In May 1966, a small North Vietnamese reconnaissance force made their way across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) into Quang Tri Province. The unit’s mission was to begin preparations for a massive invasion by regular forces of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Preparations included organizing local sympathizers to help with a very large logistics support mission.
The Commanding General of he NVA 324B Division was Nguyen Vang. General Vang began his infiltration during the last week of May but soon learned that thanks to the ineptness of Viet Cong locals, much needed supplies were not in place. The division’s advance stalled on the banks of the Ben Hat River; General Vang sent troops back into the North for supplies.
The infiltration was not a well-kept secret. General Westmoreland had been receiving intelligence reports about the presence of the NVA 324B, and he had long suspected that the NVA would make an attempt to seize Quang Tri Province, which was part of the I Corps Tactical Zone (also, I CTZ and often said as “One Corps”). Photo intelligence suggested the presence of NVA forces in Quang Tri —a captured NVA soldier confirmed it.
General Westmoreland believed that the Americans lacked sufficient intelligence about the enemy’s intent. The natural tendency would be to order up a blocking force and plan for a robust counter-attack. Marine commanders suggested that an NVA presence in Quang Tri could be a ruse, intending to lure the Marines away from Da Nang. Westmoreland directed General Lew Walt to employ reconnaissance units to determine the purpose and scope of the NVA 324B.
A Recon team of 12 Marines lifted off from Dong Ha on 1 July 1966. They were inserted near two intersecting trails inside the DMZ; they were immediately overwhelmed by enemy fire and quickly withdrew. For two weeks, recon teams landed in several locations observing NVA regulars as they developed fortified positions. With these confirmations, Westmoreland ordered Walt: seven Marine Corps infantry battalions, five Army of Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) infantry and airborne battalions (11,000 men) would be reinforced by artillery, combined aircraft, and long-range naval support from the Seventh Fleet. A special landing force was placed in reserve.
Operation Hastings had begun.
More than half of Quang Tri Province was mountainous jungle. The canopy was so thick that bombs couldn’t penetrate it, and ground damage assessment was next to impossible. To the east of these mountains were foothills, and then rice paddies and sandy beaches along the coastal shore.
Commanding Operation Hastings was Brigadier general Lowell English, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. He developed a plan to cut off the NVA 324B by seizing control of two trails just south of the DMZ. One key point in this place was placing a Marine unit on top of the “Rock Pile,” a craggy hill overlooking the Cam Lo River and the flat plain in the north. NVA observed the dust rising out of nearby Dong Ha as US aircraft continuously landed troops and supplies. For three days, B-52 aircraft dropped ordinance on NVA positions.
Combat operations began in earnest on 15 July 1966. A-4 Skyhawks from Marine Aircraft Group —12 (MAG-12) and F-4 Phantoms from MAG-11 began bombing and laying down napalm at two pre-designed landing zones (LZs): LZ Crow, 8 kilometers northeast of the Rock Pile, and LZ Dove at the mouth of the valley five kilometers northeast of LZ Crow. As ground support aircraft withdrew, Marine artillery from the 12th Marines began a twenty-minute bombardment of LZ Crow. CH-46s began inserting Marines at LZ Crow at 0750. The first drops were conducted without incident; a second insertion was answered by sniper fire. The landing zone was too small; two helicopters collided and crashed while a third CH-46 hit a tree while trying to avoid the other two. Two Marines were killed, seven seriously injured. Later that day, another CH-46 was hit by NVA fire; 13 Marines from 2/1 were killed. The Marines promptly renamed the Song Ngan as “Helicopter Valley.”
Marines from 3/4 were soon receiving deadly accurate fire from the NVA 324B. It wasn’t long before 3/4 was cut off behind enemy lines. They took a pounding that lasted for days; it was the bloodiest battle of the operation.
On 24 July 1966, India Company 3/5 was ordered to proceed to the top of Hill 362 and establish a radio relay station —necessary for effective communications in mountainous terrain. The company completed their movement and had begun to secure their perimeter when attacked by a large force of NVA. Marines incurred significant casualties but remained in their positions throughout the night, protecting it and their wounded comrades. The carnage of the fight became apparent at dawn. Fighting continued as medevac aircraft removed the dead and wounded.
Operation Hastings lasted throughout the month of July. The NVA abandoned their plan for the invasion of Quang Tri Province. When they withdrew back into North Vietnam, they left behind 882 dead, hundreds of weapons, tons of ammunition, and 17 prisoners of war. Of the Marines, 126 were killed in action with an additional 448 wounded. Among those from India Company:
First Lieutenant Joseph Kopfler, III, USMC
Staff Sergeant Jerry Hailey, USMC
Staff Sergeant William Hawkins, USMC
Corporal Richard Currier, Jr., USMC
Corporal Robert Johnson, USMC
Lance Corporal Robin L. Arnold, USMC
Lance Corporal Ronald Coates, USMC
Lance Corporal George Corey, USMC
Lance Corporal Sidney Malone, Jr., USMC
Private First Class Randy Brosnan, USMC
Private First Class Lawrence Daniels, USMC
Private First Class Lawrence Denny, USMC
Private First Class Franklin Eucker, USMC
Private First Class R. Fenstermacher, USMC
Private First Class Daniel Harmon, USMC
Private First Class Stephen Kittle, USMC
Private First Class Thomas Presby, USMC
Private Oscar Cruz, USMC