On 9 Dec 1965,
at approximately 1300 hours LIMA Company 3rd Battalion, 3rd Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, was the lead Company, a spearhead, sent into the Que Son Valley to
rescue the 5th ARVN Regiment
who had been under heavy attack since daybreak.
It was Tuesday, December 8th
1965, Lima Company had just been pulled from MAG 16 perimeter duty for what we
thought was going to be a couple of days of R&R. We were in the rear area
(Battalion HQ) somewhere on DaNang Air Base.
Our Company area was temporary, with no permanent structures, The Battalion was in transit from Chu Lai to Hill 55 outside of DaNang. Each Platoon had its own area where we pitched our two men, pup tents.
I can only remember using the pup tents here and earlier at Chu Lai, and for a very short time in both locations. Most of the time we were either on the move or just preferred to use our ponchos for
shelter halves. We built some very interesting hooch's with those ponchos, and the more ponchos we had, the bigger and better the hooch.
It was around 10am. Jim Stead and I were in our tent playing Chess on one of those magnetic chess boards we got from the Red Cross, all of a sudden, our Plt Sgt (whose name escapes me) informed us that we were going to have church services and everyone must attend. Ordering everyone to church service was not uncommon, every good platoon leader wanted to have a good showing for the Chaplin, who almost always out ranked the Plt leaders.
We were told that the Protestants would be holding services first, then Jewish services and finally, Catholic Mass.
At about 1100, 11am. for you civilians, the order came for the Protestants to "fall out for church and don't keep the Padres waiting". Well, I am Protestant, but, I was also in the process of beating the jungle boots off old Jim Stead
for the first time since Chu Lai, almost a month earlier, so I decided not to attend church services.
Maybe 30 minutes later there was a call for all the Jewish troops to fall out for services. I was still in the process of out maneuvering Stead on the Chess Board
some 30 minutes later when the Plt Sgt. came back through our area to round up all the Catholics.
I was trying to be inconspicuous, I'm a little guy and seldom had problems finding cover, but my Sgt nailed me. I even tried to show him my dog tags which clearly indicated that I was Methodist, but he didn't want any excuses, stating that "if I didn't fall out when he called for the Protestants and I didn't fall out when he called for the Jews, I therefore must be Catholic" Typical lifer reasoning!
For all he knew I could have been Buddhist? But to please my SGT, I
went to Catholic Mass and I actually took Communion (that's the Corps, you do
what you're told, and when you're told to do it!) no questions just action.
I didn't think about this much at the time, but unless you actually are Catholic, holding church services on a Tuesday is highly suspicious, especially in a combat
Wednesday morning 9 Dec 65 at 0500 - 5am. we mounted up, loaded onto 6X's (big trucks to you non combatants) and headed south to a point where most of us had no earthly clue where we were. They never told us peons anything, a hell of a way to run a war
don't you think? If I were in charge, I'd want every Swinging Dick to know
exactly where we were going to go and what we were supposed to do when we got
there. But back in the 60's we were still governed by a WWII mentality (the less
the troops know the better).
It seems that we were near Tam Key, that's what all the
official documents suggest, Tam Ky was the staging area later on in the
Operation, but we were on the Beach, in the sand, watching the waves roll in and fighting off the Piss Ants that were crawling up our pant legs!
I suspect that our staging area was somewhere a little north and east of Tam Key, near Thang Binh. We arrived at the staging area shortly after sun up and sat there all day till around 1300, when a large number of choppers came into our LZ.
We were again told very little, just enough to scare the shit out of junk yard dog! We were told that all the waiting was due to the fact that B-52's had spent the morning bombing several VC regiments
that were assembling in the Que Son Valley, and that we were going in to rescue
fragments of an ARVN Regiment (South Vietnamese Troops) that were in serious trouble.
(For the record, a regiment consists of approximately 2100 troops, 3 reinforced Battalions)
Our Recon had estimated that there were 3,500 plus VC's held up on a nice little defendable map grid called hill 43. We initially went in with one company, Lima Company, with approximately 180 troops.
So, at 1330 hours (1:30pm for all you civilians) Lima Company, along with it's FO
(Forward observer 1st Lt Jack Swallows) and his team along with a small H&S (Headquarters & Supply) contingency, mounted up on Choppers and flew
west for approximately 30 minutes.
We landed just south of the village of Bong Son II, near the eastern mouth of the Que Son valley. The LZ was not hot, there were no problems landing or disembarking. From the LZ, we spread out into a Company wide sweep, moving toward the highlands and Hill 43.
Click to Enlarge
Lima Company LZ
I will state for the record that we never made contact with the ARVN unit that we were suppose to be rescuing, although the documents suggest we did. It may have been the next
morning, but the ARVN's were pretty scattered on 9 Dec 65.
I was an 0351 Assaultman (3.5 Rockets) attached to 3rd platoon. 3rd platoon was on the right flank of Lima Company as we were sweeping through the rice fields in the valley, I was on the extreme right flank of 3rd platoon.
Shortly after we began the sweep, I noticed a couple of fellows in black pajamas, following us, about 200 yards out. As we would stop, they would stop, as we picked up the pace, they would speed up their pace. It quickly became clear to me that they were following us.
I immediately informed my platoon Sgt that we were being observed, but he chose to ignore the heads up. Ten minutes later I observed several more, maybe
15 to 20, and this time I clearly saw weapons. I again reported the sighting to the Plt Sgt, and this time he
took a look-see and promptly notified the Lt.
I understand the necessity for following orders, but there was a clear and
present danger on our flank and the Lt. chose to ignore it and follow his
orders. American lives were in danger, we had a clear target and I'll never
understand why we didn't attack them. hell, I could have taken out most of them
with one well placed rocket round.
I blame the Lt. because the Sgt did use the radio, but I really don't know
who the idiot was for sure. (This is the same Sgt who made me go to Catholic
Mass the day before, a Korean War Veteran and maybe not the brightest bulb in
the string, but a good Marine just the same). It may very well have been our
Company CO Captain DiMartino who nixed the flanking incident.
As a result of ignoring the problem on our right flank, the VC had our position in constant observation. What the brass didn't know, was that they were walking us right into an ambush, and the VC on our right flank were spotting for a much larger force getting ready to hit us.
Shortly before All Hell broke loose, we came upon a small hamlet at the end of this massive rice field. This hamlet was maybe
200 meters wide, so we split up.
1st Plt was on the left flank, so they took the high ground and went around from above and to the left of the hamlet.
3rd Plt took the low ground and went through the hamlet from below and to the right flank.
2nd Plt stayed in the rear to act as a reserve force.
(I guess at the time it didn't occur to the brass that it was strange that this little hamlet, with all of its huts in a nice row, wasn't occupied, not even the chickens came out to great us)
Most of us were uneasy as we passed through this little village, we had no
real information, only what we saw and heard, or in this case what we didn't see
or hear, our instincts told us something was happening or about to.
What happened next was pure Military genius on the part of the enemy. We had walked right into a "Triangle Ambush" we were surrounded and attacked from
all three sides of the triangle, and the group of VC who had been following us were the ones who closed the back door completing the triangle.
platoon and 3rd platoon came out and around from this hamlet, we found approximately
500 meters of rice field and Hill 43 facing us. The VC opened up with mortars and machine guns from
the base of hill 43 and the tree lines to our left and right flanks.
platoon began to deploy to our aid, the VC closed the back door of the triangle and caught all of us in a cross fire. We were surrounded by machinegun fire and mortar rounds
began dropping in all around us.
My gun team found a position, a rice paddy dyke maybe 18 inches high and we took cover. The shit was really flying, (the USMC historian says that we were up against 200 VC from the 80th VC regiment) These were the same bad guys we faced in Operation Starlite four months
earlier on August 18th, and we killed a bunch of them then. I have no idea how many of them there
were this time, but the shit was definitely hitting the fan everywhere!
click photo to enlarge
To the left and in front of the rock is the rice paddy dyke where John Miller
and I were wounded and where Corpsman Richard "Doc" Croxen was killed, all by
the same Chi Com Mortar fired from the base of hill 43 which is in the center of the photo. From this day on, this rock will be known as "Colonel Jack
Swallows Rock". it is where Jack took cover when the battle started, and was his
mission to find upon his recent return to Vietnam.
We were surrounded, our entire Company was pinned down and we were deathly
close to being overrun.
SSGT Cordova gave an order to charge the hill, which was by the book, when mortars are coming in, charge the mortars! My rocket team was told to stay
back with an M-60 team and lay down cover fire, so we took position behind a
dyke near the M-60 team.
The 2nd platoon and the
3rd platoon began to deploy into the rice field, 1st Plt was holding the rear and the mortars kept coming, interrupted only by the constant
enemy automatic weapon fire from hill 43 and the surrounding tree lines.
Jim Stead, Jim Knowles and I had just gotten the rocket launcher into position, that damm 3.5 rocket launcher
was long and bulky, it was a target begging for incoming. I was so glad when we went to the LAWS
Rocket (Light Assault Weapon System).
As Jim Stead was taking aim, an incoming mortar round exploded a few feet away from us, I was hit in the right shoulder
by the up blast. I felt a punch and then a very warm liquid began oozing from my wound.
"CORPSMAN, CORPSMAN UP" the Doc made his way to me quick, I was one of the first group of wounded. The Doc stopped
my bleeding and then ran to help the other two wounded. Several more incoming
mortar rounds exploded in our immediate vicinity so Jim Stead decided to move
our position. Just then the Doc came back to me and helped me back to a bomb crater
some 110 feet to the rear where they were setting up a hospital staging area and
gave me a shot of morphine.
click photos to enlarge
The Bomb Crater 37 years later is full of water. Lt Col Jack
Swallows at the Bomb Crater saluting our fallen brothers. Hill 43 is in
My guys were somewhere between hill 43 and where I was now. Before the
morphine could do its stuff, I began freaking out, it was near dark, there was
shooting and shouting everywhere, mortar and RPG rounds were going off
within yards of my position and they took away my rifle, I was defenseless.
By this time the USMC Air Wing had entered the fight and there were also the sounds of nearby 250 lb bombs capping off. The Corpsman worked masterfully even though they had lost one of their own to the battle. HM1 Richard "Doc" Croxen, along with PFC John Miller, had been wounded by
the same mortar round that got me. John Miller made it, Doc Croxen didn't
click to enlarge
Battlefield Map provided by Lt Col Jack Swallows
Our Sr. Corpsman in an attempt to calm me down, asked me to look after a LCPL
who was badly wounded. The Doc told me that this guy probably wouldn't make it,
but to do what I could to make him comfortable.
In the mean time, the rescue choppers were on their way, but the VC had an ace up their sleeve for them as well. As the first Med-Evac chopper came in
to rescue the more serious of our wounded, the Pilot was shot at close range
while attempting to land. CPL Joe Hennebery a red headed Irishman from Boston
and a Scout Sgt attached to the FO team, were both badly burned from the burning
chopper fuel, as they rescued the downed chopper crew. They were both awarded Silver Stars for
their heroic actions.
Pilot, Major Donald J. Reilly died from bullet wounds and was awarded the Navy
Cross for his actions.
See Major Reilly Navy Cross
After major Reilly's chopper was shot down they decided to wait till well
into the night before trying to evacuate the wounded, this unfortunate delay
most likely contributed to the loss of some of our more serious wounded.
So here I sit in a bomb crater that most likely didn't exist the day before, hell is at the doorstep and the morphine has just started to do its stuff.
The nearby battle began to seem more distant and I was beginning to calm down,
in retrospect, I was probably experiencing the first symptoms of PTSD.
I was sitting next to this kid who was dying, (I don't think I really understood that he was dying at first) you have a hard time acknowledging death when your in the thick of it). He was most likely very medicated with morphine and he laid there very still,
until suddenly he became agitated and began waving his arms in slow motion.
The Corpsman told me to calm him down best I could, so I grabbed his arm and hand and held him. He had multiple chest wounds and had probably lost a lot of blood. He began to talk in a calm, almost surreal calm voice, he called out
"Mama" three times, gasped once or twice and calmly passed. I remember thinking at the time that he was the only one
who was safe.
It was most likely around 2300 hours when I was finally Hilo lifted out to the aid station. They were still shooting at us when the chopper lifted off.
Most of the glory of Harvest Moon goes to 2/9 and 2/7. (2/7 had a Medal of Honor winner on the last day) But it is a fact that of the 407 total enemy killed during the entire 12 day operation, (92) were killed by Lima Company on the first day. Of the 45 Marine KIA's, 15 were from the first day. Of the 218 Marine WIA's,
43 were from the first day.
Our Battle lasted hours, well into the early morning hours of 10 December,
and for those lucky enough to make it to Hill 43 without a scratch the battle
then evolved to hand to hand combat.
General Walt relieved General Henderson of his
command on the afternoon of 10 December 1965, one day after the Operation began (General Henderson was Regimental commander, his removal is a good indicator
that I am correct about my theory that the brass screwed up big time).
* And ever since that
day, I've often wondered if, taking Catholic Communion on Tuesday had saved my
life on Wednesday!
** Before I came over to Lima 3/3, I won a Bronze Star on 13 Sept 65, while I was with Golf 2/9, that was a bad day but nothing like the first day of "Operation Harvest Moon"!
action in which I won the Bronze Star was a day patrol not more than a few miles from
where Operation Harvest Moon began. The Que Son Valley was a hot spot that I
would visit a 3rd time before my tour of duty was completed.
**** The photos were provided by Lt
Colonel Jack Swallows U.S.M.C. Retired. Jack was our FO and the photos were
taken on his March 2003 return trip to Vietnam.
***** Jack Swallows informed me that he wasn't
able to call in any artillery support that day because Battalion took control of
the fire missions. This command error was most likely due to the fact that we
were sent in to help the ARVN troops and battalion didn't want us to kill any
Friendly Forces by mistake. (the can't shoot till shot at
rule of engagement got us again).
The Kid who Died in my arms that day, was LCPL Larry Dean Borschel a Radio Man from H&S Company who was attached to Lima Company's FO "Forward Observer". He may have been killed by the same mortar
barrage that got me. I left his name out of this story when I first wrote it because I wanted to spare his family any new pain. I've since talked with two of his Sisters and now feel that he should be named.
So much happened on the 9th of Dec 65, there is so little written
Hill 43 in center with hill 407 in the background