"They Been Fighting Around Here for a Long Time"--the legacy of the area near Hill 43

   Most soldiers who served in combat in Vietnam had a relatively narrow perspective of the war --
defend the ground you stand on, patrol to find the enemy, or attack some place that matters not a
bit to the folks back home.  Each piece of ground, however, was new to the combat soldier during
his one year tour in Vietnam, even if he had been there before.  Generally he was blissfully unaware
that the ground he was standing on may have been stained with the blood of others in the preceding
days, weeks, months, years, or decades.  Some of these pieces of ground, that had been the site
of unnumbered battles, were elevated to the status of legend.  Such a place was Hill 43.

  At first glance, Hill 43 at BS 685 917 did not look very imposing.  It was just another low hill
covered with jungle growth.  But no less authority than the June 1970 issue of Playboy magazine
had identified the Batangan Peninsula and the "Athletic Field" adjacent to Hill 43 as one of  the
toughest places on Earth to stay alive. [See "Step Lightly" by Tim O'Brien, Playboy, June 1970.]
With good reason--many good men died or were maimed near there while doing their government's

Map of Vietnam, 1:50,000  Edition 1-AMS, Series L-7014, Sheet 6739-1  Binh Son

The "Athletic Field" from Hill 43, looking westward.  Photo by Gary Phelps.

   In 1965, the area around Hill 43 was the site of Operation STARLITE, the first regimental size
battle for the US Marines since the Korean War. Intelligence reports indicated that the Viet Cong
were massing north of An Cuong to attack the relatively new base at Chu Lai.  The Marines struck
first with three battalions (2nd Bn 4th Marines,  3rd Bn 3rd Marines, and 3rd Bn 7th Marines).  The
amphibious landings began just south of An Cuong (1), while air assaults were targeted at three LZs
(Red, White, and Blue).  Hotel Co., 4th Marines, conducted a helicopter assault against the 60th Viet
Cong Battalion at Hill 43.  They killed 6 and captured 40 weapons.

This map was carried during Operation Starlite by one of the Marines, Ed Garr.  It shows the LZs (Red, White, &
Blue), the site of the landing at Green beach, unit boundaries, and phase lines that  were supposed to control the
operation. Much of the fighting happened at Hill 43 and the area between Nam Yen (3) and An Cuoung (2).

   During fighting over the next two days, two Marines received the Medal of Honor.  LCpl Joe C. Paul
was posthumously awarded the decoration for his actions during the battle between Nam Yen (3) and
Hill 30 at BS 698 930 when the Marines were taking fire from all sides. Cpl Robert E. O'Malley, who
killed 8 Viet Cong single-handedly as the Marines fought their way to An Cuong (2), lived to receive
his Medal.  Others were not so fortunate.  Of the 177 men in India Co. who hit the beach just south of An
Cuong, 53 were wounded and 14 were dead, including the Company Commander. Over 125 enemy
were killed between Hill 43 and An Cuong (2) and the units fought to clear out VC opposition and then
to link up with other Marines.   In two days of fighting, the Marines had killed 614 Viet Cong at a cost
of 45 dead and 203 wounded in the area to the northeast of Hill 43.

   Over the next few years, combat continued in the area around Hill 43.  During the battles of Tet in
1968, the Viet Cong allegedly raised their flag in every hamlet and ville in the area.  After several days
of intense fighting and severe losses, the legendary 48th Local Force Battalion, a Viet Cong unit
reportedly head quartered in the area near Hill 43, was able to reconstitute its forces from the local
populace. Indeed, the area had been a stronghold for the communist Viet Minh guerrillas in their
struggle against the French years before.  As one combat veteran noted, the populace in the area
around Hill 43 "were all VC."  Unceasing combat over the years had taken its toll, however, and
by mid-1970, the Viet Cong  no longer were able to field sizable combat forces in the area.  Instead,
they adopted the tactics of hit and run, and concealed innumerable booby traps to catch US forces

   In addition to the their combat losses, the Viet Cong operating in the area around Hill 43 were
deprived of their support base as much of the local populace was relocated to refugee camps under
the control of the Government of Viet Nam (GVN).  Operation RUSSELL BEACH (13 Jan - 20
Jul 69) was a massive relocation effort that removed over 111, 610 Vietnamese from the Batangan
Peninsula and settled them in the Combined Holding and Interrogation Center (CHIC) north of
Quang Ngai City.  256 members of the Viet Cong  Infrastructrue (VCI) were identified.   Many of
the hamlets near Hill 43 were turned into empty collections of thatched hootchs.  These apparently
flimsy structures, however, concealed fortified bunkers and tunnels that were still in use.
Official USMC Photo, Aug '65.  "RG 127 - GVC-1 #113  3rd Marine Div RVN 19 Aug 65.  Operation Starlight[sic].  Aerial view of the burning village that was one mile north of the 7th Marine Reginmental CP.  A few radios and other equipment were found in the village with many Viet Cong."  Although smoke rising from the village obscures visibility, many hooches are evident.  The original 2x2 contact print is located in the National Archives II, College Park MD. Official US Army Photo, Sep '70, showing the same area as the photo at left.  During the intervening  five years, most of the buildings were destroyed and  much of the area had been reclaimed for agriculture.  By late 1970, however, the population had been removed and the area was cleared of vegetation to deprive the Viet Cong of concealment, cover, and the support of the civilian populace.   Virtually no crops were grown in the area in 1970.

  Combat continued in the area around Hill 43 during Operation NANTUCKET  BEACH (21 Jul
69 to 1 May 71).  Unlike its predecessor, Operation NANTUCKET BEACH  was directed at
detecting the 48th VCLF Bn and VCI through cordon and search operations and pacification of
the area rather than relocation of the remaining population.  Operation Brave Armada conducted
by the USMC Special Landing Forces (SLF) to the north on the Son Tra Peninsula complimented
this effort.

  In spite of the pacification effort, there were many horrific scenes of combat, but only a few are
documented here.  For example, on 14 Aug 70, combat action at BS 703 904 involving the 1st Plt,
Co. D, 1st Bn 6th Inf,  left twenty soldiers wounded and maimed.  See Story.

This pictomap provided by Ray Tyndall (3/B/1-6 1970-71) shows the vegetation coverage in the
vicinity of Hill 43 (red numerals at left) and eastward toward the coast.  This area was to be cleared.

  On 20 Aug 70, the final assault on Hill 43 began.  Soldiers from the 1st Bn 6th Inf and the 59th
Engineer Company (Land Clearing) occupied the hill.  Vietnamese civilians remaining in the area
were taken by helicopter for processing by Binh Son district officials and eventual resettlement in
a refugee center.

In this photo, the refugees wait on a PZ while three D7 dozers in the upper left of the photo start
stripping the hill of vegetation.  Photo by Ray Tyndall B/1-6 Inf 70-71.

  Using the large D7 dozers, the hilltop was decapitated and turned into a defensive position shaped
like a banana and surrounded by walls of dirt six feet high to defend against direct fire.  Photos.  An
echelon of land clearing dozers attacked the sides of Hill 43, knocked down the jungle and turned
the vegetation under rows of dirt and debris.
  During the next month, the land clearing efforts cleared 5,305 acres.  In the process, the soldiers involved uncovered and destroyed:  2,271 m. of tunnel, 650 m. of trenches, 81 bunkers, 1 x 250 lb bomb, 1 x 8" naval round,  2 x 155 rounds, 1 x 81mm mortar round, 5 x 60mm mortar rounds, 4 x RPG rounds, 3 x anti-personnel mines, 1 x 2.75" rocket, and 3 x chicom grenades. 

Mine dogs were sometimes used to sniff out booby traps and explosives that the Viet Cong had hidden in the area.  This August1970 photo shows a dog and handler ready to go on a patrol from Hill 43.  Note the birm at left used to shelter the troops from direct fire weapons and the poncho tent used to provide shade from the relentless mid-day heat. Photo provided by Arthur "R.C." Casto (facing camera), 2/B/1-6 Inf 1970-70, arc1@earth1.net

Underground bunker with extensive overhead cover in hamlet near Hill 43.  Photo by Bill Klee,
D/1-6 Inf. 70-71.

The soldiers also uncovered food caches of 975 lbs. rice, 605 lbs. of potatoes, 530 lbs. of corn, 22
gal. of barley, and 5 gal. of soybeans.  Finally, in late September 1970, the Hill 43 area was stripped
of its vegetation, its enemy fortifications were buried, and its food caches removed.  The Viet Cong
were deprived of concealment, their munitions, and their food supply.  See photo below.

Hill 43 in mid-September 1970.  Aerial view from about 1,200 ft over the "Athletic Field" showing
the scars in the earth made by the large D7 dozers.  Hedgerows have been flattened and Hill 43
stripped. [Photo provided by Ray Tyndall (3/B/1-6 Inf 1970-71).  For additional photos of Hill 43, visit
Ray's web site.]

  In spite of the land clearing and pacification efforts, the Viet Cong attempted to maintain a presence
near their former stronghold.  On 15 Sep 70, combat action for 3rd Plt, Co. B, 1st Bn 6th Inf at
BS 718 918 resulted in the loss of an OH-6A helicopter, the pilot, the B Co. Commander and a
forward observer.  See Story & Photos.  Combat operations against the Viet Cong, however,
continued unabated.

  On 22 Sep 70, Hill 43 met its demise.  As land clearing efforts were completed, the walls of dirt
erected by the dozers were knocked flat, and the barren, denuded slopes were all that remained.
The dozers moved four kilometers south to Hill 128 at BS 688 870 to begin their land clearing
onslaught anew. And then came the monsoon rains.

  [Today the area has reverted to the apparently timeless cycle of planting and harvest, dry season and
monsoon.  The only evidence of the fighting in the area are a few memorials and monuments
erected by the Vietnamese in honor of their brave men and women of that era so long ago in time
but so recent in memory.  See photos of Operation Starlite area today.]

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