On 26 December 1967 Captain William H. "Bill" Dabney took India Company of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines up to the top of Hill 881South, a regimental outpost about four miles (7 kilometers) west of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). The enemy, North Vietnamese Army (NVA), activity was rare until 18 January 1968, when a Marine reconnaissance team was ambushed near 881North, 2 kilometers directly north of 881S. Both hills had been sites of fierce battles in early 1967, when the 3rd Marine Regiment took heavy casualties seizing them. 881S had been garrisoned since, but 881N was abandoned because the shape of the hill and the nature of the terrain around it made it a poor defensive position. When an India Company platoon sent to recover gear abandoned by the reconnaissance team again skirmished with the NVA on the 19th, Captain Dabney requested and received permission to take all of India on a reconnaissance-in-force to 881N the following day. Mike Company of the 3rd Battalion, less one platoon, was sent to 881S to hold it while India was gone. During its attack on the 20th, India ran head-on into an NVA battalion coming south. The siege of Khe Sanh had begun.
Returning to 881S, Captain Dabney, being the senior officer, assumed overall command of both India and Mike companies. His full complement, with attachments, including two 81mm mortars, two 106mm recoilless rifles, three 105mm howitzers and other normal attachments was approximately 400 men, although there were times when due to casualties and lack of replacements Hill 881S was as low as 250 Marines and hospital corpsmen (medics.) Between 20 January and the end of April, Captain Dabney, except for one incident described later, did not leave his command perched atop that hill. What follows are his memories of life and death on Hill 881S and how the Super Gaggle contributed to the survival of his Marines and the accomplishment of their mission.
For larger images, click the image or highlighted narrative
On and before 21 January 1968, helo resupply of Hill 881S was by 'daisy chain' (Single sequential helicopters). Loads were staged at KSCB, loaded internally aboard birds, and brought up to hill. Took a lot of Marines, both at KSCB and on the hill, to load and offload, so the loading and landing zones were crowded. On 21 January, we had some lightly wounded priority medevacs left over from the recon-in-force fight toward 881N the previous day, and needed some ammo resupply to replenish stocks. This UH-34 (note the tail pylon is missing) came up with the ammunition, which we offloaded and then immediately began loading wounded aboard. Bird had been in zone two or three minutes when a 120mm mortar round impacted within a few feet of it. Our senior Doc (corpsman), and two of our previously wounded Marines were now killed in action (KIA). About a dozen others, including the helicopter crew, were wounded in action (WIA), all seriously. The UH-34 remained on the hill throughout the siege, on what we referred to as our "front porch" zone, which faced east towards Khe Sanh. It coined a phrase used by Marine air crews later in the year, when one crew inbound to the company position (where another damaged helicopter was sitting) was overheard by India's radioman asking, "How are we going to identify the zone when we get there?" The pilot of the accompanying helo responded, "Just look for the downed helicopter. India always marks its zones that way!"
Internal loading was obviously not going to work. Took too long and too many Marines had to be in zone. Starting 22 January, all loads were external, but still staged at KSCB for birds to pick up. As incoming got more frequent and more accurate down at base, Marines staging loads, helos picking loads up were at greater risk, and loads themselves were often damaged by shrapnel while in staging area. Things did not improve on Hill 881S, for either the aircrews or the 881S Marines. We'd figured out by then that NVA tended to leave mortar tubes registered wherever they'd fired last round, so we'd fake that zone with air panels and smoke, bring bird to hover over it, and listen for the tube "pop". (Pop from 120mm mortar was pretty loud.) As soon as we heard it, we'd shift to another zone (we had five) and bring bird in, usually getting away with it, because it took NVA about 10 seconds to shift tube to new target, and time-of-flight for round was about 20-25 seconds. This gave us time to get casualties aboard, replacements offloaded, bird gone, and troops covered before next round came in.
But that only worked for one bird, and we usually needed several. Shifting zones after each bird was not an option, because it meant that the helicopter support team (HST), and others had to move to next zone under fire - not a good idea. Also, zone shifting, although it could mitigate effect of NVA mortars, did nothing to mitigate anti-aircraft (AA) fire, which was both constant and came from both sides of hill. We were told to have troops up in trench lines firing suppressive fires at all known or suspected AA sites. Again, that didn't work, because although these fires tended to make AA fire inaccurate and thus helped birds, 50-100 Marines had to be exposed during helicopter operations and, given volume and accuracy of mortars, we inevitably took more casualties, often multiple. That meant, of course, that when we'd finished the original resupply or medevac, we had to bring in another bird to evacuate new casualties - sort of a 'snowball' effect, and quickly became an exercise in futility.
We described the problem we were having to battalion at KSCB, but "Do the best you can" was about the only answer we got back. Really wasn't much battalion could do to help. We would, however, occasionally have a bird downed, which meant that aircrew would spend some time with us (usually only 'till we set up new zone for chase bird, but a couple of times they had to remain overnight.) We described, and they could see, our difficulties with the daisy chain system. Apparently, it was that feedback, through aircrews to Squadron/Wing, that led to the implementation of "Super Gaggle" on 24 February 1968. We grunts had a problem, but you zoomies came up with the solution. It was brilliant! In first four weeks of battle, you had six birds downed on Hill 881S alone, along with a bunch of WIA among aircrews (I don't know how many, since you reported casualties separately), and we lost 100 plus 881S Marines KIA or WIA getting you in and out. In the seven weeks after Super Gaggle started, you had zero birds downed (although a few were hit by AA), and we had perhaps 20 WIA and zero KIA during resupply. Wow!
From our perspective, how did it work? On days Super Gaggle was due, we'd register all our mortars (we had 8, 2x8 mm and 6x60mm) on known or suspected AA sites and stand by. At about 10 minutes prior to Super Gaggle, we'd get the word and fire all mortars with white phosphorus (WP) rounds. Four A-4s would then appear, two on either side of hill, and attack mortar marked sites with Zuni rockets. Two more would then drop delay cluster bomb units (CBUs) and high-drag 250lb bombs in valleys north and south of hill. The left image above depicts 250lb high-drag exploding in a gully to our north about 300 meters out. Two (or four - I don't recall) would then drop napalm along both sides of hill about 75 - 100 meters out to discourage NVAs who would lie on their backs and fire up into bellies of bids with their AK-47s. Got hot when napalm hit, and we prayed a lot, but they never missed. We'd also have each Marine in the trench line (about 200) heave a grenade as far as he could down hill in front of him to clear or discourage the same NVA (Had the advantage here, we could throw grenades a lot further down the hill than they could throw them up). Finally, our mortars would fire 4-5 more rounds of WP at AA sites they were registered on ( to blind them in case Zunis hadn't gotten them), and then all Marines on hill would take cover. As we did so, two more A-4s would lay smoke (right image above) on either side of hill. Super Gaggle prep was an exciting show, and we'd sometimes have trouble keeping troops, especially replacements new to the hill, under cover. It was dramatic entertainment but, given inevitability of incoming mortars, mortally dangerous to forsake cover to watch. So much noise we could not hear 'tube pops.' Company gunny would patrol trench lines keeping troops down.
As soon as smoke was laid, the Purple Foxes would appear with external loads brought from Dong Ha, ten birds in two strings of five, just above smoke. They'd fly parallel to hill, usually to south since wind was usually from north. They appeared to us to do a "Right Flank, March", come in to five zones on hill, release loads, and beat feet. Second echelon of five would do likewise, but it was dicier, because by then smoke from north would be blowing over hill and visibility would be severely restricted. Since all zones were on a line only 200 meters long, birds were damn close together. How they avoided colliding, I don't know, but they never did. One bird in second echelon would be designated to land in a zone we'd have ready, would drop off mail, replacement Marines and pick up any casualties. NVA would always fire mortars, but their forward observers (FOs) were blinded by smoke, so fire was generally ineffective except when an occasional round would land in some trooper's hole. Nothing we could do about that, except pray. AA fire was constant and sometimes heavy, but, like mortars, gunners were firing blind through smoke. They'd occasionally get lucky and wing a bird, but they never brought one down on hill during Super Gaggle.
Whole idea of operations described was to suppress, inhibit and blind NVA gunners for about two minutes, without exposing our troops on the ground, so birds could deliver, pick up, get out. What amazed us was that it always worked, even the first time we did it. My guess, based on knowledge of Hill 881S casualties both before and after Super Gaggle, is that it saved 150-200 casualties and perhaps half a dozen birds. Planning, coordination, airmanship were all flat out MAGNIFICENT! Whoever came up with it rated Navy Cross, at least.
On a later tour in '70 - '71, I was involved in Lam Son 719, a corps-sized thrust from Khe Sanh into Laos by four South Vietnamese divisions. U.S. Army advisors planned operation, U.S. air, artillery and logistics supported it. Eleven fire support bases (FSB) were set up between Vietnam border and objective (town of Tcheponne on Ho Chi Minh Trail) twenty miles inside Laos. NVA surrounded the FSBs as they had 881S in 1968, one by one. U.S. Army/Air Force could not resupply them. Several were overrun and South Viets coming back into Vietnam were hanging from the skids of helicopters. Many others, perhaps hundreds, died when helo crew chiefs had to kick them off skids so helo could be air worthy (not overloaded). It was an utter catastrophe for the South Vietnamese, one that could have been avoided if Army/Air Force had used "Super Gaggle" techniques perfected by Marine Air Wing two years before at Khe Sanh. Personally, I doubt that Army/Air Force of that day, or any other combination of forces in the world, was even capable of the superb coordination that was a daily feature of the "Super Gaggle." From my limited perspective, the Marine Air/Ground team was, and remains, unique!
We still needed single bird missions now and then, usually for medevac, but we got fairly good at outguessing NVA enough so we could get one bird in and out without incident. Since all resupplies were now made externally, we would also have to bring a bird up to retrieve the nets and slings so they could be used again. There weren't enough in country to leave them. Why supply folks couldn't just order more from CONUS we never could figure. A lot cheaper than losing birds and Marines getting them off hill. We would stage these items at night, putting them in a hole where the NVA FOs couldn't see them, and use a double length sling to give the bird as muck slack as possible. During one such net removal mission in March, our HST troops were waving air panels and popping smoke to bring the bird to a hover over a fake zone. The pilot hovered there until we heard the "tube pop", then the bird was repositioned over the hole where the nets were staged. Tough flying, wind across the hill, pilot trying to hover "just so" for the hook-up while watching 120s impact in the zone he'd just left and seeing AA tracers going by. The Marine crouching on the load jumped up and slapped the sling-loop in the hook, but the crew chief gave the "all clear" to the pilot an instant too soon. The Marine tried to jump from the load toward the nearest hole, but the load came up and his boot got tangled in the nets. Off they went toward Khe Sanh with a long sling and a swaying bundle of nets from which the young Marine dangled by one foot for the eight click trip to the base. Your pilots didn't want to spend any more time at Khe Sanh than they did at 881S so they would normally fly straight back to Dong Ha, Quang Tri or Phu Bai as the mission might have called for. We called the pilot to make sure he knew the Marine was hanging under him! We were told that the young Marine was set down very gently at KSCB. The Marine was OK, but he never came back to the hill. We didn't blame him.
We had a ceremony which began early February and continued as long as we occupied Hill 881S. Three Marines would race from the bunker to a fifteen foot radio antenna. Two of them would raise our nation's colors, then stand at attention while the third sounded a rusty rendition of "To The Colors" with a battered bugle. We were never without volunteers for this ceremony. They were proud of themselves and our flag. At night this process was reversed as we retired the colors. Often the retired flag was folded, packed and shipped to the family of a Marine slain on the hill. We had a substantial stockpile of flags sent to us by people all over the country. Even got a 'coffin' flag from widow of a WW II KIA. She'd been given it when he was buried, sent it to us with a note saying he'd have wanted flag to be useful again instead of gathering dust on a closet shelf. For some reason this daily ritual seemed to irritate the NVA in the vicinity of Hill 881N, and they would usually shoot at us. Gave us more targets for our close air support (CAS) and Super Gaggle prep. They never seemed to grasp the principle that, with all the firepower we could bring to bear, it was not a good idea to make us mad. But regulations specified that we should fly the Republic of South Vietnam's flag anytime our flag was displayed. I recall being gently admonished once for not doing this, so said I'd be happy to fly the South Vietnamese flag anytime ours was hoisted if they would provide a detachment of ARVN troops to raise it. Never heard more on the subject.
Worst conflict with regulations involved two KIAs. Round landed in hole - not much left. Had no body bags, put remains in ponchos and staged in zone for next bird. Weather went sour, couldn't get birds in. By second day, troops were watching rats crawling around bodies. Hot up there in daytime with obvious consequences for condition of bodies. Sent radio message requesting permission to bury them 'till we could get them out. Reply, negative - "Regs prohibit field burial in RVN." But I had a serious morale and health problem. Sent second message explaining problems, again requested permission to bury. Again, denied. (As I've said before, people who write regulations have never been anyplace like 881S - regulations are written in air-conditioned offices.) By third day, with weather still zero zero, I sent message down saying that unless otherwise directed, I intended to bury KIAs that evening. Kept copy of message so there would be a record for finding them later. Got no reply. Buried them that night. Couple of days later, weather lifted and first bird came up to get nets and slings. Had no medevacs, because weather so bad NVA couldn't see to shoot either. Couldn't justify risk of trying to land bird to pick up 'permanent routines.' Disinterred them, put them in net and piled other nets/slings on top of them to hide bodies. Had to do that because regulations also said you could not transport remains externally. Bird - one of yours - picked up load. We called as he lifted off and told him he had bodies slung underneath. He rogered, said nothing more. Apparently he said nothing when he delivered them at Dong Ha, either, 'cus we never heard any more about it. I'd probably have been relieved over that one if he hadn't kept his mouth shut.
Your Purple Fox people understood. You gave us a lot of help in situations like the one above, simply by knowing circumstances and caring about fellow Marines, and being willing to say nothing and just get on with what needed to be done, and to hell with regulations. Bit more subtle help than hot zone medevac, but equally important to our survival. We depended on you guys for things like that, too, even if we couldn't talk about them for 30 years. You never let us down.
One of your pilots took about 100 feet of triple concertina down with him one morning. A mortar or rocket landed right under him him just as he dropped external load. The bird lurched a bit and caught a wheel in our defensive wire. Luckily, the ground was wet and the stakes pulled out easily. Probably would have pulled the bird down otherwise. Quite a sight, what with all that wire and a dozen or so trip flares burning merrily under the bird. Looked like Christmas! We joked with your pilots afterward about stealing our wire.
We had three 105mm Howitzers on the hill. The gun in this photograph took a 120mm mortar hit. We couldn't keep the tires hard because of all the shrapnel (good tires were critical for the 105s, because they are part of the recoil system), so you'd bring spare wheels in from time to time. On one of these sorties, either the pilot misjudged his altitude or an AA round cut the sling. In either case, down came the wheel assemblies from about 150 feet. They bounced damned near back up to the bird when they hit, then went rolling and bounding down the hill, 1,500 feet to the valley floor south of us. We often wondered what "Mr. Charles" thought about the weird new weapon we were using to clear him off our slopes.
We also, on occasion, used the 105s in direct fire for targets of opportunity or for marking, but rarely, because for two click shot, we had to use charge 7 - the max. Problem was that if tires were flat, as they usually were, recoil mechanism was not robust, and charge 7 could damage gun. Also, could only use 105s safely for targets of opportunity if target was within deflection limits of axis on which gun was oriented, because otherwise we'd have to break out full gun crew to shift trails. That put too many men in one place at one time, and invited 120 mortar. Gun crew work was tough job. Lost some Marines.
It took a full external load per day just to get us enough water to drink, cook and clean wounds. Since Super Gaggle came on average of once every three days - not because that's all we needed, but because weather was so often zero zero - that meant at least 3 of 10 Super Gaggle birds were dedicated exclusively to water. To be able to shave/wash up, we'd have needed to double that to 6 birds. That was bad enough, since it would cut down on chow/ammo deliveries. More important, I was damned if we were going to ask for any more water than we absolutely needed to survive - it would have been grossly unfair to the air crews who took enough risks (and hits) as it was. I took some heat for troops not shaving, not much, but no way was I going to ask the Purple Foxes to take those risks so we could look pretty. For whom? Not as if we had a date that night, and the Inspector General sure wasn't coming! My XO, Lieutenant Richard Foley, is proof we looked like a bunch of Vikings fresh off the North Sea, but who cared? I damn sure didn't. Water was initially sent up in 5-gallon 'jerry' cans, but they were big, tipsy, and didn't have very good tops, so even if shrapnel didn't hole them they might turn over and leak. Some times a load would be dropped hard and the cans would burst open. In one case, CH-53 brought up full 250-gallon 'water buffalo.' About ten minutes later, a 120mm mortar round landed near it. We crouched in trench watching all that precious water run out onto the ground. Finally someone down at Dong Ha came up with idea of using 155mm powder canisters for water. They'd line them with plastic bags, fill with water, and screwed top down tight. Canister was strong, had heavy top, didn't matter if they fell over when dropped in external load. Also, they only held a couple gallons, so a net load would be lots of them. If round hit nearby, we'd lose a few, but most would still be full when we went out after dark to clear zones (Too dangerous to clear them in daytime). One of my PFCs suggested we use empty canisters for excrement - fill 'em up, screw top down tight, and pitch off hill. That way we didn't have to go through hassle of getting diesel fuel up, burning excrement cans every day. Wasn't long before another Marine suggested that last man to use 'commode' before it was completely full be required to place a grenade, spoon down and pin pulled, into canister on top of excrement, screw top down tight and pitch off hill! Hill was steep, canister would bounce a good distance down. Every once in a while, late at night, we'd hear an explosion and screams from down below. Smell unpleasant, but worth it. Troops would look at each other and say, "Yeah, gotcha, you (unprintable)!" Curiosity kills!
A continuing problem was replacement Marines. They'd usually have heard sea stories about 881S before they came up, but were often "newbies" in country without a clue about the effects of a high Air Metal Density Index. They'd come down the ramp and stand around gawking like tourists, a sure way to ensure having to catch the next bird out. We set up a gang of Marines, essentially in the role of NFL linebackers, to tackle the replacements, and throw them into the nearest trench as they came off ramp. A new battalion CO came up about 1 April, got tackled and thrown in trench like all the rest. Near end of siege, I was near zone when bird came in with replacements, and became part of the linebacker detail. One replacement slipped on ramp coming out and got his leg hung up around ramp lift mechanism. Ramp was always wet and slick, because bird had been up high to avoid AA, and had gotten cold. As it came down, condensation would form on metal surfaces, including ramp. I got him free, pushed him down ramp, but by the time I'd done so, the bird had lifted too high for me to jump. I went to crew chief, told him I was hill CO and needed to go back. He didn't believe me and I don't blame him. I had no rank insignia (not a good idea to wear around NVA), hadn't bathed or shaved in three months, flack jacket was so worn plates were falling off and trousers were so rotten my crotch was split and I was indecent. Pilots were busy dodging AA, and Battalion CO was on hill, so I said, "To hell with it" and let them drop me off at KSCB. First time I'd been on base since before siege. God, that shower and shave felt good! Went back up next day. Got a lot of good-natured grief about deserting my post. Told them it was the Purple Foxes fault, not mine.
Our time spent on the hill always seemed a bit surreal - as if we were TAD on another planet. The troops coined a phrase of, "There are only two ways to get off this hill, either fly off or get blown off." One incident, which almost resulted in 'getting blown off', came one day with a request from KSCB to provide a complete ammunition count for the hill immediately. Replied that we had enough of everything, would let them know, as we had in the past, when we needed more. Was told didn't matter, had to have complete count immediately because White House wanted it! Of course, it was daytime, wandering around hill counting ammunition in all the bunkers and holes would have exposed a lot of men for nothing, so SWAGed it. That made 'em happy, but KSCB apparently worried we'd get caught short, started sending ammo up with every resupply whether we'd asked for it or not. This soon became a big problem! Ammo bunkers were so full we were stacking 105, 106 and 81 ammo in the open. Remember, India's portion of the hill was only 50X100 meters, real risk that NVA round would blow us all off 881S. Had a bitch of a time shutting it off! There was a real disconnect between 881S and the world.
Other examples of the disconnect, or being TAD on another planet. First, a lot of the news clippings troops got in letters were not about Khe Sanh, but rather about war protesters and assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy back home. Not morale building. Second, nobody ever thought to send up current issues of Stars and Stripes, so our only local news in English (other than radio Hanoi) was Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) station out of Saigon, which tended to cater to and have news about rear area troops - not much about front lines. One evening, after one of our bad days - incoming, casualties, messy medevac, and watching a C-123 shot down at KSCB - I was walking trench lines to cheer up the troops. I paused beside a Marine who had a transistor radio tuned to AFRTS. The announcer broke into a Country & Western music program with "Special Announcement." We expected maybe some word about big victory, truce, something that would justify breaking into a program popular with the troops. But no, announcement was to the effect that, "Officer's tennis tournament scheduled for tomorrow at (someplace in Saigon area) is rescheduled for (later date)." The Marine and I exchanged glances in utter perplexity. He said, "Skipper, are we and those f@%&*^# people in Saigon fighting the same war?" But then, we often felt that way about folks in Washington, and at times, even about folks down at Khe Sanh.
During what little free time the Marines had, they thought of their situation on 881S, thought of home and wondered if they would ever return to their loved ones. One PFC, Earnest Webb, was so engaged on or about 3 February when he wrote a letter to his pastor, Reverend Anderson. PFC Webb had seen the morale of his fellow Marines waning and described a remedy to his pastor which he named "Operation We Care." (Read his letter by clicking here) PFC Webb's church, and other organizations responded to "Operation We Care" which resulted in an abundance of 'We Care' packages arriving at 881S. We not only received the items Webb had requested in his letter, we also received gin and vodka in plastic baby bottles in several packages. A note from one donor, a Korea veteran, said he remembered what a little "joy juice" could mean to front-line troops, and that he'd used plastic baby bottles because they wouldn't break with rough handling. Also said he'd used inverted nipples so that contents wouldn't gurgle when package was shaken, because he'd remembered from Korea that in-country postal folks would sometimes take bottles out of packages for their own use, said it was harder for them to find if contents didn't gurgle! I recall one load of incoming mail, several day's worth, where letters were riddled with shrapnel and soaked with whiskey from a broken bottle in one of the 'We Care' packages. (Actually, chocolate chip cookies soaked in bourbon weren't that bad. Got you past the mold.) There was a deli in Wantaugh (Long Island), N. Y. that sent us neat packages including whole salamis, other smoked meat and "joy juice." Wasn't a problem, because with 250 to 400 men, even large packages had only enough for about one sip per man. Morale did improve because troops realized folks back home cared. Morale boosting events weren't limited to actions from people back home. I recall a few events which were initiated by the Purple Foxes. On one Super Gaggle resupply the air crew managed to have several gallons of ice cream stashed in with the ammunition and c-rations. Apparently the pilot was too busy dodging AA upon delivery to advise us of this special commodity. As usual, waited 'till dark to retrieve items from drop zones and found it was melted, some containers had been punctured with shrapnel allowing contents to drip down on remainder of load. Didn't get to enjoy the treat but appreciated the thought. More than once we observed a crewman lean out a widow to toss a bundle of magazines into the zone. Didn't care that they were recycled, troops loved them, especially Playboy. They knew the Purple Foxes also cared.
Another problem was the rare air crew that wouldn't check in with us so as to give us time to get troops under cover and set up for them. The air crew in the Cpl. Smith tragedy was one of them (The tempo was so hectic and decisions so critical that writing down tail #s was not a high priority, so not sure what squadron the bird was from. Didn't matter anyway at that point.) Other birds that didn't check in were CH-53s coming up to lift out downed Purple Fox birds. Problem was always that if we didn't know the bird was inbound, my troops would not be under cover. Since we always got mortars when birds came in, that could hurt. 120 mm mortar is a hummer with a round about the size of a 4.2 round, had a super-quick fuse, would leave crater not much larger than a plate, which meant shrapnel pattern was essentially horizontal. This photograph was taken inside a new general purpose tent after one 120mm mortar round landed near it. Gives some idea of volume and pattern of shrapnel. Any exposed Marines within 20 to 30 meters were sure casualties. We HAD to get troops under cover before bringing in birds. Never did get 100% cooperation from wing on that one.
Infantry units in combat usually have a forward air controller (FAC) attached to control all air support for the unit. He is a Marine officer pilot on temporary duty with the unit for a three month period. Our FAC was hit and medevaced on the first or second day, and Corporal Robert J. Arrotta, his radio operator, took over. By the time Battalion came up with a replacement, Cpl. Arrotta had proved himself so good that I told Battalion I didn't need a replacement. This photograph shows Cpl. Robert J. "The Mightiest Corporal in the World" Arrotta (center), with Lance Corporal Patrick Cardenas to his right, controlling air strikes from 881S. They were the team which spotted, determined map coordinates and controlled aircraft for close air support (CAS) missions. For what it's worth, all troops who've survived for any length of time with a grunt unit in combat will pick up a radio call sign to avoid the risk of the enemy getting their name. Cpl. Arrotta had the official tactical call sign of "India 14" which identified him as the CAS representative of the company. The troops, in recognition of the tremendous amount of fire power he was capable of calling to bear on the NVA, referred to him as "The Mightiest Corporal in the World." Corporal Arrotta remained our FAC for the entire siege, directed about 300 CAS missions, all Super Gaggles, and in coordination with the helicopter support team (HST), all medevacs. Hell of a Marine! Got end-of-tour Bronze Star. Deserved better. Did captain's job superbly under fire for three months.
At the beginning of the siege, General Westmoreland had initiated Operation NIAGARA which required that any aircraft returning from a mission over North Vietnam with unexpended ordnance and sufficient fuel (there were many because the weather was often marginal during the monsoon season) must check in with the Khe Sanh Direct Air Support Center (DASC) before pickling its ordnance. At 1,500 feet and surrounded by mountains, KSCB was in a hole and often foggy/misty. Hill 881S, at 3,000 feet, often was not, and since it towered over most of the surrounding terrain, we could control air strikes from the ground. So when Khe Sanh was socked in or did not have a FAC(A) overhead, DASC would pass the NIAGARA flights off to us. We got aircraft from all services, with some strange ordnance from time to time, but we had plenty of targets and could use most anything. We also had the capability to mark those targets out to about 4km from the hill, using mortars with WP rounds, the 106mm recoilless rifles, or the 105mm howitzers in the direct-fire mode.
We recorded enemy activity daily by grid coordinates, and on any day that the weather was clear, Corporal Arrotta would register our mortars on those targets with WP an wait. It was often not long before the DASC would pass a flight off to us. Arrotta would determine the service and type of ordnance the flight carried, fire the appropriate marking mortar, and run it in. On occasion we'd get two and sometimes three flights of strike aircraft, and he would stack them overhead in the order of their remaining fuel. Typically targets would be trench lines, FO or AA positions, and rocket sites. Some of these flights were not particularly accurate, largely because they were not from squadrons that regularly did CAS missions, but with ordnance like 2,000lb bridge-busting bombs, a near miss was good enough for most targets. For targets of opportunity (those that developed as we were bombing) we would use our direct-fire 105s or 106s. That didn't always work, because Air Force pilots would pull up when they saw the marking round impact in front of them, complaining that we were running them through an artillery fan (trajectory). We'd explain that it was not artillery, but direct-fire 106 recoilless rifle, and therefore posed no threat to them. But they rarely knew what a 106RR was, would break off run and fly away without dropping ordnance. Waste of good bombs.
We usually ran USAF and USN flights on targets two or more kilometers from the hill. We'd learned the hard way. Early on, we had an Air Force F-4 or F-101, not not sure which, drop four 500lb high-drag bombs on us. There was some smoke coming up from somewhere on our hill, don't remember what, maybe a burning outhouse barrel, and he dropped on it. Thank God he missed by about 50 meters! Point was he dropped without being "Cleared Hot" from Cpl. Arrotta, who was in contact with him on the FAC radio frequency. Troops were so mad I think they'd have shot him down if he'd come back. He didn't. Had a couple of my Marines badly hurt when bunker roof collapsed as a result of the bomb impacts. Sent a report down on that one - even had the call sign - but never heard back. Unforgettable experience. Cpl. Arrotta and I were standing together, someone shouted, we looked over our shoulders, and there came the aircraft, low and fast, bore-sighted on the hill. Just as we caught sight of him, four bombs dropped from under his wings, and we dove for the bottom of the trench, with Arrotta calling, "Abort! - Abort!" on the radio. Too late. Dust, shrapnel, tree stumps flying all over the place, both of us - and many others - were deaf for hours. Had he been accurate, we'd have lost perhaps 100 Marines. Lost my cool instead. Damn, I was angry.
Our target spotter was Lance Corporal Molinau "Mike" Niuatoa, an American Samoan whom I'd chosen for that duty because he'd fired a score of 241 (out of a perfect 250) with the M-16 rifle in boot camp. With a name like his, which company gunny could not pronounce, he too needed a nickname. He would ordinarily have been called, in accordance with Marine Corps custom, "Pineapple." But he had a cousin, also from Samoa and also with a difficult name, in the company, so "Pineapple" was confusing. Niuatoa was huge, looked like a giant Attila the Hun with his beard. His cousin was small. Troops quickly solved call sign problem by calling Niuatoa "Chunk" and his cousin "Tidbit." Anyway, I figured he was bound to have superb eyesight. He had the patience of Job, and was absolutely unflappable, no matter what the Air Metal Density Index. He had a set of 20-power naval binoculars on a pipe stand with which he found targets for Cpl. Arrotta. On one occasion, after two weeks of watching whenever the weather was clear enough, he spotted the muzzle flashes of NVA 130mm guns way out west, probably in Laos. We knew what they were, because we were on the gun-traget line between them and KSCB and could hear the rushhhhh of rounds going over us on the way to the base. Sounded like squirrels running through dry leaves. Guns had range of 27,000 meters, were perhaps 12 - 15 kilometers west of us. We had no weapon that could mark a target that far out, so called for a FAC(A), put Chunk on radio net with him. FAC(A) used bombs from CAS birds as adjusting rounds. Never forget Chunk's first adjustment from bomb drop, "Left a click (kilometer), add two ridge lines!" Over next hour, using several flights of CAS birds and Chunk's adjustments, FAC(A) reported destruction of four guns. Chunk earned Bronze Star for that. He retired a couple of years ago as Wing Sergeant Major, 3rd MAW. What a Marine.
The left image above shows the view north from 881S on 21 January. Looks like view from a nice home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The hill near the skyline, about 2km away, is 881N. The right image is same view about 15 March. Looks like back side of the moon. Difference is effect of Arrotta's air strikes and Super Gaggle prep fires. 881N always had targets, often AA sites for firing at Purple Fox birds. NVA also used it to fire 122mm Katushka rockets at Khe Sanh, sometimes four or five sites at once, 30-50 rockets per site. Effect devastating down at base, but we could see rockets lifting off, would give base about 10 seconds warning before impact. Base troops would take cover when siren (actually, truck horn they'd rigged up) sounded. Tried to get 881N targeted with B-52 strikes, since NVA presence there was constant, but never did. Two reasons; one, that B-52s were not normally targeted closer than 3 clicks from friendly troops; and two, that most B-52 targeting was done with unattended ground sensors by S-2 (intelligence) section at KSCB, and there were no sensors deployed around 881N. Another problem was there were good trails/roads leading from north side westward to Laos and the Ho Chi Minh trail, which was about 20 clicks west, so whatever we blew away, they could soon replace, and usually did. Frequent zero-zero weather made overland supply easy for them. We kept reporting activity on 881N, but perhaps battalion, to which we reported, was not passing word up the line. Don't know. But then, no one ever came up to see what we and the Purple Foxes were seeing most every day. Shame, because a few strikes could have saved us all, 881S and your air crews, numerous casualties as well as battle damage to your CH-46s. Further, it would have saved KSCB from some rocket attacks.
It took NVA about two days to set up for rocket firing. They'd set up at night, fire them in morning when air activity began down at KSCB and runway got busy. I remember one day when we figured they were ready to fire, base was still fogged in so they were holding off. Arrotta had some Marine CAS birds overhead. We decided to hit the site (they used same ones repeatedly) before they fired, set up mortar without registration to mark, timed first marking shot and CAS bird's orbit so that round would impact on site just as bird came 'wings level'. Mortarmen on hill were plenty good enough by then for that kind of mission. Pilots would normally make first run without dropping ordnance to be sure they had the target. In this case, we told pilot we'd clear him hot on first run, because we knew that once NVA realized site was targeted, they'd fire off rockets - a "use 'em or lose 'em" situation for them. Pilot didn't listen, marking round landed on site, we cleared him hot, he didn't drop. Habit, I guess. Wingman came in about 30 seconds behind him, and just as he came 'wings level' and we cleared him hot, NVA fired about 50 rockets from site. Aircraft (A-4) was bracketed, damn near got hit by outgoing 122mm rockets. Pilot went bananas, he and other birds hit site repeatedly 'till all ordnance expended. We kept telling them it was too late, waste of ordnance, rockets already gone. Cpl. Arrotta suggested (politely) to flight leader that he'd have gotten rockets if he'd dropped on first run, and to please do it next time the way we told him to. But we controlled perhaps 300 CAS strikes from hill during siege, so an occasional error was inevitable.
This photo of YK-16, known as 'Patches', is an example of one Purple Fox bird that suffered mortar damage during medevac, departed zone but was forced to land in Indian country, then retrieved later. During the seventy-seven day siege we never called for a 'routine' medical evacuation. For us to subject the CH-46 crews to unnecessary exposure was not an option. In fact, many of our 'priority' medevacs waited for the last bird of a scheduled Super Gaggle to be evacuated rather than call for a dedicated medevac package. Emergencies of course were called immediately. In fact, if a priority medevac could carry one end of a stretcher, he would. We got more out that way, while still keeping number of troops exposed in the zone to a minimum. These were often Marines with deep flesh wounds that required stitching or who'd been peppered with shrapnel that had to be dug out so the wounds wouldn't get infected. I remember one stretcher bearer was a man who'd had his pinkie blown off. He wasn't an 'emergency' and he could carry one end of a stretcher, albeit painfully, but we still needed to get him down to a doctor to get the stump healed. We had no water to keep clean with, so any wound eventually got infected. It was a 'pay me now or pay me later' situation. Better to send them down as soon as they got hit. Besides, the regulations in those days said that if you hadn't been treated by a doctor, you didn't rate a Purple Heart, and I was damned if I was going to let those Marines be cheated out of a Purple Heart just because they happened to be serving on that Godawful hill. Tried to get authority to have my senior corpsman certify wounds that rated the medal, but no go. You know how regs are. Some Marines who were lightly wounded simply refused evacuation, figuring the medal wasn't worth the risk of the trip down and back. Unfair to them, but the people who write regs have never been any place like 881S. Even had a couple who refused evacuation for light wounds because it would have been their third Purple Heart, which meant they got sent out of country. They didn't want to leave! Sense of duty. I wish I could convey to the young Marines today, and to our fellow countrymen, how magnificent those men really were.
In addition to Purple Hearts not given to all who deserved them, many from those days were not recognized for superb and often heroic performance, both grunts and aviators. Keep in mind, though, that any kind of unit administration was way down on the list of priorities, what with tempo of operations, lack of administrative capability (26th Marines admin. rear was back on Okinawa and Battalion admin. rears were at Phu Bai which might as well have been on the back side of the moon), and the fact that all forward echelons, from platoon to regiment, were subject to same constant and devastating incoming. These were BIG rounds - 120 mm mortars, 122 mm rockets, 130 mm guns, 152 mm howitzers, and staying alive and alert was always the top priority. All this was during height of the Tet Offensive, when all Vietnam was at 'General Quarters.' Also, when we did send paperwork down from hill, it was usually using a lightly wounded courier, and we had no guarantee he'd not get hit again in bird on way down, or that bird would even stop at KSCB. If bird had an emergency medevac aboard, it would often bypass base and go straight to Delta Med. at Dong Ha or out to USS Repose offshore. Paperwork would have to wend its way back through system, often didn't make it. Situation made getting anything back to either rear at base or to Wing (including the Purple Foxes) iffy at best, and since we rarely got feedback from rear, we never knew whether we'd succeeded or not. To give you a feel for the problem, outgoing mail went out on medevac birds since they were virtually the only ones that landed on Hill 881S. We'd hand it to crew chief or a gunner in a sandbag. But they were busy. We once got a whole load of mail sent back up to the Hill 881S by the post office folks - they refused to forward it because it had gotten bloody rolling around on floor of bird with wounded. Hell of a note. Two of these letters home were from Marines who'd been KIA in the interim. Nothing was simple!
These memories were supposed to be about the Purple Foxes and the support you gave my Marines on Hill 881S. However, at the insistence of your squadron historian/webmaster, I provided this photograph. The Marine on the right is SSgt. Karl G. Taylor, Sr., 1st Platoon Sergeant, who won a Medal of Honor later that year during Operation MEAD RIVER. I'm the big guy on the left (6' 4-1/2", 205 lbs. "fighting" weight). We're both filthy and obviously unshaven for reasons previously explained. I didn't wear the cammie cover on my helmet. Needed some way for the troops to ID me when things got exciting. Figured that if I needed camouflage on my helmet, we were all in deep kimchi. Weighed 155 lbs. when we got back to Quang Tri at end of April. We were all a bit scrawny, couldn't have passed the PFT if our lives depended on it (Didn't exist then, anyway), but we could hit the deck and roll faster than any other Marines still alive.
Hope I've given the Purple Foxes of HMM-364 some feel for Marines they were supporting and the unique problems we, and you, had to deal with. These are old memories, but with the help of notes and old letters home and recollections of a few other Marines who were on the hill, I think they're fairly accurate. Wish I could be more specific as to tail #s and dates, but as I said before, we were too damned busy to worry much about that then - ducking rounds, running CAS and working your birds in daytime; pulling in loads, improving defenses and standing 100% watch from midnight 'till dawn 'cuz that's when NVA was likely to attack. Troops did most of their sleeping in daytime. Not only kept them under cover, but saved water and thus birds, since they weren't working in the heat of the day.
'Nuff said for now. But, for the Marines of India and Mike companies, the word "magnificent" is inadequate to describe the Purple Foxes. I can't imagine the Marine Corps ever again having a better collection of gutsy air crews (goes for the fixed-wing folks also) and tough birds than we had to work with on Hill 881S during the Siege of Khe Sanh. You deserve your glorious history. God knows you made it!
India Six Actual, Out.
It is gratifying to know that Bill Dabney remembers the Purple Foxes. The courage and determination of his Marines on 881S was a true inspiration to those of us who flew the Super Gaggle. We understood that we were their lifeline and that we could not fail them. They faced incredible hardship and peril 24 hours a day and it was our duty to give them the benefit of our very best effort. I think we did.
John A. "Al" Chancey, Lieutenant Colonel, USMC(Ret)
Back Browser or Hill 881S Home Page or - HMM-364 Home Page