Operation Kentucky was a multi-Battalion operation conducted by the United States Marine Corps in the area south of the DMZ in Quang Tri Province. This was another operation to secure the Con Thien area from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The operation ran from November 1, 1967 until February 28, 1969.
Order of Battle
- United States Marine Corps
- 2nd Battalion 1st Marines
- 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines
- 1st Battalion 4th Marines
- Two Companies of BLT 2nd Battalion 4th Marines (from 27 January 1968)
- 3rd Battalion 4th Marines (until 23 January 1968):120
- 2nd Battalion 9th Marines
- 2nd Battalion 12th Marines
- North Vietnamese Army (NVA)
Following the conclusion of Operation Kingfisher, 3rd Marine Division split the Kingfisher tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) in two. The new Kentucky TAOR which included Gio Linh, Con Thien, Cam Lo and Đông Hà (the area known to Marines as Leatherneck Square) was under the control of the 9th Marines, while to the west the Lancaster TAOR covered Camp Carroll, the Rockpile and Ca Lu was under the control of 3rd Marines.
During November 9 Marines continued construction of the strongpoint obstacle system and engaged platoon and company-sized NVA units often in bunkers trying to ambush the Marines and hinder construction, the Marines killed 65 NVA during these encounters. On 29 November 3 Marine Battalions and 2 Battalions from the ARVN 1st Division conducted a clearing operation between Con Thien and Gio Linh. On 30 November 2/9 Marines found and overran an NVA bunker system killing 41 NVA for the loss of 15 Marines killed and 53 wounded.:145
This period saw relatively little NVA activity other than harassment fire on the Con Thien base and the Marines used this relative quiet to continue to improve the strongpoints along the Trace line.:40–46 On 31 December, Company I of 3/4 Marines on a patrol north from Strongpoint A-3 spotted NVA soldiers in the southern DMZ, engaging the NVA they soon realised that the NVA occupied a line of bunkers in front of them. Marine mortars and artillery and two UH-1E Huey gunships from VMO-6 provided supporting fire and Company I was able to withdraw sustaining only 4 wounded, while the NVA had lost at least 35 dead.:48–50
On the morning of 7 January while attempting to neutralise an NVA sniper, two fire teams from Company L 3/4 Marines were ambushed. The remainder of Company L and Company K were sent in to help the fire teams break contact and were drawn into a daylong battle. By the end of the day the Marines had lost 6 killed, 36 wounded and 1 missing.:50–1
On 11 January a 3-Company operation was mounted to recover the body of the Marine missing in the 7 January operation, the NVA had dragged the body into the DMZ and were using it as bait to trap US forces. The Marines supported by artillery and air strikes outflanked the NVA positions, destroyed 25 bunkers and killed 15 NVA for the loss of 2 Marines wounded.:51–2
On 18 January Company L 3/4 Marines launched a patrol 3.2 km northeast of Con Thien into an area nicknamed the Meat Market by Marines. The patrol was ambushed by NVA in well-camouflaged bunkers and the lead squad was cut off from the rest of the Company and was used by the NVA as bait for the other Marines. Under the cover of Marine gunships and artillery fire, the survivors and dead of the isolated squad were brought back into the Company perimeter. Company M then moved forward to relieve Company L and the combined force overran several NVA bunkers. Marine losses were 9 dead and 22 wounded, while the NVA were estimated to have suffered 100 casualties.:56–7
At 02:15 on 2 February the NVA attacked the Combined Action Company P headquarters at Cam Lo. The Marines, supported by a detachment of US Army M42 Dusters held off the NVA attack until relieved by a quick reaction force from 2/9 Marines. The NVA lost 111 killed and 23 captured while the Marines lost 2 dead and 18 wounded and the US Army lost 1 killed.:138–9
On 7 February the NVA ambushed a patrol by a platoon from Company K 3/3 Marines south of Con Thien, killing 9 Marines including the Platoon Commander. The remainder of Company K moved to reinforce the ambushed platoon and were themselves ambushed from well-concealed NVA bunkers, suffering 18 killed and 10 wounded in the first 5 minutes, including the Platoon commanders and their radio operators. At the 3/3 Marines operations center at Strongpoint A-3 the Battalion Commander ordered Company L to establish blocking positions while Company M manoevured to relieve Company K. Company M was unable to reach the ambush site before dark and Company L returned to Strongpoint A-3, while Companies K and M dug in for the night. On the morning of 8 February the two Companies, supported by tanks, artillery and gunships, attacked the NVA bunker complex, killing 139 NVA, while suffering a further 3 Marines killed.:139–140
The NVA continued to pressure the Marines particularly around the A-3 strongpoint between Con Thien and Gio Linh. On 3 March Lima Company, 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines, occupying an outpost on Hill 28 just north of the A-3, intercepted an NVA battalion attempting to infiltrate the Marine positions. The NVA encircled the Marines and were only driven back by airstrikes and Huey gunship runs. One Marine was killed and thirteen wounded while killing over 100 NVA.:244
On 16 March, Mike Company, 3/3 Marines and Charlie Company, 1/4 Marines clashed with another battalion-sized NVA force. The two Marine companies called in artillery and air upon the NVA, the bulk of which disengaged, leaving a company behind to fight a rearguard action. NVA artillery from north of the DMZ answered the American supporting arms with a 400-round barrage of its own on the Marines. Marine casualties were two KIA and nine wounded for 83 NVA killed. For the entire month in Operation Kentucky, 9th Marines reported over 400 enemy dead while Marine casualties were 37 KIA and more than 200 wounded.:244
On 22 May a patrol from Company A 1/4 Marines ran into an NVA force east of Con Thien. 1/4 attacked east from Con Thien, while 3/3 Marines attacked west from Strongpoint A-3. 3/9 Marines were helicoptered into blocking positions in the south, while 1/9 Marines was helicoptered into blocking positions in the north. The NVA tried to escape across the trace line but were mowed down by artillery, tank, gunship and fixed-wing fire. The NVA suffered 225 killed, while the Marines had 23 KIA and 75 wounded.:308–309
On 6 June, a reinforced platoon from Company E, 26th Marines observed and then engaged an NVA company while on patrol 1.8 km southeast of Con Thien. Reinforced by the command group and a rifle platoon from Company H, the patrol engaged the NVA with small arms and 81mm mortars. 14 NVA were killed and the Marines suffered 14 KIA and 11 wounded.:357
On 7 July, to exploit the results of Operation Thor in the Cua Viet-Dong Ha sector, the 9th Marines began a sweep of the area between Con Thien and the DMZ. On 11 July, 4 km northeast of Con Thien, elements of 3/9 Marines discovered a reinforced NVA platoon in the open. Fixing the NVA in place with small arms fire, the Marines, with air, artillery, and tank support, launched a coordinated air-ground attack through the area killing more than 30 NVA. The 9th Marines uncovered and destroyed numerous NVA fortifications, a few of the positions were lightly defended, but the majority were abandoned. One bunker system discovered 4 km meters due north of Con Thien spanned more than 1 km and included 242 well-constructed bunkers. Supplies and equipment abandoned included weapons, 935 mortar rounds, 500 pounds of explosives, 55 antitank mines, and 500 pounds of rice. The Marines also found 29 NVA bodies, killed by artillery and airstrikes during the advance on the complex.:363
On 21 July 2/9 Marines discovered a major NVA bunker complex 6 km southwest of Con Thien. Composed of 60 A-frame timbered bunkers built into the sides of bomb craters, each with an average overhead cover 10-feet-thick, the system was connected to a large command bunker by a network of interconnecting tunnels. The command bunker featured an aperture overlooking Con Thien and C-2 and documents found in the bunker indicated that the NVA had been observing and reporting the movement of helicopters, tanks, and trucks entering and leaving Con Thien and C-2.:365
Early August saw little contact with the NVA other than an encounter by Company F, 9th Marines with 30 NVA, 3 km east of Con Thien. In the face of artillery and fixed-wing support, the NVA broke contact and the Marines began a sweep through the area during which they regained contact. The NVA again broke and ran, and Company F moved through the area, capturing a number of weapons and counting 11 NVA dead.:387
On 15 August, an NVA company attacked a four-man Marine reconnaissance team southeast of Con Thien near the abandoned airstrip at Nam Dong. The patrol returned fire and requested reinforcement, while simultaneously calling in preplanned artillery fires. Within minutes a platoon from Company A, 1st Marines, accompanied by three tanks, moved out of positions 1 km away and headed south to assist. The coordinated attack, which included more than 150 rounds of 105mm artillery, 40 rounds of 4.2-inch mortar, 75 rounds from the 90mm guns of the tanks, and airstrikes by Marine UH-1E gunships accounted for several NVA dead.:389
As NVA activity continued to increase in the eastern DMZ, particularly north of Con Thien, the Marines decided to act. In addition to sightings of enemy tanks, Marine fighter pilots and aerial observers reported spotting trucks, truck parks, camouflaged revetments, storage bunkers, and trenchlines. Of special interest were repeated sightings of low, slow moving lights during hours of darkness which, it was assumed, came from enemy helicopters thought to be resupplying forward positions with high priority cargo such as ammunition and medical supplies or conducting medevacs. On 19 August, after 60 Arclight strikes 2nd Battalion 1st Marines (2/1) assaulted into three LZs in the Trung Son region of the southern DMZ, 5 km north of Con Thien. Supported by a platoon of tanks from 3rd Tank Battalion, 2/1 swept the area but found no evidence of use by VPAF helicopters. During the extraction one CH-46 Sea Knight was destroyed by a command detonated mine, killing 4 Marines.
While the assault claimed no NVA casualties, it did scatter NVA forces in the area. On the morning of the 19th, Bravo Company, 2/1 and the Army's Company A, 77th Armored Regiment engaged an enemy platoon while supported by M-48s from 3rd Tank Battalion, killing 26 NVA. 6 km southwest of Con Thien Mike Company, 3/9 Marines intercepted a reinforced NVA platoon, under the cover of airstrikes and artillery they kill 30 NVA and captured 2. On 20 August, 2 NVA squads attacked Companies G and H, 2/9 Marines with small arms, RPGs, mortars, and artillery. The Marines, supported by 5 M-48s from 3rd Tank Battalion forced the NVA to withdraw northward, leaving their dead. On 21 August, Company I, 9th Marines began receiving sniper fire and within an hour, the company had engaged an NVA unit of undetermined size, firing small arms and grenades, responding with accurate rocket, mortar, and artillery fire, the Marines forced the NVA to break contact and withdraw to the north. A search of the area found 14 NVA dead and 12 weapons.:389
On 24 August at 17:00, Marine reconnaissance team Tender Rancho was moving 7 km southeast of Con Thien near Dao Xuyen, when it surprised a group of 15 bivouacked NVA troops killing 6. Within minutes the team received a barrage of 82mm mortars and immediately formed a 360-degree security. 90 minutes later gunships arrived on station and informed the team that the NVA surrounded them. At 19:30 despite receiving 0.50 caliber and 82mm mortar fire helicopters inserted a reinforced platoon from Company D 1st Marines to assist. Meanwhile, additional platoons from Company D, along with Company C, moving overland from the east took up blocking positions north of the encircled reconnaissance team before dark. At daylight on 25 August, Marine helicopters inserted the remainder of Company D. During the insertion a CH-34, while dodging enemy fire, struck a tree breaking off the tail section, killing 3 and wounding 14. With the arrival of elements of 1/3 Marines and Company M, 3/9 Marines later in the day, the Marines effectively cordoned the area, preventing an NVA withdrawal. During the remainder of the 25th and into the 26th, as Companies C and D, 1st Marines pushed southward toward the other blocking forces, the NVA made several unsuccessful attempts to break the cordon. By the end of 26 August, after three days of fighting, the NVA had suffered 78 killed while the Marines suffered 11 KIA and 58 wounded.:389–390
On 4 September, a platoon from Company A, 61st Infantry was sent to the relief of Company M 3/9 Marines which was engaged in battle with a reinforced NVA company in bunkers west of Con Thien. Joined by a reaction force from Company C, 61st Infantry, and supported by artillery and airstrikes, the American units killed more than 20 NVA for 6 US KIA and 55 wounded in the two-and-one-half hour battle that followed.:391
On 11 September, Company D, 11th Infantry engaged an NVA force of unknown strength from the 27th Independent NVA Regiment occupying bunkers near the "Market Place," 4 km northeast of Con Thien. The Company called for air and artillery strikes while a platoon of tanks from the 1st Battalion, 77th Armored moved up reinforce. At 18:30 the NVA attempted to break contact, but the artillery prevented their withdrawal. One group of NVA raised a white flag, so the American gunners ceased fire momentarily to allow the group to surrender, instead the NVA broke and ran and the artillery barrage resumed. A later sweep of the area found 40 dead NVA, 7 were captured.:392
On 13 September following Arclight and naval and land artillery strikes 3 Brigade task forces from the 5th Infantry Division attacked into the DMZ northeast of Con Thien. To the east the 1st Squadron, 7th ARVN Armored Cavalry, supported by two platoons from Company A, 3rd Tank Battalion, simultaneously attacked to the north and northeast of A-2 and Gio Linh. The ARVN achieved almost immediate contact. The Marine tanks providing a base of fire for the advancing ARVN infantry fired 90mm canister and high-explosive rounds and their machine guns to break through the NVA defenses killing 73 NVA. Following in the wake of the tanks, and supported by helicopter gunships, the ARVN infantry killed an additional 68 NVA and captured one. On the left flank, after encountering mines and antitank fire, the three Army task forces joined the action, accounting for another 35 NVA and seizing a large cache of mortar rounds. The allied forces reached their northernmost objectives, turned south, and returned to their bases by late afternoon. The captured NVA soldier identified his unit as an element of the 138th NVA Regiment which had assumed control of the 27th Independent Regiment's area of operations, due to the heavy casualties suffered by the regiment in recent months.:393
In late September heavy monsoon rains had swollen the Ben Hai River, forcing remnants of the 320th NVA Division and independent regiments north across the river, but military intelligence indicated that some groups had been trapped in the south by the rising water. On 26 September Companies B, C, and D, 11th Infantry moved out from positions at C-2 and C-2 Bridge. In coordination with the 2d and 3d Battalions, 2nd ARVN Regiment, and the 3d Marines, the companies moved to a position west of Con Thien and then attacked north across the southern boundary of the DMZ, toward the Dong Be Lao mountain complex. During an 8-day patrol into the DMZ, they encountered minimal opposition from the NVA rearguard. Searches of numerous bunkers and other complexes indicated that the NVA had only recently abandoned the positions.:393
On 11 October a brigade mechanized infantry and tank force, composed of Companies B and C, 61st Infantry and Company B, 77th Armored, engaged a platoon of NVA in heavily fortified bunkers, 2.5 km northeast of Con Thien. The NVA used RPGs and 60mm mortars to knock out 3 M-48s and one M-113. Mines disabled another two M-48s and one M-113, killing 3 and wounding 20. After five hours of battle 26 NVA were killed.:394
Despite heavy rain during October, ground and aerial reconnaissance missions indicated the presence of a sizable NVA force south of the Ben Hai River between Gio Linh and Con Thien. On 23 October the brigade task force, composed of three companies of the dismounted 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry attacked north from A-3 and Con Thien into the DMZ and then eastward along the Ben Hai River toward the 2d ARVN Regiment and Company H, 9th Marines which had earlier trapped an NVA force killing 112. As the task force continued eastward during the 24th, through Kinh Mon, Tan Mon, and An Xa along an abandoned railroad, Company A engaged an NVA platoon, killing seven. At 08:30 on 25 October, Company A encountered an NVA battalion in well-fortified bunkers, while Company B came under heavy small arms and mortar fire. By 10:30 the engaged companies had linked up, and while Company A attacked to the northeast against the enemy's flank, Company B assaulted and overran the enemy position, capturing one 82mm mortar, two 60mm mortars, and two 0.50-caliber machine guns. Both companies, later reinforced by Company B, 77th Armor, remained in contact until 18:00 killing 231 NVA for the loss of 4 KIA and 24 wounded.:395
On 22 October General Abrams, COMUSMACV ordered all construction and planning efforts associated with the anti-infiltration effort halted. Under the new plan, referred to as Duel Blade, allied forces, supported by air, artillery, and naval gunfire, would maintain a mobile posture and actively resist infiltration from the North by maintaining a comprehensive surveillance effort. While ground reconnaissance would be a part of the effort, attended and unattended detection devices or sensors would provide a majority of the surveillance capability. As part of the implementation of Duel Blade the "A" and "C" strongpoint sites considered essential would be used as fire support bases, while those of no value, such as A-3 and C-3, would be closed.:444
With effect from 21:00 on 1 November the US ceased all offensive operations against the territory of North Vietnam. This prohibition also applied to offensive operations north of the DMZ's southern boundary. General Abrams later sought and obtained authority to send squad-size patrols into the southern DMZ to capture prisoners and obtain intelligence on the NVA military buildup in the DMZ.:396
On 1 November the 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division, was directed to move from the Kentucky area of operations into an area near Quang Tri City. The 3d Marines supported by the 3rd Tank Battalion assumed control of the Kentucky area.:443 As a sign of the reduced NVA activity in the Kentucky area, by December only Company E, 2/3 Marines was responsible for the security for Con Thien and C-2 Bridge, as well as patrolling and ambushing throughout its assigned 54-square kilometer area.:449
During the course of the fighting Marine casualties were 520 killed and 2,698 wounded while the NVA suffered 3,839 killed and 117 taken as prisoner of war.
- Shulimson, Jack (1997). U.S. Marines in Vietnam: 1968 The Defining Year. History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. p. 127. ISBN 0-16-049125-8.
- Telfer, Gary I. (1984). U.S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese 1967. History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. p. 142. ISBN 978-1482538878.