Operation Purple Martin

For preceding events/Operations to this Operation

see Operation Dewey Canyon


As the 9th Marines finished up Operation Dewey Canyon, the 4th Marines, under Col. William F. Goggins, initiated Operation Purple Martin in northwest Quang Tri Province on 1 March. Evidence indicated that the 246th NVA Regiment was moving south of the DMZ on a broad front through this area.

The first encounter with the 246th came on 2 March when Company C, 1/4, clashed with the NVA as the Marines attempted to reoccupy LZ Mack, on a hilltop north of the Elliott Combat Base (formerly the Rockpile). Lashed by enemy mortars, Company C was reinforced by Company L, 3/4, that afternoon. The two companies, handicapped by dense fog and a steady drizzle that eliminated any air support, withdrew under heavy pressure. After consolidating their defensive positions, the two rifle companies waited for the weather to clear before attacking again.

The rain didn't hold back the enemy. Over the next three days, the NVA bombarded the units with a near continuous barrage of mortar fire, sniper fire, and nightly ground attacks. Fifteen Marines died in these assaults. Finally, on the afternoon of 5 March, with clear weather and following an extensive air and artillery bombardment of the objective, the two companies moved on LZ Mack again. Battling a fiercely determined, well-dug-in enemy, the Marines, amply supported by artillery, finally succeeded in clearing the LZ of the NVA. The Navy Cross was awarded to four members of the company:

1st Lt. Karl A. Marlantes, the executive officer; 2d Lt. Thomas E. Noel, a rifle platoon leader; and two enlisted men, George V. Jmaeff and Yale G. Allen, the latter posthumously. These awards were the most given to a single rifle company in one action during the war. Fifteen kilometers to the west, Company G, 2/4, on 9 March, engaged yet another enemy unit while moving near the site of abandoned LZ Catapult. As the company approached the LZ, which over looked an extensive enemy trail network north of the old Khe Sanh Combat Base, NVA resistance toughened. Using snipers, ambushes, and Claymore mines, the determined foe worked hard to halt the Marines. Over the next two days, Company G fought a nearly continuous running battle with the enemy. On the morning of 11 March, the NVA counterattacked with small arms, grenades, and RPGs. Fighting raged as close as five meters before the enemy line broke and Company G finally claimed LZ Catapult. Littering the hill top were two dozen NVA corpses. The Marines lost four killed and thirteen wounded.

Action shifted eastward on 13 March when Company M, 3/4, moved northwest of LZ Mack to rescue LZ Sierra. Abandoned in January, LZ Sierra had been used by the NVA to mortar LZ Mack, two kilometers away. Advancing through a hail of enemy small arms fire, Company M cleared LZ Sierra, losing ten dead and thirty-five wounded against twenty-three NVA dead.

The next morning, Company I moved through Company M to assault the high ground to the north. Just after Company I departed, the NVA counterattacked Company M. Calling upon the dependable howitzers of the 3d Battalion, 12th Marines, the Marine infantry beat off their attackers. After Company I took its objective, the NVA disappeared from the area. The companies of the 3d Battalion then moved north to establish landing zones along the DMZ.

In order to secure his regiment's western flank, Colonel Goggins ordered his 1st Battalion to assault abandoned FSB Argonne. Built on Hill 1308 about twenty kilometers northwest of the former Khe Sanh Combat Base, FSB Argonne sat just two kilometers from the Laotian border. The base thus offered excellent observation into Laos and the nearby portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Battalion commander Lt. Col. George T. Sargent planned to land one company on the fire support base and two others in the valley north of Hill 1308.

Company D, 1/4, assaulted into a hot LZ atop FSB Argonne on the morning of 20 March. Earlier that morning, the NVA defenders had downed a UH-IE carrying a preassault recon team into the LZ. Though Company D received only sporadic enemy fire as they poured out of their CH46Ds, resistance increased steadily as they fanned out across the fire support base; as they neared the crest of Hill 1308, vicious blasts of enemy automatic weapons fire from well constructed bunkers halted their progress. Unswerving in the face of such heavy fire, the Marines used fire and maneuver techniques to destroy one bunker after another. Lieutenant Colonel Sargent, who'd been on the first helicopter, personally led a group of Marines in an attack on an enemy machine gun. Hurling grenades, he killed the weapon's gunners and cleared a path across the LZ. Not until dark was the last enemy fortification destroyed. Company D lost six killed and eleven wounded in securing FSB Argonne. The Marines found fifteen dead NVA scattered amidst the ruined bunkers.

Due to the heavy fighting on FSB Argonne, Lieutenant Colonel Sargent delayed his other two companies' assault into the northern valley until the next day. At 0815 on 21 March, a dozen NVA 82mm mortar rounds suddenly slammed into Argonne. Among the four killed in the blast was Lieutenant Colonel Sargent, who would receive a posthumous Navy Cross for his personal gallantry and skillful leadership; another dozen Marines were wounded. Later, as a medevac helicopter carried out those casualties, more mortar rounds fell, killing three more Marines and wounding another eleven.

As a result of these attacks, Company A was diverted from its planned sweep north of FSB Argonne and sent west to search for the enemy mortars. On 28 March, Company A, after repeated skirmishes with small bands of NVA, finally swept through a bunker complex guarding the crest of Hill 1154, just inside the Laotian border. Though the Marines didn't find any mortar tubes, harassment of the friendly positions on FSB Argonne ceased.

In the meantime, Colonel Goggins dispatched Company C to reinforce FSB Argonne. On 23 March, the new battalion commander, Lt. Col. Clair E. Willcox, sent Company B six kilometers northeast of FSB Argonne to establish FSB Greene and, finally, open the northern part of the operation.

With all the maneuver elements of his regiment at last established in the AO and their initial objectives secured, Colonel Goggins ordered his battalions to begin sweeping their areas. The infantry companies spread out, methodically searching the jungle for the NVA. Their efforts proved futile. Only an occasional contact was made with small bands of NVA. Even when the patrols moved into the DMZ, very few North Vietnamese were found. Throughout April the 4th Regiment searched in vain for the enemy. By the end of the month it was apparent that the NVA had fled to their cross-border sanctuaries. On 25 April, Goggins ordered his infantry companies to withdraw from the DMZ. Once safely out of NVA mortar range, the Marines dug in. From these new positions they could still send patrols north into the DMZ as needed.

Colonel Goggins ended Operation Purple Martin on 8 May, when intelligence sources indicated that the 246th NVA Regiment had in deed moved back into Laos. During the operation the 4th Marines killed more than three hundred members of the enemy regiment while losing less than two dozen of their own.

While the 4th Marines were engaged in the far northwestern reaches of Quang Tri Province, the 3d Marines opened a campaign in the area south of Khe Sanh known as the Vietnam Salient. Just west of the Dewey Canyon AO, the Vietnam Salient poked south into Laos for twenty kilometers. Intelligence sources reported that the NVA, after being halted along Route 922, were using the area to penetrate Quang Tri Province. Marines had entered the salient twice before, in June and September 1968. This time the 3d Marines, recently returned to Quang Tri Province after fighting in Operation Taylor Common with the 1st Marine Division, were tapped to clear the salient.

The tactics of this operation, named 'Maine Crag', would follow the pattern of Operation Dewey Canyon. First, fire support bases reaching successively deeper into the salient would be established. Then, infantry patrols would clear the area around each fire support base before leapfrogging farther south. This time, though, the Marines would be supported by a U.S. Army task force and an ARVN regiment.

In preparation for the operation, 2/3 airlifted into FSB Hawk, just south of Route 9 and about halfway between the Vandegrift Combat Base and Khe Sanh, on 10 March. That same night they began a rare overland trek to FSB Snapper, seven kilometers to the southwest. 'It was a moonless night', recalled battalion commander Lt. Col. James J. McMonagle. ';There were quite [a few] streams to cross and a heck of a lot of elephant grass. It was really amazing how they [the point company] were able to find this place going through elephant grass at that time of evening'. The next morning, McMonagle's men searched the nearby area but found no sign of the enemy.

Operation Maine Crag officially began on 15 March when 2/3 started an overland push from Route 9 south into the salient all the way to FSB Saigon, which overlooked Route 616. For the first few days, the Marines encountered only occasional snipers. Then, on 18 March, a patrol from Company G ambushed a convoy of enemy trucks moving along Highway 616. The next day the company ambushed seven NVA soldiers sent out to check on the convoy.

On 20 March, three companies of 1/3 helilifted into FSB Saigon. These fresh Marines headed southwest to block Route 616 to the west of 2/3. McMonagle's battalion then worked its way eastward along the road. On the twenty-first, Company H uncovered a large cache of foodstuffs, including more than 350 tons of rice.

This proved to be the only major success of the operation. Though the maneuver elements of Operation Maine Crag thoroughly searched their AO, and even extended eastward into the old Operation Dewey Canyon AO, enemy contact was limited to occasional sniper rounds and a few mortar shells fired from Laos. Several more supply caches were uncovered and the foodstuffs extracted. By the end of April, the 3d Marines had been relocated to the central portion of Quang Tri Province, where they took up positions below the DMZ to begin Operation Virginia Ridge.