April - Jun 1968 — South Vietnam
My tour of duty in the combat zone of the Republic of South Vietnam began on April 12, 1968 when I arrived in Saigon. After five days of orientation at Headquarters, MACV, I departed for Cua Viet, the northernmost US military post in South Vietnam. I was assigned to CTF 543, Task Force Clearwater, as Intelligence Officer.
Our little base was located on a spit of sand at the mouth of the Cua Viet River which ran parallel to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) five miles to the north. Dong Ha was a small town just a short distance upriver.
By the time I arrived at Cua Viet I was an experienced intelligence specialist (officer designator 1635). I had 6 years of experience in intelligence work and training in Washington, DC, in Japan, and at the US Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Task Force Clearwater provided security on the Cua Viet River and Perfume River utilizing various types of river patrol craft, most common of which was the PBR (River Patrol Boat). Task Force Clearwater also had two huge Patrol Air Cushion Vehicles (PACV) located on the Perfume River downriver from Hue.
During my three months at Cua Viet I participated in numerous patrols on the rivers, in the air and on land with the Navy, the Marine Corps and the South Vietnamese Navy (Junk Force).
Late April 1968 began one of the most rewarding periods of my naval career. On 24 April I went on a night patrol on a river patrol boat up the river toward Dong Ha. We spotted two unidentified swimmers in the water but were unable to engage them. This was but one of numerous indicators that something big was about to happen on the river. Earlier our little base had begun receiving intense bombardment by North Vietnamese artillery - 85 mm, 122 mm, and the really big ones, 152 mm. These attacks usually occurred at night. The attacks resulted in 6 killed and 23 wounded in a little over two months.
I reported these attacks by Flash Precedence message to Navy headquarters in Saigon stating that we were being hit by heavy artillery. Unfortunately, without physical evidence or corroborating evidence, my reports received little attention. In fact, the only answer I got was the speculation that we were being hit by rockets, not artillery. If we were being hit by artillery, that would mean that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) would have to have moved artillery pieces into the DMZ and that, by definition, was forbidden, so the reasoning went. Therefore, we couldn’t have been hit by artillery fire.
After one night attack, an unexploded 152mm artillery round was discovered embedded in the hardpan of our loading area. The Explosive Ordnance Demolition team placed shaped charges on the round and exploded it. I recovered the pieces and put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. Fortunately, the pieces were rather large and easily assembled. I asked my boss for permission to take it to Saigon. He allowed me to take along another man to help carry the heavy round which I had placed in a wooden box.
We hitched a ride on a cargo ship to DaNang and caught a ride on a Marine C130 cargo plane to Saigon. We marched into Commander Naval Forces Vietnam offices and placed the artillery round on the desk of the intelligence officer. I said something to the effect that here was proof of what we were being hit with. He stared in disbelief at the huge round on his nice clean desk. I left and went back to Cua Viet.
I didn’t hear anything from Saigon, but a couple of weeks later, a B-52 strike (Arc Light) hit the DMZ. We couldn’t see or hear the airplanes, but we felt the earth shake from the bomb blasts and saw the huge billows of black smoke. We never were hit by artillery again.
Shortly after I arrived on 17 April, I began to receive reports from the river patrol boats of increasing activity on the banks of the river. This was significant because there was a dusk-to-dawn curfew in force and because there had previously been little or no activity on the river banks at night. One of our PBRs reported seeing a small group of men on the north bank of the river. When they fired upon the group a fierce firefight resulted. There was a huge explosion on the bank near the men. The men broke off the firefight and fled.
A day or two later two LCUs (small landing craft being used to ferry supplies upriver to Dong Ha) came under attack from the north bank of the river. One was hit by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) resulting in three killed and eight wounded.
Based upon these incidents and other indicators I predicted that something of significance was about to happen on or near our river. I just didn’t know what. I reported it up the chain of command.
The following day a platoon of Marines was sent to the area of Dai Do Village to investigate the activity I had reported (the firefight and explosion). When the Marines crossed the river they were engaged by a large NVA force. The resulting firefight caused many casualties before they could retreat to the river and escape. In response, a combined force of Marines and ARVN (Army of Vietnam) crossed the river just downriver from Dong Ha. The battle that resulted lasted five days and was the largest ground action of the war up to that time. There were 1500 NVA killed (by body count) and 500 friendly forces killed. That came to be known as the battle of Dai Do Village.
On May 5, after the fighting had died down, I went upriver with an Explosive Ordnance Demolition team to investigate the area near the mouth of a creek near Dai Do Village where our PBR had engaged the group of men in the firefight several nights earlier. We discovered five large anti-ship mines in the reedy shallows a few yards up the creek from the mouth. The mines were approximately 6 feet in length and 24 inches in diameter. We later determined that they were Russian HAT II mines. These mines were designed to sink large ships. In addition to the five complete mines, we found parts of a sixth. We concluded that the explosion during the firefight previously mentioned had resulted when an explosive part of that sixth mine had been hit by machine gun fire from our PBR. We also discovered rubber flotation devices designed specifically to support and move the mines into position in the river. The mines were recovered and sent to Saigon for study. The US had not previously seen the HAT II mine. We only had intelligence reports with sketches describing the mine and its capabilities.
Late on May 5, I received word that the Marines had captured a North Vietnamese sailor that I might be interested in. I traveled to Dong Ha and interrogated the man. He revealed that he had been a member of a North Vietnam Navy special forces team sent across the DMZ to emplace mines in the Cua Viet River.
The following day I returned to Dong Ha to further interview the man. I took him to the area on the river where the incident had occurred for an on-the-spot identification and explanation. He described what the team had done and planned to do.
Based on the precursor incidents, the battle of Dai Do Village, and the interrogation of the North Vietnamese sailor, as well as the recovery of the HAT II anti-ship mines I pieced together the following.
North Vietnam intended to invade and capture the northern half of Quang Tri Province as part of what came to be called the May Offensive. The plan called for a North Vietnam Navy special forces team to plant mines in the Cua Viet River just east of Dong Ha near Dai Do Village. The mines were intended to sink a large supply craft as it transited a narrow channel at a bend in the river. This was to occur on or about 1 May.
Simultaneously, an NVA regiment was to swoop down and occupy both sides of the river at the site of the sunken boat. They intended to hold the area and prevent supply boats from taking arms and supplies to the Marines and ARVN in Dong Ha. Our PBR force prevented their placing the mines, thus thwarting their plan to sink a boat to block the river.
When the Marine platoon went to the area where I had reported the activity on the north bank of the river, they encountered the NVA regiment. Because of the lack of communication between the NVA regiment and their navy special forces mining team, the NVA did not know that the mining of the river had not occurred as planned. Therefore, they marched across the DMZ and met our Marines at Dai Do Village. The result -- The Battle of Dai Do Village.