VFW Magazine — September 2017
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Operation Swift
Otto Lehrack

SWIFT TAKES A TOLL ON THE ENEMY

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Vietnam’s Operation Swift. In this 11-day battle, three battalions from the 5th Marine Regiment took on a larger force of NVA and Viet Cong in the Que Son Valley. The fighting produced two Medal of Honor recipients and helped save the city of Da Nang.

Operation Swift was the third of four operations by the Marines against the 2nd North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Division in the Que Son Valley in 1967. It was one of the few truly strategic campaigns of the Vietnam War and would have farreaching effects on the Tet Offensive early the next year.

In the spring of 1967, orders came from Hanoi for the 2nd NVA Division to move into the Que Son Valley, seize as much of the rice harvest as possible and disrupt the national elections scheduled for September. Then, they were to position themselves to seize Da Nang, at the same time other units were to occupy Hue in the Tet Offensive.

Marines had little presence in the valley until 1967. This changed when they encountered and fought large NVA units in two major operations, Union I and Union II, between April and late June.

After that time, the enemy seemed to go to ground and the valley was relatively quiet. All that changed in the early morning hours of Sept. 4, when a clash quickly became the operation now known as Swift.

Two platoons of Capt. Robert Morgan’s Delta Co., 1st Bn., 5th Marines (D/1/5), about 90 men, had dug in the night before near the village of Dong Son. In the dark, a battalion of Col. Quach Huu Hop’s 1st Viet Cong (VC) Regiment moved in to about 100 meters of the Marines’ perimeter.

At 4:30 a.m., they struck. The VC quickly punctured the perimeter, then moved right and left to widen their foothold. At the cost of his life, Capt. Morgan led a counterattack that was only partially successful in restoring his lines. A badly wounded Lt. William Vacca took command but was soon too weak to continue, and command passed to Lt. Carlton Fulford.

Members of Delta Company quickly passed word to the commanding officer of 1/5, Lt. Col. Pete “Highpockets” Hilgartner, of their situation, along with a request for an emergency medevac for their casualties. Hilgartner ordered Capt. Thomas Reese’s Bravo Company, 1/5 into the fight. Bravo Company was operating about 5 kilometers from Delta Company on the other side of the Ly Ly River.

CONTROLLED CRASHES

Meanwhile, back at the Delta Company perimeter, a medevac chopper piloted by Capt. Don Engle and Lt. Jack Warner came in under intense fire to evacuate casualties. One of the enemy’s rounds cut the tail rotor control cable, and the bird made a hard landing inside the perimeter.

The pilots dragged their two wounded crew members to safety. Then they dismounted their M60 machine guns and carried them to the perimeter where they could be used against the enemy. Maj. David Ross was overhead in a Huey gunship making runs against the enemy when his aircraft, too, was badly damaged by enemy fire, and he made a controlled crash within the perimeter.

He also lent his M60 to defense of the perimeter, then moved to the command post and took command. Until it was over, he constantly stood exposed to enemy fire, as he called in napalm strikes against the enemy, vaporizing them in orange flame and black smoke, Halloween colors at their scariest.

A HOT LZ

Bravo Company struggled to get across the Ly Ly River only to run into another large force of NVA. They experienced some hard fighting before they finally broke through to Delta Company several hours later.

As the situation developed at Dong Son, Col. Stanley Davis, commanding officer of the 5th Marine Regiment, ordered Hilgartner’s 1/5 command group into the fight and reinforced him with Kilo and Mike companies, 3/5 (K/3/5 and M/3/5).

Hilgartner’s command group and Kilo Company went first and set up not far from Dong Son. When the helicopters returned for Mike Company, the pilot told its commanding officer, Lt. J.D. Murray, that the designated landing zone (LZ) was hot, and he was going to set them down in an alternate LZ.

Murray had not been briefed on a secondary LZ and was not sure where he was being taken. Once on the ground, he quickly determined his location and began moving toward Dong Son, several kilometers away. Unbeknownst to Murray, the chaplain, Father Vincent Capodanno (see sidebar), had boarded the chopper with the last group.

A HURRICANE OF VIOLENCE

Mike Company quickly moved toward the fight as fast as tactical security would allow. The Marines moved in a wedge with Lt. Ed Combs’ platoon in the lead. Murray received word that Kilo Company was in contact with the enemy, and he urged his men to pick up the pace. Pfc. Jack “Swannie” Swan was the point man and did not like being rushed, but he moved a little faster.

As he moved down the far side of a small knoll, he told his squad leader, Cpl. Bill Vandergriff, that he saw something move. Vandergriff said, “If you see it again, shoot it.” When it moved again, Swannie fired an M79 grenade at it.

“THE NEXT THING I KNEW, THE SUN WAS COMING UP, AND I WAS SCARED SHITLESS BECAUSE I DIDN’T KNOW WHICH SIDE HAD WON UNTIL A CORPSMAN CAME OVER AND GOT ME READY TO BE MEDEVACED,” WHITFIELD SAID.

That shot set off the fight. Enemy fire immediately knocked down more than a dozen Marines. An air observer (AO) appeared overhead and called in a flight of Hueys that dumped tear gas on the enemy, giving Murray’s men the briefest of respites. Soon, all three of Murray’s platoon commanders were on the radio reporting that they were under heavy attack. Murray, in turn, was telling the AO, “Get them off me, get them off me!”

The enemy came at the Marines in a hurricane of violence, hot on the heels of mortar rounds that mushroomed on the knoll and between the lanes of machine guns that cut all vegetation to stubble. They came singly and in small groups firing from the hip. Many were shot down, but the remainder kept charging, trying to surround small groups of Marines and eliminate them. Had it not been for the courage of the individual Marines and close air support, all would have been butchered on the knoll.

“Lt. Combs stopped calling me, and I didn’t know what was going on except that mortar rounds were falling all around where I was, and I kept hearing, ‘Corpsman up, corpsman!’ ” Vandergriff said.

Combs was badly wounded and out of the fight. Murray risked death to run through the fire and find Staff Sgt. Craig Sullivan.

“It was the bravest thing I ever saw,” Sullivan said.

Lt. J.D. Murray said, “Sully, Lt. Combs is wounded and you are in charge.” Then he ran back through the fire to his position.

WOUNDED TIME AFTER TIME

A new AO, Lt. Rob Whitlow, was now overhead and ordered up flights of A4 Skyhawks and F4 Phantoms that made strafing, bombing and napalm runs on the enemy ranks.

Sullivan’s situation was critical and Murray ordered Sgt. Lawrence Peters’ squad to join them. As Peters moved out, Father Capodanno joined him. Moving to a place he could support Sullivan, Peters repeatedly stood directing fire. Although wounded time after time, he kept getting back to his feet and directing fire until he was killed.

“When Sgt. Peters stood up with the machine gun and began to fire, he had this long-sleeved green shirt on, and I saw a puff of dust that was a round passing through his torso,” Cpl. Larry Nunez said. “He did not quit work. When the attack slacked off, he would drop down. When it picked up, he would stand and direct fire with his machine gun.”

Capodanno was repeatedly wounded — a machine-gun round tore off part of his hand — but he kept tending downed Marines until another burst from a machine gun killed him. Both Peters and Capodanno were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

“Father Capodanno was extremely charismatic and was instantly popular among all the men, Catholic and otherwise,” Lance Cpl. John Lobur said. “He had a kind of serenity about him that I thought then was my idea of Christ-like. He didn’t say much, mostly listened and empathized. I wonder what the NVA thought when they saw him wearing the stole and lack of a weapon, obviously a man of God, trading his life for the sake of assisting a dying comrade on his journey from this world to the next.”

Fighting desperately and grateful for the air support, the Marines held on until dark when the enemy attacks gradually slackened and then ceased. Morning found scores of enemy bodies and a hideous array of body parts in and around the position. Murray lost 17 of his men and many more wounded.

“My platoon started with 45 men and one officer,” Staff Sgt. Craig Sullivan said. “When we returned after the operation, I had 19 men and one corpsman.”

Lobur said, “There were 137 bodies near the Mike Company position.”

‘MY LIFE CHANGED FOREVER’

On Sept. 6, just 2 kilometers away, Capt. Francis “Stoney” Burke’s India Company, 3/5 ran into an entrenched battalion of NVA on Hill 43. His point squad was cut down nearly to a man, and he soon had more than he could handle.

There were many heroes that day. When machine gun fire swept India Company, Lt. Dennie Peterson ran forward to adjust artillery fire on the enemy. He constantly moved all day, sometimes beyond his own company’s perimeter, in order to better spot the enemy. He was wounded four times bringing isolated Marines back to their company until the NVA killed him.

In the meantime, Capt. Joe Tenney’s Kilo Company, 3/5 was sent to assist. Lt. Dave Blizzard said, “On Sept. 6, my life changed forever.”

They had to fight their way through a determined enemy, and it wasn’t until well into the night that they finally linked up. They had no sooner done so when they were hit with a furious ground attack that they drove back with difficulty.

They were still trying to recover when they were hit with a second, much stronger assault.

“We were ass-deep in NVA, everywhere you looked,” Pfc. Bob Whitfield said. “I stitched this one guy in the chest and he just kept coming.”

This time, the enemy penetrated the line. Rifles and machine guns from Lt. Wayne Brandon’s platoon savaged the enemy attackers from the flank but not before some of Tenney’s men had to fight them off in hand-to-hand combat. The fight was costly to both sides.

“The next thing I knew, the sun was coming up, and I was scared shitless because I didn’t know which side had won until a corpsman came over and got me ready to be medevaced,” Whitfield said.

The rising sun shone on 88 enemy bodies and innumerable body parts. Thirty-Four Marines were lost. Murray’s Mike Company, 3/5 came up at dawn.

“The scene was nightmarish,” Murray said.

‘SHOOT HIM, DOC’

Three days after that, Capt. Gene Bowers commanding Hotel Company, 2/5 received orders to alter his planned patrol route and check out an enemy force that was thought to have moved back to Hill 43, the site of the action on Sept. 6. His orders suggested that he might send squad-size scouting patrols.

He wisely decided to send a reinforced platoon, commanded by Lt. Allen Herman. Sgt. Harold Wadley, an old Korea hand, asked to go along and for a couple of machine guns and two 60mm mortars. Bowers agreed. The platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. William Stutes volunteered to walk point with the two regular point men.

The NVA were there, alright, and were very well camouflaged. They waited until all three point men were in the killing zone and then killed them to a man.

Wadley and a corpsman named Dennis Noah moved through the formation to the point. Wadley saw that the point men were beyond help and went after a .50 caliber enemy machine gun. He heard the bolt click and knew that the gun had jammed. He jumped up and killed all three of the gunners as they tried to clear the gun. Then Wadley was shot through the shoulder and thought he had lost his left arm.

“I could see my arm socket right under my chin.” He was trying to reload his weapon with one arm when Lt. Herman came up.

“Herman silenced another machine gun with hand grenades and, picked me up and said, ‘I’m getting you out of here,’ ” Wadley said.

Then he, too, was shot dead.

Doc Noah had never fired his .45 in combat and hesitated as an enemy crawled toward them. Wadley had to yell, “Shoot him, Doc. Shoot him!” before Noah finally killed the man. Hotel Company was under siege for most of the night. The badly- depleted Mike Company, 3/5, still battered from the fight on the knoll on Sept. 4, finally reinforced them.

SWIFT SAVES DA NANG

Operation Swift ended a few days later. According to the official account at the time, 1,480 enemy were killed. Post-war records show that the total was several times that.

The above are just a few highlights of Operation Swift, itself part of a much larger and important campaign. There were many more fights and many more heroes than those described.

In 2004, Col. Tran Nhu Tiep, formerly of the NVA, said his battalion’s mission in the 1968 Tet Offensive was to infiltrate the city of Da Nang and participate in its occupation. Because he had been so battered by the operations in the Que Son Valley, he only managed to get 19 of his men into the city. Thus, Operation Swift and the others, prevented Da Nang from suffering the same fate as Hue.

EMAIL magazine@vfw.org

Otto Lehrack is a retired Marine infantry officer, two-tour Vietnam veteran and member of VFW Post 11575 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He has written numerous articles and four books, most recently: The Road of 10,000 Pains: The Destruction of the 2nd NVA Division by the Marines, 1967.

‘The Grunt Padre’

When the war in Vietnam broke out, Vincent Capodanno, a Catholic priest, wrote to his bishop requesting permission to join the Navy so that he might serve with Marines in Vietnam. He was sworn in on Dec. 28, 1965, and by April 1966, he was in Vietnam with the 1st Bn., 7th Marines, 1st Marine Div. When a reporter asked him why he was in Vietnam, Capodanno replied, “I think I’m needed here, as are many chaplains.”

In The Grunt Padre by Daniel Mode, Capodanno’s sister, Pauline, said that while her brother was obviously not pro-war, he was “very concerned about the American troops over there.”

In Vietnam, the 37-year-old New York native became a friend and confidante to the Marines he served. He performed Mass and administered last rites. He prayed over the dying and comforted the wounded.

An Oct. 19, 1966, a Marine Corps press release aptly described Capodanno: “There always seems to be a place reserved beside a wounded Marine — a place reserved for Father Capodanno, who always seems to appear at the stricken Marine’s side to speak or pray at the moment it is most needed.”

In 1967, Capodanno left Vietnam and traveled to Manila in the Philippines, Taiwan and Honolulu before going home for a visit. But on June 6, he received orders to report back to Vietnam with the 1st Bn., 5th Marines, 1st Marine Div., though he served all Marines of the 5th Regiment.

On Sept. 4, Capodanno was with Leathernecks of Kilo and Mike companies when they landed about four kilometers northeast of Dong Son, where a slaughter awaited them.

The chaplain was expected to wait at the command post. But, when he heard the cries of the wounded and dying, he ran through a shower of bullets to administer last rites and offer solace where he could. When he wasn’t doing that, Marines say he was carrying the wounded to safety.

“He made many trips, telling us to ‘stay cool, don’t panic,’” Pfc. Julio Rodriguez remembered.

While trying to get to one Marine, Capodanno was hit in the arm with shrapnel, but continued. Later in the day, he was wounded a second time, but still refused treatment as he continued his duty.

When the priest ran to help a wounded corpsman in the early evening, he was killed by a North Vietnamese machine gun. He had 27 bullet wounds in his spine, neck and head.

In all, 54 Marines were killed in action and 104 wounded in action at Dong Son. For his bravery, Capodanno was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
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