Special Landing Force Bravo's last commitment in 1967 was Operation Badger Tooth. The original plan called for the BLT to land one company by LVT to seize Landing Zone Finch, slightly more than three kilometers inland from the beach on the southern Quang Tn Province border. The rest of the battalion would follow by helicopter. The proposed objective area was on the extreme western side of the "Street Without Joy," and this time intelligence estimates placed as many as 1,700 enemy troops' in the area of The BLT commander, Lieutenant Colonel Max McQuown, described the plans for the operation:
The scheme of maneuver called for a river crossing over the Song 0 Lau River once all the BLT Task Organization had landed from ARG shipping. After the river crossing the BLT was to conduct search and destroy operations through 14 towns and villages on a route running southwest from 12 Finch terminating at the town of Ap Phouc Phu, 11 kilometers from LZ Finch. Initial fire sup port for the operation would be organic 81mm mortars, available on-call air support, and naval gunfire support. Once the BLT had closed on the first intermediate objective, Thon Phu Kinh, 105mm howitzers from a platoon of the 3rd Battalion, 12th Marines and a battery from the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines would provide artillery support.
Information relayed to the SLF by a U.S. Army liaison officer with nearby ARVN units changed the Badger Tooth plan. After the seizure of LZ Finch, the SLF directed the BLT to search new objectives consisting of the coastal villages of Thom Tham Khe and Tho Trung An. Intelligence officers suspected enemy forces hid there after evading ARVN opera tions to the north and west. Once the BLT cleared the two villages, the SLF would continue with the originally planned sweep to the southwest.
Badger Tooth started as Company L in LVTs landed over Green Beach at 1100 on 26 December and proceeded to LZ Finch. The operation continued as scheduled against very light opposition. Major David L. Althoffs "Poor Devils" from HMM-262 landed the last elements of the battalion at Finch by 1415. Two hours later Company K suffered the first casualty of Badger Tooth when automatic weapons fire west of the 12 wounded a Marine.
The SLF commander, Colonel Schmidt, accompanied by the U.S. Army' liaison officer to ARVN forces in the area, arrived at the battalion command post with orders for the BLT to change direction and sweep the coastal villages of Tham Khe and Trung An. Company L received the mission of sweeping Tham Khe, with Company M in support. After moving to the edge of the village in LVTs, Company L advanced northwest into the built-up area. By 1822 Company L had cleared the first village and was well into Trung An. Both towns were clean; the Marines killed only three Viet Cong and detained four. The infantrymen found no evidence of the presence of Communist formations. By 1940, both Companies L and M had tied in for the night north and west of Tham Khe. The night was quiet.
At 0700 on the 27th, both companies moved out on another sweep of the two villages. Company M moved north on a line parallel to Trung An so it could begin it's sweep of the village from north to south. Company L, with the mission to sweep Tham Ke, initially moved out to the northeast. Leading elements of Company L were almost into the south of Trung An when Company L's commander realized that his leading platoon had not turned south toward Tham Ke. Company L reversed direction immediately and started toward Tham Ke.
Just as the leading platoon of Company L approached the edge of the village, a concealed enemy force opened up with a devastating volume of fire from machine guns, rifles, RPGs, and mortars. The company immediately suffered many casualties and Captain Thomas S. Hubbel decided to pull his company back and regroup for another attack. He re quested supporting arms fires on Tham Ke while his company prepared for its new assault. After two air strikes, followed by naval gunfire, Company L assaulted the village. The enemy again met the Marines with withering defensive fires, killing Captain Hubbel and his battalion "tac-net radio operator. Lieutenant Colonel McQuown lost communications with the company for a short period until the acting company executive officer assumed command of Company L.
During the period without radio contact with Company L, Lieutenant Colonel McQuown ordered Company M to move east and south and join the fight on the left flank of Company L. Company M reached its attack position and immediately came under heavy enemy fire. Lieutenant Colonel Mc Quown realized at this time that the two companies were up against a major enemy force in well- prepared defensive positions. The search of Tham Ke the previous day had been inadequate.
Lieutenant Colonel McQuown ordered Company I to move to the south of Tham Ke. He then requested that the SLF land the tank platoon from the ARG ships. Next, he instructed Company K to take the pressure off Companies L and M by attacking the south end of Tham Ke. After prepping the area with 81mm mortar fire, Company K attacked against fierce resistance.
Company K made no progress until the arrival of two Marine tanks at the company's position. Unfortunately, the two tanks had sustained water damage to their communications equipment during the landing and could not communicate with the infantrymen except by voice:* This reduced their effectiveness; however, the tankers did knock out some enemy bunkers by direct fire from their 90mm guns. The inability to coordinate the tanks' fire with its own assault kept the company from making more than a limited penetration into the village complex. It did, however, gain a foothold in the village amid the enemy defenses.
Companies K, L, and M continued their battle as night fell, Lieutenant Colonel McQuown expected the enemy would use the darkness to cover their escape. To counteract this, he moved Company I to the right flank of Company K where it could maintain control over the eastern, or beach side, of Tham Ke. Company M, to the north, could cover part of the beach side of the village by fire. Lieutenant Colonel McQuown also moved elements of both Companies L and K to the west of Tham Ke. Even though the extent of the area involved precluded a link-up of these elements, McQuown anticipated that his unit dispositions would block the enemy within the confines of the village. Such was not the case.
The following morning, the 28th, Company K, already in the southern edges of Tham Ke, and Company I renewed their assault on the village. They quickly subdued the initial heavy enemy small arms fire and secured the village by noon. McQuown's Marines spent the afternoon in a detailed search of Tham Ke. He recalled:
This search revealed a village that was literally a defensive bastion. It was prepared for all-around defense in depth with a network of underground tunnels you could stand up in, running the full length of the village. Connecting tunnels ran east and west. This tunnel system sup ported ground level bunkers for machine guns, RPG's, and small arms around the entire perimeter of the village. Thus the NVA were able to defend, reinforce, or withdraw in any direction. All defensive preparation had been artfully camouflaged with growing vegetation. Residents of Tham Ke. questioned after the fight, disclosed that the NVA had been preparing the defense of this village for one year.
The search turned up numerous machine guns, RPGs, AK-47 rifles, and thousands of rounds of ammunition which clearly indicated that a major NVA force had defended the village, not local Viet Cong. A dying NVA soldier confirmed it; the enemy force had been the 116th NVA Battalion. The Marines also learned that ARVN forces operating northwest of Tham Ke had found over 100 bodies from the 116th NVA Battalion abandoned in the sand dunes. The enemy force apparently had evacuated its casualties through the gap between L and K Companies during the night.
At 1800 on the 31st, a New Year's truce went into effect and SLF Bravo prepared to return to its ships; the New Year's stand-down cancelled any further thoughts of attacking inland. Bad weather and rough seas slowed back-loading, but by 1130, 2 January the BLT had left the "Street Without Joy." In the sharp fighting at Tham Khe, the Marines suffered 48 killed and 86 wounded; 31 enemy soldiers were known dead. Tham Khe was a bitter experience for the Marines of BLT 3/1, but Badger Tooth was a poignant tactical lesson which would be remembered in the clouded future of 1968