Vietnam Personal Accounts


How The Washout Got Its Name

Jim Coan - Alpha Co., 3rd Tanks, ‘67/’68

Lt. Jim Coan Jim Coa

"The Hill," as Con Thien was often called by its beleaguered occupants, was placed on high alert in mid-September, 1967. Intelligence reports coming in from 3rd Marine Division indicated a multi-battalion ground attack was looming. The 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, plus a battery of 105s, a platoon of tanks from Alpha Co., 3rd Tank Bn., an Ontos section, and two Army "Dusters," were responsible for defending the firebase perimeter. The 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines and the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines guarded Con Thien's rear and eastern flank. A full regiment of Marines was prepared to do battle if the enemy attacked Con Thien as predicted.

  I was the new tank platoon leader, having taken over from 2nd/Lt Tom Barry only five days earlier. Tom had received two Purple Hearts in two weeks at Con Thien and battalion staff pulled him back to the rear, out of harm's way.  I was a rookie second   lieutenant, but not new to the Marine Corps, having completed six years of enlisted service in the reserves prior to OCS. Tom and I had arrived together at 3d Tank Battalion the previous month. He went right up to Con Thien while I stayed back at Gia Le, working for Major Bruce MacLaren, 3rd Tank Battalion S-3.

  It began to rain in the middle of the night, softly at first, a gentle shower filtering down through the leaves in a fog-like mist. Then raindrops began to fall, harder and harder, until by dawn on September 16, rain was pouring down in buckets.

  Someone in the 3/9 CP was chewing me out over the radio, blaming us tankers (of course) for the delayed departure of the morning road sweep from Yankee Station. But we had been unable to locate the engineer-grunt mine sweep team, as they were not waiting beside the usual spot in the road. When we finally found them, huddled under some trees in a futile attempt to escape the constant downpour, I did a little ass-chewing myself to get the reluctant detail out on the road.

  My tank was A-11. Following behind me as we headed south on the MSR was   A-13, commanded by Sgt Osborne, one of nine new replacements to the 1st Platoon. Our squad of miserable grunts slogged through liquid mud and rivulets of water beside the road as the rain pelted down even harder. The crushed-rock road supported the weight of our tanks easily, but we were all too aware that an ambush would mean leaving the road and probably getting bogged down in the soggy paddy country. As the mine sweep detail rounded a bend in the road a mile from the Rocky Ford, we came upon two columns of grunts from 2/9--a most welcome sight. For the first time, we realized that 3/9 was not alone at Con Thien.

  By the time the road sweep team reached the Rocky Ford, the rain had slowed to a light drizzle. Rocky Ford bore that name even though it was no longer necessary to ford the creek where it intersected with the main road. Marine engineers had installed a culvert the previous summer that permitted the creek water to flow unimpeded beneath the graded road.

   The early morning cloudburst had formed a lake on the western side of the built up dirt road. The culvert's twin corrugated steel conduits were not large enough to accommodate that tremendous volume of rapidly accumulating runoff. Two huge fountains of muddy water sprayed out of the culvert on the east side of the road. The roadbed appeared solid to us tankers, and we continued our road sweep south to C-2 without incident.

  The grunt squad and engineer mine sweep team rode atop the tanks on the return trip once the morning mine sweep chore was finished. As our two tanks approached the Rocky Ford, we observed that perhaps 20% of the dirt road on the side backing up the flood waters had crumbled away since we had crossed over an hour earlier. Two columns of 2/9 grunts were still walking over without pause. The backed-up runoff was now level with the road, threatening to overflow the dam-like obstacle at any moment. I told the driver to halt.

  "I want to take a closer look, DuBose. That roadbed looks pretty shaky; it might not hold us." I climbed down from A-11 and jogged over to the culvert. Crossing over looked extremely hazardous. The road's capacity for withstanding the rapidly multiplying volume of water surging against it was growing more tenuous with each passing minute. Not taking a chance of crossing over meant being cut off from Con Thien and the rest of 1st Platoon. I went back to my other tank and inquired of the driver, L/Cpl "Piggy" Bores, who had a year's experience driving tanks over every type of terrain possible in Vietnam, "What do you think, Piggy, can we make it over?"

  Bores replied without any hesitation, "Let's go, Lieutenant. We can do it if we go now. It's not gonna hold up much longer."

  "That's what I'm thinking." As I climbed up into A-11's TC cupola and reached back to retrieve my com-helmet from the gypsy rack, I looked directly into the intense, searching stares of a half-dozen alarmed grunts. I hesitated. That old Marine Corps adage from OCS echoed in my mind--"Hesitate and you're dead!"  But I could not make myself give the order to move out.

  "All these men--God help us all if". . . KAWHOOSHHH!! The Rocky Ford culvert was no more--washed away in a mighty torrent of pent-up water pressure.

  In shocked silence, we gaped at the mighty surge of water as it flipped two enormous steel conduits end over end like paper straws. Then the horror of it all sunk in. Marines from Echo 2/9 were walking across that culvert when it washed away. Men began to shout. Two Marines instantly shed their equipment and flak jackets and jumped into the muddy, churning, swift-moving water to rescue one man who had somehow grabbed onto some tree branches near the bank. They pulled him to safety. Others sprinted along the bank looking for any others less fortunate. One man was missing and presumed drowned. "Doc," their Navy corpsman, had met his fate that morning. Weighted down with all of his equipment, he never had a chance. Heavy jungle undergrowth fifty meters from the road bed prevented rescuers from going any further downstream without machetes to hack their way through.

  I looked back at Piggy Bores. The color had drained out of his face. We'd come oh so close to being swept off into that maelstrom of churning water. No words could express what we felt as our eyes met.

   What had been a lazy, meandering creek a day earlier was now a raging river, ten feet deep and 100 feet wide. Rain commenced falling again as NCOs and officers physically restrained several grief-stricken grunts from stripping down and diving into that deathtrap to search for their revered corpsman. Others stood helplessly along the riverbank, sobbing and cursing with rage and frustration. Vietnam itself had claimed the life of another young American.  

  With one hard downpour, Mother Nature had accomplished what the NVA could not. Con Thien was cut off and isolated. No more resupply runs could be made on the MSR until the washout was repaired. There was nothing for me to do but take my two tanks and the mine sweep detail back to Charlie-2 and attempt to find a place out of the rain. Gunny Hopkins would have the responsibility for the three 1st Platoon tanks still at Con Thien. The monsoon season had arrived.


The Washout Fiasco


  A hazy sun greeted us the morning of September 22, 1967. The incessant rain and heavy cloud cover that had erased the sky over the DMZ area for almost a week had finally blown over. With the increased visibility, aerial observers circled like buzzards over the DMZ, bringing in air strikes and artillery with a vengeance. The NVA had taken advantage of the cloud cover and limited visibility to set in more big guns and stock up on ammunition.

My two tanks were still marooned at C-2. A dozer tank commanded by L/Cpl "Charlie" Brown had joined us on the 18th when the Cam Lo Bridge flooded and he was unable to get back to Dong Ha. Brown, a legendary "old salt," had once been S/Sgt Brown, but lost his stripes after a bar brawl involving several Shore Patrol (as the story went). After three days of gambling at cards and dice with Brown and his crew, most of my tankers were broke.

  lieutenant that I didn't know were with him in his jeep. The captain explained that my two tanks were going to escort the retriever back up north

to extract one of the 5th Platoon tanks still mired in a paddy. Three other abandoned 5th Platoon tanks had been retrieved the previous day by Gunny Hopkins' tankers at Con Thien and had either been towed or driven under their own power into Con Thien's perimeter.

  A nervous tick in the captain's face revealed the strain of the past week. His entire 5th Platoon had been bogged down and abandoned in some rain saturated paddies outside of Con Thien. The platoon sergeant, Gunny English, had been medevaced with a back injury incurred while attempting to dislodge a tank from the paddy muck, and many of his crewmen became casualties from immersion foot.  A section of tanks at Gio Linh also became stuck in the mud outside their perimeter wire and were abandoned one night. Then, two of his 1st Platoon tanks, plus the platoon leader, had been beached at C-2, just when the danger of a massive ground attack on Con Thien was most feared by division.

   My tankers broke camp, loaded the extra rations and a case of apples we had "requisitioned" from a C-2 food supply tent, and headed north out of C-2 along the MSR. The tankers were leery. The MSR had not been swept for mines since the September 16 washout. My two tanks and the retriever drove parallel to the road, keeping our distance from the captain's jeep, should he trigger a mine driving so recklessly on the unswept road.

  Once safely at the washout site, the CO's party reconnoitered the now placid creek for a good fording place. A jagged gorge, twenty-five meters wide and ten feet deep, had been gouged out of the MSR where the culvert had once been. The tanks were directed to a fording spot fifty meters to the west where the banks were less steep.

  A-11 went first. Elevating the main gun tube to prevent jamming it into the far bank, my tank plowed across the creek. L/Cpl DuBose floored the accelerator, and the 52-ton beast clawed up and over the bank. We made it. The powerful tank retriever, coughing clouds of diesel exhaust, followed in my tracks and also climbed up the bank, then veered away to the left. A-13 was last to ford the creek.

  DuBose was steering back towards the MSR when I had a premonition. "Stay away from the road, DuBose. Turn left and follow the retriever." No sooner did I utter those words, when "KA-BLAMM!" Our tank lurched violently and particles of mud and debris rained down around us. We had hit an anti-tank mine. The broken left track looked like a pretzel and two sets of road wheels and road wheel arms were damaged.

  Sergeant Osborne was waved across the creek next. His driver, L/Cpl     "Piggy" Bores, was careful to stay in the tracks of the other vehicles as he gunned his engine, churning up the bank. "WHAMM!" A-13 rocked to a halt. Somehow, despite following in the tracks of the preceding tanks, Osborne's tank had detonated a mine that the other two vehicles had passed over. Not only were two tanks disabled, A-13 was blocking the fording site.

  The captain and his crew had a pressing mission--go dig out the abandoned 5th Platoon tank. They climbed aboard the retriever and, without a word of instruction, roared away, leaving behind this novice lieutenant and his two equally inexperienced sergeants, Osborne and Howard, to figure out how to fix the track on their own. Sgt Howard had been in amtracs before transferring to tanks, and Osborne, new to Nam, was equally unfamiliar with field expedient track repairs.

  The crewmen struggled; it was slow, backbreaking work attempting to get the twisted tracks repaired. After we had been working for an hour, beginning to make progress, a bullet cracked overhead, coming from the west. “Sniper!” Every time someone stood up, another shot rang out. We felt like bears in a shooting gallery until Sergeant Howard climbed up into A-11 and cranked off a dozen rounds of .50-caliber in the general direction of the sniper; that convinced the gook to go snipe elsewhere.

It was growing late in the day. We worked frantically, trying to get the damaged tanks short-tracked before dark. The retriever was nowhere in sight. Dark, heavy, gray clouds returned and it started to pour. The level of the creek rose; it was beginning to look like a large stream again, even after the rain stopped. Just before dusk, we heard the welcome sound of two tanks heading our way; it was the retriever and a mud-caked 5th Platoon tank. The captain’s smile soon faded to dismay when he saw that the two 1st Platoon tanks were not yet short-tracked and ready to move. Then it dawned on everyone that this was a sticky situation. A-11 and A-13 were incapable of repair before nightfall.

  All eyes went to the man in charge--“What now, sir?” Captain Jacobsen got on the retriever radio, attempting to contact someone back at Dong Ha, and inform them of our predicament. Daylight was fading fast. The CO of 2/9, "Carrot-top Actual," was instructed by regiment to send a squad out to provide some security. He was not happy about dealing with more "@*%&#*@!! stuck tanks!"

  A gaunt, rag-tag column of grunts from 2/9 soon came out of the treeline and shuffled over to the tankers. Open, oozing sores covered the hands and faces of some of the men, and their torn utilities were uniformly filthy. The squad leader's tired eyes had that "1,000 yard stare." They formed a rough perimeter around the tankers and promptly crapped out. 

  The gunny, who had so proudly driven the 5th Platoon tank earlier, suddenly decided he had to get his prize across that stream. He revved up the engine and, without checking the water level, crashed down the bank into the stream with a mighty splash, water sloshing into the driver's compartment. The tank made it half way up the far bank, only to stall. Stunned bystanders looked on in disbelief as the dead-engined tank rolled backwards, settling stern-first into the stream. White clouds of steam billowed up from the submerged engine as the gunny attempted to restart the tank. It sputtered once, then died again with a clearly audible death rattle. The only remaining avenue of escape for the tanks and retriever was now blocked.

  Capt Jacobsen instructed me to abandon my two immobile tanks, then hike back with the grunts to spend the night at Yankee Station outside the Con Thien perimeter. A major B-52 Arc Light bombing mission was scheduled in the Washout area some time in the next 24 hours, and all personnel near the area had to evacuate.  All three tanks, plus the retriever, would have to be abandoned. I wanted to say something to our distressed captain, console him, or mention something encouraging, but I couldn't find the right words. "Aye, aye, sir," was all I could muster.

  Scarcely believing that such a disaster could be happening to us, we dropped the main gun breech, removed the firing pins from the machine guns, and disabled the radios. "Take along only your most important items from the tanks," I ordered. All rifles, pistols, canteens, helmets, and flak jackets were removed. Sergeant Howard made sure he took along his three cartons of Camels. Seeing the grunts hungrily eyeing the C-rations on my two tanks, I broke open the cases and shared them. Then I opened the case of "donated" apples. Those starving grunts were not shy about helping themselves.

  My little band of grounded tankers fell in with the grunt squad and we headed north, stumbling along blindly in single file, each man gripping the pistol belt of the man in front, unable to see a thing in that blackest of Vietnam nights. We spent the remainder of that miserable night soaked to the bone, shivering, lying in the mud alongside 2/9's grunts at Yankee Station. I managed to lose my helmet when I fell in a hole while checking on my men during the night. In the morning, my weary band of grounded tankers was reunited with the rest of 1st Platoon at Con Thien.

   As the senior officer on the scene, Captain Jacobsen would have to bear the brunt of flak sure to fly behind this incident, which would henceforth be known by Alpha Company tankers as the Washout Fiasco. I would go on to survive the 40-day siege of Con Thien, later pick up a Purple Heart on that red clay bulls eye, and spend the next 10 months as the platoon leader of the 1st Platoon of Alpha Company, 3d Tanks.

 Two tanks were dispatched from Charlie-2 that night to retrieve the captain and his crew. The submerged 5th Platoon tank was successfully hooked up to be left behind. The stream was not fordable.                       

  When the maintenance crew from Alpha Company arrived back at the Washout the following day, they found that the NVA had used the two abandoned tanks and the retriever for RPG target practice. A-13 was retrieved, but A-11 had been clobbered by five RPG hits and was deemed not recoverable. The retriever had been set on fire and was a total loss.

Three days later, on September 26, a reinforced vehicle recovery team went back to the Washout. They successfully recovered A-11, as well as an Otter loaded with ammunition that had capsized while attempting to ford the raging river ten days earlier. But the burned out, once-proud VTR would sit there, parked amongst the trees west of the MSR, a permanent monument dedicated to the memory of the Washout Fiasco.