HILL 48: A battle for CON THIEN
BY RICHARD K. KOLB
In early September 1967, the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines—“The Professionals”—took on an entire NVA regiment in the vicinity of Con Thien, blunting a major ground assault on that combat base.
It was God awful, but on the other hand one of the proudest events in my life,” said Rick Eilert in January 2010. “Yet still I feel a terrible sense of guilt for having survived.” In September 1967, Eilert was a 19-year-old private first class with the 2nd Platoon of M Company. He was referring to the deadly battle of Sept. 10 near Con Thien.
Local missionaries called it the “Hill of Angels”; Marines dubbed it a living hell. Con Thien Combat Base was part of Leatherneck Square, the Marine area of operations (AO) just below Vietnam’s demilitarized zone. The helicopter landing zone there became known as “Death Valley.”
Nui Ho Khe was an elongated hill (designated 88) located 1,000 meters southwest of Hill 48,a topographical feature occupied by Marines and situated at the northern apex of a v-shaped valley. As fate would have it, fierce fighting would
envelop parts of that valley
In late summer 1967, the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, under the operational control of the 3rd Marine Division, took its “time in the barrel,” as Leathernecks called duty around Con Thien.
The 3rd Battalion was dispatched to the area to secure the combat base’s endangered main supply route (MSR). The MSR ran between Con Thien and Cam Lo, located on Route 9. The battalion consisted of Headquarters & Service, India, Kilo, Lima and Mike companies. An average rifle company had 190 men. Alongside the riflemen were platoons of B Co., 3rd Tank Bn. And A Co., 3rd Anti- Tank Bn.
BAPTISM OF FIRE IN THE CHURCHYARD
Just two days after arriving, on Sept. 7, separate battalion elements were attacked three miles southwest of Con Thien by two NVA battalions from the 812th Regiment, 324B Division. As it turned out, those NVA were based in the heart of the Marine AO. They nearly overran the Marines amidst darkness.
Two platoons of I Company supported by tankers were hit first. During the night, an I Company platoon commander, Staff Sgt. Russell Armstrong, helped save his unit. Though severely wounded in both legs, he refused evacuation and continued to call in artillery strikes, distribute ammunition and care for the wounded. “Unable to walk,” says his Navy Cross citation, Armstrong “dragged himself across the hazardous area by the use of his arms alone and resolutely directed his platoon in successfully joining the main body of the company.”
Starting around 5:30 p.m., the battalion perimeter at a deserted churchyard was hit by intense enemy fi re. Fighting would persist for five hours. “I was amazed at how calm and collected these young Marines were from start to fi nish,” recalled Eilert. “In my case, I was certain my heart would explode in my chest because I was so frightened.”
Throughout the ordeal, Capt. Tom Early, battalion communications officer, remembered how “the NVA dragged away their dead with meat hooks that had ropes attached … I think they also did it to demoralize us.” Perhaps 50 NVA were killed.
But the Marines paid a heavy price, too. Sixteen were KIA and some 70 WIA. Lance Cpl. Charles Bennett had to retrieve the dead. “Some of the guys were already decomposing,” he said. “They smelled terrible and some were blown all to hell.” Mortar and rocket fi re accounted for 80% of Marines killed that night.
HILL 48 IN THE BULLS-EYE
The churchyard was only a prelude of what was to come. Sept. 10 proved to be more than twice as deadly. While advancing to a new sector, the 3rd Battalion was attacked by the entire 812th NVA Regiment four miles southwest of Con Thien. Isolated into two separate defensive perimeters, Marines were hit by enemy waves.
The battalion objective that day, according to James Coan, author of Con Thien: The Hill of Angels, was Nui Ho Khe—the stronghold of the 812th NVA Regiment on Hill 88. The 26th Marines— “The Professionals” as they were nicknamed— may have spoiled a major enemy attack in the making by engaging the NVA when they did.
The four-hour battle—from 4:15 p.m. to 8:30—began with a barrage of 140mm rocket rounds followed by a coordinated ground assault. At one point, a full NVA battalion rose up from a rice paddy in unison. It was like a shooting gallery for the Marines. “I thought they were stoned,” recalled Bennett. Tanks were awful handy in these circumstances. Tank machine guns mowed down up to 40 NVA in one instance.
Incredible acts of bravery were displayed. Sgt. David Brown, platoon sergeant of 3rd Plt., L Co., was on his last day in-country. He repeatedly and single- handedly charged enemy positions, disrupting the enemy assault on his unit. While encouraging his men, he was mortally wounded. Brown was nominated for the Medal of Honor, but received the Navy Cross instead.
Cpl. James J. Barrett also was awarded the Navy Cross. A squad leader in I Company, “he rallied his men, reorganized the platoon and led them in an effective counterattack,” says the citation. Over the course of this battle, Barrett tended to the wounded and assured their evacuation. No less than five times, he took the initiative of repositioning his men to stop the NVA.
Meanwhile, on Hill 48, M Company, commanded by Capt. Andrew DeBona, faced its own life-and-death struggle. Hit by an enemy assault led by NVA wearing USMC flak jackets and helmets, it repelled the attack. Ontos, Greek for “thing,” resembling small tanks armed with six externally mounted 105mm recoilless rifl es attached—which mowed rows of NVA “down like they were corn”—were critical to Marine survival.
Lance Cpl. Randall Browning commanded an Ontos of A Co., 3rd Anti-Tank Bn. Despite being seriously wounded, he repulsed NVA charges with various weapons. Browning was instrumental in “thwarting the enemy’s attempt to overrun the battalion’s position and prevented the capture, injury or possible death of many Marines,” according to his Navy Cross citation.
DeBona’s actions did not go unrecognized either. His Navy Cross citation reads: “Constantly exposing himself to the enemy while repulsing another enemy assault and concurrently organizing a defensive perimeter, he displayed a tremendous degree of composure and calm, inspiring his Marines by his presence of mind and outstanding courage.”
COMBAT IN THE CRATER
That was not all. When 20 Marines became stranded in a bomb crater out front of the lines, DeBona led a reaction force to the rescue. He remained behind to cover the withdrawal, counting 39 NVA bodies in the crater. The captain was the last man to leave that hole in the ground. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor.
In a personal account of the action, DeBona recalled: “A unit was pinned down in a bomb crater about 100 meters in front of 1st Platoon’s position. I had never before or since been that afraid even during a second tour with Vietnamese marines during the 1972 Easter Offensive. I knew that if I went into that crater I would be dead. Calm settled over me that I can’t describe except that I accepted the inevitable.”
The day after the battle, Marines policed the area for NVA corpses. “We found two lines of enemy KIAs connected by meat hooks through their shoulders,” DeBona said.
There is more to this story that is seldom told. Cpl. Frank Taggart was point man for 2nd Squad, 2nd Plt., M Co. And was severely wounded by rocket fire. In the crater. “We engaged the enemy dressed in U.S. Marine uniforms, helmets and flak jackets,” he said. “Left out is the heroism of two Marines. Cpl. Ron Hickenbottom and Lance Cpl. Vernon McNeese took deliberate aim, shooting and killing a lot of NVA, most of whom were shot in the head. They even tended to the wounded.”
Beginning in 1999, Taggart made it his personal crusade to see them recognized. Finally, in 2001, Hickenbottom received the Silver Star. Unfortunately, McNeese had died by then.
Another unsung hero of Sept. 10 was Army Capt. Charles L. Deibert, commander of the 4th Plt., 220th Recon Airplane Co., 212th Combat Support Avn. Bn. Piloting an 0-1 “Bird Dog,” call sign Catkiller 4-6, he marked targets for fixed-wing aircraft. “One of his marking rounds was so accurate that it detonated in the center of three North Vietnamese machine gun positions,”reads his Distinguished Service Cross citation. Facing a murderous enemy barrage, he “turned a possible defeat into a rout of the enemy and prevented numerous casualties to the Marines.”
For all the Marines present, the experience was harrowing. 2nd Platoon of M Company had set up just past a huge bomb crater to the west of the company command post. “Swarms of NVA came directly toward us,” Eilert said. “If they got up to our line, we drove them back every time. However, NVA dressed as Marines made it into our lines. I found one dead NVA so disguised.
“When we pulled back to form a tighter perimeter, the area was covered with dead and wounded Marines; they just seemed to be everywhere. Next day, when we went out to retrieve our dead, I came across the bodies of four Marines I knew personally.”
EXEMPLARY FIGHTING SPIRIT
More than 140 NVA dead were counted on the battlefield. Yet it had all been at a steep cost in Marines. The 3rd Battalion sustained 37 KIA on Sept. 10: 34 Marines and three Navy corpsmen. K Company alone suffered 17 KIA—46% of the total. Once again, rocket and mortar fire inflicted the greatest casualties, accounting for 75% of the dead. In addition, 192 men were wounded.
Jim Coan, in his excellent 2004 tribute to all Marines who fought at Con Thien, concluded: “The garrison at Con Thien owed a debt of gratitude to the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, for their tenacity and fighting spirit.” (Coan, incidentally, led a tank platoon of A Co., 3rd Tank Bn., in September 1967. )
Postscript: Rick Eilert was severely wounded on Nov. 26, 1967, near Thua Thien as part of Lima Company. Hit by shrapnel from two grenades and shot at point-blank range, he survived only to undergo an incredible number of painful operations over the next 43 years. He chronicled his recuperation at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in For Self and Country in 1983 (republished in 2010 by Naval Institute Press).
A veteran’s advocate, he became a member of VFW Post 11020 in Lake Zurich, Ill., and served as project director for the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program in Chicago. After having his leg amputated in 2010, Rick later died of a heart attack at age 64 on June 9, 2011. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.