During the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps combat base at Con Thien sat three clicks south of the demilitarized zone, always on alert for an incursion by the North Vietnamese Army into South Vietnam. In September 1967, the NVA began an intense bombardment of the Marines in Con Thien that lasted for forty days.
James R. Coan, a Marine lieutenant, led a Third Battalion/Third Division platoon of M-48A3 Patton medium tanks defending the base, his first combat command. He recalls the action from those days in Time in the Barrel: A Marine’s Account of the Battle for Con Thien (University of Alabama Press, 256 pp. $34.95, hardcover and e book).
While in-country, Coan kept a diary that he used to help expand his recollections in the book. He includes a copy of the diary in an appendix. For background, he presents a brief but highly informative history of I Corps prior to his arrival. Six pages of photographs enhance the memoir.
Coan describes Con Thien as a “three-pronged hill mass” and “the finest natural outpost along the entire lengths of the DMZ.” From its high ground, an observer had an unlimited field of view in all directions. On the other hand, the base also stood out as a perfect target.
Hidden within the densely vegetated DMZ, 20,000 NVA troops awaited orders to assault the base, he says. Meanwhile, enemy artillery, mortar, and rocket crews bombarded the base around the clock, once firing more than a thousand rounds in a day. Line of sight sniping with 57-mm recoilless rifles supplemented the NVA daylight firepower.
The situation produced a classic siege that Coan describes in detail. Fear of death—the “danger of enemy shells dropping out of the sky”—was the primary source of apprehension, he says. Every day, Marines died and were wounded. Unpredictable bombardments and sapper attacks; lack of food, water, and military supplies due to road cuts; monsoonal rains and mud; and rat infestation heightened the men’s anguish.
Coan—the author of Con Thien: The Hill of Angels, a 2007 book on the same subject—labels the fire base a “hell hole.” Based on what I saw around the time Coan was there, his description applied to all of northern I Corps. Nights were pitch black and days dimly lit. From I Corps, our C-130 crew carried away the dead in body bags on stretchers.
In January 1968, the NVA shifted its strategy to besieging Khe Sanh.
Beyond his account of Con Thien, Coan wedges in non-combat material. His memories of screw-ups during high school and college years and the rigorous demands of Officer Candidate School interrupt the drama of the story.
Nevertheless, Time in the Barrel offers a worthwhile perspective of what, at the time, made headline news in America. The book unflinchingly illustrates humans’ ability to cope with the unbearable as a function of duty.