Editor’s note: The forward for this book excerpt has been edited to clarify the location of Fire Support Base Argonne.
Fire Support Base Argonne was a U.S. Marine Corps base located northwest of Khe Sanh, Quảng Trị Province on the border with Laos just south of the demilitarized zone in South Vietnam. “LZ Sitting Duck: The Fight for FSB Argonne” details the 1st Battalion 4th Marines Operation Purple Martin’s actions in March 1969 through the accounts of Marines who fought there.
Long ago... Just yesterday
CPL, 0331, Machine Gun Team Leader
Delta Company, 1st Bn, 4th Marines
At the time of going to Argonne, I had just been promoted to lance corporal, and made Fire Team Leader for three of 3rd Platoon’s gun teams. A little backstory of Alpine. We had been on Alpine probably two or three other times. The fire support base sat in a valley that runs from Argonne, on the west and pretty much ran on a southeast course past Alpine and that valley eventually ended up on the north side of Hill 950 and Khe Sanh. Also northeast of Alpine was LZ Neville with a valley that ran south of Neville and merged into the Alpine Valley.
So, we were on the hill a lot. One of the guys I came in-country with was Frank Baldino. He was in 2nd Platoon, and on a dark November ‘68 night, his platoon was sent out from the north perimeter for a night ambush. There was no moon that night and 2nd platoon set up around a clump of trees next to the trail. No one knew but there was a tiger up in one of the trees above where the ambush was set up. Around ten or eleven o’clock, the tiger came down and grabbed Frank, dragged him off and ate most of him. For those of us who were at the top of the hill, which was probably about half a mile away, as the crow flies from where they were, we all heard him scream. The artillery and mortar guys fired off a lot of illumination until they were afraid they were about to run out of them, so they ceased. The next morning, it took the Marines of 2nd platoon about two hours or so to find what was left of Frank. Poor Frank, but those guys having to do that, geez. It was our turn that next night for ambush. We went to the same area and found lots of prints and set off for our ambush site. That was our first experience with Alpine.
Fast forward to March ‘69
We were at LZ Alpine for about two weeks before we went to LZ Argonne, which we didn’t know that’s where we were going. We knew we were at Alpine, we only knew what was going on that day. So we were sent out the perimeter, the whole company, to walk around Alpine, which had streams on all sides. We spent basically two weeks during the day in streams, and we would get up at night on the banks and set in, then the next day back in the streams. We did this for two weeks.
On the 19th of March, we were heading back toward Alpine. The company tried to get back in the perimeter before dark, but there was no way we were going to make it. We just couldn’t move fast enough, so they had us set in on a trail, which was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Ho Chi Minh Trail is not one trail, it runs north/south along the border with Laos and then runs fingers west to east from the border with Laos to the coast. It’s a massive network.
We all just plopped down on the trail, the entire company, 150 guys. Around 0100, Steve, Robbie and I were awake. That was our Fire Team; me, Steve Eckland, and Robbie Saldana. We just happened to all be awake as Lt. McCormick, our platoon leader, was crawling through the trail, checking lines, and he was finding everyone was asleep. It just so happened we weren’t.
When you’re out humping around, and you’re not getting any sleep…you’re not supposed to, but you do fall asleep on watch sometimes. it does happen. if you are caught, it’s pretty dramatic, because usually the gunny or your platoon sergeant beats you, severely, about the head and shoulders. then in the morning they send you to Captain’s Mast and they read the charges, announce you are guilty and demote you.
And so as Lt. McCormick came through, we were the only guys awake. The lieutenant was pissed everyone was asleep and was vowing retribution in the morning as he crawled through the line.
The next morning nothing was said but there was lots of tension in the air. At first light we saddled up and headed into the perimeter at Alpine. They then told us to square our gear away and stand by. I don’t remember if they gave us any food or not, because they were very good at not giving us any food. Then the word came down to get ready, as we were being airlifted to this place called LZ Argonne. We had flown around it a couple of times and dropped north east and north west of Argonne. As we were getting ready, our Fire Team was camped out by one of the larger bunkers on Alpine, all the Command Group for 3rd Platoon, lieutenant, platoon sergeant and squad leaders, were in that bunker listening to the radio traffic and the lieutenant was voicing his displeasure about everyone being asleep. We were being nosey, and we leaned against the entrance to the bunker to hear what was going on. The lieutenant said he was sick and tired of everyone being asleep, and that he was mad that only one fire team was awake. He said that when we got to Argonne, all the squad leaders were going to be dealt with, which really got everyone motivated, as you can imagine. They dismissed the guys, the squad leaders came out and they were all angry. They went about their business of checking all our weapons and gear.
As the radio traffic started coming up on the network, we could tell something wasn’t right on Argonne. You couldn’t tell exactly what wasn’t going, but it sounded like the Z was hot. The squad leaders started setting up the teams for which helicopter they were going to be on and it was 3rd Platoon’s turn to be point platoon.
As they set things up, it was 3rd Platoon’s turn on point, and Tom Bartlett’s gun team, JP Young along with Jeff Forrey, that was the point gun team, leaving on third or fourth CH-46helicopter, and our gun team was probably the fifth or sixth bird. Usually there was a rifle squad between the gun teams as we moved, whether an assault or a move on the ground.
Before the first birds came in the word was passed, “Hey we’re going to a hill that’s been established before, there’s going to be fighting holes, some old bunkers, do not go in them until they’ve been cleared.”
A few minutes later they said, “There might be some people on the hill so think twice before you jump into a hole, but if you have to you have to.”
Then about ten minutes, later they said, “The hill’s hot. Wherever you got to go to take cover, you go.”
So off we went around ten in the morning headed to LZ Argonne. As we came into the hill we headed in from the south, headed almost directly north. That would put us on the west side of Argonne. Looking out the CH46, we could see what was going on, we saw the hill, we saw the smoke from the airstrikes, but the thing we noticed was that there was a UH1H (tail number 68-15340) Huey on top of the hill. We could tell it was an Army Huey. We could tell an Army Huey from a Marine Huey because it was one of the bigger ones they could carry almost a squad. Marine Hueys could carry the crew chief, a door gunner and maybe a stretcher or two. It was on the hill, we later found out, to try to evacuate the Recon Team that was on top of the hill because they’d got shot up pretty good. The Army Huey was on top of the hill and we could tell, looking at our CH46, that the blade was just barely turning, maybe one revolution every five or six seconds slowly moving. So this fouled the upper LZ.
Suddenly the helicopters veered off to the west southwest and went into a holding pattern as some more jets came in. Our team was on the starboard side of our bird, so at times we could see what was going on on the hill, and others we were looking at Laos. Finally it was our turn to go in and as we headed into the hill the door gunners charged their .50 caliber machine guns and we were going, “Oh, crap, we’re in for it now.”
At 10:26am we were going into the hill, getting closer and closer. I was sitting right next to the right side door gunner, Tom Breeze was next to me, and we were trying to see what was going on and there was all kinds of smoke coming from the hill. And through it all there was that same helicopter still sitting there with the blades slowly turning. We came in and about fifteen feet off the ground they started lowering the rear ramp. Two guys toward the back were starting to head down the ramp, and at the same time everyone was starting to stand. I was between Tom and the door gunner and had no room to stand. So I looked out the window and as I looked up at the top of the hill, I saw a shadow rising up out of a hole. All of a sudden there were all of these muzzle flashes, I don’t know, but I assumed he had an AK-47, but he could have had one of those light machine guns they loved. I don’t know, it happened so quickly. He opened up and right when I saw those flashes I grabbed Tom by the cartridge and pulled him down.
I pulled him down and the upper side of the chopper just above and behind the pilot’s seat and running back above our window was turned into Swiss cheese. Thankfully, nobody was hit. The helicopter immediately dropped the fifteen feet. Bam, right on the ground, the two guys on the ramp got knocked down as they started to slide off the ramp. Somehow they grabbed a hold of what, I don’t know, possibly the cylinders that raised and lowered the door or whatever, they grabbed onto something. The guys ahead of them grabbed them with a lot of yelling and screaming. The chopper slammed to the ground, bounced right back into the air and the pilot took off. He took off with the nose pointing to the ground, the tail end in the air, as the pilot banked to the left, trying to gain speed.
After a period of time, it couldn’t have been more than minutes, the nose of the helicopter rose up, and then it kind of pivoted around the hellhole to the left, so it seemed like it was at a 45-degree angle to the ground. It leveled out and fell to the ground, just like that it bounced a little, the engines went out, and it was just deathly quiet. The crew chief said, “Get out!” So out we went. The ramp didn’t go down, obviously, since there were no hydraulics.
About 2:30 in the afternoon they finally came and got us and took us back to Alpine. Then we heard all the stories about what was going on at LZ Argonne, that there were a lot of casualties from 3rd Platoon, that some of the people who were supposed to be dead were us! Around 3:30, 4 o’clock in the afternoon, we arrived at LZ Argonne. It was an absolute horrific mess. Everything was burned, and what wasn’t burned had blood all over it.
This excerpt from “LZ Sitting Duck, The Fight For FSB Argonne,” © May 2021 Liberty Hill Publishing, was published with permission from the authors.
John Arsenault left the Marine Corps in 1970. He was granted an age waiver to re-enlist as a 36-year-old corporal in 1985. Arsenault served at the Pentagon, as well as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2008. Arsenault’s life has been blessed with his wife, Tammy Jo, his daughter Claire, and granddaughter Leona. He spends his free time exploring Chesapeake Bay on his Cape Dory sailboat.
Thomas Gourneau was born and raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He enlisted in the United States Coast Guard Reserve and served as a Machinery Technician, specializing in service engineering in the diesel field for a large engine manufacture. Now, his hobbies include traveling, working on classic cars, museums and military history.
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