With Alan Graham
“Operation Buffalo was a motherf***er” , … Cpl John D. Musgrave, Medically Retired (Rifleman, 3d Platoon, D Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, 1967-1968)
Operation Buffalo saw the worst casualties inflicted upon a single Marine Rifle company in a single day throughout the entire Vietnam war. B Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines which had started the day with approx. 150 men, lost 60 KIA, 60 WIA leaving less than 30 troops fit for duty.
Just south of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone or the Dead Marine Zone as the Marines themselves called it), Con Thien was a United States Marine Corps base intended to form a strongpoint on the McNamara Line.
The McNamara line was supposed to be a wide (approx. 600m) protected strip of land that stretched several miles from strong-point to strong-point containing obstacles, minefields and sensors and was constructed to prevent the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) from infiltrating large forces across the DMZ. Construction started in the Spring of 1967 and actually limited the Marine’s combat activity due to the resources required to build this defensive system. This area was known as Leatherneck Square because of the Marines situated in the surrounding bases at Con Thien, Gio Linh, Dong Ha and Cam Lo.
The 324B NVA Division had tried several times already to infiltrate across the DMZ and the Marines had managed to thwart these attempts formulating a series of operations including Operation Hastings, Prairie I-IV, Cimarron to name a few and, at the beginning of July 1967, Operation Buffalo.
Early morning, Companies A and B of 1st Battalion, 9th Marines headed North on Highway 561, moving in parallel to each other at about 1000 metres apart. As B Company were close to a set of ruined buildings (known by the Marines as ‘the Market Place’ or just ‘the Market’) they made contact with the 90th Regiment 324B NVA Division and began to take sniper fire. As they responded by pushing forward to find the snipers the Marines were being sucked even deeper into an ambush and the enemy fire intensified. This was then backed up by coordinated enemy mortar and heavy artillery (from across the DMZ). The NVA also used flamethrowers to set alight to terrain, forcing the Marines back onto the road and exposing them to their fire. A Company who were slightly further West had tripped two booby traps which had slowed them down and now they were taking fire themselves as they were trying to get to B Company. B Company’s Staff Sergeant Leon R. Burns called in air strikes which slowed and disrupted down the enemy, “I asked for napalm as close as 50 yards from us, some of it came in only 20 yards away. But I’m not complaining.”.
Click on the maps to see a larger version of them.
Back at Con Thien, the Command Post was listening to the battle as it unfolded and a first reaction rescue force was hastily assembled consisting of two forces, one from Con Thien which was made up of D Company and a platoon of four M48 tanks, the second was C Company (in Dong Ha) and would be helicoptered in to help. The Con Thien rescue force soon came under fire as it approached the cut-off troops but they managed to fend off an NVA unit that was trying to encircle B Company with some help from helicopter gunships. As C Company arrived on their LZ they to immediately came under heavy artillery fire and 11 men were wounded.
Despite the casualties the combined rescue force pushed on and soon met with the remaining Marines from B Company and started to organise a withdrawal. As many of the dead and wounded as possible (but not all) were brought back and were loaded up on the tanks, who then despite still being under attack from infantry and artillery set off South to the evacuation LZ. Two tanks hit mines which further slowed down their progress. Once at the LZ yet more artillery caused more casualties and in the confusion almost 50 people headed back on foot to Con Thien, eventually these were picked up in the Trace and headed back to relative safety.
More reinforcements were also arriving, K Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines which was the battalion’s Bald Eagle Company, on standby at Dong Ha to reinforce any battalion who was in need, were dropped by helicopter in the Trace and made their way North to support A Company.
A Company meanwhile still remained in contact with the enemy and after successfully medevac’ing its first set of casualties, found their LZ being mortared then assaulted. However, by holding a defensive position and with K Company and artillery support they held their ground until the evening when the enemy finally withdrew.
At the end of the day, the battalion counted the total number was 53 KIA, 190 WIA and 34 missing (eventually leading to a count of 84 KIA).
3rd to 5th July
From the Combat After Action Report, Operation Buffalo, “…The NVA Forces appear to be fully aware of the Marine tradition to remove all wounded and dead from the battle field. Evacuation efforts were covered by enemy artillery, mortar and small arms-fire…”
More men were brought forward to recover the MIA. Companies I, K and L, 3/9 and a Battalion Landing Force 1/9 along with a couple of M48 tanks were moving back up to the Marketplace.
Continuous airstrikes the previous day had prepared for the attack, but heavy resistance was still met by the Marines, resulting in another 15 KIA and 33 WIA. Finally, there was relatively little ground contact and so the MIA could be searched for and almost all were found and returned to Con Thien.
6th and 7th July
There were still several significant actions within Operation Buffalo, one of which was the establishment of a patrol base by Alpha-Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marne Division. This base was over 1km forward of the battalion line, just less than 2km South of the DMZ, in a hamlet called Thon Phong Xuan. While on early morning patrol A-C company discovered an unoccupied NVA Bunker complex which they then themselves occupied with a three-sixty perimeter and waited. Towards early evening, lookouts spotted approx. 400 NVA marching in column to the bunker complex and radioed ahead. The Marines then sprang their ambush and immediately caused significant casualties among the NVA, the rest immediately ran for cover to the sound of their bugle. The NVA soon re-organised and had mortar rounds coming down on the Marines, and were pushing forward through the bushes, and a series of repeated assaults were attempted which were pushed back throughout most of the night.
In one instance, Lance Corporal Stuckey’s crater was being attacked by the NVA who were throwing Chicom grenades into his position, Stuckey responded by picking them up and throwing them back, until one finally exploded in his hand and took it off. Unable to continue fighting. Stuckey initially refused to leave his companion but eventually had to pull back, and in doing so was shot in the leg and then concussed by more grenades before feigning death until morning where he was discovered and returned to relative safety. Lance Corporal Stuckey was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions. A-C1/9 then left the patrol base early the following morning and just 30 minutes after they had left the NVA started bombarding the base with mortar rounds.
The last significant fighting took place South-West of Con Thien when G Company BLT 2/3 discovered a bunker complex, after taking a small amount of fire, artillery and air support was immediately called to attack it. The follow up operation still found some NVA continuing to fight, eventually the bunker complex was cleared with 2 Marines KIA and 29 WIA. G Company reported 39 dead NVA.
9th to 14th July
There were no more significant ground operations, only harassing artillery fire.
The operation ended on the 14th July.
The Marines reported enemy dead at 1,290 KIA and 2 captured. Marine losses in contrast totaled 159 KIA and 345 wounded.
- Operation Buffalo: USMC Fight for the DMZ by K.W. Nolan 1992
- U.S. Marines In Vietnam: Fighting The North Vietnamese, 1967 by Gary L Telfer; Lane Rogers; V Keith Fleming. https://archive.org/details/FightingTheNorthVietnamese…
- Vietnam Tankers, Operation Buffalo, 2nd July 1967, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b34it0qisi4…