Operation Prairie II
The mission assigned to the Marines for Operation Prairie II was essentially the same as that for Prairie I:
to conduct operations in conjunction with ARVN forces, to seek out and destroy enemy forces, and to defend the area against attack. To accomplish this, Brigadier General Michael P. Ryan, assigned as Commanding General, 3d Marine Division (Forward) and Assistant Division Commander, 3d Marine Division, since February 1967, controlled a force of three infantry battalions, two reconnaissance companies, and supporting units.
The concept of operations during Operation Prairie II called for patrols and sweeps by units of various sizes, including infantry battalions. Normally, 3d Marine Division (Forward) kept one infantry battalion at a time involved in mobile operations while the remainder of its units defended the combat bases. Meeting the latter responsibility required the frequent shifting of rifle companies and their operational control. Rifle companies, as a result, often found themselves under the operational control of other battalions or even directly under the commander of the 3d Marines.
To expand artillery coverage, the 12th Marines shifted some units. The February artillery distribution was:
Khe Sanh: two 4.2-inch mortars, two 155mm, and six 105mm howitzers
Rockpile: two 175mm guns, two 155mm guns, six 105mm howitzers
Ba Long: six 105mm howitzers
Ca Lu: six 105mm howitzers
Camp Carroll: six 175mm guns, four 155mm, and six 105mm howitzers
Cam Lo: two 155mm howitzers
Cua Viet: six 105mm howitzers (LVTH-6)
Gio Linh: four 175mm guns and six 105mm howitzers
The 12th Marines’ firing fans covered almost all of Quang Tn Province, and stretched well north of the DMZ and several miles into Laos.
Despite his forebodings, Captain Bockewitz led his company from Camp Carroll and began to move overland to link up with the reconnaissance team. Bockewitz, as had Captain Hartney, also found tough going and did not reach the reconnaissance team until 2342 that night. Captain Bockewitz established a defensive position and stayed there for the night.
About the same time that Company G was leaving Camp Carroll, Captain Hartney’s company, while trying to cross a stream, came under fire from a large enemy force. After a heavy firefight in which the tanks played a decisive role, the company was able to break contact and began to move toward the reconA Marine of Company L, 3d Battalion, 4th Marines naissance team. The tanks now proved to be a handicap; one of them threw a track. Company G could not leave it. Captain Hartney reported his dilemma and was ordered to establish a night position and evacuate his wounded.
To exploit the two enemy contacts, Colonel Lanigan decided to commit the remaining available elements of Lieutenant Colonel Ohanesian’s 2d Battalion, 3d Marines, which consisted of a small command group and part of Company F. On the morning of the 28th, Lieutenant Colonel Ohanesian, who had operational control of all units in this action, planned to move his group overland to link up with Company G. Then the united force was to sweep east to Cam Lo. Company L was to act as a blocking force and then move back to its original position at Cam Lo after linkup That was the plan; the North Vietnamese had other ideas.
At 0630 a vicious mortar and infantry attack stunned Company L. More than 150 82mm mortar rounds hit the company’s position and NVA forces struck from three sides with heavy automatic weapons, small arms, and antitank (RPG) fire. * RPG rounds hit two tanks; one caught fire, but both tanks continued to support the company with their turret-mounted .50-caliber machine guns. By 0900 the Marines had repulsed three enemy attacks. During the attack, Captain Hartney and his artillery observer had called in artillery fire to within 30 meters of the company position
Because of this heavy attack, Colonel Lanigan ordered Ohanesian to link up with Company L instead of Company G as originally planned Lieutenant Colonel Ohanesian’s small force left Camp Carroll by truck, disembarked at Cam Lo, and forded the river. By 1030, it had reached Company L, guided at the end by the sound of enemy mortar explosions. Captain Hartney’s Company L had four dead and 34 wounded.
Major Sheridan remembered that, upon arrival, the force “. . attacked and secured the high ground in the area, encountering large numbers of wellequipped NVA troops. In my year in Vietnam, I had never seen this number of NVA troops in the open
After securing the high ground, a [helicopter landing zone] was established to evacuate the dead and wounded “2
At the same time that the regiment ordered Lieutenant Colonel Ohanesian’s force to Company L’s relief, Company G and the reconnaissance team received orders to move north to Hill 124 to establish blocking positions.* At approximately 1035 on the 28th, as Company G began moving up the hill, it came under fire from well-concealed positions on both flanks. The fighting was heavy, casualties mounted on both sides. Among the Marine dead was Company G’s commander, Captain Bockewitz.
Second Lieutenant Richard C. Mellon, Jr., the company executive officer, assumed command while the heavy fighting continued. Company G was not able to recover its dead until late that afternoon. When the fight ended the Marines had suffered 7 more killed and 18 wounded.
To relieve the pressure on Company G, Colonel Lanigan decided to place another company under the operational control of Lieutenant Colonel Ohanesian and to commit it north of Hill 124. He designated Company M, 3d Battalion, 4th Marines as the unit to move by helicopter to Hill 162 immediately north of Company G’s position. Company M completed the lift by 1430 and began to move south toward Company G. Company M encountered only light contact during the move.
By early afternoon, the remaining platoon of Company L and a section of tanks reinforced Lieutenant Colonel Ohanesian’s position. At 1430, Ohanesian’s command group and Company F began to move toward Company G, leaving Company L and the serviceable tanks to guard the disabled tanks. First Lieutenant Richard D. Koehler, Jr.’s Company F led, followed by the command group. Major Sheridan later wrote:
We were ordered to proceed . . . knowing full well we were walking into a hornet’s nest. Based on the number of enemy forces we had already encountered and the vast amounts of equipment, new weapons, and ammunition, we knew we were outmanned and outgunned. . . . We left the perimeter. . . and within 200 yards we came upon a very large tadia complex. The trail was narrow and we could not disperse our troops. One could almost smell the enemy forces
*Hill 124 was about 2,000 meters due west of Company L’s position which was approximately the same distance northwest of Cam Lo. The hill was the commanding terrain feature along the enemy’s probable route of withdrawal.
As the last man left Company L’s original position, the lead elements of the column came under automatic weapons and mortar fire. The Marines had stepped into an ambush. Company F’s lead elements took cover from the growing volume of fire from the front and both flanks; enemy mortar fire walked down the length of the column. Heavy brush hid the enemy and the Marines could not establish fire superiority. At 1510, Lieutenant Colonel Ohanesian ordered a withdrawal. * Sheridan described the move:
all radios had been hit and casualties continued to mount. Moving the dead and wounded out of the killing zone required feats of bravery beyond comprehension. The NVA were everywhere. Lieutenant Colonel Ohanesian was carrying the last of the wounded Marines towards the perimeter when an explosion mortally wounded him,
*For his actions during the closely fought engagement Private First Class James Anderson, Jr., received the Medal of Honor, posthumously. When the fight began, the thick brush beside the trail prevented the Marines from deploying. When a grenade landed in the midst of the Marines, Anderson reached out, pulled the grenade to his chest, and curled around it as it went off. Sec Appendix D for complete citation.
Although painfully wounded, Sheridan assumed command and directed the rest of the withdrawal to. Company L’s position and the consolidation of the perimeter. He requested emergency evacuation for the more than 100 casualties. While the Marines organized their defensive perimeter, the enemy closed to within 20 meters and attacked with small arms and grenades. The Marine tank crewmen and infantrymen returned the fire and forced the enemy to withdraw. At this time the helicopters arrived to pick up the wounded, but they were unable to land because of heavy fire in the landing zone. At 1830, the position was still being hit by intermittent mortar shelling, which by now had lasted more than three hours. Sheridan recalled:
The enemy continued to alternately shell and [attempt to] overrun our small position the remainder of the night. Lieutenant Colonel Ohanesian died around midnight as it was impossible to secure a landing zone. Sergeant Major Wayne N. Hayes died about the same time of wounds suffered in hand-to-hand combat and grenade and mortar blasts. Constant artillery, night air strikes within 50 meters of our position and the courage of the Marines on the ground finally took their toll and the NVA withdrew.’
Earlier, upon learning that Lieutenant Colonel Ohanesian had been wounded, Colonel Lanigan ordered his executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Earl R. “Pappy” Delong to take command of the 2d Battalion, 3d Marines. In addition, Lieutenant Colonel Delong received operational control of Company F, 2d Battalion, 9th Marines which, fortuitously, was at Dong Ha after serving as escort for a “Roughrider” vehicle convoy ftom the south. Company F went by truck to Cam Lo where it would begin moving overland to reinforce the hard-pressed 2d Battalion, 3d Marines. Lieutenant Colonel Delong attempted to reach his new command by helicopter but enemy fire prevented a landing. He ordered the helicopter to Cam Lo where he joined Company F for the overland march. At 0340 on 1 March, Delong arrived at the battalion’s position and began reorganization and preparation for the evacuation of casualties.
The 2d Battalion remained in position the entire day. About noon it was joined by Companies G and M. The Marines searched the surrounding area and recovered a large amount of enemy equipment. Company M made several contacts with small enemy groups, but the NVA force was withdrawing. The 2d Battalion, 3d Marines could continue its interrupted embarkation for Okinawa.
Two additional battalions were brought into the area on 1 March, MajorJames L. Day’s 1st Battalion, 9th Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Gary Wilder’s
3d Battalion, 3d Marines. Major Day’s battalion moved by helicopters to Hill 162, Company M’s former location, and began to sweep north.
Meanwhile, Wilder’s battalion attacked northwest ftom a position north of Cam Lo to try to squeeze the withdrawing enemy against the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. This maneuver restricted the Communists’ escape route, thereby concentrating targets for Marine supporting arms. On 3 March, an air observer sighted three large enemy groups moving northwest toward the DMZ, carrying bodies. Massive artillery and air strikes were ordered. A followup sweep of the area by the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines revealed that the North Vietnamese had used the bomb and shell craters as mass graves for their dead; more than 200 NVA bodies were found.
All enemy forces had not withdrawn. On the morning of 7 March, the enemy made three separate mortar and rocket attacks on Camp Carroll. Between 420 and 485 rounds hit the camp, including 209 spin-stabilized 122mm rockets.
The remainder of the Prairie II operation consisted of a series of battalion sweeps between Cam Lo and Con Thien. The Marines located several mass graves; the discovery of many abandoned bodies emphasized the disorganized state of the enemy. Numerous artillery and air strikes hit the scattered enemy forces trying to avoid contact. During the last week of the operation ARVN airborne units caught up with the NVA east and southeast of Con Thien. The enemy force, estimated to have been three battalions, broke contact after losing more than 250 killed.
At 2400 on 18 March Operation Prairie II ended. Prairie II cost the NVA 694 killed and 20 captured; Marine casualties were 93 killed, 483 wounded, and, of these, approximately one-third of the Marines killed and two-thirds of the wounded were victims of mortar fire.