At 0430 on the morning of 4 September 1967 , the Marines of Delta 1/5 were suddenly and violently attacked on two sides by an enemy force of unknown size. The Delta Marines had been actively committed to a company-sized search and destroy operation a few kilometers east of the 1/5 combat base. Fortunately, the initial enemy gunfire had not been very accurate, and only four Marines were wounded during the initial engagement. Based on the sheer volume of fire, the situation could have been much worse. It did get worse; much, much worse.
The enemy gunfire continued to escalate rapidly, and by 0830 that morning Delta Company reported a cumulative total of 14 Marines killed in action and another 15 had been seriously wounded. One of the early casualties was the Company Commander of Delta 1/5, Captain R. F. Morgan, who was seriously wounded at 0620 that morning and urgently required medevac.
Operation SWIFT started swiftly and escalated swiftly and violently, thus its name. That dark and bloody morning, 4 September 1967 , would ultimately become the bloodiest single day in 1/5’s tenure during the entire Vietnam War, Delta Company’s situation deteriorated rapidly. Immediately after the Company Commander was wounded, the Executive Officer, Lieutenant Carl Fulford, reported heavy contact with an enemy force of approximately a company of NVA, reporting several WIA’s and KIA’s and requested immediate assistance. The Marines of Delta 1/5 had already taken many casualties, and they needed a lot of help.
The Marines of Bravo Company, under Captain Tom Reese, mounted up quickly, and departed the Battalion combat base at 0655 that morning. By 0820, Bravo Company’s Marines had arrived in the vicinity of the battle, which was near the village of Dong Son (1), about six kilometers east and a little south of the combat base. Dong Son (1) was really just a cluster of hootches that sat on a low tree-lined rise close by and just south of the Song Ly Ly River. Dong Son (1) was adjacent to a huge rice paddy complex that included several square kilometers of active rice paddies and dikes on the north side of the village. Low foothills dotted the landscape to the south, but the predominant terrain features in that area were the villages of Dong Son (1) and Chau Lam (4); the two small hills that separated the villages (the tallest of which was labeled “Hill 63” on the 1:50,000 terrain map); and the surrounding rice paddies.
At 0700 that morning, shortly after Bravo Company departed the combat base, armed “Huey” gunships (UH1E helicopters with deadly 40mm rocket pods attached) arrived and delivered air strikes within 50 meters of the beleaguered Delta Company Marines’ positions. A few minutes later, an Aerial Observer (AO) flying around in an O-1 aircraft directed an artillery attack against the enemy positions with good results. Enemy firing slackened off for a few minutes after the air and artillery strikes, but the NVA forces came back in force. The NVA attacked the Marines again and again that day, repeatedly and relentlessly, and they attacked with ferocity every time. The 1 st NVA Regiment’s fighters appeared to be determined to wipe out the Marines where they were standing.
By mid-morning on the 4 th, the Marines of both Bravo and Delta Company had their hands full; they were totally engaged with large groups of NVA regulars within a few hundred meters of each other. The NVA had apparently been in the area for a while, because they had dug extensive trenches and other fighting positions that were very well prepared and camouflaged.
Again reacting to the threat, 1/5’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Hilgartner, requested reinforcements from the Regimental Commander. The 5th Marines command group responded by sending Kilo and Mike Companies of the 3 rd Battalion, 5 th Marines to the battlefield. The Kilo and Mike Company Marines arrived before the end of that long and deadly day, 4 September 1967 . Once again, the Marines had the enemy soldiers of the 1 st NVA Regiment in a stranglehold, and every Marine was working urgently to make sure that the hard-fighting but slippery NVA soldiers wouldn’t get out of the trap this time. Most of them didn’t. Before Operation SWIFT was over, the 1 st NVA Regiment would be effectively destroyed. But that would take a while longer; twelve days, to be exact.
During Bravo Company’s assault on the village of Dong Son (1), which turned out to be one of several main enemy positions, twenty-six Marines were reported as KIA and another 33 Marines were wounded and needed medevac. But the enemy had fled the village and Delta Company’s position was once again secure; at least it was for a while longer.
Before the end of that terrible and confusing day, 4 September 1967 , many 1/5 Marines would lose their lives. Other units were rushed to the battlefield to support and reinforce the beleaguered Marines. One of those units was Company M, 3 rd Battalion, 5 th Marines. Accompanying them, although he was under strict orders to stay in the rear area, was Lieutenant Vincent R. Capodanno, Chaplain Corps, United States Naval Reserve, the Chaplain of 3 rd Battalion, 5 th Marines. Father Capodanno was well known by the Marines of 1/5, because he had served as their Chaplain for a few months before this battle. All those Marines who spent any time at all with Father Capodanno knew him simply as the “Grunt Padre” because it seemed as though he was not happy unless he was out in the field with his Marines.
At about mid-day on the 4 th of September, the Marines of Mike and Kilo Companies landed in an LZ located only a kilometer from the fighting, and Father Capodanno was in the vanguard. Late that afternoon, hearing that one platoon of Mike Company was in danger of being overrun and wiped out, he left the relative safety of the Company Command Post, and rushed to the aid of his grunts. Seeing a corpsman in dire circumstances, having been seriously wounded, his body exposed to enemy machine gun fire, the Grunt Padre unhesitatingly rushed to his side, and screened his body from enemy fire. He was shot and killed giving aid and comfort to his Marines. Father Capodanno was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his gallantry.
On the morning of the 6 th, both Kilo and Mike Companies were “chopped” (a made-up word of military jargon that stands for reassignment, or “changing operational control”) back to their parent battalion, 3/5, leaving Bravo and Delta 1/5 and Delta 1/1 attached to 1 st Battalion, 5 th Marines headquarters. The Marines of Delta 1/1 had arrived on the battlefield early that morning.
At 1500 on 6 September 1967, Lt. Col. Hilgartner, issued a Frag Order, ordering the Marines to attack the village of Chau Lam (3), which was located about two kilometers east of the initial battlefield on the 4 th. The Marines of Bravo 1/5 and Delta 1/1 attacked the village of Chau Lam (3) “on line” in a frontal assault formation, with the Bravo Company Marines on the right, or south flank. They attacked right into the well-prepared positions of the enemy soldiers, and were taken under heavy sniper fire, which became more and more intense as the Bravo Company Marines advanced towards the village. As Bravo Company assaulted forward, their casualties mounted. The Marines of Delta 1/1 saw an opportunity to outflank the enemy forces engaged with Bravo, who were firmly lodged in the village of Chau Lam (3) and were still locked in deadly combat with the Bravo 1/5 Leathernecks. As the Delta 1/1 Marines approached the line of departure for their flanking movement, the task force commander reported that he was engaged in heavy combat with an estimated battalion of NVA soldiers. With the realization that night was approaching rapidly, and that the Marines of 1/5 had trapped another NVA battalion, orders were sent to the field commander to consolidate their positions to a cluster of hootches at a bend in the highway, a few hundred meters north. As they moved toward the hootches, 1/5 began to receive intense mortar and small arms fire. The efforts to consolidate were hampered by the enemy fire and consequent casualties. To make matters worse, as the lines were consolidated, the enemy attempted to infiltrate. At one point in the confusion of close battle, five to fifteen NVA had managed to move within 10 meters of the perimeter before they were killed by the defensive fires.
Over the next several days, the Marines made contact with the enemy constantly, with running battles being the order of the day. As Marine forces had reached the battlefield they had managed to bottle the NVA up and had done great damage to them. Now they were on the run, fleeing the villages in small units; they were shattered but still dangerous.
Finally, at 1600 on 15 September 1967 , Operation SWIFT was officially terminated. During Operation SWIFT, this reinforced Marine battalion had engaged in a deadly struggle with the NVA soldiers of the 1 st NVA Regiment, as well as elements of the 3 rd and 21 st NVA Regiments. The Combat After-Action Report from Operation SWIFT estimates that nearly 1,000 enemy soldiers had been engaged in SWIFT’s battles. On the negative side of the equation, Operation SWIFT resulted in the deaths of eighty-nine U. S. Marines, but nearly 600 NVA soldiers had been killed in action.
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