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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I was on Con Thien in 1967 with the 12th Marines. This brought back memories, good and bad.
DMZ dead Marine zone SCOUT SNIPER 9TH MARINES OP 1 HOME WAS WERE YOU DIG IT
the doc that delived my son his name is ERENEST PITREE IN THE WAITING ROOM WAS STATUE OF AM ANGEL WITH CON THIEN REST IN PEACE WRITTEN ON IT. REST WELL MY BROTHER AND THANKN YOU FOR BEING A MARINES BEST FRIEND A CORPSMAN
I was Navy Corpsman serving with the 3rd Bn. 9th Marine Reg. At Con Thien Sept- Oct 1967, something I will never forget.
My book has recently been published! “VIETNAM BEYOND”by Gerald E. Augustine Please promote it!A combat veteran…
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Would the protesters, flag burners, airport greeters from hell have been so adamant if they really knew the true stories?
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I was at Con Thien Fire Base several times during my tour, I was on tank Alfa 36 with the 4th Recon Squadron 12 Armored Cavalry 5th Infantry Division (mech) We used to pull into the base and stand down between missions, I like this article because its veterans telling the stories, the men that were there. The artillery guns were 175 MM capable f firing into North Vietnam.
Really perked up when I saw ” Hill of Angels” from other responses who were at Con Thien I guess I was there a lot earlier. I was with 11th Engineers and got hit with shrapnel from a mortar round on May 6, 1967, patched up and was there on May 8th when we got hit pretty hard. 1/4 especially Delta Co. lost a lot of men that night. Total was 41 KIA and 110 WIA. I’m 75 now and as a radio man I vividly remember getting the call to get our guys out as “they” are all over us!!! when I popped out of the bunker, called the LT. out and grabbed my radio and we headed for the north wire. There is a lot more to the story. If anyone reading this was with 11th Engineers up there, please reach out. As a comm guy I didn’t get to know many of the engineers too well.
My prayers are with them
Yes, almost all of my tour was from a FSB along why 13 or Thunder Road, N. of Lai Khe. They were numbered as Thunder 1, 2, 3, 4. etc. In 68 we were moved from Thunder 2 to the site of the old Thunder 1 . As it turned out it was the FAB attacked during the battle of Ap Bau Bang. When we started to dig in the “new” FSB we kept finding human bones, damaged military equipment, broken small arms like 45 cal pistols. and other things. The big thing we found was a buried burned out APC. Only after I got home did I learn what we had found. A vet wrote a book about the battle and my dad had bought it when I was in Nam and then gave it to me. After I read it all the pieces fit together and I understood what we found. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Ap_Bau_Bang
Thanks for telling this story, I love each and everyone of your emails. I didn’t serve in the military but have friends that did and this gives me an idea what they were going through. God bless you!
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I was stationed there, with C co. 1/61(Mech) Inf. 5th Inf. Div. in 1968.
Thank you for your continued articles about ‘life’ in RVN. Still proud to have served during those years.
There’s always something new to learn about past events. It helps us understand more how physically miserable the conditions were and yet compassion and commarderie was strong.
Daughter of Army veteran who served in WW2 and Vietnam
Are you attending the Honor Heroes Festival in Daytona Beach Speedway on May 27, 28 and 29 this year? It is honoring the Vietnam Veterans…..🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸
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I too spent most of my tour in a fire base of one kind or another. The good thing was that we could and did in. I had a 4.2inch mortar platoon with 3 guns supporting the rifle companies out beating the bush. At least my platoon didn’t have to go from point A to point B each and every day regardless of the weather. It was interesting, many days of nothing and other days of pure hell. You never knew what was going to happen so needless to say we were always scared cause when it did it happened fast.
I’m now going on 81 years and it is still on my mind daily specially for the good men that were not as fortunate as me.
God bless each and every one of them.
My book has been published! 196th LIB & 4th Inf. Div.
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to short! but, I got the picture.
Spent 68 there with Marines as well as 69 to 71. Shelling, rain and mud was the worst things. We were on the eastern hill.
Enjoyed. Combat Platoon Leader with 1st Cav. in 1969.
On Sat, Mar 26, 2022 at 12:55 PM CherriesWriter – Vietnam War website wrote:
> pdoggbiker posted: ” 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 ” >
My brother was there. Radio half of an FO team. When we talked about our wars (I was Army, in the Delta), it was as if we’d been on two different planets. When he talked about Con Tien, it was a third planet. He couldn’t describe it, except to compare it to Khe Sanh. He was there, too; doing the same kind of work. He said Con Tien was worse, even allowed as how it might’ve prepped him for Khe Sanh and made it seem, at least, less of an unknown. But he still thought Con Tien worse.
I served at first as a recon team leader with the first of the 502nd of the 101st. I then served as operations Sergeant on fire base arsenal and then firebase Barbara. I enjoyed the specifics that you shared of life on a fire base. Welcome home brothers