OPERATION HARVEST MOON
By GySgt Jack Childs
The Sea Tiger 4 Jan 1966
"We're going down there to fight." With these words, Capt. P. W. DeMartino (Cumberland MD), finished briefing his company on Operation Harvest Moon. The following morning, Dec 9th ['65], "L" Co., 3rd Bn, 3rd Marine Regiment, boarded trucks at their camp outside of DaNang. They were on their way to fight in the largest Marine operation yet held in Vietnam.
Three Marine Battalions, along with Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops were going into a valley 20 miles south of DaNang. Intelligence reports said there was believed to be 3,500 to 4,000 Viet Cong in the valley. ARVN units already in the valley reported heavy contact with the Viet Cong.
"L" Co., or "Leapin' Lima" as it is called by the men of the company, was assigned the task of relieving an ARVN unit which was under siege. From the trucks the company was loaded aboard Marine helicopters. They headed inland to a pre-determined Landing zone (LZ). Two other Marine companies "E" and "G" from 2nd Bn, 9th Maine Regiment would be working in support of "lima" Co.
The landing was unopposed. Aircraft flying in direct support of the company however were receiving small arms fire a short distance in front of the company. Shortly after the company started moving to their objectives, the forward elements were brought under small arms fire. Almost immediately the men of "L" Co. started taking prisoners, weapons and supplies. In less than two hours, 15 Viet Cong prisoners were flown back to a retention area. The company was a few hundred yards from their objective ... a rock covered hill ... as darkness began to settle. There was one set of rice paddies left to cross.
The forward elements of "L" Co. were in the middle of the paddies when the Viet Cong sprang an ambush. For the next 90 minutes the area vibrated with the sound of battle. The Viet Cong dropped 35 mortar rounds in on the Marines. Their machinegun and small arms fire raked the exposed company. The Marines of "Leapin' Lima" didn't budge. They were under fire from three directions. The sky was alive with tracers. Two Marine Hueys strafed the enemy lines. A Marine Phantom jet bombed the Viet Cong.
One of the company's platoons, command by SSgt Robert E. Moe, (Mobile AL), charged the hill. The Viet Cong vacated the area. The next morning the company relieved the ARVN unit dug in on an adjacent hill. Patrols were sent out from the hill, and although fresh dug graves containing dead Viet Cong were discovered, no enemy contacts was mad.
That afternoon the company moved further inland and the three companies linked up for another assault. Their objective was a narrow valley surrounded on three sides by mountains covered with dense foliage. On the morning of the assault, Guam based B-52s bombed the valley. Another Marine battalion moved in from the sea to block any retreat in that direction. The remaining Marine battalions moved to block their avenues of escape inland. "G" Co. was heli-lifted in first to secure the Landing Zone. "L" Co. followed. "G" Co. moved in on the mountain on the left of the valley running in minor resistance. "L" Co. took the right hand mountain without encountering any resistance, but capturing one Viet Cong. The next day "E" Co. and a company of ARVN's moved up the center of the valley. They encountered only slight sniper fire. As the three Marines companies swept the valley the following day they captured enemy supplies, but met with no resistance.
IN BATTLE MEN SOMETIMES CRY
The Sea Tiger 4 Jan 1966
Lima Co., 3rd Bn., 3rd Marine Regiment was dug in for the night.
“Knock off all smoking” said GySgt. E. R. Harris (Indianapolis IN), “set a 50 percent alert.” Rain squalls lashed the rocky slope occupied by the company. This was the second night of Operation Harvest Moon. And for the second night in a row Marine artillery pounded the valley around “L” Co.
Three Marine battalions and troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) were in the valley, 20 miles south of DaNang, searching for a Viet Cong force estimated to be 3,000 to 4,000 strong.
Just the night before, a couple hundred of the Viet Cong had tried to ambush “L” Co. It didn’t work. Following a 90-minute battle the enemy had beat a hasty retreat. Now half of “L” Co. was huddled under their ponchos trying to get some sleep, while the other 50 percent kept watch.
One veteran sergeant found a relatively dry spot on the leeward side of a rock. With his helmet for his pillow, the sergeant tried to doze. From the bushes on the other side of the rock came the sound of a wracking sob. The sergeant slid his pistol from its holster. “Who’s there?”
Crawling through the bushes the sergeant saw the company’s interpreter crouched in a small clearing with his head in his hands, crying. This was the sergeant’s third war. He had seen men cry in battle before. He knew that there could be any number of reasons … fear, frustration, or homesickness. However, he immediately ruled out fear. He had seen the interpreter prove himself in combat.
He crouched down alongside the young Vietnamese. Long minutes passed and the rain beat down on the two men. Neither of them spoke. Finally, the sergeant placed his hand on the interpreter’s shoulder, and asked “What’s wrong, Bill?” “I miss my friends,” said the interpreter. He was referring to the previous night’s battle when the company had taken light casualties. Some of the men had been evacuated.
SSgt Tant Phu, 29, from Saigon, had formed a sincere attachment for all the Marines of Lima Co. In return he had won the confidence and trust of the entire company. When the company swept through villages in enemy-held territory, “Bill” … nickname the men of the company had tagged SSgt Phu with … was always called on to question Viet Cong suspects. In most cases the company commander, Capt. P. W. DeMartino (Cumberland MD), would rely on Bill’s decision as to whether the prisoner was a Viet Cong or an innocent farmer. The sergeant gripped Bill’s shoulder. “You’re a good man Bill,” he said, “now get some sleep.”
The following afternoon, as the company swept the villages in front of their position, Bill was at the point. “I’m real proud of Bill,” said Capt DeMartino, “he’s and asset to the company.”
THE ORDER WAS GIVEN “TAKE THE HILL”
By GySgt Jack Childs
The Sea Tiger 4 Jan 1966
There have been heroes in every battle in history. There are men, who, under fire, perform acts of bravery “above and beyond the call of duty.” They must be classified a cut above the normal. This, then, is the story of six such men.
It was 5:30 p.m., Dec. 9th, “L” Co., 3rdBn., 3rd Marine Regiment was slogging through a batch of rice paddies 20 miles south of DaNang. For the past couple of hours they had been under heavy sniper fire. They had already captured 15 Viet Cong, a number of weapons, grenades and supplies. Their objective was a hill, believed to be occupied by friendly troops, 200 yards to their front. Now the sky was overcast; the silence deafening.
Suddenly, as if someone had thrown a giant switch, fire exploded simultaneously from the company’s front, left flank and rear. Machine gun and small arms fire raked the company. Enemy mortar shells turned the air alive with screaming metal.
The Marines returned the fire. Someone screamed: “Corpsman! Corpsman!” A Marine was hit.
The fire was murderous, but without the slightest hesitation HM2 Walter C. Johnson (Memphis TN) answered the call. Rising out of the muddy water he raced to the side of the injured Marine. Time after time he moved across the paddies, administering first aid, helping injured comrades back to an improvised aid station 200 yards to the rear.
As if immune to enemy fire, this soft-spoken US Navy Corpsman roamed over the battlefield. He didn’t stop until the wounded had been evacuated.
As the battle raged on one of the company’s 60mm mortars ran out of ammunition. PFC Arthur D. Winterfeld, 20, (Chicago IL), volunteered to go back after more rounds. With enemy and friendly fire engulfing his position, the husky Marine dashed across the open paddy field. A machine gun searched him out; it’s slugs spurting water all around him. Winterfeld dived across a dike. Grabbing some mortar rounds, he tried to sling them back over the dike to his gun’s position. They fell short.
Loading his arms with ammunition he braced himself. His blue eyes blazed with determination. Then, letting out a rebel yell, he leaped back across the dike. The heavy load slowed him down. Again Viet Cong fire concentrated on the moving figure. He reached his gun unscratched. The mortar again spewed death toward the enemy lines. It had seem like an eternity, but the guns had only been out of action for minutes.
The 3rd platoon of “L” Co. was the closest unit to the Viet Cong. They had no protection. Crouching down in the water, they blasted away at the hill in front of them. Commanding the platoon was a veteran Marine, SSgt Robert E. Moe, (Mobile AL). The day before, the Korean War veteran had been notified of his promotion to GySgt. In the paddy directly behind SSgt Moe’s platoon was the company commander; Capt P. W. DeMartino (Cumberland MD) took a quick estimate of the situation. He radioed to SSgt Moe. “Take the hill,” he said.
Leaping to his feet, the sergeant bellowed at the top of his lungs, “Come on! Let’s go! We’re taking that hill.” His voice carried so much authority that two Marines … members of another company … jumped up from their positions and charged with the 3rd platoon. It was later estimated that there were more than 100 Viet Cong on the hill. Leading less than 30 men, SSgt Moe charged up the rocky slope. The Viet Cong fled.
Slightly to the company’s rear was the 81mm mortar section. They were waiting for a fire mission. Radio communications were out.
Enter another man a cot above the normal. Sgt Richard Byrd, (Charlotte NC), one of the section’s Forward Observers (FO), was getting his first taste of combat. His guns needed a target. A false calculation could bring the shells screaming down on their own men.
Running forward 100 yards he spotted where the enemy fire was coming from. Some of it was coming at him. He ran back with the coordinates. A round trip of 200 yards under fire … he made the trip four times, until his guns were zeroed in.
Overhead armed Marine Huey helicopters and a Marine Phantom jet supported the company. One of the Hueys came down a few hundred yards to the rear to evacuate the wounded. Fifty feet from the ground it received machine gun fire from the Viet Cong. As the chopper fell, Marines on the ground raced to rescue the crew. The too came under heavy fire.
Lance Corporal Joseph D. Henebury, 21 (Belmont MA), was among the rescuers. He helped evacuate the crew and then returned to the plane to take off the weapons and ammunition. “I didn’t want the Viet Cong to get them,” he said. Escaping fuel had turned his feet raw, but he insisted that he was all right and refused to be evacuated. The company commander ordered him out the following day.
Another member of the rescue team was the company’s executive officer, 1stLt R. W. Brown.