On 5 October, in conjunction with the arrival of a fourth U.S. Army brigade in southern I Corps, Colonel Herbert E. Ing, Jr.'s 1st Marines, consisting of two battalions, came under the operational control of the 3d Marine Division and moved north from the Da Nang TAOR to the southern part of Quang Tn Province. On the 11th, the regiment, reinforced by SLF Alpha, started Operation Medina in the rugged hills of the Hai Lang National Forest. The operation was part of III MAF's comprehensive program to destroy enemy base areas previously left alone because of lack of forces. The Hai Lang forest area south of Quang Tn was the enemy's Base Area 101, the support area for the 5th and 6th NVA Regiments. Northeast of the Medina AO, two ARVN airborne battalions conducted Operation Lam Son 138.
Medina started as Lieutenant Colonel Albert F. Belbusti's 1st Battalion, 1st Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Archie Van Winkle's 2d Battalion, 1st Marines made a helicopter assault landing. in the forest. After landing they cleared the area around LZ Dove and then swept in a northeasterly direction while BLT 1/3 blocked to the east. At 0330 on the 11th, Company C of BLT 1/3 came under mortar and small arms fire, followed by a ground assault. The company drove off the attackers and the fighting subsided.
The next day both of the 1st Marines' battalions continued searching to the southwest, while BLT 1/3 remained in its blocking positions. At 1515, Company C, 1st Marines was moving through thick jungle when the point, element engaged 10 NVA soldiers. The exchange of fire wounded several Marines. Company C pulled back to a small clearing and established a perimeter before calling in helicopters to pick up wounded. Just after the evacuation was completed, three NVA companies attack ed Company C from two sides. The firefight continued as darkness fell; hand grenades figured heavily in the exchange. The battle surged back and forth across the small clearing. At the height of the struggle a grenade landed in the company command post. Corporal William T. Perkins, Jr., a combat photographer attached to the company, yelled, "Grenade!" and threw himself on the deadly missile. The explosion killed him.
Lieutenant Colonel Belbusti reinforced Company C with Company D and the two companies drove off the attacking NVA force. Dawn on the 13th revealed 40 enemy dead around the Marines' position. The enemy attack had killed eight Marines and wounded.
After these two fights, the enemy avoided further contact; Medina turned into a search for small groups of North Vietnamese in the nearly impenetrable forests. The 1st Marines did find a number of base camps, but the enemy had evacuated the sites. The Marines captured more than four tons of rice, 16 weapons, and a quantity of small arms ammunition.
The enemy's efforts to elude the sweeping Marine units resulted in the largest action of the companion Operation Lam Son 138. On the morning of 20 October, the 416th NVA Battalion, a subordinate unit of the 5th NVA Regiment collided with one of the ARVN airborne companies involved in Operation Lam Son 138. The airborne company held and, after reinforcement, killed 197 North Vietnamese in the day-long battle.
Operation Medina ended on the 20th. The SLF battalion transferred to Colonel William L. Dick's 4th Marines, which was conducting Operation Fremont to the south. The 1st Marines stayed in the former Medina area and started Operation Osceola the same day. Osceola was an unspectacular, but systematic, search for enemy forces in the Hai Lang forest.
Adjustments Within the 3d Marine Division
A new series of operations began in November. Only Osceola continued from October. The 3d Marine Division split the Kingfisher TAOR in two: Kentucky, embracing the region including Gio Linh, Con Thien, Cam Lo, and Dong Ha came under the control of Colonel Richard B. Smith's 9th Marines; and Lancaster, to the west, covered Camp Carroll, the Rockpile, and Ca Lu under Colonel Joseph E. LoPrete's 3d Marines. The division re named Operation Ardmore at Khe Sanh to Scotland and continued it as a one-battalion operation under the control of Colonel David E. Lownds' 26th Marines. On the coast, the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion conducted Operation Napoleon north of the Cua Viet River. In Thua Thien Province, Colonel William L. Dick's 4th Marines continued to cover ap proaches to Hue City west of Route 1 as Operation Neosho replaced Fremont. The 3d Marine Division had tactical responsibility for all territory west of Highway 1 in the northern two provinces of Quang Tn and Thua Thien, while the 1st ARVN Division was responsible for all terrain east of the road except for the Napoleon operational area north of the Cua Viet River.
Artillery support for all of these operations came from Colonel Edwin 5 Schick, Jr.'s 12th Marines. Composed of five Marine artillery battalions, three Army artillery battalions, and two Marine separate batteries, it was the largest artillery regiment in the history of the Marine Corps. The reinforced regiment's 220 weapons were located throughout the division TAOR. Each infantry regiment could call upon a direct support battalion of 105mm howitzers. In addition, the artillery regiment's medium 155mm howitzers and guns, and heavy 8-inch howitzers and 175mm guns, provided rein forcing or general support fires.
While the new operations were beginning, the division headquarters at Phu Bai prepared for a visit from Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey on 1 November. After the stop at the division command post, the Vice President flew over the division's area of operations. Upon his return to Da Nang, he presented the Presidential Unit Citation to the 3d Marine Division for "extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of duty in action against North Vietnamese and insurgent Communist forces in the Republic of Vietnam from 8 March 1965 to 15 September 1967."
After pinning the streamer on the division colors, the Vice President warmly congratulated the division commander, Major General Hochmuth. This was the last official ceremony that the general attended.
Major General Hochmuth died on 14 November when his UH- lE exploded and crashed five miles northwest of Hue.
Colonel William L. Dick, commanding the 4th Marines at Phu Bai, learned of the crash around 1400 on 14 November. Since he had a helicopter sitting on a pad at his headquarters, Dick, accompanied by his operations officer, Major James D. Beans, and the regimental sergeant major, quickly reached the crash scene. Colonel Dick described the rescue attempt: After several passes, I spotted the Huey upside down in a rice paddy filled to the brim by the heavy rains which had been falling for several weeks. . . . I directed the helicopter pilot to land on the paddy dike nearest the crash site from where the three of us walked through about 200 yards of paddy water until we reached the wreckage. There were flames on the water's surface around the aircraft. While the sergeant major attempted to extinguish these. Major Beans and I commenced diving beneath the surface, groping through the water for possible survivors. We had no idea just how long it had been since the crash had occurred. This was a difficult task, as you can imagine, since the water was full of silt, not to mention leeches, and impossible to see through. The three of us were joined by a Vietnamese farmer who refused to identify himself and could be distinguished only by a small gold crucifix around his neck. The four of us, after getting rid of the aviation fuel flames, repeatedly went below the surface into the helicopter cabin and by touch, finally found the bodies, one by one, of the six who had died in the crash. The helicopter had turned upside down just before impact which made the situation even more difficult. The last body recovered was General Hochmuth. I found him in the rear seat of the helicopter, the spot where he usually traveled when visiting the various command posts.
Major General Rathvon McC. Tompkins, a veteran of more than 32 years' Marine service and holder of the Navy Cross as a battalion commander at Saipan, received immediate orders as General Hochmuth's replacement. Brigadier General Louis Metzger, the assistant division commander, assumed command until General Tompkins arrived from the United States on 28 November.
One of General Tompkins' first steps after his arrival was to discuss the overall situation with his division operations officer, Colonel James R. Stockman, who had commanded an 81mm mortar platoon under Tompkins on Saipan. "Tell me," said Tompkins, "about the operational folklore in the division's area of operations." Stockman replied with, among other things, descriptions of the enemy and the terrain and the frustrations of fighting under the restrictions imposed by MACV and Washington. Stockman recalled that Tompkins disliked the system which considered infantry battalions as inter changeable parts to be shifted from one regimental headquarters to another, depending upon the tactical situation. Tompkins accepted it, however, as "temporary operational folklore," which he would have to live with. "He faced," wrote Stockman, "a worsening operational situation in the late part of 1967 with as much fortitude and optimism as humanly possible.
During November and December, the most significant activity in the 3d Marine Divisions zone of action was small unit fighting near the strong- point obstacle system around Con Thien and Gio Linh. In November, platoon and company-size NVA units operated from well camouflaged bunkers in the area, trying to ambush Marine patrols and to hinder the system's construction. The Marines countered with attacks that drove the NVA units out of their positions on four different occasions during November, killing 65 Communists. In addition, Marine patrols found and destroyed three extensive bunker systems. On 29 November, three Marine battalions and two ARVN battalions began clearing operations within the Kentucky TAOR between Con Thien and Gio Linh, the planned site of Strong Point A-3 of the proposed barrier plan, or "McNamara wall." The Marine units swept south of Con Thien eastward to Site A- 3, while the ARVN units moved from near Gio Linh westward to clear a road to the strong point location. The following day, Lieutenant Colonel William M. Cryan's 2d Battalion, 9th Marines found a North Vietnamese company in bunkers two and one-half miles northeast of Con Thien. The battalion maneuvered to envelop the enemy and overran the position by 1800, killing 41 defenders. Marine casualties totaled 15 killed and squad patrols routinely operated 2,000 meters north of C-4 as forward security for both the strongpoint and the battalion's position at Cua Viet port facility.
Early in the afternoon of the 10th, two squads patrolled near the fishing village of Ha Loi Tay. Their operational area was a sea of sand dunes, interrupted by a strip of scrub pine growth and hedgerows dotting the coastline. As they approached a break in the coastal tree line south of the village, sniper fire surprised them. The Marines fired back, killing eight North Vietnamese. The enemy fire kill ed one Marine and wounded three in this brief en counter.
As the Marines checked the area, they discovered 20-25 NVA soldiers, some wearing American helmets and flak jackets. The Marines opened fire and called for reinforcements. The company commander, First Lieutenant Michael H. Gavlick, radioed the situation to the battalion CP, and then rook a platoon and the third squad of the engaged platoon forward to join the battle.
Contact continued throughout the afternoon. Before dark, Lieutenant Colonel Toner ordered two provisional rifle platoons from his Company B and two LVTH-6s to go to the scene of contact to assist. As darkness settled, Lieutenant Gavlick drew his composite force into a tight perimeter. At 0630 on the 11th, the composite unit moved out under a light drizzle toward the area of the previous day's action. At 0800, lead elements spotted 40 of the enemy trying to move south across the break in the tree line. The Marines observed 11 NVA soldiers digging a mortar position and another 15 moving behind a sand dune to the north. While the Marines took these enemy under fire with artillery and the LVTH-6s, Lieutenant Colonel Toner moved his Company A, organized as an infantry unit, and his command group to Strong Point C-4. At the same time, the U.S. advisor with the ARVN battalion occupying Strong Point A-1, 2,500 meters across the sand dunes west of the contact, asked if his battalion could help. Toner asked the ARVN battalion to move a unit into a blocking position southwest of the action. The NVA force had moved around to the west of the Marines and were now attacking from the south. The advisor informed Toner that an ARVN company would move to the desired blocking position. Fifteen of the enemy had already attacked the Marines and, although driven off, had fired 10 RPG antitank rounds. One of these rounds hit a LVTH-6 on the bow, but the round glanced off without damaging the tractor. The LVTH-6 destroyed the antitank gunners' position with direct 105mm howitzer fire.
The number of enemy troops involved in the battle increased. A 30-minute firefight began; Gavlick's composite company took heavy small arms fire from three sides, then the Communists began hitting the Marines with mortars. Throughout the action, the two LVTH-6s maneuvered back and forth to engage the enemy, often firing at ranges between 50 to 150 meters. The remaining four LVTH-6s at Cua Viet and a detachment of 4.2-inch mortars at C-4 added their fire to the battle.
As the Marines tightened their perimeter, the NVA made a second assault. Fifty-five of the enemy attacked from the north, 12 more came in from the northeast, and 20 others from the south. Again, mortar fire supported their assault. The Marines responded with artillery, and used naval gunfire to hold back enemy reinforcements. The Communist assault failed, but individual soldiers continued to pop up around the perimeter. One audacious NVA mortar crew, protected by infantry, went into action on an exposed sand dune only 90 meters from the Marine perimeter. They fired six rounds before machine guns and direct fire from one of the LVTH-6s killed them.
By this time, the ARVN company had crossed the sand dunes and was moving into its blocking position. As it entered the position, the company spotted a mortar crew that had been giving the Marines trouble from the southwest. After a brief fire fight the enemy mortar crew ran away to the north, leaving two bodies behind. After this, the fighting dwindled to sniper fire.
lieutenant Colonel Toner ordered Company A to sweep the area north of C-4 and clear it of any remaining NVA soldiers. At the same time, he ordered Lieutenant Gavlick to withdraw his composire company to C-4. Artillery and naval gunfire continued to shell the tree line north of the battle position. As Lieutenant Gavlick's force moved south, they found a supply dump bordered by communications wire strung waist high from trees as a guide. The site contained many full storage bins, dug into the sand dunes next to the trail. Live vegetation camouflaged their trap-door entrances. The Marines destroyed the bins as they discovered them, after which they returned to Strongpoint C-4. The day- long battle resulted in 54 enemy known killed, while the composite Marine unit suffered 20 wounded.
As the year came to a close, all of the operations which had started in November remained in progress. Although contact was light, there were signs of renewed enemy activity in the Scotland TAOR. In relligence officers reported at least two NVA divisions, the 325C and 304th, moving into the Khe Sanh region. Because of these reports, General Tompkins strengthened Khe Sanh with an additional battalion during December and prepared to deploy more reinforcements on short notice. The year 1967 ended as it had begun; a major invasion of northern Quang Tn Province appeared to be the enemy's next move.