MARINE CORPS TANKERS VIETNAM HISTORICAL Foundation's
Vietnam Personal Accounts
3rd Platoon Charlie Company 3rd Tank Battalion at LZ Hawk / Khe Sanh By Ken Zebal
|My second tour in Viet Nam started on
11 April 1968 at Da Nang. It didn’t take long to get orders for 3rd Tank
Battalion at Dong Ha. The C130 ride was short and sweet. The cargo bay
was packed with Marines. The load-master from VMGR-152 told us to remain
standing, link arms and then sit down on the deck – no nice red nylon
folding seats for us that day. Upon landing we hitch hiked to Quang Tri
and checked in with 3rd vTank Bn. I was assigned to Company “C.” We had
some chow went to rack-out in the transient tent.
Tet operations had just finished and a lot of tanks were in the battalion area. Most of the ones I saw had bullet or shrapnel holes in the sponson boxes, gypsy rack ammo boxes and fenders. Clear evidence of an ongoing shooting war.
My first night back in-country was uneventful, sleeping on a cot under canvas and having hot chow was a nice touch compared with sleeping in the turret or on the engine compartment and eating C-rats. Our welcome aboard briefing the next day was by Sgt Maj Fullerton, whom I remembered as the Company Gunnery Sergeant at Charlie 2nd Tanks in 1963-64. Back then his sea-bag looked like a Marine Corps history lesson with WWII island campaigns and Korea written on it. Today the Sgt Maj had a severe case of dysentery so he stood before us with his utility trousers unbuckled, looking pale – waiting for the next wave of uncontrollable diarrhea to either pass or pass through him. The second night went quickly with a short-lived mortar attack. The next day after checking in with the company office, a clerk told me to catch a “rough rider” and join the 3rd Platoon at Ca Lu right away. I had no idea what a rough rider or Cal Lu was but 2 days in the rear was enough for me.
The convoy of six-bys departed Quang Tri on Highway 9 winding past Dong Ha, Cam Lo and Rockpile to Ca Lu – I now grasped the meaning of a rough rider. As it turns out Ca Lu was different than LZ Stud and the platoon really was at Ca Lu, parked near the river, just before Highway 9 turns north towards Khe Sanh. I was welcomed by Gunnery Sergeant Jones, the platoon sergeant, and an NVA rocket attack. After the incoming lifted, Gunny Jones assigned me as gunner on C32 and told me to get acquainted with the crew. The word came down that we’d be going to Khe Sanh that night along with some grunts. The platoon had already made one run in that direction and engaged NVA along the way. Unbeknownst to me, this was Operation PEGASUS which lasted through 15 April and was immediately followed by SCOTLAND II.
Later that night we motor marched north on Highway 9 and ever so slowly and carefully crossed the newly constructed bridges built by the combat engineer until we came to a stop near Bridge 18, or thereabouts. The Gunny or Lt tells me to ground-guide our vehicle – the lead tank. So, grease gun in hand and magazine pouch around my shoulder off we go again – but slower, much slower. The grease gun and full magazine pouch seemed both heavy and unbalanced. It’s pretty black out too, but hey, there are grunts around and a platoon of tanks behind me so what could go wrong – I’ve been back in-country less than a week.
After a while it seems like I’m walking down a steep hill only to find out it’s a bomb crater. 32’s driver had dutifully followed me into the crater so I backed the vehicle out and looked for a way around. Its pitch black out and Highway 9 is both narrow and overgrown with a cliff on either side; one side goes up the other goes down. Finding a way to keep our tank on the road without crashing into the hillside or losing it over the side of the road took more skill on the driver’s part than mine but, after a fashion, the platoon got around that bomb crater and continued towards Khe Sanh.
Miles and miles later we come upon the smoking ruins of what used to be a few trees and I can make out some of the scenery. We’d passed Bridge 32, 34 and 36 and had also passed the red and white obelisk highway marker that said Hanoi - Lang Vei and were on a road less traveled now. There was a bombed out rubber plantation on the left and I could actually see knee trenches on the right with gooks smashed into their walls – thank you Mr. B-52. It was pretty much moonscape with mortar, arty, and bomb craters and a lot of churned up dirt but not much else.
We reach our destination, turn around and go to LZ Hawk just in time for daybreak. I remember we were positioned just south of the LZ with some grunts from Company “B” 1/26 and there was scuttlebutt their Company Gunny had just been recommended for a Silver Star.
Early the next morning we begin what would become a daily task of road sweeps to ensure Highway 9 stayed open between KSCB and Ca Lu. There are two sweeps in the morning – one to Khe Sanh Combat Base and one to Ca Lu, or Bridge 28 or 32 – I forget.
Before 1/26 left LZ hawk they were relieved in-place by 2/3. 2/3 deployed its companies to various outposts including Foxtrot ridge, Bridge 34 and on a small hill near Bridge 36. My lot was to ultimately spend quality time at each of them.
Our platoon had recently had a tank go off the side of Highway 9 although I forget how. The road may have given way, or something – not sure but don’t think it was due to enemy actions. For all I know we only had 4 tanks in the platoon to start with. Its gunner, Louis Moriello from Chicago, told the story that the TC said over the intercom “we’re going over” to which he asked “over what?” before the long and bumpy ride down to the river.
While at LZ Hawk we dug a hull defilade revetment for our tank although we only took intermittent incoming. We did however receive a fire mission that was interesting. The Lt said there were reports of enemy tanks near the Laotian border coming our way and we were to fire on them. Well, it’s a tankers dream to engage enemy tanks and we were all looking forward to engaging them. We were also aware of the PT-76s that attacked Lang Vei and assumed there were some T-54/55 or T-62 Russian-made tanks coming our way. Since we dug a hull defilade position for 32we were able to drive it forward onto the ramp in order to get a higher angle of fire. I got out the gunners table and M1A1 quadrant and set the correct elevation and deflection on the gun and we fired at the suspected enemy tank location – no FOs or spotters and no BDA for us, just a fire mission.
Shortly after that we were at KSCB refueling and Co Roc sends us some incoming 152s. However, it’s a little awkward this time because we’re refueling with 55 gallon drums using the fuel transfer pump. We’ve had to manually lift the drums from ground to tank – heavy and awkward lifting for a 4-man crew. Incoming and my crew goes looking for roots and I’m left holding the drum of diesel half-way up the tank until incoming lifts. Sam, my driver, and I had a short but meaningful discussion about that which resulted in the Ontos CO coming over and telling me to see him before we depart. I figure he’s going to chew on me a bit but he didn’t. Instead he gives me a beer and asks me how things are going – now I’m really confused.
Sometime in April we get called to mount out to KSCB along with another tank. When we got to the straight stretch of road between the plantation and base entrance we see a tank from the Bravo Company platoon on fire, black smoke coming out of it and the 90 rounds are cooking off. I have no idea what happened to the crew. During my time at LZ Hawk there were two tank platoons in the area. A Bravo Company platoon at KSCB and us, from 3rd Plt Charlie Tanks, at Hawk. We deployed off the road to the right and I listened to the chatter on the 2/3 Bn Tac Net. It seems there were some gooks in spider holes that ambushed a patrol with tanks from KSCB and we’re now just waiting for a tactical decision. Soon enough an F-4 makes a pass and then makes another pass – but much lower and slower. I watch as the napalm canister releases and begins its ungraceful tumble and fall to the ground. After it hits I can actually see the pilot’s face from the TC cupola’s vision blocks. His oxygen mask is undone and it seems like he’s looking right at our tank (me). Then I can feel the heat from the napalm. Our driver Sam (Frenchy) says over the intercom that he wants to run over some crispy critters but I tell him no way. Sam persists and I tell him that if he does he’ll be cleaning the suspension. So, true to his nature, he runs over a dead gook, he’s happy now and then we both get out and I make him clean the dead gook parts out of the track as best he can. It was a mess.
One day at LZ Hawk we took some incoming and I dove in the nearest bunker. After a while it dawned on me that no one else came in after me, so I looked around and said is anyone here? All quiet. Then I see a pair of red eyes looking back at me and figure it’s a rat because we had lots of seriously big rats in our bunkers. For fun we used to catch them in rat trap using a combination of C-Ration peanut butter and C-4 and then we’d use some gasoline to set them on fire, open the rat trap door and watch them run themselves to death. Anyway, the all clear sounds and I left the bunker for fresh air only to find a bunch of Marines standing around looking at me and the bunker. Not knowing what’s going on I join them and look at the bunker too. No one is saying anything. After a while a monitor lizard comes waddling out and they start laughing and looking at me and all of a sudden I’m not feeling to good about going into that bunker.
During May it seemed like 32 spent a lot of time at Bridge 34 patrolling uphill towards LZ hawk and also patrolling the other way towards Ca Lu. Around that time, Hall’s tank was ambushed at night coming downhill from LZ hawk towards our position. Come to think of it, Hall’s tank may have been from a different Charlie Company platoon. Anyway, the platoon had now lost 2 tanks and had one KIA – Hall’s driver; Jimmy Jaynes.
Like the other tanks we were resupplied with ammo by truck and with fuel from either a tanker truck or from 55 gallon drums at KSCB. From one source or the other we got some contaminated fuel and couldn’t negotiate the uphill grade to LZ Hawk. The tank would run but it had no power. We drained and purged the fuel filters time and again but need to completely drain and flush the fuel cells and completely change the filters. Because we couldn’t pull the hill, we missed a few missions, but that wasn’t all bad. One of the missions we missed was to provide supporting fire from a location between the LZ and the big curve on Highway 9. The tank that took that particular mission and the grunts with it got mortared and received several casualties.
After we got the contaminated fuel issue squared away we were told to conduct a night patrol to the LZ with a platoon of grunts. Because we were still at Bridge 32, we were mindful that Hall’s tank had just been ambushed about a week earlier, Cpl Jaynes was killed and the tank rolled off the side of Highway 9, down to the river and its rounds cooked off all night long. Prior to the patrol we were briefed to get out of the kill zone if ambushed. It was as dark as dark can be, we had a canister round in the tube and everyone seemed on edge. We started the patrol and were just about at the same place Hall’s ambush took place when we got ambushed. I yelled at the grunt in charge and then told Sam to get up hill fast. We cleared the kill zone, got uphill and turned around, returned and re-engaged. By that time the grunts had conducted their immediate action drill and the NVA ambush was foiled.
Later at a hill just south of Bridge 36 on the southeast side of Highway 9 we’re with another grunt platoon (or company) we learn the benefits of defensive perimeter fires. Reveille comes from Co Roc as they pound us with 152s and from Camp Carroll as they shoot defensive perimeter fires to keep the gooks out. Oddly enough all that arty seems to land pretty much in the same place but no one gets killed or wounded – not sure about the NVA though. Getting pounded by both enemy and friendly arty is the daily routine on this hill. We continue to patrol between this outpost and KSCB and Hawk day after day until relieved.
Going to KSCB is a daily event now as is the exercise of opening and closing the concertina wire gate. The gate is a strand of concertina wire that must be unhooked and dragged open so our tank can both enter and exit the compound. The NVA FOs at Co Roc know this too so timing and speed become important. We drive the road to Khe Sanh flat out. I get out of the tank to pull the wire gate open flat out. About that time we hear pop, pop, pop and I know there’s only a few seconds before the incoming and I become well acquainted with the red clay mud between my tank and KSCB on a twice a day basis. It’s the same thing leaving but we’re less of a target. My field tan is getting darker.
At KSCB there’s an Ontos Marine I was stationed with at Tracked Vehicle Co, Schools Demonstration Troops, Quantico (can’t remember his name). Every day I go to his bunker and we shoot the bull, play a few chess moves and then the next day a few more – on and on. One day I look at his glasses and they’re bent forward. He tells me they got bent from incoming blast concussion – kind of close I think but don’t say anything.
The battle for Foxtrot ridge was intense. Fox 2/3 occupied the ridge line just east of LZ Hawk for some time. One night they were being probed and then the probe turned out to be a full on attack. 81 flares then 105 flares and then mortars and arty firing; then puff arrives and uses some type of really bright flare that also seems to last for a very long time and lights up everything. All of a sudden puff lets out with 20mm cannon fire – sounds like someone ripping cloth and the tracers are one solid red stream. Someone says there’s a round every square foot and I believe them. Along with several other tanks we mount out to a position off the road to Lang Vei and wait. When it’s light enough to shoot safely we see uniformed enemy soldiers (NVA) running all over the ridge and take them under fire. Later we evacuate some WIAs and KIAs to both KSCB and Hawk. Lots of body bags that day.
The battle for Foxtrot ridge brought some dignitaries for the after-action briefings including Maj Gen Davis. The CG surveys the site by walking around and talking to the guys from both Echo and fox 2/3 and one of his people walks around LZ Hawk checking things out. He sees a few of us and stops to look. We think nothing of it. But in retrospect be were greasy, lots of oil and diesel stains, knees rotted out of our jungle utilities and one of my boots is being held together with fording tape. I have no doubt we were a bio hazard and collectively flammable – but we were shaved. The next day a Huey lands with boxes and boxes of new boots and utilities. It’s nice to have friends in high places.
Around this time I was in a small group including Tex Massengil looking at various NVA 782 gear and weapons. I picked up an RPG without rocket look it over, turn it over and ka-boom – it went off. It left Tex with a chunk out of his left forearm and me with serious ringing in my ears. I wasn’t able to hear for about 2 weeks after that and could barely hear the radio in the tank so my gunner listened to the radio and info’d me using the intercom.
We had some visitors at LZ Hawk too. Some Marine self-propelled 8”howitzers and an Army battery of 2 self-propelled 175s came separately to shoot fire missions from time to time. These self-propelled guns would arrive, lay their guns, fire a few missions and leave. After they left we generally had some NVA counter battery fire so we weren’t all that happy to see them.
June had us conducting more patrols towards Ca Lu as the grunts at Khe Sanh are finally going to the rear. These patrols ultimately turn into convoys with Army quad 50 cal dusters and Army Cobras for air support. For one reason or another one of the Army gunships took our convoy under fire one day although there were no WIA or KIA.
July had us participating in the full-on evacuation of Khe Sanh and the daily convoys were getting a lot larger. Marines at KSCB celebrated the 4th of July by firing the FPF and red tracers were all over the place. We had immediate action drills if ambushed and knew the road pretty well by then. One day we got the word that one of the Bravo Tankers from Khe Sanh was being medevac’d for malaria. He was a S/Sgt or Sgt and the word was he was a really good Marine. Well, a command detonated mine initiated the ambush and he was in a jeep near the lead vehicle and was KIA, along with some others.
As we finally left the area I saw a group of tanks coming the other way between Ca Lu and LZ Stud. Gary Heckman, my old buddy from 2nd Tanks and TV Co, was either TC or Section leader for this Bravo Co Plt and I briefed him on the situation along Highway 9. Not sure if they went to Khe Sanh, LZ Hawk or some other position.
In early July, maybe around the 8th or so, our platoon left LZ Hawk and relocated to Gio Linh and Operation KENTUCKY.