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Operation Swift was a military operation that took place in the Vietnam War. The mission, involving forces of the 1st Marine Division, was carried out to rescue two Marine companies which had been previously ambushed by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Launched on September 4, 1967 the ensuing battles killed 127 Americans. Despite their withdrawal after having suffered heavy losses, the NVA had accomplished their objective of intercepting an American offensive operation and inflicting heavy casualties.
Populous and rice-rich, the valley was viewed as one of the keys to controlling South Vietnam's five northern provinces by the communists and by early 1967 at least two regiments of the NVA 2nd Division had been infiltrated into the area. The Que Son Valley was also recognized as strategically important by the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). The 5th Marine Regiment was assigned to the valley in 1967 to support the outnumbered South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) forces there.
In the spring and summer of 1967 MACV launched Operations Union and Union II with the goal of sweeping the NVA from the southern rim of the Que Son Valley. Several bitter and costly battles forced the NVA 2nd Division to cede control of area to the 5th Marines. Two Battalions of the 5th Marines continued to operate in the valley throughout rest of the summer but did not patrol aggressively and were not molested by the communist forces, who were regrouping. During the lull the NVA 2nd Division rebuilt its strength to a force of three regular regiments and was reinforced by the Viet Cong (VC, or more properly National Liberation Front or NLF) 1st Regiment, a full-time main force unit.
In early August Major General Don Robertson, commanding the 1st Marine Division, turned his attention to the Que Son Valley following several major operations around Da Nang. In an attempt to draw the NVA into another destructive confrontation Robertson launched Operation Cochise on August 11. However the NVA largely managed to avoid contact with the three Marine battalions tasked with the operation which ended on August 28 with only modest results.
Sweep operations were then initiated to shield the local populace from intimidation during upcoming elections. Operation Swift, intended to be the fourth and the last of the 1967 operations in the Que Son Valley, began unofficially on the morning of September 4 when Delta Company, 1st Battalion 5th Marines (1/5) was attacked before dawn by a superior NVA force while setup in a night-time defensive perimeter next to the village of Dong Son.
The local Battalion Commander was Lt.Colonel Peter Hilgartner who sent 1/5's Bravo Company to Delta’s relief, which was all he had at the time. With Bravo and Delta companies heavily engaged, Mike and Kilo companies from the adjacent 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5) were sent to relieve them. Ambushed and aggressively attacked, these two companies were also pinned down in separate enclaves by the early afternoon. During the fighting Corporal Larry Benjamin Nunez earned the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving as a Squad Leader. Sergeant Lawrence Peters earned a posthumous Medal of Honor for leading his men in repulsing repeated attempts to overrun his position. Navy Chaplain Lieutenant Vincent Capodanno was also awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for his efforts in pulling wounded men to safety in face of overwhelming enemy fire. Sergeant Thomas C. Panian was also awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism for organizing the defense of India Company, 3/5 Marines; and holding off subsequent attacks over 8 hours of combat.
Marine artillery fire and Marine jet fighter-bombers prevented the Marine infantry companies from being overrun. A Marine A-6 silenced an anti-aircraft gun emplacement, allowing more air support against NVA positions, and a fresh Marine company launched a dawn counterattack September 5 forcing the NVA to break contact. With all engaged companies now relieved Colonel Stanley Davis, commanding the 5th Marines, ordered 1/5 and 3/5 to pursue the withdrawing NVA, this officially began Operation Swift.
In the early afternoon of September 6 two battalions of the NLF 1st Regiment attacked Bravo Company, the lead company of the 1st Battalion. Bravo 1/5 was isolated and nearly overrun but held when Marine artillery rained tear gas around their position. Sergeant Rodney M. Davis, Platoon Guide of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, purposely absorbed the force of an NVA grenade to protect the lives of other Marines during that fight. Sergeant Davis was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for this action.
The nearby 3rd Battalion was also heavily engaged a few hours later. India Company, dispatched to attack a hill held by the enemy, was isolated and nearly overrun by the NLF 1st Regiment's previously uncommitted 3rd Battalion. Kilo Company fought through the NLF and relieved India but the two companies were then found to have too many casualties to move. Two determined night assaults by the NLF were repulsed, and Mike Company eventually fought through against weakening opposition as the NLF withdrew.
The American losses were not negligible, amounting to 127 dead and 362 injured. According to calculations by U.S, NVA/NLF suffering the loss of 564 killed. However, the losses inflicted on the NVA/NLF are debatable. The U.S. estimates were almost exclusively gathered by indirect means: sensor readings, sightings of secondary explosions, reports of POWs, and inference or extrapolation. These numbers are in clear conflict with the number of enemy's weapons were captured by the U.S. (only 85 NVA/NLF weapons were captured, a ratio of bodies were claimed to weapons seized of 7:1)
As the enemy withdrew, the Marine battalions continued to press them in a series of bitter engagements. By September 15, the NVA 2nd Division and NLF 1st Regiment had largely given up contesting the southern half of the Que Son Valley. The area remained quiet from then until the Marines turned all of southern I Corps over to the U.S. Army at the beginning of 1968. U.S. intelligence agencies later determined that the two enemy regiments that had been most active during Operation Swift were subsequently unfit for combat.
As Operation Swift concluded large U.S. Army units arrived in southern I Corps, allowing the 1st Marine Division to base a substantial force in the Que Son Valley on a permanent basis.
- Lost Battles of the Vietnam War
- Debbe Reynolds' memorial page - Many contemporary photos and military documents