On March 30, 1972 Captain Ray Smith, Advisor to the 4th Battalion Vietnamese Marine Corps, and approximately 250 Vietnamese Marines from the 4th Battalion Bravo Group, repulsed several savage NVA assaults on the Nui Ba Ho mountain outpost.
He repeatedly exposed himself to the heavy fire while directing friendly air support, all the time being subject to an increasing hail of fire from an estimated two-battalion force of communists. When adverse weather closed in, Smith attempted to lead the group, now reduced to only 28 Vietnamese Marines, to the safety of friendly lines.
At the outer defensive ring of barbed wire Smith killed an NVA soldier at close range and threw himself backwards on top of the booby-trap-infested wire barrier. The remaining Marines moved over the crushed wire, stepping on Captain Smith's prostrate form, until all had passed safely through the barrier.
Later, Smith said he recalled thinking, foolishly, that the radio on his back would protect him if he tripped a mine.
Suffering severe cuts and bruises, Captain Smith called for artillery fire on the hill. Two or three miles from the Brigade 147's headquarters at FSB (Fire Support Base) Mai Loc Major Hoa, the Bravo Commander and 4th Battalion Executive Officer, collapsed from exposure, lack of sleep and food, and cramps. Dipping into the well once more, Smith and one enlisted Marine took turns carrying Hoa on their backs.
His fellow 4th Battalion Covan, Major Walter Boomer (eventually Lieutenant General Walter E. Boomer, commander of the corps-level I Marine Expeditionary Force in the Gulf War) was stationed at Fire Base Sarge with the Alpha Command Group and 4th Battalion CO.
The Alpha Group's decision to abandon Sarge became a matter of pure survival. Using the cover of smoke and darkness, they escaped and evaded through the jungle down the side of the mountain. NVA units were hunting for them everywhere. On Easter Sunday at around 0900, the battered group was in 6-foot-high elephant grass and almost out of the jungle, when the NVA discovered them.
Surrounded and getting hit hard, the group broke and ran. Boomer, trying to stop the fleeing men, began yelling and shooting over the Marines heads. Almost immediately, a North Vietnamese exclaimed, 'Covan! Covan!' Boomer said to himself, "Crap! It's time to get out of here."
When the unit finally regrouped and made its way to Mai Loc, Boomer was surprised and relieved to find Captain Smith and the remainder of the Bravo Command Group there. Until that moment, each believed the other was dead.
At FSB Mai Loc they dug in. Lacking air support due to inclement weather, they held on until the artillery ammunition supply at Mai Loc was depleted, at which time they spiked the guns and withdrew, under heavy NVA artillery fire, to Quang Tri Combat Base.
The epic 20 kilometer trek, in the rain, through dense gnarled underbrush and rugged terrain, all the while in the dark, became almost too much for Major Boomer.
Nearing total physical and mental exhaustion Boomer became disoriented. Desperately, he located a loose strap hanging from Captain Smith's rucksack and tied it to his wrist. In delirium, he staggered along behind Smith.
Smith was awarded a Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism during the period 30 March to 1 April 1972. He retired as a Major General and is the co-author of the exceptional book The March Up / Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division.
As for my Captain Smith, I seem to recall reading he was armed with a Swedish K machine gun. I know he had a moustache, which appeared to be regulation, as there's a picture of him with one in The Easter Offensive, The Last American Advisors, Vietnam 1972.
Marine Oliver North, most recently of Fox News, carried a Swedish K, had long hair, and sported a bushy Pancho Villa moustache while a Rifle Platoon Commander in the 3rd Marine Division in 1969. That lasted until Captain Paul Goodwin took over as North's Company Commander in March 1969.
Goodwin called North and his other Platoon Commanders together and ordered their hair cut, their moustaches shaved, and the non-regulation weapons discarded. During his tour, North earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star for Valor and two Purple Hearts.
Marines who volunteered to serve as Covans with the Vietnamese Marines were usually on their second combat assignment. Covans were the thoroughbreds, the gunfighters of the Corps, and many would end up living legends.
A Covan's closest counterparts would be his Vietnamese radio operator and, if things worked as designed, his Vietnamese Marine Battalion Commander.
In the history of modern warfare, the chapters on fire-support coordination and the integrated use of artillery, naval gunfire and air support for infantry operations were largely invented by the U.S. Marines. The ability to expeditiously deliver a world of hurt on the bad guys made the covan a very hot commodity in a VNMC unit.
The common history of the USMC and VNMC dates to 1954, immediately after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the partitioning of Vietnam into the communist north and the democratic south. Despite cultural and operational differences, the Vietnamese Marine Corps grew rapidly into an effective and robust combat force.
The adviser relationship was there from the beginning. Only 600 Marines earned the title "covan." Conversely, the Army, Navy and Air Force would eventually have thousands of advisors.
In the more than two decades between 1954 and the fall of Saigon in April of 1975 no Marine Advisor ever left his Vietnamese counterpart, no matter how desperate or critical the situation.
The special relationship between the Vietnamese and American Marines was summed up best by the last VNMC Commandant. According to General Khang, U.S. Marines never tried to command their Vietnamese comrades; rather, they served with them as friends and advisors.
U.S. Marine advisors frequently worked outside their military fields to provide assistance to VNMC wives and children. American Marines were the only ones to share the food of the Vietnamese Marines - they did not carry their own rations into the field. Instead, they ate food procured in local markets and from individual farmers according to the methods of the Vietnamese Marines.
The American Marines made no distinction between the U.S. Marines and the Vietnamese Marines.