The Cam Lo main compound ,
surrounded by an earthen parapet and three belts of barbed wire, consisted of
eight ancient French buildings and several bunkers and fighting positions.
Across Route 9 from the main compound area was the motor pool, situated on the
site of an abandoned Marine 155mm artillery position. Several vehicles from
the earlier ambush on Route 9 were parked inside the wire along with the two
Army quad 50s belonging to the mine sweep team from the 11th Engineers. The
quad 50s were placed beside Route 9 at the east and west compound entrances so
that they could command clear fields of fire down the road in both directions.
The northwest sector of the perimeter was defended by the combined action
Marines, Army advisers and the lone squad from the 2/9 Marines. Steck and
Sellers positioned their two squads from Company D, 1/4, along the northern
and northeastern sector.
February 1 was the third night at Cam Lo for
Company D's 1st Platoon. The unit had been reinforced with two M-60 machine
guns and a 3.5-inch rocket launcher team. The wary, combat-experienced grunts
on the line all shared the same premonition - big trouble was heading their
way. The Marines prepared for the worst, digging deeper fighting holes,
putting out Claymore mines, filling sandbags, and cleaning and oiling their
machine guns and sometimes untrustworthy M-16 rifles. Some wrote loved ones a
last letter home, not optimistic about making it out of this one alive.
Shortly before midnight, Marines from
Company G, 2/9, guarding the Cam Lo River Bridge spotted swimmers in the water
through Starlight scopes. The Marines picked off two of the enemy, but a
third escaped into the darkness. The leathernecks also recovered a 200-pound
charge of waterproofed explosives that had been placed in the river by the
enemy. Nguyen Thuong, a Kit Carson Scout (an ex-NVA or VC who was working for
a U.S. combat unit) assigned to the 2/9 Marines at the bridge, had learned
earlier from NVA soldiers disguised as civilians in Can Lo village that the
bridge would be hit by a sapper team that night. The Marines were ready.
At 0215 hours on the morning of February 2,
the Cam Lo district headquarters compound was hit by hundreds of rounds of
recoilless rifle, rocket and 82mm mortar fire. Major Payne ran to the TOC
bunker in the center of the compound and called Dong Ha for artillery
support. As he was calling, a recoilless-rifle round smashed into the heavily
sandbagged bunker, mortally wounding Payne and two PF soldiers, and
temporarily knocking out communications.
The deputy district adviser, Captain McMaken,
took charge. A former enlisted paratrooper with 11 years of service prior to
attending Officer Candidate School in 1965, McMaken was up to the task.
Clawing his way through the rubble of the demolished TOC bunker, he found Army
civilian adviser John Cleary calmly calling for continued artillery support
over the only radio still functioning. Doc Bradley was working feverishly to
save Major Payne's life. McMaken told Cleary to remain on the radio while he
went out into the compound for a better view of the attack. He then relayed
artillery fire adjustment inside to Cleary.
The first attacking force of NVA penetrated
the southern portion of the compound, where vehicles were kept in the motor
pool. Rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) flashed out of the darkness, knocking
out several trucks. The two Army quad 50s were demolished before they could
get off a single shot. Then a cry for help came over the radio. Gladiator
3-2, one of the quad 50 gunners, was wounded and trapped in his burning
vehicle. McMaken heard his agonized pleadings and knew he had to to
something. The firestorm of American artillery ringing the compound had
forced the NVA to break contact. During that momentary lull, McMaken led a
force out toward the burning vehicles to attempt to rescue the wounded man,
but they were driven back when the NVA mounted its main attack.
When McMaken returned to the main command
bunker, he found that all communication with the outside world had been cut
off. He could no longer raise any of the artillery units via radio. The
compound and everyone in it would be doomed if they had no fire support. As
he frantically tried to radio for help, a calm voice came up over the net loud
and clear; 'This is Early Flowers 7-3 Charlie. Can I be of assistance?'
A counter mortar radar unit at nearby Camp
Carroll had fortunately just tuned into McMaken's frequency. For the
remainder of the battle, Early Flowers 7-3 Charlie was Cam Lo's lifeline to
the artillery units at C-3 and Dong Ha.
At 0300, more
than 200 enemy troops launched a human wave assault against the northwest
perimeter. Unaware of the Marines reinforcements, they apparently expected
little resistance. The NVA and VC charged at the compound supported by a wall
of fire from recoilless rifles, RPGs, B-40 rocket launchers and 12.7mm heavy
machine guns. Positioned up in the compound's observation tower, Marine PFC
Marlin Resinger fired round after round from his M-79 grenade launcher down
into the enemy attackers.
Private First Class Larry Herwig was asleep
on the far end of the Marine line when the attack came. He ran into the
closest building and found a dozen PF soldiers cowering, nearly in a state of
panic. They ignored his shouts to return to the perimeter. One wide-eyed PF
handed him a grenade and wished him good luck in Vietnamese. Herwig ran back
to rejoin his Marine squad mates, who hand unleashed a torrent of small-arms
and automatic-weapons fire into the ranks of the attacking force attempting to
breach the perimeter wire obstacles.
Lance Corporal Lawrence Eades from Portland,
Ore., the company clerk of the CAC, saw that the PF troops had all abandoned
their positions and fled to nearby bunkers. With the NVA about to breach the
wire, Eades, a Navy corpsman and three other Marines from the combined action
unit ran over to keep that from happening. Eades found a .30-caliber machine
gun in a bunker opposite the breach site and put the gun into action. A
steady stream of bullets tore into the enemy force, dropping two dozen in the
wire in front of his position. An NVA soldier crept up close enough to throw
a hand grenade, wounding Eades and the others. One Marine spotted the grenade
thrower and shot him.
Several NVA troops began crawling up to the
compound's parapet, using it for cover while throwing grenades and firing RPGs.
Despite his wounds, Eades leaped onto the parapet and resumed firing his
machinegun. Captain Haines, the CAC commander, watched Eades blasting away
with his machine gun. 'I thought sure he'd be hit', said Haines. 'He was
silhouetted against a burning building. He stood right out there in the open
and stacked the enemy on the wires'.
Eades and his fire team were later credited
with 24 enemy killed. He had fired off 3,500 round of ammunition before dawn.