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Go Noi Island

By Pat Lisi

             It was November 1, 1968 and our Marine Company had just finished 11 days and nights of hell atop Hill 100 fighting off NVA, torrential rains, starvation, and fatigue.  I never would have believed that things could get much worse.   My best friend from boot camp, Mike Wasserman of Boise, Idaho was already dead, KIA on Hill 100 the night of October 12th along with 7 other Marines from our platoon.  I kind of figured Echo Company 2/5 needed some time in the rear area back in An Hoa.  Of course, I had only been in-country for a mere three and a half months and there was a long ways to go before I was considered an ‘old salt’ by anyone, me included.  And, we didn’t get “breaks” from the fighting and I didn’t have anything to say about that, anyway. 

            Go Noi Island was a sore spot in South Vietnam to every American military unit that ever stepped foot on it.  Go Noi was located about 15 miles to the northeast of the An Hoa Combat Base where the 5th Marine Regiment was located.  Since it was east, it was closer to the South China Sea but not quite all the way to the coast.  Many battles had taken place on Go Noi Island, which was a gigantic area of floodplain, sand, elephant grass, insects of every variety known to man, and lots and lots of NVA regulars.  Go Noi was ‘their’ territory and major campaigns such as Operation Allen Brook had failed to route out or kill enough of the enemy to make a difference.  But, being that the Marine Corps never gives up on anything easily, another plan was drawn up to surround Go Noi Island and kill off as many NVA as we possibly could, once and for all.  It was a basic ‘cordon and kill’ that involved many units of different sizes and from several “armies”.  Declassified documents from 2nd Battalion 5th Marines puts it this way: 

            “During the period 1 November to 13 November 1968, the Battalion continued its participation in Operation Henderson Hill.  Alternately establishing blocking forces for sweeps by ARVN (South Vietnamese Army), ROKMC (Korean Marines) and other Marine units, the Battalion attacked and searched pockets of enemy resistance, uncovering large caches of rice and capturing prisoners.” 

            Echo Company, of which I was in, was involved in Operation Henderson Hill just one day after being choppered back to An Hoa from Hill 100.  We barely had enough time to get a new set of utility clothes, clean our weapons, devour a hot meal, and get one night of halfway decent sleep (no beer) before boarding the choppers and being relocated to our new positions on Go Noi Island.  The recently released and declassified “sit reps” read like this: 

            “Operation Henderson Hill moved to the northeast part of the 5th Marines TAOR in the opening days of November when intelligence from S-2 reported elements of the 36th NVA Infantry Regiment working from the west end of Go Noi Island.  Light to heavy contact was maintained throughout the period 1 November to 12 November.  The 5th Marines used as a blocking force, took 14 detainees and established that they were from the 1st Battalion, 36th Regiment, 308 Division (NVA) and had been part of the rice gathering efforts in the area.  Further intelligence indicated the 36th Regiment (NVA) was in the east end of Go Noi.”

             On 1 November Echo Company was holding a small piece of high ground as the monsoon season had begun and Go Noi was rapidly flooding.  Across from us was a small hamlet tucked away almost out of site behind a very thick hedgerow.  A decent sized rice paddy perhaps a football field in width is all that separated us on top of the hill and the hamlet.  There were two distinct paths that led across the watery rice paddy.  Our platoon commander, who I believe was 1st Lieutenant Tim Klee at the time, was assigned by Captain Woggon the company commander to send his Marines over and check out the hamlet. 

            At that time one of the guys in our platoon spotted a woman across the paddy that appeared to be walking along the edge and it looked like a rifle was slung on her shoulder with the barrel pointing up.  She also had a small shovel of some sort in her hand and had obviously been digging a hole somewhere along the dike that paralleled the hamlet. We had a scout/sniper team with us at the time who confirmed that the woman was armed.  Scout/sniper teams differ somewhat from a sniper team in that the scouts also have German shepherd dogs along with them.  The dogs spotted the woman now, too, and were unleashed by the scouts and sent across the rice via one of the foot paths.  The dogs immediately attacked the armed suspect by a swift and rather gruesome bite to her neck.  The dogs and the woman were on the ground quickly and she was dead in a matter of moments.  The shepherds ran back to our side of the rice paddy, up the hill, and were re-leashed. 

            Of course, after this kind of activity we knew that some of us were going to have to investigate the hamlet, first-hand.  2nd Platoon would go first and my squad would take point.  The squad leader was a corporal named Forbes, and he gave my fire team leader, Corporal Lynn Dixon the order to strike out first.  There were 4 men in our fire team at the time; myself, Dixon, a German National by the name of Dieter Vater, and one other man whose name has slipped my poor mind after all these years.

             I was a lance corporal at the time with 16 weeks of ‘experience’ in Nam, and so it became my dubious honor to be the “point man” as we headed into harms way.

             If you are a combat veteran think of this:  How many times during the course of the weeks, months or years you spent in the bush do you think the enemy had a ‘bead’ on your body?  Just imagine that for a moment.  Of course, you will never know, will you?  But, it happened probably more often than you’d be willing to bet or are able to think about without getting sick to your stomach.  That day, however, there was no doubt in my military mind that I was being “tracked” by probably more than one enemy soldier as I plodded across the paddies towards them.  I didn’t know for sure…but I had my suspicions! 

            So, here’s the scene.  Lance Corporal Lisi (me) on point, PFC Dieter Vater next in line but over on the adjoining footpath, followed by the Marine who I forget now but who I think was a private who had just joined us in Vietnam, and then Corporal Lynn Dixon, the team leader.  Behind Lynn was Corporal Terry Larson, the squad’s machine gunner, and then Forbes, the squad leader.  Trekking on behind Forbes were the other two fire teams from our squad.  We were all on one of the two foot paths heading to the other side of the rice paddy and were in plain view from the hamlet; we had absolutely no cover available to us, because the water in the paddies was right up to the dike lines due to the monsoon rains.  The remainder of 2nd Platoon was covering our casual assault from the hill behind us in case anything should happen. 

            What we didn’t know was the fact that a small element of 20 NVA was waiting for us in fighting positions that lined the hamlet on the other side.  Why the German Shepherds did not pick up the scent of those soldiers is something I have wondered about for a long, long time.  But whatever, just then I heard a shout from the hill we had left, “Watch out!” 

             A 3.5” rocket whizzed overhead and crashed into the hedgerow which couldn’t have been 30 yards to my front.  And that’s when the NVA opened up on our squad.  We pushed forward, sprinting like hell to get off the dikes and into the hamlet, as attempting to hide in the paddy water to return fire would have been absolute murder on us.  You know what they teach in the Marines about being ambushed – you attack it, you don’t stand there with your thumbs up your butt wondering what to do and waiting to be killed!

             As it turned out it was a stroke of luck for our squad that someone back on the hill was watching for NVA movement and had the sense to fire off a rocket into the hedgerow.  It was enough to keep the heads of the NVA down a bit, but they responded by hurling grenades at our squad for now we were right on top of them.  We returned fire with our rifles as best we could and tossed grenades back at them in their spider holes, where they stubbornly stood their ground.  I could clearly hear screams from their positions whenever one of them was hit by fragmentations or bullets.  It was as close to hand-to-hand combat as I had seen so far during my brief time in country.  Our machine gunner, Corporal Terry Larson from Wisconsin, did attack full-on when he charged an NVA position and leaped into the hole, killing the enemy soldier by smashing his skull with the back end of his M-60.  By now the exhilaration and adrenalin rush of the fight was making us crazy and we fought the enemy with the ferocity that Marine Corps legendary stories are built upon.  At this point the NVA had no hope and they were unable to kill any of us during the melee’ except for one: PFC Dieter Vater from Germany.

             When the fighting ceased and the remainder of 2nd Platoon was heading across the paddies to help us mop up the hamlet, Corporal Dixon and I came across Dieter’s dead body.  He had been shot in the chest and we guessed he died instantly, because in his right hand was a grenade with the pin gone, his fingers still gripped around the handle tight enough to keep it in place.  It was if rigor had set in already.  A dead Marine with a hand still able to wrap a grenade in the armed position without exploding.  How crazy is that!  I’ll never forget the sight. 

            We ‘disarmed’ PFC Vater by inserting a pin from another grenade into the one Dieter held and then we took the grenade from his hand.  Both grenades were buried in a safer area away from the platoon and exploded with a few ounces of C-4 just after calling out, “Fire in the hole!”

             All 4 of us in Dixon’s fire team were hit with something from the enemy during the battle.  PFC Vater was killed by rifle fire; I was hit with a couple small pieces of shrapnel from a grenade but was not injured enough to leave the field or go for a purple heart (not during that operation, anyway); the Marine whose name I don’t remember was hit with a lot of shrapnel and was choppered out that night; and Corporal Lynn Dixon was wounded by shrapnel in the hand bad enough to leave the bush and ultimately was sent back to the United States.  Same for Corporal Terry Larson.  I moved up to the position of fire team leader as did Lance Corporal Hiawatha Jackson.   

            Over the next couple of weeks there would be a lot of changes in Echo Company’s field personnel.  During that time firefights, ambushes, booby-traps, and illnesses took a heavy toll on us.  The monsoon season was in full force and it became apparent that we had to leave Go Noi Island or drown.  It was as simple as that.  Operation Henderson Hill, in the end, was considered to be successful, determined by the NVA body count and the tons of documents seized and prisoners taken by the various outfits that fought during the duration of the campaign.

              It was too wet and rainy to even hope of being taken back to An Hoa by way of helicopter, so the entire 2nd Battalion “humped” through the rising waters for 2 full days and nights to get to the rear.  It was a hellish march, cold and wet all the time with no resupply possible.  The only relief was when we realized the NVA weren’t looking for us, either.  The declassified log entry from the journal of the 2nd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment sums up the operation like this:

             “Flooding of the Go Noi area by monsoon rains reduced the effectiveness of friendly sweeps in the island.  The 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines swept back to the An Hoa Combat Base and netted a large amount of rice and assorted documents along the way.”

             But, it would not be our last visit to Go Noi Island.  When the monsoons let up a couple weeks later the campaign was re-visited and re-named, Operation Meade River.  But, that’s another story!






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