Groucho Marx

The definitive word in the expression Marine Corps Aviation is Marine. In addition to the development of their considerable aeronautical skills, all Marine Corps aviators go through infantry officer training. This is because there is only one Marine Corps, composed of air, ground, and logistics combat elements. And this is precisely why Marine pilots know exactly what the average grunt is going through down below the clouds.

In fact, many Marine Corps pilots serve a tour with the grunts as air liaison officers, or forward air controllers. When Marine pilots receive a call for assistance or emergency extraction, when they can hear sound of rifles rattling in the background, they know exactly what the ground combat team is going through.

“In modern war you will die like a dog for no good reason.”

—Earnest Hemingway

Razorback Quang Tri 001Phu Bai, Vietnam is located eight miles south of the former imperial capital at Hue. On the morning of 6 August 1966, Phu Bai served as the staging area for an offensive thrust into the coastal flatlands between Hue and Quang Tri, 31 miles further north. The operation was code named Colorado and the assault was determined to drive the enemy out of the now infamous “street without joy.” Three helicopter squadrons were lined up to deliver the grunts into the battle area, including sixteen H-34s, and 20 CH-46s. Before noon, the H-34s had taken nineteen hits and one of the CH-46s had been grounded by a lucky hit that severed an oil line —but the Marines had been landed and the helicopters withdrew to their respective base of operations, one of these being the air facility at Marble Mountain [1].

Meanwhile, in Northern Quang Tri Province, just below the DMZ, the valley eastward from the Razorback was infested with company sized NVA units; Marine commanders decided to whittle away at them with field artillery —less costly than an infantry frontal assault, but the problem is that the use of artillery requires an assessment of battle damage. In order to assess the damage, it was necessary to send in Marine reconnaissance teams—usually consisting of four or five Marines. Their mission was not to fight: it was to establish eyes and ears to discover and report enemy activity. Using battery operated radios, the Recon teams would help direct howitzer fires.

Marine Recon 002One such team was code named “Groucho Marx.” It was led by Staff Sergeant Billy Donaldson [2] and carried with it two field radios (PRC-25 and PRC-10). Beyond standard weapons, the only special equipment was a set of 7×50 power binoculars. They had enough water and rations for three days. Groucho Marx was used to this … they had only recently been extracted from another operation when they came under heavy fire.

A Huey dropped off Groucho Marx in a lush valley twelve miles west of Dong Ha; to the west of that lay dark granite cliffs that formed the eastern wall of the Razorback; the Rockpile jutted 700 feet into the sky just 3 miles to the south. Hill 549 was just east. The team moved to their observation point and settled in for the night.

At 2300 hours the team heard enemy troop movements below them along a streamed; the sound of movement continued for well over an hour and then the silence of the night again returned. It remained quiet until around 1100 hours the next morning.  By then, the Recon Marines could hear the NVA soldiers talking and laughing.  The tell tale smoke from camp fires aided Donaldson in targeting the NVA and he promptly radioed the coordinates to the artillery liaison officer at Cam Lo.  Minutes later, Marine artillery rained down upon the enemy and when the fires ceased, Donaldson succinctly reported, “good cover, out.”

Groucho realized, however, that while the artillery strike had taken its toll on the enemy, the enemy must realize that someone was watching them from somewhere close.  By 1600, Donaldson moved his team to a better vantage point 100 meters (give or take) from their previous position. Soon, Groucho Marx could hear the enemy below them and could detect the scent of livestock [3].  The North Vietnamese commander was no slouch and it wasn’t long before he began sending out probes to locate the position of the American listening/observation posts. The Marines were so well concealed that the NVA did not detect them even when mere yards from their new position [4], but no one in Groucho Marx slept that night.

At daybreak on the following morning (8 August 1966), the NVA commander decided to step up his activities to locate the foreign invaders.  At this point, the Marines weren’t overly concerned; it was a large valley, and the Marines were well concealed.  They believed that the only way the NVA could find them would be if they mistakenly stumbled on top of them in the jungle.  The Marines continued to target the NVA.  A few hours later, however, the NVA had begun conducting on-line search operations. One sweep came within 50 feet of the Marine position.  Donaldson called in artillery within 300 meters of his location. “Good cover” was once more achieved, but now Donaldson knew that the NVA would intensify their search. He reasoned that now would be a good time to radio for air support.

Marine commanders questioned whether it was time to extract Groucho Marx, but the team responded, “Not yet.” The team still might be able to capture an NVA. Plus, Donaldson reported, they were only 150 meters from a suitable landing area. Nevertheless, the Marine commander directed a platoon into the valley, commanded by Second Lieutenant Andrew Sherman [5].  Four CH-46’s delivered their human cargo and departed. Not a shot was fired. Two gunships remained in the area for air support. After the platoon linked up with the Recon team, Lieutenant Sherman wisely organized a defensive perimeter. The fighting holes would come in handy.

A fire team reconnoitered the streamed and reported back that there was no sign of the NVA.  The Marines carefully poked around through the dense foliage within 200 meters of the knoll. They found evidence of the NVA presence, but the enemy had slipped away and had taken their dead and wounded with them.  The problem was Sherman didn’t know how far they had slipped away.

USMC H-34 001By mid-afternoon, the Marine commander decided to extract the 44 Marines; eight H-34 helicopters were fragged for the pickup at the point where Groucho was previously inserted. Sherman reported the landing zone secure, and the first H-34 cautiously made its way and took on its first increment of Marines. No sooner had the aircraft cleared the treetops, the NVA opened fire with automatic weapons.

Four more H-34’s swooped in to extract the Marines, but now the entire ridge line opened up with NVA fire.  Enemy rounds plinked through the helicopter skin as if it was thin paper.  Twenty Marines made it into the H-34s and the barrelhouse birds clawed their way into the air, over the treetops, and back towards Dong Ha. The door gunner of one of the H-34s was shot and killed, his body lying sprawled on the deck as Marines looked on helplessly.

Meanwhile, the remaining Marines noted a sudden increase in the enemy’s rate of fire. The H-34’s remaining on station started to come in for extraction, but Lieutenant Sherman waved them off.  He and the remaining 23 Marines withdrew back to the knoll where they reoccupied their defensive position.  The good news was that the defensive position was a good one; the bad news was that the enemy now knew exactly where these Marines were located.  For the next hour, the Marines readied themselves for the enemy assault; for the next hour, the enemy prepared to make one.

An estimated 200 NVA assaulted the Marine position, transforming the serene countryside into a scene of tremendous agitation and chaos. One Marine reported, “They attacked us; they were screaming like they were crazy drunk or something, so we shot them.”

The NVA attack faltered under a fierce Marine resistance.  The NVA withdrew to regroup and await replacements. The Marines threw back the second assault, but Lieutenant Sherman was shot and killed and nearly every Marines was wounded.  Sergeant Pace assumed command of the remaining Marines, but he was killed in a third assault.  Now command fell to Staff Sergeant Donaldson, NCOIC of Groucho Marx. The Marines were running out of ammunition and daylight, but worse than this was the large numbers of NVA troops filing into the battle area.

By 1900 on 8 August 1966, Pilots and aircrew from HMM-161 volunteered to make an attempt to reinforce the beleaguered Marines.  They made their approach from the Rockpile, but the NVA were waiting for them.  Withering fires drove the helicopters back.  Back at his command post, the Commanding Officer of Echo Company 2/4 knew what had to be done. With six volunteers, Captain Howard V. Lee [6]  loaded two H-34 helicopters with ammunition and all the grenades it could carry and flew to the area between the NVA and the Marines on the knoll. Tossing out all the ammo they could, Lee and three Marines jumped out and began dragging ammo crates to the Marine defensive position.  The second helicopter followed suit, disembarking additional ammunition and three more Marines, but no sooner had that helicopter lifted off, the Marines were quickly surrounded by NVA.

Captain Lee called for close air support from the two gunships circling above. Observing green smoke from the three surrounded Marines, Major Vincil Hazelbaker [7] dove his Huey to the valley floor firing into the NVA with concentrated automatic weapons fire. On his third pass, he flared the Huey and landed and picked up the stranded grunts, taking off again as soon as they were inside the aircraft.

By 2100, Captain Lee was down to 16 Marines, including the wounded that were still able to fight; Captain Lee was himself now seriously wounded by an enemy grenade. The NVA made another assault; the official after action report stated simply, “Enemy repelled.”

Meanwhile, Major Hazelbaker returned to Dong Ha and exchanged his gunship for a slick and loaded with resupply ammunition, decided to try his luck once more on the knoll at the Razorback. He arrived on station at about 22:45 and through gifted night flying, managed to position his slick right above the Marine defensive perimeter. The crew began shoving out ammo crates when a rocket hit the Huey, severely wounding the crew and completely disabling the bird. Major Hazelbaker and his co-pilot joined the fight from inside the defensive perimeter. While Hazelbaker operated the air net, his co-pilot, First Lieutenant Anthony Costa, worked to stop the flow of blood loss in Captain Lee.

Spooky C-47 001A new weapon soon arrived to help the Marines: Spooky was a World War II Era C-47 mounted with three 7.62mm miniguns offering 6,000 rounds per minute to the beleaguered force. Major Hazelbaker aimed his flashlight into the air and asked the Spooky pilot, “What color do you see?” The pilot replied, “I can see your position.” Hazelbaker then requested a fire mission. What the Marines saw was a single finger of fire, a blinding shaft of light slicing down from the sky; what the enemy saw was the angel of death, sitting on a pale horse.

By 0400, Captain Lee could no longer command his Marines. Loss of blood sapped all his strength; he relinquished command of his Marines to Major Hazelbaker. Dawn was still two hours away. The NVA crowded in toward the Marine position; the closer they got to the Marines, the safer they were from Spooky. As the sun began to break over the eastern sky, an A-4 Skyhawk sliced down from the sky. After laying down a dense phosphorous smoke screen between the NVA and the Marines, H-34’s spiraled down and landed within 200 meters, bringing in Marines from Fox and Echo Companies, 2/4 but the rescue force encountered no enemy resistance. The Groucho Marx battle had come to an end.

By now, even the uninitiated should have some inkling about the true meaning of Semper Fidelis.

 

Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live.  Teach them to your children and to their children after them.  —Deuteronomy 4

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[1] The Marines did not realize that the Viet Cong had a fully operational field hospital deep inside Marble Mountain, so close that it was likely they could hear voices speaking in English from their recovery wards (William Boyles, Brothers in Arms).

[2] Awarded the Navy Cross

[3] The Vietnamese frequently used water buffalo to carry military supplies and equipment

[4] If you can’t see it, you can’t shoot it

[5] Posthumously awarded the Navy Cross

[6] Captain Lee was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Johnson on 25 October 1967.

[7] Awarded the Navy Cross

11 thoughts on “Groucho Marx”

  1. Honor, courage and commitment – the bedrock of the USMC – shined brightly here. And I thank you for bringing up their combined stories here to link back to The Wall. To read about “Marines” helping out Marines – air or on the ground – is deeply and poignantly accented by the loss of so many young lives.

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  2. Running to the sound of the guns is what we’ve come to expect from our American Marines. What a fantastic story this is. May God bless our heroes; we must never forget their courage, their commitment, or their sacrifices.

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  3. “The Marines did not realize that the Viet Cong had a fully operational field hospital deep inside Marble Mountain, so close that it was likely they could hear voices speaking in English from their recovery wards”
    Very often, your posts make me cry. 😦
    I’m humiliated to say I don’t even understand this courage. Don’t even UNDERSTAND it.

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  4. I served in the Army, but I believe the Marines are our finest military institution. May God bless them as they expose themselves to great danger in the service of their country. And let us hope that Obama and his minions will not destroy our Marines the way they’ve destroyed our other sacred institutions.

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  5. “Your Corps, My Corps, Our Corps..” (part of a cadence used while running long distances)…what another great story of valour and heroic conduct. Some say we ought never forget the actions of these people – and others in quite similar situations. Ladies and Gentlemen: Most either have never heard of these heroic deeds or have long forgotten them. Very few serve in today’s armed forces. The massive gap between those that have laid their lives on the line and those who haven’t and will not is a great danger for our country. History books are filled – these days – with different stories. Little is made of all those who gave us freedom and/or protected it. Most just do not care as they are self-servers and just want to have a good time. Selfless actions and the willingness to endure hardship and danger is not what many want to consider. OK, there are some that do good in our world and they’ve my salute….but most do not “have skin in the game.” Bring back the Draft says I. Cut welfare to the bone and inform our citizenry that others have paid with their lives or endured great wounds so they live lives of relative ease.

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  6. Operation Colorado — a couple of weeks in country and my first operation. I think it lasted forever.
    On your last two sentences, Tad… I’m with you.
    Semper Fidelis.

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