Operation Meade River
Thomas Calabrese — November 20, 1968. Seventy-one Ch-46 Sea Knight helicopters from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing got into position as their engines echoed across the Marble Mountain runway. This was the largest helicopter-borne combat operation in Marine Corps history and they were airlifting men from the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines Regiment from ships at sea. Operation Meade River was launched in support of the South Vietnamese government’s Accelerated Pacification Program called Le Loi. It would be a cordon-and-search operation commanded by Colonel Robert G. Lauffer.
As the sun burned through the clouds that were hanging over the South China Sea in the early morning hours, the silhouettes of 3,500 Marines became more distinguishable with each passing minute. The men lined up to board the aircraft for their pre-designated hot landing zones in the Dien Bien area, thirteen miles southwest of Da Nang. Intelligence reports estimated that there were 100-150 Viet Cong and 900 North Vietnamese regular forces, however they had no way of knowing how well the enemy was prepared or how tenaciously they would fight.
The first wave of Sea Knights from Helicopter Squadron 164 headed west and radios crackled to life as squadrons coordinated with each other and the Marines on the ground. Second Lieutenant Dan ‘Dante’ Fanelli had only been in country two weeks and his heart was pumping so fast that he thought his fellow Marines might even hear it above the sounds of the helicopter’s spinning blades. His mind was racing with thoughts about his training and how he would implement what he learned in actual combat. It wasn’t that he was scared for himself as much he was fearful that he would make a mistake that would cost someone else their lives.
Staff Sergeant Gary Pickett, a seasoned veteran of three combat tours was a bear of a man, heavily muscled and standing well over six feet tall. He got up from his jump seat, walked over to Lt. Fanelli, placed his huge hand on his shoulder and whispered in his ear, “Hang in there, L.T. Take deep slow breaths, I’m your platoon sergeant and I’ll be right beside you.”
Lt. Fanelli nodded and wiped the perspiration out of his eyes. The helicopter hovered over the landing zone and quickly descended to the ground, “Let’s go Marines! Keep your heads down!” Staff Sergeant Pickett yelled out and was the first one out of the helicopter. Lt. Fanelli made sure all his men were out before he exited. The chopper was airborne in less than five seconds.
1st Battalion, 1st Marines, (BLT) Battalion Landing Team 2/26, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 5th Marines, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, BLT 2/7 and the 1st Battalion 7th Marines were assigned to join up with the ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam) and Republic of Korea Marines and encircle the enemy in a tightening cordon, a killing noose of naval gunfire, artillery, aerial attacks and infantry engagement on the ground. Once the cordon was complete, the first priority was to evacuate civilians living within this no-man’s land that the Marines nicknamed ‘Dodge City’. The task of relocating 2,600 civilians to a camp near Hill 55 fell to the ARVN forces.
The enemy responded quickly by shooting down two helicopters and damaging several others. They also detonated several land mines destroying three trucks and wounding forty-three Marines and eleven ARVN soldiers. These actions foreshadowed what would come in the next nineteen days.
Lt. Fanelli and his pla
toon found cover in the tall elephant grass alongside the landing zone. Staff Sergeant Pickett heard the poof, poof, poof of mortars being fired and yelled out, “Incoming!” and Marines buried their faces in the dirt. When some young Marine froze in place, Pickett ran over, threw him to the ground and growled, “When I yell incoming, that means hit the damn dirt!!”
The baby-faced Marine meekly answered, “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you with the chopper rotor noise.”
As the mortar barrage continued, Pickett saw another chopper getting ready to land and rushed out to wave off the pilot. It was a good thing that he did, because th
e enemy gunners had locked in on the landing zone. A burst of machine gun was nipping at Pickett’s heels as he raced back to where Lt. Fanelli was hunkered down, “You alright, Lieutenant?” then suggested in the strongest possible terms, “We need to take out those mortars.”
Lt. Fanelli was momentarily frozen in place until Pickett brought him back to reality, “We can’t stay here, we need to get going. You need to tell us to move out.”
Lt. Fanelli stuttered, “Move out.”
Pickett yelled, “We’re moving out! Follow me!”
The Marines took off at a full sprint as the tall elephant grass slapped against their bodies. Lt. Fanelli did not know whether it was instinct, skill or luck or the combination of all three, but every time a mortar fired, Sergeant Pickett seemed to know exactly where it was coming from. He led his Marines to eliminate them and they took out the first enemy position with several grenades, the second one was neutralized by small arms fire and the last one required a (LAW) light anti-tank weapon.
When the sun began to set, Sergeant Pickett advised Lt. Fanelli that it was time to set up a 360 perimeter for the night. When all the men were in position, Sergeant Pickett made his way back to the CP which was located in the middle of the circle and casually sat down next to Lt. Fanelli. He took a long swallow from his canteen, pulled out his .45 pistol from his holster and set it next to his right leg, “Kind of a long day, huh?”
“A real long one,” Lt Fanelli replied, he was so physically and emotionally drained that it was even an effort to speak.
When the next day arrived, it took a while for the young lieutenant to realize that he had not dreamed the nightmarish events of the previous day. Sensing the doubt of the new platoon commander, Sergeant Pickett commented, “You’re in charge, L.T. don’t forget that.”
“Thank you Sergeant.”
After checking the map and getting their orders, the platoon moved out. Sergeant Pickett was very familiar with ‘Dodge City’ for he had fought in several ambushes and firefights around the area in his previous tours. Their destination was Go Noi Island where the Viet Cong R-20 Battalion and NVA’s 1st Battalion, 36th Regiment were hidden in heavily fortified bunkers and underground tunnels.
Just before noon on November 20, 1968, Hotel Company 2/7 swept east toward the railroad berm and by 1600 hours they secured the southern end of the battalion’s objective. Just thirty minutes later, however, all hell broke loose when they ran into a heavily armed enemy complex in a hook- shaped bend in the river called ‘The Horseshoe’. Intense Fire from combat hardened NVA regulars forced the Marines to withdraw.
Other units were called in to reinforce Hotel Company as Marine air and artillery slammed the enemy’s defensive positions time and time again for five days. Enemy resistance increased as the cordon closed tighter and Lt. Fanelli was ordered to sweep across a rice paddy to locate enemy f
orces. NVA forces were dug into heavily fortified emplacements along the perimeter and they responded with heavy small arms and automatic weapons.
It was time for the young officer to swallow his fear and do his duty. Fanelli raced forward into heavy enemy fire, rallied his men and made sure they had ammunition. Unable to deploy his Marines to an alternate location, Fanelli had no alternative but to eliminate the threat himself. Staff Sergeant Pickett pulled him back as he got ready to charge a machine gun emplacement, “You’ve been watching too many John Wayne movies.”
“Reckon so, Pilgrim,” Fanelli smiled and broke loose from Pickett’s grip.
“Giddy-up,” Pickett responded and the two Marines; one combat hardened, the other, as green as elephant grass, charged through enemy fire, hurling hand grenades and firing light antitank weapons at NVA bunkers, but with little effect. Fanelli and Pickett somehow survived and made it back to their platoon, that were lying in the muddy waters of the rice paddy. Their intention was to direct their men to a more secure area while providing cover fire, which required running through open area. Pickett spotted two wounded Marines that were pinned down.
“Cover me!” Pickett took off in a full sprint, while Fanelli grabbed an M-60 machine gun and laid down suppressive fire. When Pickett reached the injured men, the enemy fire was so intense that he found himself trapped with the two Marines. They were forced to get their faces in the water, only coming to gulp down a mouthful of oxygen and submerge again as bullets whizzed inches above their heads.
Fanelli put a full ammo belt in the M-60 and looped two more around his neck, then ran to rescue Pickett and the other Marines while firing the whole time. He set up on the rice paddy dike and continued firing allowing the three Marines to make their escape. When the M-60 was out of ammo, Fanelli left it behind and dashed back. Helicopter gunships arrived and took out the enemy positions, allowing the remainder of the Marines to get out of harm’s way.
Pickett commented, “Either you’ve got a knack for this kind of work or you’re even crazier than me.”
Before Fanelli could answer, a North Vietnamese soldier came running through the elephant grass with a grenade in his hand, and was only a few feet from Pickett. Reacting instead of thinking, Fanelli knocked the enemy combatant down and fell on top of him. The grenade exploded under the NVA soldier, killing him instantly. The force of the blast lifted both men off the ground and when Fanelli landed, his heart had stopped beating. Pickett rushed over and yelled, “Corpsman!”
Doc Hancock came running and dropped to his knees next to the motionless Marine. After frantically working on Fanelli for several minutes, he sighed in resignation and called out, “He’s gone.”
There was no time to mourn the fallen because there was still a battle to be fought. Staff Sergeant Pickett wanted desperately to stay behind to thank the young lieutenant who had given his life to save his, but that was not going to happen. Captain Kilmer emphasized the urgency of the situation, “Sergeant Pickett, get your men, we’re moving out! Now!”
Pickett swallowed his grief and repeated the order, “Move out!”
The dead Marines were lined up in a row and ponchos were placed over their lifeless bodies. They would eventually be taken back to Danang for processing and then back to America for burial. Battalion Chaplain Walter Koppleson moved down the line of fallen warriors, checked their dog tags for religious preference and endeavored to give the appropriate prayer. When he reached Fanelli, he bowed his head and said, “May God pardon thee whatever sins thou hast committed.” The young Marine’s soul was instantly transported to a beautiful beach that stretched from horizon to horizon; the sand was sparkling white and the water and sky rivaled each other in the depth of their breathtaking blueness.
The sun was warm and a gentle breeze caressed the Marine’s face like the touch of a loved one. Fanelli walked over to the water and reached down, it felt soothing and invigorating at the same time.
A man about the same age as Fanelli looked down from a lifeguard tower and smiled, “Is it everything that you expected?”
Fanelli was obviously confused, “Where am I?”
“Exactly where you dreamed how it would be and so much more.”
“That doesn’t answer my question!” Fanelli snapped back.
Suddenly Fanelli’s deceased grandfather and grandmother walked by, smiled and then he knew exactly where he was and his only response was, “I can’t be here.”
“This is just your final reward, you laid down your life for your fellow Marines and that means an automatic entry to Everlasting Life Estates,” The man explained.
“I appreciate the offer, but I need to get back,” Fanelli replied.
“You’re willing to leave all this and go back to war? You can’t be serious.”
“Yeah, I am and I know it doesn’t make sense so don’t ask me to explain. Can you do it?”
“We don’t get many requests to leave heaven, most people are dying to get in here, excuse the pun. The last time I was asked to do this was from another Marine, I can see why God likes you guys so much.”
“What’s next?” Fanelli asked.
“Your place will be waiting for you when you’re ready,” The man said.
Just as Chaplain Koppleson finished doing the Last Rites on Fanelli, the Marine sat up and looked around, “Hey Chaplain, how you doing?”
Chaplain Koppleson mouth dropped open, his face turned ashen white and he did the sign of the cross as Fanelli rushed off. Pickett and his Marines had reached a bunker complex that had resisted earlier assaults. He called in a ‘danger real close’ air strike and told his men, “When that Napalm hits, hold your breath and bury your face!”
Even though the bombs struck over 50 yards away, the Marines could still feel the intense heat of the explosions. When Pickett looked up, he saw a figure coming of the smoke and haze and couldn’t tell if it was friend or foe, so he kept his finger curled around the trigger of his weapon. Pickett couldn’t believe what he was seeing, so he shook his head and blinked his eyes several times. It couldn’t be, he had to be hallucinating.
When Fanelli bent down next to Pickett, all the seasoned veteran could do was mumble, “You’re dead.”
“A temporary setback,” Fanelli responded with a sly grin, “But I’m ready to get back to work now.”
Fanelli was the first to enter the bunker complex, followed by Pickett and the other Marines, hoping to catch the NVA soldiers off guard while they were still regaining their senses from the air strike. The combat got a lot closer and more personal now and the Marines found themselves fighting hand to hand as they moved through the tunnels that connected the bunkers.
Fighting underground was so dark that it was hard to keep track of which Marines were still alive, but Fanelli and Pickett kept moving and fighting until they saw a light up ahead, then exited the subterranean complex. The Marines gulped fresh air like thirsty horses at a stream. Corporal Jordan sighed, “Now I know why I didn’t volunteer to become a tunnel rat.”
“The fact that you’re too damn big to fit in the hole might have something to do with it,” Lance Corporal Ross commented.
“I made it through this tunnel, didn’t I?”
“Barely, you were scraping the sides the whole way,” Lance Corporal Ross replied.
“You should be thanking me, since I was in front, none of the NVA could get past me to get to you, you’re welcome.”
“I’m glad you two still have some fight left in you, because there is still a lot of bad guys out there,” Pickett turned to Fanelli and stared for several seconds.
“What?” Fanelli finally asked.
“You were dead and now you’re standing beside me, war doesn’t make a lot of sense, but even this is outside the realm of strange possibilities,” Pickett commented.
“When I figure it out, you’ll be the first to know,” Fanelli commented, “In the meantime we should get moving otherwise you’ll find out firsthand where I was.”
“Point taken, L.T.”
There were only ten Marines left so Fanelli appropriated the M-79 grenade launcher from the grenadier and two bags of high explosives rounds. Pickett, saw a machine gun team, took the M-60 and ordered the ammo humpers, “You guys are with me, stay right on my six.”
Not far ahead, the Marines came under heavy fire from three enemy positions. Fanelli charged forward in full view of the enemy gunners, zigzagging and firing as he ran and silenced two machine guns positions while Pickett provided cover fire.
Pickett then focused his attention on the last enemy position and fired so many rounds that the barrel of the machine gun turned red from the heat. By the time the NVA soldiers could lift up their heads, he was already in their bunker and finishing the job with his .45 caliber pistol.
The final assault of Operation Meade River took place on December 9, 1968. Fanelli, Pickett and a group of weary Marines found themselves in a brutal fight in an area about twenty meters square that included more hand-to-hand combat against a tenacious enemy that refused to surrender. Three hundred enemy bodies were found on the battlefield, more than one third of the total enemy killed during the entire operation.
After the fighting ended and night fell, Fanelli and Pickett organized rescue teams to help retrieve the dead and wounded. Time was critical, for the enemy also moved during the darkness and Marines that they found wounded and alive were shot in the head.
While conducting one of their numerous rescue missions, Fanelli and Pickett feigned death as a large group of NVA soldiers approached them. As the enemy stood over their motionless bodies, the two Marines rolled over and opened fire and killed all of the enemy combatants.
When daylight came, it was the beginning of the last day of Operation Meade River. In their eagerness to be evacuated, fatigued Marines overlooked one well concealed bunker with enemy soldiers. Fanelli and Pickett were sitting next to each other; they were too tired to eat, too tired to drink, all they wanted to do was rest. Fanelli closed his eyes and had a vision of NVA soldiers firing at him and instinctively shoved Pickett out of the way, a split second before a burst of automatic gunfire hit their position. Fanelli grabbed the M-79 grenade launcher and accurately fired a round through the small opening of the bunker, killing all the occupants.
“That’s twice that you’ve saved my life,” Pickett responded, “I owe you.”
Fanelli’s words were heartfelt and poignant, “We’re Marines, we fight for each other, we die for each other and we save one another. It is our code, our duty, privilege and honor to do so.”
The final count of Operation Meade River was 1,325 enemy casualties; 1025 were killed and 300 wounded. 360 well-dug entrenched log, railroad-tie and cement bunkers were destroyed and only six enemy soldiers chose to surrender. 108 valiant Marines were killed and 513 were wounded.
Somewhere between the First Wrongs that comes with being a new lieutenant in a war zone and the Last Rites that followed his ultimate sacrifice, a hero was born in the hellish heat of combat and rewarded by heaven. The End