When 3d Battalion, 26th Marines (3/26) came back up
to Khe Sanh in early December, 1967, we were briefed that the North Vietnamese
Army (NVA) was building up forces in the area for an attack on Khe Sanh.
The battalion was directed to search the area to the south and west of
the base. Moving as a battalion, we maneuvered from Lang Vei north
and west to within two kilometers of the Laotian border, then back in a
long loop northward, arriving at the base a couple of days before Christmas.
We made no contact with the NVA and found no signs of its recent presence.
India 3/26 was then assigned the mission of occupying and defending Hill 881South and made an overland march from the base to the hill on 26 December. From 26 December through 17 January, 1968, India patrolled aggressively around the hill. At least a reinforced platoon went out daily, often to the limit of the range of our attached 81mm mortars (about 4000 meters), and in two cases a platoon climbed and patrolled the ridge that included Hill 881North. Again there were no contacts with or sightings of the NVA.
On 18 January, the Commanding Officer of 3/26 informed
India that a reconnaissance team (Team Dockleaf) had been ambushed on the
north slope on 881N and had too many casualties to break contact and move
to a landing zone (LZ) for extraction by helo. India was directed
to send a force to 881N, locate Team Dockleaf, and guide in helos to extract
it. India's 3d Platoon, led by 2dLt. Thomas D. Brindley, was at the
time patrolling in the general area so was tasked with the mission.
Since it was already mid afternoon and the task had to be completed in
daylight when the helicopters could fly, Lt. Brindley had his Marines shuck
their packs and flak jackets and make a forced march, almost a run, to
find the team. Brindley's Marines were successful, got Team Dockleaf
evacuated, and returned to 881S. There was no contact with the enemy after
the initial ambush.
India's mission was to hold 881S and act as a combat outpost for the 26th Marines on the west flank of the Khe Sanh plateau. Since it appeared that the enemy was attempting to close on the hill, India requested and received permission to make a reconnaissance-in-force north to 881N the following day with the entire company. As we were planning the attack, we were notified that the regiment wished to insert a reconnaissance team on 881N, and were directed to take it north with us and drop it off clandestinely when we got there. The team (Team Barkwood) arrived on 881S by helo shortly thereafter and the team leader, Corporal Charles W. Bryan, reported to the company commander for instructions. Since the 3d Platoon, placed on the right for the attack, was most likely to make it to 881N, Corporal Bryan was directed to follow with his team in its trace.
India jumped off before dawn the following morning. Before it had gone 1000 yards north, Lt. Fromme's 1st Platoon, on the left, made heavy contact with a sizable NVA unit. There were several casualties, and the platoon consolidated its position and directed mortar fire to its front. It did not have sufficient strength to both hold its position and evacuate its casualties, so the 2d Platoon under 2dLt. Michael H. "Mike" Thomas, which had been following in trace of the first platoon as the reserve, was directed to set up a landing zone behind them and evacuate the casualties. The first helicopter into the zone was shot down, crashing about 200 yards down the slope to the west. Marines from both platoons rushed down to the crash site and rescued the crew, several of whom were wounded, and brought them back up to the zone for evacuation. The Marines' movement to the crash site was so sudden and unexpected that a small unit of North Vietnamese soldiers near the crash site, seeing the onrushing Marines, took off running to the west and disappeared over the brow of a hill.
While this was occurring, Tom Brindley's 3d Platoon reported the its first attempt to take the small hill on the right flank which was the intermediate objective had been repulsed with several casualties among the attacking Marines. In the words of Corporal Robert "PJ" Pagano, a member of Team Barkwood, "Team Barkwood was following in the trace of the third platoon of India Company when the opening shots were fired. It was a heavy machine gun that fired three shots paused and then four more. All hit the deck and waited. After a few minutes the members of India Company asked for any "extra" grenades we might have. They passed a helmet around and we all put a couple in (we carried a minimum of 8 frags and as I suspected we were all going to become infantry in a few minutes I was glad to shed at least a small part of the relatively huge amount of gear we carried.) Corporal Bryan and I hooked up with Lieutenant Brindley and coordinated activities. We volunteered our on-call arty tubes and air support. He asked that we get choppers in for the medevacs and I did so. As we sat there in a roughly 15 foot circle two members of the platoon crawled to a stop next to us. They were exhausted from dragging a tall red-haired Marine by his arms. His eyes were glazed and he had a battle dressing over his heart. As he was lying next to me the lieutenant asked that I see if he was alive. I couldn't find a pulse and couldn't detect any breathing so said, 'I think he's dead'. The lieutenant told me to close his eyes which I did. The chopper came into the LZ which we had set up just behind our little circle (towards 881S) and the two Marines dragged their buddy's body off in that direction."
Tom Brindley reported that he was confident he could take the objective and was ordered to do so after heavy preparatory fires with mortars and artillery.
Corporal Bryan, realizing that the 3d Platoon was under strength as a result of its casualties and that it was unlikely he'd get to 881N anyway, volunteered Team Barkwood as an additional assault element, which offer Tom Brindley accepted. In Corporal Pagano's words, "It was then decided we would get on line with the infantry and assault the intermediate objective. We were on the right and the infantry was on the left. The lieutenant said "fix bayonets" and we all looked at him at the same time. Recon guys usually don't have bayonets but the real reason we looked is because (at least for me) I thought this is it; the real thing! (Recon guys usually don't do walking assaults). Corporal Bryan directed that I stay slightly behind the line with him. Almost as soon as we started out a hole opened between us and the infantry on the left. I shouted to Corporal Bryan that I was moving forward to plug the hole. The terrain and elephant grass soon caused us to lose contact with the infantry and each other. We all continued up the hill. I found myself to the left of Guerra and we went single file for a few feet until we were on top of the hill. We stopped for a moment and an 81mm mortar round landed just in front of us. I was hit a second later and Lionel (Guerra) was hit a second after that (both by rifle fire). We were taking fire from the Marines at the bottom of the hill as well as from the NVA whom we were amongst (I was hit by a Marine bullet). I got on the air without much ceremony and said, "Check fire. Check fire you're cutting us to pieces up here." A few seconds later Bryan called to me to stop the mortar and rifle fire from the friendlies. I told him I had done so and that I was hit. He said he knew I was hit as I had been yelling it (I guess I got a little upset for a second). He crawled over and while I was on the radio (now working choppers) he got up on his elbows to rip open a battle dressing for my wound. An NVA no farther than six feet away cranked a round at us that passed my left ear, over my chest, and into Bryan's armpit. I stopped transmitting after a while because my hands and face fell asleep and I became very tired. I had tied a tourniquet but had lost a great deal of blood and was still losing some."
The assault of the 3d Platoon reinforced by Team Barkwood was classic. It succeeded in seizing the objective, but at high cost. Lieutenant Brindley and Corporal Bryan were both killed, along with several others, and for a time the platoon held the hill against strong counterattacks with a Lance Corporal in command. There were not enough men left to both hold the hill and evacuate the casualties, and the platoon sergeant, seriously wounded himself, reported that during the assault Team Barkwood had become separated for the platoon, was no longer in radio contact, and could not be located. Consequently, the 2d Platoon, which had completed the evacuation of 1st Platoon's casualties and the rescue of the helicopter crew, was ordered to the right flank to reinforce on the 3d Platoon's objective and repel counterattacks, evacuate the casualties and locate and recover the recon team. Lt. Thomas marched the platoon quickly across the intervening gully, secured the objective, and set about finding the team.
Corporal Pagano continues, "Some new choppers came on station and I heard them talking about Barkwood in the past tense. I realized that because I had been off the air for a while they thought I had died. Using the weight of my head to key the set I transmitted, "All stations this net be advised this station is still up." There was an embarrassed silence for a minute or two then India Six Actual called me and said he had six Marines with him who volunteered to come get me; he asked if I was interested. I said OK (something of an understatement) and he said they would be on my frequency and asked for two quick shots from time to time to locate me. It was very hard to pull the trigger on the rifle but I managed several times to do so. On the last shot the bolt stayed open - I didn't have the strength to change a magazine by then. I don't remember any radio communications with the infantry except for the conversation I had with the lieutenant and the six Marines crawling up to get me. Oh yeah, there was one more time I spoke with them. When I realized I was bleeding to death I got a little frantic because I couldn't find anything to use as a tourniquet (Bryan was dead by then) and I blurted out on the net, 'I'm hit and I can't stop bleeding.' An unknown station came up and said, 'Use your belt, use your belt'."
Moving forward of the lines to begin the search, Lt. Thomas was shot and killed. Sergeant Daniel G. Jessup, his platoon sergeant, then continued the search, finally locating the team on the right flank of the objective in high elephant grass. Corporal Pagano: "They found me on those last two shots (whew). They (the most beautiful Marines on earth) would crawl a few inches and then reach back and drag me by my belt suspender straps. We were right under the NVA's nose and took fire most of the way to the bottom of the hill."
Several air strikes and considerable artillery and mortar fire were used to protect the Marines evacuating Team Barkwood, all of whose Marines had been killed or wounded. The fires were effective, and all hands were brought to the helo zone and evacuated.
In the confusion of battle, Team Barkwood had lost physical contact with the platoon, and in assaulting the right flank of the objective, found themselves assaulting an NVA company by themselves. Corporal Pagano recalls: "We assaulted the intermediate objective, made its crest, and were cut up in a crossfire between the infantry and the NVA. Bryan died trying to help me. The six Marines that crawled up the hill under fire saved my life. I know the infantry didn't know we were up there when they dropped the mortar and rifle fire on us - we couldn't be seen for the elephant grass. The objective (that Team Barkwood had assaulted) was not taken while I was on it - it was swarming with NVA with whom much rifle fire and a few grenades were exchanged."
At about this time, at a location remote from the scene of the India Company action, an NVA lieutenant surrendered to the Marines defending the base. Immediately interrogated, he reported that all outlying positions around the base would be attacked that night. India was consequently ordered to break contact immediately and return to 881S. It took some time, both because all casualties had not yet been retrieved and evacuated and because the NVA was continuing to counterattack. Nevertheless, with considerable difficulty, India broke contact and was back on 881S shortly after dark.
That night, all outlying positions around the Khe Sanh Combat Base were assaulted except 881S, probably because the force that had been designated to attack 881S had been met and mauled that afternoon and, having been located, was shelled throughout the night. Team Barkwood, with its magnificent performance in locating and holding off a superior force, was a major contributor to that success. The cost was high, but it would have been far higher had India been forced to fight the NVA in its own trenches that night.
Known Casualties of 19 & 20 January 1968
2ndLt. Thomas Drew Brindley, killed.
Pfc. James A. Collins, killed.
Cpl.Bob Coniff, wounded.
Pfc. Reece A. Critchfield, Jr., wounded, died the next day.
Pfc. Richard R. Darling, wounded.
Cpl. Karl S. Fields, wounded.
Sgt. Daniel G. Jessup, wounded.
Pvt. Gary L. Joliet, wounded.
LCpl. Thomas L. Kingston, wounded, died the next day.
Cpl. R. Gregory Martin, wounded.
Pfc. Leonard Lee Newton, killed.
LCl. Phillip Provenzano, wounded.
Pfc. Cecil F. Rogers, wounded.
2ndLt. Michael H. Thomas, killed.
Cpl. Kenneth S. Warner, wounded
Pfc. Paul Melvin Beddoe, wounded, died the next day.
Cpl. Charles W. Bryan, killed.
Cpl. Lionel Guerra, wounded.
LCpl. Thomas William Hollis, wounded, died eight days later.
Cpl. Robert E. "PJ" Pagano, wounded.
LCpl. Ronald Parr, wounded.
One Additional Unknown Marine.
LCpl. Lionel Guerra
LCpl. Robert "PJ" Pagano
It was an honor to have worked with the 26th Marines and India in particular. I worked at Khe Sanh for seven months and came to know them well. I'd do it all over again if I could do it with them.
Robert "PJ" Pagano, former Corporal USMC
and radio operator for Team Barkwood, Bravo 3rd Recon
Ronnie D. Foster, former Corporal USMC
and friend of Corporal Charles W. Bryan
Since I was on 950 for all of November, December, and half of January, I din't get to know Cpl. Charles W. "Bill" Bryan as the other members of the company did. I did know however that he had a hell of a reputaion as a up and coming patrol leader. The Company Captain, Captain Phil Reynolds held him in great esteem. I did know that when I was introduced to Bill as I tried to return to 1st Platoon, he checked with LCpl. Lionel Guerra about me. He did ask the 1st Platoon commander, Lt. Carl Schlack, if I could be the radio operator for the patrol. It wasn't meant to be.
My last experience with Barkwood was as a stretcher bearer for the wounded of the patrol and the wounded of India, 3/26. I unloaded Bill from the evac CH-46 and it was obvious to me that he was dead. A corpsman confirmed this and we brought his body to Graves Registration. That was the last day I saw most of the members of Barkwood. Bill Bryan died on the 20th, Tom Hollis on the 28th. Lionel Guerra and "PJ" Pagano were medevaced out never to be seen again. Ron Parr was wounded but not evacuated. I don't know the names of the Corpsman nor the Tail End Charlie of the patrol. I wonder to this day what would have happened had I been on the patrol.
David Douglas Duncan produced two books which included photos of Khe Sanh. One was "I Protest" and the other was "War Without Heroes". In all probability, one of the deceased Marines being carried aboard the CH-46s on 21 January 68 was Bill Bryan. We of Bravo Recon gave our brother Marines their last salute as they left Khe Sanh on their way home.
Kevin Macaulay, former Corporal, Bravo 3rd Recon USMC