vietnam

Steel Storm: A Pivotal Battle Kept Secret for 53 Years

*A young US Marine Corps corporal directs modern history’s largest Naval bombardment in support of ground forces, wiping out an entire Viet Cong battalion augmented by Red Chinese regular soldiers.*

William B. Scott

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28-29 July 1965

Where the hell are you, Charlie? You’re out there. I feel it.

A rawboned, lanky U.S. Marine strained to detect movement in the inky darkness, a starless space made blacker by a rain squall that suppressed the sounds of soldiers creeping toward their objective. A few feet away, a South Vietnamese Ranger, Sergeant Thi, also patrolled, straining to spot a large Viet Cong force they knew was approaching. An attack was imminent.

As he scouted the area, Corporal Karl Lippard mentally took inventory of his dicey situation and limited assets. He was armed with an M14 rifle and four 20-round magazines. Sgt. Thi carried a .30-caliber M1 carbine, and a Colt 1911 semiautomatic pistol was tucked in his M9 shoulder holster. The Marine had stowed his map case, helmet, poncho and pack in an old French bunker near the Ca De River bridge’s north approach. A telephone land line linked the abandoned bunker to roughly 20 other Marines dug-in on the south side. All were “Raiders”, a company of U.S. Marines that had received specialized training—“rubber boat” operations and submarine insertion, for example. Raiders were elite forces, the handpicked best of each U. S. Marine Corps battalion.

As the rain squall intensified, Lippard and Thi returned to the French bunker to retrieve their ponchos. A South Vietnamese army (ARVN) soldier was manning the concrete shelter, talking on a PRC-10 backpack radio…but to Viet Cong troops. Lippard pulled the pin on a grenade and placed a hand on the bunker wall, but before he could take out the VC infiltrator, Sgt. Thi tossed his own grenade. Its blast cut the enemy soldier in half, severed the phone line and drove debris into Lippard’s knee.

“My grenade was live, still in my hand, when I got hit,” Lippard recalled. “Had to replace the pin.” The Marine stepped inside the bunker, confirmed the VC was a goner and checked the PRC-10 radio. It was covered in blood and raw flesh, but still functional.

That radio would become his lifeline.

Positioned on the north side of the Ca De River, which emptied into nearby Bay of DaNang, Lippard was acutely aware that he and his Vietnamese Ranger sidekick were mere tripwires, a flesh-and-blood early warning system. The 19-year-old Marine had orders to sound a warning, if anybody approached the bridge from the north. Nobody—friend or foe—would be permitted to cross.

Had the VC mole alerted nearby enemy troops that the bridge was defended by a pitifully small force? No way of knowing, but the grenade blast that had silenced him surely would attract Charlie’s attention to the old bunker.

In fact, Lippard wasn’t “officially” in that bunker on the Ca De River’s north bank. Then-Major General Lewis W. Walt’s Tactical Area of Responsibility ended on the south end of a five-span, quarter-mile steel structure. With a set of railroad tracks down the center and pedestrian walkway along the west side, the bridge was a critical north-south artery. “Highway One” and a railroad converged at that crossing, a gateway to the main route linking “DaNang to places north, such as Phu Bai and Hue,” according to the record of a ship soon to be anchored nearby, in the bay.

Holding that junction was absolutely vital. Regimental commander Colonel Edwin B. Wheeler had told 2nd. Lt. James Reeder, Lippard’s immediate commander, “Lieutenant, if you lose this bridge, you and I are both going to be fired.” But holding it from only the south end was tactically near-impossible.

“There was no room to support Marines on the south side,” Lippard recalls. “The available space [there] could only hold about 20 Marines. Besides, that’s about all that could be spared. We were spread real thin in July 1965.”

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William B. Scott

William B. Scott is the former Rocky Mountain Bureau Chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, author of The Permit, and coauthor of Space Wars: The First Six Hours of World War III; Counterspace: The Next Hours of World War III, and Inside The Stealth Bomber: The B-2 Story. A native of rural Colorado, he is a Flight Test Engineer graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and holds a BS degree in Electrical Engineering.

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