by Eric Shierman
Yesterday marked the forty-fifth anniversary of the day Lyle Tate from Portland was killed in action on Hill 778 near Khe Sanh. Having just recently survived one of the most challenging battles of the Vietnam War, Cpl Tate was one of 24 Marines killed on a joint patrol of two rifle platoons, just over 60 men in size, which was ambushed by a substantially larger North Vietnamese Army (NVA) force.
Cpl Tate was a fire team leader in the 3rd squad from the 3rd Platoon of Foxtrot Company 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines (2/3). Built like a fireplug, not tall but with thick shoulders and barreled chest, Tate also carried his squad’s radio. Called “toad” by his buddies, they marveled at his ability to carry the heaviest load on the hottest days. Under the hardships they endured, enlisted Marines naturally bond with guys like Lyle Tate who could maintain a positive attitude that transcended the dehydration, fear, and exhaustion.
Together they had just endured one of the most pivotal battles in the Vietnam War, a battle almost forgotten by everyone but those veterans who were there that have been trying to forget it for the rest of their lives. Often called “The Hill Fights of Khe Sanh” this first major battle in that northwestern corner of Quang Tri province got less press at the time than the more famous siege of Khe Sanh did a year later, but this battle marked a major inflection point in America’s role in that long war.
In 1966, the Vietnam War was still widely supported in the United States, but in North Vietnam by contrast, the toll of a seemingly endless war was having a material effect on popular support for the Communist regime. A new generation of impatient young guns on the Politburo demanded, over their defense minister’s objection, to mount an offensive, seeking to annex enough South Vietnamese territory that could be seen as a tangible victory to raise moral on the home front. That cautious defense minister was none other than General Vo Nguyen Giap who famously defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Giap was wary of America’s air power, a factor that would have prevented his victory twelve years before. The patient general was confident greater success would be found in supporting the continued agitation of the South Vietnamese population by political operatives and Viet Cong guerrillas.
Giap placated the orders of his civilian leadership by occupying the virtually unpopulated mountains just across the DMZ and the Laotian border. His plan was to infiltrate an entire invading army by thinly dispersing it in fortified positions across the vast square kilometers of dense jungle so that it could not be destroyed by interdictory bombing. By Giap’s reasoning, at worst his superiors would eventually order him to start mounting assaults on nearby American bases, at best however, perhaps the American leadership would order its ground forces to attack his army and its elaborate network of defensive positions.
The commanding General of American forces in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland was no doubt the most brilliant and effective general of his generation. No other four star in the American military constellation of commanders was better prepared to defend Western Europe from a Soviet invasion, and thus all of Westmoreland’s professional preparation prompted him to indulge his adversary with the very battle Giap wanted. The NVA were setting up camp in I Corps, the Marine Corps’ tactical area of responsibility, so Westmorland ordered the Marines redeploy in defense of the Republic of Vietnam’s northwestern borders and clear these remote mountains of the enemy.
Major General Lew Walt, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Division and Lieutenant General Victor Krulak Commander of Marine Forces Pacific objected. Both decorated veterans of the Pacific Campaign of the Second World War, Walt and Krulak did not flinch from a fight, but they understood the counterinsurgency nature of this conflict, warning Westmorland that every Marine sent to assault bunkers in those remote mountains was one less Marine committed to the Marine Corps’ effective pacification program. The Marines pointed out that an effective counterinsurgency campaign that continued to protect the population from the Viet Cong would be able to annihilate NVA units that tried to advance beyond their mountain sanctuary, but if forces were deployed to clear the mountains, not only would the Marines be forced to waste manpower occupying indefensible land within easy striking distance from the Laotian border, but the NVA could infiltrate into the population areas with greater ease once the Marines were spread too thin.
General Westmorland’s rank, and his vision of big land units fighting a pitched battle won out. The Marine leadership saluted and began building a more elaborate forward operating base at Khe Sanh. In September 1966 a rifle battalion (1/3) was deployed as garrison. As a perfect metaphor of the war, the moment the Marines arrived, the South Vietnamese withdrew their own First Battalion Second Infantry so that General Westmorland’s demand for a Marine battalion merely resulted in the ARVN command withdrawing the same sized force from this dangerously exposed location. These Marines aggressively patrolled the area for six months, but the enemy showed no attempts to attack Khe Sanh’s defenses. After the scheduled end of their tour, 1/3 was relieved by Bravo Company 1/9, Echo Company 2/9, and a Force Recon Company.
By the beginning of April, the new garrison of Marines at Khe Sanh began seeing more contact with the enemy, particularly around nearby Hill 861. It soon became evident that the NVA was occupying each of the surrounding hills with battalion sized units digging in fortified positions to command the high ground around the Khe Sanh base in preparation for an attack. The Second and Third Battalions of the Third Marine Regiment were rapidly deployed to Khe Sanh by April 27, 1967 and in a matter of hours began mounting frontal attacks to seize the surrounding hills.
These boys of 67 are second to no other generation of Marines. With discipline and courage they employed fire and maneuver against an entrenched enemy under the support of coordinated air and artillery fire. Cpl Tate, like so many Marine NCOs before him and after led by example; he led from the front. Though utterly terrified and exhausted, the Marines of Tate’s fire team followed him up those hills.
While displaying the same common virtue of uncommon valor found on Iwo Jima, these Marines faced two additional challenges. First, some genius somewhere decided to make them the guinea pigs for the first Marine deployment of a new rifle, the M-16. This lighter weapon with its lighter ammunition would become the best service rifle ever made after a few glitches were corrected, but in 1967 the Marine Corps had purchased ammunition with ball powder rather than the IMR powder Colt had tested the XM16E1 prototype with. The carbon residue of the lower grade ammunition made the chamber too sticky for the bolt action to eject spent casings. The only way to clear that brass out was to use a cleaning rod, of which there was only one for every four Marines or to pick at it with a bayonet. This proved a frustrating disaster, and yet these Marines took the hills anyway, making their single shots count.
The second challenge was exactly what Walt and Krulak warned Westmorland of – after inflicting casualties on the Marines as they charged up the hills, the NVA escaped through tunnels. Unlike an island in the pacific where the defending Japanese had nowhere to go, the NVA could maneuver back into the jungle. Consolidating their victory proved impossible for the Marines. They occupied the hills, but the patrols they operated out of them were subject to ambush as the Marines’ newly conquered real estate remained threatened by counterattack. Thus the greatest irony was that Cpl Tate’s courage in the hill fights was followed by his death on a patrol two days before his battalion was scheduled to be withdrawn from the area.
The situation was so grim upon the end of the 2/3’s deployment to Khe Sanh, patrols had to be large enough to survive contact with the large NVA elements they would encounter after leaving the Marines’ recently secured perimeter upon Hill 881N. On May 9, 1967 Foxtrot Company ran a two-platoon patrol led by the company commander himself Captain Merle Sorenson consisting of Lieutenant Patrick Carroll’s 3rd Platoon in the front followed by Lieutenant Jack Schworm’s 1st Platoon. The patrol rout was only a distance of a few kilometers to their objective, the abandoned village of Lang Xoa, but the steep terrain and thick vegetation made the Marines take longer to cover that space than the short distance would otherwise imply. One had to wonder if the battalion’s S3 operations officer failed to notice the contour lines on the military map as he created such an ambitious time table that the patrol inevitably fell behind.
Upon reaching Hill 778, the patrol was so far behind schedule that it was forced to take the risk of using the trail, as Edward Murphy in his excellent book The Hill Fights: The First Battle of Khe Sanh reports:
Carroll’s point man came upon a trail that led down the steep southwestern side of Hill 778 toward Lang Xoa. “Everyone knew we shouldn’t go down the trail but we had no choice,” Carroll recalled. “We had to take it to get to our objective on time.”
After descending the hillside, Carroll’s platoon entered a wide, flat ravine. A major ridge finger that ran northwest off Hill 778 paralleled their right flank. High terrain leading up to Hill 803 rose off to their left.
Carroll halted in the center of the ravine to look at some footprints that one of his men had discovered. Another Marine pointed to a pile of fresh feces. At the same time, the point squad reported it had come to another ravine that intersected its own from the right about a hundred meters from Carroll’s position.
“As I stood there I suddenly had this overwhelming feeling we were getting into trouble,” Carroll remembered. “The intense feeling affected my entire body with a sense of impending doom. I knew I had to get those Marines out of that spot immediately.”
Carroll whirled around. He pointed up the ridge finger running down from Hill 778. “Up there,” he ordered his platoon. “Get up there.”
Exhausted as anyone else, Cpl Tate led his fire team in a double time out of what was becoming the perfect kill zone. The NVA were in the process of forming a hasty ambush, but Carroll led his men away from the worst of it. Still, while some of 3rd Platoon was given a fighting chance due to their platoon commander’s decisive foresight, Cpl Tate’s fire team along with the rest of 3nd squad absorbed 10 – 15 minutes of intense NVA fire superiority at almost point blank range as they reached the top of that finger. Their effort prevented the enemy from sweeping down the side of the hill to the patrol’s right, trapping both platoons in a turkey shoot from the high ground on both flanks. While leading his fire team’s attempt to return fire and maneuver to a better position, Tate was hit by a heavy machine gun round through his arm and into his armpit. With the radio he carried and his customarily heavy load, Tate fell hard. His rapid heartbeat from the uphill sprint quickly drained his body of blood from a severed artery. He would eventually die in his platoon commander’s arms when no amount of direct pressure could stop the bleeding.
This patrol of Foxtrot Company faced factors that seemed to guarantee their certain annihilation. They faced a steady rate of fire from NVA AK-47s responding with M-16 rifles that could only get off one or two rounds before jamming. They were surrounded by a numerically superior enemy force that knew every contour of this terrain, and the high ridgelines blocked the Marines’ radio transmissions, preventing the assistance of air and artillery support. Twenty-four dead Marines was a high price to pay, but why was it not sixty?
These Marines lived up to the long tradition of the Marine Corps’ discipline under fire. Their war fighting prowess showed through in six ways to win this fight. 1) The way 3rd Platoon quickly maneuvered to prevent the NVA from enveloping the patrol’s right flank bought time for the rest of the patrol to react. 2) The M-16 failed them, but an M-60 machine gun team attached to 3rd Platoon, led by Cpl Albert Potts, aggressively maneuvered to a good firing position and preceded to mow down the advancing NVA sending rounds down range as fast as his proficient gun team could replace new belts. 3) Just as 3rd Platoon was running out of ammunition, a nearby patrol from Echo Company came to their aid, instantly assessed the situation, and laid down a danger-close base of machine gun grazing fire at NVA soldiers that were overrunning the position of Tate’s wounded squad. 4) Despite all the confusion, the Marines managed to identify and take out the NVA mortar section. 5) A F-8 Crusader returning from a bombing run happened to be flying by. The quick thinking company radio man, Cpl Joe O’Connor, used the radio of a wounded Forward Air Controller lying next to him to make contact with the pilot. The Bomber had neither any munitions nor much fuel, but he agreed to brave the ground fire and make two threateningly low passes. Fear of an airstrike appears to have convinced several NVA units to break contact. 6) Ultimately the decisive factor that prevented a terrible situation that day from becoming far worse was the quality of leadership from NCOs like Cpl Lyle Tate and the officers above them. Marine officers and NCOs wear the famous “blood stripe” on the trouser seam of their dress blue uniforms to signify the tendency of Marine small unit leaders to have a higher casualty rate than the men they lead. Every maneuver element leader from the company commander to the fire team leaders earned the Purple Heart that day, many of them posthumously.
A few days later, A Marine detail and a Navy Chaplain notified Lyle Tate’s parents that their only son had been killed in action. This somber moment was cut short when Mr. Tate suddenly suffered a heart attack in response. He recovered in time to attend Lyle’s burial at Willamette National Cemetery.
If you have never seen the annual Memorial Day ceremony at the Oregon Vietnam Veterans Living Memorial, consider attending this year which is quickly approaching on the 28th of this month. Starting at 10AM will be the reading of names. With Lyle Tate are the names of two other Oregonians who were killed in action with 2/3, Monte Pitner and Gary Kestler, whom I will also be writing about on the 45th anniversary of their deaths.
The ceremony will start at 11:15, featuring this year former Portland Mayor (and former Marine) Bud Clark, Brigadier General Bruce Prunk, and the Oregon Air National Guard will do a low F-15 flyby. Having attended these ceremonies so long ago as a boy, I remember when it was F-4s flying by. Indeed I was at the very first dedication of this memorial in 1987 with my father who checked into 2/3 just after the Khe Sanh hill fights and fought with them through the Tet Offensive in 1968. He knew many of the names on that wall personally, friends that will be forever young to him. For those of you who do not have a personal connection, I write this article so that Marines like Lyle Tate will be forever loved and forever remembered long after their generation of fellow Marines has passed from this earth.