A firebase in Vietnam, wherever in Vietnam, would be well-known to whoever habituated one anywhere.  There were several thousand firebases during the conflict, manned by many units and many men, but they were all the same. Con Thien was special to those that were there. Keith Nightingale offers an overview of what it was like for the Marines during the siege.

By Keith Nightingale

A firebase in Vietnam, wherever in Vietnam, would be well-known to whoever habituated one anywhere.  There were several thousand firebases during the conflict, manned by many units and many men, but they were all the same. The location may be different, but the experience rarely so. Con Thien was but one of these displaying the simplicity of the battlefield, its conundrums, casualties, and above all else, the brotherhood that formed a family from the experience. Con Thien was special to those that were there and perhaps a decent model of all. Anyone who occupied a firebase under siege experienced the conundrums of combat that created angels.

“Like all firebases, Con Thien was a model of battlefield simplicity”

The military identified the point on a map as YD113703. To the people there it was Con Thien, Vietnam.  In Vietnamese, Con Thien means Hill of Angels, and so it was, but of a different form than the originals envisioned. North of the dividing Ben Hai River, the North had dug an entire series of deeply caved artillery positions pointing south. The occupying angels at Con Thien would quickly learn that the devil lurked within and visited often.

American military planners saw Con Thien as a significant piece of bare earth for the directed establishment of the MacNamara Line.  Con Thien could see far to both the North and to the East, giving it great tactical value. The most available force to hold this land would be Marines. Con Thien would burnish the honor of the Corps.

Marines occupied the mass and transformed it into a modern Verdun. Bunkers and trenches wound around the perimeter and all the modern material and support converged to make Con Thien a self-contained fortress-a fortress that was also an easy aiming point for the many artillery pieces less than five miles to the North.

Very quickly, the NVA artillery began to roll across the terrain. It ranged from 152mm to 120mm artillery to 4.2 and 82mm mortars.  They rained constantly on the position. Even so, their effect was less effective than the constant driving Monsoon rain. Con Thien is largely clay laterite. It holds water from percolating down and creates an endless series of red-rimmed pools and puddles.  Its mud is like glue and sticks to boots, skin, and clothing, resisting any efforts to remove.

Sanitation was impossible and first echelon medics learned to wipe an arm and their hand simultaneously before inserting IVs. Doctors, working in a leaking bunker probed and cut with flashlights and Coleman lanterns. It was not a pleasant place, but it was a hill of angels.

The photographer, David Douglas Duncan, himself a Marine in WWII, stayed there for a week in the trenches and was struck by the strong sense of duty and camaraderie the men had for each other.  Rank was understood, but it wasn’t a forced issue. Commands can be casual and obeyed also. The blood of brotherhood was constantly refreshed.

The North pounded it mercilessly and attacked often. Patrols and night OPs were always engaged. The rain increased in intensity as did the casualties. Helicopters constantly resupplied ammunition, rations, and water and backhauled the casualties-living on litters and dead in plastic mummy wraps stacked in whatever space was available. 

Incoming fire was relatively constant as was the rain. The intensity and quality varied but were sufficient to force a lifestyle.  Men slept and worked in soaked muddy clothes. Skin became waterlogged and rolled off in small but visible streaks. Rations were what was offered from a can, dispensed individually with white grease-covered spoons coveted for everything from eating to toileting, the paper ration roll usually dissolving quickly after exposure. Flak jackets provided some warmth.

Cigarettes were a treasured item and traded for sundries and services as if they were gold-which to those on the hill, they were. A pack of cigarettes got you off tonight’s OP.  5 Lucky Strikes for the can of beans and balls. I got ham and limas………. They glowed constantly throughout the day and night and were carefully covered in order to light the next or your buddies-matches were rendered inoperable almost upon opening the sundry pack.  A box of wooden matches, sent from home, illegally, was a treasure to be protected in plastic and kept in the bunker. A French Poilu of 1914 would quickly recognize and assimilate into this troglodyte hill community.

The rain of artillery and rockets made the position a deeply cratered junkyard. Things that one might treasure at home, weapons, ammo, personal effects, rations, and clothing, were just battlefield junk. The occupants lived like Prairie Dogs, looking out from the protective position toward daylight and the evil lurking beyond the barbed wire. Engagements, a near-constant event, was conducted through sandbags and dirt-filled ammo box slits. The rain momentarily became unrecognized in the heat of changing magazines, feeding the Pig, or treating a buddy’s wound.

Con Thien, as all firebases, was a model of battlefield simplicity. Cigarettes, dirt, casualties, and family.  Everyone who came off the hill was an angel in every sense of the word.

Keith Nightingale is a retired Army colonel and two-tour Vietnam War combat veteran. Keith has contributed almost a dozen articles to this blog and has published a book about the Vietnam War. If you want to read more from Keith, scroll up to the top of this page, click on the magnifying glass in the top right corner, and type in Keith’s name when the search block opens. A full list of his articles and my review of his book will appear with the direct links.

This article originally appeared in THE AMERICAN LEGION magazine, March 2022, and was published here with the permission of the author.


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