MARINE CORPS TANKERS VIETNAM HISTORICAL Foundation's
Vietnam Personal Accounts
Vietnam Tankers Foundation History Project
By Pete Ritch
As part of the USMCVTA Oral History Project the following is a description of some of the actions that I experienced during my tour of duty (October 1968 to October 1969) along the DMZ in Vietnam.
The methodology utilized to develop these accounts was as follows: Researched 3rd Tank Battalion Command Chronologies (CC) from January to October 1969; utilized the enhanced maps of our area of operation and Edits / recollections from some of my platoon members. In the CCs, there were few references to operations. Tank references were usually stated as “road sweep in support of Foxtrot Company 2/3” or “in support of a land clearance with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines”. Tank platoons seldom operated at full strength, (i.e.) five (5) M48A tanks. During my ten months with Bravo Company, 3rd Tanks we operated as two or three tank units assigned to support infantry operations in Northern I Corps that went from Ocean View in the east to Camp Vandergrift in the west and from Gio Lin to mountains south of Rt. 9, near the village of Cam Lo. On one specific land clearing operation, we had two U.S. Army armored personnel carriers (APC) under Marine command, assigned to us.
I have listed the exact CC notations that are followed by “The rest of the story”, which are my recollections of the events.
The members of the Third Platoon, B Company, during my tour of duty as the Platoon Commander were- Gunny Robert Barnes, Staff Sgt. Jim Jewel, Sgt. Claude “Chris” Vargo, Cpl. Bob Mendez, Cpl. “Andy” Anderson, Sgt. Jerry Solano, Sgt. Silvestre Soto, Cpl. Frederick Janneck, Cpl. Bill Eaves, Cpl. Steve Deveney, Cpl. Harold “ Buck” Riggs, Cpl. Bob Haley, Fredric Marrale, Pfc. William “Ace” Jennings. I apologize if I left anyone out.
Background: I arrived at Bravo Company, 3rd Tank Battalion, 3rd Marine Division headquarters at Vinh Dai (the Rock Crusher) on or about 1 January 1969 after having spent 90 days as an infantry platoon commander. I was very grateful for my grunt experience but was even more grateful to have five M48A3’s and a platoon of “salty” tankers to work with.
My first operation was located in the mountains approximately five miles south of the village of Cam Lo. Three (3) Bravo Co, 3rd Platoon tanks (B-33, B-34 and B-35) and an infantry platoon from Foxtrot Co., 2/3, provided a daily road-sweep from a base camp in the mountains to Rt. 9 that was near Cam Lo. The dirt road heading south from the intersection of Rt. 9 at Cam Lo rose swiftly into the mountains and it was full of switch backs and sheer cliffs. On the mountain top, the road leveled out and ran past a large banana plantation. The plantation was run by French priests and on the south end of the plantation was a small village. Our base camp was approximately one mile past the village. The village was inhabited by some 300 old men, women and children. We never saw a male over the age of 8 or 9 in that village.
After the completion of the road sweep to Rt. 9, we would return to our mountain base camp and run search and destroy patrols. Our patrols were limited to an area south and east of the base camp. An Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) company ran patrols to the north and west of our location. Across from our base camp were a dirt air strip and an Army Special Forces encampment.
1.) Command Chronology notation: 13 January 1969 - B Co. road sweep found one mine, approx. 12 inches in diameter, 4 inches high with an approx. weight of 30 lbs. at 101532. Blown in place
The rest of the story - We had been running a daily road sweep from the mountain highlands down the winding dirt road to the intersection of Rt. 9, near Cam Lo for approximately two weeks. Each morning children would line the road and ask for food, Chicklets and pogey bait . We usually tossed them something to eat and I thought that we had a good relationship with the villagers. On the morning of January 13th, as we began the road sweep there were no children in sight - not along the road, not in the village and not in the fields of the nearby banana plantation. Less than a half mile into the sweep, with the village to our left, the grunt’s sweep crew found a land mine in the road. We blew it in place.
I felt that we were doing the villagers a service by clearing their road, which allowed them to go to the market at Cam Lo and also to reach Rt. 9 east to be able to travel to Dong Ha and to Quang Tri. The fact that there were no kids along the side of the road and no villagers in sight that morning, left me no doubt that the villagers knew that the road had been mined. I climbed down from my TC hatch, walked into the nearest hut and found an old man and woman with a small child. I yelled at them asking why they had not warned us about the mine and of course got no response. I waved my 45 in the air and got nothing but blank stares. I climbed back aboard B-33 (202068) and we completed the sweep.
2.) Command Chronology notation: 14 January 1969 - B33, B34, B35 fired at a total of 7 NVA in a tree line at coordinates 114508. Results were 5 NVA KIA’s and 2 probable’s
The rest of the story: B-33, B-34 and B-35 had been running daily road sweeps and day light patrols with a Marine infantry platoon on a plateau that was approximately five (5) miles southwest of the intersection of Rt. 9, near Cam Lo. Near our base camp was a large banana plantation and small village of approximately 200 Vietnamese. There was a dirt airstrip on one side on our base camp under the control of an Army Special Forces Team. Our daily search and destroy patrols were limited to grids directly south and west of our base camp. An ARVN unit was responsible for day light patrols to our north and east. We ran these patrols for several weeks with no evidence of enemy activity, much less enemy contact. On January 13, I asked permission to run the next day’s patrol in the area assigned to the ARVN. It was granted and we were informed that there would be no “friendlies” in the area.
On January 14, our three tanks accompanied by an infantry platoon headed out of the village in our usual southwest direction. About a click down the road, we headed north over a small hill and into a tree line. The infantry platoon dismounted and moved through the tree line into an open field and proceeded toward the next tree line. The three tanks waited behind the first tree line. I received a radio message from the grunt platoon leader that there was what looked like smoke from a campfire in the far tree line. As the grunts continued across the field, they received small arms fire from the tree line. B-33, B-34 and B-35 crashed through the near tree line, moved past the grunts and opened fire on the enemy position with 90 MM canister rounds and .50 and .30 caliber machineguns. The enemy fire ceased. We searched the tree line and found five (5) uniformed NVA dead and blood trails leading away from the scene. In addition to the KIAs there were several AK-47s, NVA packs & equipment and a small fire with cooking utensils. The fact that they established a camp fire showed that they felt very secure in the area.
The infantry company commander ordered us to load the NVA bodies on the tanks and bring them back to our base camp. On the return trip back, B-33 (202068) slipped a track on a muddy hillside and we had to break track and walk it back into position. Repairing the track was hard enough but to have to deal with the NVA blood running off the fender and down the side of the road wheel housing made it sickening. When we got back to our base camp it was almost dark and we were told to lay the bodies along the side of the road in front of the village. At day break, the next morning, every villager was lined up and walking past the bodies. One old woman fell to the ground screaming and crying. She had found her son.
B-33, B-34 and B-35 supported road sweep and patrolling operations for another three weeks without any incidents. Our patrols were once again restricted to areas south and west of our combat base while the ARVN were “supposedly” patrolling areas to the north and east.
3.) Command Chronology notation: 3 February 1969 - 3rd Platoon, Co. B and APC units on land clearance with Army Dozers and Co. G/2/3/, found NVA campsite with hootches and bunkers. Two NVA/POW’s were captured with their equipment and sent to Cam Lo for questioning.
The rest of the story: Three tanks from Bravo Co. (B-33 and two unnamed Bravo Company tanks) were supporting an Army Engineering Company of 25 bull dozers and 5 Army APCs in a chopper landing clearing operation that was located north of Rt. 9 and east of Cam Lo in Quang Tri Province. The tanks, APCs and infantry platoon established a security perimeter and the dozers would clear all of the underbrush and trees inside the perimeter. The trees and underbrush were approximately 7 feet tall. The dozers formed an off-set column inside the perimeter and would clear everything in their way to dirt level. I was in the TC hatch of B-33 and after one of dozers passed by I saw a frantically waving hand sticking out of the freshly turned soil. I halted the next dozer in line and we approached the hand. The grunts dug around the hand and when another hand surfaced, they dragged an NVA officer from a tunnel that the dozers had crushed.
The grunts found another NVA officer in the hole along with an AK-47, 9 mm pistol and several NVA packs. In the packs were maps of several U.S. combat bases in the area, including a map of Bravo Co., 3rd Tanks Headquarters at Vinh Dai. The map of our company headquarters included the location of our night time tank locations, our communications bunker and our machine gun placements. The POWs were taken away for questioning. Shortly after the POWs left, I received a radio call from Captain Miller, Bravo Six, asking where the AK-47 and 9 mm pistol were. I stated that I wasn’t sure. The Captain told me that I had 15 minutes to get the weapons to Cam Lo. I liberated the weapons in my turret and dispatched a tank with a squad of Marines to Cam Lo. I felt that the tank crew deserved the souvenirs more than some pogue in the rear. We never did find out who received the weapons.
4.) Command Chronology notation: (There were two reports of this action in the CCs - Summary report and the S-2 report; both are listed below).
Summary report - 22 February 1969 - On 22 Feb., the APC platoon suffered 2 KIAs from an enemy ambush in Leather Neck Square. The APC platoon and a platoon from B Co. 3rd Tank Battalion inflicted 4 enemy KIAs and captured 1 NVA/POW.
S-2 report - 22 February 1969 - B Co tanks with APCs on landing clearing operation taken under heavy automatic weapons fire - 2 KIAs on the APCs. B-32, B-35, APC 13 & 14 on a sweep with Co. K/3/3. B23 (incorrect should be B-32) fired 5 canister, 2 HE, when ambushed. 2 KIAs from PCs. 1 NVA/POW. Found 1 AK-47, 2 chi com grenades.
The rest of the story: The APC platoon was actually 2 Army APCs under the command of a Marine Infantry Platoon Leader and manned by Marine drivers and machine gunners. The infantry platoon supporting the land clearing operation was from K Co 2/3 and the platoon commander was Lt. Oliver North. The bulldozers (approximately 20) were from an Army Engineering unit. The area of operation was north and east of Cam Lo and south of Con Thien. We established a base camp a couple of miles northeast of Cam Lo. The terrain was hilly and covered with thick brush and undergrowth. The objective was to clear all of the brush in order to observe enemy movement south from the DMZ. Eventually there were to be sensors inserted in the cleared area as part of what was later referred to as the McNamara line.
On 22 February, we completed the land clearing for the day and had escorted the dozers back to our base camp. A spotter plane contacted us and indicated that there was “a bunch of bad guys” just east of our position, heading south. He said that if got our tanks on the small rise about a click to the east, “It’d be like shooting fish in a barrel”. We saddled up B-32, B-35, APC 13 &14 and with the infantry platoon on board the vehicles and headed east. After about a mile, we came to a deep gully with a narrow trail through it. The spotter plane radioed that on the rise just the other side of the gully we’d have a clear shot at a platoon sized enemy unit. With B-32 in the lead, the APCs next and B-35 in the rear, we entered the gully, single file. Half way through the gully we were ambushed by small arms and .50 cal. machinegun fire from both sides of the trail.
The driver of the APC 13, the second vehicle in line, was killed and the APC stopped in the middle of the ambush. I accelerated B-32 through the ambush site, turned around (throwing a track) and went back into the gully. Lt. North riding on my fender was deploying the grunts and firing his shot gun. I swung the turret around to deliver canister fire into the ambush site and knocked North off the fender. We fired .50 cal and several more canister rounds into the brush on both sides of the trail and the enemy fire ceased. We got another driver into the driver’s seat of APC 13 and backed it out of the ambush site. After we evacuated the KIAs and several wounded grunts, including Lt. North who sustained a couple of broken ribs as a result of being hit by a 90 mm gun barrel, we searched the area and found four NVA dead. I do not remember taking a POW. But one of my platoon members, who assisted in developing this write up, remembers one of our tankers, Bob Haley, “questioning” a POW. An artillery strike was called in on our original objective, so we returned to our base camp.
While repairing the track on B-32, we noticed that the glass ring surrounding the TC copula on the tank had been shattered by the impact of five (5) enemy, .50 caliber rounds. The distance from the shattered glass to where I had been manning our 50 cal machine gun was approximately 5 inches. I jumped down from the hatch and immediately threw up.
Bronze Star Medals were awarded to several Marines for their actions that day, including Lt. North and me. In his first book, entitled “Under Fire”, North describes the incident as follows…“the turret swung around and batted me into the air like a baseball”.
5.) Command Chronology notation: 23 March 1969 - B21 sinking in quicksand at grid 281759. All equipment evacuated off vehicle. 1st Amtrac has recovery vehicle on the way to the position. B43 & 41 dispatched from A2 to recovery site. B21 recovered & moved to Dong Ha.
The rest of the story: On March 23, 1969, 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company was sent to relieve two 3rd Platoon B Co. tanks at the Oceanview Combat Base. B-21 arrived at Oceanview under the command of a brand new 2nd Lt. He was shown the Oceanview perimeter, gun placements and tank slots and briefed on operational procedures. B-21 then accompanied the two 3rd Platoon, B Co. tanks south to the Cua Viet base camp. As we ran south in the tide line, B-21 radioed that he wanted to check out the area to our west just beyond the sand dunes. I recommended that he remain along the tide line. He asked that we run parallel to him and drove over the dune and headed south. The Bravo Co 3rd platoon tanks continued toward Cua Viet and we could see B-21’s radio antenna running parallel to us, behind the dunes. Suddenly, B-21 radioed that he was stuck and then he said that he was sinking. The Bravo 3rd platoon tanks came to the top of the dunes to see the B-21 tank crew and their equipment evacuated from the tank along with the grunts who had been riding on the tank, standing on the dunes. The only evidence of B-21 was the two radio antenna’s sticking out of the quick sand. I do not remember an Amtrac being involved but the Bravo 3rd platoon tanks were ordered to return to Cua Viet. I never did find out what happened to the B-21 or the boot 2nd Lt.
6.) Command Chronology notation - (There were two reports of this action (24 March 1969) in the CCs- the summary report and the S-2 report- both are listed below).
Summary report - Co. B (REIN) in support of the second ARVN Regiment…the following day (24 March) while the company retriever was going to the aid of a mined tank west of A2, it hit a mine and subsequently was attacked by an estimated NVA platoon. The retriever commander distinguished himself by defending his wounded crew men and damaged vehicle until reinforcements arrived. He was credited with killing seven (7) NVA. A sweep of the area disclosed many drag marks and further disclosed three (3) AK-47 rifles, one (1) SKS rifle, two pair of binoculars and miscellaneous 782 gear.
S-2 report - 24 March 1969, B Co., on a sweep with elements of the 2nd ARVN Regiment, had two (2) tanks and a retriever detonate A/T mines. When the retriever hit the mine, it came under ground attack by an estimated NVA platoon. Results were two (2) friendly KIA, two (2) friendly WIA, seven (7) NVA (confirmed) KIA and weapons & equipment captured.
The rest of the story: The above operation was a series of patrols along the demilitarized zone (DMZ), east of Gio Lin and was intended to curtail the flow of NVA infiltrating across the DMZ. A U. S. Army Major was the liaison officer with the 2nd ARVN Regiment and three tanks (B-35, B-?? & B-??) from Bravo Co., 3rd Tank Battalion, 3rd Marine Division. We operated out of the “A-2” combat base and patrolled an area approximately three kilometers (clicks) east of A-2 along the DMZ. On March 24, 1969, the tanks and a company of ARVN grunts had completed a sweep of the area and were returning to A-2 when B-35 hit a mine. I requested that the U. S. Army liaison officer direct the ARVN to set up perimeter security while the tank crew repaired the damage. He replied that he would have the ARVN set up the security. B-3? & B-3? remained nearby providing tank security. The ARVN infantry unit marched past us as if we weren’t even there. As the end of the ARVN column neared our position, I again requested ARVN perimeter security and again, the Army liaison officer acknowledged my request. He said that he would get the ARVN to set up a perimeter immediately. I told him the ARVN column was almost out of sight and that no perimeter security had been established. The crew of the stricken tank completed repairing the track without any ARVN infantry support and our three tanks headed toward A-2. As our tank column limped west B-3? hit a mine. Again, the tank crew began repairing the track and the only security was provided by our other two tanks. In the mean time the Bravo Co. tank retriever had been dispatched from Vinh Dai to meet us at Route 1 that was just south of Gio Lin. Staff Sergeant Harold Reinsche was in command of the retriever and with his four crewmen he awaited our arrival at Route 1. When our tank hit the second mine, Staff Sgt. Reinsche radioed that he was coming west to our assistance. As the retriever headed to our position, Sgt Reinsche told us that he had just passed the end of the ARVN infantry column marching east. None of the Bravo Company vehicles had any ground security and as we finished the repairs on B3? we heard an explosion and saw a plume of black smoke about 100 yards to our east, just over a small rise. Sgt. Reinsche informed us that the retriever had hit a mine and his crew had dismounted to repair the damage. We then heard small arms fire and Reinsche radioed that they had been ambushed. I dispatched B-35 (the tank commander (TC) was Cpl. Claude Vargo and his driver was Pfc. Robert Mendez) to the retrievers position. I stayed on the radio with Cpl Vargo and Sgt Reinsche. At one point Sgt. Reinsche told me that he was the only crewman left and he was running out of ammunition. Sgt. Vargo radioed that he had the retriever in sight and was delivering .30 cal and .50 cal machinegun fire all around the area surrounding the retriever. Then the fire from the NVA ceased. By this time B-3? was repaired and we moved to the retrievers position as quickly as we could. It was dusk so I ordered all four vehicles to button up and to shot at anything that moved. We had “Spooky” flare ships over head that provided us with “daylight” conditions throughout the night. All of the TC’s (Sgt. Vargo, Sgt. Reinsche, Sgt Bosko and me) remained in radio contact until day break. We arranged for a medevac chopper to arrive at first light. At dawn a Marine infantry platoon arrived and set up perimeter security. Our KIAs (L/Cpl Robert Mark Walkley and Cpl John Micheal Foster) along with our two WIAs (Craig M. Ammon and name unknown) were medevaced. There were seven NVA KIAs surrounding the retriever and one NVA KIA lying on the top of the retriever. All of the enemy dead were killed by Sgt. Reinsche, who exhausted all of the ammunition from the .50 cal machinegun, an M-79 grenade launcher and his .45 cal pistol. A search of the area surrounding the retriever resulted in the capture of a good amount of NVA equipment and multiple blood trails.
Once the vehicles were repaired, we drove west to Route 1. The retriever returned to Bravo Company Headquarters and the three (3) Bravo 3rd Platoon tanks, returned to A-2 combat base. I went directly to the Army liaison officers command bunker and proceeded to chew him up one side and down the other. The Army major was absolutely silent. I guess he had never been chewed out by a second lieutenant before. As I went outside of his bunker I threw up.
For their heroism Staff Sergeant Reinsche was awarded the Navy Cross medal and Sgt. Walkley was awarded the Silver Star medal.
7.) Command Chronology notation - 11 May 1969, B-31 hit a mine at YD 315728 while returning to Oceanview with troops from the Cua Viet. Moderate suspension damage sustained and four (4) infantrymen were wounded and required evacuation.
The rest of the story: Two Bravo company tanks, B-31 and B-3?, were supporting Marine infantry units at the Oceanview combat base. Oceanview was located on top of a large sand dune that overlooked the Ben Hai River and the DMZ. The objective of our operation was to identify and interdict NVA troops crossing the river and the DMZ into South Viet Nam. The tanks would also transport troops and supplies from Cua Viet to Oceanview once a week. On 11 May 1969, we had completed our run south to Cua Viet, picked up supplies & replacement troops and started back to Oceanview. Approximately, a click north of Cua Viet, B-31 hit a mine on the right side, blowing off two road wheels and throwing several grunts off the tank. I was riding in the TC hatch and I looked down and saw an unconscious Marine on the fender. When I reached him, I saw that his right leg had been badly damaged by the blast. He was bleeding out so I applied a tourniquet with my web belt to his groin area. We called for a medevac chopper and placed him on board. He and three other wounded Marines were taken to the Cua Viet aid station. I never found out his name or how badly he was hurt. We repaired the track and continued to Oceanview. I was deaf in my right ear for about three days.
From that day on, we made it a policy that on the runs to and from Oceanview, the tanks would run with one track in the surf and the other on the hard pack sand and that no troops would ride on the vehicles with their legs hanging over the fender.