As the Vietnamese War entered the year 1967 the 3rd Marine Division
continued to establish its permanence in
what was coming to be called “Northern I Corps, “or the DMZ
area. The Division CP. was still at Phu Bai some forty or fifty miles
south by road so the emphasis on the DMZ area had not been transfixed
as it would later in the year.
With Division forward located at Dong
Ha, that particular village, and Khe Sanh thirty miles west along the
DMZ and on the Laotian border, were probably the only two locations
that Marines knew about with any degree of accuracy and anticipation.
Another base , known simply as "artillery plateau" had been
established after OPERATION HASTINGS
in September 1966 and on the Marine Corps birthday of that year
it was dedicated as Camp Carroll, named for Capt. J.J. Carroll, a
company commander killed in OPERATION HASTINGS.
These three locations, Dong
Ha, Camp Carroll and Khe Shan spanned the DMZ: however, the only route
connecting these bases, National
Route 9, was controlled just at its beginning at Dong Ha. The
feasibility of controlling Route 9 so that, it might be used as an
access route into central and western Vietnam below the DMZ was being
considered. An obvious preliminary to this control would be the
requirement of positioning troops intermittently along route for
patrolling and reaction to enemy threats.
In January 1967, the 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines moved from their
home of two months on "Payable Hill" - an uncomfortable and
unloved location between the Rockpile and Mutter's Ridge- to a new
location immediately south of the Rockpile and astride Route 9. This
battalion would be the first to occupy a permanent position along this
road, a road which would gain greater importance with the buildup of
Khe Shan. To further expand control a combat outpost was established
seven miles beyond the Rockpile along route 9 at a location known as
Ca Lu. A reinforced rifle company would occupy the outpost and with
the help of a Regional Force Vietnamese Company(half strength)it would
be responsible for the “road, bridges and TAOR in the CA LU
The year 1967 ushered in a ferocity and intensity in combat
operations which set the pattern from that point on for battalions
operating in Northern I Corps. The enemy's continuous invasion
attempts directly across the DMZ kept virtually all battalions 100%
committed. 3/3 was no exception. From January to April the battalion
had been committed along the “one-zero"
line, so named for the north/south grid line running from the Cam Lo
area to Con Thein. In four months of operations in this area, as well
as others, 3/3 began to show the effects of continuous combat. Two
companies had suffered nearly 100 percent casualties. In his company,
Cpl. David Schwirian, 20 , of Osterburgh,
Pa was one of three remaining sq1uad leaders with not even half
of his original squad left.
Leaving the Con Thein area after a three week operation around
Easter, 3/3 returned to its base camp at the Rockpile. Here the
battalion commander shifted his companies in the TAOR in order to
redistribute the loads. The most heavily committed companies of the
previous months. Lima and India would get the outposts; Lima CO. to Ca
Lu and India Co to the Fishbowl, a position north of the Rockpile.
Ostensibly, outpost duty would be less demanding and hopefully
something of a stand-down for the companies.
The individual Marine makes few demands of his superiors. His
lot is a simple one. Often the lot of the leader is no better than his
Marines, sometimes worse, but leadership as we know and practice it
means subordinating your own personal well being-particularly creature
comfort- to that of your Marines. In this respect, Cpl. Schwirian was
the typical squad leader. He reported to the company supply bunker to
inventory the personal gear of the sq1uad members he had lost recently
lost on the last operation. While there he managed to wrangle new
socks- a minor treasure- for his squad. He asked for and received
exactly seven pairs; none for himself. While at the bunker the company
commander told CPL Schwirian that the company would be outposting to
Ca Lu soon, which quite likely would be less demanding than previous
months on the one- zero line.
When Cpl. Schwirian arrived at his squad's position in the
company perimeter he began handing out the socks, and with them the
news that the company would be moving out to Ca Lu. The socks made a
much greater impression than the news.
In two day's time the plan became action with Lima 3/3 boarding
trucks at the Rockpile. A heavy section of tanks attached to the
convoy provide security as it wound its way along route 9. The trip to
Ca Lu turned out to be something of a treat with good weather and no
encounters during the 30 minute run.
Most of the Marines in the company reflected that only short
weeks before this trip their previous acquaintance with this
particular strip of highway had been different in every respect. It
was at night, between 2400 and 0300 to be exact, and it was the
conclusion of one of the longest operational marches conducted by the
battalion: 15-20 miles throught dense jungle and eventually to route
9. In that operation the battalion had jumped off from the night
position in the jungle at
0700 and with the exception of enemy action had moved non-stop until
arriving at Ca Lu.
In spite of the fact that battalion moved along a
well prepared enemy trail its progress was made much more difficult by
the necessity of having to carry the wounded and dead. Movement was
slowed down considerably. Worse, however, was the suffering to the
wounded as their comrades struggled moving them along the muddy, steep
and treacherous trial in
the rain and cold. I
n Cpl Schwirian’s platoon, as well as the
company, the Marines were bone weary in just two hours from exhausting
work. Unfortunately, however, it wasn't a matter of choice. The bad
weather coupled with high mountainous jungle and impenetrable canopy
blasted any hope of extracting the casualties BTL med-vac helicopter.
Only a few months previous to this operation Lima Co had been in a
similar situation, alone and on a mountaintop at the northern end this
very same trail. Then the company had to keep its casualties for three
days because of the inability to move or evacuate them.
Again nearing Ca Lu the company passed a Montagnard village
which a year later would become the location of a major
base-VANDERGRIFT- as the 3 rd Division moved westward. Following the
village was the first friendly positions; the north bridge, and then
Ca Lu itself where Kilo CO happily awaited Lima's arrival. Kilo had
occupied the outpost for over two months and, whereas the Rockpile
offered nothing in any way superior to their living conditions here,
it was nevertheless considered reason for happiness. The turn-around
took place rapidly. The company staff, platoon commanders and key
personnel were briefed on the enemy situation quiet), locations,
fields of fire, etc. Anxious to get the convey moving back to
the Rockpile where the rear echelon of lima still awaited movement.
Kilo rapidly board and got underway.
It was already late afternoon as Cpl. Schwirian's squad of
Marines moved into its part of the perimeter. What little gear they
had was q1uickly stowed., then the Marines began moving around the
area while Schwirian reported to the platoon CP. Everyone anticipated
a quiet night made even better by the fact that no ambushes were
By previous arrangement the Vietnamese RF Company would
provide the ambushes until Lima had settled in completely the
following day. While still at the CP an unexpected tropical downpour
completely drenched the outpost flooding most of the bunkers including
all those in Schwirian's area. His squad had all of their clothing and equipment spread out
on the bunkertops, wire, ect. trying to dry it out as Schwirian
In the company CP the company commander, XO and company gunny
were bailing water out of the command bunker when a radio operator
called the CO away. The battalion operations officer had a personal
message to pass. Although some of the message was garbled one part
came through perfectly clear ...
Whatever had brought about the change in plans was not discussed when
the two officers talked. The message came through cryptically and with
finality " ambushes will be established in your area this evening
and will be set at the following locations..."
part of the message was even a bigger surprise.
Not only was the battalion requiring ambushes,
but was not leaving the selection of the ambush site up the
company in accordance with normal procedure, and long standing
battalion policy. Before even checking
to see were the ambush site was located, the company commander
protested. He was in a better position to determine the ambush sites
of greatest advantage to his company.
After limited discussion on the
net the battalion S-3 made it clear that the site location had been
decided and that the
discussion phase had ended before the message was even sent. As if by
way of a final protest the company commander reminded battalion of its
own policy regarding ambushes, the stated that the patrol and ambush
plan for the following day would be forthcoming after the bunker had
been bailed out. A simple
"roger out" ended the brief
" Take a look at this skipper." The XO had already
plotted the location as he planned for that evening. Both of these
company officers were somewhat incredulous as they looked at one of
the ambush sites selected for them. Battalion policy dictated that
ambushes should normally remain in range of 200-500 meters. All
integral weapons could support at this range including the company's
60 mm mortars.
If the ambush ran into bigger problems it would be less
difficult for a reaction force to bail them out at this range. It was
fully 4500 meters away from the outpost - just twenty meters less than
three miles-and well outside the range of supporting arms at the
outpost. It was also outside the range of direct support weapons at
Camp Carroll and on the very fringe of maximum range of the 1105mm
battery at the Rockpile.
Furthermore, the ambush site could only be
reached by only one route; directly out route 9. North of the road the
terrain was much to steep to permit any movement parallel to the road
while on the south side of the road
cliffs fell directly into the Quang Tri river rushing below.
The company commander recalled the area well. On the last operation
the company passed along the same stretch of road at night after
having been all day on the high jungle trail. Carrying the casualties
had so exhausted the company that had taken almost three hours to
reach Ca Lu along the road. That night one exhausted Marine fell
asleep on his feet and, stumbled along, fell over the side of one of
the old French bridges which had no sides.
All factors considered, this was
quite simply a bad location
and a bad time to send an ambush out to such an area, such was the
conclusion of the company staff. Sometimes a feeling of foreboding
precedes even the best planned action or operation. This was one of
those times, and, somewhat hesitantly, the company commander called
the battalion back on the radio" for further clarification."
" Payable this is Lima 6, request you confirm the following
coordinates for cookie outhouse, down 5..4..."
"Roger Lima 6, you've got a solid"
"Roger that, Payable;
put the three on"
At this point the company commander tried again to inq1uire of
the obviously irritated operations officer
if the latter actually knew of the location of the ambush site
and was still happy to send it out. A curt answer followed.
The ambush would go.
Cpl. Schwirian had almost managed to get all of his soaking wet
gear spread out when a platoon runner told him to get up to the CP
right away. Approaching the bunker he could see his lieutenant studding
the map. Having been around as long as he had Schwirian knew the
"We have to put out an ambush
tonight, Cpl. Schwirian." his platoon commander told him,.
" What the hell, Lieutenant,
" Schwirian replied, " the skipper says no ambushes until
tomorrow, plus it's the second platoon's turn." The lieutenant
replied that the second platoon was rear echelon and had not yet
arrived at the outpost; then he and his squad leader got down to the
business of organizing the ambush.
In Vietnam during that part of the year the days are relatively
long. A still, the squad
had a long way to travel, and light conditions were deteriorating with
more rain moving in. They began stowing their gear in the bunkers,
then looked after the weapons and personal equipment necessary for the
mission. No special equipment was considered necessary since the
mission was a standard
security ambush. Individual weapons, plus a machine gun a grenade
launcher were all that was required - anything else might slow them
down. In the way of personal equipment each Marine had his poncho. CPL
Schwirian reported to the company CP with his platoon commander for
the final briefing.
The patrol moved out the company perimeter just at dusk with
report on the radio net" Lima Alpha 3 departing."
Acknowledgment from company CP sent them on their way. Moving out
along this strip of route 9 in
a westerly direction toward Khe Shan the squad was seeing the road
for the first time despite having transverse it before. For some
reason this terrain looked particularly wild with the high cliffs, the
river and the road perched precociously between each. The jungle was
also unbroken by numerous shell holes which were common around the
Rockpile and Con Thien.
Within an hour the squad had arrived at the
ambush site and silently moved into their positions. No communication
was necessary, nor was it desired. They established their ambush
according to a pre-set plan, each Marine moving low to the ground and
taking up his firing position. Few of them actually expected an enemy
encounter, but they realized that by just being there they were
performing a security mission important to the company. Sometimes this
realization still isn't enough when your spending all night on the
cold wet ground with an incessant rain.
Back on the Ca Lu outpost the company had already gone into the
nighttime routine. In the company CP the radio operator on the first
watch made regular checks with the platoons and the ambushes. Field
radio procedures as it is practiced bears little resemblance to that
formally taught. Jargon, slang and brevity codes reduce the
conversational phase to very briefest response, often unintelligible
to anyone unfamiliar with the particular operators
and their own code. Coupled with this are certain procedures,
some standardized, some common only to that particular unit, which
protect regular transmissions. Special radio procedures were always
used for ambushes.. As the ambush left the company perimeter it
reported out. This would be its last ratio transmission until
reporting in as it arrived at the perimeter the next morning. Regular” sit reps" - situation reports- were accomplished by a
transmission from the company radio operator as follows:
Alpha 3, This is Lima, if your position is secure click your hand set
twice."" All that was necessary was for the ambush radio
operator to click his handset the specified number of times and his
situation would be understood. Various codes could be established to
indicate suspected enemy movement, enemy sighted, ect. The only
transmission authorized from the ambush was “Bingo" which
indicated enemy contact or ambush engaged.
Making his first check with Lima Alpha 3 the company radio
operator received the two click “all secure." Things in the CP
began to settle down to relative normalcy despite the six inches of
mud remaining in the bunker from the rain.
One of the greater difficulties on an ambush is trying to keep
your mind occupied in order to pass the time. Hours drag by almost
painfully. The sentry on duty can at least walk his post. In the
trenches and bunkers one can move around, talk to the Marines in the
next fighting hole, take a five minute relief for a head call or
coffee, and best of all; move, turn, stand up, scratch, etc. None of
this is possible in an ambush, at least theoretically. The entire
ambush must lie very still, quietly anticipating imminent enemy
WHAT THE Fuck WAS THAT?
ambush froze. Often when its raining the noise intensifies. It's easy
to suspect movement when in fact there is none. But this time was
real- every man new it. Allow guttural growl-could that be possible!-
and definite movement.
Cpl. Schwirian's jaws tightened and his nostrils flared. His
heart raced so that he could actually feel it against the ground.
Slowly, pulling his knees up under him he moved his body into a slow
crouch. His right hand grasped his weapon, still on the ground.
Shifting his weight to his left leg he prepared to bring his weapon
into a firing position.
The source of the growl made a sudden leap!
God in heaven!
No one was fast enough to fire. Whatever it was it had
Schwirian screaming. The machine gunner jerked his gun around trying
to bring it to bear but this thing and Schwirian were locked together
in a desperate blur.
It's a Tiger!
The big cat had pounced out of the darkness and grasped
Schwirian in its jaws. One paw was standing on the Marine's hand which
held his weapon, pinning both to the ground. The other paw was on
Schwirian's left shoulder, forcing him backwards and more erect, while
the beast chewed on his right arm and shoulder literally tearing off
great chunks of flesh.
In what had to be the luckiest punch of any fight; certainly in
this brutal fight for his life, the terrified young Marine threw a
left cross into the muzzle of the tiger with his free hand. The blow
hurt enough to cause the animal to release its grip.
Cpl. Schwirian fell at that spot while the tiger lurched
backward momentarily. It was the instant the squad needed; the Marines
simultaneously opened fire.
The beast recoiled then simply disappeared.
The entire drama had taken seconds. The indescribable terror
experienced by the squad left them shocked and drained. Their squad
leader lay moaning and kicking where he had been dropped.
Doc was first to move. He was at once beside Schwirian trying
to calm him and examine him, both nearly impossible tasks under the
circumstances. Two Marines helped him while others formed a security
perimeter. Their position now obviously compromised. They felt certain
the enemy action would soon follow.
The corpsman's trained hands moved quickly and expertly around
the torn clothing and flesh. He could see nothing, but it didn't
matter. He knew this Marine was in serious trouble. It was easy to
distinguish blood from rain dampness. The shock effect had to be
massive and easily as great a threat to life as the loss of blood.
Ripping open his unit 1, the medical kit which together with its
corpsmen made them responsible for the continued lives of thousand of
Marines. Doc found what he was looking for - morphine. He decided to
sedate the Marine taking the risk that shock could be overcome.
Stopping the bleeding with direct pressure, he then applied his
largest battle dressing hoping to cover the wound. It would take two.
His next move was one of absolute genius. It had undoubtedly never
been taught in field medical school, nor did he learn it from any of
the old hands. He had only been with the company a month. Taking still
another battle dressing he carefully wrapped the wounded Marine's
head, pulling it to the side opposite his shattered arm and shoulder.
In its manner Cpl Schwirian would not be able to view the extent of
the wound, either deliberately or inadvertently.
In the company CP the radio operator was immediately allotted
to trouble. Someone had keyed a radio handset as if they didn't know
what they were doing. Then there came a pause, followed by a scuffing
noise, and finally," Lima, this is Lima Alpha 3, we have to come
in." he didn't believe what he had heard. It couldn't possibly be
the ambush, they would never break silence for such a ridiculous
transmission, and even if they were in fact in trouble there was a
specific code and procedure to follow. Not only that, but he didn't
recognize the voice. He called the company commander and quickly
described the incident., offering his opinion that whatever was
happening it was... serious. The CO immediately tried to raise the
"Lima Alpha 3 this is Lima 6, if
your situation is all secure click your handset twice."'
No answer. The CO repeated his transmission. Suddenly there was
" Lima 6, this is Alpha 3, sir we're in
trouble and have to return; can't explain; request permission to move;
we have a wolf ( wounded in action)."
The CO was stunned and silent. He
immediately recognized the voice as that of the corpsman.
"Roger Alpha 3, return at once; understand there are no friendlies,
repeat, no friendlies, between yourself and us. Any movement is
Facing the grim reality of what lay ahead the squad galvanized
into action. Doc, having done all that he could, took Cpl Schwirian
around the waist and pulled him erect. Another Marine grabbed his free
arm. With their casualty in tow the squad formed a patrol and started
the long trip to the outpost. Each man took his position without
speaking. The only noise was the shuffling and occasional moaning as
the corpsman attempted to keep CPL Schwirian on his feet moving.
When the battalion received the preliminary report that an
ambush was in trouble
they immediately requested more information. The company commander
could only report the scant bit he had received in the only
transmission from the ambush. He did indicate that the ambush had at
least one casualty; probably serious, possibly emergency, which would
require evacuation. More information would follow when available.
On the outpost, the senior company corpsman
made what preparations he could. He collected all blood volume
expander, feeling certain this would be needed. Battle dressings,
swabs, ect, were in abundance at the Company CP and laid out
Sometime after midnight the rain slackened, then stopped. It
was replaced with thick ground fog which obscured vision even more
than rain. In the second platoon area Marines were on bunker tops. It
was through that part of the perimeter that the road entered the
outpost, and the ambush was expected to arrive at that point. In the
same area the engineering platoon, located right beside the road,
strained to see or hear any movement on the other side of the
Nearly three hours after the first report from the ambush,
Marines in the line thought they heard movement. The commander 2nd
platoon came into the CP to report just as the radio sounded. “Lima
this is Alpha 3; we're outside the wire; request permission to come
Struggling to get the wounded Marine into the bunker the
corpsman winced at what light from the lantern illuminated. For the
first time he actually saw the extent of the wounds. He wasn't
prepared. No one was. He gasped with the others at the
incredible sight of torn flesh, claw marks, and an amazingly clean
bite which had removed nearly the entire bicep.
A final report now went to the battalion with all the detail
and the request for an emergency med-vac. IT was painfully obvious
that this Marine would need medical attention immediately.
"What's the problem Lima."
Trying to impart the seriousness of the wounds and what had
actually happened over a radio was difficult.
"It appears that Alpha 3 was attacked by a tiger,"
the CO responded. A pause indicated certain disbelief at battalion..
"We need an emergency med-vac"
the CO continued.
After some deliberation battalion indicated that a med-evac
would not be possible before first light. Bad weather, distance and
other factors argued against it.
"This man must get out tonight"
the CO insisted.
Finally, the battalion consented to an attempt to move the
casualty back to the Rockpile by road, from whence he could be further
evacuated to Dong Ha either by road or air.
The only vehicles available at the outpost were engineer
equipment and two Ontos. With a dump truck for an ambulance and the
Ontos as security, along with a rifle squad, the small convoy made a
reckless dash for the Rockpile.. They moved along the same road Cpl
Schwirian had rumbled down the previous day expecting a rest from
The story could end here, but it doesn't. Cpl Schwirian made it
out, first to Delta Med at Dong Ha, then to USS Repose and finally to
Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Lima Company would hear from him again. A
Readers Digest article mentioned his ordeal. Then a few months later
more casualties from his company ended up in his same ward at
Philadelphia. They wrote back the welcome news that he was much
improved and regaining the use of his arm.
Company remained at Ca LU another few months with no further tiger
encounters. still, the last chapter of this episode was yet to be
written. It would come almost a year later when another battalion was
operating in the same area. On a hill west of Ca Lu , and within a few
hundred meters of Cpl Schwirian's ambush site, a rifle company was
moving into a night position.
When the company perimeter had been
established a platoon commander called a meeting of his squad leaders.
They met in the dark for a few minutes then were dispatched back to
their squads. Just seconds after the men had disappeared into the
jungle, a ghastly scream and thrashing shocked the entire company and
kept them awake the rest of the night. A search the next morning
disclosed what everyone feared. The unidentifiable and indescribably
mauled remains were confirmation that Cpl. Schwirian’s
adversary was still the ultimate enemy, at least in this part of the
Ripley was a Major when he penned this true story. He was a Captain
and Lima Company Co at the time this incident took place.
If you have
never experienced the fear of a Night Ambush, or never posted on an all
night Listening post in a combat situation
are in the Jungle, in complete darkness, in a very unfriendly place.
During the daytime, you are shot at when seen by an
enemy. During the night, your life and the lives of your friends are
constantly in danger and you depend on them to be awake and sharp for
your own sanity and well being.
of a sudden, you hear a scream that only a big cat can make,
accompanied by the sounds of a man, your friend, being eaten alive by this
of the Night;
Cpl USMC, truly knows this fear.
far as I can tell, David is the only living American, attacked by a Bengal Tiger during the 10 years of the Vietnam War !
Bengal Tiger lives in Southeast Asia. Its length: up to 10 feet, Its
Weight: 400 to 575 pounds, It was hunted, captured, and poisoned to
such an extent that it has practically disappeared, there are less
that 3,000 in the wild, 475 exist in natural
preserves and national parks. It is now strictly protected. Some males
occupy a territory of 200 square miles. When there is enough food, the
tiger lives in a much smaller territory. It lives in the forest, the
grassland, or the swamps.
The tiger attacks a
variety of prey, mainly deer, antelopes, pigs and buffalo. Once in
awhile, it will attack cattle and even humans. There are many stories
about the evils done by "man-eating" tigers. They're usually
old tigers that are sick or wounded, and cannot hunt normally. The
destruction of their usual prey may also cause them to attack humans. As
soon as the tiger spots prey, it begins a slow and silent approach. When
it is near it's prey, it charges. It may jump onto the prey's back or
pin it down with it's powerful claws. It usually kills the prey by
biting it's throat or neck. It's strength is amazing: it can drag a prey
weighing several hundred pounds as much as 1,500 feet to hide the dead
animal in bushes or tall grass.
Schwirian was interviewed by Time Magazine while recovering from his
wounds in mid 1967 and his story was a Time Magazine cover story later
had the pleasure of talking to Dave a few weeks ago when he requested to
be added to our Lima Co Duty Roster. He was kind enough to email me Colonel
Ripley's story. I had heard scuttlebutt way back in 67, but I never new
the whole story until now.
decided right off to publish this story on our web site, so I began an
extensive web search to see if I could uncover other first hand
accountings and related information. I have been working on and off at
this, for the past 7 weeks and I was very surprised to find that there
wasn't any information on the net at all. This may be the first web
publishing of David's story written by now Colonel Ripley.