The day was dark and windy. Scuttling northwest from the ancient Buddhist capital of Hue, the two helicopters were above effective small-arms range as they followed the stretch of Vietnamese coast known as "The Street Without Joy." All at once the lead chopper erupted in a burst of fire and smoke, then crashed on its back in a flooded paddyfield, carrying five men to death. Whether the Dong Ha bound Huey was destroyed by Communist gunfire, sabotage or a freak accident may never be known, though Hanoi was quick to crow that its gunners had downed the bird. What was known was that the U.S. Marine Corps had lost its first division commander to be killed in any war: Major General Bruno A. Hochmuth, 56, two-star boss of the 26,000-man 3rd Marine Division, which has borne the brunt of the fighting in South Viet Nam this year.
Hochmuth was also the first American general officer to lose his life in Viet Nam. (Air Force Major General William Crumm was killed last July in a B-52 collision over the South China Sea.) A lean, laconic Texan who delighted in raising both flowers and barbells, Hochmuth led the 3rd Marines through the heavy spring and summer fighting around Khe Sanh, Con Thien and Cam Lo on the lacerated lower lip of the Demilitarized Zone. With his forces spread thin over two entire provinces, "Curly" Hochmuth (so known for his bald head) fought a dogged, essentially defensive war, but took the offensive brilliantly when the Marines swept through the DMZ last May, killing 1,500 North Vietnamese troops and capturing or destroying tons of supplies.
Named within hours as Hochmuth's successor was Major General Rathvon McClure Tompkins, 55, a Colorado-born veteran of Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Saipan, where he won the Navy Cross and picked up a load of Japanese shrapnel that still causes him to limp at the end of a ten-mile hike. Known as "Tommy Two-Star" behind his back, Tompkins served in the Dominican Republic during the 1965 crisis before becoming commander of the Marines' Parris Island boot camp in June, 1966. When Marine Corps Chief of Staff Lieut. General Henry Buse called from Washington to ask Tompkins how soon he could leave for Viet Nam, the new 3rd Marine commander replied: "Tomorrow."