MARINE CORPS TANKERS VIETNAM HISTORICAL Foundation's
Vietnam Personal Accounts
NIGHT OF THE TIGERS
By Maj Willard F. Lochridge, IV
OIC NYNM Naval Forces Attached
27th BDE, New York Army National Guard
"Tiger" was the code name for a Marine M48A3 Patton tank that was used in transmissions over radio nets during the early years of the Vietnam War by 3rd Tank Battalion (3rd TK BN), Third Marine Division (3rd MARDIV). Categorized as a medium tank, the M48A3 was a diesel-powered version of the earlier M48A2C tank, which used gasoline for fuel – an explosive component when hitting vehicle land-minds or being struck by anti-tank weapons.
From a historical perspective the M48A3’s origins dated back to the M47 "General Patton" tank, which replaced the Army’s M26/46 Pershing series. The first production of the M48 rolled off the Chrysler line in 1952. This version of the M48 was produced primarily for combat in Europe against Soviet tanks. Through many design changes, the M48A3 became the mainstay of armored tanks for the Marines and U. S. Army in Vietnam.(1) Later, after a bewildering number of versions, the M48 would eventually lead the way to
the successful M60 Patton tank.(2)
The Marines were the first American Forces to bring tanks to Vietnam. On 9 March 1965, Marine Corps Staff Sergeant John Downey drove his M48A3 tank off of a landing craft onto Red Beach 2 at Da Nang, and was shortly followed by the rest of the 3RD Platoon, Company B, and 3RD TK BN.(3) They were immediately deployed to bolster the defenses around the Da Nang airfield. Upon learning that "USMC tanks were in country", our Government and Central Command – the U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) - in Saigon thought such heavy amour was an over-kill and "not appropriate for counterinsurgency operations."(4) Certainly they would not be able to negotiate the combination of soggy terrain and poor weather conditions, particularly during the Monsoon season, of South Vietnam. None-the-less, we had them – as part of our initial landing force - and they were there. Over the coming years, MACV’s reasoning would fade as the M48A3 gained a solid reputation as a worthy weapon to be used against enemy troops.
As in wars before, the Marines in Vietnam also developed fighting tactics and techniques to over come constraints and conditions found on the battlefield. Such creativity was about to be employed in The Night of the Tigers during the summer of 1966.
By 1966, 3rd TK BN and 1st TK BN were both in country. 3rd Tanks was headquartered near Da Nang on Hill-34, and 1st Tanks was supporting defensive and offensive operations around the Chu Lai Air Base. Both of these Battalions were experiencing ever increasing confrontations with the Viet Cong (VC) within their respective Tactical Areas of Operation (TAOR) as their platoons were assigned to support various infantry components that were out in the field.
In the late spring of 1966, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines (3/9) were collectively operating out of An Hoa about 25 miles southwest from Da Nang. Their responsibility was to defend the small airfield and village, which supported the only active coal mining operation in South Vietnam. An Hoa also had a hydroelectric power plant, and a fertilizer plant operating there too. In addition to protecting An Hoa, their mission included interdicting and stopping Viet Cong Main Force elements – particularly the notorious R-20th VC (Doc Lap) Main Force BN - from advancing northward to attack the Da Nang Air Base. Prior to the 3/9’s arrival, many of these enemy forces - including the R-20th BN - freely moved within the region, which also embraced the well-known "Arizona Territory," an area given the name for its wild-west characteristics and danger.(5)
At that time, the only way into An Hoa was by air or by driving through the Song Thu Bon River - preferably during the dry season. Later, the following year a bridge – "Liberty Bridge"- would be constructed to allow convoy type re-supply from Hill-55, which lay several miles to the north of An Hoa. During the French Indochina war, it was said that the French lost an entire BN in a battle during the 1950’s on Hill-55.(6) During my time "in country," the area surrounding Hill-55 was still a hotly contested neighborhood.
3/9 requested tanks from 3rd MARDIV to primarily support and augment the defenses of the airfield; and too, to conduct offensive operations with their infantry line companies. 3rd TK BN got the mission, and redirected my platoon, 2nd Platoon, Company B, which was just completing Operation Liberty, while attached to 1st BN, 1st Marines who were operating in and around the vicinity of Hoa An on the coast of the South China Sea. Our tanks were literally worn out from continuous use in the sandy terrain, which ran from Marble Mountain south through the "Horse Shoe" to Hoa An. So, before deployment to An Hoa we were directed to return to BN HQ to refit out with five brand new M48A3 tanks each equipped with the new and improved Infra-red (IR)/White Xenon searchlight, which were bore sighted with the main 90mm guns. The Xenon searchlight producing over one million candlepower could "reach out" to over 2,000 yards. Close in, should someone look directly into the light, particularly when it was in "spotlight" position, it could cause severe eye injury or the individual would suffer temporary flash-blindness.
Weighing in at 52-tons under a full load – the turret alone weighed 18 tons – it could reach a top speed of 40 mph. Performance wise, it burned one gallon per road mile and two gallons per mile off-road. Total fuel capacity was a little over 300 gallons, which gave it a range of approximately 258 miles that varied of course by terrain characteristics. The transmission had three gear positions high, low and reverse. Low gear was used primarily when crossing wet paddies, streams and rivers or high-grades. It also had at that time a state-of-the art fire control system that utilized a stereoscopic range finder, a mechanical ballistic computer (Nothing like today’s truly computerized/laser firing systems – that allow you to fire on-the-go and are much more accurate), and a M20 periscope sight that the gunner used to set on his target before firing a main gun round. This system would take range data, merge it with the muzzle velocity of the type round to be fired, and elevate the 90mm main gun sufficiently for the round to overcome the downward pull of gravity while on it’s way to the target.
Typically, we carried (64) 90mm rounds that consisted of HE (High Explosive), WP (White Phosphorus), Canister that contained 1,200 pellets to be used against enemy troops in the open, and a few HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank). It was said a good crew could put the first round on target 90% of the time. In Vietnam we were probably closer to 98% because the distance to targets was typically less than 500 yards. In addition, we had a coax 30calbre (30cal.) machine gun and a copula mounted Browning 50calbre (50cal.) machine gun. Secured around the floor of the turret we carried 10,000 rounds of 30cal. and 3,000 rounds of 50cal. ammunition. Each crewman carried a 45cal. pistol and for close-in protection we had an old 45cal. grease gun in each tank. We also had an assortment of non-assigned weapons such as M2 carbines, Thompson submachine guns, captured AK47’s, and a M79 grenade launcher that allowed us to inexpensively "dust the brushes" when moving into unknown territory or while setting up for night bivouacs. Clearly, we were ready for bear, and could light up the night or go IR with our new Xenon searchlights.
Departing BN HQ, we drove south to Hill-55, to spend the night at our Company HQ. While there, we discussed the river crossing with our Company Commander that would have to be made the following day. Small fording stacks where strapped to the engine amour plate of each vehicle in case we needed them to negotiate the water crossing. Aerial maps were studied and several crossing points were noted. Our first choice was at the end of a bend in the river that flattened out with sandy beaches on either side. It was about 200 yards across, but would require a diagonal up-stream approach in order to successfully reach the opposite beach.
The M48A3, had a crew of four: the driver who sat up-front under the main gun; the gunner was situated below the Tank Commander (TC) to the right of the main gun breech; the loader stood to the left of the breech, but normally rode outside on-top of the loader hatch; and, the TC held position in the copula – a small turret that housed a 50cal. machine gun that out of frustration of not working well in such tight quarters was eventually sky-mounted to the top of the copula with a semi-circle of sand bags for added protection.
Arriving at the Song Thu Bong River in the early morning hours we scouted out our primary crossing by actually wading across. We checked the consistency of the bottom and water depth. Signal flags were posted on the opposite shore as guide-ons. It was determined that the fording stacks would not have to be used, but the drivers would have to "button-up" their hatches and be directed by the TCs who stood waist high out of the copula. The TCs would eye-ball the signal flags, monitor the water flowing over the front slop plates, and down along the tank sides to make certain they were on course and remained in reasonable safe freeboard condition from water depth. The gunners and loaders were assigned to topside positions in the event the TCs had to announce, "abandon ship". Should that condition happen the TC and his topside crew would quickly move to aid the driver in escaping.
As lead vehicle we splashed into the river and running under low gear began crossing. Our driver complained about leaking seals on his hatch, but clamed he could see fish through his periscopes. Within an hour all tanks were across and we began our drive to Hoa An to celebrate a happy reunion with 3/9, who we had severed with earlier in the year in and around the "Horse Shoe" before 1/1 took over.
The first couple of weeks at Hoa An were spent getting the lay of the land. It was still the dry season so we could maneuver just about anywhere. We spent many a day and night operating in the field with Kilo, Lima or Mike companies.
As usual mines and booby traps were ever present in our TAOR. One morning a jeep coming back from Phu Loc Hill, which overlooked the confluences of Song Thu Bon and Song Vu Gia Rivers, hit a land mine and all occupants were seriously wounded and one was killed. Supposedly, the road had been swept that morning, but somehow the engineers had missed the mine. The area where the incident occurred was particularly subject to mining. The road, made of dirt, traversed a series of stepped rice paddies that were about a mile wide and extended two to three miles on both sides in either direction.
For some unknown reason, the next day I decided to join the engineers who were assigned to sweep the road. Beginning in the earlier hours they began their work with me following a good fifty yards or more behind. As they passed the crater from the mine explosion the day before we came to a culvert, which ran under the road. I noticed dozens of footprints coming out of the paddy crossing the road and down into the other side. I asked the engineers about these tracks, but no one had an answer except to say that they had not noticed them the day before.
Returning to BN, I asked the S3 (Operations Officer) if we had had any patrols out in that area the night before? He said no. I said, then some large body of troops must have
crossed that road last night and marched right down the center of those rice paddies.
An idea was forming in my mind about using our tanks to night ambush the area, but a few technical and tactical issues had to be worked out before presenting the plan to the BN Commander (BN CO) and his staff. Those issues where: (1) how to deploy tanks into a night ambush site without the enemy discovering us – tanks make a lot of noise when operating in the field; (2) how many tanks should be deployed; (3) what primary sites should be selected with appropriate alternate locations if needed; (4) how long could we operate our new Xenon searchlights on battery power before having to start our engines; (5) how could we minimize tank-to-tank radio communications, which would also cause battery drain; (6) how many infantrymen would we need for security; and, (7) size-wise what would we require for a reaction force to come to our assistance if we made contact? The Night of the Tigers was about to unfold.
First, we determined that three tanks or our heavy section, when spread out in a forward facing fan of fire over the targeted zone, would be sufficient The tanks would be spaced approximately 25 yards apart with my tank in the center. To protect our rear two four-man fire teams would go out with us. To reduce battery draw from our radios we simply would tie pieces of string attached to the wrists of each tank commander. Since I was in the center I had one string on each wrist. The string had enough play in it to allow us to move our arms while using night-vision binoculars. The idea was if any one saw something in their respective area of observation the strings would be pulled to signal radios up. Our rear tank phone lines tied in the infantry.
Next, and perhaps most critical, came testing our Xenon searchlights without engines running. How long could we operate them from battery power only? From the tests, we calculated that each tank could operate for a little over three hours without having to power up engines. So, once in position a selected flanking tank would use its IR light while the other two tanks simply observed their areas with night vision binoculars.
We had an Amtrack platoon attached to 3/9, so it was easy to visit them and ask for their support. We needed them to cover the noise of moving our tanks at night. The idea was not only to use them for that purpose, but also to have them carry a reaction force out if needed. The plan called for four Amtraks and a platoon of infantry (The reaction force) to deploy with us – three Amtrak up front followed by three tanks and the forth Amtrack taking up the rear. Once underway, as the sun was setting, at a designated time – when darkness was complete – this convoy of vehicles would drive past by our primary turn-off point to the ambush site, and the tanks would quickly peal-off the road, take positions and cut their engines off.Without raising suspicion, several of us went out on foot patrols over the course of two to three days to select potential ambush positions.
Having completed our homework we presented our plan the BN CO and his staff. He eagerly approved it.
Next morning preparations were made. All was ready for the coming night events.
At approximately 2030 hours, both Amtraks, tanks and infantry left An Hoa and headed north toward Phu Loc Hill. By 2130 the tanks were off the road and set in at the primary ambush site. Strings were attached to the tank commander’s wrists. The left flank vehicle powered up its Xenon searchlight under IR, and night-vision binoculars where put into use. The infantry took up a protective position behind us. Now the wait came as we began scanning the rice paddies to our front.
Time passed when suddenly my left wrist felt a solid tug. It was a little past 2300 hours. Radios came up. The left flanking tank commander reported a large enemy force of troops moving in our direction at 10 o’clock out about 500 yards. Quickly turning my night-vision binoculars in that direction I could clearly make out a mass of troops coming our way. Since they were moving toward our front I ordered all tanks to wait until they were closer, and when told they were to switch to the Xenon white flood-light and begin taking them under fire with coax 30cal. machine gun fire. Within a several minutes the enemy formation was directly to our front about 100 to 150 yards out. It was time to spring the ambush. The order went out – white searing light penetrate the night and three 30cal. machineguns opened up with devastating interlocking fire. The infantry behind us opened up too. It was a turkey shoot. When we switched from floodlight position on the searchlights to spotlight position the enemy dropped to the ground. Curiously, when moving back to floodlight they would stand-up and get shot. Since they were so close I ordered 90mm canister rounds to be fired – it only took a few. The field was littered with enemy bodies and supplies.
As the ambush was kicked off the reaction force was called, and they came out to help us police the site. By 0100, the ambush position was cleared and we started our return to An Hoa. As we gained the road I informed the reaction force commander that I wanted to move to our alternate site. Somewhat surprised he agreed, and we pulled off and set up again.
Within an hour we had contact. We watched as six enemy troops advanced toward our position. They were probing the rice paddies for either survivors or lost supplies. When they were out about 50 to 75 yards we switched on our white searchlights and to our surprise they simply put their hands up in surrender. We brought them in, tied them up, and gave them some water. One of them was a female who we were to later learn was a VC cadre officer. At dawn the next morning we mounted up and returned to An Hoa with our prisoners.
However, that was not the last Night of the Tigers. We went out three more times and had two more nights of solid contact.
Later on, and not to be outdone, our light section consisting of two tanks used similar tactics at night on the Song Thu Bon River and knocked out 16 enemy troop-laden sampans.
By the middle of September 1966, our platoon of twenty-two Marines had recorded 244 confirmed enemy KIAs, 58 Possible KIAs, 19 WIAs, 5 Possible WIAs, and captured 56 enemy troops. Additionally, we destroyed four ammunition bunkers; captured one bunker that contained 271 Chicom (Chinese Communist) hand grenades and 19 Russian claymore type mines; and, destroyed two enemy 57mm recoilless rifles.(7) We also disposed of a two-man sniper team with three quick rounds of 90mm WP, who unfortunately had attempted to disrupt our beer party – a party that was held on Phu Loc Hill - after we had completed an operation and our two-beer per day per person ration had been airlifted in to us by helicopter. Also, early one morning through direct tank fire, which was followed up by several salvos of 105mm artillery rounds, we knocked out an entire sniper platoon that was caught on a small island hamlet, which was surrounded by rice paddies as they prepared their breakfast meals. One of the enemy who was killed was a Caucasian who was later believed to be an East German advisor attached to the unit.
Fortunately, the platoon suffered no personnel lost, and no one had been seriously wounded during our entire time while on operations. However, earlier in our beginning days we did loose one tank by land mine detonation.
Individually, our platoon members received three Silver Star Medals, one Bronze Star Medal, and three Purple Heart Medals.
(1): AFV INTERIORS, Web Magazine 2001, "US M48 90mm Gun Tank, "Patton, " Part I, p. 1.
(2): AFV INTERIORS, Part I, p. 1.
(3): Starry, General Donn A., "Armored Combat in Vietnam," The Ayer Company, 1982, pp. 52-53.
(4): Starry, pp. 54-55.
(5): Kelly, Michael P., "Where We Were In Vietnam," Hellgate Press, 2002, p. 5-20.
(6): Kelly, p. 5-223.
(7): Lochridge,IV, Maj Willard F., "Combat Diary of 2Lt Willard F. Lochridge, IV," 1966, p. 253.