Vietnam:  In Country           

 

                                         

 

PFC Craig Roberts landed in Vietnam in July of 1965 as an automatic rifleman with Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines. The battalion landing team (BLT) embarked ten days earlier from its home base at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, aboard the U.S.S. Pickaway (APA 222), a Navy amphibious assault ship.

The landing occurred on China Beach at Da Nang, when the force in full battle gear descended the landing nets into Mike and Poppa landing boats and stormed the beach in World War II fashion. The landing, however, was unopposed and the Marines were eventually marched to Highway One where they boarded trucks for Da Nang to set up camp near Hill 327.

Five days later, after unloading the transport ships USS Renville (APA 227), and USS Pickaway), they became the first Marine battalion to cross the Da Nang River (Riviere du Tourane) and enter "Indian Country." The first village secured was Duong Son (1), which became the battalion operational base for the next three weeks. After that operations were conducted at Cam Ne, An Trach, and numerous other village hamlet complexes.

PFC Craig Roberts on patrol in the village hamlet areas south of Da Nang. Equipment consisted of M-14 rifle, helmet, flack jacket, and web gear.

Roberts spent the following  four months in the field with Hotel Company, doing search-and-destroy missions against the R20 Vietcong main force battalion, and eventually an NVA regiment of regulars. 

In the early fall of 1965, Mike Company of the 3rd Battlion, 9th Marines, lost an almost entire platoon in a U-shaped ambush. Roberts's platoon from Hotel company was selected to transfer to "Medevac Mike Company"  of  3/9 to replace the platoon. 

History note: The unofficial 3/9 patch shows a vulture, on top of an "eight ball" with an entrenching tool behind, holding the banner "3rd Bn, 9th Marines." The words over the patch are "Shadow Warriors", and underneath a banner states "Death in the Dark." The symbology is that 3/9 was always "behind the eight ball" (meaning getting the shaft and having bad luck), and always digging in wherever they went (the E-tool), and the "bird of death" (vulture) was waiting for them, almost as a mascot. This emblem is a parody of the "Eagle, Globe, and Anchor" of the United States Marines.  "Shadow Warriors" is a term the Viet Cong gave them because they were out there, in the shadows, waiting in ambush. "Death in the Dark" came from the number of night patrols, and night ambushes set up, that the battalion constantly did.  The patch was first created in late 1965 and was produced in Da Nang at a local tailor shop.  

At midnight, on October 15th, 1965 Roberts' squad was on night patrol and crossed a rice paddy stream to enter a village (Le Sonh 3) to search for Vietcong. The point man encountered a closed gate that was booby trapped with a mine. As he was attempting to disarm the trip wire mechanism, an ambush erupted from the left flank, a sugar cane field. Automatic weapons fire ripped through the cane and around the Marines who were confined to the trail leading to the gate. Cpl. Bob Bellot, the squad leader, shouted "Ambush left!"   The Marines immediately assaulted into the ambush, firing from the hip, shouting war cries, and running through the cane into the attackers.  The 12" high grass in the cane field contained numerous poison "punji-stakes"--needle sharp split bamboo set at an angle in the ground to impale one's legs.  Roberts struck a punji stake with his right calf. It would be two months, however, before the infection caused the medical personnel in the company to evacuate Roberts to the hospital at China Beach (NSA: Naval Support Activity) where he would then receive the Purple Heart from General Lewis Walt, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Division--and almost lose the leg due to infection.

  

In November, Roberts and two other squad members were selected to work with the ARVNs (Army of the Republic of South Vietnam) because Mike Company had been designated as a Combined Action Company (CAC), and was working with South Vietnamese Army units, utilizing ARVN soldiers within every platoon, plus providing advisors to their units. Roberts and other members of his platoon were assigned for 30 days to Mieu Dong, south of Da Nang on Highway One, where an ARVN Ranger (Biet Dong Quan) outpost had been established. 

Our corpsman, "Doc" Swann (wearing ARVN Ranger Beret) and Roberts at Mieu Dong.

Roberts, serving as an advisor, and his Rangers, along with PF's (Popular Forces) operated in the local area, plus heli-team recon insertions into such places as the Hai Van mountains north of Da Nang (Valley of the Shadow of Death), Happy Valley, Elephant Valley, and the Hill 55 area.  

Squad members Alfred Ekstein and Gayle "Smitty" Smith and unidentified ARVN Ranger at Mieu Dong.

 

December, by Christmas, found "Medevac Mike" Company at the Da Nang airbase, guarding the perimeter and running patrols in the local villages. It was here that one morning found his squad on patrol, just leaving the tent camp area, crossing through a cut in the concertina wire perimeter, when a mine exploded in front of Roberts. PFC Jan Wertz, who was walking in front of Roberts, had stepped on an old French mine, blowing off the front of his right foot. Roberts ran forward, used his belt to create a tourniquet an stop the bleeding, while Bob Bellot, now a sergeant, called for medevac.  Within fifteen minutes a Sikorsky H-34 arrived from MAG-16 air strip at Marble Mountain and picked Wertz up for transport to NSA (The Naval Support Activity hospital at "China Beach"). It was then that the squad realized that they had, in the dark, followed the wrong path and wandered into the old mine field instead of crossing through the wire. The squad could not move for over an hour until the sun came up. They were prime targets for snipers, and they had to contend with moving back through the minefield to safety without hitting anymore mines. When the sun came up, they followed their boot prints out of the minefield and slowly worked their way back to a cleared area. Roberts found that he had small bits of shrapnel and sand from the mine in both legs, but the wounds were superficial and the shrapnel was small, so it was treated by the company senior corpsman. No trip to the hospital this time. Promotions were held a few days later and Roberts was promoted to Lance Corporal.

  Roberts, right, and Jan Wertz drawing well water in Giang Dong hamlet prior to rotating back to the aiibase where Wertz stepped on the mine.

 January: Roberts was promoted to Lance Corporal. Then it was back to the field, and at the end of January, Roberts, with his leg swelling and the wound hole enlarging in spite of antibiotics, was medevaced to the hospital. After four weeks of treatment and surgery, he was released to go back to the field.

The previous September, Roberts had been designated a squad "sniper" since he was an automatic rifleman, with an M-14 AR with bipods. He had been issued a Korean-war era night scope for his rifle because when in the defense, his bipods could support the weight of the rifle and scope for long periods.  Roberts used the Sniperscope for two months but the range was inadequate to be effective and the old battery would not hold a sufficient charge to be used for more than an hour. The Sniperscopes were turned in and never reissued.

Roberts in sniper overwatch position near An Trach.  (Photo credit R.D. O'Brien) 

When Roberts returned to the field his battalion was in the open areas south of Da Nang which were infested with VC snipers and booby traps. The main area of operations was an area known as Phoung Ho (the Marines began calling it "Phoung Ho, booby trap row."  To counter the VC snipers, Marine snipers were called in, plus additional riflemen were issued bolt action Model 70 Winchester in .30 caliber and assigned sniper duty.  Roberts, already designated as a platoon sniper, received a Model 70 and for the next month worked in the areas west and southwest of Da Nang and areas north and east of Hill 55.  It was during this time, when he was attached to cover an engineer unit (Charlie Company) whose call sign was "Axehandle" that Roberts was designated "Axhandle Charlie Sierra" as a radio call sign.  Though not a school-trained full time scout sniper, the experience of sniper duty gave Roberts a new appreciation for military precision marksmen, which culminated years later in co-authoring two books on military sniping and one on police sniping ("One Shot--One Kill," "Crosshairs on the Kill Zone," and "Police Sniper."

 

By May, 1966, Roberts' wounds had failed to heal properly, and the leg was becoming very painful. Some of the shrapnel wounds had not healed properly and had again become infected.  Roberts, now only weighing 132 pounds, was evacuated to the NSA hospital at China Beach, evaluated, then moved to the hospital ship USS Repose for Xrays and further evaluation. The news was not good, physically: He had muscle damage to the calf from the punji stake wound, small shrapnel still working out of the thighs, Amoebic dysentary, jungle rot (feet), and now, ulcerative colitis from drinking contaminated water and living off C-rations for a year. It was decided to medevac the Marine back to the US--San Diego Naval Hospital at Balboa.

Total time in country: 11 months

 

"They Put All the Good Grunts in Body Bags": a poem about our company by PFC Roland O'Brien.

 

Historical Note: By 1966, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines adopted the nickname "The Walking Dead," and 2nd Battalion became "Hell in a Helmet." Much controversy exists to this day concerning the title "Walking Dead," but in early 1965, the 9th Regiment used the name en total. However, today if one mentions The Walking Dead in the Marine Corps, it is recognized as 1/9. (My apologies to the brave Marines of 1/9 for my book not reflecting their stories as well).  The title of the book was chosen by the editors at the publishing house--the original title was "Shadows of Bamboo." The 9th Marine regimental nickname was "The Striking Ninth".

 

To read the complete story, order "The Walking Dead: A Marine's Story of Vietnam" at any bookstore. (Not available through Consolidated Press)

 

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