Six Days on Marble Mountain-By Neil R. Thorne
Deep caves meander through the interior in a vast, connecting network of tunnels. At the entrance of some caves are statues of Buddha. Occasionally North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers hide in the caves to rest or reorganize following a battle. Yet in spite of the inherent danger of sharing the mountain with the enemy, Army and Marine recon and observation teams routinely maintain a watchful eye over American units dotting the coastline below. Two of these units, MACV SOG’s CCN’s Forward Operational Base (FOB) 4 and C Company of the 5th Special Forces Group, share a strip of beach just north of the mountain
On August 21, 1968, a team from CCN, Spike Team Rattler, begin a long arduous trek up the rugged face of Nui Thuy Son in search of a worthy place to setup a listening and observation post overlooking the basin. The team, seven Chinese ethnic Nung mercenaries led by team leader Special Forces Sgt.1st Class Ames and squad leader Staff Sgt. Larry Trimble, move methodically, expertly up the mountain until they reach an overhang among the rocks. Without a word spoken, a hasty defensive perimeter is established. Ames and Trimble look down the cliff at a small clearing hidden by foliage and rocks. This is a perfect place for an observation and listening post with a panoramic view of two Marine outposts, their CCN compound, C-Team Headquarters, and other units below.
Satisfied no enemy are in the area, ropes are thrown down and one-by-one team members carefully ease down the craggy, weather-beaten face of the cliff, quietly setting into what will be their lair for the next few days. As dusk turns to night, no enemy has yet been seen or heard. The same is true the following day. What the team doesn’t know is elite NVA Sappers and VC units are quietly hiding in caves below preparing for a major assault on American units on the coast.
Sometime after midnight on August 23, 1968, the team isalerted by the sounds and sights of explosions and green and red tracers lighting up the darkness – the NVA and VC are attacking the two Marine outposts. Trimble grabs the radio, desperately trying to contact the Marines but fails. Quickly changing the radio frequency, he calls his CCN compound just as they too are attacked. Spike Team Rattler has no choice but to helplessly watch in horror at the certain death and destruction unfolding before their eyes. But within minutes they too are under heavy attack by enemy soldiers.
In one section of the perimeter, the enemy mounts a ground attack, threating to overrun the team’s position. Trimble hands the radio to Ames and rushes forward to organize a defense from the assaulting enemy. In the midst of throwing grenades and laying down continuous fire on the advancing enemy, a Nung points out a nearby enemy mortar dropping rounds on the CCN compound. Raising and firing a M79 rocket launcher, Trimble destroys the mortar position. Enemy fire becomes more sporadic as flares coming from the basin, light up the darkness, casting eerie shadows on the mountain and the fierce fighting below.
Fifteen minutes after the initial attack on FOB 4 and the C-Team, a Spectre AC-130 gunship arrives over the battle area, hosing down the attacking NVA and VC with a steady stream of deadly fire from its 25mm Gatling-type rotary cannon. The fight continues inside the CCN compound, small arms fire and satchel-charges explode everywhere as the enemy and Special Forces soldiers fight hand-to-hand in deadly combat.
After what seems like forever, the rising sun from the South China Sea pushes back the shadows on the beach as surviving NVA and VC escape along the South China Sea beach.
In the growing daylight, the terrible bloodbath is overwhelming for both battle harden warriors and those with little or no experience in war.
But the fighting is not over for Spike Team Rattler.
Wanting to check how vulnerable the team might be, Trimble and several of the Nungs leave their perimeter only to run into an enemy patrol. Following a short firefight, with Ames and the other Nungs from inside the perimeter providing covering fire, a second enemy 82mm mortar is captured along with other enemy equipment and documents. A helicopter flies out and takes the enemy equipment and documents. Ames accompanies the documents back. Some shots are fired at the hovering helicopter just before it climbs away. Trimble, the only American on the ground, is now the team leader. Among the captured papers was a detailed plan for a second attack on the Marine amphibious unit, which was thwarted.
Still surrounded on the mountain, Trimble learns from his interpreter the Nungs intend to sneak through the enemy lines and return to the compound. Refusing to abandon his post, the Nungs leave him behind. But moments after leaving, a firefight erupts bringing them running back to Trimble. With no hope of escaping and too much enemy fire for a helicopter extraction, the team stays put.
That night the enemy tries twice to overrun the perimeter only to be turned back by the team’s ground fire and gunships firing danger-close to the team’s perimeter. So close, the team is peppered by shrapnel, flying rocks and debris. One Nung is so severely wounded in this fight, he surely would have died if not for Trimble, a trained medic, stopping the bleeding.
On the morning of August 24, a relief helicopter drops in supplies to the beleaguered team as it reorganizes for a breakout. A Special Forces Hatchet platoon is dispatched to assist in the breakout but has to retreat after taking heavy casualties from an enemy determined to prevent Spike Team Rattler’s escape. Miraculously, that night is quiet. (Photo is Trimble carefully surveying the area)
In the morning when a helicopter flies in to evacuate the wounded, it receives no enemy fire nor were any enemy spotted. Trimble and the remnants of Spike Team Rattler hold out for another day to ensure the enemy is gone. But none were seen. It seems the NVA and VC have left the mountain.
On August 26, 1968, Spike Team Rattler manages to make their way off the mountain on foot, leaving behind six days of hell none will ever forget. (Photo shows Trimble at base camp)
Eighteen American Special Forces warriors and over 80 indigenous mercenaries were dead, with scores more wounded. It was the deadliest attack on U.S. Special Forces in history. According to CCN members, had it not been for Trimble knocking out the enemy mortar, many more would have died. And so grateful for capturing documents that thwarted the attack on the USMC amphibious unit, the Marines threw a spur-of-the moment celebration for Spike Team Rattler on their return.
Neil Thorne, a MACV SOG historian and researchers, served 11 years with the Virginia and West Virginia Army National Guard as a Light Infantry Scout. His particular interest is working with the recovery of lost and missing recognition for members of Special Operations from recently declassified Vietnam War operations.