The Hill of Angels Remembered
From late summer of 1967 until after the TET Offensive in Feb 1968, the Marine position at Con Thien, north of the town of Cam Lo, and just south of the southern border of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam, was pounded daily by North Vietnamese artillery and mortars. The position, which was only big enough for an infantry battalion reinforced with tanks and artillery, was well within range of NVA 152mm and 122mm artillery firing from across the Ben Hai River in North Vietnam. Over 1000 rounds of NVA artillery landed on Con Thien in a single day. The pounding was so great and casualties were such that battalions were rotated from the position at least once a month. It was known as "The Hill of Angels".
The photos accompanying this story are from the website of David Douglas Duncan, a famous Marine photographer who served from World War II through Vietnam. Some of the most well known pictures from the Chosin Reservoir campaign are his. From Con Thien you could see far into North Vietnam across the Ben Hai, as is illustrated in the first picture. I suppose that was one reason we occupied the position. I sometimes wonder about other reasons given by both Marine General Cushman and MACV Army General Westmoreland that if the Marines abandoned Con Thien, the NVA would immediately occupy the hill and from there they would continue attacking outposts as they invaded deeper into South Vietnam.
My outfit, the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines of 1st Marine Division fame, had been chopped to the 3rd Marine Division in October 1967 and had moved from south of DaNang to Quang Tri. We operated in an area south and west of that city until late December 1967. Then it was our turn in the barrel. We moved north to occupy the position at Con Thien just before Christmas.
Beautiful Con Thien-garden spot of the DMZ
My state of mind about going there was ambivalent. On the one hand there was the opportunity to be part of the action at one of the most famous places of the Vietnam War. The excitement generated by the anticipation of going there was palpable. On the other hand I knew that we would be in the bull’s eye. I knew that casualties were high at Con Thien. I had already lost friends there. There was an even chance that my Marines and I could become casualties. Those were sobering times.
The battalion boarded trucks at our CP south of Quang Tri and headed north. After an uneventful trip that took us to a U.S. artillery position north of Cam Lo and south of Con Thien, we disembarked and prepared to finish the trip to The Hill of Angels on foot.
We deployed tactically for the approach march. As I recall, my company was assigned the point. We were spread out on both sides of the road leading to the position, and started to move forward. Con Thien was not visible from our position. We had to descend into a shallow draw and climb a slight rise before we could actually see the place. As we climbed I noticed smoke rising above the low ridge to our front. I thought, "They must have just been hit by incoming artillery before we arrived, and there are fires on the position!" The tension was becoming unbearable. We didn’t know if we would be hit when we topped the rise. We were troops in the open!
Then we reached the top, and to my astonishment, the fires were not from enemy artillery damage, but from BURNING SHITTERS!! I was disappointed and relieved at the same time. No matter where you went in Vietnam, field sanitation was king! They had not yet received any incoming enemy fire on that day. That would change later, but at the time of our arrival, all was calm at Con Thien.
After the shock of the burning shitters was past, I took a look at Con Thien. It was an incredible jumble of barbed wire, mud, bunkers, trenches, and just plain debris everywhere, with tanks and howitzers scattered here and there. If we tried to clean the place up the NVA would hammer us with artillery, so we just left things where they were and did the best we could.
We were visited by General Westmoreland, the commander of MACV, on Christmas Day during the cease fire. We had hot chow and the works. Westmoreland toured the position, and questioned one of our machine gunners. He asked, “How long of a burst is best for firing your machine gun?" The private said, "We fire two to three second bursts, sir." The General says, "It must be tough in battle to time the bursts for 2-3 seconds. How do you time your trigger squeeze?" The Marine replied, "Oh that's easy sir. We just pull the trigger and say, "DIE MOTHER-F**KER, DIE!" and release the trigger."
During our time on the 520 foot hill, we both suffered and inflicted casualties, to include one battalion commander WIA. Serving there was just as advertised. It was a dangerous place. Sleep was broken by incoming fire or the anticipation of enemy fire coming from the NVA across the river. Counter battery artillery fire added to the din. Outposts were probed but the enemy did not get inside the wire as had happened in previous months. The only thing that kept Con Thien from being stormed by the North Vietnamese Army was aggressive Marine ground patrols coordinated with heavy artillery, intense aerial bombing and increased naval gunfire. I was glad to get out of there in one piece.
And so we left Con Thien to fight the war at other garden spots around Vietnam. On a personal note, when I left Con Thien I weighed 60 pounds less than I do now. I keep myself in pretty good shape for an old guy and am not overweight. Apparently being under daily artillery fire is not conducive to a good appetite.
Ah yes. I look back mostly with fondness at my service in the Far East…Japan-The Land of the Rising Sun, Korea-The Land of the Morning Calm, and Vietnam-The Land of the Burning Shitters.
Dirck Praeger sends