Ambush of 5-22-68
When Bravo Company of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines moved out from Yankee Station around noon, morale was high. The weather was hot and the roads dusty. The route of march was east along the southern edge of The Trace. They were accompanied by eight Marine tanks. The combined unit followed the Trace until it reached the north-south road known as Route 561, approximately 2,000 meters east of Con Thien.
The Marines’ apparent plan was to flush out any North Vietnamese Army troops that were in the area east of Route 561. Captain Robert Harris’ Bravo Company was to align itself south from The Trace along Route 561 and then advance to the east toward Phu Oc. The terrain here was rolling with successive swales and ridges. The waist-high Kunie grass was interspersed with patches of heavy brush, and the hedgerows divided off the countryside.
The Marines had advanced to the east about 400 meters when at about 1720 hours they ran into an L-shaped ambush set up by an NVA unit, with the small leg of the “L” alongside The Trace to the north. Suddenly, ferociously, Bravo Company was hit by a devastating fusillade of machine gun fire, mortar shells, and grenades. Most of the Marines instinctively hit the ground. Captain Harris promptly gave the command for an element of the Marines to advance on the north side of the ambush. The Marines advanced but were unable to break that side of the ambush. Heavy weapons fire continued to sweep across the Marines’ positions. Most of the casualties occurred in the first 20 minutes of the battle.
Captain Harris was among those who were killed in the early part of the battle. His Marines later credited him with preserving order and discipline, without which the casualties would have been even greater. 1st Lt. David Westphall, platoon leader for the 1st Platoon, was also among those killed, along with LCpl. Charles Kirkland, his radio operator. In all, elements of the 1st Battalion suffered 17 killed in action and at least 36 Marines or Naval Corpsmen were wounded on May 22nd. Two Marines later died of the wounds suffered on May 22nd; one on May 23rd and the second on May 25th.
Alpha Company had been positioned several hundred meters to the north of Bravo Company and double timed to the site of the battle when it was apparent that Bravo needed help. Most of the 2nd Platoon of Bravo Company, under the command of 1st Lt. Joe Johnston, was pinned down until nearly dusk. At that time, Lt. Johnston, himself severely wounded in the jaw, gave the orders for the survivors of his Platoon to pull back to a position about 300 yards to the west at which the Command Post staff and survivors of other platoons had set up a defensive position. The wounded were attended to and brought into a tight perimeter. The dead who had been recovered from the battlefield were placed side by side at the Company aid station. Eight of the dead, including Lt. Westphall and LCpl. Kirkland had to be left on the battlefield overnight.
The Battalion commander ordered that the remains of the Marines left on the battlefield overnight be retrieved on the morning of May 23rd. He asked 2nd Lt. David Hauntz, who was in charge of the FO team during the May 22nd battle, to head up this operation. All of the dead Marines were accounted for and recovered. That operation also turned into an excellent chance to exact revenge upon the NVA troops who had ambushed Bravo Company the day before. Due to the placement of Marine units in the area, the NVA were forced to either stand and fight or try to retreat across the 600 meters of open ground in The Trace. The NVA chose The Trace and they were mercilessly fired upon by tanks and artillery. The casualty count was at least 150 dead NVA; some accounts state that the NVA dead were in the hundreds.
The names of Bravo Company Marines who were killed in action, or died of wounds, are listed in the right margin. Those names include 13 Marines whose official unit was Bravo Company plus Duane F. Horgan, who was a member of H&S Company of the 1st Battalion, 4th Regiment but was assigned to Bravo Company for this operation.
Other members of 1st Battalion who were killed in action in the same battle are Edmund J. Kelly and Carlos A. Morales De La Hoz, both from Alpha-1-4, and Christopher L. Kurtz, from Delta-1-4.