Marines who sacrificed, fought, and died in battles on the DMZ in Vietnam 1967-68

The Cross of Gallantry is a story about Vietnam that is told at two levels – a personal journey for two young Americans, and a portrayal of the gross mistakes made by politicians and the Pentagon’s civilian leadership.

The personal story is about Frank O’Brian and Mike Morgan, two middle class Americans who join the Marine Corps in 1967 and go to Vietnam where they are thrown into the middle of bloody combat operations on the DMZ. Their story begins when they meet on a Greyhound bus, headed to Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island. Marine Drill Instructors are brutal, demanding and uncompromising. Their goal is to weed out the weak recruits who they judged would not survive in battle and indoctrinate the remaining recruits into the ethos of the Marine Corps.

Surviving boot camp, Frank and Mike continue warrior training at the Marine Infantry Training Regiment (ITR) in the woods of North Carolina at Camp Geiger. From ITR, they have short visits home to say goodbye to family and friends, and then they enter the pipeline of replacement with thousands of other young Americans headed for Vietnam.

Frank and Mike meet again in Da Nang harbor, aboard the USS Iwo Jima, a helicopter carrier. They are assigned to 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, the Battalion Landing Team (BLT) for the 3rd Marine Division. The new replacements join the battle-hardened Marines of Charlie Company, a brotherhood of veterans where most have earned at least one Purple Heart for combat wounds. Their story continues through a landing, search and destroy operations, building bunkers along the DMZ, crossing minefields, being hit with friendly fire, and engaging in close combat firefights.

Their personal experience reflects on the overarching story of every troop involved in the Vietnam War. Four major military planning mistakes made in Washington and implemented in Vietnam had a deadly impact on American troops.

First, the original strategy of the generals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was offensive — to win the war — was ignored by President Johnson when he chose to adopt the political-military strategy promoted by Defense Secretary McNamara and his team of “whiz kids” – all highly intelligent but woefully inexperienced and naive in military tactics and strategy. They devised a defensive strategy, a “war of attrition”, based on obtaining a “10-to 1 kill ratio” – 10 North Vietnamese to 1 American – that would convince the NVA to stop fighting.

The second military planning mistake was to build a barrier – “McNamara’s Wall” – across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Vietnam where the Americans would take “protected cover” in bunkers while killing NVA soldiers crossing the DMZ in the open. The defensive-attrition plan would also be combined with an “impenetrable” bunker system built across the entire DMZ.

The third fatal mistake was the initiation of Operation Ranch Hand, the defoliation of the DMZ with Agent Orange. Air Force planes sprayed millions of gallons of the deadly poison on the vegetation across the DMZ. It did kill the vegetation, but it also soaked those Marines who conducted combat operations along the DMZ with highly toxic chemicals.

Finally, the M-16 rifles provided to combat units in Vietnam by the Pentagon were untested and faulty. Gene Stoner, the designer of the M-16 and its manufacturer, Colt Manufacturing Company, warned the Pentagon that the Improved Military Rifle (IMR) propellant or gunpowder should be used in the ammunition for the M-16. However, the “whiz kids” in the Pentagon and the Army Ordnance Corps decided the supply of left over ball powder would be used in the M-16 ammunition supplied to troops in the field. The Army Ordnance Corps failed to adequately test the rifle and ammunition together to certify that the M-16 would not jam.

In October 1968, while Marines were fighting NVA soldiers armed with well proven, reliable and highly effective AK-47s, the US House Armed Services Committee, under Congressman Richard Ichord (D-Mo 8th District), the Chairman of the Special Subcommittee on the M-16, issued its startling finding. The cause of the M-16 jamming was not troop failure to maintain clean weapons. Rather, it was the ball powder propellant of the ammunition being fired that caused the jamming!

Frank, Mike, Charlie Company, and the entire 3rd Marine Division struggled, fought, suffered, survived, and died in the hell created by these mistakes imposed by Washington. The Cross of Gallantry takes you into the combat units, on the ground in search and destroy operations, the futility of building bunkers, the tragedy of friendly fire casualties, and the insanity behind a foreign war of attrition.

The political-military strategy was never designed to “win” the war in Vietnam, but combat troops still won countless battles. The Cross of Gallantry tells the stories of Marines who struggled, fought and died as brothers on the DMZ in Vietnam in 1967-68.

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