Harvest Moon

By Frank Beardsley - Originally Published April 1966

The words "Harvest Moon" bring to mind the old song about not having any lovin' since January, February, June or July. They bring to mind a big, bright autumn moon shining down over fields of harvested grain.

But for thousands of Marines, Harvest Moon meant more than a week of bloody combat in the rice paddies and jungled hills of South Vietnam.

The big, bright autumn moon was there, but the Marines didn't see it. it was hidden by heavy monsoon clouds that kept the nights in total blackness; clouds that dumped rain by the bucket so frequently that the Marines were never able to completely dry out.

Despite the weather, the Marines still collected the "harvest" they came to reap-Viet Cong guerrillas.

The "crop" had been growing for years in a rice-filled valley some 30 miles south of Da Nang, about halfway between Da Nang and Chu Lai. Nearly 10 miles wide at its mouth, the valley stretched inland some 20 miles. It was flanked by low foothills and towering 1000-foot mountains.

The area had been considered a Viet Cong stronghold for many years, with only scattered Vietnamese government outposts in the larger towns.

One of those outposts was the town of Que Son, where an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) district headquarters was located.

The outpost had proved to be a thorn in the side of the VC for some time, and in early December, ARVN and the Marines confirmed intelligence reports that the guerrillas were concentrating in the valley for an attack on Que Son.

The crop was growing rapidly. Located between the valley walls were the 1st Viet Cong Regiment, another three separate VC battalions, two local force VC companies, and other smaller units.

Chosen to reap the harvest were a battalion of Marines from the Da Nang enclave, a battalion from Chu Lai and another from a landing force aboard ships in the South China Sea.

The Marines were joined by four battalions of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

This was the friendly force, which, with supporting elements, was to fight the Viet Cong-and the weather.

In December, the upper portion of South Vietnam was still locked in the monsoons' grip. Rain came nearly every day, all day long. And even on those "good" days when it didn't rain, the clouds were still heavy and hugged the hills surrounding the valley.

According to VC propaganda, Marines could not fight in this kind of weather. The VC said the Americans were too soft for the demands of a muddy, bloody fight.

They were wrong, and Operation Harvest Moon proved how wrong they were. It destroyed the communist myth that Americans were not the physical equal of the VC.

Two ARVN battalions began the drive December 8 that opened the Harvest Moon offensive. The 11th Rangers and the 1st Bn., Fifth ARVN Regt., moved 10,000 meters, slanting southwest into the valley before making contact with the VC. But when contact came, it was furious. The Ranger battalion was enveloped by a numerically superior guerrilla force and had to withdraw to high ground. Although suffering what were described as moderate casualties, the Rangers managed to hold until reinforcements arrived the next day.

The VC hit ARVN 1-5 the morning of the second day, overpowering them and forcing the battalion to pull back to more defensible positions.

In the meantime, the 2d Bn., Seventh Marines, had arrived from Chu Lai and were staged for a helilift on the morning of December 9th to a position deep in the valley. The morning 2-7 was lifted in, the 3d Bn., Third Marines, was on its way from Da Nang by convoy to a logistical support area in the valley's mouth. The 2d Bn., First Marines, was standing by a few miles off shore aboard vessels of the U.S. 7th Fleet.

Landing without opposition, 2-7 and 3-3 began the pushes toward their objectives for the day. The Seventh Marines made only negligible contact with the VC, but 3-3 came under sporadic small arms fire within minutes after landing. They began taking prisoners, weapons and enemy supplies almost immediately.

The Marines' first big fight came just before dark on December 9 as Lima Co., 3-3, neared the hill that was its objective for the night. Forward elements of the company were in the middle of rice paddies near the base of the hill when "Charley" sprang an ambush.

The firefight continued for nearly an hour and a half. The VC swept the Marines with automatic small arms fire and lobbed 35 mortar rounds in on them. Although under fire from three directions, Lima Co. didn't budge. Air support was requested, and within minutes, Marine Huey helicopters and jet fighters were strafing and pounding the enemy with bombs and rockets.

Closest to the enemy-infested hill was Lima's 3d platoon, commanded by SSgt Robert E. Moe.

His radio crackled, "Move up the hill."

Moe jumped to his feet. "Come on," he yelled, "we're taking the hill."

There was no hesitation. With less than 30 men, the platoon charged into the rain of bullets. Yelling and screaming, with rifles blazing, the platoon's assault broke the enemy ambush. "Charley" stopped shooting and began pulling back, dragging his dead and wounded with him. The hill now belonged to the Marines.

The next morning, the Marines uncovered fresh graves containing VC bodies, mute evidence of 3-3's harvest.

On that same morning, the men of Golf and Foxtrot Companies, 2d Bn., First Marines, were completing final preparations for a helicopter landing ashore from the USS Valley Forge. Weapons were checked, grenades taped and packs adjusted. Platoon commanders huddled with their squad leaders, issuing attack orders that would be passed on to every man in each squad.

Foxtrot would go in first, followed immediately by Golf Co. Files of Marines, arranged in heli-teams, waited on the carrier's hangar deck while, above them, helicopters of HMM-261 warmed up on the flight deck.

On command, the seven-man sticks of Marines raced up the ladderway to be guided to the waiting choppers.

Loudspeakers blared the command, "land the landing force," and the loaded birds lifted off to head up the valley.

The landing zone for Foxtrot was a low hill at the edge of a huge rice paddy complex that made up the floor of the valley.

The zone was "hot," too hot to land the entire company there. The VC were dug in around the hill and were riddling the helicopters with automatic fire. The rest of the company was put down in the paddies and the Marines on the hill fought their way down to join them.

Now, the VC gunners turned their fire to the paddies, pinning down Foxtrot.

Golf Co. was landed on a low hill behind the paddies in which Foxtrot was under fire. Its orders were to move up and reinforce Foxtrot. As the company moved down a draw toward the paddies, Marine jets screamed overhead, firing rockets and cannon into the VC positions.

Golf didn't make contact until it entered the paddies. VC snipers opened up first, then, as the company moved closer to Foxtrot, it came under heavy automatic fire from the front and right flank. The company continued to move by fire team and squad rushes until the volume of VC fire became so intense, the order was passed to keep down until more air strikes could be called in to knock out the VC machine guns. Three enemy mortar rounds fell into the paddies before the jets arrived. For more than 30 minutes, the Skyhawks and Phantoms pounded the low hills and tree lines from which the guerrillas were firing. At last, the two companies were able to stand up and walk out of the paddies without a round being fired at them.

The other two companies of 2-1 were landed the next day and tied into Foxtrot and Golf.

On December 12, a new element was introduced to play further havoc with the guerrillas. Giant B-52 bombers of the U.S. Strategic Air Command launched the first of four strikes in the valley, dropping 750- and 1,000-pound bombs on VC area targets.

After that initial strike, between ridges on the southern edge of the valley, 3-3 was helilifted to the strike area. The battalion encountered heavy VC resistance at the mouth of the narrow valley but quickly routed the enemy. For the next three days, the Marines swept through the valley, capturing tons of VC equipment. One cave contained bolts of khaki cloth; another, nearby, held sewing machines with which the cloth was being converted to communist field uniforms. Other caves held ammunition and weapons.

A second B-52 strike was launched December 14 and two on December 15.

Marines exploiting the strike zones expressed awe at the destructive power of the huge bombs.

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"One VC stronghold was completely flattened," a Marine said. "None of the trees near the deep craters had any leaves on them, and the only structures still standing were the bamboo frames of ...The thatch, like the leaves, had all been blown away."

More supplies were found, and more VC bodies.

The Marines found other bodies in the valley, too; victims of guerrilla terrorism.

VC resistance was sporadic through December 15. Many guerrillas took advantage of the heavy weather and slipped out of the valley under cover of darkness. Others stayed to fight.

One 10-man enemy squad ambushed the lead elements of Golf Co., 2-1, as the company led the battalion down a narrow draw. All 10 VC in the ambush were killed. The Marines suffered only light casualties.

The day after the ambush, 2-1 swept to the northeast as an ARVN recon company and Echo Co., 2-9, set up blocking positions. The sweep netted at least 60 guerrillas killed and many more wounded.

On December 17, the 3d Bn., Third Marines, and attached units began moving east. They phased out of the operation the next day. The 2d Bn., First Marines, followed 3-3 out and were helilifted back to their ships offshore.

The 2d Bn., Seventh Marines, also began to pull back out of the valley, moving 30 kilometers by foot in two days. As they moved, they continued to search out VC fortifications and destroy them.

Just outside the village of Ky Phu, where they had spent the previous night, the Marines of 2-7, on December 18, fought the last big battle of Operation Harvest Moon.

Golf Co., 2-7, led the long column out of Ky Phu, followed by two platoons of Foxtrot, H & S Co., Foxtrot's 3d platoon and Hotel Co., 2-9.

The Marines didn't know it, but two companies of VC were waiting to spring an ambush which stretched some 1,000 yards in a tree line, paralleling the Marine route of march.

Golf Co. was hit first with heavy automatic fire as it neared the center of a rice-paddy complex outside the village. The company immediately laid down a base of fire to enable Foxtrot's two forward platoons to pass through them and break the front of the ambush.

Foxtrot's deployment to the front left a gap in the column which the VC tried to exploit, intending to split the column into smaller sections. At the same time. VC in the village opened fire on Hotel. 2-9, at the rear, with automatic weapons and recoilless rifles.

Foxtrot's forward platoons raced back, fought off the VC trying to split the column, then moved even further to the rear to reinforce Hotel Co.

The fighting in the village was intense. Guerrillas were firing from well-concealed bunkers which had to be destroyed with flame throwers and demolitions. At times the two sides faced each other no more than 10 yards apart. The VC had no opportunity to pull back and were forced to fight to the death.

The battle raged for more than two hours, and when it was finally over, 105 VC bodies lay before the Marines, and the battalion estimated it killed and wounded another 150 of the enemy whose bodies had been hidden or dragged away.

Foxtrot Co. accounted for most of the VC dead. They killed a confirmed 79. With the bodies were found many individual and crew-served weapons. It was without a doubt the best "harvest" of Harvest Moon.

The battalion consolidated and spent the night again in Ky Phu and marched out without incident the next day. A truck convoy carried the Marines the final 30 miles back to Chu Lai.

Waiting on the beach at Chu Lai for the returning Marines of 2-7 was a surprise none of them will ever forget. Instead of turning off at their battalion area, the trucks continued on to the beach and rolled up to the ramp of the LST USS Kemper County. Stretched across her bow was a banner reading "Welcome, 2-7 Marines." And what a welcome it was!

Sailors of the Kemper County swarmed aboard the trucks to help the Marines with their rifles and packs. They led the dumbfounded Marines aboard the ship, guiding them to the crews' compartments. There the Marines were handed clean, dry Navy dungarees in exchange for their torn and muddied utilities. The sailors rushed the utilities to their laundry and had them back to their owners, clean and dry, in 45 minutes. In the meantime, the showers were opened, and with water the sailors had hoarded for days, just for the occasion, the Marines enjoyed their first hot showers in days, if not weeks.

After the showers came chow-two steaks per man-served by fellow Marines of Alpha Co., 1-4.

Still pinching themselves to make sure they weren't dreaming, the 2-7 Marines were led back to the crews' compartments to sleep that night between clean sheets. The Kemper County's crew slept in passageways and working spaces.

It was a heroes' welcome, planned and executed by the men of the Kemper County to demonstrate their appreciation and understanding of the job the Marines had just wound up; a gesture of friendship that every Marine aboard would never forget.

The VC they faced would never forget those Marines either. The deadly combination of Marines on the ground, supported by other Marines in the air, reaped a rich harvest during the operation. According to confirmed body counts and estimates, the Marines accounted for more than 1,000 Viet Cong dead. In addition, the enemy lost nearly 50 tons of badly needed rice, and he lost ammunition and weapons, and other supplies he'll find very hard to replace. Hundreds of well-constructed bunkers, tunnels and gun emplacements were destroyed.

It wasn't an easy victory. Marines were wounded; some killed. All who participated paid a high price in physical and mental toil under the most adverse weather conditions.

More than any other Marine operation in Vietnam to date, Harvest Moon was a "boondocker" battle. Helicopters played a major role in the operation, but many times, heavy clouds and rain prevented their use, and the only way to move was by foot. Marines sloshed through waist-deep rice paddies, kicked their way through tangled jungle and clawed their way up muddy hills, burdened with many pounds of ammo, communications gear and rations.

In the air, helicopters of MAG-16 and MAG-36 and jets of MAG-11 and MAG-12 flew many missions in weather which at best could be called marginal. Their strain was just as great as that of the men on the ground.

The Marines on Operation Harvest Moon set out to do a job-to kill as many Viet Cong as possible, to drive the survivors out of their valley stronghold and to prevent the communist attack on the Que Son outpost.

The South Vietnamese flag still flies over Que Son, and more than 1,000 communist troops will never lift another weapon. Their surviving comrades were driven from an area they had considered theirs for years.

The Marines had done the harvesting.