Marble Mountain, 23 August 1968
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
by Jim Tolbert
As far as I know, Charles (Chuck) Allen, now
deceased, a former commander of Special Project Delta, Detachment B52, 5th
Special Forces Group, never gave anyone in Delta Project an Article 15,
let alone a Court Martial.
But when I returned to Vietnam from my second R&R (Rest and Recuperation),
Sergeant Major Harry D. (Crash) Whalen, Delta Project's Sergeant Major,
called me in and said, "Bruiser (Maj Allen), is sick and tired of you
Douche Bags taking a seven day R&R, coming back a week late, and saying
you couldn't get a flight. The next man that tries this, I'll make an
example of him". And Tolbert, "It looks like you're it."
I stood there in the orderly room of Project Delta in Nha Trang,
dumbfounded. Three days late from a seven-day R&R, and I was going to get
my first Article 15. Old childhood memories started creeping in, and I
thought about the times when my brother screwed up, and I caught hell.
It's a strange feeling to know you've done nothing wrong, yet, you're
going to be punished. Right then, I didn't much care for Crash Whalen,
Bruiser, Delta or anything else, and I said, "fuck a bunch of Article 15s,
give me a Court Martial".
Crash was right about the troops taking advantage of a good thing. In
Special Forces, no one led you around by the nose. We knew our jobs, we
knew the mission, and we knew how to get it done. We didn't need, or get,
the degree of supervision and control found in the conventional Army.
Looking back now, I don't recall anyone in Delta who didn't take advantage
of this, and add a day or two to his R&R.
It must have surprised the Sergeant Major when I said screw the Article
15. He softened his tone and asked, "Just what the hell is your excuse?
I've already heard everything. See if you can come up with something
different." Diaz, the unit's administrative NCO (Non Commissioned
Officer), looked on with indifference. As if to say,"Yeah Tolbert, where
you been, and how you gonna get outa this shit?"
Jim Morris, in his book "War Story", stated that every one started with,
"Now this is no Shit". For the most part, he was right. I almost started
mine the same way. But what I said was, "Crash, you won't believe this,
but I spent the last two days with Command and Control North (CCN) at
Marble Mountain was the name given to an area, which had five small but
beautiful mountains of marble, 10 or 12 miles south of DaNang. Bounded by
a river on the West and separated by Highway one, they just stood there,
like silent sentinels, guarding the coastline. Villagers had carved stone
from these mountains for generations, and pieces of their work could be
found in the DaNang market. I bought a small hand carved fish there once.
THE FIVE MOUNTAINS OF MARBLE, SOUTH OF DANANG .
The highest of these mountains, the one with the pink marble, and
closest to the beach, Nui Thuy Son or Kim Son, depending on who you're
talking to, was interlaced with caves which the opposition sometimes used
for operational purposes. A large Buddha sat in the saddle between the two
peaks, and watched the Marine Corp's 3d Amtrac unit stationed at the foot
of the mountain. They had a 106 MM Recoilless rifle on the mountain, and
it watched the Buddha.
EARLY PICTURE OF NUI THUY SON, LOOKING SOUTH WEST.
From Nui Thuy Son, north to DaNang, the coastline was dotted with
American units, to include the Marble Mountain Air Base. One of these
units was CCN's Forward Operational Base (FOB) 4, located just two miles
south of the recreation area made famous in the movie, China Beach. FOB4
and C Company of the 5th Special Forces Group shared a strip of beach just
north of the mountain.
THE DARK AREA RIGHT CENTER IS C COMPANY’S COMPOUND. SQUARE
COMPOUNDS TO THE LEFT ARE NVA POW CAMP. MARBLE MOUNTAIN AIR BASE IS TOP
RIGHT. MARBLE MOUNTAIN IS LOWER LEFT OUT OF PICTURE. NOTE GROUND STILL
CHARRED AT LOWER CENTER WHERE FOB4 LOGISTICS BUILDING WAS.
Crash's eyes lit up. He had already heard about the attack on FOB 4,
and the 17 Americans who were killed. And Like all of us, he had friends
there, and wanted to know their status. "Just what the hell happened," he
said, "Who was KIA (Killed in Action), and what were you doing at Marble
Mountain? You were supposed to be on R&R."
"I got back in country Thursday", I explained, "We landed at DaNang, and
there were no flights out, So, I went out to Marble Mountain to spend the
night at FOB 4.
CCN had a promotion board that day, and the candidates who had come from
the outlying sites were partying hard. They also had their monthly
Operations and Intelligence meeting, and all of CCN's FOB Commanders and
staff had come in. In addition, CCN Headquarters had just moved to Marble
Mountain from down town, and the whole place bulged at the seams. Seemed
like one big Special Forces reunion when I got there.
Needless to say, every bunk at CCN was occupied, so I went next door to
the C team. They put me up in the Beach House, the same place we used for
mission support on the last operation. After finding my bunk, I joined a
few of the guys at the Club, and quickly found I couldn't keep up. I was
too wore out from R&R. I lasted until about 11:30, then went back to the
Beach House, and turned in.
Some time after midnight, it seemed like I had just lain down, all hell
broke loose, and I awoke to what I thought was incoming. I still had my
clothes on, and just rolled out of the bed onto the floor. As groggy as I
was, I cautiously slipped out of the Guesthouse and made my way toward the
nearest bunker, as green and red tracers lit up the night sky.
FOB4 was illuminated by what looked like their Logistics complex burning.
Explosions reverberated across the sand to the beach, and all those green
and red tracers seem to be directed specifically at me. I stumbled along
the fence to a bunker, tripped over a sandbag, and fell inside. All I
could think of was a line from an Erskin Caldwell novel, "Dog bite my
pecker", which I kept repeating over and over.
Someone in the FOB, using hand flares, was trying to light up the area.
With each one, you could see the shadows moving in the compound. There
were more explosions, and it looked like the FOB Operations Center was
starting to burn. In my half dazed, still drunken condition, I suffered a
deep feeling of despair. I was alone on the beach with no weapon, no one
to talk to, and no earthly idea what the hell was taking place. My R&R had
ended yesterday, and I should have been in Nha Trang with my unit. Now I
was in the wrong place, and it was definitely the wrong time.
My pucker factor was going up fast. I crouched there by the sand bag wall
with no one else around, and all this activity only a few hundred yards
away. There had been no one in the Guesthouse when I turned in. There was
no one at the bunker with me now, and the fence line perimeters, which
separated the two camps, was empty. I cussed this half ass excuse for a
fence, with all the man made holes where troops went back and forth
between compounds. Yet, it was the only thing separating the C Team from
FOB4, and what looked like a company size element, moving around in the
FOB, blowing up everything.
After about an hour of cultivating a massive dose of anxiety, I really
thought these little guys, with the white rags tied around them, were
going to come through the C Company wire. I left the bunker and made my
way along the fence line toward the C Team Mess Hall. By this time, there
were a few personnel on the perimeters, but no one knew any more than I
did. And no one knew where I could get a weapon.
Too many small arms rounds buzzed the air along the fence, So I took my
time getting to the Mess Hall. When I did get there, I sat down behind the
building, lit up a cigarette, and cussed everything and everybody. The Air
Force for not having a flight out of Da Nang, Me, for not having a weapon,
and the night for being dark.
Sergeant Major Harmon (Preacher) Hodge, the C Team Sergeant Major, came
by, and It was the first time I'd seen the Preacher, and he didn't invite
me to use his barber shop. "Sappers are in the CCN compound", he said,"
keep your butt down, and stay away from the perimeters". I noticed he
didn't have a weapon either, but that didn't make me feel any better, I
had this feeling of complete helplessness.
After a while, I went down to the C Team TOC (Tactical Operations Center)
to see if I could be of any use. I was really getting jumpy, and hoped
someone would give me a weapon, and something to do. I sure felt out of
place. Three of C Company's A camps were under attack, and everyone in the
TOC was busy working the phones, the radios, and posting that big map on
the wall. They didn't pay much attention to me, and I tried to stay out of
It seemed strange, but everyone I talk to that night was unconcerned about
what was taking place just over the fence in the CCN compound. I mentioned
this to a young Captain, and he responded with, "CCN has plenty of troops,
and they can handle it". A little more nervous than before, I made my way
back to the fence line, found me a small sandy knoll near the beach house,
and lay there shaking and sobering up.
An AC 130 gunship circled the camp and lit up the area. He started working
the southwest area between the camp and Nui Thuy Son. At one point, it
looked like he was firing inside the CCN Compound. About an hour before
daybreak, a couple of H34s arrived in the area. I knew CCN used this
Helicopter they called the King Bee, and breathed a sigh of relief,
someone had finally come to help.
After what seemed like forever, the rising sun from the South China Sea
pushed back the shadows on the beach, and they slipped through the CCN
compound, and out past highway one. Day was coming to Marble Mountain, and
no one was happier than me.
Things may not look better in the light but they sure as hell look
different. The CCN Logistics warehouse was no more. There was only charred
ground where it once stood. The AC130 gunship no longer licked the ground
with its tongue of fire, and now, only a lone UH1 Helicopter worked a
bunker on the northeast corner of the beach. Except for this one action,
the sound of small arms had all but stopped. It was being replaced by
screaming sirens, as ambulances from the 95th Hospital lined up outside
C Company personnel had started to gaggle up around the fence by the mess
hall, and watch the fire fight to secure the bunker. We gazed at what was
left of the FOB. "Where were all these assholes last night?" I thought.
Someone had climbed on top of the Mess Hall building for a better look,
and Sergeant Major Hodge was chewing him out. We just stood there in
silence as the Sergeant Major, and the sirens, both screamed. As I watched
this guy climbing down from the mess hall roof, I thought, "Pork Chop
(Sergeant First Class Norman Racibor), the C Team mess sergeant, will be
opening late this morning".
I didn't say much to anyone before I left. One of the medics put some tape
on my shoulder, told me to put some ice on it, and I walked out the gate
to Highway one, caught a ride to the airport, and went over to the C&C
There were a dozen personnel already assembled in the little metal
building which served as a combination office, day room, bar, and mess.
Most had come from FOB4 and were still visibly shaken from the night
before. Some were slightly wounded, some were slightly drunk, and some
fell into both categories. Each one had a story to tell about the night's
activity, and it was here, I learned the names of the KIA. As I listened,
I had a late breakfast of Vodka.
Sergeant Major Richard E Pegram Jr, who told me the night before that C&C
had no bunks available, and I should try next door. Specialist Four
Anthony J Santana, who had shared a room with me before he left Project
Delta. Sergeant James W Smith, who went through 25 weeks of communications
training with me. Sergeant First Class Donald R Kerns, Sergeant First
Class James T Kickliter, and Master Sergeant Charles R Norris.
There were eleven other Americans mentioned but I couldn't remember ever
having met any of them. In addition to the 17 American KIAs, it was
estimated by the personnel present, twice as many indigenous personnel
were killed. Some guessed as many as forty. All agreed that CCN's little
people saved their ass that night.
One of the CCN liaison sergeants got me on board a black bird returning to Nha Trang, and I was more than happy to be getting out of town. I was
finally going to get back to the project. My 7-day R&R had run it's
course, and I was already two days late. It would sure be good to get
back. We gained altitude just off the coast, and I settled back to try and
sleep when the Crew Chief shook me, and said, "We've been diverted to
Saigon to pick up supplies for the FOB".
While most of Vietnam is beautiful from any altitude, flying the coast at
5000 feet offers a view found nowhere else. There must be forty shades of
green covering those mountains, which extend right down to the sea. We
made the trip twice that day, and not once did I look out a window. I was
I don't remember what time we finally landed in Nha Trang, but it was well
after dark. As I walked thru the SFOB (Special Forces Operational Base),
and down the dusty road to Project Delta, I couldn't remember ever being
It was Monday morning, and while Delta Project was still on stand down, it
buzzed with activity. They were getting ready for the next operation. I
stood there in the orderly room relating my story, and watching the
expression on the sergeant major's face. As I mentioned each KIA, Crash
lost a little more color. "Damm! Me and Pegram go way back", Crash said.
"I knew most of those folks; we served together at one time or another. I
just can't believe it".
Crash had stood there in that one spot and listened, but now he seemed
antsy. He started moving things around on his desk, and twice, pulled his
chair out as if to sit down. "Git on back to commo", he said, " I'll talk
to the old man and see what I can do about this article 15".
Diaz just sat there looking busy, but I could read his mind. "You talked
yourself outa this shit Tolbert".