U.S.S. Allen M. Sumner DD-692
Operation Beau Charger - Battle of the Ben Hai River
Task Group 76.4 - 18 to 19 May 1967

Operation BEAU CHARGER was a combined forces amphibious landing and sweep operation into the Southern half of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the Ben Hai River area on May 18-26, 1967.  The following history is an extract from the Monthly Historical Summary of Commander, United States Seventh Fleet for May 1967 (formerly classified Secret, not releasable to foreign nationals).

"Operation BEAU CHARGER was planned in response to the request of CG III MAF for the employment of an ARG/SLF in support of operations in northern ICTZ. The plan called for a search and destroy operation conducted in the eastern area of the southern half of the DMZ in northern Quang Tri Province in direct support of Operation HICKORY. The area selected had been utilized by the enemy as a base area for mounting attacks against Marine out-posts along the southern boundary of the DMZ. The ARG (TG 76.4) consisted of OKINAWA, BAYFIELD, PT DEFIANCE, WHITFIELD COUNTY, TACRON 13 DET ALFA, UDT-11, DET ECHO, BMU-1 DET C-1 and Air Tac Control Det DELTA. The SLF (TG 79.4) consisted of the First Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (Batt 1/3) and HMM 263. SANCTUARY was provided for medical support and in-country naval forces provided patrol craft PCF-73 and USCG PT WELCOME. Due to the promimity of known enemy coastal defense batteries located at Cap lay, normal TG 70.8.9 assets were temporarily augmented from SEA DRAGON forces. In direct support on D Day were BOSTON, ST PAUL, FECHTELER, ALLEN M. SUMNER, EDSON, STRAUSS, and HMAS HOBART. D Day was originally scheduled for 17 May but was later delayed to 18 May in order to coincide with the kick-off of Operation HICKORY. H and L hours were confirmed as 180800H. The enemy batteries on Cap Lay announced their intention to challenge our naval forces when ST PAUL was fired upon at 0400 as she was moving into position. ST PAUL, FECHTELER, SUMNER, STRAUSS, and HMAS HOBART commenced scheduled prep fire at 0600 and enemy fire ceased at 0719. The closet enemy round fell ten yards from POINT DEFIANCE and 50 yards from her boats. The gun position was taken under air attack and 8" gunfire. Enemy fire ceased and POINT DEFIANCE returned to continue off-loading. NGFS continued against assigned targets as well as in counter-battery fire, although handicapped by the loss of the NGFLO who was killed early in the assault. D Day ended with the following casualties: USMC 14 KIA, 55 WIA; enemy 44 KIA (BC), 17 KIA (prob). ST PAUL and FECHTELER were detached to return to SEA DRAGON although BOSTON was directed to remain in general support of III MAF except for highly lucrative targets requiring 8" gunfire developed in the SEA DRAGON area. STRAUSS, SUMNER and HMAS HOBART were detached on 19 May. The ARG with BOSTON and EDSON remained in support as operations continued ashore. On 21 May Mansfield relieved EDSON as NGFS ship directly supporting BEAU CHARGER. OZBOURN relieved MANSFIELD on 22 May. Search and Destroy operations, sweeping to the south in order to clear the area, continued. Casualties at this time were: USMC 23 KIA, 79 WIA; enemy 83 KIA (BC) 83 KIA (prob). Early on the morning of 23 May OZBOURN, while supporting patrol craft engaged with evading enemy small craft, came under fire from Tiger Island. On the 24th with BOSTON again on the scene, BOSTON and OZBOURN were taken under fire by estimated 100mm guns. After counter battery fire by BOSTON and OZBOURN the target was considered destroyed. EDSON joined for NGFS support. On 25 May PROVIDENCE participated in NGFS as VADM HYLAND visited units of the ARG/SLF for briefings. Early in the afternoon the flagship came under enemy fire with approximately 40 rounds observed. One direct hit damaged the SPS-8B radar antenna. No personnel casualties resulted. PROVIDENCE immediately commenced evasive maneuvers and CB fire as EDSON and OZBOURN joined. PROVIDENCE, EDSON, and OZBOURN saturated the area and enemy fire ceased. Many fires and secondary explosions were noted by the air spotter. Back-loading of the SLF began and the operation was terminated at 1300 on 26 May. Final casualties were: USMC 23 KIA, 79 WIA; enemy 83 KIA (BC) 83 (prob). ARG/SLF ALFA was reconstituted and moved to a holding area east of Danang, assuming a 24-hour readiness posture."

The following message was sent to Seventh Fleet by Captain Griffiths of the HMAS Hobart (D39) at the end of the day's GQ's; "THE BARRELS ARE SMOOTH, THE BARRELS DROOP, WE'RE OUT OF POWDER, WHAT'S THE SCOOP !!!!"

This was the strongest concentration of American surface gunfire ships since the Korean War. General Quarters aboard SUMNER lasted the better part of 24 hours and resulted in the expenditure of over 1,100 rounds of five inch ammunition. SUMNER fired on predetermined targets and in direct support, responding to requests of the troops ashore. This was the first incursion of U.S. Marine and ARVN units into the Southern half of the DMZ. The NVA 324B Division eventually moved back into the DMZ.

There was heavy fighting ashore during which Beachmaster Unit ONE suffered seven casualties due to enemy mortar fire. US Marine Corps air assaults also came under intense opposition as related by USMC LTC Edward K. Kirby, CO of HMM-263 in his report. 

“In this operation SLF Alpha (USMC) supported operation HICKORY's eastern area along the DMZ. D-day included an air assault onto LZ Goose by 15 UH-34s from HMM-263 (USMC). For security reasons there was prior air reconnaissance or LZ prep. Flying lead LTC Kirby made a low-level, maximum speed approach to the zone and was ripped by machine gun fire. The rest of his crew was wounded and his radios were shot out plus one of the five infantry man on board was killed. The wounded gunner returned fire and saved everyone as Kirby took off. Only after he was back onboard the USS Okinawa could he tell everyone how bad things were. They moved the rest of the assault to LZ Owl, some 800 meters away and an amphibious force landed on Green Beach. By noon they linked up on LZ Goose and continued to battle the NVA into the evening.”

You may hear actual sound recordings from the Sumner during this battle on the Sounds of Vietnam page. The following is a radio message from the Division Commander, Captain Althoff, who was aboard Sumner to COMSEVENTHFLT.

GASC NR 4291
0 172345Z MAY 67
A. MY 172305Z MAY 67


172345Z MAY 67   0217Z/19   GASC   4291

The following is an extract from U.S. MARINES IN VIETNAM: Fighting The North Vietnamese 1967 by Telfer, Rogers and Fleming produced by History and Museums Division, HQMC, Washington DC, 1984

    During the period 13-16 May, while clearing Route 561 from Cam Lo to Con Thien, the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines made heavy contact with a large NVA force in well prepared positions just south of Con Thien. The enemy fought well and retired north of the DMZ boundary only after extreme pressure.
    Once again the enemy used the unusual advantage conferred by the de facto access to the DMZ, and thus to all of South Vietnam. Marine forces still were forbidden by U.S. policy to move beyond the southern edge of the DMZ. For some time much of the shelling, particularly that by shorter-ranged weapons, mortars, and rockets, came from the region south of the Ben Hai River. It was equally clear that the enemy was using the southern DMZ as a sanctuary from which to launch ground attacks, such as the one against Con Thien.
    On 8 May, after the Con Thien attack, Washington changed the DMZ policy. MACV then authorized III MAF to conduct ground operations in the southern half of the DMZ, and III MAF, in conjunction with the South Vietnamese, quickly drew up plans for combined USMC/ARVN ground, amphibious, and heliborne operations in the eastern portion of the area. The basic concept called for ground attacks by the 3d Marine Division and 1st ARVN Division along parallel routes, as far north as the Ben Hai River.
    Combined with the ground attack, the newly formed Special Landing Force Alpha was to conduct an amphibious landing in the southern portion of the DMZ along the coast to secure the area as far north as the south bank of the Ben Hai River. 4/   On reaching the Ben Hai, all units were to turn around and attack south on a broad front, sweeping as far as Route 9, destroying all enemy units, installations, and supplies encountered. In addition, the plan included the development of a freefire zone which involved the evacuation by South Vietnamese National Police of some 12,000 noncombatants living within the buffer zone. Operational code names were Hickory for the 3d Marine Division units, Beau Charger and Belt Tight for the SLFs, and Lam Son 54 5/ for the ARVN forces. The ARVN force for this operation was composed of three battalions of airborne troops and two battalions of the 1st ARVN Division. The combined operation was to start on 18 May. More fire support was allocated for this operation than for any previous operation in the 3d Division’s operating area.
    The available fire support included artillery, augmented by the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, two cruisers, and seven destroyers (six U.S. and one Australian), as well as by aircraft from the Seventh Air Force and the Seventh Fleet. The majority of the support focused on enemy concentrations and gun positions in the northern portion of the DMZ and the adjacent area to the immediate north, and, if required, as counterbattery fire against North Vietnamese shore batteries.
    A buildup of Marine forces in the Prairie area preceded the operation. Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Figard’s 2d Battalion, 26th Marines arrived from Phong Dien on 15 May; the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Wendell N. Vest, came in from Okinawa on the 15th; and the 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John J. Peeler, arrived from Phu Bai on the l6th.6/ At the beginning of the operation three battalions, the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines and the 1st and 3d Battalions, 9th Marines provided augmentation from Operation Prairie IV forces. In addition, SLF Bravo was to act as 3d Division Reserve. The same day Colonel Edward E. Hammerbeck, the new regimental commander, deployed the 9th Marines command post to a position just north of Cam Lo.
    During the night of 17-18 May the NVA directed heavy mortar, rocket, and artillery attacks against all Marine positions along the DMZ. Gio Linh and Dong Ha suffered the most. From 2350 on the 17th until 0401 on the 18th, over 300 rounds hit Gio Linh, killing 1 Marine and wounding 12 others. During the attack on Dong Ha, at 0315, 150 140mm rockets killed 11 and wounded 91. One rocket scored a direct hit on the roof of the 3d Marine Division Combat Operations Center (COC), but there were no casualties. The rocket detonated prematurely upon hitting a tin roof the division recently had built a few feet above the original sandbagged but leaky roof. Next door, the ARVN COC had no sandbag protection and suffered numerous casualties. The rockets also damaged considerable amounts of equipment, including minor fragment damage to several helicopters of Major Marvin E. Day’s Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 363.7/ The Communist artillery attacks, nevertheless, were fortuitous for they allowed the allied forces to bombard the NVA positions in and north of the DMZ, under the guise of counterbattery fire, thereby maintaining tactical surprise for the forthcoming operation.

Operation Lam Son 54

    Hickory/Lam Son 54 started on schedule. The 1st ARVN Division elements jumped off at 0500, moving in column up Route 1, into the DMZ. Surprise was complete; the ARVN units encountered no resistance as they moved to the Ben Hai and wheeled south. The two 1st ARVN Division battalions started their sweep south on the east side of Route 1, while the three airborne battalions, supported by tanks, turned to the west and then southward abreast the advance of the 1st Division units east of the highway.
    On the 19th, the airborne battalions engaged elements of the 31st and 812th NVA Regiments. From then until the 27th, when Lam Son 54 ended, ARVN units were in constant contact with the enemy. Their casualties were 22 killed and 122 wounded. The enemy suffered more substantial losses: 342 killed, 30 captured, and 51 weapons seized. Most of the casualties occurred in the area known as the “rocket belt” north of Dong Ha.

Operation Beau Charger

    East of the Lam Son 54 operational area, Operation Beau Charger began at the scheduled L-hour and H-hour of 0800, 18 May. Just before and during the launching of the assault, a duel started between Navy fire support ships and NVA shore batteries. Although the NVA batteries hit no ships, 10 salvos bracketed the USS Point Defiance (LSD 31). After return fire silenced the shore batteries, the surface landing proceeded without further incident; there was no opposition.
    The Beau Charger heliborne force experienced a different reception. Landing Zone Goose was a “hot” zone, and only one platoon of Company A, the assault company, managed to land. The Communists closed in and the situation was very much in doubt. At 1100 elements of Company D and the rest of Company A, reinforced with tanks, succeeded in joining up with the isolated assault platoon. The Communists withdrew only after air strikes began to hammer their positions.
    On the 18th, NVA gunners ranged in on supporting Marine SLF artillery positions, knocking out two guns. Ships of the Seventh Fleet returned fire, silencing the North Vietnamese batteries. The Marines relocated their remaining guns at positions 5,800 meters further south.
    Action during the rest of Beau Charger consisted of light contact and continuing artillery harassment until the operation ended on 26 May. West of the Beau Charger operational area the 3d Marine Division was faced with a much different situation. There, the enemy had come to fight.

Operation Hickory

    Adjacent to the Lam Son 54/Beau Charger operational area, 3d Marine Division units launched Operation Hickory on the morning of 18 May. Lieutenant Colonel Figard’s 2d Battalion, 26th Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Peeler’s 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, supported by tanks and Ontos, advanced northward from positions near Con Thien.8/ Concurrently, Lieutenant Colonel Vest’s 3d Battalion, 4th Marines moved by helicopters into a landing zone (LZ) within the DMZ near the Ben Hai River, northwest of Con Thien. The heliborne battalion was to act as a blocking force to prevent the enemy from escaping to the north, or to stop the movement of reinforcements into the area from the north.
    Shortly after 1100 the lead element of Figard’s 2d Battalion, 26th Marines made contact with a force which intelligence officers later determined to have been two battalions. All elements of the Marine battalion quickly became engaged in the battle; the enemy defended from well prepared bunkers and trenches. As the battalion moved against the NVA positions, the right flank came under vicious automatic weapons and mortar fire. Casualties were heavy. Among them were Lieutenant Colonel Figard and his S-3, both of whom required evacuation. Despite the heavy enemy fire, the Navy hospital corpsmen continued their treatment of the wounded. By 1600, Peeler’s 2d Battalion, 9th Marines had moved up on the right of the 2d Battalion, 26th Marines and was also in close contact. Fighting continued until nightfall when the Marines broke contact and pulled back to evacuate casualties. During the day, enemy fire killed 5 Marines and wounded 142; 31 enemy soldiers were known to have been killed.
    The 3d Marine Division already had replaced the wounded Lieutenant Colonel Figard with a new battalion commander. As soon as it learned of Figard’s condition, the division immediately ordered Lieutenant Colonel William J. Masterpool, who had just joined the division staff after command of 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, to assume command of the 2d Battalion, 26th Marines.
    That night, 75 radar-controlled air strikes hit the NVA positions in front of the two Marine battalions. At 0500 on 19 May, heavy artillery fire fell on the enemy defenses and both battalions jumped off in the attack at 0700. During the “prep” fires several short rounds landed on Company F, 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, killing 3 and wounding 2 Marines. Within minutes, the 2d Battalion, 26th Marines again checked its advance because of savage fire from its front and right, while Peeler’s battalion encountered only light small arms fire and pushed rapidly ahead to relieve the pressure on Masterpool’s flank. By 1030 the 2d Battalion, 26th Marines had overrun the enemy bunker complex, accounting for 34 North Vietnamese killed and 9 wounded.
    During the rest of the morning both battalions continued to advance against negligible resistance. At 1330, Captain Robert J. Thompson’s Company H, 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, on the easternmost flank of the advance, met heavy automatic weapon and mortar fire from the east. The company returned fire, but then received additional enemy fire from a tree line 60 meters to the front. Again the Marines returned fire and a tank moved up in support. It silenced the enemy with cannister fire. A squad sent forward to check out the area also came under heavy automatic weapons fire. The tank, moving to support the squad, halted after being hit by RPG rounds and began to burn. A second tank maneuvered forward to help; RPGs disabled it also. Captain Thompson, unable to use other supporting arms because of wounded Marines to his front, moved the entire company forward to retrieve the dead and wounded. After moving the wounded to the rear, the company pulled back and called in supporting arms fire on the evacuated area. The action cost the Marines 7 killed and 12 wounded; enemy casualties were unknown.
    In the meantime, Lieutenant Colonel Vest’s 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, after the heavy action involving the 2d Battalions, 26th and 9th Marines, swept to the southeast to block the NVA withdrawal. On 18 May the battalion made little contact, but discovered a large, abandoned, fortified position, well stocked with food and equipment. For the next two days Vest’s battalion maneuvered toward the other Marine battalions which were moving north. Contact was light, but the battalion encountered intermittent mortar and artillery fire. The battalion continued to uncover large caches of rice and ammunition—over 30 tons of rice and 10 tons of ammunition— but due to the heat and distance to the landing zones much of the rice could not be moved and had to be destroyed.9/
    To the southwest, Lieutenant Colonel Wilson’s 3d Battalion, 9th Marines, screening the western or left flank of the operation, saw little action during the first two days. Then, on 20 May, Company K, point for the battalion, made contact with what it initially estimated to be an enemy platoon deployed in mutually supporting bunkers in a draw. The enemy, at least a company, took Company K under fire. To relieve pressure on Company K, Company L maneuvered to the flank of the enemy position, but was unable to link up with Company K because of heavy enemy fire. Both companies spent the night on opposite sides of the draw with the enemy force between them, while supporting arms pounded the enemy position all night.
    On the 21st, Company M moved forward and joined with K and L and the three companies were able to clear the area. The clearing operation was costly: 26 Marines were killed and 59 wounded. The Marines counted only 36 enemy bodies, but the lingering smell in the draw indicated that many others were in the destroyed fortifications.
    Meanwhile, the division reserve, SLF Bravo’s BLT 2/3, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel DeLong, and HMM-164, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Rodney D. McKitrick, joined Operation Hickory on the 20th. The employment of SLF Bravo involved a unique departure from the norm for amphibious operations in that the heliborne force passed to the control of the 3d Marine Division as it crossed the high water mark. This procedure ensured positive control of all supporting arms covering the battalion’s approach to its inland tactical area of responsibility (TAOR).
    The squadron helilifted the battalion into the DMZ northwest of Gio Linh to block possible withdrawal routes of NVA units then engaged with ARVN airborne formations to the east. By noon all elements of the battalion were ashore and sweeping north toward the DMZ. The Marines of BLT 2/3 encountered only light resistance from small NVA units, apparently security elements for several large ordnance caches and bunker complexes. One of the bunkers was exceptionally sophisticated, constructed of steel overhead and walls. The Marines captured more than 1,000 60mm mortar rounds, as well as large quantities of small arms ammunition and medical supplies in the same complex.
    After sweeping the southern bank of the Ben Hai River, DeLong’s battalion wheeled south and began a deliberate search in that direction. Although the battalion met no resistance, it did uncover and destroy two extensive subterranean bunker complexes filled with supplies and ordnance. On the 23d the advance halted temporarily because of the declaration of a cease-fire to be observed throughout Vietnam in honor of Buddha’s birthday.
    After the brief “stand down,” two battalions, the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines and the 2d Battalion, 26th Marines, began sweeping the DMZ to the southwest toward the mountains west of Con Thien. The 3d Battalion, 9th Marines continued to move northwest as the other two battalions moved south. To the east, the remaining Hickory battalions resumed search and destroy operations in the southern half of the DMZ and “Leatherneck Square.”
    Early on the morning of 25 May, Captain John J. Rozman’s Company H, 26th Marines made contact with a large NVA company in a mutually supporting bunker complex near Hill 117, three miles west of Con Thien. The action was extremely close and lasted for more than an hour before Rozman’s Marines managed to gain fire superiority and disengaged to evacuate their casualties. Air and artillery then hit the enemy positions. When relieved of its casualties, Company H maneuvered north of the hill mass where it met Captain John H. Flathman’s Company K, 3d Battalion, 4th Marines at 1345. Both companies moved against the hill. At 1500 savage fighting developed; the Marines estimated the enemy force holding the position to be at least several companies.
    When the Marines could not break through the strongly fortified position, Lieutenant Colonel Masterpool ordered them to disengage so that supporting arms could again attack the enemy positions.”11/  The two Marine companies again attacked but broke off the action at 1730 and established night positions north and west of the hill. Results of the day’s fighting were 14 Marines killed and 92 wounded; the Marines counted 41 NVA bodies.
    Marine air and artillery pounded the hill all night in preparation for the next attack, scheduled for the next day. At 0915 on the 26th, enemy automatic weapons fire forced down a UH-1E helicopter on a reconnaissance flight over the area. Among the wounded in the helicopter were Lieutenant Colonel Masterpool, his executive officer, and the commanders of Companies H and K; Lieutenant Colonel Masterpool and Captain Flathman had to be evacuated. Consequently, the battalion delayed the attack for another day to allow time for further bombardment of the hill and command adjustments. On the 27th, Companies E and F, 2d Battalion, 26th Marines, under the control of Lieutenant Colonel Vest’s 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, moved against the objective behind covering artillery fire. They met no resistance and secured the hill by 1600. The 3d Battalion, 4th Marines then passed through Companies E and F and consolidated on the ridges leading up to the higher ground west of Hill 117. In the meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Duncan D. Chaplin III arrived by helicopter to assume command of the 2d Battalion, 26th Marines, temporarily under its executive officer, Major James H. Landers.
    During the night, Colonel James R. Stockman, the commander of the 3d Marines, initiated heavy artillery fires from Con Thien and Gio Linh and using the 175mm guns of the Army’s 2d Battalion, 94th Artillery to “literally change the face of the earth” on the enemy-held high ground. The following morning, the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines continued its westward movement onto the high ground without opposition. Lieutenant Colonel Vest’s men encountered only the extensive destruction of numerous fortified positions, apparently abandoned by the NVA early in the artillery attack. Colonel Stockman then ordered the battalion to move toward Con Thien.
    With the exception of the Hill 117 battle, contact diminished during the last days of Operation Hickory and the artillery operations to the east. Nevertheless, the Marines found and destroyed numerous well-fortified areas before the operation terminated on 28 May. In addition, they captured or destroyed more than 50 tons of rice and 10 tons of ordnance. Total enemy casualties for the combined Marine/ARVN operation were 789 killed (the equivalent of two NVA battalions), 37 captured, and 187 weapons taken. Of this total 447 were killed by Marines (85 in Beau Charger, 58 in Belt Tight/Hickory, and 304 in Hickory). Allied losses for the operation were by no means small; the Marines lost 142 killed and 896 wounded, while ARVN losses were 22 killed and 122 wounded.
    The first large-scale allied entry into the southern half of the DMZ signified that the rules had changed. The area was no longer a guaranteed Communist sanctuary from which they could launch attacks. More immediately, the operation had upset, at least temporarily, the NVA organizational structure in the DMZ. The Marines realized that this initial search and destroy operation would not permanently deny the enemy’s use of the area. Nevertheless, while total friendly control had not been established over the region, the removal of the civilian population from the area, some 11,000 people, now permitted the Marines complete freedom of use of supporting arms.

The Virtual Wall has a moving dedication to those lost on the 18th at page http://www.virtualwall.org/dd/DobbinLD01a.htm. We honor them by repeating here the names of the fallen: