Over the course of late 1965 and early 1966 the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) intensified its military threat along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The tactical goal of these incursions across the 17th Parallel sought to draw United States Military forces away from populated cities and towns, a similar strategy would be employed during the final months of 1967 in order to maximize the impact of the upcoming Tet Offensive. In response, the Marines elected to construct and reinforce a string of firebases due south of the DMZ including installments at Con Thien, Gio Linh, Camp Carroll, and Dong Ha. To support the defense of the DMZ area, Marines were often relocated from the southern regions of I Corps. In addition to these firebases, U.S. forces also established an interconnected sequence of electronic sensors and other detection devices called the McNamara Line.
The original actions in defense of the Vietnamese DMZ, officially designated as Operation Hastings, began on 15 July 1966. Operation Hastings was a strategic success for American and South Vietnamese troops as the estimated enemy casualties reached upwards of 800 enemy soldiers. The operation, however, was only scheduled to last slightly longer than three weeks reaching its conclusion on 3 August 1966.
Due to the initial, albeit brief, successes of Operation Hastings the United States elected to essentially renew the mission and rename it Operation Prairie. Operation Prairie would cover the exact same areas along the DMZ that Operation Hastings had, as well as had the same mission. The formal objective of Prairie was to search the areas south of DMZ for NVA troops and eliminate them. Another purpose of Operation Prairie aimed to determine the extent of NVA and VC infiltration of northern I Corps, the area of South Vietnam stretching from the northern edge of the Central Highlands to the DMZ.
A majority of the activities would be conducted by the 3rd Marine Division in the Con Thien and Gio Linh regions beginning in early August 1966 with the main objective of tracking and stopping the 324B Division of the NVA from crossing the demilitarized zone and invading Quang Tri Province. The preliminary plan for action centered on the insertion of four to five man "stingray" teams along the suspected enemy avenues of approach. If these reconnaissance teams encountered the enemy they would then call for artillery support from Cam Lo, and helicopter or other aircraft support from Da Nang or Chu Lai. In the event that ground reinforcements were needed the infantry companies located at Cam Lo and Dong Ha would provide them.
Operation Prairie, following closely on the heels of Operation Hastings, was launched on 3 August 1966 seeking to interdict any communist infiltration. The first significant encounter occurred on 6 August 1966, just after the UH-1E insertion of a five man team codenamed Groucho Marx near the DMZ. Shortly after landing the team could smell smoke from a suspected enemy camp and soon reported NVA movement along trails near their position. Team Groucho Marx called for an artillery bombardment from Cam Lo twice on the location two separate times over the course of the next days. On the morning of 8 August 1966, the team spotted approximately 15 enemy troops moving in a skirmish line in search of the American patrol. Reinforcements arrived in support via helicopters, as well as a pair of gunships, however the enemy had disappeared to which the U.S. forces asked for return of the helicopters for extraction. Eight UH-34 helicopters arrived with the first landing without incident at the improvised landing zone, but upon take off the NVA troops opened fire from a ridgeline to the north. In total five of the UH-34s were able to land, yet only twenty of the forty-five Marines were evacuated as the other helicopters abandoned the withdrawal due to heavy fire. Now under the command of Captain Howard V. Lee, the Marines that remained including Team Groucho Marx set up a defensive perimeter and fought off several large attacks from what is estimated to have been a company of enemy soldiers.
Over the course of the next few hours Major Vincil W. Hazelbaker landed his UH-1E helicopter under withering enemy fire to resupply the Marines. Hazelbaker then departed, reloaded his helicopter at Dong Ha Airfield, and bravely returned. After several unsuccessful landing attempts Hazelbaker finally safely landed on the ground, resupplied the troops a second time, however during the unloading of ammunition an enemy rocket impacted the rotor mast, crippling the aircraft. Hazelbaker then assumed command, as Captain Lee had been injured by a fragmentation grenade, and directed a napalm strike on the enemy position at dawn on 9 August 1966. Reinforcements finally arrived later that morning, secured the area, and aided in the evacuation of the remaining Marines in the afternoon. In total Team Groucho Marx and their reinforcements suffered thirty-two casualties, with five men killed, while they inflicted at least thirty-seven enemy KIAs (a support team later noted other bloodstains and drag marks indicating a much larger higher number of casualties). For the valiant actions occurring during the two-day fight, Captain Howard V. Lee earned the Medal of Honor and Major Vincil W. Hazelbaker was presented the Navy Cross.
On 15 September 1966, an additional 1,500 Marines landed from 7th Fleet ships off Quang Tri province to support two companies of the 4th Marine Regiment who were pinned down by a large force of NVA troops. The outnumbered American forces were unable to break out until 18 September 1966. Operation Prairie concluded on 31 January 1967 with a total of 1,397 known enemy casualties.
Operation Prairie II
The allied forces renewed the operation several times during the first half of 1967 beginning with Operation Prairie II, which spanned from 1 February to 18 March and accounted for a total of 693 enemy casualties.
Operation Prairie III
Operation Prairie III began just two days after the conclusion of Prairie II on 20 March and lasted until 19 April 1967 with an enemy casualties estimated at 250 soldiers.
Operation Prairie IV
Operation Prairie IV ran from 20 April to 17 May 1967 and featured heavy fighting east of Khe Sanh along the southern banks of the Ben Hai River, including five battalions of the 1st Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and three battalions of Marines and the Special Landing Force. By the time Prairie IV wrapped up actions, a total of 164 American troops had been killed with approximately 999 wounded, while the NVA suffered 505 deaths with an unknown number of wounded.
Operation Prairie was undoubtedly a huge success for the American and South Vietnamese forces, however its primary triumphs were overshadowed in the months and years that followed. The allied forces accomplished exactly what had been outlined in Prairie’s objectives: prevent enemy infiltration across the DMZ and Ben Hai River and determine the extent of their infiltration. Nevertheless, the NVA units merely fled over the DMZ to North Vietnam in order to regroup, reequip, and then reenter South Vietnam later in 1967. One of the other purposes of Operation Prairie was to reduce the large investment of manpower that the U.S. forces had committed to protect the DMZ. Instead the NVA strategy tied down a major portion of the Marine force in I Corps along the vast, barren tracts of land south of the DMZ, leaving population centers undermanned and under protected.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Operation Prairie.|
- Pearson, Willard (1975). "The War in the Northern Provinces". Department of the Army. Retrieved 2009-01-09.
- "Operation Prairie". Retrieved 2009-01-09.