Saturday, December 10, 2016

OPERATION HARVEST MOON: 51 Years Ago — Lest We Forget




2nd BN, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division

Loading to Fly Into a Hell Hole

USS Valley Forge (LPH-8)

Laying in Rice Paddies for 10 Hours

Reunion in DC: Seven Fox Company Survivors
(Author: Front row right)

The memories of being in those cold wet rice paddies during OPERATION Harvest Moon, which lasted from December 10-20, still lingers after all these years. It was our first really big major operation. The photo above depicts those rice paddies where we laid for over 10 hours while under constant fire.
As I said, it was cold, wet, and muddy not only for me and my infantry squad or our platoon, 1st Platoon, FOX Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines but for everyone else that horrible day. No one could support us or get to us and we were unable to move and withdrew to higher or dry ground for over 10 long miserable hours under heavy rifle, machine gun and mortar fire from Hill 407. 
The operational day started early as most combat operations do – at about 5 or 6 am. We were to land by helicopters flying off the USS Valley Forge (LPH-8).  Little did we know at the time that we would face a vastly superior North Vietnamese and VC force, who held the high ground as they shot at us like fish in a proverbial barrel. 
At the end of that bloody day or worse of the nearly 3 months we had been inland, we suffered 20 dead and about 80 wounded. I lost two Marines in my 14-man squad: LCpl. Barry Sitler was killed in action, and PFC Bill Stocker was badly wounded. I also lost my Platoon Commander who was badly wounded, 1st Lt. Charlie George, and our Platoon Guide, a very good friend of mine, Sgt. Bob Hickman from Wheeling, WV, was killed in action.
More on this operation can be found at these several places:
From my book “Last Ride Home” (here). 
From several other links like here where firsthand accounts are presented.
From Ohio State University (eHistory) here (my company’s story starts on page 106). 
From the link below is some great art work from my good friend and former Marine PFC Tom Miller. Tom lost an eye during Harvest Moon while serving with the 7th Marines – the unit that managed to reach us first late in the day.
This part of that operation I can never forget:
It happened on the second day (December 11, 1965) as we were humping up Hill 407 where we had received so much fire from the day before. As we passed through some heavy shrubs, my mind drifted back to my youthful days and concord grape vines I used climb and steal grapes from my grandmother’s backyard (before she would catch me and chase me away).
Suddenly, my daydreaming was broken when someone yelled, “Grenade!” Everyone started diving off the trail and ducking for whatever cover they could find, or just stopping in their tracks and hitting the ground. Then all of a sudden right in front of me rolling straight down the trail towards my feet was a hand-grenade. In a split second as they say, my whole life flashed before my eyes yet my first thought was to also duck and seek cover or try to run as fast as possible away, but that was not an option at the moment. 
I do remember thinking, “was it was a VC hand-grenade, or a booby trap.” I just did not know and certainly had no time to find out – I needed to act and act fast. In an instant that all went through my mind and nothing seemed to matter so without a single thought clearly in my head, or any thought at all I guess, I reached down and grabbed the grenade and turned to throw it as far as possible away.

At that precise moment I saw that it was one of our own hand grenades, but, it had no firing mechanism in place. It was missing, but the grenade was still fully intact.

In reality, there was no way it could have ever exploded without the firing mechanism. What the hell was going on? As it turned out, it had fallen off some Marine’s cartridge belt who was up ahead in the column. In those early days of the war safety was paramount and we carried them carefully for quick access (in fact sometimes we were told to "tape 'em shut).

As it happened that one came unscrewed and dropped to the ground from his belt and rolled down the hill and right at my feet. The firing mechanism with pin obviously were still hanging from his belt and he didn’t even know it had fallen off.
Everyone around me had a good laugh when they saw what was really happening. There I stood holding a “dud.” I must have looked silly standing there with a grenade in my hand ready to throw it, and with a shitty look on my face, not even knowing it would never have exploded. That was definitely a first for me and I recall thinking it would be the last.
That day someone broke the rules because the one I picked up had no tape on it and thus a Marine, someone I never knew who, had been disregarded the rules and that could have cost me and a few others dearly had it gone off. 
 That moment in time passed along with the short-lived danger - we moved up the hill hunting and pursuing the enemy. Once again, I thought how lucky I was, but in a very odd way. Lady luck was right there beside me, but I wondered, for how long she’d stick around?
All in all, I wanted to share that memory and the rest of the story as I do every December for the sole purpose of remembering those we lost who can never come home and tell their stories. So, I tell the story for them. It is my honor and duty and pleasure to present the story and remind everyone to never forget them. I never will.
Our losses during Operation HARVEST MOON (all on December 10, 1965 except as noted):
  1. PFC Robert L. Craft, Salt Lake City, UT, age: 18
  2. PFC Mike Crannan, Canoga Park, CA, age: 18
  3. PFC Ron Cummings, Stockton, CA, age: 18
  4. SGT Bob Hickman, Wheeling, WV, age: 36
  5. PFC Joe Moreno, Austin, TX, age: 18
  6. CPL Les Puzyrewski, Chicago, IL, age: 19
  7. LCpl Barry J. Sitler, Compton, CA, age: 20
  8. Cpl Lloyd Vannatter, Ettrick, VA, age: 25
  9. Cpl Jim Brock, Cleveland, OH, age: 23
  10. LCpl Acie Hall, Lake City, TN, age: 22
  11. PFC John Wilson, St. Paul, MN, age: 21
  12. PFC Larry Tennill, Slater, MO, age: 18
  13. LCpl Dennis Manning, St. Clair Shores, MI, age: 19 (shot  and died Dec 11th)
Lest We Forget…

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