Marine Corps Vietnam.

War Story: Operation Prairie II: Blocking Forces Along the Song Thu Bon

09 January 2006

John Culbertson

In February of 1967 the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines joined the six-month-old Operation Prairie I just as it was drawing to a close. The operation had utilized six Marine infantry battalions in a sweep across the northern sector of Quang Tri Province, and had racked up some impressive numbers killing 1,329 enemy troops in the subsequent fighting. It was only natural that Operation Prairie II would follow on the heals of a successful Prairie I.

On the 1st of February the operation kicked off with the 5th Marines moving into position to provide to provide a succession of “hammer and anvil” sweeps through a number of local Vietnamese villages that had been targeted for pacification by the III Marine Amphibious Force Command.

Orders issued from 2/5 Battalion Command in An Hoa early the next morning. Hotel Company's First Squad was sent to join the remainder of Third Platoon at the Marine firebase at Phu Loc 6 to await the arrival of the remainder of Hotel Company which would be patrolling across Liberty Bridge in front of our position around 1400 hours. Third Platoon would then move out to take the point and lead the rest of Hotel's Marines to positions along the eastern bank of the Thu Bon River in the Arizona Territory. We were told to dig our positions in to allow for a 180 degree field of visibility over the river to our front. Each squad was to be divided into two fire teams and would occupy a bunkered position a hundred metres from the next position. Each position would consist of a machinegun team and a pair of riflemen. Fields of fire between the positions were to interlock.

In addition, for fire support, a pair of 105mm howitzers had been helilifted into Phu Loc 6 along with two thousand rounds of ammunition. The guns could directly support our positions along the river, or fire pre-plotted fire missions into selected grid sectors on the far side of the river that were determined as likely crossing points for the enemy.

Echo and Foxtrot, two reinforced 2/5 rifle companies out of An Hoa Combat Base, had already left their departure point and were sweeping the Arizona some twenty klicks across the river to our west. The two companies had linked up and were running crossing patterns through the rice paddies, villages and jungle covered hills and valleys that dotted the South Vietnam countryside. Their objective was to force out the resident enemy soldiers and drive them before their joined formations toward the distant Song Thu Bon.

If Charlie managed to elude the Marines of Echo and Foxtrot companies, he would have to cross the natural barrier of the river to effect his escape into the safety and protection of the hamlets on the opposite shore in the An Hoa basin. This was where Hotel Company had dug in and was waiting. Our bunkers had been carefully dug in and camouflaged and were not visible to anyone on the far shore. Hopefully, if everything went according to plan, Charlie would attempt a night crossing at several of the narrows along the river, and run headlong into one of Hotel's blocking positions on the opposite side of the river. Artillery would be used to fix the targets and then provide illumination for the Marine machine gunners and riflemen to finish the job.

Our fire team downed a meal of C-rats and smoked a couple of cigarettes before dividing up the watches. Since I was the junior man in the position, SOP dictated that I “draw” the highly unpopular 0200-0400 watch. The “graveyard” shift didn't really bother me, because I figured if Charlie decided to cross the river, he'd wait until sometime between 0300-0500 hours. It was always the VC's ideal time to move. Defensive troops on guard were always tired and least alert just before dawn. This fact wasn't lost on Charlie. As I said, I didn't mind drawing the graveyard shift because I “wanted” to be awake when Chuck tried to cross the river. That way I was certain not to miss anything. Maybe, just maybe, I would get off the first shot at old sneaky Charlie as he tried to float motionless past my position in his shallow draft pole boat.

The sun soon burned itself out over the river and seemed to melt into the dark silhouettes outlining the distant mountains. I lay back in my fighting hole still wearing my combat gear and resting against the relative softness of my poncho covered haversack. My rifle was fully loaded and rested against the parapet of my foxhole. My flak jacket and helmet lay on the ground behind my head where I could reach them in a hurry if we went into action.

John Lafley, the salty old veteran that he was, got the first watch form 2000 to 2200 hours. Benny Byrnes would relieve him and stay on alert until midnight. Then Corporal Tim Kirby would take the watch until he relieved me at 0200. Although my watch was from 0200 to 0400, I knew that I would probably stay with it until dawn. I closed my eyes and focused on visions of y mom and dad, and life back home and was soon asleep.

At exactly 0200 hours, Kirby shook me awake. I was up and instantly with the programme. Kirby who was a stocky, blonde Tennesseean from Knoxville, whispered quietly, “Culbertson, they're firing illumination about 200 metres to our front. Echo and Foxtrot are pushing Charlie hard. If the activity gets within eyesight across on the far bank wake me up immediately. Got it?”

“Aye, aye, Corporal,” I whispered, slipping my flack jacket over my shoulders and pulling my helmet down where I could just see the opposite shore under the brim of the camo-cover. I had already learned that if you allowed too much light to enter your eyesight it would ruin your night vision.

All I needed to concern myself with was the river to my front. If Charlie came across there he would be right smack in my kill zone. I gently caressed the stock of my M-14 rifle, before quietly removing the magazine to test the pressure on the spring. I wanted to make certain that I had a full magazine. My eyesight was a perfect 20-20 and I was ready. I thought to myself, “Please cross the river now, Charlie, “cause Uncle John is waitin' for your ass!”

From behind me I heard one of the howitzers at Phu Loc 6 report and send a round our way. “POP!” the canister split high overhead, and a 20,000 candlepower illumination flare swung back and forth in a lazy arc as it descended down, down, down over the river. The red clay bank, the light sand and the twisting river current stood out as clear as in daylight, and I began to fear that Charlie could see us and wouldn't come.

I strained my eyes to the front, and sure enough, not 200 metres form the bank, the brush was moving where enemy soldiers were pushing it ahead of them as they moved toward the river.

“Kirby, Kirby, wake up,” I whispered, “the gooks are right in front of us. Wake up, man!” Kirby was awake seconds later and standing at the front of the bunker scanning the far shore.

“Yeah, I got 'em now,” he said, “they're coming straight toward us. Get Lafley and Byrnes up and into their firing positions.”

The other two Marines awoke easily and grabbed their vests and helmets. The fully awake fire team now spread out along the front of our bunker. Each man was responsible for his field of fire directly in front of his position. Kirby spoke first, “Let them get in their boats and into mid-stream before we engage. I'll fire first and you men can fire at will. Is that clear?”

We all nodded silently, eagerly intent on Charlie's movements on the opposite bank. We visually swept the far shore waiting for the enemy to show himself.

“I got one,” Lafley whispered, his sharp eyes giving us the play by play. “There he is holding something at the water's edge about 150 metres north of Culbertson. You pick him up yet? There's three more getting into a boat. That first dink is holding a rope to steady the craft until his buddies can hunker down inside. Oh shit, man, there's at least ten more getting into boats all along that little cove.”

Kirby stared sharply at the enemy activity, which seemed to get more and more animated as he watched. Several explosions went off five hundred metres out to our front, indicating that Echo and Foxtrot were closing in for the kill.

“Culbertson, what do you make of those explosions?” Kirby said, testing my knowledge at identifying weapon systems at night. It was important to know what weapons were used by Marines in your defence, or by Charlie against you. There existed very specific methods of protecting yourself from different types of attack. Marines did not react the same way to an attack by machine gun fire as they did to a mortar attack, for instance.

“Corporal Kirby, those explosions sound like M-79 rounds impacting,” I answered, hoping I was correct.

“Good guess, Culbertson, that's exactly what they are. Echo and Foxtrot are close enough to spit on those dinks,” Kirby responded, offering that last bit of information to underline the reality that Echo or Foxtrot Companies might get to the enemy before he got into the river and under our sights. The only thing I knew for sure was that this was one exciting happening! The sweat was dripping off my brow and my grip was slippery on my rifle.

Lafley hissed, “They're in the boats and pushing off from the bank. I count four boats and about a dozen VC. Man alive, Kirby, let's barbecue these fuckers.”

“Hey, Byrnes, you think the next bunker can see these dinks from over there. I mean, if no one but us can see these guys then they're ours, right?”

Kirby and Byrnes were buddies. Both Marines were naturals in Vietnam, and their hunting and woodsmen skills were not the least bit obsolete in this jungle environment.

“Lookee here, they comin' down right purdy now. Boats all lined up real nice,” Kirby whispered, his excitement felt by the rest of us. “PFC Byrnes, you got the honour of the first shot. The team can fire at will after Byrnes opens up. Steady now, boys. Watch your sights and markers close.”

Byrnes' rifle swung easily with the muzzle tracking the bow of the lead boat as it swung into mid-channel and picked up speed in the current. Byrnes squeezed the trigger and bullets slammed through flesh and wood. The reports of our rifles echoed off the far riverbank. All four of us were working the Viet Cong boats over now. All the previous bullshit had stopped, and we were now concentrating on covering each craft from bow to stern with accurate and deadly plunging fire. The deadly cones of rifle fire impacted against the boats, their occupants, and the surrounding water, throwing up the river in a vaporous spray of death and destruction. The heavy .30 calibre rounds ploughed through the VC as their boats were cut to kindling.

So vicious and sudden had been our ambush that not a shot was returned from Charlie. It was all over in a couple of minutes, with the final minute probably accomplishing little more than overkill. The river quickly returned to normal, with the only signs that twelve men had just died out there was the floating remnants of the four boats. Not a sign of any of the enemy soldiers could be seen. We knew that copses and severed body parts would surface downstream by late morning, but that was no concern of ours. Our business was to trap and kill Charlie anyway we could. The older, veteran Marines in Vietnam liked to say, “Our business is killing Charlie, and right now business is real good!”

“Well, how about them apples, boys?” Kirby announced,, as we stood looking out over the river, the smoke still hanging over our fighting positions. “They never even got off a shot! Hell, I'm sure we got all of 'em. Aren't you sure we got all of them, Byrnes?”

“Yeah, Corporal,” replied the usually taciturn, brooding Private First Class, “I think we tore Charlie a new one, though the skipper will probably ask why we ain't got no prisoners!”

Everyone laughed at Byrnes' comment. He was right! We were feeling damn proud of ourselves, but we probably would get chewed for not trying to get a prisoner.

Byrnes grinned, “Culbertson ain't a cherry no more! Shit, boy, you might just make a trooper yet with old Private Byrnes to school your ass. You liked killin' them boys in the boat, didn't you?”

“Yes, sir, Private Byrnes, I liked it real good. Do you guys have some kind of hillbilly merit badge for slaughtering hogs or anything like that?” I retorted. I had learned early on that in the Marine Corps you always stood your ground and never gave in to the shit-givers. It was rite of passage of sorts. I knew that I had passed the first test to being accepted by this strange breed of fighter – the Test of Blood. Like their ancestors, these Vietnam Marines were a warrior breed who could joke and swear with the best of them, and even defame your mother. Yet in the next moment, salute the flag form ramrod straight attention with eyes welling with tears as the strains of the National Anthem or the Marine Corps Hymn blared from the golden throat of a trumpet. These Marines would thrash an offender who transgressed their unspoken code of honour and loyalty to America or the Corps. Marines everywhere shared this common bond of faithfulness and pride. It was part of the religion, the belief, the creed. I had willingly embraced it and instinctively I knew that the faith would remain in my blood forever.

We knew that Charlie's commanders would discover what had befallen their comrades by morning. The VC never liked to stand toe to toe and shoot it out with Marine patrols. Never! They were ambushers and booby trappers, but they weren't gunfighters. Our one sided victory would add to the Marine mystique. The enemy had gotten another lesson of the perils of tangling with the Leathernecks of the 5th Marines.

I was now convinced of the well-deserved reputation of the destructive power of marine riflemen. Four of us, in less than sixty seconds, at night, had killed a dozen men over one hundred metres away, and reduced their boats to kindling. Great White sharks were not so through. Charlie had to be impressed. I know I was.

John J. Culbertson, served as a point scout and 5th Marine Regiment sniper form December 1966 through July 1967 at An Hoa Combat Base, I Corps, Republic of South Vietnam.

This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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