14 days at Nhi Ha
Sent north to help the Marines, the Army's 3rd Battalion,
21st Infantry, fought a nightmarish battle in the shadow of the DMZ.
By Keith William Nolan
The assault unfolded quietly at first, but the grunts of the lead company
were extremely uneasy as they advanced across the sandy, scrubby fields,
the sky clear and hot above them. For one thing, there was scant cover.
The terrain was flat and open, interrupted only by dunes and low-lying
hedgerows and treelines. In addition, enemy units were suspected of
having recently moved into the area. The ground was littered with shell
casings and discarded equipment from previous engagements.
Less than two hours later, that lieutenant and the two grunts who had joined him on point were the first to be killed when gunfire erupted among the hedgerows and shell-pocked hooches of Nhi Ha. The ensuing battle would prove one of the most prolonged and costly of the war.
The operation began late on May 1, 1968, when Lt. Col. William P. Snyder was instructed to place his command--the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry (3/21) "Gimlets" of the Army's Americal Division--under the operational control of the 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, on the eastern side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Snyder was briefed by the regimental commander, Colonel Milton A. Hull, in the 3rd Marine command post (CP). Hull explained that most of the 3rd Marine Division was then battling to contain a three-day-old North Vietnamese Army (NVA) offensive that threatened the Cua Viet and Bo Dieu rivers, on which the Navy ran supplies to the helicopter-poor Marines. Casualties were heavy as the Marines reduced the enemy positions north of the adjoining rivers, and it was feared that the NVA might send fresh units across the DMZ, bypass the units already engaged, cross the Bo Dieu, and attempt to take the 3rd Marine Division CP at the Dong Ha combat base.
Stretched thin, its reserve already committed, the 3rd Marine Division needed help. Hull wanted Colonel Snyder's 3/21 to screen the right flank of the Marines and prevent NVA infiltration of the battle area from that direction. Snyder was to set up his CP in the hamlet of Mai Xa Chanh East, nine kilometers below the DMZ on the bank at the juncture of the Cua Viet River and a narrow tributary nicknamed "Jones' Creek." Jones' Creek ran south in snakelike contours from the DMZ and emptied into the east-west Cua Viet at a point about seven kilometers inland from the Gulf of Tonkin. Mai Xa Chanh East was nominally secured by the rear elements of one of the Marine battalions committed to the defense of the base at Dong Ha, which was 10 kilometers to the southwest.
Jones' Creek was a known infiltration route. With that in mind, Hull wanted Snyder to seize and hold Nhi Ha and Lam Xuan West, which hugged Jones' Creek above Mai Xa Chanh East. "Don't be surprised if the NVA are back in there," Hull warned Snyder, explaining that the Marines had recently abandoned positions in the two hamlets to meet the threat to the west. "Expect them to be in there."
See map of Nhi Ha at the bottom of this page.
It was almost midnight when Snyder rejoined his battalion, which had helicoptered into Mai Xa Chanh East at dusk. Illumination rounds were going up over various Marine firefights in the area as Snyder, a soft-spoken West Pointer, pointed across the lit-up paddies and explained the operation to his company commanders. Following preparatory fires from Marine artillery, the 3/21 (less Company D, which would remain in reserve) was to attack on two axes in the morning, using Jones' Creek as a guide and dividing line. Company B was to advance up the west side of the tributary to a graveyard opposite Lam Xuan East, which was about two kilometers north of Mai Xa Chanh East, and then provide fire support for Company C's attack. Preparatory fire would then be shifted onto Nhi Ha, another two kilometers upstream, which Company C would seize in turn--with Company A following close behind. Company B would simultaneously secure Lam Xuan West. Jones' Creek hooked almost due west in this area, so that Nhi Ha sat on its north bank, directly across from Lam Xuan West on its south bank. There was a footbridge connecting the two hamlets, but the villagers who had built it had previously been evacuated. All civilians had left the area.
The attack kicked off as planned on the morning of May 2 and progressed smoothly until 1 p.m., by which time Company C had pushed halfway through Nhi Ha. The long, narrow hamlet, defined by an outer wall of thick vegetation, was relatively open in its interior and was dotted with huts that were mostly demolished.
Nhi Ha was cut in half by two strips of hedgerows with a large field
between them. Approaching this field from the east, the Company C grunts
could not see the NVA dug in and waiting behind the hedgerow on the
western side. It was later determined that elements of the 4th Battalion,
270th Independent NVA Regiment, had slipped down Jones' Creek into Nhi
The situation was almost as bad for the platoon on the left flank, which had three men killed and several more wounded. The platoon leader, a sergeant first class, was pinned down and unable or unwilling to participate in the firefight. Spread across the open ground in scattered bunches wherever they could find cover, most of the grunts kept their heads down.
The company executive officer, then serving as the acting commander of Company C, also folded up. He spent the firefight sitting behind the village well in shock. This lieutenant had been highly decorated for other actions, but this was one firefight too many for him. He simply mumbled into his radio that they needed help.
The enemy had complete fire superiority. About the only men in the left-flank platoon seriously engaging the NVA at that point were Staff Sgt. James M. Goad, the platoon sergeant, and Sergeant Roger W. Starr, a machine-gun squad leader who had rushed forward with an M-60 to join Goad at the mound from which he was firing. They took turns coming up to their knees to fire. Goad had his M-16 on automatic, and Starr directed his quick, jack-in-the-box M-60 bursts at an NVA machine gun he could hear firing in the hedgerow ahead of them. Trying to keep low, he blasted the top of his own mound with each burst before getting the weapon all the way up. Enemy fire splattered the mound, too, and at one point Starr was hit across his upper left arm by something hot and sharp that tore and bloodied his sleeve. He didn't know if the graze was from a bullet or a shard from a bullet-shattered rock.
The NVA in Nhi Ha also fired on Company B, which had reached Lam Xuan
West. One GI was killed and several seriously wounded as the company
hunkered behind a berm at the edge of Jones' Creek, placing suppressive
fire across the tributary in an effort to assist Company C.
Snyder pounded Nhi Ha all night with artillery, and before the attack resumed on May 3, he requested airstrikes to further soften up the target. The NVA clung to their entrenchments, however. When Companies A and D moved in from the east, the firefight began anew, with the enemy firing automatic weapons, light machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) from the hedgerow on the west side of the field in the middle of the village. NVA mortar crews added to the cacophony.
In response, the lead platoons hunkered down in an irrigation ditch
running behind the hedgerow on their side of the field and started pouring
fire back across the clearing. Whenever smoke or dust rose from one
of the otherwise invisible enemy positions, the target was pounded by
M-60s and M-79 grenade launchers. The artillery fire was resumed, and
in between salvos, jets placed high-drag bombs and napalm canisters
all along the enemy entrenchments. Smoking bomb fragments thudded down
on both sides of the battlefield.
Harp was in position with a Private Pope, whose M-60 machine gun consumed
ammo with equal vigor. Harp ran back several times during the firefight
to grab M-16 bandoleers for himself and extra machine-gun ammo belts
for Pope. "Pope's gun literally glowed red," Harp said. The
air was hot and dusty, acrid with gunpowder. The heat was sweltering.
"All that kept me going was on one of my trips to the CP for ammo
I fell in a shell hole with a little green water," he continued.
"I stuck my canteen down in the sandy mud and got about one third
of a canteen of something that was mostly water. Put six iodine tablets
in it, shook it up, and tried to chug-a-lug it as fast as I could in
the hopes that I wouldn't taste it too much."
Captain Leach dug into the western side of Nhi Ha with Companies
A and C, while Company D moved back to Lam Xuan East to serve as the
battalion reserve. The NVA attacked Leach's perimeter before
dawn on May 6. "Hey, we can finally see the SOBs," exulted
Sergeant Starr as he fired his M-16, dropping several enemy soldiers
who were fully exposed in the flare-lit paddies as they tried to dart
forward. Starr ended up with a red-hot fragment in his right eye; he
was one of only three friendly soldiers wounded during that attack.
During the early afternoon, Snyder ordered Company A to conduct a reconnaissance in force to Xom Phuong, a small hamlet one kilometer northwest of Nhi Ha that hugged the same east bank of Jones' Creek. The NVA attack had probably originated in Xom Phuong, and the Company A grunts were exceptionally nervous as they advanced across open fields toward the objective with two platoons in the assault and one following in reserve.
First contact with the enemy was made when a lone enemy soldier was
spotted racing away from the assault line and toward the cemetery on
the southern fringe of Xom Phuong. The right-flank platoon, under 2nd
Lt. William B. Kimball, eliminated the enemy soldier, and both platoons
advanced rapidly toward the cover of the cemetery, convinced the enemy
was about to open fire from Xom Phuong.
With Lieutenant Kimball's platoon continuing to fire on the position
in case there were more NVA inside, Company A's commander ordered the
left-flank platoon to envelop the bunker from that side. Leading the
way, platoon leader 2nd Lt. Terry D. Smith sprinted toward the burial
mounds, only to take a massive bullet wound in his right thigh, which
spun him around and knocked him down. Crawling on into the cemetery,
Smith was still trying to determine the extent of his injuries when
an NVA gun crew, undetected until then, opened fire across his platoon's
front from the mound to his left. The firing hole was concealed by a
big, weather-beaten rice pan that lay halfway up the forward slope of
Smith thought the squad would crawl up to him. In the confusion, however,
the squad launched an on-line assault. Smith watched in horrified shock
as the NVA opened fire from other camouflaged positions among the burial
mounds, mowing down the entire squad. Most were wounded, but the squad
leader and three grunts were killed or mortally wounded in the sudden
explosion of fire. With the assault platoons fully engaged with the
enemy to their front, a second NVA unit suddenly emerged from the treeline
that ran down the right flank of the battlefield. The enemy soldiers,
wearing web gear and green fatigues, some of them with steel helmets,
advanced at a trot in a well-spaced skirmish line.
Lieutenant Kimball and his radioman were killed as they tried to call
down artillery fire on the enemy assault. The NVA swarming through the
right-flank platoon came on toward Smith's platoon on the left, shouting
and popping up to fire AK-47 bursts to cover one another as they advanced
from crater to crater.
Specialist 4 Bill A. Baird, who had fired his M-16 until it jammed,
despite crippling leg and back wounds, was captured as the NVA policed
the battlefield. The startled NVA soldier who nearly tripped over Baird
in the dark swung up his AK-47 and tried to shoot him in the head. Luckily,
the round only clipped Baird's ear, and when the NVA realized that the
wounded soldier posed no threat, they secured a bandage around his head,
rolled him into a poncho, and turned him over to another group of enemy
soldiers, who started toward the DMZ. Baird would not see his home again
for five years.
The enemy did not retreat at sunrise but continued to fire ineffectually on the bunker line from scattered positions behind nearby burial mounds. Leach organized a Marine airstrike on the die-hards, and only then did they begin straggling away. The 3/21 and supporting arms were credited with 579 NVA kills during the entire battle, most of them from the misguided night attack. Dead enemy soldiers ringed the perimeter. The smell became horrendous as the mangled bodies, each of them carpeted with flies, began to decompose in the days following the attack.
Nhi Ha continued to be probed and shelled during the remainder of the
operation, adding a few extra casualty numbers to the 3/21's total of
29 killed, 130 wounded and one captured near the DMZ. "And to think
that I used to pity the Marines," one grunt wrote home.
Keith William Nolan is a student of the Vietnam War.
The source of this page is: http://www.amtrac.org/at2bn/nhiha.html Use Internet Explorer
|For more on Denny Leach, there were two books written about his unit in Vietnam. They are: The Magnificent Bastards by Keith W. Nolan and Through The Valley by James Humphries.|