Interview with James Coan

For two months in the fall of 1967, James P. Coan’s USMC tank platoon was assigned to defend an isolated U. S. Marine firebase called Cont Thien. Located two miles below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing North from south Vietnam, Con Thien was the scene of fierce combat for months on end. Time in the Barrel: A Marine’s Account of the Battle for Con Thien offers an authentic firsthand account of the daily nightmare that was Con Thien.

Below is a conversation with the author about his experiences, his decision to write this book, and the meaning behind his title phrase. 

What particular aspect of the Vietnam War is covered in your book?

The siege of Con Thien captured the attention of the world’s news media, some referring to the battle as a “little Dien Bien Phu”(the famous battle that ended the French presence in Vietnam in 1954). Artillery, mortars, and rockets fired at Con Thien from camouflaged positions ensconced in the DMZ were intended to drive the Marines off of “The Hill” (as we called it).

An estimated 20,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA)soldiers surrounded Con Thien on three sides, but the Marines were determined to persevere and not surrender this crucial high ground to the enemy. I’ve attempted to describe the battle for Con Thien as I experienced it from the perspective of a novice Marine second lieutenant assuming his first combat command. My position as a tank platoon leader required me to work alongside the infantry(affectionately called “grunts”) in their trenches and bunkers; yet, make contact daily with the infantry battalion commander and his staff. Also, by virtue of having my five tanks dispersed around the firebase perimeter, I had to traipse around Con Thien every day to update my crewmen on events occurring on The Hill. I had numerous close calls carrying out this duty. The platoon leader that I replaced was wounded twice in his first two weeks there.

Lt. Coan aboard “The Believer” at Con Thien,1968.

Who was responsible for putting the U. S Marines into such a vulnerable, untenable situation?

Secretary of Defense McNamara and PresidentJohnson forbid the American and South Vietnamese Army allies from encroaching on the theoretically inviolate DMZ, even though it was no longer “demilitarized.” Perhaps out of fear that an invasion of the DMZ and NorthVietnam would draw the Communist Chinese into the conflict, as had happened in the Korean War when the Americans invaded North Korea, we Marines had to stay put and not carry the fight north.  To counter the North’s infiltration across the DMZ into South Vietnam, McNamara and his Pentagon “whiz kids” devised a plan called the Strong Point ObstacleSystem (also called McNamara’s wall). Con Thien was the lynchpin of the project, anchoring a bulldozed strip 600 yards wide, ending at another U. S. Marine firebase six miles to the east. The stretched-thin Marines had to both construct those firebases and defend them.

Why Con Thien? Looking at a topographic map from that era, it only appears to be a relatively insignificant piece of high ground in the midst of several square miles of relatively flat terrain.

Anyone who ever set foot atop one of the three hillocks that comprised Con Thien (aka “The Hill of Angels”) would instantly recognize its strategic importance. The viewer had an unimpeded view across the DMZ up into North Vietnam. One could look to the east and see American ships cruising in the South China sea. Looking south, one could see all the way to the major American supply base at Dong Ha, ten miles away. The North Vietnamese Army knew the strategic importance of Con Thien; they wanted desperately to drive us Marines off of there.

Lt. Col. Saul, CO of 2nd Tank Bn., pins Purple Heart and Navy Commendation Medal on 1/Lt. Coan at Camp Lejeune, 1969

What motivated you to want to write about the siege of Con Thien?

When I first came home from Vietnam, I was troubled by PTSD symptoms—depression, nightmares, etc. I found it therapeutic to spend quiet evenings writing about what I’d experienced on The Hill during the siege.  After putting those experiences down on paper over several years, I’d soon filled a three-ring binder with hundreds of hand-written pages. My dear wife, Sandra, typed those notes and then encouraged me to pursue publication. Now, the important Con Thien story can be brought to light and not be buried forever in the dusty, back-room archives of some military history research facility.

What were some of the most significant events you participated in?

My third night at Con Thien, the NVA attacked the northern perimeter where my tank was located. We successfully fought off that attack. Two days later, a monsoon deluge washed out our roads, bunkers and trench lines. I was cut off from Con Thien when a collapsed culvert washed out the main supply route. Three days later, when attempting to return to Con Thien, both of my tanks hit mines, forcing me and my crewmen to go on foot with the infantry.

One night, an American fighter/bomber strayed off course and dropped four bombs on Con Thien’s northern perimeter, collapsing many bunkers and killing four Marines. I encountered a friend I knew from the Basic Officer School at Quantico and shared some C-ration coffee with him that morning. Later that afternoon, he and his company commander were both killed by incoming artillery. My platoon rotated off The Hill two days later.

“Time in the Barrel” is an interesting phrase. What does that mean?

Marines referred to being at Con Thien as spending “time in the barrel” (as in the phrase, “like shootin’ fish in a barrel”). Units assigned to Con Thien could expect to be shelled daily by the enemy gunners in the DMZ. The besieged Marines on the hill called themselves the “mole people” because they had to live in deeply-dug bunkers to avoid becoming a casualty. The book cover photo summarizes what we Marines endured to hold Con Thien, no matter what the cost; but, the cost was high—many of us paid the full price.

Sign posted by Con Thien’s main gate entrance. And the reverse side of main gate sign

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