The plan for OPERATION HARVEST MOON/LIEN KET 18 directed the 5th ARVN Regiment, consisting of the Headquarters Group and 1st Battalion and the 11th Ranger Battalion to enter the Que Son Valley along the Thang Binh-Hiep Duc road on 8 December 1965. The objective for the first day was a point south of the village of Que Son, 8 miles southwest of Route 1. According to allied intelligence sources, the 1st VC Regiment was west of this area; contact was not expected until the second day.
On 9 December, Lt. Colonel Utter's battalion was to be inserted behind the enemy to force them eastward into the advancing ARVN. Lt. Colonel Dorsey's battalion would then be inserted to reinforce Utter's unit when needed.
The VC Strike...and the Marines are committed
The 5th ARVN Regiment left Thang Binh on schedule with the 11th Ranger Battalion on the right of the road, and the Regiment's 1st Battalion on the left. During the first few hours, the advance was uneventful. At 1330, about half way to Que Son the Ranger battalion was ambushed by the 70th VC Battalion.* The enemy allowed the ARVN to close within twenty meters and then opened fire. In the first 15 minutes of the battle, the Rangers lost nearly one third of their personnel and were overrun. According to an American advisor who was with the ARVN force, "They attacked in a mass and hit us from all sides...people were dropping around us right and left."
The badly mauled Ranger unit was able to withdraw to a position 1200 meters to the northwest and then called in Marine air support. Skyhawks from MAG-12 at Chu Lai attacked the Communist positions while Marine helicopters evacuated many of the casualties.
The first ARVN Battalion attempted to reinforce the rangers but was unable to cross the road because of enemy mortar fire and the U.S. air strikes. Later in the afternoon, General Lam, using 10 UH34Ds from Lt. Colonel Rex Denney, Jr's HMM-161, moved the 1st Battalion, 6th ARVN Regiment from Tam Key to reinforce the surviving rangers and established a night defensive perimeter.
The next morning, the 5th ARVN Regiment command group and its 1st Battalion bore the weight of the VC attack. Although the battalion had been probed during the night, it had not seen heavy action. On 9 December, at about 0645, the 60th and 80th VC Battalions struck. In the heavy fighting that followed, both the 1st Battalion and the regimental command group were overrun. The ARVN regimental commander was killed and the ARVN force was scattered to the south and east. At about the same time, another VC battalion attacked the 6th ARVN Regiment to the northeast, but this ARVN unit managed to hold its ground.
At this point, General Henderson decided to commit his Marines. At 1000 hours, UH-3Ds from Denny's HMM-161 and Lt. Colonel LLoyd Childers HMM-361 lifted Utter's 2nd Battalion from Tam Key to a landing zone 5 1/2 miles west of the ARVN troops. After the landing, the battalion moved northeast, securing a hill mass 2,500 meters from the landing zone by late afternoon.
Utter's Marines encountered only a few Viet Cong and one of his platoon leaders complained: "The enemy always seemed one step ahead of us." The same afternoon, General Henderson directed Dorsey's 3rd battalion, 3rd Marines to land 1 1/2 miles southeast of the 5th ARVN Regiment's 1st Battalion and then move to link up with the shattered South Vietnamese unit.
Lt. Colonel Dorsey's Marines had left Da Nang by motor convoy that morning and were at the logistics support area on Route 1, 3 miles north of Thang Binh. Lt. Colonel Mervin B. Porter's HMM-261, the SLF helicopter squadron on board the LPH Valley Forge, was assigned the mission of ferrying the battalion into a landing zone southeast of the 5th ARVN Regiment's command group and its 1st Battalion.
The 3rd Battalion landed at 1400 hours, and an hour and a half later, the battalion's lead unit, Company L, made contact with elements of the ARVN battalion and pushed northwestward toward Hill 43, 1 1/2 miles from the landiing zone. Before the Marines could reach the hill, they ran into a force of 200 VC. The firefight raged into the early evening. Supported by Marine air and artillery, Dorsey estimated that his battalion had killed 75 VC. Eleven Marines were dead and 17 wounded. The VC broke contact as darkness fell and the battalion established night positions. The next morning, the Marines took Hill 43, where they joined 40 South Vietnamese soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment.
On the 10th of December, General Henderson ordered Utter to drive east and Dorsey to push northwest to compress the enemy between them. The avenue of escape to the south was to be closed by Lt. Colonel Robert T. Hannifin Jr's 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, the SLF battalion which would be lifted into the area by Porter's HMM-261.
At 1100, 15 UH-34Ds from the Valley Forge lifted the assault elements of Company F to a landing zone near the hamlet of Cam La, 5 miles southeast of Que Son. As the helicopters landed, they came under heavy 12.7mm machine gun fire from emplacements on Hill 407, 2,000 meters to the south. The intense, heavy caliber fire surprised the Marines.
Colonel Michael R. Yunck, the 1st MAW G3, who had volunteered to act as Tactical Air Controller (Airborne) for the assault mission remembered: "We thought the LZ was far enough from the hill to the south to nullify effective fire from that distance and pretty well scrubbed the immediate area of the LZ." As the assault helicopters lifted off, Yunck maneuvered his UH-1E over the landing zone to locate the enemy gunners, but in the process was wounded by a 12.7 round. His Co-pilot, Major Edward Kuykendall, took control of the air operation and directed the remaining helicopters carrying Hannifin's command group and Company G to land in another LZ further west.
Company F at the first landing site was in trouble. The enemy kept the Marines under continuous machine gun fire and then opened up with mortars and small arms fire. The company took what cover it could in the open rice paddies and waited for reinforcements. Since the rest of the battalion had landed to the west, the task force commander ordered a company from Utter's battalion to move south to aid the hard-hit unit. Company E, 2/7, pushed southward to Hannifin's Company F, but was hit on its right flank by enemy fire. With some difficulty, Company E reached an area from which it could support the stranded company. Company F began withdrawing under the relief force's covering fire. Ten hours after the first helicopter had landed. Hannifin's battalion command group, Companys G and F, and Company E from Utter's battalion joined forces. Both Companies E and F had suffered substantial casualties during the day...20 dead and over 80 wounded.
As darkness fell on the battlefield that day, General Walt relieved General Henderson. Brigadier General Jonas M. Platt became the head of Task Force Delta. General Platt, appraised of the battle situation, ordered another of Utter's companies to reinforce the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines. Company G, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines arrived at Hannifin's position at 0300 the next morning.
The Search of the Phouc Ha Valley
On the 11th of December Task Force Delta manuuevered to consolidate its position, and General Platt, airborne in a helicopter, studied the terrain from which the Marines of Company F and helicopters of HMM-261 had received such extensive fire on the 10th of December. The General, surprised that his craft did not draw any fire, surmised that the Viet Cong must have abandoned their positions on Hill 407 during the night. Platt, therefore, ordered Col. Utter to seize the hill, a task which 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines accomplished without opposition.
In the interim, Col. Dorsey's 3rd Battalion searched the area north of Hill 407, while the remaining two companies of Hannifin's 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines were helilifted from the ARG ships to join the battalion. By the end of the day, it was apparent that the enemy, except for a few snipers, had vanished. General Platt suspected that the regiment had retreated into the Phouc Ha Valley, a smaller valley paralleling the Que Son Valley, 5 miles to the southeast. The Phouc Ha Valley was known VC base area. When General Thi was questioned about going into the valley after the Communists, The I Corps commander replied, "Be very, very careful." On the afternoon of the 11th, Platt was visited by Brigadier General William DePuy, General Westmoreland's J-3, who suggested that USAF B-52s from Guam could could strike the objective area before the Marines entered. General Platt accepted the offer and the first of several B-52 raids occurred on the morning of the 12th.
Lt. Colonel Joshua W. Dorsey (left) Commanding Officer, 3rd Bn, 3rd Marinesconfers with Brigadier General Jonas M. Platt (right). Dorsey's battalion is about toenter the Phuoc Ha Valley, a known VC main base area.
General Platt, on board a helicopter observed the first strike and directed Dorsey and Hannifin to move their battalions in to exploit the bombing mission. During the afternoon, Hannifin's battalion deployed south of the valley while Dorsey moved along two ridges, Hills 100 and 180, overlooking the northern entrances to the Phuoc Ha Valley. During the night of 12 December, General Platt ordered Dorsey to move 1,000 meters to the north so that the B52's could strike the valley again.
The next morning, after the second B52 air strike, the two Marine battalions entered the valley from both the north and the south. While searching the target area, Dorsey's battalion did not find the 1st VC Regiment, but discovered large amounts of enemy supplies and equipment. The two battalions remained in the valley for the next few days, but encountered little organized resistance.
The fight at Ky Phu
While the two battalions were operating in the Phouc Ha Valley, Utter's battalion sought the VC along along the northern bank of the Song Chang, also known as the Khang River, seven miles south of Que Son. The battalion then turned eastward toward Tam Ky, sweeping the southern boundary of the Harvest Moon objective area. The Marines had more trouble with the weather than the enemy. Except for occasional snipers, the enemy could not be located, but the monsoon rains harassed the Marines every step. During the prolonged search, the battalion slogged over 20 miles through extremely rugged terrain, varying from rice paddies to jungle-covered hills.
On 18 December, the 2nd Bn, 7th Marines, on the last leg of its long trek, encountered the 80th VC Battalion in strength. Earlier that morning, after evacuating 54 Marines suffering from immersion foot, the battalion moved out in column formation with company G in the lead, followed by Company F, H&S, and Company H, 2nd Bn, 9th Marines. The Marines moved along a narrow road which wound through hedgerow-bordered rice paddies. The Viet Cong allowed the lead company to pass through the village of Ky Phu before opening fire on the Company G advance guard. At first, Col. Utter thought that the enemy force consisted only of a few snipers and ordered Company G to clear the area south of the road and moved Company F forward.
Company F had just passed through the east end of Ky Phu when enemy mortar rounds dropped on H&S Company, still in the open paddies west of the hamlet. Two VC companies tried to enter the gap between Company F and H&S and envelop Utter's command group and H&S Company. 1st Lt. Nicholas Grosz, Jr. recalled that he crossed the area between his company and the battalion command group and told Col. Utter of the "H&S deteriorating situation". Realizing that he was engaged with a major enemy force, the battalion commander ordered Company F to turn and attack the "main VC positions on the H&S right flank."
Supported by "Huey" gunships and accurate artillery from Battery M, 4th Battalion, 11th Marines, the Marines counterattacked. Company F rolled up the VC from the rear while H&S Company fought its way into Ky Phu. According to Grosz, who accompanied the lead elements of Company F in the attack, "Once we got them going, the VC just broke and ran. It was just like a turkey shoot."
At the rear of the column, Company H remained in contact with the enemy; a VC company struck the Marines from both flanks and the rear. Both the company commander and his radio operator were mortally wounded. 1st Lt. Harvey C. Barnum, the attached artillery forward observer, did what he could to save the two dying Marines, strapped the radio on his back and assumed command. The young officer rallied the company and the Marines established a defensive position on a small hill north of the road.After four hours of fighting, Barnum led Company H into Ky Phu and rejoined the battalion.
By nightfall, the fight at Ky Phu was over. The 80th VC Battalion broke, leaving 104 bodies on the battlefield, 76 of them killed by the artillery fire. Col. Utter's command had sustained 11 killed and 71 wounded.
The next day, 19 December, all three of the Marine battalions completed their movement out of the operation area. For all practical purposes, the Operation was over, but Operation Harvest Moon / Lien Ket ended officially on 20 December when all allied forces returned to their enclaves. The combined USMC-ARVN operation had accounted for 407 enemy killed, 33 captured, and 13 crew-served and 95 individual weapons seized. In addition, 60 tons of food and ammunition were taken in the Phuoc Ha Valley. Marine casualties were 45 killed and 218 wounded. General Lam's forces suffered 90 killed, 91 missing, and 141 wounded, most occurring during the first two days of the operation.
Operation Harvest Moon was not without its problems. The hastily established provisional headquarters, the fast moving ground situation, poor weather conditions, and the large number of tactical aircraft operating over the Que Son Valley caused coordination and control difficulties. Marines learned valuable lessons in air/ground coordination for future operations, Harvest Moon was the last of the Marine's big battles in 1965. These large-scale efforts had become a regular feature of the war for General Walt's forces. During the last half of its first calendar year in country, III MAF conducted 15 operations of battalion size or larger. American intelligence agencies indicated that during 1966, General Walt's forces would face even larger enemy forces as North Vietnamese troops entered South Vietnam to join their Vietcong comrades. The big unit actions were only one aspect of the Marine war, nevertheless, in I Corps, According to Lt. General Victor Krulak: ...we cannot be entrapped in the dangerous premise that destruction of the VC organized units per se is the whole answer to winning the war, any more than we can accept the erroneous view that pacification and civic action will solve the problem if major enemy forces are free to roam the countryside.