Infinite Menus, Copyright 2006, OpenCube Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Operation Hickory II

Part B -- The View from the Ground


(July 14 - July 15, 1967)

Author's Note: What follows is based on my personal recollections with input from Leo R. Jamieson, Lt. Colonel, USMC Retired (Commanding Officer of "A" Co. and the field commander for 1st Amtracs in Hickory II) and several fellow participants who are listed in the sources at the end of this narrative, both refreshed and enhanced by the official USMC records of the Operation, including especially the Command Chronology of the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion, the most relevant parts of which are the S-2/S-3 logs and messages (written by P. Martin Johnson, Lt. Colonel, USMC Retired, who was the Battalion S-3 Officer and later Commanding Officer of "A" Co). In writing this narrative, it is my hope that others who participated in Hickory II will offer their recollections so that a more complete and accurate narrative can be written of our first major operation as "AmGrunts" in Vietnam. The Forum Section for AmGrunts has a topic for Operation Hickory II where you can post your recollections or corrections.

Throughout the text are numbers in brackets: [1]. These refer to the numbers added to the left margin of the attached Command Chronology pages that link the chronology events to the corresponding numbers overlaid on the map of the area in which our part of Hickory II was conducted. The links to the map and the selected pages from the Command Chronology appear at the end of this narrative.

The First Day

At 0845 on July 14th, nearly half of 1st Amtracs Bn departed our CP at Cua Viet on Operation Hickory II. Then-Captain Leo R. Jamieson led this interesting collection of troops and vehicles into battle. "A" Co. served as the infantry, with 95 men on the ground, leaving the 4th Platoon (which were still operating as an Amtrac platoon) behind at the Battalion CP as the reserve force (they would later be called into action). The operation initially included a total of 32 LVT's (AmTracs). "B" Co. supplied 26 LVTP-5's and an LVTR-1, while "H&S" Co. supplied an LVTP-5 and 2 LVTE-1's. To give us more firepower in the field, 2 LVTH-6's from 3rd Platoon, 1st Armored Amphibian Tractor Co. (who were also based at Cua Viet) accompanied us on Hickory II. (Thank God.) Beyond our M-14 rifles, the other weapons available to us were the 30-cal. machine guns atop the tractors (one may have had a 50-cal. machine gun) or carried by teams on the ground, 2 M-79 grenade launchers, and our infamous Indochina-war vintage 60mm mortar that didn't even have a base plate. (I don't think we had gotten the two M-60 Machine guns at that point, but someone can correct me if I'm wrong.) Although the official reports from Hickory II refer to our part of the Operation as being conducted by the 1st Amtrac Battalion, in the field this "Battalion" was actually about 225 Marines, about one-third of the entire Battalion (which had a total of 723 enlisted men and officers) and even smaller in strength (and weapons) than the average 3rd Marine Division infantry company. (Each Marine infantry battalion participating in Hickory II had an average strength of over 1,200 men in July '67.)

The start to the Operation was slow. Crossing the Cua Viet River was a time-consuming proposition for a large group of Amtracs. Because we were only equipped to rescue a single Amtrac at a time should one get disabled crossing the river, each Amtrac had to complete the river crossing before the next one could start. Thus, we spent the first 60-90 minutes just crossing the river. Thanks to good planning, no vehicles hit mines and none were attacked or otherwise disabled during the crossing. (Captain Jamieson had sent a small force across the river the night before to secure the northern banks and provide security for the next morning's crossing.)

The relative boredom associated with the river crossing was short-lived. The force was split in two for our advance north, with about half of the Amtracs moving through the treeline and the rest moving in the surf along the beach (to minimize our potential losses from land mines). No sooner had we started the sweep north along the tree line when the NVA began a series of hit and run attacks using small groups to hit us with sporadic small arms fire then quickly retreat northward and repeat the process. (Perhaps this was a rear guard action meant to delay our movement northward to provide time for a larger force to retreat north into the DMZ or west to where there was better cover.) By 1100, we had swept through the remnants of the villages that dotted the coast of the South China Sea (Ha Loc, the resettled Ha Loi Trung, the resettled Giem Ha Trung 1 and 2, and Ha Loi Tay). About half way between Ha Loi Tay and the original (destroyed) Giem Ha Trung, at the very northern edge of the Battalion's TAOR (Tactical Area Of Responsibility), our first notable contact took place.[1] The tree line had a grassy opening of about 100 meters (north to south). As we started to cross the open terrain, we came under attack by small arms fire, mortars and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). Two Amtracs (B-20 amd B-29) were hit by RPG rounds and another (B-44) hit a 40-60 lb. antitank mine. Artillery and air strikes were called in (controlled by one of the Forward Air Controllers/Artillery Observers (FAC/AO) supporting us on the Operation (call sign Trail 63). Once the strikes had been completed, we med-evac'd the 3 Marines who had been wounded by the enemy attack. At 1145 we spotted a uniformed NVA with a carbine to the north across the open space in the tree line. We took good advantage of the HOW-6's, with Combine Charlie 33 firing 7 rounds of 105mm direct fire. Then another airstrike was called in.

The last airstrike is still a vivid memory. Although Leo Jamieson initially remembered it as a Navy jet, he doesn't disagree that it could have been a Marine jet, which is what I remember. He is certain it was an A-4E Skyhawk. When we set off the smoke grenade to mark our position for the pilot, he said "You're pretty close, you better keep your heads down." This pilot came in at treetop level to drop his load. We were so close we could see the writing on his helmet. The noise at such close range was nearly deafening. My recollection is that he came through with a second pass using his 20mm cannon to strafe the area. This guy was amazing. He came in there without any knowledge as to the size or capability of the enemy force and took it to them up close and personal.

About an hour had passed, it was 1245 and we had crossed the opening to sweep the northern treeline that had been hit by the HOW-6 fire and airstrike. We found 2 NVA KIA (one by small arms fire and one by the airstrike).[2] (I remember the one who looked like he had been shot by the 20 mm cannon - he had a round hole above his heart that was over an inch in diameter.) We recovered the following NVA equipment: 1 RPG launcher, 1 RPG round, 1 AK-47 with 7 magazines, 2 ChiCom grenades, and various other gear and documents.

After moving closer to the DMZ, we came across a new, but recently used rocket site. The aiming stakes were set at an azimuth of 138 degrees - toward the Battalion CP. [3] We stayed there long enough to destroy the sites and, thus, deny the enemy ready use of the site for future attacks. Departing at 1355, we proceeded quickly north to the DMZ, reaching Phase Line White, our Limit of Advance (LOA) at 1430 (based on 3rd Mar Div message traffic). According to Leo Jamieson, common practice would have had us stopping about 100 yards shy of the actual DMZ southern boundary line so as not to accidentally enter the DMZ. From there, the OpPlan said we were to move in a southwesterly direction along the DMZ boundary.

No mention of enemy contact is made (nor remembered) for the movement along the DMZ. As we got closer to the western edge of the "desert" (the sand dunes that comprised much of the coastal plain in our northern TAOR), the unit headed due south towards Objective A (Hill 31, which later became the A-1 Strong Point). A long sand dune ridge extended to the north from Hill 31 and marked the western edge of the desert. To the west of the desert, the terrain had vegetation and was dotted with a few small (abandoned) villages adjacent to "Jones Creek," the unnamed rivulet that ran from the Ben Hai River (the actual border between North and South Vietnam) all the way south to the Cua Viet River. It met the Cua Viet River at the village of Mai Xa Chanh (also known as Mai Xa Thi). Jones Creek also marked the western boundary of our Battalion's TAOR and the area west of Jones Creek was the TAOR for the 1st ARVN Division, who were operating to our right flank as we headed south from the DMZ during Hickory II. It was along this western series of dunes about a kilometer NNW of Hill 31 and 2 kilometers south of the DMZ that our first major engagement with a large NVA force occurred, at around 4pm on the first day of Hickory II . [4]

As the force headed south from An My, it came under heavy attack from the dune line to the west. The tractor with the command elements (Leo Jamieson, along with two radio operators and the tractor crew) had stopped, while the rest of the force pulled back, as they came under RPG, mortar and small arms fire, unaware that the command tractor was being left in front of friendly lines. [Leo Jamieson and I would really like to hear from anyone who might remember why the command tractor stopped when we came under attack. Perhaps it became disabled from a mine, mortar or recoilless rifle fire or maybe it just had mechanical problems. If any of the crew of that tractor are out there reading this, we'd like to hear from them.] We were taking heavy small arms, recoilless rife, sniper and mortar fire from the ridge line to our right front (west southwest). We found ourselves totally pinned down. We jumped off of the tractor and ran to the back, huddling behind the engine for cover as we tried to establish communications with the rest of the force and with the AO. There were 4 or 5 of us behind the tractor. Leo, myself, Sgt. John C. "Butch" Yates, and someone who had a minor wound in his arm or shoulder (perhaps one of the crewman). There could have been a fifth person, a Staff Sgt., with us as well. Two feats of heroism kept our little group alive for the next 20-30 minutes.

"Butch" Yates had previously been the Communications Chief for "B" Co., but, after joining "A" Co., he took on the role of a field radio operator for Hickory II, as part of the leadership team on the command LVTP-5, handling communications with the Battalion CP for Captain Jamieson. (I was the radio operator handling communications between Leo and the platoons, as well as communications with the AO, gunships and fixed wing air support). About 14 months after Hickory II, Butch Yates would be awarded the Navy Cross and promotion to 2nd Lt. (posthumously) for his heroism in trying to rescue a wounded crewman from a burning LVT. For his actions on the afternoon of July 14th, however, Butch would be nominated for and awarded a Silver Star. His Silver Star Citation provides excellent detail (a couple of corrections are made based on my recollections):

SERGEANT JOHN CHARLES YATES
SILVER STAR MEDAL
CITATION:


Butch Yates' actions kept us alive until one of the HOW-6's got there about 20 minutes into the attack.

The two HOW-6's accompanying "A" Co. on Hickory II comprised one section of the 3rd Platoon of The First Armored Amphibian Tractor Co. Although this Company was part of the 11th Marines, 3rd Platoon was OP-CON (under operational control) to the 12th Marines, who were the artillery support for the 3rd Marine Division in northern Quang Tri Province. They acquitted themselves extremely well during this Operation. In addition to the support provided during the first contact on the morning of the 14th, the HOW-6 section helped save the leadership team on the command LVT that afternoon. According to the 1st Armored Amphibian Co.'s command chronology:

One section from the 3rd Platoon, located at the mouth of the Cua Viet River, participated in Operation HICKORY II, just south of the DMZ. The leading element of Company A, 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion, 3rd Marine Division was hopelessly pinned down by heavy automatic fire from a ridge [line]… The section proceeded to destroy the enemy emplacements which enabled A Company to evacuate their wounded and seize the ridge line. We received one WIA who was medevac'd and 4 WIA's. The section was credited with 4 confirmed KIA's and 2 probable KIA's. The section chief has been recommended for the Silver Star for his actions in the encounter….

One of the prettiest sights I've ever seen was that HOW-6 moving back and forth in front of the ridge line destroying the NVA who had us trapped. Our helpless little group would certainly have all been killed had it not been for the courageous actions of both Butch Yates and the HOW-6 crew.

The lead command elements and the rest of the main force reconnected and were assembling at the base of the sand dune to begin an assault on the ridge line when a helicopter gunship (that I remember as being an Army chopper, Alley Cat 4, who was just itching to join the fight) came over the radio and kept asking if he could make a strafing run on a group of enemy that was in plain sight. He was so persistent that I finally gave him the go ahead. He then proceeded to make a strafing run at us! Luckily, he wasn't a very good shot. No one got hit. One of the two AO's on station at that point in the Operation (Trail 64 and 65) interceded and directed his actions after that. (The Alley Cats were part of the Army's 282nd Assault Helicopter Company. They provided support and resupply to the 1st ARVN Division and were called in to provide support to other units throughout I Corps. The AO's were Forward Air Controllers (presumably, from the Air Force 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron) flying the O-1 Cessna Bird Dog).

After the area was worked over by the gunship, 3 fixed wing airstrikes and some artillery missions, we assaulted the ridge line and then thoroughly searched the undulating dune complex to make sure there were no active enemy still hiding there. We ended the battle with 25 NVA KIA (confirmed), 8 of these being confirmed by Alley Cat 4 (the 2nd gunship was Roseann A/C, likely a C-47 equipped with high-speed 6,000 RPM mini-guns). Two of our tractors had been damaged during the engagement, a P-5 hit a mine and an R-1 got hit by mortar fire. We captured a 75MM Recoilless Rifle with 2 rounds, a light machine gun, 5 AK-47s with 12 magazines, 1 ChiCom carbine with bag of ammo, and various documents and other gear. One interesting weapon captured was a sniper rifle. It was bolt action with a scope and rather unusual looking. Leo Jamieson later was told that it was of Czech manufacture. [While numerous documents were recovered from enemy dead, Leo Jamieson says that a trove of documents discovered on one of the NVA KIAs indicated that he was likely an NVA intelligence officer. This collection of captured documents was quickly transported to Division Intelligence.]

After med-evac of 16 (4 serious) of our 29 WIAs suffered during the encounter, evening was upon us and we set up in defensive positions about a kilometer to the east in the desert, providing us a view of both the dune ridge line and Hill 31 to the southwest.[5]

[If anyone reading this was a participant in the ground activities that first afternoon, we'd appreciate their recollections.]

One of the 3 fixed wing airstrikes that afternoon was an Air Force jet. What was different about the Air Force support vs. the Navy/Marine fixed wing support was their altitude. The Air Force pilot was coming in so high for his bombing run (probably 10-12,000 feet) that Captain Jamieson was afraid he would miss his target so badly that his load would end up on us. You could barely make out this tiny silver dot way up in the sky. If it wasn't for the sun reflecting off of the wings, you couldn't have seen him at all. Luckily he didn't hit us (or the enemy either, for that matter) and, when he radioed back about making a second run, Leo just responded, "No, that's all we need."

The Second Day

Out in the desert in the middle of the night, around 3:15 a.m., they opened up on us with about 10 rounds of artillery from the DMZ. The NVA apparently had a Forward Observer on Hill 31 who had watched us move into the desert that evening. A fire mission from Combine Charlie (the rest of the 3rd Platoon of 1st Armored Amphib. Co that was still emplaced at the Battalion CP) and a subsequent Naval Gun Fire mission at 4 a.m. quieted the enemy artillery.

A couple hours later (around 6:15 a.m.) as we were moving southwest to begin the assault on Hill 31, they opened up on us again with artillery from the DMZ. [6] A different AO (Sacred Lima) controlled fire on the active artillery positions. At 7 a.m., we spotted 4 NVA on Hill 31 and called in a fire mission to Combine Charlie. An hour later, part of Co. "B" located on the beach between the two Giem Ha Trung villages started taking incoming artillery from the DMZ. A 3rd gunship (Rainbelt 44) came on station, firing on the active enemy artillery position and the same AO (Sacred Lima) adjusted return artillery fire (from Potsville) on the enemy artillery positions.

At about the same time, around 8:30 a.m., we had begun our assault on Hill 31, first sweeping the area where the 4 NVA had been spotted earlier, which had received the prep fires from Combine Charlie. [7B] We found 9 NVA KIA, one body having been booby trapped. We also captured 2 Soviet T-41 Anti-Tank mines, a ChiCom carbine and a number of documents at this point. [10] After disarming the booby trap and AT mines, it was about 9:30 before we could resume our assault to the top of Hill 31. [11] We started taking incoming mortar fire from about 600-700 meters to the west-northwest and sniper and small arms fire as we climbed the Hill. After fighting our way to the top, the leadership group went to the edge of the western ridge and looked down at the village below, and watched the NVA heading to the village south of their current position. We took a few pot shots at them with small arms, which brought on more mortar fire and, then, serious artillery fire from the north. (This was the point at which Lt. W. J. DiBello got his free ticket home - a tiny piece of shrapnel in his arm got him his 3rd Purple Heart.)

As we continued our assault through Hill 31, the incoming mortar, artillery and sniper fire intensified. [12] We took some more serious casualties (our buddy Tom Nusbaumer, along with the two brothers we lost that day, Spencer and Ritzchke) from the incoming enemy fire. From about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the assault resulted in another 12 NVA KIA and the capture of a Medium Machine Gun, 2 AT Mines, 27 Chi Com grenades and assorted gear before securing Hill 31 (referred to as Objective A in the Op Orders for Hickory II). After clearing the hill of enemy, we moved off of Hill 31 to the southeast to allow room for numerous air and artillery strikes, which ran from about 2 p.m. to 5:15 p.m., and to tend to our 14 friendly WIAs. [13] (Leo Jamieson recalls the machine gun as having black-spoked, hard rubber wheels.)

[If anyone reading this was a participant in the ground assault of Hill 31 that second day, we'd appreciate their recollections.]

I was atop the command group tractor observing (through binoculars) the enemy in the village about 700 meters to the west of our position (which was just south southeast of Hill 31 on the desert's edge). Through my binoculars I could see a few NVA pushing or pulling around an unusual looking wheeled gun, which could have been a heavy machinegun, an antiaircraft weapon, or some time of small cannon. I remember thinking we were at a safe enough distance from the enemy only to be nicked in the hand with a bullet fragment after a round hit the command group tractor. Their snipers were good. In any event, we didn't recover the wheeled weapon during our assault on the village that evening, so my guess is that the peculiar-looking weapon was wheeled away by the NVA prior to our assault.

The airstrikes were scheduled to run from 2pm to 5:15 pm. It was apparently during this time that a chopper arrived to take Captain Jamieson to a pow-wow with the ARVN leadership to plan the combined assault of the village of Nhi Thuong. Leo said that our Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. A. R. Bowman, was at the meeting along with the Marine Captain who was the Advisor for the 2nd Battalion, 2nd ARVN Regiment (Call sign Nickle Wind Up). What he remembers most, though, was the ice cold can of Pepsi they gave him. It really hit the spot after nearly two days of combat.

Around 3:30 that afternoon A Co.'s reserve platoon (4th Platoon) was called out to resupply us, arriving towards the end of the series of airstrikes. They were then employed to provide additional support for the joint ARVN/AmGrunt sweep through the village of Nhi Thuong. This moved our strength back near the original 225 Marines, as well as 34 Amtracs, 2 more than we started out with. The ARVN unit was the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Regiment, 1st ARVN Division, whose TAOR covered the area from Jones Creek west to Route 1, and from the Cua Viet River to the DMZ ). They had a Marine Captain as their advisor. When they showed up, many of the ARVNs had chickens strapped to their backpacks. Around 6 pm we began the joint sweep. According to the oral history tapes, with the addition of A Co.'s 4th Platoon, we had a total of 34 tractors on line. We started moving forward toward the enemy and literally pushed the NVA out of their positions. After progressing about 800 meters, the ARVNs (who were covering our left flank - southeast of us) failed to keep pace with us and fell behind about 100 meters. Leo paused the assault and reformed the line. We were within a grenade's throw of the village as we resumed the assault, but, as the pace of enemy mortars, artillery and small arms fire picked up, the ARVNs dropped out of the assault as evening fell and began running away to the southeast. (The last view we had of them was of their backs with the chickens attached. How appropriate!) We continued on, sweeping through Nhi Thuong, but, thanks to the ARVNs, there was ample opportunity for the NVA to escape our final thrust. During the sweep through Nhi Thuong, we accounted for the final 6 NVA KIA and captured 2 light Machine Guns, an AK-47 and 6 Chi Com grenades. We suffered an additional 8 friendly WIA (non med-evac) during the assault, largely due to our exposed flank. [14]

We then attended to our wounded, regrouped and started back to the Battalion CP at Cua Viet. The final casualty in Hickory II occurred at the very end of the operation when B-53 hit a mine at 11:55 pm on the way back to camp. They had made it almost all the way home, hitting the mine on the beach barely 500 meters from the north shore of the river.

In addition to Butch Yates and the section chief from the HOW-6 section,then-Captain Leo Jamieson was also recommended for the Silver Star for his outstanding performance during Hickory II. The medals resulting from Hickory II were not limited to the command group and HOW-6 section. Those who were truly on the ground -- the company's line platoons -- faced some serious action. Another example of the brotherhood of the AmGrunts is Richie Haeg, who like so many others put himself in the line of fire to save his brothers. His Bronze Star citation appears below.

CORPORAL RICHARD AUSTIN HAEG
BRONZE STAR MEDAL
CITATION:

[If others have copies of award citations earned during Hickory II, we would love to include these in this history of the operation. Please contact me (Hugh Connelly) in the Forum section of this web site.]

Some time after the Operation, Captain Jamieson was told that we were facing an entire NVA regiment during Hickory II. The intelligence reports included in the Operation Order (#39-67) for Hickory II indicated that the 31st Regiment of the 341st NVA Division (with an estimated strength of 1,620 men) was probably operating in the general area of grids 2382. The order also noted that recent reinfiltration of NVA units from the DMZ had brought their force levels in the areas around Con Thien and Gio Linh up to between 3 and 4 Regular NVA Regiments. The Battalion Command Chronology list several relevant intelligence reports covering enemy troop movements in the area in the days leading up to Hickory II:

July 1: Received agent report from Coastal Group II with B-2 rating that 1 VC Bn moved from Thuy Khe to vic (YD 270726), (YD 270720) and (YD 260749). Mortar base located at vic (YD 262736) and (YD 265726.) Mission to attack Gio Linh Sub Sector HQ.
July 2: Agent intelligence report rated C-3 by Coastal Group II that 500 rds of 140 MM rockets and 1000 rds of 82 MM mortar was moved across the Ben Hai River to vic (YD 259758). In 2 or 3 days civilians will be used to move it to Quang Tri Province.
Agent intelligence report. No rating. 1 VC Bn located at vic (YD 272720, YD 275725, and YD 273726) and the Gio Linh Sub Sector was under attack.
July 7: Elmore Raids 7 India (Quang Tri HQ) passed agent report number one that one NVA Bn spread out along (YD 250750), (YD 260756), (YD 268715), (YD 278721). Rated B-2. Report number two, one NVA Bn moved from (YD 236766) to (YD 257751). Mission unknown. C-2 rating.
July 10: Received reports from Coastal Group II with C-1 rating that 2 NVA Bn located at vic (YD 253733, YD 260742, YD 287705 and YD 273697). Also 1 VC Co. located at vic (YD 283706 and YD 281711) mission unknown, type weapons unknown.
Intelligence report from Quang Tri Advisor that 1 NVA Bn located vic (YD 255750, YD 275705, YD 270730). Mission to mortar Gio Linh sub sector and possible Cua Viet Port Facility. B-2 rating.

Years later, at the 2002 AmGrunt Reunion, Lt. Col. Jamieson would hear from Marine General Wiese (of those "Magnificent Bastards" fame) that an NVA officer had disclosed that the area near Hill 31 and Jones Creek was home to a vast 3-story underground complex that provided a ready means by which outgunned NVA forces could suddenly "disappear."


Map of Operation Command Chronology Casualty Lists
After opening the above documents, use the "Rotate Buttons"
in Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the documents upright.


Sources: (USMC Historical Division, Archives Section Vietnam CDs)
1st Amtracs Command Chronology, July 1967 BVNCD-009,
1st Armored Amphibian Tractor Co. Command Chronology, July 1967 - VNCD-
OpFiles - Operation Hickory II, VNCD-064
3rd MarDiv Command Chronology July 1967- VNCD-028 and 029
3rd MarDiv Unit Journal July 1967- VNCD-029
Conversations with Lt. Col. Leo R. Jamieson, USMC Ret., Lt. Col. Poindexter M. Johnson, USMC Ret., former Cpl. Richard A. Haeg, former Cpl. Nicholas Bianchi, Cpl. Thomas W. Nusbaumer, USMC Ret., and former Sgt. T.J. Smith

Summarized from source materials by Hugh Connelly,
1st. Amphibian Tractor Battalion, "A" Company.

A PDF copy of this document is
available in the Library Section.

Copyright 2003 - 2010

AMTRAC.ORG

All Rights Reserved.