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Con Thien

The Hill of Angels

Written by James P. Coan

Publication Year: 2004

A memoir/history of a much-beleaguered Marine outpost of the DMZ.

Throughout much of 1967, a remote United States Marine firebase only two miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) captured the attention of the world’s media. That artillery-scarred outpost was the linchpin of the so-called McNamara Line intended to deter incursions into South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese Army. As such, the fighting along this territory was particularly intense and bloody, and the body count rose daily.

Con Thien combines James P. Coan’s personal experiences with information taken from archives, interviews with battle participants, and official documents to construct a powerful story of the daily life and combat on the red clay bulls-eye known as "The Hill of Angels." As a tank platoon leader in Alpha Company, 3d Tank Battalion, 3d Marine Division, Coan was stationed at Con Thien for eight months during his 1967-68 service in Vietnam and witnessed much of the carnage.

Con Thien was heavily bombarded by enemy artillery with impunity because it was located in politically sensitive territory and the U.S. government would not permit direct armed response from Marine tanks. Coan, like many other soldiers, began to feel as though the government was as much the enemy as the NVA, yet he continued to fight for his country with all that he had. In his
riveting memoir, Coan depicts the hardships of life in the DMZ and the ineffectiveness of much of the U.S. military effort in Vietnam.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. vii-ix

List of Illustrations and Maps

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xv-xviii

From September 1967 through July 1968, I was a tank platoon leader in Alpha Company, 3d Tank Battalion, 3d Marine Division. For eight of those months, my tank platoon operated out of Con Thien alongside various infantry battalions spending “time in the barrel” (as in the phrase “like shootin’ fish in a barrel”). Con Thien was only two miles from the southern border of the demilitarized zone dividing North and South...


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pp. xix-xx

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pp. 1-5

Throughout much of 1967, a remote U.S. Marine firebase only two miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North from South Vietnam captured the attention of the world’s news media. Portrayed as a beleaguered, artillery-scarred outpost overlooking the fiercely contested DMZ, Con Thien was the scene of numerous savage encounters between the United States Marines and the North Vietnamese Army...

Part One: Roots of Conflict

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1. Before the Americans Came

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pp. 9-15

The Vietnamese people originated in ancient times from what is today south China. Thousands of years ago, this Mongoloid race of people was gradually pushed southward into the jungles of Indochina by the inhabitants of north China. Those early Annamites mixed with Thais and Indians along the way. They also intermarried with Indonesians. By the...

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2. The Generals

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pp. 16-23

The national elections agreed to at Geneva in 1954 did not happen two years later, which was predictable. Diem believed it to be an unfair setup and had no intention of following through. Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary cadre then commenced organizing and carrying out a resistance movement against the Diem government they called “America’s puppet state.”1...

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3. McNamara’s Wall

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pp. 24-29

Infiltration into South Vietnam had been steadily increasing, from two battalions per month in late 1964 to an estimated fifteen battalions by early 1966. Through triple-canopied jungles in Laos coursed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the primary people-mover path southward, but an increasing number of northerners were detected moving across the demilitarized...

Part Two: The DMZ War Unfolds

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4. Nguyen of the North versus PFC Jones

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pp. 33-38

The typical soldier in General Giap’s North Vietnamese Army was an eighteen-year-old draftee. Draft age eligibility ranged from sixteen to forty-five, but those extreme age limits were rarely if ever tapped. Unlike his American counterpart, who signed up for a set number of years of service, Nguyen of the North was in it for the duration. He came from a rural, agrarian background...

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5. Setting the Stage

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pp. 39-59

In the early morning hours of May 19, 1966, units of the North Vietnamese Army attacked two isolated ARVN outposts located just south of the DMZ, Con Thien and Gio Linh. Both outposts sustained heavy losses, but the ARVN defenders fought back bravely and managed to hold their ground. One captured NVA soldier informed his captors that he was part of the NVA 324B Division. Initially, no general alarm was...

Part Three: The Bloody Month of May

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6. Battle for Con Thien

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pp. 63-85

Commencing April 20, Operation Prairie IV, last in the series of Prairie operations, was a two-regiment search-and-destroy operation covering the same area of northern Quang Tri Province as Prairie III. In addition to the vital Marine base at Dong Ha, the 9th Marines had the responsibility of securing the area between Con Thien and Gio Linh, where the 11th Engineer Battalion was bulldozing a broad swath called the...

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7. DMZ Invasion

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pp. 86-106

A mighty Allied invasion force of ten thousand men sat poised to undertake the first-ever incursion into the demilitarized zone. The basic concept for the Allied invasion involved joint USMC/ARVN ground, amphibious, and helicopter operations in the eastern portion of the DMZ as far north as the Ben Hai River. Ground attacks by the 3d Marine Division and 1st ARVN Division would advance north on parallel...

Part Four: Summer in Hell

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8. Buffalo

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pp. 109-136

General William Childs Westmoreland, COMUSMACV, helicoptered into lonely, little Con Thien. Major Danielson [1/9 XO] escorted Westmoreland around the perimeter. When a Marine pointedly asked, “General, I lost my best buddy to incoming yesterday—why can’t we go into the DMZ after those bastards?” Danielson said, “The general’s response was, ‘Son, I wish we could, but the politics of the situation are such that we can’t violate the DMZ.’ Can you...

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9. Running the Gauntlet [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 137-161

Operation Buffalo had shown the Allies that General Giap was prepared to feed entire regiments into the DMZ meat grinder to thwart the installation of McNamara’s Line. Allied intelligence sources had located the 31st, 803rd, 812th, and 90th Regiments of the NVA 324B Division within and south of the DMZ. Along with the 324B, three additional NVA divisions, the 304th, 320th, and 325C, were positioned in the eastern DMZ and around Khe Sanh. These army...

Part Five: General Offensive, Phase I

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10. The “Thundering Third”

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pp. 165-181

A depleted, battle-weary 1st Battalion, 9th Marines had been pulled out of Con Thien on July 13 and reassigned to Camp Carroll for rest and refitting. Replacing 1/9 at Con Thien was the highly regarded 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, who had distinguished themselves in World War II at Guam and Okinawa. They fought commendably in the 1966 battles at Mutter’s Ridge (where Capt. J. J. Carroll was killed tragically in a...

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11. Into the Valley of Death

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pp. 182-211

The commanding general of the 3d Marine Division, Major General Bruno Hochmuth, was deeply concerned over intelligence reports that the NVA were intending to sever the Cam Lo to Con Thien MSR and then launch a major attack on that firebase. Additional forces would be required to prevent that situation from becoming a reality. The 5th Marine Division’s 3d Battalion, 26th Marines had...

Part Six: The Siege

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12. 3/9’s Turn in the Barrel

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pp. 214-225

The 3d Battalion, 9th Marines, commanded by Major Gorton C. Cook, replaced Lieutenant Colonel Bendell’s 3d Battalion, 4th Marines on September 10 and assumed full responsibility for Con Thien and the immediate vicinity. By September 11, the transition was complete. All of 3/4 had moved out of Con Thien and relocated to Charlie-2. Bendell’s...

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13. Monsoon Misery

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pp. 226-238

Alarmed that Con Thien and the regiment of Marines deployed there were cut off by the MSR washout, 3/9’s CO, Major Gorton C. Cook, was ordered by Colonel R. B. Smith to move his two maneuver companies inside the Con Thien perimeter. A full-scale ground attack by the NVA seemed imminent. Con Thien was never intended to house more than two reinforced companies of Marines, and now its residents had to...

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14. Living in the “V” Ring

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pp. 239-258

The news media was becoming critical of the Johnson administration for placing U.S. Marines in harm’s way at bases along the DMZ such as Con Thien. As reports of the escalating shelling attacks on Con Thien began to reach home, a heated debate took place in Congress. “Con Thien is Vietnam’s special kind of hell,” wrote Karl H. Purnell. Purnell was a former assemblyman from Pennsylvania on special assignment...

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15. The “Magnificent Bastards”

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pp. 259-273

The 2d Battalion, 4th Marines had been known as the “Magnificent Bastards” since World War II. The nickname was resurrected after they had decimated an NVA regiment two years earlier during Operation Starlite. Since their costly encounter at Phu Oc on September 21, having left fifteen dead comrades behind on the battlefield, morale was rock bottom. They were not feeling like they were magnificent—just plain, ...

Part Seven: Kentucky

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16. Winter Battles: 1967–68

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pp. 277-292

The fall-winter monsoon misery continued without letup. The badly battered North Vietnamese withdrew many of their units into DMZ sanctuaries for some rest and refitting. They had suffered an appalling number of casualties at the hands of the Marines that fall. General Westmoreland was quoted in the press as stating that the attempted siege of Con Thien had cost the NVA more than two thousand dead. For the...

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17. After Tet

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pp. 293-311

Phase I of the “General Offensive, General Uprising” had met its objective of drawing U.S. forces away from the major population centers and into the remote mountains and borders of South Vietnam, especially the DMZ and Khe Sanh. According to the plan, the Viet Cong would have an easier time infiltrating South Vietnam’s major cities when the right moment came to initiate Phase II, the takeover of population centers and...

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18. Parting Shots

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pp. 312-315

Change was inevitable. Inertia had set in long ago at MACV and III MAF headquarters regarding the need to tie up whole battalions of Marines building and defending Operation Dyemarker strongpoints. With General Westmoreland out of the picture, Maj. Gen. Raymond Davis set out to change that mentality. One of the first casualties of the new order was Colonel Richard B. ...

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pp. 316-319

On November 24, 1969, the last infantry battalion of the 3d Marine Division remaining in Vietnam, the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, embarked on U.S. Navy ships for redeployment to Okinawa. An era had come to a close. President Nixon was carrying out his promise to get the Americans out of the war and turn it over to the Vietnamese. “Vietnamization” was the bureaucratic buzzword for...

Appendix A

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pp. 321-322

Appendix B

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pp. 323

Appendix C

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pp. 325-326


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pp. 327-337


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pp. 339-346


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pp. 347-350


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pp. 351-360

E-ISBN-13: 9780817381035
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817354459

Publication Year: 2004

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Vietnam -- Con Thiền Mountain Region.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Personal narratives, American.
  • Con Thiền Mountain Region (Vietnam) -- History.
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