As 1965 came to a close, the 1st Viet Cong (VC) Regiment, which had suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the U.S. Marines during Operation Starlite in August, was back in the picture. In late November, the enemy unit attacked the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) outpost at Hiep Duc, just 25 miles west of Tam Ky. By occupying this key position, the Communists had a clear road to the Nui Loc Son Basin, also called the Que Son Valley, in I Corps’ Quang Tin province. Abundant in farms and heavily populated, the valley was considered an extremely important area, situated as it was between the major South Vietnamese cities of Da Nang and Chu Lai. The monsoon season provided excellent cover to the VC units attempting to occupy that vital region.
On November 22, after heavy fighting between enemy forces and the 2nd ARVN Division, 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion and South Vietnamese Regional Forces, General William C. Westmoreland, head of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), instructed Maj. Gen. Lewis W. Walt, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Division, to ‘conduct search and destroy operations…to drive the VC out.
Walt was justifiably concerned about the rising Communist threat to Que Son, and the burly Marine commander conferred with ARVN Maj. Gen. Nguyen Chanh Thi about the next course of action. The pair concluded that action must be taken to repulse the VC from this rich farming area. As a result, Operation Harvest Moon/ Lien Ket 18 was initiated.
Marine and ARVN units immediately went on the offensive to quell the enemy drive into the Que Son Valley. On December 18, Lt. Col. Leon N. Utter’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines (2/7), ran headlong into the 80th VC Battalion. As the Marines trudged through extremely rugged terrain, varying from flooded rice paddies to jungle-covered hills, the enemy hit the rear and flanks of the column.
At the rear of the column was Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (2/9), which had been attached to Colonel Utter’s battalion for the operation. When both the company commander and his radio operator were killed, the artillery forward observer (FO), 1st Lt. Harvey C. Barnum, Jr., on temporary duty in Vietnam from the Marine Barracks at Pearl Harbor, took command. After hours of intense combat, Barnum and his Marines successfully broke contact and joined the remainder of their unit in the village of Ky Phu. For his heroic actions on that day, Barnum was awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the fourth Marine to receive our nation’s highest military decoration during the Vietnam conflict.
At the time of his retirement from the Marine Corps in 1989, Colonel Barnum was military secretary to the commandant. Barnum discussed his experiences during two Vietnam tours with Vietnam Magazine contributing editor Al Hemingway.
Vietnam: Why did you decide on the Marine Corps?
Barnum: Two reasons. My cousin was in the Marines during World War II, and my dad enlisted, but the age law was passed and my dad didn’t go, which was a good thing because everyone from his recruit platoon on Parris Island went to Iwo Jima. However, another thing that really turned the tide for me was Military Day during my senior year in high school. Every branch of the service had a representative come to the high school to try and recruit young men. Well, the Air Force recruiter got up to make a pitch, and there were a lot of catcalls. Then the Army and Navy recruiters got the same treatment. A Marine gunnery sergeant was the last one to get up to speak in the auditorium. He said, There isn’t anybody in this room I would want in my Marine Corps. Then he tore into the faculty, accusing them of jawjacking and scratching their butts while all this turmoil was going on and saying, This is embarrassing. He concluded by saying, I’m wasting my time here, and he sat down.
Vietnam: Sounds like a typical Marine Corps gunny to me.
Barnum: Well, needless to say, there was a line at his table after the presentation. I joined the Platoon Leaders Course (PLC) in college and took my training at Quantico, Virginia, in 1959 and 1961. I was commissioned a second lieutenant upon graduation from college in 1962 and commenced my officer training at Quantico.
Vietnam: What was your military occupational specialty (MOS)?
Barnum: Artillery. After basic school, there was a month’s artillery orientation course at Quantico. The school consisted mainly of gunnery basics. Some went to artillery school in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, but I went direct to Okinawa and joined Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines, 3rd Marine Division. Later I was assigned to the guard detachment at the Marine Barracks at Pearl Harbor.
Vietnam: How did you get to Vietnam?
Barnum: General Victor H. Krulak, commanding general of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, had devised a program for company grade officers and staff NCOs to go to Vietnam for 60 days to serve in their MOS. It was a morale booster, too. In the guard detachment on Hawaii it got real old after a while, saluting generals and admirals all day. When I first arrived in Vietnam in December 1965, I was sent to Echo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines (2/12), located in a stabilized position south of Da Nang, firing in support of 2/9. That’s when I was assigned to Hotel Company, 2/9, as their forward observer (FO).
Vietnam: Explain your duties as an FO.
Barnum: The job of an FO attached to a rifle company is to locate targets and call for and adjust artillery fire. At that time an FO team consisted of an officer, a radio operator and a wireman. An artillery battery is usually in direct support of an infantry battalion, and the FOs are attached to and travel with each rifle company. The FO’s job is to look at the patrol route, recon it and usually plan calls of fire, whether they be active targets or prep (preparatory) fires. The FO had to be aware of restricted areas of fire because of friendly villages, helicopter traffic, and a number of limiting factors. When the infantry set up a perimeter at night, the FO would register in defensive fires so that in the event we were probed or assaulted, defensive fires could be called for and delivered rapidly. It’s a very active role in the company.
Vietnam: You mentioned restricted areas of fire. Did you have problems with getting clearance for a fire mission?
Barnum: During my first tour, in 1965-66, I was exposed to some of that. On my second tour, in 1968-69, I was up along the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), and we didn’t encounter many problems with getting clearance due to the very nature of the combat in that area. It was very isolated along the DMZ, and pretty much everything was a free-fire zone. Not many villages to worry about.
Vietnam: How did you become involved in Operation Harvest Moon?
Barnum: I was attached to Hotel Company, 2/9, and we were on the Anderson Trail, south of Da Nang, on patrol. I really didn’t know too many people in the unit; I had been in Vietnam only 14 days. We were attached to 2/7, and relieved Fox Company, 2/7, which had received several casualties and had Marines suffering from immersion foot. So Hotel Company, 2/9, became part of 2/7. We participated in Harvest Moon for a couple of days; the operation was winding down. A radio message came in telling the company commander to report back to base camp immediately. We were traveling on the main north/south road when we got hit. The entire battalion march column was ambushed. We were maybe four miles from Highway 1.
Vietnam: From what I understand, when the VC ambushed the battalion, they were attempting to split the group in two. Is that the way it was?
Barnum: Yes. We were heading out of the mountains in a battalion march column. My company was the rear element. Now a battalion march column is strung out quite a distance. In fact, the whole purpose is for rapid movement. The lead companies had already entered the village of Ky Phu, and we were about 200 yards back from the western limits of the village.
Vietnam: Ky Phu wasn’t a very big village?
Barnum: No. It wasn’t very big at all. We heard shooting toward the front of the column, and we heard RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) going off. My company commander, Captain Paul Gormley, was just coming out into an exposed position followed by his radio operator. The enemy zeroed in on them. I’m sure they saw the radio antenna and his .45-caliber pistol and thought that they were part of the command element. And they were exactly right. The initial round hit the skipper and his radio operator. The enemy soldiers were popping up out of spider holes and seemed to be everywhere.
Vietnam: The VC were really dug in.
Barnum: Absolutely. They were good at it. So, in essence, we had a battalion strung out over 500 yards, and everyone was engaged in a firefight. I remember, after hitting the deck and scanning the area, I heard someone holler that the skipper and his radio operator had been hit. They were about 50 or 60 yards ahead of me. I saw the corpsman, Doc West, get hit two or three times trying to reach Captain Gormley. Hotel Company had just come around a hill mass and were in the open when they hit us. When I saw Doc West get wounded the third time, I just got up and ran out to get him. Then I returned, picked up Captain Gormley, and carried him back to cover. When I went back out to grab Doc West, I saw that the radio operator was dead. It was then I realized that I was the highest-ranking officer present. Everybody was looking at me, and I could see in their eyes they were saying, Hey, lieutenant, what do we do now?
Vietnam: What a position to be in.
Barnum: The first thing I did was run out to where the radio operator was lying, take the radio off his back, strap it on mine, and hurry back to our defensive position. I assumed command of the company, analyzed the situation, and started giving orders.
Vietnam: Did you also continue as the FO?
Barnum: Yes. My FO team and I started calling in artillery on the enemy’s positions. The fire was real close. The enemy was right on top of us. The artillery came in right over our heads. It was touch and go. We were right on the gun target line. The artillery fire helped reduce the odds, stunned the enemy and gave me an opportunity to regroup and settle folks down.
Vietnam: Sounds like you were in a real fix.
Barnum: We were. I radioed battalion headquarters and told them that Captain Gormley was dead and I was the FO and was assuming command of the company. The battalion commander asked lots of questions. I guess I convinced him I knew what the situation was and was taking appropriate action. He told me to make sure everyone knew I was now in command.
Vietnam: And you had been in-country only 14 days.
Barnum: Well, I was the boss, 14 days or not. Getting back to the radio, everybody was on the same net. The battalion commander, each company commander, the S-3 (operations officer), even air support. So I could listen in to all transmissions, and I soon realized everyone was in a bad way. If you were worse off than somebody else who was transmitting, you cut in and then everyone backed off and listened.
Vietnam: I would think that everyone being on the same net would lead to confusion.
Barnum: No, it worked well. I think that’s the reason we were saved. We worked together as a team and overcame a numerically superior force. Also, Brig. Gen. Jonas M. Platt, the task force commander, was in a helicopter overhead. Being on the same net meant that I could make my decisions based on what was happening somewhere else.
Vietnam: So communications wasn’t your biggest problem?
Barnum: No, in fact, getting people to stop shooting and conserve ammunition was my biggest problem. We were calling in a lot of air support. I remember standing up on a knoll and firing 3.5-inch Willie Peter (white phosphorous) rockets to mark targets and for adjusting points. We did that until we ran out of 3.5 rounds. The enemy was moving in on us on our right flank. The VC knew we were low on ammo. God bless those helo pilots. They flew for about an hour after they were out of ammo to help keep the enemy off our backs. By then it was getting dark. Battalion headquarters informed me that we had to get out on our own. They couldn’t come and get us. Everyone else was in a fix as well. I finally got some choppers to come in and evacuate the dead and wounded. Then I had everyone drop their packs and any inoperable weapons in a pile, and I told a couple of engineers to blow it in place. I requested the battalion commander and the rest of the unit to set up a base of fire and, in fire team rushes, we started out. It is the worst feeling in the world to charge across fire-swept ground. You’re right in the open. But I told everyone, Once we start, guys, there’s no stopping.
Vietnam: How far did you have to run?
Barnum: I’d say it was approximately 200 meters. And when it came my turn, I never ran so damn fast in my life! We made it across, and once we reached the outer limits of Ky Phu we established a defensive position tied in with the rest of 2/7.
Vietnam: What did your unit do next?
Barnum: Once we reached Highway 1, Hotel Company was released from 2/7, which was going back to Chu Lai. Hotel Company and the rest of 2/9 were heading back north to Da Nang. We were boarding trucks on Highway 1 when we got sniped at from this village. An Ontos (multi-barreled 106mm recoilless rifle gun system) was with us, and I directed its fire at the sniper. We leveled three huts. Needless to say, the sniper fire ceased. Later on that night, a second lieutenant, who had only been in-country for three or four days, turned me in for using excessive force.
Vietnam: Were there any ramifications from the incident?
Barnum: Back at FLSG (Force Logistics Support Group) Bravo, when we bivouacked en route back to Da Nang, I was questioned by a lieutenant colonel about the incident. Well, I told him that I only did what needed to be done. I also informed them that everyone on that convoy had just experienced some pretty heavy combat and that the sniper fire was interfering with our retrograde movement, not to mention hazardous to our health. I soon found out that I had been put in for the Medal of Honor, so I guess that sniper incident was forgotten. I still stand by my action. We eliminated an enemy threat, and no Marines got injured.
Vietnam: How did you find out about the Medal of Honor nomination?
Barnum: A lieutenant colonel woke me up in the middle of the night at FLSG Bravo and questioned me about the battle. Not thinking that it was anything unusual, I went back to sleep. The next day I was relieved of command of Hotel Company and rejoined my artillery battery south of Da Nang. I went to the corpsman upon arrival in my battery position and had my feet checked because I had contracted immersion foot. My battery commander then informed me that I was being put in for the Medal of Honor.
Vietnam: That must have been a shock.
Barnum: It was. I was lucky; I wasn’t even wounded. My pack was all shot up. It just wasn’t my turn to go. The good Lord was watching over me.
Vietnam: When did they finally award you the medal?
Barnum: Let’s see, the Battle of Ky Phu was fought on December 18, 1965, and the Medal of Honor was presented to me on February 27, 1967, more than a year later. The award recommendation goes through channels, and that takes time. I was the fourth Marine to be the recipient of the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War and the first living officer to receive it. Sergeant Bobby O’Malley was the first living enlisted man to get it.
Vietnam: Only a handful live to receive their medals. What happened next? Did you remain in-country?
Barnum: After Harvest Moon, I was ordered to Lima Battery, 4th Battalion, 12th Marines (4/12), which had towed and self-propelled guns. The gunline was strung out over an 11-mile area. I worked in the FDC (fire direction center) and on the guns. My battery gunny was Gunnery Sgt. Leland B. Crawford, who went on to become sergeant major of the Marine Corps. In February 1966, my 60 days was up, and I reported back to Marine Barracks, Pearl Harbor.
Vietnam: You went back for a second tour in Vietnam in 1968-69. Wasn’t that unusual for a Medal of Honor recipient to be sent back to a combat zone?
Barnum: I was an aide to General Lew Walt, who, at that time, was assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. He said to me, If you can last a year with me, I’ll send you anywhere you want to go. When my year was up, I informed him I wanted to go back to Vietnam. He pulled some strings and I was sent back as CO of Echo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines, the battery I was with in 1965. My battalion was in support of the 9th Marines, and Colonel Robert H. Barrow, a future commandant of the Marine Corps, was their regimental commander. My battery saw a lot of action. We built 16 fire support bases throughout northern I Corps and participated in Operation Dewey Canyon, supposedly the largest and most successful operation of the Vietnam War. I was very proud of my Marines. North Vietnamese Army forces tried to overrun my battery one night at Fire Support Base Cunningham. We won–they didn’t. I was later wounded at FSB Spark when a bunker entryway I was standing in was struck by rockets and mortars and collapsed.
Vietnam: When did you retire?
Barnum: In 1989, after nearly 28 years of active service. And I must say it was an interesting 28 years. It was a great way of life.
Al Hemingway interviewed Harvey C. Barnum, Jr., U.S. Marine Corps (ret.) and the interview was originally published in the October 1996 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!