Marine Corps Reconnaissance


U.S. Marine Corps reconnaissance forces are a vital element of the Marine Corps Air-Ground Task Force whenever an expeditionary force commander faces uncertainty on the battlefield.  Marine Corps reconnaissance provides timely intelligence to command and control for battlespace shaping, allowing the MAGTF to act or react to changes in combat operations.  While reconnaissance assets may operate in specialized missions, they are unlike the unconventional Special Operations Command’s force counterparts.  Marine Corps Divisions and Force Reconnaissance units support infantry directly involved in the ground commander’s force of action options.

Many of the types of reconnaissance missions conducted by Marines are characterized by depth of penetration — a factor that increases mission time, risk, and support coordination needs.  Divisional reconnaissance units are responsible for the commander’s area of influence, the close and distant battlespace.  Force reconnaissance platoons are employed farther in the deep battlespace (area of interest).

Missions & Structures

The primary missions assigned to Marine Corps reconnaissance units include (but may not be limited to) the following:

  1. Plan, coordinate, and conduct amphibious-ground reconnaissance and surveillance to observe, identify, and report enemy activity and collect other information of military significance.
  2. Conduct specialized surveying, including underwater surveys and/or demolitions, beach permeability and topography, routes, bridges, structures, urban/rural areas, helicopter landing zones, parachute drop zones, aircraft forward operating sites, and mechanized reconnaissance missions.
  3. When task organized with other forces, equipment, or personnel, assist in specialized engineer, radio, mobile, and other special reconnaissance missions.
  4. Infiltrate mission areas by necessary means, including surface, subsurface, and airborne operations.
  5. Conduct counter-reconnaissance.
  6. Conduct Initial Terminal Guidance for helicopters, landing craft, parachutists, air delivery, and re-supply.
  7. Designate and engage selected targets with organic weapons and force fires to support battlespace shaping.  This includes designation and terminal guidance of precision-guided munitions.
  8. Conduct post-strike reconnaissance to determine and report battle damage assessment on a specified target or area.
  9. Conduct limited-scale raids and ambushes.

Marine Corps Reconnaissance Organizations include —

  • First Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division (Camp Pendleton, California)
  • Second Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division (Camp Lejeune, North Carolina)
  • Third Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division (Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan)
  • Fourth Reconnaissance Battalion, 4th Marine Division, Marine Corps Reserve Forces, San Antonio, Texas.

Each battalion comprises five companies: Headquarters Company and four line companies designated Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Force.  Each line company consists of a headquarters element and two platoons: a reconnaissance and surveillance (R&S) Platoon and a visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) Platoon.

Deep Reconnaissance Platoons (DRPs) are units within Recon Battalions that carry out the role of Force Reconnaissance.  The first DRPs were formed in 1975 when Congress reduced the size of the Marine Corps.  Force reconnaissance was reduced to a single regular company, with the 1st and 3rd Battalions receiving a 23-man DRP.  These units took on greater importance in 2006 when all active duty Force Recon companies were transferred to the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) and became Marine Corps Special Operations Battalions.  Force Recon Marines not serving in an MSOB became part of the DRPs, and placed in the Delta Companies of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Recon Battalions.

Today, the standard recon platoon consists of a platoon commander (First Lieutenant), Platoon Sergeant (Gunnery Sergeant), Field Radio Operator (Corporal/Sergeant), Special Equipment NCO (Sergeant), Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman (Petty Officer 3rd, 2nd, or 1st Class). 

The platoon consists of three Recon Teams, each with a team leader (Staff Sergeant/Sergeant), an Assistant Team Leader (Sergeant or Corporal), Radio Operator (Sergeant or Corporal), Assistant Radio Operator (Lance Corporal), Point Man (Corporal or Lance Corporal), Slack man (Corporal or Lance Corporal).  Note: the slack man is the second man in the order of march.  His mission is to keep his eye on the point man, particularly the areas to the point man’s left and right flank.

World War II

But, of course, that’s not how the Marines have always conducted reconnaissance.  Everything changes over time.  In World War II, the first recon units were Scout & Sniper companies and the Scout (Tank) companies of the Marine Corps tank battalions.  They existed around the same time the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions came online in 1941.  At that time, each Regiment had a scout and sniper platoon attached to the Regimental Headquarters & Service Company.  The Scout & Sniper units had a variety of tasks and missions and, on occasion, became involved in heavy combat.  The problem was that given the nature of the Pacific War, there was not much “snooping and pooping” to be done against Japanese positions on small Pacific islands and archipelagos, so these specialized troops were often used as “spare” rifle platoons.

But you ask, why tanks?  In World War II, Tanks were reinforcing units for Scout & Sniper companies for added speed and firepower.  By themselves, Marine platoons facing Japanese regiments and divisions didn’t carry much punch.  These later evolved into Division recon companies (and, after that, battalions).  This concept of added punch was reintroduced in the 1980s with the Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) Battalions.

During the recapture of Guam, the 3rd Marine Division and the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade each had their own reconnaissance company.  Major General Allen H. Turnage, commanding the 3rd Marine Division, split the division’s scout and sniper company into three platoons and attached one platoon to each Regiment.  In the battle for Guam, Marine reconnaissance units played significant roles in the fights, particularly at night — when the Japanese preferred to launch Banzai charges.

Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) Colonel Tsunetaro Suenaga commanded the 28th Regiment of the 29th Division.  He began probing Marine lines shortly after sunset on the night of the 24th – 25th July 1944.  At 2130, Suenaga ordered an assault at the juncture of the regimental boundaries of the Division’s 4th Marines and the Brigade’s 22nd Marines.  When the Japanese launched, they did so in overwhelming force, overran the forward-most lines, and began penetrating the thinly held rear areas.  Using grenades, small arms, mortars, bayonets, and close-quarters combat, the Marines held off the charging Japanese.

In one instance, an assaulting Japanese unit reached the Marine howitzers, and heavy fighting ensued as Marines fought to deny the Japanese access to these weapons.  It was an “all hands” event, as every Marine (cooks, bakers, clerks, supply men) rallied around First Lieutenant Dennis Chavez, Jr., commanding the Reconnaissance Platoon.  Under his leadership and direction, the Marines stopped the Japanese assault.  By dawn, the Suenaga’s infantry regiment no longer existed, and the Japanese colonel was seriously wounded and dying.

Commanding the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, Brigadier General Lemuel C. Shepherd was tasked to provide a blocking force across the Orote Peninsula on the night of 25th – 26th July 1944.  In evaluating his defenses for the night, the Commanding Officer, 9th Marines (Colonel Edward A. Craig), was concerned that the junction between his Regiment and that of the 21st Marines may not be as strong as it need be should the Japanese once again attempt to exploit the allied lines.  Accordingly, Colonel Craig set his Scout & Sniper Platoon in as a reinforcing measure.

At about 2330, a forward listening post reported increased enemy activity within its sector of responsibility.  Thirty minutes later, the Japanese opened with artillery and mortar fire.  This overwhelming demonstration of concentrated fire drove the lightly armed Scout/Sniper platoon back, but once these preparatory fires lifted, the Marine defenders rushed back to their previous positions and held the Japanese at bay, exhausted them, and depleted their ammunition, food, and water.  This led General Hideyoshi Obata to withdraw his force from Guam’s southern region toward the mountainous central area, there to make a stand.  It was then that the Marines began to engage the retreating enemy.  Within ten days, the Japanese commander committed ritual suicide.

The last reconnaissance mission on Guam was a mechanized force consisting of two Scout companies and the H&S Company, 3rd Tank Battalion, and India Company, 21st Marines. 

The Korean War

The United States wasn’t ready for the Korean War (1950 – 1953).  We should have been, but we weren’t.  In 1945, everyone in the world was sick and tired of war.  Americans wanted to return home and get back to their lives — but thanks to the stress of combat, not everyone would be able to do that.  But President Truman wanted it to be so, so he worked to put America back into a peacetime economy.  To do that, in part, he gutted the U.S. Armed Forces — and the consequence of that was that what forces we did have were not ready to fight when the North Koreans attacked South Korea.

The first units to arrive in Korea were part of the occupation forces of the Eighth U.S. Army in Japan.  They were among the most “not ready” and paid a dear price for their combat readiness status.  Facing defeat after defeat, the North Koreans pushed United States/United Nations forces to the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula.  Three U.S. Army infantry divisions were hanging on by their fingernails, and General MacArthur asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a Marine Regiment to save the day. 

Marine Corps leadership gave MacArthur a Brigade instead.  One Rifle Regiment (-) with attachments, an artillery battalion, and a Marine Aircraft Group.  One of those attachments was a 1st Marine Division Reconnaissance Company platoon led by Captain Kenneth J. Houghton.  Houghton’s Marines played an essential role in the fighting in the Pusan Perimeter.  In those days, indeed, every Marine was a rifleman — they would not have survived otherwise.

The remainder of the 1st Reconnaissance Company (known as Division Recon) arrived with the rest of the division during the landing at Inchon.  Additionally, Able Company and Baker Company of the Second Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion arrived to reinforce Houghton’s Company.  Second Recon quickly reorganized from an amphibious unit of nine-man boat teams to motorized units of four-man jeep teams.  Jeep teams conducted deep reconnaissance as point elements for infantry advances and as amphibious raiding teams into North Korea from the U.S. Seventh Fleet.  On one such raid, sixteen Recon Marines and twenty-five members of the Underwater Demolition Team successfully infiltrated Posung-Myon, and destroyed three tunnels and two railway bridges without losing a single man. 

Following the 1st Marine Division’s withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir, a recon team infiltrated An-Dong, concealed themselves for four days while observing enemy activity, and remained in place while calling in air strikes on predominantly Chinese infantry units.  They executed their mission and withdrew undetected.

The 1st Reconnaissance Company deactivated in June 1953 but was reactivated in 1958.

The Vietnam War

When Americans began serving in Vietnam, no one in America knew where Vietnam was.  In 1944, people referred to it as Indochina, and Americans were working with local communist cadres to disrupt Japanese occupation forces.  The first American died in Indochina in 1945.  By 1947, U.S. military advisors were assisting the French in regaining their imperialistic hold over Indochina, a former French colony.  At the same time, the Soviet Union was working just as hard with communists to disrupt the French.  In 1954, Vietnamese nationalists defeated the French at the Battle of Diên Bien Phu.  With the withdrawal of Imperial French forces came the Americans to offer military assistance and advice to the newly created Republic of Vietnam (R.V.N.).

U.S. Marine Corps involvement in Vietnam began on 2 August 1954 when Lieutenant Colonel Victor J. Croizat assumed his post as Marine Liaison Officer, U. S. Military Assistance and Advisory Group, Vietnam.  For the next eight years, Marine activities in Vietnam involved advisory and operational planning duties.  This began to change in mid-April 1962 when Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362 (HMM-362), under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archie Clapp, deployed to South Vietnam.  His mission was to provide combat service support to the fledgling Army of the Republic of Vietnam (A.R.V.N.).  In the spring of 1964, Marine Detachment Advisory Team One, commanded by Major Alfred M. Gray Jr., arrived to collect signals intelligence, becoming the first Marine ground unit to arrive in the country.

Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 — the episode in which the President of the United States lied to the American people and Congress to have a war with the North Vietnamese, the United States further committed its Marines.  The end of 1964 concluded the advisory and assistance phase of the Vietnam War — a crucial turning point had been reached.  With a significant escalation of Marine Corps combat activities, Lyndon Johnson had his war.

The first American combat units in Vietnam were those of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (9thMAB), a composite unit formed from within the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv) on the island of Okinawa.  9thMAB came ashore from ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet on 8 March 1965.  Its mission was to secure Da Nang Airbase and establish a beachhead at Red Beach, Da Nang. 

Attached to the 9thMAB was a Recon Platoon from Alpha Company, 3rd Recon Battalion.  These Marines were the first to encounter hostile action from the Communist Viet Cong (V.C.) forces on 22 April 1965.  A recon patrol from Delta Company, 3rd Recon Bn, operating ten miles southwest of Da Nang, exchanged fire with a larger force of V.C.  The usual mission assigned to recon units is the collection and information about enemy forces and activities — not to engage the enemy in combat and certainly not to engage a much larger unit.  Accordingly, the Recon platoon called in for reinforcements, and the fight was on.  However, the V.C. unit withdrew through the dense jungle and “disappeared” before a major contest could develop.  Two days later, a recon squad positioned a mile and a half south of Da Nang fell under a surprise attack by V.C. forces.  The fight lasted a few minutes, but two Marines died that night. 

These Marines were not the first Americans to die in Vietnam — and they would not be the last, not by a longshot.

Frank S. Reasoner

Frank Reasoner (1937 – 1965) was born in Spokane, Washington but was raised in Kellogg, Idaho, graduating from high school in 1955.  He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps three months before his eighteenth birthday. 

Upon completion of recruit training in San Diego, California, Reasoner was promoted to Private First Class and ordered to infantry training at Camp Pendleton.  Subsequently, the Marine Corps selected Reasoner for training as an airborne radio operator, where he completed training at the Naval Air Technical Training Center, Jacksonville, Florida, and the Communications-Electronics School in San Diego.

Reasoner’s first regular posting occurred with Marine Wing Service Group 37, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at El Toro, California.  After his promotion to Corporal, he applied and was accepted to Naval Academy Preparatory School, Bainbridge, Maryland.  In January 1958, the Marine Corps promoted Reasoner to Sergeant, and in June, having passed entrance examinations, transferred him to the Marine Corps Reserve while attending the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.

Upon graduating from the United States Naval Academy in June 1962 with a Bachelor of Science Degree, Reasoner also received his commission to Second Lieutenant.  He was promoted to First Lieutenant in December 1962 and reported to the Officer’s Basic School in January 1963.

Upon reporting to the 1st Marine Brigade at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, Reasoner was assigned to Bravo Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, FMF.  When Bravo Company was assigned to Vietnam in 1965, Lieutenant Reasoner went with it.  On 20 June, he assumed command of Alpha Company, 3rd Recon Battalion.

On 12 July, First Lieutenant Reasoner led an 18-man patrol near Dai Loc, eleven miles southwest of Da Nang, when a company-sized V.C. unit attacked the patrol.  During the engagement, Reasoner and three of his fellow Marines were killed in action.  His MEDAL OF HONOR citation tells the story of what happened that day.

The reconnaissance patrol led by First Lieutenant Frank S. Reasoner had deeply penetrated heavily controlled enemy territory when it came under extremely heavy fire from an estimated 50 to 100 Viet Cong insurgents.  Accompanying the advance party and the point that consisted of 5 men, he immediately deployed his men for an assault after the Viet Cong had opened fire from numerous concealed positions.  Boldly shouting encouragement and virtually isolated from the main body, he organized a base of fire for an assault on the enemy positions.  The slashing fury of the Viet Cong machine gun and automatic weapons fire made it impossible for the main body to move forward.  Repeatedly exposing himself to the devastating attack, he skillfully provided covering fire, killing at least two enemy insurgents and effectively silencing an automatic weapons position in a valiant attempt to effect evacuation of a wounded man.  As casualties began to mount, his radio operator was wounded, and Lieutenant Reasoner immediately moved to his side and tended his wounds.  When the radio operator was hit a second time while attempting to reach a covered position, 1st Lt. Reasoner courageously ran to his aid through the grazing machinegun fire and fell mortally wounded.  His indomitable fighting spirit, valiant leadership, and unflinching devotion to duty inspired the patrol to complete its mission without further casualties.  In the face of almost certain death, he gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.  His actions upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service.



By the time the United States combat forces arrived in South Vietnam in 1965, the Southeast Asia War had been going on for twenty years — and in 1965, the average age of a combat Marine was 19 years.  Senior Marine Corps officers realized that there were only two possibilities for America’s communist enemy in Vietnam: either the Marines would kill him, or the Marines would continue fighting him until he was no more.  The Viet Cong/North Vietnamese soldier couldn’t pack up and go home; he was home.  So, it came as no surprise to anyone in mid-November 1965 when a Viet Cong regiment that had been thoroughly beaten in an earlier operation suddenly reappeared on the field of battle.

On 17 November 1965, despite its shellacking during OPERATION STARLIGHT, the 1st Viet Cong Regiment assaulted a South Vietnamese outpost found at Hiep Duc, 25 miles due west of Tam Ky.  Not everyone was convinced that it was a reformed regiment — it was likely a new North Vietnamese regular unit operating under a false flag.  During the Vietnam War, Tam Ky served as the capital of Quảng Nam Province in the South-Central coastal region of South Vietnam and a gateway to a fertile mountain valley known as Nui Loc Son.  To some, it was known as the Que Son Valley — a strategic area between Da Nang and Chu Lai.  The enemy exercised freedom of movement in this region because of the northeast monsoon season when heavy rain clouds shrouded the valley and its western approaches.

That night, the communist regiment with all three assault battalions overran a small Regional Force (RF) garrison.  Subsequently, the district commanders reported 174 of 433 defenders missing and 315 weapons lost.  As soon as the attack was reported, F-4B (Phantom) aircraft from Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) -11 and A-4 Skyhawks from MAG-12 began conducting strikes in the surrounding hills.  Secondarily, two combat helicopter groups (MAG-16 and MAG-36) began preparing to lift two South Vietnamese (ARVN) battalions into the battle areas.


The site chosen to land the two ARVN battalions would be problematic.  First, the landing zones were area-restrictive — they only accommodate so many aircraft landing at a time.  Second, the enemy’s positions in surrounding mountainous areas allowed them to shoot down on top of the planes once they had “touched down.” It was a pickle because either the Marines would have to take out those enemy positions or they would have to lose an unacceptable number of helicopters.  While the air boss held the helicopters in a circulating pattern, forward air controllers vectored fixed-wing attack aircraft to neutralize the enemy’s positions.

No one imagined on 17 November that this would be an easy fight, but with Marine close air support (CAS) and dedicated fighting, ARVN forces reoccupied Hiep Duc within two days.  The next decision — whether to reoccupy the outpost or abandon it — would be up to the Vietnamese commander.  

The 3rd Marine Division commander put the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines (3/7), on notice at Chu Lai that it would reinforce the ARVN battalions if necessary.  The enemy made the ARVN commander’s decision for him when they overran another isolated outpost at Thach Tru in southern I Corps.  Since General Thi had insufficient forces to reoccupy all areas under enemy threat, he abandoned Hiep Duc and concentrated on Thach Tru, sixteen miles south of Quảng Ngai.  ARVN forces fought well enough that the Marines weren’t needed.

Two simultaneous Viet Cong assaults at two locations were typical of the enemy’s monsoon strategy.  They moved during periods of poor weather because they realized that weather restricted the use of American air assets.  Knowing that U.S. and ARVN forces would respond to isolated attacks, the Viet Cong set up numerous ambushes to trap any reinforcing units.  The enemy had miscalculated at Thach Tru, but at Hiep Duc, the enemy was in an excellent position to enter the Nui Loc Son basin, which opened access to other strategic outposts at Que Son and Viet An.

To counter this threat, the Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV), General William Westmoreland, ordered the Commanding General, III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), Lieutenant General Louis Walt, to place two battalions on 12-hour rapid deployment alert.  On 22 November, Westmoreland issued a letter of instruction to Walt confirming his earlier order, to wit: “Conduct search and destroy operations against more distant VC base areas to destroy or drive the VC out.” Meanwhile, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (Hawaii), although not in the operational chain of command, suggested very strongly to Walt that he needed to recapture the initiative and included some suggestions for enticing the enemy to attack a weak position — suggesting the Hiep Duc might be the place to do that.  General Walt next conferred with his Vietnamese counterpart, who agreed to initiate OPERATION HARVEST MOON/LIEN KET 18.

The Operation

On 5 December, III MAF activated a temporary command designated Task Force Delta under the authority of Brigadier General Malvin D. Henderson.  The two battalions assigned to the task force were the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines (2/7) at Chu Lai, and the 3rdBattalion, 3rd Marines (3/3) at Da Nang.  As it happened, 3/3 had only one organic rifle company — Lima Company.  The two other companies were Echo Company, 2/9, and Golf Company, 2/4.

The Division C.P. formed a provisional artillery battalion from elements of the 11th and 12th Marine regiments.  Additionally, Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet granted permission to name the Special Landing Force as the battalion landing team in reserve.  General Henderson and his staff completed their planning on 7 December.  ARVN Brigadier General Hoang Xuan Lam, commanding the 2nd Infantry Division, set up his command post at Thang Binh.  Lam was well known to the Marines of I Corps, dressed as he did in a black beret with flashy silver badges and a tanker’s jacket.  He was a hotdog if ever there was one.  Henderson set up his C.P. with the artillery batteries at Que Son.

The 5th ARVN Regiment, with two battalions, would enter the Que Son Valley along the Thang Binh-Hiep Duc road on 8 December and move eight miles to a point just south of Que Son village.  MACV intelligence claimed that the 1st VC Regiment operated west of Que Son village.  Two-Seven, under Lieutenant Colonel Utter, moved in behind the enemy to flush them eastward into the 5th ARVN.  Lieutenant Colonel Dorsey’s 3/3 would reinforce Utter, as required.  As the 5th ARVN stepped off, the 11thRanger Battalion took the right flank, and the ARVN 1st Battalion took the left.  At about 1330, more or less at the halfway point, the 70th VC battalion slammed into the ARVN Rangers.  Within the first fifteen minutes of the battle, the Rangers had given up about a third of their manpower.  The ARVN 1/5 attempted to reinforce the Rangers, but the enemy’s mortars prevented them from crossing the road.

Though badly mauled, the Rangers managed to extricate themselves to a position 1,200 meters northwest and then, having set into a hasty defense, called for Marine close air support.  A-4s delivered an overwhelming aerial assault on VC positions.  When the A-4s cleared the area, Marine helicopters began ferrying in reinforcements from General Lam’s 6th ARVN Regiment.  As soon as the infantry exited the choppers, the pilot’s missions turned to aeromedical evacuation.  The enemy initiated several probes of ARVN defenses throughout the night, but no actual fighting developed.

Early in the morning of 9 December, elements of the 60th and 80th VC battalions struck the 5th ARVN.  In the heavy fighting that followed, Viet Cong overran both regimental and 1st battalion command groups, killed the regimental commander, and scattered South Vietnamese troops to the South and east.  At about the same time, another VC battalion attacked the 1st Battalion, 6thARVN, but was stopped in its tracks.  It was at this point that General Henderson decided to commit his Marines.  HMM-161 airlifted 2/7 into an LZ five miles west of the shattered ARVN regiment.

By late afternoon, as Henderson committed LtCol Dorsey’s Battalion to a position a mile and a half southeast of the ARVN’s position, LtCol Utter managed to move his entire Battalion some 3,000 meters closer to the beleaguered 5th ARVN regiment. Dorsey’s Lima Company took the battalion lead and, after making first contact with ARVN units, pushed northwest toward Hill 43.  These Marines ran into around 200 V.C. at the base of the hill.

Shooting bullets at U.S. Marines does nothing to enhance their overall dispositions, so as the VC threw down on the Marines, Dorsey began shelling the Viet Cong.  By the time the VC broke contact with the Marines at sundown, the enemy had sent 75 of their men across the river Styx.  Lima Company seized Hill 43 early the following day, joining up with 40 ARVN survivors from the 1st Battalion, 5th ARVN.

On 10 December, General Henderson ordered Colonel Utter to drive eastward and Colonel Dorsey to push northwest to compress the enemy between them.  To block an enemy escape, Henderson ordered LtCol Robert T. Hanifin Jr. to bring his 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines (2/1), ashore from the U.S.S. Valley Forge.  The first assault element, Fox Company, lifted off the ship at around 1100, heading toward the hamlet called Cam La, five miles southeast of Que Son.  Enemy 12.7mm heavy machine guns assaulted the helicopters from fortified positions on Hill 407 as the birds approached their LZ.  The Marines were surprised by the volume and intensity of the enemy’s fire.

Fox Company Marines were in trouble the instant they exited their helicopters.  The VC kept them under continuous mortar, machine gun, and small arms fire.  The men took what cover that was available to them and waited for reinforcements.  The rest of 2/1 landed to the west.  Henderson ordered Utter’s Battalion to move south to aid Fox Company Marines.  Echo Company 2/7 pushed south toward Fox 2/1 but was walloped on its right flank by enemy fire.  With some difficulty, Echo Company reached a position from which it could support Fox Company Marines.  At that point, Fox Marines began to withdraw.  Ten hours later, Hanifin’s command group and his three rifle companies joined up with Utter’s Echo Company — but, by then, both Echo and Fox had suffered substantial casualties: twenty dead and eighty wounded.

As darkness fell at the end of the day, General Walt relieved Brigadier General Henderson and replaced him with Brigadier General Jonas M. Platt.  Henderson was an experienced Marine officer who participated in some of World War II’s most significant battles but was a combat engineer with no infantry command experience.  But this unusual war was just beginning, and the Americans would have to learn more than a few critical lessons.  Henderson was just out of his depth and pinned to a steep learning curve.  The stakes were too high to leave him in place — and if that weren’t true, then Walt would never have moved him out in the middle of a critical operation.  The first thing Platt did was shift another company to 2/7 from 2/1.

On 11 December, Task Force Delta moved to consolidate its position.  General Platt studied the battlefield from the air.  Since he received no enemy fire from Hill 407, he concluded that the VC had withdrawn from their positions.  Platt directed LtCol Utter to seize the hill, which he did without delay. Dorsey’s Battalion began a search of the area north of Hill 407, and Platt called for Colonel Hanifin’s remaining two companies to come ashore.

General Platt suspected that the 1st VC Regiment had retreated into the Phuoc Ha Valley, a smaller area paralleling the larger Que Son Valley.  Phuoc Ha was a known VC base region, and When General Thi was asked whether he intended to pursue the 1st VC Regiment, he urged great caution.  Of interest, no Vietnamese officer participated in more coup d’état in Vietnam than Major General Nguyen Chanh Thi, the Commanding General of I Corps.  He was one of the original warlords of the northernmost region of South Vietnam.

That afternoon, General Westmoreland’s J-3 (Operations Officer), Brigadier General William E. DePuy, U.S. Army, visited with Brigadier General Platt, and he suggested using B-52 strikes before U.S. forces entered the valley.  Platt accepted DePuy’s offer.

Say What?

The B-52 Stratofortress was a tactical support aircraft under the codename Arc Light.  Each aircraft could carry 60,000 pounds of bombs.  An Arc Light strike in the Phuoc Ha Valley would have a devastating effect.  On the morning of 12 December, Arc Light aircraft struck the Phuoc Ha Valley, and anyone with a soul would have to pity anyone who survived.  As the plane flew at or above 50,000 feet, none of the enemies would have known what would happen.  Men lost their eardrums from a mile away.  Within a kilometer, the concussion of a single 500-pound bomb knocked people unconscious — so to get an appreciation of an Arc Light, one should multiply one 500-pound bomb by hundreds falling simultaneously.  At the end of a strike, the land looked like a moonscape.  General DePuy had arranged for two days of air strikes.

Yea, though, we walk through the valley …

On 13 December, General Platt organized the advance of Task Force Delta into two groupings.  Two-Seven was dispatched southeast to the Khang River, deep into the valley.  From there, it would move back toward Tam Ky.  Platt replaced the battle-shattered Echo Company with Company H, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines — and Colonel Utter moved his Battalion of Marines along a dirt road to secure the South Vietnamese outpost at Viet An.  He assigned two companies to control the high ground in the north (Company F) and east (Company G) and another (Company H) occupying the village itself that evening. 

LtCol Utter executed an airlift to the Khang River.  Company F and Company G conducted the initial landing shortly before noon, following air strikes on the landing zone.  As they landed, the Marines faced intermittent 12.7mm machinegun fire from fleeing Viet Cong.  The rifle companies quickly secured the landing zone and were soon joined by Hotel Company 2/9.

LtCol Utter then established defensive positions along high ground overlooking a ferry crossing along the river he suspected the VC used as a regular route of march.  As 2/7 moved ever deeper into the Phuoc Ha Valley, Task Force Delta’s other two battalions began to move south and east.  At first, BLT 2/1 gave the Arc Light crews a wide birth, but once the danger had passed, these Marines resumed their area security patrols.  Apart from eight enemies disguised as women, the Battalion encountered little enemy activity.

On 13 December, 3/3 and 2/1 proceeded along the northern part of the valley, east and northwest.  The three-battalion mission was clear: to search for, destroy, and compel Viet Cong forces to expose themselves.  It didn’t take 3/3 long to discover evidence of how well provisioned and secure the VC were in the ignored valley.  There were caves stuffed with sleeping cots, blankets, medical supplies, uniforms, batteries, and sewing kits.  If the Marines hadn’t figured it out before then, they knew it now — these VC fellows knew their home territory and were serious about the fight.

Task Force Delta continued its advance over the next three days.  Two-Seven, moving east, discovered a field medical hospital.  Two-One reached the area of devastation from Arc Light on the 15th and then pivoted toward 3/3.  As Hanifin crossed over a ridge of hills separating the two battalions, he encountered a force of around fifty VC.  After a couple of hours of exchanging fire, the VC withdrew, and the tired Marines from 2/1 were airlifted into Phu Bai.  Similarly, 3/3 was pulled out to rest.

Two-Seven faced a more difficult march.  The cross-country march took the Marines from the ferry crossing on 15 December toward Thon Hai, which they anticipated reaching on 18 December.  Passing through Ky Phu, a little more than five miles west of Tam Ky, the Marines found the village eerily quiet and absent any men and women huddling among themselves in “out of the way” locations.  

On that day, Marines had been receiving intermittent sniper fire, but nothing that led the battalion commander to think that an attack was imminent — just another day in paradise.  Still, LtCol Utter was being wisely cautious with security patrols between five and seven-hundred yards in advance guard and both flanks.  He also knew his Battalion wasn’t fresh. They’d been on the trails for more than twenty miles, and they were wet, miserable, and tired.  Colonel Utter had evacuated fifty Marines on 17 December with immersion foot.

Two-Seven’s three companies advanced in a column.  Company G had the point, followed by Fox Company in “V” formation.  H&S Company followed Fox Company, and Hotel Company 2/9 brought up the rear.  Ky Phu was rice paddy central, interspersed with small villages and hedgerows.  To the South, there was a low ridge line no higher than 30 meters that commanded the western approaches to the market section of the village.

The Storm Arrives

By 1330, with half of the Battalion on the other side of Ky Phu central, Golf and Fox companies came under sudden attack from machine guns and recoilless rifle fire.  At first, Colonel Utter thought the shooting was part of the VC’s harassing campaign.  He ordered Golf to turn south and use the Battalion’s 81mm mortars to clear the road and direct Fox to assume the Battalion’s advance.  Golf soon reported that they were receiving counter-battery mortar fire.  The Battalion CO’s miscalculation had placed the entire unit in great danger.  Two-Seven had walked into an enemy battalion-sized ambush.

As the Battalion proceeded forward, two enemy companies hit the lightly armed H&S Company from both north and South — the enemy’s goal being to split the Battalion.  But the Marines responded immediately and, through a coordinated effort, began to deliver overwhelming gunfire on the Viet Cong.  The attackers became the attacked.  With the CO’s radio operator killed, LtCol Utter lost contact with the rest of his Battalion.

What began as a jab turned into a slugfest of hours in duration.  As enemy fire rained down on the Marines taking cover in the rice paddies, poor weather finally gave the Marines a break.  Enemy mortars landing in the rice paddies absorbed most of the explosions.  A gap opened between Fox Company and H&S Company, and the enemy wasted no time exploiting it.  Hand-to-hand fighting broke out.

The company commander, First Lieutenant Grosz, sent runners to Fox Company, directing them to come back and close the gap.  The enemy fire killed the first two messengers — so Grosz ran the gauntlet and contacted the Fox Company commander.  Although not hit, Grosz’s uniform was pockmarked with bullet holes.  Lieutenant Grosz and a squad from Fox Company fought their way back to H&S Company lines.

With the battalion commander’s concurrence, Fox Company began moving back to H&S Company to establish a defensive perimeter.  After Utter contacted the Task Force’s artillery support (Mike Battery, 4/11), 2/7 began receiving fire support from 155mm howitzers.  As Fox and H&S Company began to take control of the situation, Golf Company 2/9 became the enemy’s next target of opportunity.

The Company Commander was Captain Paul L. Gormley, Jr.  In the enemy’s initial assault, Gormley and his radio operator, Lance Corporal Robert J. Wilkins, were killed by a 57mm recoilless rifle.  Command of the company thus fell to First Lieutenant Harvey C. Barnum, who was temporarily assigned to the company as an artillery spotter from the 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines (Barnum shown right).  

Barnum ordered a hasty defense.  While the lead element was responding to his order, he ran forward to retrieve the bodies of Gormley and Wilkins.  There were a thousand things for the lieutenant to do almost immediately, including re-establishing command and control over Hotel Company, attending to casualties, breaking out of the ambush, notifying the Battalion Commander of the status of the company, and checking in with the battalion air officer.  He could do none of these things without a radio, so he placed Wilkins’ radio on his back, making Barnum a prime target for enemy fire.

There was no panic in Barnum as he set upon his tasks.  His calmness under fire gave confidence to his NCOs and men as he worked to bring order to chaos.  For well over four hours of intense combat, First Lieutenant Barnum and the Marines of Golf Company held off the VC as they worked to secure a landing zone from which casualties could be evacuated.

Colonel Harvey C. Barnum, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired) (1940- ), was the fourth Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War.  After he retired from active duty in 1989, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Reserve Affairs (2001 – 2009).  The citation for his MEDAL OF HONOR reads as follows:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Forward Observer for Artillery while attached to Company H, Second Battalion, Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division (Reinforced) in action against communist forces at Ky Phu, Quang Tin Province, Republic of Vietnam, on 18 December 1965.  When the company was suddenly pinned down by a hail of extremely accurate enemy fire and was quickly separated from the remainder of the Battalion by over five hundred meters of open and fire-swept ground, and casualties mounted rapidly, Lieutenant Barnum quickly made a hazardous reconnaissance of the area seeking targets for his artillery.  Finding the rifle company commander mortally wounded and the radio operator killed, he, with complete disregard for his own safety, gave aid to the dying commander, then removed the radio from the dead operator and strapped it to himself.  He immediately assumed command of the rifle company and, moving at once into the midst of the heavy fire, rallying and giving encouragement to all units, reorganized them to replace the loss of key personnel and led their attack on enemy positions from which deadly fire continued to come.  His sound and swift decisions and his obvious calm served to stabilize the badly decimated units, and his gallant example, as he stood exposed repeatedly to point out targets, served as an inspiration to all.  Provided with two armed helicopters, he moved fearlessly through enemy fire to control the air attack against the firmly entrenched enemy while skillfully directing one platoon in a successful counterattack in the key enemy positions.  Having thus cleared a small area, he requested and directed the landing of two transport helicopters for the evacuation of the dead and wounded.  He then assisted in the mopping up and final seizure of the Battalion’s objective.  His gallant initiative and heroic conduct reflected great credit upon himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and United States Naval Service.

The U.S.S. Harvey C. Barnum is named in his honor.

Korean War Gallantry

There was a time when the eastern part of the present state of Mississippi was occupied by the settlers of New France.  As part of the settlement of the French and Indian War, France ceded what is now Hattiesburg to the British, and it was incorporated into the colony of West Florida.  After 1803, significant numbers of settlers began making their way into the unsettled areas of West Florida and territories further west. 

In the 1830s, the United States government began relocating native Americans of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes under the Indian Removal Act, which moved natives from the Southeast to areas west of the Mississippi River.  They and their slaves eventually moved to the Indian Territory in present-day Kansas and Oklahoma.

Hattiesburg, Mississippi, developed at the confluence of the Leaf and Bouie Rivers.  It was founded in 1882 by Captain William H. Hardy, a civil engineer.  The city was incorporated in 1884 with a population of approximately 400 souls.  Originally called Twin Forks, and later Gordonville, the city received its final name of Hattiesburg from Captain Hardy, in honor of his wife, Hattie Hardy.

One son of Hattiesburg was a young man named Henry Alfred Commiskey.  Henry was born on 10 January 1927 to Hugh and Agnes Walsh Commiskey.  Hugh’s grandfather was born in Ireland in 1804 and later immigrated to the United States.  Commiskey (Mac Cumascach) is a prominent Monaghan and Longford surname.

Henry attended Sacred Heart Catholic School in Hattiesburg, founded by Sisters of Mercy in 1900.  He later worked as a brakeman for the Illinois Central Railroad before joining the Marine Corps two days after his 17th birthday on 12 January 1944.  He completed his recruit training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California.

Private Commiskey joined the replacement draft for the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, and participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima.  During the battle, Commiskey received gunshot wounds and was evacuated to the United States for medical treatment and recovery.  He later received a letter of commendation in recognition of his “high qualities of leadership and courage in the face of a stubborn and fanatical enemy.

After his return to full duty, Commiskey served as a Marine Corps drill instructor at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina.  While serving as a DI, the Marine Corps offered Commiskey an officer’s commission, and he accepted.  He was commissioned a Second Lieutenant of U.S. Marines on 10 September 1949.

In August 1950, Second Lieutenant Henry Commiskey was sent to the Korean Peninsula with the 1st Marine Regiment, serving under Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller as part of the 1st Marine Division.  While serving in Korea, the Marine Corps promoted Commiskey to First Lieutenant.  In this capacity, Henry Alfred Commiskey became the first U.S. Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during the Korean War.  His citation reads as follows:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a platoon leader in Company C, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, First Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, in action against enemy aggressor forces.  Directed to attack hostile forces well dug in on Hill 85, First Lieutenant Commiskey spearheaded the assault, charging up the steep slopes on the run.  Coolly disregarding heavy enemy machine-gun and small-arms fire, he plunged on well forward of the rest of his platoon and was the first man to reach the crest of the hill, which was his objective.  Armed with only his service pistol, he jumped into a hostile machine-gun emplacement occupied by five enemy troops and quickly disposed of four of the soldiers with his automatic pistol.  Grappling with the fifth enemy soldier, First Lieutenant Commiskey knocked him to the ground and held him until he could obtain a weapon from another member of his platoon and killed the last of the enemy gun crew.  Continuing his bold assault, he moved to the next emplacement, killed two more of the enemy, and then led his platoon toward the enemy’s rear area to rout the remainder of the hostile troops and destroy them as they fled from their positions.  His valiant leadership and courageous fighting spirit served to inspire the men of his company to heroic endeavor in seizing a critical objective and reflect the highest credit upon First Lieutenant Commiskey and the United States Naval Service.

First Lieutenant Commiskey received his Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman at the White House in August 1951.

In September 1951, the Marine Corps selected First Lieutenant Commiskey for flight training at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida.  He received his Naval Aviator wings in June 1953 at Corpus Christi, Texas, and completed jet training at El Toro in California.  In 1954, Commiskey returned to Korea as a pilot with Marine Attack Squadron 212, Marine Aircraft Group 12, First Marine Aircraft Wing.

Captain Commiskey was promoted to major in July 1959.  Between 1960 and 1966, he served as a Recruiting Officer, a tactics instructor, a student company commander, and an executive officer at the Marine Corps Officer’s Basic School, Quantico, Virginia.

Following his retirement from active duty in 1966, Henry moved to Meridian, Mississippi.  Increasingly despondent because of his father’s death in 1969, Henry’s wife returned home from shopping on the evening of 16 August 1971 to find that her husband had taken his own life.  He was 44 years old.

Major Henry A. Commiskey was entitled to the following medals and awards:

  • Medal of Honor
  • Purple Heart Medal (2 Gold Stars)
  • Navy Commendation Medal (Bronze V Device)
  • Presidential Unit Citation (2 Bronze Stars)
  • Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal (2 Bronze Stars)
  • Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal (1 Bronze Start)
  • World War II Victory Medal
  • Navy Occupation Service Medal (with Asia Clasp)
  • National Defense Service Medal (1 Bronze Star)
  • Korean Service Medal
  • United Nations Service Medal
  • Korean Presidential Unit Citation