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Rene Certa's Story

     Below is my experience of a major ambush/firefight that occurred on May 19, 1968 just outside the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). Tanks from the 1st Platoon, Bravo Company were supporting grunts from Echo Company, Foxtrot Company and Golf Company, 2nd Bn., 1st Marines. As you know the 2nd Bn, 1st Marines replaced the 26th Marines who had been at Khe Sanh during the siege of Khe Sanh. Tanks from the 1st Platoon were Bravo 1-1, Bravo 1-2, Bravo 1-3, Bravo 1-4 and Bravo 1-5. Platoon leader was 1st Lt. Harris Himes, Platoon Sergeant was S/Sgt. T. J. Wharton. Tank Commanders (TC) were B 11 S/Sgt. Wharton or Sgt. Clifford Evans, B 12 Cpl. Fred Kellogg, B 13 Sgt. Steve Baker, B 14 Cpl. Patrick Baddgor and B15 Cpl. Rene Cerda. Doc Pipkin, Corpsman with 2/1 told me 2/1 sustained 19 KIAs and 44 WIAs in this battle. The events listed are to the best of my recollection.

     On or about April 1, 1968, tanks from 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 3rd Tank Bn.. 3rd Marine Division participated in Operation Pegasus which objective was to relieve the KSCB, re-open Highway 9 from Ca Lu to the KSCB and destroy enemy troops in the area. Also the 1st Platoon was to rotate with the 3rd Platoon who had been at Khe Sanh for one year. The 1st Platoon was to remain at Khe Sanh and the 3rd Platoon was to be assigned to Camp Carroll, Bravo Company’s headquarters. I later learned from Chris Vargo, 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company that the 3rd Platoon remained at Ca Lu for awhile conducting convoys between Ca Lu and Khe Sanh and then returned to Camp Carroll.

     Convoys were being conducted on a daily basis between Ca Lu and Khe Sanh. On the morning of May 19, 1968, grunts, tanks and other vehicles staged at the main gate of the KSCB. B 12 and B 13 were assigned to go out with the mine sweep team and after the mine sweep was completed B 12 and B 13 were to return to KSCB . My tank B 15 and B 14 were assigned to provide security/support to the convoy. My tank, B 15 was to be the lead tank and B 14 was to be the second vehicle in the convoy.

     At about 7: 30 am, I think two maybe three squads of grunts from a platoon from Foxtrot Company, 2n Bn, 1st Marines, B 12 (TC Fred Kellogg) and B 13 (TC A. M. “Buzz” Conklin. Note: I believe Sgt. Baker who was the TC was on R&R and Conklin was left as the TC in his absence) and the mine sweepers departed KSCB along Route 9. We were preparing our tanks to get the convoy underway as soon as the tanks, B 12, B13 and the mine sweepers returned to KSCB. We were monitoring the radio when we heard someone broadcast over the radio that they had spotted some NVA. We could see the tanks and mine sweepers who were probably a half mile away or less from the main gate when we heard a rifle shot. Don’t know who fired the first round, whether it was friendly or the NVA. We heard more gun fire, then all kind of gun fire and we knew that the grunts, tanks and the mine sweepers had made contact with the NVA. We could hear B 12 and B13 firing their coax and main guns. We heard machine gun fine, rifle fire and hand grenade explosions.

     Lt. Himes made his way to the main gate and joined us monitoring the radios. Lt. Himes told me that he was going to get permission to go assist B 12 and B 13 and he would be going out in my tank. I told him, fine, I’m going out as well. I got my crew together, Jack Butcher, was my loader, J. C. Cox, was my gunner and Clay Larabell was my driver. I explained the situation to them, that Lt. Himes was going to out in our tank and I was going to go out as well, therefore, one of the them had to remain behind. I told them to draw straws and see who would be staying behind. Jack Butcher drew the short straw and was the one that had to stay behind. Although I was the TC of B 15, that is how I ended up being the loader that day and Lt. Himes the TC.

     We kept monitoring the radio. Lt. Himes contacted the KSCB base commander via radio and asked if we could go out and assist our tanks with the mine sweep team. It appeared that Lt. Himes’ initial requests were denied and at times Lt. Himes appeared frustrated that we could not go and help our tanks, B 12 and B 13. (Note: We learned later that the base commander was reluctant in letting us go out because he felt the NVA was attempting to lure Marines out of KSCB and maybe trying to overrun the base. Don’t know if that is true, but that is what I’ve heard.)

     I don’t remember how many times Lt. Himes asked permission to go out and re-enforce our tanks and grunts involved in the firefight, but we were finally given the okay and allowed to go out. By this time we could tell our units were heavily involved in a firefight and taking casualties. We departed the main gate and took the rest of the grunts from Foxtrot Company, 2/1, some grunts on the tanks and the other grunts walked alongside the tanks. Echo Company and Golf Company, 2/1, walked and covered our flank. (Note: Most tank crews all had the Marine Corp type flak jacket, Butcher who had scrounged up an Army type jacket which fitted more snug had left his flak jacket on the rack behind the turret. I normally did not wear my jacket because it was bulky and hard to maneuver inside the crew compartment. Just as we headed out, I noticed Butcher’s flak jacket in the rack behind the turret. Something told me I should put it on, so I did.) As the loader, basically I made sure the main gun and coax machine gun were loaded and ready for action. (Note: As the loader, I could not see much of what was happening outside the tank, so I do not have much recollection of the area.) By this time, B 12 and B 13 had sustained numerous rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) hits. The TCs Kellogg and Conklin had been seriously wounded and some of the crew members were also wounded.

     I have no recollection of the time we departed the KSCB or how long it took us to get to the ambush site. Upon our arrival at the ambush site Lt. Himes told B 12 and B13 to move back, which they did and we moved up in front of the other tanks and took the forward position. Immediately we came under intense rifle and machine gun fire. I realized that I had not secured the loader’s hatch (dumb mistake on my part) and could hear small arms fire, the pinging of the rounds on the outside of the turret and hand grenade explosions all around our tank. I don’t know if the NVA threw hand grenades at our tank, but if they did none landed in the crew compartment.

     I do not recall how long we had been in place firing our coax machine and the main gun when I heard Lt. Himes over the intercom, look at those guys (grunts), they are fighting hand to hand combat. Since I had yet still not closed the loader’s hatch, I stepped on the loader seat and stood up, poking my head outside the hatch (not a very good move on my part) and observed the grunts in hand to hand combat. I don’t know how long I exposed my head outside the hatch, probably seconds, when I dropped back down inside the crew compartment. What seemed like a few seconds after I dropped down, an RPG hit the cupola right over the loader’s hatch where I had exposed my head. (I suspect that an RPG team sighted in on me, but I dropped down before they fined the RPG at our tank.) The explosion and concussion of the RPG knock me down to my knees on the floor of the turret. My ears were ringing and my eyes watered so much I could not see anything. I wiped my eyes with my hands, but still I could not see. After a few seconds I started to regain my sight and could see some light through my eyes and I looked at my hands and saw some blood on my hands. My first thought was, damn, I been hit in the eyes. Later I realized that the blood on my hands was from my nose. The concussion from the RPG had also caused a nose bleed. I stood up again on the loader’s seat and secured the loader’s hatch. (Note: At the hospital at Cam Ranh Bay I learned that I had been hit in the head and neck with shrapnel from the RPG that exploded above my head. The liner inside the helmet must have put pressure on my head wound, because at the first two hospitals they did not detect or see any blood on my head.)

     I recall an RPG hitting the tank on the left side of the turret. The RPG penetrated the crew compartment to my left about shoulder level. The RPG penetration caused some back spalding sending shrapnel all around. I was knock down again to the floor of the turret. I felt hot metal on my hands, wrist, and neck. A piece of shrapnel cut the cord to my helmet causing me to lose communication with the rest of the crew in the tank. I had to yell to Lt. Himes whenever I had to communicate with him. Another RPG hit the tank again on the left side of the turret and also penetrated into the crew compartment. This RPG penetration was to my left and behind me. The force of the explosion of the RPG threw me forward and toward the coax machine gun and gun shied. I was hit with shrapnel in the back.

     It was hot that day and I usually rolled up my jungle fatigues and we had fired so many rounds with the main gun and the 90 brass was stacking up in the turret and burning me in the shins. I tossed the brass casings out the loader’s hatch. I hope I didn’t hit any grunt with the brass, because I was just tossing the brass out the loader’s hatch.

     After being in the firefight for awhile, I remember our tank moving back, how far I don’t know, and the tank stopped. It would not go forward or backward. The transmission had been damaged by the RPGs and the tank could not move. We also lost electrical power inside the turret. I could still hear small arms fire hitting the side of the turret. I manually traversed the turret and when my gunner observed a target, I would stop and I manually operated the main gun and the coax machine gun. We did this for awhile. It appeared that RPGs had hit the fuel cells and the diesel had been ignited and flames and smoke started to come into the crew compartment. After a few minutes it was getting difficult to see and breathe. Lt. Himes said for us to don our gas masks which we did. I don’t remember how long we sat there, but the flames and smoke was getting more intense. Lt. Himes then said, we can either stay in the tank and probably burn with the tank or we could jump out of the tank and take the chance of being shot. We decided to abandon our burning tank. By this time, being wounded three separate times, I had lost a lot of blood and was getting weak. Lt. Himes assisted me in getting off the tank and getting to the ground. We crawled on the ground toward the KSCB and came upon a bomb crater, We crawled into the bomb crater and joined three or four Marines (grunts) that were also in the crater. By this time I was going in and out of consciousness.

     Marines from H&S, 2/1 had been delivering ammo to the field and picking up the dead and wounded Marines and transporting them to KSCB. Someone flagged down a 4X4 or 6X6 that was headed back to the KSCB and the entire tank crew, Lt. Himes, Cox, Larabell and I were taken to the first aid station at KSCB. My wounds were bandaged up at the first aid station and I was put on a medi-evac helicopter to Phu Bai where they changed my bandages and I spent the night in Phu Bai. (Note: At the hospital in Phu Bai when they removed my flak jacket I noticed 2-3 large holes in the back of the flak jacket. Fortunately for me I had decided to wear Butcher’s flak jacket that day. I truly believe that if I had not worn the flak jacket that day I would not be here today.) I complained about having a terrible headache and they would give me some medication, I would fall asleep and wake up with the headache. The next day I was medi-evac to Danang and stayed at a hospital in Danang for 3-4 days. I still was having the headaches. They give me medication, I would fall asleep and wake up with a headache. Initially I was told I was going to be sent to the U.S. Sanctuary hospital ship, but I don’t know why I was sent Cam Ranh Bay.

     On the first day at the hospital at Cam Ranh Bay I complained to my doctor that I had a terrible headache. The doctor said we’ll send you to x-ray this afternoon and take some x-rays of the head area and see if we can find anything. The next morning, the doctor came in and said, I think I know why you have a headache Marine. X-rays show you have a hole on the side of your head and we need to do immediate surgery. That afternoon I was prepped for surgery and surgery performed on the right side of my head. I spent about 7-8 days at Cam Rahn Bay. From Cam Ranh Bay I was sent to Japan and eventually sent to the U.S. I spent four months at Balboa Naval Hospital, San Diego, CA.

     I don’t recall how many RPGs hit the tank that day during the firefight, but I do recall some of the RPGs sounded liked deflections and some RPGs that hit the tank sounded like they bounced off. As far as RPGs penetrations, I didn’t personally count the RPGs that’s hit the tank, but in conversations with Lt. Himes, he states that we took about thirteen (13) RPG penetrations into the crew compartment and the engine compartment. I don’t recall how long we were in the firefight, but I guess it was a pretty long time. My tank B 15 burned for hours and was a combat loss.

     In November 2008, Harris Himes, Fred Kellogg, Rick Oswood and I attended a reunion held by 2nd Bn., 1st Marines at Oceanside, CA. I met a grunt named Peter Hoban, who on May 19, 1968 was a Cpl. with Hotel Company, 2/1 and he told me he had some photos that he took while he was at Khe Sanh between April thru July 1968. Peter said H Co 2/1 left Khe Sanh around July 4-5, 1968. Peter told me to contact him after we returned home from the reunion and he would send me copies of the photos. Peter provided copies of the photos, which include my tank, B15 ,which was a combat loss on May 19th burning, a jet dropping a napalm bomb and other photos. I scanned the photos and I have attached the photos to this email. You may notice on some of the photos stamp with an “Aug 1968 date” because Cpl. Hoban asked some buddies who went on R&R to develop the rolls of film for him. I also have included some photos I obtained from Ron Taylor, who was with an artillery unit at Khe Sanh and provided artillery support on May 19th.

     In the past Harris Himes, Fred Kellogg, Rick Oswood and I have attended a couple of 2/1 reunions and have talked to some of 2/1 Marines that through the years they have learned that the NVA wanted to overrun KSCB as a birthday present for Ho Chi Minh. I have not been able to confirm that, but it possible that was the NVA’s objective. If in fact that was the NVA’s goal that day, unfortunately for the NVA there was one obstacle, there were U.S. Marines at KSCB.

     On May 19, 1968, tankers sustained I eleven (11) tank crewman wounded. We were very fortunate that no tankers were KIA. The Bravo Co. command chronology has all of the names of the wounded tankers on that day.