In the Belly of the Dragon: Life and Death in I Corps

Belly of the Dragon ExhibitWhere is I Corps? Pronounced “eye core,” the First Corps Tactical Zone (after 1970, Military Region One) consisted of the five northernmost provinces of South Vietnam. In order, from north to south, they are Quang Tri, Thua Thien, Quang Nam, Quang Tin, and Quang Ngai. I Corps is where north met south, and where names synonymous with the war – Hue, Da Nang, Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill, and My Lai – entered into the American vocabulary.

Belly of the Dragon ExhibitOver half of all American combat deaths happened in I Corps. 1,160 boys from Wisconsin died there. Nearly every Marine killed in Vietnam perished in I Corps. The Army, Navy, and Air Force all suffered significant losses. Boys from the heartland, the inner city, and the suburbs fought bravely and never came home. And who knows how many Vietnamese – ARVN, NVA, VC, civilians – who died in such numbers they became impossible to count.

As characterized in Vietnamese folklore, the country is a dragon ready to meet all enemies. I Corps is in the middle – it is the belly. It is where Vietnam came together and tore apart. It is where blood and earth became one, and where hills, valleys, villages, and cities disappeared. It was life and death.

Belly of the Dragon ExhibitShort Timer’s Stick
Short Timer’s Calendars

Men with less than 90 days left in country counted down the time with “short timer” calendars.
Vernon Rohloff Collection, Wisconsin Veterans Museum;
Steve Meyer Collection; Richard Lallensack Collection

North Vietnamese Vehicle Pennant North Vietnamese Canteen
Canteen found at Khe Sanh, mid-1968; Michael Van Keuren Collection
Claymore Firing Device
From M18A1 Anti-Personnel Mine
Lighter, 26th Marine Regiment
Ray W. Stubbe Collection, Wisconsin Veterans Museum
Duffle Bag
Stanley Aldrich, Corpsman, 1st Marine Division
North Vietnamese Soldiers Identification
Obtained at Khe Sanh, mid-1968; Michael Van Keuren Collection
Fragment, 122mm Rocket
Fired at U.S. Marines at Quang Tri, mid-1968; Ray W. Stubbe Collection
North Vietnamese Hat
Found at Con Thien, 1968; Michael Van Keuren Collection
Identification Tags
Gilmore, Huff, Konieczka, U.S. Marine Corps; Beauchamp, U.S. Army

To understand the Vietnam War, it is essential to appreciate the significance of I Corps. Strategically located, it was only through or around its provinces that the North Vietnamese could move troops and material to South Vietnam. From bases in its mountainous western reaches, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched attacks into the south and reorganized after battles.

Before American involvement, North Vietnam used waterways and roads crossing the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), as well as the formative Ho Chi Minh Trail in bordering Laos, to move supplies to the South. The South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) had little success stopping the flow. When the U.S. Marines landed in I Corps in 1965, the expanding American presence forced the North to deploy their own regular combat units to support operations.

The increase of NVA and Viet Cong units in I Corps resulted in a corresponding expansion of Marine, Army, and ARVN troop numbers as both sides struggled for control of vital areas. The Air Force and Navy also added their weight to the contest. Seeking to shut down infiltration routes, American forces also deployed electronic monitoring systems and even considered erecting a physical barrier along the DMZ.

While technology and firepower hindered Communist efforts, ongoing combat throughout I Corps demonstrated that the real fight would continue on the ground. In the end, sustained massive casualties failed to persuade the North to give up the war. Enemy soldiers and material moved endlessly to the front. In response to negative public opinion against the war, Washington’s war planners pursued an exit strategy through Vietnamization. Yet, only an American military presence could protect South Vietnam, and without it, the nation was doomed.

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum is an educational activity of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.