by Eric Shierman
Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of the day Monte Pitner from Sutherlin, Oregon, was killed in action fighting in a rice paddy near the village of La Bong 3, in the Republic of Vietnam. There would only be a handful of Marines in his squad who would survive that day; those that did so have lived because this young Marine sacrificed his life. Pitner’s only award was a posthumous Purple Heart that broke the hearts of his parents who had raised several sons who would volunteer for military service.
The full story of his death and this battle has never been fully written about in detail until now. The last moment of Pitner’s life has been one of many unrecognized acts of battlefield courage in that war that have almost been forgotten by history. The Second Battalion Third Marines (2/3) which by several metrics endured a more intense and unrelenting combat burden than any other ground unit in the Vietnam War has many such stories to tell that I have been researching for my next book project. Like many other aspects of their tour, pinning down the exact details of Pitner’s death has been extremely challenging as I try to reconcile contradicting primary sources of information from unit diaries to the recollections of these veterans more than four decades after the events.
Private First Class Monte Gale Pitner checked into 2/3 in December 1967 and was assigned to Golf Company which was attached to 1/7 at the time. The Seventh Marine Regiment’s tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) involved the task of patrolling the “Rocket Belt” around the huge air base in Da Nang. NVA units had been infiltrating across the DMZ and the Laotian border with cheap but reliable 140mm rockets that weighed only 90 pounds and this man portable weapon could lob its 9 pound high explosive warhead ten kilometers. All the North Vietnamese needed to do was point the thing from a dirt mound at a 30 degree angle in the general direction of Da Nang from a ten thousand meter distance to suppress the source of the Marines’ air support.
Thus the emergence of the rocket belt which was an 8 to 12 kilometer half circle radius from Da Nang.
In his memoir Tet Marine, William Davis who was in command of 1/7 at the time describes in detail their concept of operations. It only took a few minutes for the enemy to deploy his rockets and fire them. There were not enough Marines to watch every square inch of their battalion’s TAOR. They needed to saturate the area with patrols whose routs were randomly changed to cover the most ground possible in a way that would be unpredictable to the enemy.
The Rocket Belt was cleared of all civilians, allowing the entire area to be a free fire zone. The patrol routes were planned and shared with all artillery and air support units. The way of determining friend from foe was whether or not a unit was moving along a scheduled patrol route. Any deviation from this route, and a friendly unit would be assumed hostile subject to interdictory and on call fire. This allowed extremely small infantry units to maneuver in areas where they may come in contact with a much larger NVA force knowing that the time it would take for the approval of their fire support would be shortened. As Davis recalled:
Only in this manner can any movement out in the rice paddies and the more overgrown terrain of the TAOR be quickly recognized as USMC or NVA/VC, and the requisite fire support rapidly brought to bear in the absolute minimum of time to hit the enemy marauders before they can escape or evade either the physical or fire support ambush. Conversely, the patrol routes are changed constantly to prevent enemy ambushes and also to give him the impression that no matter what route he takes into the Rocket Belt, he will run into an omnipresent Marine patrol.
In effect, these rifle squads are the eyes of our fire support capabilities, which cover the full conventional power spectrum from light artillery to the “Arc Light” strikes of Air Force B-52 bombers. These fighting units are sent along their predetermined routes, usually from 3 to 5 miles in length, to find the enemy, fix his position, then radio back for fire support to their parent battalion’s Combat Operations Center, which houses its Fire Support Coordination Center (FSCC).
There the Infantry Bn S-3 (Operations Officer), the Fire Support Coordinator (an artillery liaison officer), and the Air Liaison Officer rapidly discuss the request, then radio back to Division/Wing for the necessary fire support. Note that all tactical and fire support agencies up through the Division/Wing level know the specific rout and timing of each individual patrol, i.e., from where it will leave, at what time, in what specific direction it will travel, where it will stop to set up an ambush at approximately what time, plus certain “checkpoints” from which it will radio in its exact position to the COC/FSCC.
In this manner, all supporting arms, from artillery to close support aircraft, know the general areas of potential specific contact with the enemy, thereby minimizing the loss of the time normally experienced, especially in night operations, wherein the young squad lead may run into a maximum emergency situation and require assistance NOW, not ten minutes from now.
During the month of December 1967, one common patrol’s mission was a platoon-sized envelopment of one of the many abandoned villages in the Rocket Belt. They would set up ambush positions at a safe distance outside the village and call in an air strike on any potential enemy taking refuge there, hoping to then ambush any NVA units that tried to escape. Here is a picture of Pitner and his gun team on one of these patrols, keeping watch for enemy soldiers fleeing into the rice paddy to escape the bombing; (Pitner is laying in the prone behind his M-60 machinegun):
The Marines would then move into the village looking for a body count.
Here is another picture of Pitner from behind as he carries that heavy gun:
These missions would yield few enemy casualties. For most of the month of December 1967 these large patrols would have little contact with the enemy beyond sporadic sniper fire, booby traps, and written messages left behind:
In January 1968 Marine intelligence in I Corps was spot on, warning of large NVA units infiltrating toward the populated areas for a major imminent attack that would come to be known as the Tet Offensive as it broke out on January 31, 1968. This caught General William Westmoreland and his MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) down in Saigon by surprise, but during the month of January Marines in the north were proactively trying to counter it.
To cover more ground, Golf 2/3’s patrols got smaller in size and more frequent in operational tempo, soon finding the enemy contact they were looking for. Here is the last picture taken of Pitner two days before he died. Though an 0331 machine gunner, he volunteered to go on a very dangerous four man long range reconnaissance patrol with some 0311 riflemen (Pitner is on the bottom left):
When I first heard about how Pitner would volunteer to go out on additional patrols as a rifleman, that’s when I first began to learn what kind of a fearless Marine he was. Simply being an 0331 machine gunner was a tough enough life always having to place the welfare of his gun above himself. Machine gunners become the enemy’s prime target once they open up their fire with that loud gun and large muzzle flashes which gave away their position.
Pitner was only in country a couple of months before he was killed, but he developed a reputation as an extremely daring young man who would wield a shotgun in ambushes to devastating effect. Whether it was his M-60, an M-16, or a shotgun, Pitner was an excellent shot. If you can understand the physical demands placed on a machine gunner, carrying a heavy gun and belt upon belt of ammunition, then you have to wonder where he got the energy to volunteer for more patrols and more danger.
On the night of January 29, 1968 Monte Pitner’s gun team was attached to Sergeant Roy Bembry’s First Squad of Golf 2/3’s First Platoon which was set up in an ambush position in a cemetery’s pagoda overlooking miles of open fields and rice paddies. Early the next morning before sunrise they heard an extremely large column of NVA moving by. The Marines called in an artillery strike, but due to its size they were told not to open fire with the entire squad. Instead after the fire mission, they were ordered to take a single shot against the “tail-end Charlie” the last enemy soldier in the column as the NVA regrouped and moved out. That shot was taken by John “Hippie” Gerro using a M-14 with a bi-pod and starlight scope:
Gerro dropped the enemy soldier with a single shot and the NVA column continued on not knowing they had lost a man. Upon daylight Bembry’s squad was ordered to find that body and report back. What they found was no guerrilla; he was wearing a nice new uniform of a regular soldier of the Army of North Vietnam and was carrying several bags filled with Chicom grenades. The rest of First Platoon under the command of the relatively green new Second Lieutenant Jim Jones was sent out to link up with his squad and patrol the area in search of that NVA unit.
A blood trail was found leading toward the village of La Bong 3 near the shore of the Yen River. Lt. Jones had his platoon seal the village off, sending Bembry’s squad to cross the rice paddy two kilometers to the village’s east to enter a tree line and then sweep through that vegetation in a westerly direction toward the village with the squad on-line in assault formation.
Knowing he could be heading into trouble, Bembry had his squad cross the paddy cautiously with a great deal of dispersion between his Marines while he stood by his radioman and already had the grid coordinates of several likely enemy positions written down for a quick reference. Bembry was directly behind his first fire team as it penetrated the tree line. He was just entering the vegetation as a sudden downpour of bullets rained down upon them. In that tree line were several NVA companies in fortified positions reinforced with heavy machine guns. On this day before the outbreak of the Tet Offensive that would soon engulf the entire country, Bembry’s rifle squad had just stumbled upon a large enemy unit that was poised to assault Da Nang the next day.
All four Marines in that forward fire team were killed instantly. Bembry hit the ground to return fire but his M-16 jammed. As he cleared the spent cartridge from his rifle’s chamber, a NVA machine gun round entered his cheek, went out his jaw, down his neck and out his back. He laid there for a moment feeling no pain at first, assuming he was dead. Instead he lived and resides in Texas today. That round was a tracer and its hot phosphorous cauterized his wound lessening the bleeding.
Once the shock wore off, Bembry said to himself, “I’m not dead yet!” as he chambered a new round and killed the NVA gunner who shot him. Bembry then tried to crawl back to the rest of his squad that was pinned down in the rice paddy behind him, but having just returned fire, he became a target once again. Rounds began impacting all around him until suddenly the fire eased off giving the wounded squad leader a chance to make his way to the paddy dike’s berm where the rest of his squad was hunkered behind.
The fire eased off Bembry, because Pitner drew it away. This intrepid Oregonian handed his machine gun over to his assistant gunner, picked up a rifle, and charged into the tree line in an attempt to rescue Bembry. Pitner was cut down by multiple rounds dying seconds later after one round tore through his neck, the others through his upper chest. Yet by drawing fire away from his squad leader Pitner sacrificed his life for his fellow Marine.
It would be a shame for his actions to be lost to history. The next time you are at Washington Park, I urge you to visit the 1968 panel of the Oregon Vietnam Veterans Memorial now that you know the story behind that name etched in stone.
There is more to this story. The rest of that squad was pinned down too danger close to the enemy for immediate fire support; it could have easily been overrun. Lt. Jones hastily assembled the rest of his platoon to reinforce their position, carefully called for supporting fire, and even managed to get the wounded pulled back to a safe medevac site. Most people in this situation would either freeze up or melt down, but Jones was an officer of Marines forged of the same metal as Smedley Butler and Chesty Puller in Quantaco.
This was the baptism of fire for the man who would go on to become a transformational Commandant of the Marine Corps, Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, and President Obama’s first National Security Advisor.
Those who survived that day like Roy Bembry, would go home to an America that spit in their faces. We are no longer that kind of a country, but the way Vietnam Veterans are still being disrespected is in our failure to learn the lessons they learned for us. Monte Pitner was a fierce warrior in combat, but he and the rest of 2/3 effectively employed counter insurgency strategies that were ignored in the first four years of the Iraq War. Jim Jones was respected in a polite but generic way for his service, yet neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations wanted to listen to him about the lessons of Vietnam.
This year will mark the ten year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War and should be a time for reflection. I believe the best way to understand that war and gage our ability to wage others like it in the future is best made from a comparative approach with a deep understanding of Vietnam. The next time you see a Vietnam Veteran, don’t just give him a sappy thanks for his service. Ask him what he learned there. We cannot pose that question to Pitner, but the best way to honor his sacrifice is to understand his sacrifice in the full context of American military history.
Eric Shierman lives in southwest Portland and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change. He also writes for the Oregonian’s My Oregon blog.