THE BINH GIA FRONT

By Tran Ngoc Toan

After two weeks of rest and recuperation at the rear base at Vung Tau, The Joint General Staff issued orders transferring the 4th Marine Battalion up to Di An in Bien Hoa province to serve as the III Corps rapid reaction reserve force. Because of the political disorders in South Vietnam, in mid-1964 Major Nguyen Van Nho was appointed as Commander of the 4th Marine Battalion. Captain Tran Van Hoan, former commander of 2nd Company/4th Marine Battalion, was recommended to take the position of Battalion Executive Officer (because of a personal dispute, when Captain Toan was killed in battle Major BTL, the Marine Brigade Chief of Staff, had still not officially approved this appointment). At Di An base, the U.S. Marine Advisory Group sent Major Eller down to the unit to serve as Senior Advisor, assisted by First Lieutenant Brady, who had just graduated from the Marine Corps Basic School in Quantico.Because of the climate of peace left over from the time of the First Republic [the Ngo Dinh Diem regime], the battalion commander permitted a number of the unitõs officers, NCOs, and enlisted men to take annual leave. Although when standing duty as the rapid reaction force 100% of the unit is supposed to be restricted to base, as was their habit, a number of officers, NCOs, and enlisted men went out to visit Thu Duc and Saigon. Even if the unit did receive orders, usually the unit did not depart until the following day. 

Only one day after allowing the men to take annual leave, 4th Marine Battalion received orders to move out immediately for Binh Gia in the Ba Ria area to conduct a counterattack against a sudden Viet Cong ambush of an armored troop at Binh Ba on Inter-provincial Route 15 (between Phuoc Tuy and Long Khanh). The battalion was ordered to clear the road up to the district headquarters. The helicopter lift of our troops lasted from early morning until almost dark before it was finished. Only one company could be transported on each lift. There was no Viet Cong opposition to the movement. After collecting its troops and adjusting its troop formation, 4th Battalion advanced toward Binh Ba. When the unit moved past Binh Gia hamlet, the residents lit torches and lanterns to light both sides of the road. They greeted the battalion warmly and gave it cakes and candy, bolstering everyone's enthusiasm to move forward to engage the enemy, even though by now it was completely dark. After passing through the hamlet and reaching the inter-provincial road, the unit turned and moved down toward the Phuoc Tuy province capital in a widely spread-out formation on both sides of the road, moving through the rubber plantation that had been abandoned for security reasons.

After moving for another hour through the darkness, the battalion commander decided to halt and deploy into position for the night in the middle of the rubber plantation. No sign of Viet Cong troops were detected the entire night. At dawn the next morning, 4th Marine Battalion continued its march south to clear the road. After another few kilometers, the unit located the position where the armored troop had been ambushed the day before. The lead element reported seeing the carcasses of burnt-out M-113 armored personnel carriers lying along the side of the road in the rubber plantation. The Viet Cong had dismantled and taken away all the heavy weapons mounted on the armored vehicles. The bodies of the dead, stripped of all clothing, boots, and weapons, lay strewn across the battlefield. The air still stank with the smell of gunpowder, fire, and death. 4th Battalion halted, deployed, and sent personnel to pick up the dead bodies of our fellow troops and bring them back to the road for trucks to pick them up and take them back to Phuoc Tuy. Finally, at noontime, 4th Battalion resumed its road-clearing operation toward Phuoc Tuy while continuing to hunt for the Viet Cong. The enemy troops seemed to have pulled back far from the road, like a sated wild beast after a kill. The next day 4th Battalion received orders to clear a route north of Route 4 from Phuoc Tuy to Long Thanh. No trace of enemy activity was found. At Long Thanh, the unit received orders to sweep south all the way to the flooded Rung Sat forest. At this objective, 4th Battalion had only small, scattered firefights with enemy guerrillas. The next day, the unit was picked up by GMC trucks and transported back to the base at Di An. After arriving back at the base, every day 4th Battalion sent one infantry company to Bien Hoa Airbase to stand alert as the III Corps rapid reaction force.

In Saigon, meanwhile, more than one year after the armed force overthrew President Diem the city was filled with excitement as everyone prepared to celebrate Christmas and the Western New Year. The dancehalls and nightclubs were allowed to reopen for the entertainment of the new ruling faction. The Saigon newspapers printed photographs of Saigon Government Ton That Dinh laughing as he danced the bee-bop while wearing the uniform of a paratrooper, even though Dinh had never served in the Airborne Branch. The ruling generals were still intoxicated with ôvictoryọ after toppling their Supreme Commander, giving them seemingly limitless power and privileges. They prepared to hold a national-level party and made a blatant display of their wealth as the new rulers.

Suddenly, on 31 December 1964, 4th Marine Battalion, III Corps last reserve unit, received orders to move its troops to Bien Hoa Airbase immediately. There a U.S. helicopter squadron was standing by, waiting on the runway. Once again, there were only enough helicopters to lift 4th Battalion into battle one company at a time. The flight from Bien Hoa to the landing point, Binh Gia hamlet, took the helicopters one hour for each trip. 1st Company/4th Battalion, commanded by First Lieutenant Tran Ngoc Toan, was assigned to take the first lift in to establish and secure the landing zone.
The previous day, on 30 December 1964, 30th Ranger Battalion was helicopter assaulted into Binh Gia after the Binh Ba District Headquarters reported that Viet Cong troops had attacked and occupied the entire hamlet of Binh Gia. Binh Gia was a model strategic hamlet built along both sides of a gravel road running east-west and linking Binh Ba with the Quang Giao Rubber Plantation and Xuyen Son hamlet. The hamlet was built in the form of a rectangle about 400 meters wide and one kilometer long and the Catholic parish church about in the middle of the hamlet. The residents were almost all Catholic refugees from Thanh Hoa and Nghe Tinh who fled south in 1954. To counter helicopter assaults, the Viet Cong had built an excellent network of fortifications in the nearby treeline, with a stretch of open ground outside the defensive perimeter of Binh Gia hamlet. The open, cleared fields all around the hamlet were intended to counter enemy infiltration and approaches to the barbed wire perimeter fence, which also had thorn bush obstacles and a network of minefields and booby-traps. The previous day, as soon as the helicopters took off from the landing zone, 30th Ranger Battalion was hit by very heavy Viet Cong fire from the trenches and bunkers, overwhelming the Rangers and inflicting heavy casualties on the soldiers who had just landed. The Rangers fought back while at the same time trying to clear a route to the edge of the hamlet. With the help of the hamlet residents, the Rangers withdrew into the parish church, where they set up their defenses. The Viet Cong had them surrounded on all four sides. A number of civilian residents recovered weapons and ammunition from dead Rangers and hauled the wounded into their homes to hide them. The 30th Ranger Battalion had only a little over 100 men left. Both the battalion commander and his American advisor were severely wounded.

The next day, the 38th Ranger Battalion landed by helicopter in an open field southwest of Binh Gia. This landing was unopposed by the Viet Cong forces. Throughout the day, however, 38th Ranger Battalion was unable to break through the Viet Cong defenses to link up with the survivors of 30th Battalion. When 1st Company/4th Marine Battalion leapt from the helicopters into the landing zone northwest of Binh Gia hamlet, a few young men from the hamlet met the Marines and volunteered to lead them through the minefields. However, the 1st Company Commander was cautious and did not send his troops forward. He ordered the unit to deploy to secure the landing zone to allow the rest of the battalion to land safely. When the battalion headquarters landed, Major Nho sent First Lieutenant Phil Brady, the Assistant Battalion Advisor, forward to find the 1st Company Commander and pass on orders to move the company out to take the objective. The company's assault formation spread out and advanced straight toward the Catholic church to relieve the siege of our fellow unit. Morale was high. Less than one-half hour later, the lead element of 4th Marine Battalion had linked up with both the 30th and the 38th Ranger Battalions. Marine and Ranger forces then made a coordinated drive to push enemy forces out of Binh Gia hamlet. The hamlet residents cheered and waved at to the Marines, even while the sound of gunfire continued to crackle through the hamlet. Ignoring the danger, the residents swarmed out into the streets to help the soldiers. By that afternoon, the entire hamlet had been liberated. The hamlet priest asked his parishioners to kill a cow to roast for a celebration to feed the Marines and Rangers. There were a little more than one hundred surviving Rangers, virtually all with wounds after two days spent fighting Viet Cong forces that outnumbered them three or four to one. Everyone acknowledged that the 30th Ranger Battalion had only been able to survive because of the help and assistance provided to its soldiers by the people of Binh Gia hamlet.
Late that night, the Viet Cong returned, launching an attack against the southeastern perimeter of the hamlet. The hamlet residents discovered the approaching enemy troops and sounded the alarm, pounding drums and gongs that split the silence of the night. In the end, the Viet Cong troops were repelled by the strong defense of our troops and the support of U.S. helicopter gunships that flew up from the Vung Tau airfield under the direction of Major Eller, the battalionõs Senior Advisor.

At dawn on 31 December 1964, the U.S. Marine Advisory Group in Saigon sent one U.S. Marine officer and three U.S. NCOs out to 4th Battalion with the assigned mission of "observing conditions on the South Vietnamese battlefield." These U.S. Marines were from the U.S. 3rd Marine Division, based in Okinawa, Japan. Captain Cook, a former communications officer, was attached to 1st Company, commanded by First Lieutenant Tran Ngoc Toan. At the same time, higher authorities notified the battalion that a U.S. helicopter gunship had been shot down while pursuing the withdrawing enemy forces. The helicopter had crashed in the Quang Giao Rubber Plantation near Xuan Son hamlet. III Corps ordered 4th Battalion to move out to locate the crashed helicopter and its four-man crew, who had all been reported as having been killed. Although the previous day the hamlet priest had told the battalion that the Viet Cong force that attacked Binh Gia was regimental-sized (later it was learned that it was the newly formed VC Q-276th Regiment [sic]), Battalion Commander Nguyen Van Nho ordered 2nd Company, commanded by First Lieutenant Do Huu Tung, to advance to Quang Giao. The distance from Binh Gia to Quang Giao was about two kilometers as the crow flies, and the terrain consisted of low hills covered with sparse jungle and the rows of trees in the abandoned rubber plantation. 2nd Company, with a strength of about 120 men, immediately moved out toward its assigned objective. About an hour later, First Lieutenant Tung reported over the ôhot-lineọ on the PRC-10 radio network that he had found the wreckage of the crashed helicopter and the bodies of all four Americans. Immediately thereafter, the troops in Binh Gia hamlet began to hear the sound of gunfire interspersed with grenade and artillery explosions from the direction of the crash site.

The 1st Company Commander, after meeting with 4th Company Commander First Lieutenant Nguyen Dang Tong, a classmate from the Military Academy, immediately led his troops forward to join the fight, even before the battalion commander officially issued an order. With two companies spread out along both sides of the gravel road from Binh Gia to Quang Giao, and with 3rd Company serving as the battalion reserve, 4th Marine Battalion sent its troops toward the battlefield. To guard against the traditional Viet Cong tactic of "attacking an outpost and then ambushing the relief column","4th Battalion expanded its formation out further into the forest on each side of the road than was usual. 3rd Company, commanded by Second Lieutenant Trinh Van Hue, a graduate of Military Academy Class 17, brought up the rear as the reserve.

About halfway to the objective, 1st Company encountered 2nd Company as it was withdrawing from the Quang Giao Rubber Plantation. A number of 2nd Company Marines volunteered to lead the company to the site of the battle to recover the bodies of their fellow Marines and of the American helicopter crew. First Lieutenant Tung told 1st Company that the Viet Cong force was very large and that a number of them were wearing the uniforms of North Vietnamese regulars. The Viet Cong had even fired an artillery barrage before their troops launched the assault. This meant that, for the first time in Vietnam, the Viet Cong had massed a regimental-sized force for an attack. Meanwhile, as 4th Marine Battalion marched into the battle site it did not have either air or artillery support. The location of the battle was beyond the range of the 105mm howitzers located at Phuoc Tuy and Ba Ria. The cautious advance of our two columns spotted only a few Viet Cong soldiers in the abandoned rubber plantation overgrown with tall grass as high as a manõs chest. The company commanders had to maintain a tight grip on their men to prevent them from pursuing enemy troops out of fear of being lured into an ambush. In the middle of the old Quang Giao Rubber Plantation, a platoon commanded by Second Lieutenant Nguyen Van Hung, who had just graduated with Class 19 from the Military Academy, had been cut down by enemy fire. Their bodies lay strewn in a line, just as they had been caught in the middle of their assault. Next to the line of dead bodies was the wreckage of the U.S. helicopter with the bodies of the four American crewmen who had been killed the day before. Battalion ordered the troops to halt and deploy into position to wait for helicopters to come to evacuate the wounded and the dead. The time was then about 2:00 in the afternoon on 31 December 1964.

About one hour later, an American helicopter from Vung Tau landed at the edge of the tree-line. The helicopter picked up only the four American bodies and then immediately took off. The bodies of more than a dozen Vietnamese Marines still lay in the clearing, wrapped in ponchos and waiting for another helicopter to pick them up. Finally, at 4:00 in the afternoon, anxious and nervous at the long wait, Major Nho ordered 3rd Company and the rest of 2nd Company to carry the casualties back to Binh Gia. Just as the preparations for the return march were completed, the first enemy artillery barrage hit 4th Battalion. Shells exploded in the treetops, breaking branches and sending wood splinters everywhere. At the head of the column, the battalion headquarters, made up of Major Nho, Captain Hoan, and Battalion Surgeon Truong Ba Han, quickly began to retreat back toward Binh Gia hamlet. It was too late, however, as the Viet Cong noose had by then closed tight all around the battalion. The battalion commander and battalion surgeon were hit by enemy bullets and died immediately. A loyal Marine, a member of the Nung tribe, hoisted the battalion executive officer, who had been wounded in the chest, onto his back. With his rifle and pack held loosely in his hands, he ran with his commander on his back all the way back to Binh Gia hamlet. When he reached the hamlet and lowered Captain Hoan to the ground, his corporal discovered that the captain was already dead. Filled with grief, he kneeled beside the body of his commander for an entire hour as the residents of the hamlet looked on with respect and concern.
Back in the Quang Giao Rubber Plantation where the battle was raging, after their initial artillery volley, screaming Viet Cong troops urged on by bugle calls charged into the front lines held by 4th Battalionõs 1st and 4th Companies. Because they had deployed in temporary battle formation, the Marines could only take cover behind the rubber trees while lying flat on the ground. A number had been killed or wounded in the initial artillery barrage. 4th Company's line on the northern side was penetrated by the enemy attack. From the top of a hill in the rubber tree forest, First Lieutenant Toan saw Viet Cong troops and soldiers wearing the uniforms of North Vietnamese regulars jogging forward. However, the enemy had already halted the assault in order to hit 1st Company with another artillery barrage. They then launched a third assault, but were unable to penetrate the defense line held by Marines taking cover behind every rubber tree along the top of the hill. Under heavy Viet Cong pressure, the Marines of 3rd Company abandoned the bodies of their dead comrades and moved up onto the hill to reinforce the line held by 1st Company. Along the way, the Company Commander, Second Lieutenant Hue, and the Company Executive Officer, Second Lieutenant Duong Hoanh Son, were both hit and killed immediately. 1st Company's defense line now extended all the way out to the jungle tree-line adjacent to the rubber plantation.
At this point, Captain Cook, an officer from the U.S. 3rd Marine Division in Okinawa assigned as a battlefield observer, was hit in the thigh by a bullet. The 1st Company Commander used his own personal bandage to bind up this wound and then ordered his bodyguard, Private First Class Nguyen Van Hai, to take Captain Cook back to Binh Gia hamlet right away. I later learned that PFC Hai and Captain Cook made it out of the battle area safely but were then caught by an outer ring of Viet Cong forces at the jungle tree-line and taken prisoner. Later, as they were being led away at night, PFC Hai managed to loosen the ropes binding him and made an escape, reaching Binh Gia hamlet the next day. Information provided by Hanoi during the prisoner exchange in 1973 confirmed that Captain Cook was held at a series of locations in South Vietnam and that in 1968 he died of an illness. Meanwhile, the U.S. had promoted Captain Cook to the rank of major before learning of his death.

On the battlefield, after three failed assaults, the Viet Cong shifted the point of their attack to the rear of the line held by the survivors of 1st and 3rd Companies. The surviving 75mm recoilless rifle gunner loaded his gun himself and fired round after round into waves of communist attackers, shattering a number of attacks and throwing the enemy formation into confusion. I learned that later this corporal single-handedly carried his 75mm recoilless rifle out of the battle area, escaping back to Binh Gia hamlet at dawn on 1 January 1965. 
1st Companyõs line still held firm after numerous Viet Cong assaults, even though a large number of Marines had been wounded seriously and were still lying in the places where they had been hit. Company Medic Nguyen Em, ignoring the danger, ran through a curtain of gunfire, running along the line to treat each of the wounded. Finally, he was cut down by the heavy enemy gunfire.

After almost two hours of ferocious combat, darkness fell on the old-growth jungle and rubber plantation at Quang Giao. During this period, firing from a kneeling position, the 1st Company Commander, firing one of the first AR-15 rifles sent over by the U.S. for trials on the battlefield, shot down one Viet Cong soldier after another as they ran forward covered with leaves as camouflage. He was hit in the right calf by a bullet, but he no longer had a bandage of his own to bind up the wound. In addition, in his state of mind at the time he did not have time to worry about a bullet wound. When darkness fell, tracers fired by both sides stitched the night shadows. A number of NCOs and privates from the companyõs front line pulled back to the area around the command post. They reported that almost all the others were lying dead on the front lines, including all four platoon commanders. Sergeant First Class Nguyen Van Khien, a deputy platoon commander, counted heads and reported,

"Our company has only a little over a dozen men left in this area."

First Lieutenant Toan ordered everyone to get ready to jump up at once to try to cut an escape route through the enemy lines back to the jungle tree-line in order to escape back to Binh Gia. Everyone ran together, firing their weapons and hand grenades ahead of them as they ran. The only men left following the company commander were PFC Nguyen Van Khanh, carrying the company command-net radio, and Corporal Nguyen Tu, the battalion-level radio operator. Limping because of his wounds and still firing his weapon, as he neared the tree-line First Lieutenant Toan was hit by a bullet in the right calf for a second time, knocking him to the ground. At the same moment, he heard Corporal Tu grunt loudly and collapse to the ground. Under the light of the tracers and explosions, First Lieutenant Toan hurriedly stripped the radio set from Corporal Tuõs back and fired his weapon into it to destroy it. PFC Khanh quickly sat down next to First Lieutenant Toan and asked with fear in his voice,

"Are you OK, Morning Star? ["Morning Star" was the company commander's code name]. Let me carry you."

First Lieutenant Toan pushed Khanh's hands away and shouted,

"I am badly wounded. Get out of hear. Get back to Binh Gia hamlet. Forget about me."

PFC Khanh pleaded,

"I can't leave you, Morning Star. Let me carry you."

The 1st Company Commander had made his decision. He pushed PFC Khanh's hands away again and shouted over the constant roar of communist gunfire,

"Run! Get out of here! Run!"

Hearing the sound of running footsteps and the shouts of Viet Cong soldiers, First Lieutenant Toan lay down on his stomach beside the body of one of his men and played dead. He was just in time, because at that moment a Viet Cong clutching a K-50 sub-machinegun walked up, kicked First Lieutenant Toan's body, and then fired a short burst as the coup dõgrace. One bullet passed right through First Lieutenant Toanõs chest, setting his battle fatigue shirt on fire. He continued to try to lay still and play dead. The communist troops were yelling at each other to withdraw. Suddenly, the sound of gunfire ended, and the silence of the night jungle returned. The chirps of insects started up, replacing the noise of the guns.
For the next two days and three nights, with two wounds that he had bandaged himself, First Lieutenant Toan, all alone and cradling his AR-15 and one magazine with his last 15 rounds of ammunition, crawled through the jungle to the culvert on the eastern side of Binh Gia hamlet. His wounds festered and were covered with maggots and ants. At dawn on 1 January 1965, back at Binh Gia hamlet alongside the depleted 30th Ranger Battalion and the 38th Ranger Battalion, First Lieutenant Nguyen Dang Tong and First Lieutenant Do Huu Tung collected the battalionõs survivors, a total of a little over one hundred combatants. Even though there were no more indications of Viet Cong activity in the area, they coordinated to establish a defensive perimeter while waiting for reinforcements. The 5th Airborne Battalion from the South Vietnamese Army's general reserve force arrived in Binh Gia by helicopter.
On the morning of 3 January 1965, in a banana grove outside the hamlet, First Lieutenant Toan saw friendly troops. He tried to call out, but his throat would produce no sound, so he pounded on the trunk of a banana tree to attract attention. An advance squad of paratroopers rushed forward and picked him up. One of the paratroopers said,

"This Marine still has his rifle with him".

After bending down to pick Lieutenant Toan up, another airborne trooper complained,

"His wounds stink! He smells like a dead rat!"

After the lieutenant was evacuated by helicopter to the Korean Military Hospital at Vung Tau, the 1st Company administrative clerk, a corporal, who had wormed his way through a crowd of women and children searching for their Marine husbands and fathers, did not recognize the lieutenant even though the corporal was standing right at the foot of the lieutenant's stretcher as the South Korean soldiers carried him in. The 1st Company Commander's face was covered with scratches from the jungle thorns, and the scratches had swollen and turned black and blue. Unable to speak, First Lieutenant Toan signaled a female South Korean nurse, First Lieutenant Chung Do Lin, to give him a piece of paper and a pen. He wrote out in English, "I am First Lieutenant Tran Ngoc Toan, Service Number 60A/701163, of the 4th Marine Battalion. I was wounded on 31 December 1964 at Binh Gia. Please inform my unit. Thank you."

LESSONS FROM THE BATTLE OF BINH GIA

First: The commanding generals who had taken part in the political activities that ended in the overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem and the subsequent coups had not taken timely and appropriate action to take control of and win the battle when the Viet Cong sent their troops forward to capture Binh Gia hamlet, using a rather large force for the time, the newly formed Q-276 Regiment [sic], made up of both North Vietnamese regulars and South Vietnamese Liberation Army troops. They left the situation to be handled by their subordinates, who were a bunch of loyal henchmen just promoted after the 1 November 1963 coup. The incompetence, lack of battlefield experience, lack of command abilities, and the impotence and lack of a sense of responsibility of these subordinates caused the death and injury of hundreds of Rangers and armored troopers. 
As for the 4th Marine Battalion, although it fulfilled its assigned mission of saving Binh Gia hamlet, it was then sent out to recover the bodies of four U.S. soldiers in the Quang Giao Rubber Plantation where it was surrounded and attacked outside the range of our artillery and without air support. Because of this, the battalion suffered hundreds of Marines wounded and 122 Marines killed, including 22 officers. Among these 22 officers were the battalion commander, battalion executive officer, one company commander, and two recent graduates in Class 19 of the Military Academy, one of whom was the Class Valedictorian, Vo Thanh Khang. The U.S. armed forces still owes a debt to the 4th Marine Battalion for these losses.

Second: The ignorance and indifference of a few commanders who blindly sent ARVN’s best units into the valley of death without the slightest concern for their losses damaged the prestige and the combat spirit of the armed forces, effects that lasted right up to the time that South Vietnam finally collapsed. Those responsible for this situation must sincerely confess their mistakes in order to avoid future dangerous mistakes.

Third: The Americans, who stepped onto the battlefields of South Vietnam with an attitude of arrogance, underestimating their enemy and filled with contempt for the army of their allies, had to pay a high price for their mistakes: More than 58 thousand soldiers killed and missing and the most humiliating defeat in the two-hundred year history of the United States of America.

Fourth: The armed forces always needs skillful, courageous commanders who are filled with concern for their fellow soldiers and willing to devote themselves totally to the armed forces. Justice must be applied evenly throughout the armed forces, on the battlefield as well as in the rear bases. Those given command responsibilities must be worthy of those responsibilities. The incompetent, the corrupt, the power-hungry must be immediately eliminated. The system for making personnel appointments must be just and even-handed.

10 January 2000

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