroyed the entire village.”
According to others, all the actions taken that day were in the normal line of duty so no medals would be awarded. But “everyone that day deserved a medal.” Some awards did follow. There were Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V, two Navy Unit Commendations and a presidential Unit Citation.
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— Royal D. Goodman, U.S. Army/Vietnam,
1st Cav/9th Infantry