View Full Version : Big Guns Of Camp Carroll

02-27-03, 10:10 AM
U.S. strategy for the defense of the DMZ called for interlocking bands of artillery fire, and the firebase at Camp Carroll was the linchpin.

By Peter Brush

American military commanders are taught to use generous volumes of firepower instead of manpower to accomplish their military objectives and to minimize their casualties. Thus the ideal tactical environment for the United States was to dot the landscape of South Vietnam with innumerable artillery firebases capable of achieving interlocking fields of fire. Fully aware of the tactical value of artillery, the American military would expend more than 7 million tons of it on targets in Vietnam.

New Phase Of War

In early 1966, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) began massing forces in the northern provinces of South Vietnam, and the Marines were ordered north to face this threat. The area in the eastern Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) had been heavily infiltrated by the enemy. The 324B NVA Division had crossed the DMZ and was quite willing to tangle with the Marines. Reconnaissance patrols were unable to stay in the field for more than a few hours -- and many for only a few minutes -- before it was necessary to extract them under heavy enemy fire. A new phase of the war in Vietnam was about to begin.

Operation Hastings, the largest coordinated offensive operation of the war up to that time, was launched on July 15, 1966. Five Marine infantry battalions were inserted into landing zones and given the mission of establishing blocking positions along enemy trails and killing enemy soldiers. A reinforced battalion of Marine artillery accompanied this task force. A headquarters was established at Dong Ha, located about 12 miles from the DMZ and 12 miles from the coast of Vietnam. From Dong Ha, the Marines pushed west along National Route 9, establishing firebases at Cam Lo and at a 700-foot mountain known as "the Rockpile."

Operation Sting Ray

The ground between Dong Ha and Cam Lo is level. As you move westward, the terrain becomes more rugged and is composed of a series of ridges and steep hills rising to elevations of over 1,600 feet. During Operation Hastings, the Marines adopted the tactic of launching deep reconnaissance patrols into these hilly areas. On July 28, one of the patrols operating near the Rockpile noted the presence of approximately 200 NVA troops. Artillery fire was called in on the enemy force, resulting in 50 killed North Vietnamese. The marriage of reconnaissance and artillery support used in that patrol was termed "Sting Ray," and Sting Ray patrols came to be considered one of the major innovations of the war.

Employing supporting arms that included artillery firing 34,500 rounds, Marine tactical aircraft flying 1,667 sorties, helicopters carrying out nearly 10,000 sorties, and Boeing B-52 strategic bombers striking targets in the DMZ for the first time, the Marines were able to destroy more than 700 enemy troops by the time Operation Hastings ended in August 1966. Marine casualties for the operation totaled 126 killed and 448 wounded. Operation Prairie immediately commenced in the same tactical area. From the womb of Prairie, Camp J.J. Carroll was born.

The Rockpile

One of the key terrain features in the otherwise open area along the DMZ was the Rockpile. A reconnaissance patrol rappelled from a helicopter and set up an observation post on the mountain's summit, allowing many Sting Ray patrols to be controlled from that site. According to U.S. intelligence reports, the 324B NVA Division was solidly entrenched to the north of the Rockpile, protecting its infiltration routes into South Vietnam. Large numbers of enemy soldiers were detected along the Nui Cay Tre ridge to the north, from which they bombarded the Marines on the mountain. It was decided that the NVA must be swept from their position to protect the Marines on the Rockpile from further mortar attacks. The effort resulted in the longest action of Operation Prairie, lasting from September 22 through October 5, 1966.

Two hills dominated the ridgeline. As the Marines attacked Hill 400, the nearest position, it became clear that they were entering the enemy's main line of resistance. The fighting was intense. Once Hill 400 was secured, the Marines pushed on to their final goal, Hill 484. After an initial frontal attack was thrown back by the North Vietnamese, the Marines attacked again -- this time attempting to envelop the enemy from the left. The Marines were once again thrown back. Air and artillery strikes were then called in to soften up the enemy positions.

Assault On Hill 484

On the evening of October 4, the commanding officer of Company M, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, brought up tanks to assist in the final assault on Hill 484. The commander of Company K, Captain James J. Carroll, had assisted the tank gunners in practice firing against likely targets to ensure that the guns were properly sighted. Captain Carroll, who had arrived in Vietnam a month before the battle, had described the fighting for Hill 400 as "the high point of my career." That evening, the tanks Carroll had helped to sight were replaced with other Marine tanks. These new tanks, when called to action on Hill 484, proved to be improperly sighted.

At 1000 hours on October 5, Company M advanced toward the NVA atop Hill 484. Believing that artillery fire would be ineffectual due to the steepness of the slope, the company commander ordered direct tank fire against enemy positions on Hill 484. Five rounds were ordered. Two came at the target; both missed the enemy troops and instead hit Marines positioned on Hill 400. Thirteen casualties resulted from the friendly fire, including Carroll, who was killed. By early afternoon the NVA had been pushed off Hill 484. For a time, the Rockpile was safe from NVA mortar bombardment.

Camp Carroll Christened

Another Marine artillery position had been established on a nearby ridge, called "Artillery Plateau." This position became the command post (CP) of the 3rd Marine Regiment. When the commander of the 3rd Marines, Colonel Edward E. Hammerbeck, established his CP in the north, Artillery Plateau had not yet been named Camp Carroll. It was not until November 10, 1966 -- the birthday of the Marine Corps -- that the plateau was officially dedicated as the base camp of the 3rd Marines and given the name Camp Carroll.

Operation Prairie lasted until the end of January 1967. Marine casualties were more than 1,384 killed and wounded. Prairie was followed by Operations Prairie II, III and IV. Nine artillery firebases were constructed along the DMZ, with Camp Carroll -- equipped with 16 guns -- in the center. The 80-gun artillery fan was completed with the addition of U.S. Army 175mm long-range guns. The Marines could direct artillery fire into almost any grid coordinate from the South China Sea to Laos, as well as into North Vietnam. Airfields at Dong Ha and Khe Sanh were constructed, as well as a sizable port facility at the mouth of the Cua Viet River. Large Marine forces would remain in the area for three more years.

A Grisly Scene

On July 5, 1967, the Marine base at Con Thien came under NVA mortar and artillery attack. An air observer noticed large numbers of enemy troops of the 90th NVA Regiment advancing behind the barrage. The Marines called in artillery and airstrikes, and the artillerymen at Camp Carroll and the other bases responded, repelling the NVA attack. By the morning of July 8, the fighting had fallen off sufficiently for the Marines to attempt a body count of enemy soldiers, which eventually rose to more than 800. The scene was grisly almost beyond description. Bodies covered the battleground, some half buried by the explosions, others in pieces, all surrounded by broken equipment and munitions. The Marines tried counting enemy canteens to get a realistic number of enemy killed. An accurate count proved impossible because the Marines could not enter the area north of the Ben Hai River, which separates North and South Vietnam. It was publicly stated U.S. policy that American forces would not enter North Vietnam. But even with no exact body count, it was clear that the U.S. artillery had done its job well.

Unlike better known places in I Corps such as Khe Sanh, Con Thien or Hue, Camp Carroll was never the focus of NVA wrath until the very end of the war. Rocket attacks were launched at Camp Carroll on March 6 and March 12, 1967, but no ground attack followed. Artillery attacks on Carroll were secondary to larger tactical goals. One such attack occurred in April 1967, when the NVA made plans to overrun the combat base at Khe Sanh. The long-range guns at Camp Carroll could easily augment the defenses of Khe Sanh, which was 13 miles away. The NVA's plan to isolate Khe Sanh included attacking Camp Carroll and other bases with artillery and rockets in order to create a diversion and minimize the Marines' ability to provide supporting fire. The NVA fired roughly 1,200 rockets, mortars and artillery rounds in these attacks.

The North Vietnamese matched the buildup of Marine forces along the DMZ. In the spring of 1967, the NVA introduced rockets, mortars and heavy artillery into the zone to support their ground actions. The most powerful enemy guns were capable of hitting targets at ranges greater than 10 miles, putting most U.S. firebases, including Camp Carroll, within range. According to American intelligence reports on the enemy order of battle, the NVA had 130 artillery pieces in the area north of the Ben Hai River at the time. To counter that threat, the Marines increased their own artillery deployment to 180 tubes.


02-27-03, 10:11 AM
Finding Enemy Artillery <br />
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The biggest problem for the Marines in the region was determining the precise location of the Communist artillery. Ground observation was limited by political and military...

02-27-03, 10:13 AM
Under Attack

On March 30, 1972, the NVA launched its largest offensive so far in the Vietnam War. Nearly 30,000 soldiers, with tanks, artillery and missiles, crossed the DMZ. Hundreds of rockets and artillery shells slammed into Camp Carroll and every other ARVN installation in the area. Carroll received more than 200 rounds of Soviet 130mm fire in the first hour of the attack. The U.S. Army adviser to the ARVN at Camp Carroll noted that the enemy incoming rounds caused tremendous morale problems because the South Vietnamese were not used to being on the receiving end of accurate artillery fire. Three regiments of NVA artillery continued to pound the ARVN firebases, firing more than 11,000 rounds in the first day of the Eastertide Offensive. As ARVN gun crews sought shelter, their counterbattery fire became less and less effective, and the NVA offensive continued to intensify. The only guns that could reach the NVA 130mm artillery were the 175mm guns at Camp Carroll and Dong Ha. Whenever the ARVN 175mm guns fired, the NVA countered with a heavier barrage. The ARVN artillerymen abandoned their positions.

With the fall of ARVN bases in the west, a new defensive line was established with Carroll at the forefront. Artillery attacks on Camp Carroll intensified as the NVA sought to eliminate the biggest danger to their attacking infantry. NVA artillery observers watched every helicopter attempting to resupply Camp Carroll and fired at the landing zone when the helicopters were releasing their loads. By April 2, eight ARVN firebases had fallen, and the NVA began ground attacks on Camp Carroll.

Emotional Surrender

The commander of Camp Carroll was Lt. Col. Pham Van Dinh, who had become a national hero for his actions during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Dinh had assisted in raising the South Vietnamese flag over the Citadel in Hue when it was retaken from the NVA. As the situation worsened near Camp Carroll, the ARVN division commander told Dinh to act "as he thought proper." At 1430 hours on April 2, 1972, Dinh communicated to the NVA via radio that Camp Carroll would surrender, and a white flag was raised over the main gate of the camp. Colonel Gerald Turley, the senior U.S. adviser to the ARVN in I Corps during the 1972 invasion, considers the surrender of Camp Carroll to have been one of the most emotional war scenes ever recorded in Vietnamese history. The American advisers were stunned by the camp's surrender, which left a catastrophic void in the shrinking ARVN defensive line. The South Vietnamese government ordered B-52 strikes against Camp Carroll in an effort to deny its use to the North Vietnamese, but before they could strike the NVA had moved out the self-propelled guns that had been positioned at the camp, which they later used against the ARVN.

Less than 24 hours after his surrender, Colonel Dinh made a broadcast over Radio Hanoi stating that he had been well-treated by the Communists and urging all ARVN soldiers to refuse to fight. Today, Dinh is a high-ranking official of the Communist government in Hue.

In Decay

Twenty-five years after the fall of Camp Carroll, little is left to indicate that there was a major military installation there. B-52s cracked open the bunkers like walnuts. Local people finished the destruction by extracting the reinforcing bars to sell as scrap steel. Chunks of concrete were recycled into other construction projects. The perimeter trenches are overgrown. Some military detritus still litters the ground. Now the area belongs to Xi Nghiep Ho Tiev Tan Lam, the state pepper enterprise. Pepper plants grow up jackfruit trees, and there are rubber plantations nearby. *

In the spring of 1967, the North Vietnamese emplaced artillery -- including 130mm field guns -- within striking range of U.S. Marine bases just below the Demilitarized Zone. American forces brought in their own heavy hitters to counter the threat, including U.S. Army 175mm self-propelled guns -- the most powerful American field artillery tubes in existence at the time. (U.S. Marine Corps)