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Rainy Sky, Bloody Ground

By Arnold Blumberg
4/6/2017 • HistoryNet, Mag: Vietnam Featured, Vietnam Magazine

U.S. Marines battle well-trained and equipped NVA forces at the Battle of Cam Khe.

The Marine Corps launched multiple search-and-destroy missions on Aug. 6, 1966, in the Que Son Valley, a populous, rice-rich area that was one of the key locations in the fight for control of South Vietnam’s northernmost provinces. The valley, astride the boundary between Quang Nam and Quang Tin provinces, was the stomping ground of the North Vietnamese Army’s 2nd Division, a first-rate combat formation, also known as the 620th Division, tasked with maintaining control over this vital strategic area.

In the Que Son Valley campaign, officially Operation Colorado, Col. Charles F. Widdecke’s 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, and South Vietnamese troops from the 2nd Division, Army of the Republic of Vietnam, set out to eliminate the NVA 2nd Division.

The 5th Marines’ 2nd Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Walter Moore, helicoptered to Hiep Duc, a town 7 miles southwest of Que Son Valley, on Aug. 6. The next day Lt. Col. Harold L. Coffman’s 1st Battalion, 5th Marines—minus one company left as part of the garrison at the Marines’ Chu Lai air base in Quang Tin province—walked to an area 8 miles south of the valley. Both battalions were to employ the same tactics: search an area, engage the enemy if possible, and if not, move on to another objective.

During the first three days of Operation Colorado, the 5th Marines encountered little resistance. By Aug. 10, Moore’s 2nd Battalion, after meeting no sizable enemy force, was airlifted to Tam Ky on the coast of the South China Sea, about 15 miles northwest of Chu Lai.

Coffman’s 583-man 1st Battalion, operating east of the town of Que Son and west of coastal Route 1, also had little success tracking down the enemy after running missions throughout the area. The days were spent walking dirt trails bordered by tree lines and empty rice fields. The villages were ominously deserted; the few civilians in the area were hiding in caves. On the morning of Aug. 10, Coffman consolidated his command near Dai Dong village, south of the Nha Ngu River and 12 miles southeast of Que Son. His objective that day was the large hamlet of Thon Hai on the river’s south bank 5 miles east of Dai Dong.

At 8:30 a.m., 1st Battalion’s A, B and C companies moved out in column. Immediately they encountered opposition. At first, the enemy hit them with only long–range rifle fire. The Marines answered with their own small arms, mostly from their M14 assault rifles. At 11 a.m., the battalion arrived at the abandoned hamlet of Ky Phu, 2 miles east of Dai Dong and a battleground during Operation Harvest Moon on Dec. 9-20, 1965.

Enemy sniper fire, although largely inaccurate, had increased to the point that battalion chief Coffman could no longer ignore it. The Marines had been indiscriminately returning enemy fire, causing a rapid depletion of ammunition, but no apparent NVA losses. Coffman gathered his company commanders and instructed them to change tactics. He wanted the Marines to fire only if they saw enemy troops or suspected they were in a certain area.

Around that time regimental commander Widdecke took a helicopter to Ky Phu and met briefly with Coffman. He directed him to continue the advance to the village of Thon Hai, 3 miles northeast of Ky Phu. Widdecke then departed in the chopper.

At 2 p.m., 1st Battalion resumed its march eastward. Dark clouds massed overhead as the afternoon wore on, and soon the Marines were plodding through a thunderstorm that made it difficult to hear and see. On the plus side, however, the NVA sniper fire petered out in the heavy rain.

Shortly after 3 p.m., the battalion reached Cam Khe, 1,000 yards northeast of Ky Phu. As A Company pushed through the outskirts of the small hamlet the Marines spotted 30 NVA soldiers running in front of them from left to right across a rice paddy.  In seconds, the only significant battle the Americans participated in during Operation Colorado began.

A quick burst of fire by the Marines cut down the enemy force in the open field. The sprinting NVA soldiers, enveloped in blinding rainfall and loud peals of thunder, had not seen or heard the Marines until it was too late. Reacting to the sudden death of their comrades, other North Vietnamese riflemen, supported by a heavy machine gun, pumped out intense fire from a hidden hedgerow. The Marines hit the mud, and in seconds all three of the battalion’s companies became heavily engaged in close-quarters combat.

As the North Vietnamese troops recovered from their initial shock at the Marines’ appearance, the battle-hardened veterans of the NVA 2nd Division’s 3rd Regiment regained their composure and concentrated deadly fire on individual Marines until their targets were dead or thought to be dead. Watching his Marines being cut down one after another, a frantic Capt. Jim Furleigh, the leader of A Company, shouted for some men to move the wounded farther back and told the rest to stay low and lay down fire on the enemy.

Coffman, not far behind the American front line, set up a makeshift battalion command post to receive reports on the rapidly developing situation. Slowly, as he received information from couriers and radio transmissions, the lieutenant colonel pieced together the picture on the battlefield. To the northeast, A Company was falling back. C Company to the east and B Company to the west had been fought to a standstill.

But the battalion’s position was even worse than it appeared. Coffman could not know that he had run into a vastly superior number of NVA troops, who were so surprised by the Americans’ arrival that their initial response was sporadic and uncoordinated. But he did know that the deluge of rain hampered his Marine marksmen and prevented U.S. air power from intervening on their behalf.

Coffman realized that the battlefield was much too large for him to effectively control events. He left his junior officers to conduct the fights in their sectors and dedicated his time to forming a secure perimeter and coordinating the actions of the three companies.

Under a curtain of fire, Furleigh ordered A Company’s 1st Platoon, on the left, and 2nd Platoon, on the right, to crawl toward an enemy-held hedgerow. He also called for artillery blasts on the NVA position. However, because of all the thunder and lightning in the area, the artillery spotters in A Company couldn’t tell where the rounds were landing. Furleigh, fearful that the American-fired shells would strike his men, canceled the bombardment minutes after it started. The firefight would be mainly a small-arms affair.

Marine marksmanship soon took its toll, especially since the weather had improved a little, enabling the men to see their targets better. The Marines’ fire was even more effective because the NVA troops were hopping from spot to spot seeking better shooting positions and exposing themselves as a result.

The North Vietnamese answered the rifle fire with 60-mm mortar rounds lobbed at the Marines. However, the sodden earth absorbed the shells so much that only a little shrapnel made it into the air. The mortar was soon taken out by  a rocket launched from an M72 light anti-tank weapon, or LAW, fired by a member of Furleigh’s company.

Marines sweep through a valley in Operation Colorado. (Tim Page/Corbis via Getty Images)

At that point in the fight the sky cleared enough to allow two helicopter gunships to zero in on the enemy hedgerow. As NVA soldiers took cover from the blazing M60 machine guns of the UH-1 Iroquois choppers, A Company cleared the field of its wounded and dead. The appearance of the Hueys prompted C Company, led by 1st Lt. Marshal B. “Buck” Darling, to start a slow advance on A Company’s right.

Rather than hit A Company head-on, the NVA troops started to edge toward A Company’s left, intending to outflank the company and overrun the battalion command post. Furleigh spotted the threat and ordered Sgt. Albert J. Ellis to take his 3rd Platoon to guard 1st Platoon’s left.

Ellis and his men dashed to the north end of the hedgerow and immediately ran into North Vietnamese racing to their right 100 yards in front of them. As the enemy troops sprinted atop and along a dike, the Marines fired their M14s, killing dozens.

The U.S. fire attracted a previously unseen NVA machine gun that opened up on Ellis’ right front. Pfc. George Fudge went out to find the offending weapon and was stunned to see five banana trees walking away from his location. He killed four of the costumed North Vietnamese with just four rounds, total.

The fifth was able to fire back. That attracted the machine gun crew Fudge was looking for. The private hurled a grenade at the gun and then made his way back to this buddies, but not before he plugged an enemy soldier at a distance of 150 yards.

While Fudge was off on his adventure, Ellis and the other men of 3rd Platoon continued their fight, knocking out two more machine guns with LAW rounds fired by Lance Cpl. Robert Goodner. But the A Company platoon was outnumbered 4-to-1, and its ammunition was running low. Ellis sent a runner to B Company for help.

Just after the battle began, B Company, commanded by Capt. John Sullivan, had chased a group of 40 NVA troops, but soon part of his 1st Platoon was pinned down by machine gun fire. When the captain received the summons for help from A Company, his command was already stretched thin—1st Platoon watching his left flank, 3rd Platoon guarding his rear and 2nd Platoon the only unit not engaged. Even so, Sullivan sent two squads from 2nd Platoon to answer A Company’s plea for aid. They arrived at A Company’s position just in time to secure the battalion’s left margin.

The battalion’s march that morning had been led by Darling’s C Company, which cleared Cam Khe before the fighting started. Its planned route went across a large rice paddy enclosed on two sides by dense hedgerows. As C Company approached the rice paddy to cross it, firing could be heard on the unit’s left rear, signaling A Company’s initial contact with the enemy.

Intending to join A Company as fast as possible, C Company, with Cpl. Frank Parks as point man, trotted across the rice paddy. As the Marines crossed, they were hit by enemy small-arms salvos. Under an umbrella of friendly 81-mm mortar shells, C Company charged the opponent-

held hedgerow, but the men had to hit the ground just short of it as heavy enemy fire erupted from a trench behind the hedge.

At that moment Darling received word from the battalion that C Company was needed to take the pressure off A Company because B Company was pinned down and couldn’t help. After a personal reconnaissance of the terrain that would be used for his advance, he sent his 2nd Platoon to take up a position along the causeway over the rice paddy.

Darling set up two machine guns between his 2nd and 3rd platoons. His battle line—with 2nd Platoon on the left, 3rd Platoon on the right and 1st Platoon in reserve—was 200 yards long, bristling with 100 guns to fire on the NVA hedgerow.

Darling then directed the 1st Platoon leader, 1st Lt. Arthur Blades, to attack the hedgerow. Blades formed his line with 1st Squad on the left, 2nd in the center and 3rd on the right. The platoon began to move through the broken underbrush, unseen by the NVA. But when 3rd Squad entered a small clearing, enemy fire knocked down four of its six members, killing three of them.

Blades called Darling for reinforcements. The C Company leader dispatched a machine gun and a few riflemen to assist Blades. Placing those reinforcements on his left, Blades assembled 2nd Squad in back of two abandoned huts, ready to hit the trench behind the hedgerow with rifle fire and grenades. The amount of NVA fire slowly decreased as American bullets and hand grenades struck the trench line. A few of the enemy, however, still spat out AK-47 rounds.

Blades prepared to send his 1st Squad toward the hedgerow, but before the unit leaped forward, he wanted to get one of the enemy snipers still firing from the trench. In a reckless scheme, 1st Squad leader Cpl. Christopher Cushman stepped into the open, literally inviting the enemy to shoot him. Behind Cushman, Cpl. Walter McDonald had his rifle at the ready. When the sniper got up to shoot Cushman, the American hit the deck, and McDonald killed the NVA shooter. A few minutes later, McDonald showed off a classic baseball player’s arm when he tossed a grenade onto a North Vietnamese who was about to kill a wounded Marine.

As the momentum shifted to the Americans, three Marine engineers—Pfc. William Joy, Lance Cpl. William Miller and Lance Cpl. Clifford Butts—entered the left end of the trench and began to clear it. At the same time, Blades squeezed the hedgerow from the left, and Darling’s other two platoons advanced on the right. The remaining NVA abandoned their posts and clustered behind a haystack next to the trench. The three Marine engineers making their way through the trench crept close to the haystack and, with rifle fire and hand grenades, blasted the enemy assembled there.

About that time, choppers arrived with ammunition and fresh men. When two newcomers approached Blades and asked if they could help, the lieutenant yelled, “Yes! With grenades!” When the two men offered several to Blades, he shouted: “Who the hell do you think I am, John Wayne? Get out of this trench and go throw your grenades!”

Blades then grabbed an M79 grenade launcher and headed down the trench, followed by his men, killing NVA as they went. Three North Vietnamese tried to escape across the empty rice paddy, but “dead-eye” McDonald and Cushman shot them down. The remaining North Vietnamese closed ranks and fought it out, but were quickly overwhelmed.

After the grueling contest, Blades radioed Darling: “We’ve taken the objective!” As the last opposition in the hedgerow was being eliminated, the rainstorm ended, allowing a flight of jets to break up the enemy attack on B Company.

Viet Cong prisoners are being monitored on Aug. 12, 1966, by members of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. (U.S. Marine Corps)

On the morning of Aug. 11, the Marines tallied up the cost of the battle they had just fought. The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, had 14 dead and 65 wounded. On the other side, more than 100 North Vietnamese had been killed, including a company commander. The Americans discovered their antagonists had been two battalions of the NVA 3rd Regiment. The 1st Battalion continued to patrol the battlefield, but only met occasional sniper fire.

Later that day the battalion got a surprise visit from Gen. Wallace M. Greene Jr., commandant of the Marine Corps, and Lt. Gen. Lewis W. Walt, who commanded all Marine forces in South Vietnam. They had been in the area on an inspection tour. Greene asked a dirty, thoroughly exhausted Darling about the Aug. 10 action, and the young C Company lieutenant replied, “Well, General, we got into a fight with the enemy.” The commandant then asked what he did. “General,” Darling said, “we killed them.”

After the heavy action of Aug. 10, the 5th Marines faced little opposition. On Aug. 12 the 1st Battalion moved to the eastern portion of the Colorado area and conducted a search-and-destroy mission in the “Pineapple Forest,” 2 miles southeast of Ky Phu and Cam Khe. The region, shaped like a pineapple, is studded with low-lying hills, interspersed with rice paddies and hamlets. The battalion came across a large rice cache, but encountered only fleeting opposition from local Viet Cong guerrillas. Before completing their mission there, the Marines moved the civilian population to more secure areas. By Aug. 18, all units of the 5th Marines had returned to Chu Lai.

Operation Colorado officially ended Aug. 22 and had succeeded in driving out the NVA 2nd Division from the Que Son Valley, at least temporarily. But it failed in its other objective: to bring the entire Hiep Duc-Que Son zone under American and South Vietnamese control. Because of an increasing commitment of Marine forces to engagements near the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam, the 1st Marine Division’s plans to pacify the Colorado area were pre-empted. It was not until April 1967 that the Marines once more entered the region in force.

Sidebar: M14: U.S. Marines’ Battle Rifle The M14 battle rifle, which entered service in 1959, was developed to replace the revered M1 Garand, adopted in 1936. At a cost of $100 million, nearly 1.4 million M14s were produced by the Springfield Armory; Winchester, Harrington & Richardson; and other arms-makers until 1964 when the weapon officially ceased to be a standard service rifle. But most U.S. Army and Marine infantrymen continued to carry M14 rifles until 1967.

From its inception, the M14, capable of semi-automatic or automatic firing, generated controversy. The 1952 Pentagon-commissioned Hitchman Report, based on a study of the requirements for infantry rifles at that time, questioned the concept of the M14, designed for firing distances of 500 yards. The report pointed out that the most effective range for modern rifles was 300 yards and most kills were at 100 yards or less.

The report also favored a smaller caliber bullet, with its lower recoil, improved dispersion control and greater hit probability, rather than higher recoil 7.62 mm rounds that the M14 fired.

Additionally, riflemen engaged in fights requiring sustained firepower needed to carry large amounts of ammunition, which was another argument for smaller, lighter rounds.

Because Marine training emphasized individual marksmanship, however, the accuracy and hitting power of the robust M14 round was of great value and more important than the rate of fire.

In Vietnam the Marine Corps guidelines stated that a squad should contain three riflemen armed with M14s that had select-fire capability (able to switch between automatic and semi-automatic mode).

Reconnaissance squads, which needed additional firepower since they would be the ones most likely to encounter enemy ambushes, were entirely armed with M14s.

Nonetheless, the heaviness of the M14 was a drawback. The tropical weather of Vietnam’s jungles made a lighter rifle appealing to troops trying to lessen their load.

And during Vietnam combat, Americans were fighting the enemy at closer distances than they did in Western Europe or Korea. The longer range of the M14 and the stopping power of its larger-caliber rounds were unnecessary in those battles.

The new 5.56 mm AR15/M16 assault rifle was a better fit for those combat situations. In 1967, the M16 replaced the M14 as the standard infantry rifle in Vietnam.

Although the M14 was phased out of regular service decades ago, various branches of the U.S. armed forces still use variants of the weapon, such as the Marine Corps M39 EMR sniper rifle.

Arnold Blumberg, an attorney in Baltimore, served in the Army Reserve, 1968-74, ending his term as a staff sergeant in a maintenance company. He writes on military topics for history publications.

 

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