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.
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.
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.