My First Days
in the 5th Marine Battalion
Dedicated to Tran Ba, killed in action
but whose fighting spirit soars on
Major Tran Ve
After the ARVN had withdrawn from Quang Tri, Marine Division units were ordered to form a new defensive line - this time south of the My Chanh river, from the National Route No. 1 to the sea shores east of Route 555.
The 4th Marine Battalion was in R and R in Hue, awaiting supplies. Taking advantage of this for a momentary repose, we sat around a drinks table clinking glasses. There was the Battalion Commander - Lieutenant Colonel Tran Xuan Quang, the Battalion Executive Officer - Major Nguyen Dang Hoa, and myself - the G3 officer. We had also been joined by the 2nd and 3rd Company Commanders - Tu Duc Tho and Trinh Huu Phuoc. The 4th Company Commander - Le Huu Duc, made up the group of six men who had gathered for drinks.
The signalman came in and said, “Great Eagle - Great Eagle Lang Son, wants to talk to you.”
Tran Xuan Quang stood up, clicking his tongue. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Something must have happened. No, stay; don't interrupt your drinks.”
As Great Eagle Quang left, Bach Yen - the radio code name of the Battalion Executive Officer, nodded and murmured, “I heard that the 'Black Dragons' were in a serious confrontation with the enemy, west of My Chanh. Perhaps Lang Son (the radio code name of Brigadier General Bui The Lan) wants to launch a full scale attack. For my part, I'm itching to go. It's about time the enemy witnessed the 4th Battalion's hard earned reputation.”
To this Tu Duc Tho and Trinh Huu Phuoc raised their “33” beers. “We're in with Bravo Command Group right from the first.”
Hoa laughed and said, “It's always Bravo Command Group with you lot.” We were all laughing at that, when Great Eagle Quang entered looking awfully stern. Silence quickly reigned.
Tran Xuan Quang spoke slowly. “The 5th Marine Battalion has been involved in some fierce fighting west of My Chanh against one of the NVA's 325B Infantry regiments. The Marines have seized a 82mm recoiless rifle, 2 machine guns, 8 CKC firearms and killed 18 NVA so far. But fighting continues...”
Then he paused, and turned to me saying, “Tran Ba, the executive officer of the 5th Marine Battalian was killed when he and the 1st Company attacked the main target...”
I wondered why he was singling me out, and looking rather odd. Quang continued. “Great Eagle Lang Son wants Vung Tau to replace Tran Ba”.
Vung Tau was none other than myself, it was my radio code name. Swallowing nervously I asked “When, Great Eagle?”.
“Right now. A helicopter is coming in 15 minutes to drop you off at the 5th Battalion's coordinates.”
Such was military life. Coming and going at the drop of a hat. Just obeying orders. So... I was to leave the 4th Marine Battalion, where I had served since my graduation for nine consecutive years. No time to prepare myself mentally. So many sentiments invested, so many beautiful memories gained. Raising his glass, Great Eagle Quang said “I wish you the best of luck - may your mission be safe and successful.”
Hoa, Tho, Phuoc, and Duc also raised their glasses and echoed his toast. “Wishing you all the very very best, Vung Tau.”
Downing my glass I heard the sound of the helicopter's propellers. Hurriedly I shook hands with each and everyone of them. Then I dashed to my quarters to grab my belongings. There, I found my two body guards, their eyes red. As I reached out to take the rucksack which they tendered to me, I felt the prick of tears which threatened to inundate my eyes. The bond forged by brothers in arms was strong. Ke and Tu had been with me for the past 6 years. They had taken care of me, and in doing so had more often than not disregarded their own safety. I was heartbroken at the thought of leaving my two closest Marines, but I tried to put on a brave face.
“Hey, what's this? Come on guys, you should congratulate me. When the battalion is in R & R I'll come and visit.” I shook hands with them, and ran to the helicopter.
Nguyen Dang Hoa was waiting there for me. He clasped my hand and said “I was going to ask Great Eagle Lang Son if I could have you next month... it's too bad that you have to leave now.” Hoa was going to be promoted to Commander of the 1st Marine Battalion the following month.
Tran Xuan Quang was also there. He shook my hand once more. “Given Hoa's promotion next month, I was hoping that you would then become my Executive Officer... however, it seems that it is not to be. Lich needs you urgently. Well, good luck!”
I leapt into the helicopter, choked with emotion, then turned to wave at everyone. The order to transfer had been so rudely issued I had not even had the time to say good bye to the 4th Marine Battalion.
During the flight I thought of the new unit to which I was now being sent.
The Commander of the 5th Marine Battalion was Ho Quang Lich. At one time we had both been in the same company in the 4th Marine Battalion; he had been the Company Executive Officer, whilst I held the position of heavy guns platoon leader. We were very close, before he went to the US to attend a military course. On his return, he became the 5th Marine Battalion's Executive Officer, before eventually becoming its Commander. Lich had always said to me, “Sooner or later I'll manage it so that we'll fight side by side again.”
As the helicopter hovered, trying to land, I caught sight of Lich standing beside his signalman and waving up at me. When the helicopter touched ground I quickly jumped out and ran up to him. When Lich had been with me in the 4th Battalion, his radio code name had been Quang Dung, and he had kept it even with his move to the 5th Marine Battalion. Quang Dung gave me a hug and said “Gotcha! I always said we'ld fight together again didn't I? Sooner or later I'ld have you come!”
“Under the circumstances, I would have preferred it to be later!” I joked, laughing.
He chuckled then pointed me towards the command bunker. Then he opened up a map. “Tran Ba's Bravo Command Group confronted the enemy here” he said, indicating. “Right now Huu, the 1st Company Commander is temporarily replacing him. This morning Giao's 2nd Company encountered enemy resistance on hill 502. Two machine guns were seized, and the troops are still moving. The Battalion Headquarters were positioned at...”
His signalman suddenly entered and said “Great Eagle Lang Son wants to talk to you.”
Lich took the receiver. “Great Eagle, Quang Dung is listening.”
“I sent you Ve Tinh. Did you get him?”
“Yes, Great Eagle. He has arrived. I was just briefing him.”
“OK. Put Ve Tinh on to the launcher. He is to occupy 504 and 505 before dark.”
“Yes Great Eagle.”
Lich turned back to me. “Did you hear that? I'll let a platoon take you to Huu's position. It was such a pity about Tran Ba. He fought magnificently yesterday. I gave him artillery fire support, and he led Huu's company in to occupy the target. You should have seen the NVA running! We seized an 82mm mortar, machine guns and rifles. 16 NVA were killed, and two captured. Right after the target had been invaded, Tran Ba caught a bullet square in the chest. He died instantly. I couldn't let him go alone, so the two NVA were to accompany him... I let them have it then reported 18 NVA dead.”
I knew Lich's character well. All his siblings had died at the hands of the Communists, the people of his home town also. Lich had revenge stamped all over him. Any VC who fell into his hands was finished. And now, on top of all that, his Executive Officer had just been killed.
I left the command bunker, readjusting my weapons belt. Outside, the platoon waited. Right at that moment the sound of enemy artillery was heard. Lich shouted “Everybody down!” Two explosions occured on the left of the Battalion Headquarters. Clapping me on the shoulder Lich laughed and said, “Well, there's their personal welcome for you!”
I smiled. “Well then it's only right that I should return their greeting. Wait for the good news, Great Eagle!”
En route to Bravo Command Group, I thought of Tran Ba. I had met him before, when the 5th Marine Battalion had been retrained. We'd had a few drinks in Vung Tau together. He was a tall, jovial and kind person. He was particulary well liked by the Marines. In battle he had always been tough and courageous. I promised myself that Tran Ba would finally have a rest, since I was going to finish what he had started. I'ld let the NVA see what stern stuff Marines were made of.
Ngo Thanh Huu welcomed me to Bravo Command Group Headquarters. Huu was yet another close friend; we had been class mates from the Company Commander Course at Thu Duc Training School. After a discussion about the battle conditions, we deployed to invade target 504. Following a barrage of artillery, I ordered Huu to take two platoons for a direct frontal assault on hill 504; meanwhile, Giao was to lead an attack from the rear.
The air reverberated with the sound of firearms and the Marines' cries of “Forward”. I hoped that the spirit of Tran Ba hovered about there somewhere, to witness how dearly his friends made the enemy pay for his death. Huu reported back to me that two platoons now occupied the target, and were currently counting the number of weapons seized. The Bravo Command Group and I went out to see the battlefield which the Marines had conquered. As for the enemy's weapons, we had amassed machine guns, middle size machine guns and CKCs.
From 504, hill 505 was easily observed as it was considerably lower. I let Giao's 4th Company overtake the 1st Company in the advance on 505. Huu was told to leave only one platoon back on 504. We did not use any artillery this time, opting instead for 81mm mortars. I told Huu and Giao to use 60mm mortars before they arrived at 505.
Great Eagle Lang Son's orders had been executed to the letter: Bravo Command Group of the 5th Marine Battalion succeeded in occupying 504 and 505 before nightfall. When next he saw me, Ho Quang Lich shook my had heartily and said, “Congratulations Vung Tau. Your victory is a salute to Tran Ba. I can almost hear him laughing here with us.”
The 5th Marine Battalion had a quiet night in their positions. In my slumber that night I saw Tran Ba; he took my hand but seemed to have trouble articulating his words...
Written in California, 1997
Major Tran Ve