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It was a heck of a way to fight a
war, almost like the children's game of hide and seek... only
deadlier...and it wasn't a game by any means.
Running almost the entire length of
both North and South Vietnam was an enemy supply road, infamously known
as the Ho Chi Minh trail. Stretching from the Communist capitol in
the north, this supply route funneled thousands of enemy soldiers and
tons of weapons and supplies to the south, almost entirely within the
protected confines of Laos and Cambodia. But for aerial attack,
the Ho Chi Minh trail was invincible. United States soldiers and
Marines were not allowed to cross the borders.
During the Christmas cease-fire of
1967 the North Vietnamese used the Ho Chi Minh trail to amass tens of
thousands of soldiers for a major offensive. A month after
Christmas, on January 30, 1968, nearly 100,000 enemy soldiers launched a
major offensive, striking simultaneously at every provincial capitol in
the south. In the northwest corner of South Vietnam, embattled
Marines survived a 77-day siege at Khe Sahn. Throughout the
northern portion of South Vietnam, labeled by the military as I CORPS,
fierce fighting raged for months. The massive enemy buildup had
been staged from within their Laotian sanctuary, and launched in I Corps in
large part from fortified positions deep inside a South Vietnamese
mountainous jungle called the A Shau Valley.
The A Shau Valley was one of two
major enemy strongholds in the south. The other was the U Minh
Twenty-two miles long, the A Shau
Valley was only six miles from the Laotian border, a deep valley that
ran between two heavily forested mountain ranges. The strongest
enemy base in South Vietnam, A Shau was protected by a sophisticated
complex of interlocked anti-aircraft batteries and garrisoned more than
5,000 enemy soldiers.
Following the Tet Offensive of
1968, signs of American presence in A Shau was limited primarily to
three abandoned airfields spread throughout the valley floor, and a
deserted Special Forces camp at the southern tip of the valley.
The Special Forces camp had been overrun by the enemy in 1966. For
the most part, the A Shau was a staging point where the enemy could
build huge stockpiles of weapons and supplies funneled south on the
trail through Laos, and then launch strikes against American and South
Vietnamese troops throughout Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces.
A year after the Tet Offensive of
1968, military intelligence reports indicted a massive enemy buildup in
the already heavily enemy-controlled A Shau. Plans at this stage
of the war were for a decreasing role for US ground troops, and transfer
of responsibility for combat actions to the soldiers of the Army of
South Vietnam (ARVN). But the enemy strength in A Shau posed a
threat that demanded an immediate American effort to deny the enemy his
sanctuary, capture his supplies, and prove that the A Shau would no
longer be a haven. Primary responsibility for this mission fell to
the men of the 9th Marines, 3d Marine Division (Reinforced) FMF.
Headquartered 50 miles northeast of the A
Shau at Vandergrift Combat Base under the command of Colonel Robert H.
Barrow, the 9th Marines boasted three battalions to be marshaled for the
formidable task. The mission would be one of the last major
offensives conducted by US Marines in Vietnam. It would be tough,
it would be deadly, but it would be in the tradition of the US Marine
Corps, an engagement fought valiantly and successfully.
Corporal Thomas Noonan did his best to ignore the mud as his company slowly
moved down the side of the hillside. It was February 5th, and Operation
Dewey Canyon was two weeks old. The men of the 9th Marines were
moving into the A Shau Valley, and Company G, 2d Battalion, 9th Marines (2/9)
was moving out of its location southeast of Vandergrift Combat Base as part
of the incursion into A Shau. It was early in the monsoon season, so the
progress of the Marines was hampered not only by the dense foliage, but also
by the intermittent rains and the slippery mud. Suddenly, bad went to
worse as the lead element walked into the enemy.
concealed positions, the North Vietnamese opened fire, wounding four
men. Further up the hill the rest of the Marines were stuck by the
impossible terrain and the hail of enemy fire. No one could reach the
Corporal Noonan was a rifleman in his company, despite an education that could
have granted him an almost immediate commission when he joined the
Corps. Now the 25-year old took upon himself the task of rescuing his
brothers. Carefully he moved down the slippery slope, ever mindful of
the heavy enemy presence. Nearing the wounded, he took cover behind some
rocks to shout encouraging words to the wounded Marines, assuring them that
help was on the way.
raced across the fire-swept area, locating the most seriously wounded man and
dragging him backwards to shelter. Enemy rounds whistled through the
area, hitting Noonan and knocking him to the ground. Despite his own
wounds, Lance Corporal Noonan got back up and resumed dragging the wounded
Marine towards the cover of the rocks from which he had earlier encouraged the
men. Before reaching its shelter, enemy fire reached
out again, a rain of hot lead striking the young corporal's body.
Inspired by Noonan's example, the rest of the platoon charged the enemy,
pushing them back and reaching the wounded. All four survived.
Noonan was the only casualty. He died, the
collar of his wounded comrade's fatigue shirt still grasped in his hands in a
valiant attempt to save a friend. He was the first to earn a Medal
of Honor in an operation that would test the courage of all the Marines of the
The commanding general of the 3d Marine Division, headquartered out of
Da Nang, was Major General Raymond G. Davis. For Davis, this was
his third war, having served in World War II and receiving the Medal of
Honor for his heroism at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. Davis referred
to the 9th Marines as the "Mountain Regiment" and his
"Strike Force Regiment". As Operation Dewey Canyon began
on January 22nd, General Davis had good reason to pay close attention to
the efforts of his Marines. Among the men assigned to meet and
defeat the enemy in their A Shau sanctuary was a young lieutenant in
command of a rifle platoon. By a strange twist of fate that defied
military policy prohibiting relatives from serving in the same war zone,
Operation Dewey Canyon would send Davis' son, Lieutenant Miles Davis,
into harms way.
The first phase of Operation Dewey
Canyon primarily involved the movement and positioning of air
assets. Phase II, the movement of the 3 battalions of the 9th
Marines out of Vandergrift Combat Base began on January 31st. It
was during this move to position the 9th Marines at the northern edge of
A Shau that Lance Corporal Noonan died trying to save the life of his
From January 31st until February
10th, 2/9 continued its movement south, flanked by 1/9 and
3/9. Colonel Robert Barrow, commander of the 9th Marine
Regiment (who later became the 27th Commandant of the Marine Corps),
coordinated the mission with support from American asset's throughout I
Corps. By February 10th the three battalions were poised and ready
to enter Phase III, the incursion into A Shau. Along the way they
had built numerous fire bases with names like Henderson, Tun Tavern,
Shiloh, Razor, and Cunningham, to provide artillery support and maintain
The large movements of the three
battalionss demanded a regular and consistent resupply at Vandergrift
Combat Base. On February 13th far to the north, a convoy was
carrying supplies to Vandergrift when it was ambushed. In the heavy
mortar and small arms fire that followed, the convoy security squad
moved to engage the enemy. Marine Lance Corporal Thomas Creek
dashed across the fire swept area to take up a better position from
which to attack the enemy when he was wounded. Almost as quickly
as he fell, the enemy threw a grenade at the his position. Nearby
were others of his squad, men who were about to die. Ignoring his
previous wounds, Lance Corporal Creek rolled on top of the grenade to
absorb the blast, sparing the lives of his comrades at the expense of
his own. Though not officially a part of the Dewey Canyon
operation, in his support role the 18-year old hero's posthumous Medal
of Honor must be counted with that of those who fought further south.
Even as Lance Corporal Creek lay
dying in a gully northeast of Vandergrift, far to the south the 3d
Battalion, 9th Marines were crossing the Da Krong River only 13
kilometers from Laos. Phase II of Operation Dewey Canyon was
under way. The following morning the Marines of 1/9 and 2/9 began
moving out of their fire bases as well, heading southward and towards
the North Vietnamese Base Area 611 that ran from the north boundary of A
Shau and into Laos.
into A Shau was at once both miserable and dangerous. Triple-canopy
jungle made movement difficult and two weeks of continuous fog and heavy
monsoon rains removed any possibility of personal comfort and made resupply
difficult. The enemy moved freely through the A Shau at night on roads
they would carefully camouflage during the day with movable trees and shrubs
ingeniously planted in containers. As they moved, the Marines were
subjected to heavy artillery fire from NVA guns inside Laos. At night,
more troops and weapons moved down the Ho Chi Minh trail. General Davis
caused a slight stir on the home front when a newspaper reported a remark made
in a personal conversation. "It makes me sick," the 3d Marine
Division C.G. had said, "to sit on this hill and watch those 1,000
(enemy) trucks go down those roads in Laos, hauling ammunition down south to
kill Americans with."
the third phase of the operation, General Davis flew out to meet with Colonel
Barrow. Earlier that morning the General had begun receiving reports of
enemy contact..."Kilo Company, fire fight, 1 killed, 2
wounded." An hour later Kilo Company was in contact again, more
Marines killed, more wounded. Davis did his best to concentrate on the
meeting at hand, all the while knowing that his son was a rifle platoon leader
in Kilo Company. Even as he landed for his meeting with Colonel Barrow,
some of the wounded were arriving...Lieutenant Miles Davis among them.
The younger Davis would survive his wounds and subsequently would receive the
Purple Heart Medal from his father.
in the A Shau, other Marines struggled to stay alive and complete their
mission. By February 20th the Marines had moved all the way to the
Laotian border. As the enemy played their deadly game of hide-and-seek,
raining death on young American Marines and then quickly scurrying across the
border into the safety of Laos, Colonel Barrow had seen too many of his men
die to the unfair advantage. "The political implications of going
into Laos were pretty unimportant to me at that point," he later stated.
of US commanders had always been that units could enter Laos or Cambodia, only
when American lives were endangered by enemy forces therein. (Usually
this applied to SAR (Search and Rescue) missions for down pilots or LRRP (long
range reconnaissance patrols). Colonel Barrow saw the danger his own men
faced from within and, despite the very real possibility of sacrificing his
distinguished military career, ordered Hotel Company, 2/9 to cross the border
and set up ambush positions INSIDE Laos. (This plan was approved by
General Creighton Abrams, commander of all U.S. Forces in Vietnam...AFTER the
border crossing had already occurred.)
elements of the 9th Marines now operating inside Laos, the other battalions
moved out to take up positions along the border. On the morning of
February 22nd, the 1st Battalion was in place on a ridge overlooking
Laos. The Marines of 1/9 called themselves the Walking Dead.
On this day, for one company in particular, the name would be all to real.
Wesley Fox was in command of Alpha Company, 1/9. He was a seasoned
veteran, now in his 19th year in the Marine Corps. As a young Corporal
he had served in Korea, slowly working his way through the ranks to become a
First Sergeant by 1966. The veteran leatherneck, now in his second war,
had begun anew...working his way through the commissioned ranks.
Fox had already completed a tour in Vietnam, and recently
had extended his combat tour.
As dawn broke on the
forested hillside overlooking Laos, Alpha Company was sent out to look for and
destroy a suspected enemy force operating in the region. Lieutenant
Fox's 3rd platoon had made contact with them the previous day, and now the
Company was looking to finish the fight. In addition, First Battalion was low on water. A
detail was dispatched to get resupply from a stream below, Alpha Company
leading the way to provide security as Lieutenant Fox and his men searched for
the enemy. As they reached the stream, the
The NVA seemed to be
everywhere, popping up out of hidden spider holes to rain devastating
machinegun and small arms fire on Alpha Company, while enemy mortars fell on
the embattled Marines. The suddenness and the ferocity of the attack
caught the Marines by surprise, many falling wounded in the initial onslaught.
Fox moved out, working his way through the heavy jungle overgrowth to gain a
position where he could assess the situation and direct his platoon
leaders. Deadly missiles struck the foliage and bamboo palms around
him. Fox located a sniper's position, quickly killing the enemy with his
M-16 rifle before moving on.
As Fox deployed his
platoons, two enemy mortar rounds landed in his position, killing his radiomen
and air and artillery observers. Shrapnel stuck the lieutenant in the
shoulder but, despite the bleeding wounds, he grabbed both radios and
continued to direct the movements of his Marines.
The lieutenant who
led Fox's 2nd platoon was seriously wounded, and Fox instructed his executive
officer to take command of that platoon. When his platoon leader in the
3d platoon was killed, Fox quickly moved in to fill the void and take
command. He personally destroyed one position while continuing to should
orders and give encouragement. Coolly he spoke into the radio to
coordinate aerial and artillery support for his Marines. Among those
working to defend these Marines on the Laotian border was artillery officer
Harvey "Barney" Barnum, who had earned the Medal of Honor three
years earlier and returned, at his own request, for another Vietnam tour.
As the enemy fire
continued unabated, the executive officer Fox had sent to 2nd Platoon was
killed, and another of his lieutenants was wounded. Though wounded
himself, Fox was the only officer in Alpha Company still capable of leading
the resistance. This he did with calm professionalism, his Marines
repulsing a final enemy assault during which the Company Commander was wounded
a second time.
Heedless of his
battered body, Fox began organizing his survivors in establishing a defensive
position. As corpsmen moved about to locate and treat the wounded, Fox
refused aid, setting himself to the tasks leadership demanded. By late
afternoon his Marines had secured their position, and Delta Company 2/9
arrived to relieve them. Ten of Fox's brave Marines had died and, of the
153 men who had joined him that morning in the patrol down from the ridge,
only 66 were able to continue the mission the following day. Despite his
wounds, and determined not to leave Alpha Company leaderless, Lieutenant Fox
was among them.
For two weeks Captain Dave Winecoff
and Marines of Hotel Company operated in Laos, setting up ambush
positions to strike back at an enemy that had never recognized the neutrality
of Laos and had effectively used it to advantage against American
soldiers and Marines. Five days after the border crossing, one
patrol from Hotel 2/9 was moving down a road inside Laos when it was
attacked by an NVA squad firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled
grenades from the shelter of their fortified bunkers.
Two Marines fell very close to the
enemy bunkers, wounded and trapped. Efforts by others in their
patrol were met by heavy and sustained enemy fire. Twenty-one year
old Marine Corporal William Morgan slowly began working his way through
the undergrowth to a position near the open road directly in front of
the enemy position. Yelling encouragement to the wounded Marines,
Morgan suddenly stood to his feet and rushed into the open roadway to
single-handedly attack the enemy. Fully exposed to the fury of the
enemy emplacement, his efforts drew an immediate and torrential rain of
enemy fire. Corporal Morgan's lifeless body fell to a heap in the
middle of the roadway, but his valiant charge had distracted the enemy
and drawn their fire long enough for the remaining men of the patrol to
reach and rescue the wounded.
year later Corporal Morgan's family accepted his Medal of Honor from
President Richard Nixon during ceremonies at the White House. His
date of heroism is listed as 25 February 1969, and the place of action
is listed vaguely as: southeast of Vandegrift Combat Base,
Quang Tri Province, Republic of Vietnam. Indeed he sacrificed
his life southeast of Vandegrift... far to the southeast...far enough to
be outside Quang Tri province and inside the borders of
| Operation Dewey Canyon officially
ended on 3 March 1969 when Hotel Company left Laos. In those
56 days US Marines built more than 20 base camps and accounted for
more than 2,000 enemy casualties. Dewey Canyon was different
from other campaigns however, in that the real goal had not been a
combat mission to destroy the enemy, but a mission to take away
his large cache of supplies being stockpiled in A Shau.
During the period US Marines captured 1,200 enemy machineguns,
4,000 bicycle tires, 2,200 enemy rockets, and two big 122mm
cannons. More than 500 tons of enemy ammunition was
confiscated or destroyed, as well as more than 100 tons of rice
stockpiled to feed the enemy troops. Much of the confiscated
rice was subsequently donated to needy villages in the region.
|The success of the mission was
not without cost to the Marines of the Mountain Regiment
either...130 young American boys killed in action, 932 wounded.
On the last official day of Operation Dewey
Canyon a reconnaissance company was returning to their base of
operations out of Fire Support Base Cunningham when they were
attacked. Private First Class Alfred Mac Wilson took
charge as acting squad leader of the rear squad, maneuvering his men to
outflank the enemy.
When two men manning his own machinegun were
wounded, Alfred Wilson and another Marine were rushing to man the gun
themselves when an enemy soldier stepped from behind a tree to lob a
grenade between the two men. Immediately, Corporal Wilson threw
his own body over the grenade, dying beneath its lethal blast, to spare
Hostilities did not end with the official
conclusion of Dewey Canyon either. The Marines continued to
hold their base camps in and around A Shau as the Mountain Regiment began
their slow withdrawal. Two days after Alfred Wilson jumped on a
grenade to spare his comrade, a similar engagement occurred at Fire
Support Base Argonne near the DMZ, where Marines of the 3d
Reconnaissance Battalion, 3d Marine Division were lending their
own support to the Dewey Canyon Operation.
When the enemy made an early morning attack on the
12-man recon team's position, Private First Class Fred Ostrom headed for
a two-man position with his friend, PFC Robert Jenkins. An enemy
grenade exploded as the men reached their position, blowing off part of
Ostrom's right hand and arm. As the wounded man sagged into his
position, a second grenade was thrown directly into the
emplacement. PFC Robert Jenkins quickly pushed Ostrom aside, then
covered his wounded friend with his own body. Jenkins shield of flesh
and blood spared the life of his wounded friend, but at that cost of
his own life.
Such was the courage of the
Marines, from the experienced vets of other wars like General Davis,
Colonel Barrow and Lieutenant Fox, to the valiant young warriors fresh
out of high school. They went, they did their job, and some
came home. Valor abounded, many were the acts of heroism that went
unrecognized...5 Marines earned Medals of Honor...and only one,
Lieutenant Wesley Fox, survived to wear it.
He does so, humbly, in honor of all
those valiant Marines who became a part of his own legacy in Operation
Click on each recipients name to
read their citations.
If you don't see a list of links at the left side of
STORY BY: C. Douglas Sterner
Copyright © 20012005 Wesley Fox. All rights reserved.
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