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Submitted by Rob Whitlow, USMC AO
Marine 01C Bird Dog

Blackcoat '3' 1/LT Rob Whitlow, USMC,  A.O. - 1st Marine Division
Marble Mtn. Air Facility, near Da Nang, 1967

Aerial Map Operation SWIFT, 4 Sept. 1967
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Marine Birddog over Goi Noi Island area - summer, 1967
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 Bombing in Que Son Valley, south of Nui Loc Son, summer, 1967
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I have read the piece about SWIFT and the air strikes in the US Marine Corps official history ("U.S. Marines in Vietnam - Fighting the North Vietnamese 1967" by Major Gary L, Telfer, USMC, Lieutenant Colonel Lane Rogers USMC and V. Keith Fleming, Jr.). While it is close, it is not entirely accurate. Maj. Telfer, one of the authors, interviewed me while he was working on the book. I will tell you my story, with the caveat that like everything else ever written as fact, it is from an individual perspective and probably has been distorted to some degree by the years and the fading of memories. Like any first person account written so long after the event, it is imperfect. Hopefully, it can add some detail to the record of the events of the night of 4 September 1967.

Some things I can say with certainty. For the record, we never hit the NVA anti air gun positions on the night of September 4th, as the official history says. We did not and could not because we did not know where one Marine rifle company was for much of the evening. For some reason, they were not on our radio frequency and their location on the ground was totally unknown tome. Capt Bob Fitzsimmons, my pilot, was flying one of his first combat missions in Vietnam. I was pretty experienced, having arrived in Viet Nam in January. By SWIFT I had flown over 300 missions as an AO and had controlled well over 100 air strikes, most from the Marine 01CBird Dog. So, I was as prepared as one could possibly be. But no amount of training or experience could have prepared anyone for Swift. It was a different kind of battle than anything we had experienced, with multiple companies on the ground, all separated and under heavy assault by battalion-sized NVA forces, and all needing immediate air strikes for survival. And, my involvement was at night. 

By far, M Company was hardest hit on the night of the 4th. They were surrounded, cut off, under intense mortar fire, and had suffered heavy casualties by the time I arrived overhead in the Bird Dog  late in the afternoon. They were desperately attempting to pull back into a perimeter defense on a small hill, but platoons, squads and even fire teams had been cut off and isolated by the close in fire of NVA. Plus that, at least one North Vietnamese battalion, maybe two, were streaming south from assembly areas along the Ly Ly River to reinforce the ambush and finish off M company by the time we reported on station. Another FAC and good friend of mine, Captain Tom Redmond had been over M company in the early stage of the ambush. Low on fuel, he had just controlled a flight of F 8 Crusaders dropping 1,000 pound bombs on 3 columns of NVA that were moving in on M company crossing open rice paddies from the north. I reported on station, took a target brief from Tom, and he left the area to return to Da Nang. 

We orbited directly over M company at 1,000 feet for the next there and half hours, pivoting with our right wing down in a tight clockwise circle at about 85 mph. As a result of the F 8’s bombstrikes, visibility over the area was becoming poor. The heavy bombs had created smoke and dust and light was fading as dusk approached. Because of the limited visibility and because the NVA reinforcements were continuing their massive attacks from the north, we continued to run flight after flight of bombers into the open paddies just north of M's location, working dangerously close into the Marines forward positions. We used the earlier bomb craters as reference points for the sake of safety. We knew where M Company was and where the assaulting NVA were but at that time were not aware that another Marine company was in the vicinity.

At one point, when it became completely dark, I asked the Marine on the ground radio if he had a strobe light. He went off the air briefly and came back, placing a pulsating strobe light near his position-- an incredible act of courage I thought! After that we directed the attack bombers to drop about 50 meters north of the blinking strobe light. The bombing was actually probably much closer than 50 meters, since the Marines' lines were not really established. Once it was dark, NVA anti aircraft guns opened up from around the valley, firing long streams of tracers into the night sky. The fireworks were made all the more spectacular by the fact that we were directly in the middle of the long arcs of tracers. The North Vietnamese gunners had planned their anti air craft fire very well, probably knowing that the jets would make their run in from the open end of the valley to the east. Their gun positions were almost in a U shaped arrangement around the battlefield. Five or six positions could fire in a crisscross pattern, directly into incoming jets from the east. The NVA knew that the high mountains to the west prevented us from bringing the jets in from that direction.

After the first anti aircraft air craft fire, every plane over the battle turned off their lights, so as not to draw fire. The NVA continued to fire at approaching jets, probably firing into the sounds of the jets as they dived toward the target. They shot down one bomber and hit several others during the time I was overhead. The crew of the downed plane ejected over the South China Sea I heard later and were picked up. I believe it was an A 6 intruder, but my memory may not serve me well on that point. Once a plane was hit, they switched to a guard frequency to broadcast their Mayday call for help. They left our air control frequency, so we really did not hear that part of the drama. We had enough drama on the air ground frequency and the tactical air control frequency to the jets. 

At some point early in the evening darkness, Captain Fitzsimmons flipped on our wing tip landing light, probably to show the attack jet where we were as a safety precaution so the jet would not collide with us. A stream of NVA anti air tracer fire went just beneath our wing. I was watching the ground intently from my right rear window when the stream rudely interrupted my concentration. I'll never know how close it came to us but from my vantage point at that moment if I had reached my arm out of the open rear window, I think I would have be wearing a purple heart now. It was an extremely close call and got our attention. Needless to say, I did not have to tell Fitzsimmons to turn off the light! After that no pilot above the battle area dared turn on any lights. I remember reading my map and my notes under a red flashlight in the back seat, hoping the glow from that flashlight was not somehow visible to the ground. I fully expected the NVA to rip us out of the air with their heavy caliber fire at any moment. After all, we were a lowflying and easy to hit target. I never understood why they did not attack us but suspect that they could not hear our small engine over the roar of the jets and the explosions on the ground. Maybe they did not realize we were such a critical link between the jets and the ground units. Whatever the reason, we miraculously drew fire only twice during the entire evening. 

At the peak of the battle, just after dark, probably about 1930 or so (I sure was not checking my watch that night!) we had between twelve and fifteen flights of bombers stacked over the battle at 2,000 ft intervals starting at about 6,000 feet. The Direct Air Support Center back at 1st Division Headquarters in Da Nang had sent us every available flight, diverting some from other missions and scrambling attack bombers from Chu Lai and Da Nang. Some were low on fuel and needed priority in the bombing assignments. Most carried 500 lb bombs, but the A-6s were carrying 750 lb. bombs. They had probably been diverted from planned night missions against targets in North Vietnam.

Off to our south, med evac and re-supply helicopters churned around at about 4,000 feet waiting for an opportunity to get into the area. To my knowledge, no choppers were able to get in until the next morning. Certainly they did not while I was on station. The ground fire was too intense and the fighting on the ground too heavy and confusing.

The confusion was extreme and was heightened by the stress levels of anyone talking on a radio. I made my best effort to stay calm and have a calming influence on the ground units. But I am sure my voice pitch elevated at least a few octaves! We had all the Marine ground companies, their battalion command teams, the regimental command team, and even the 1st Division CP on the radios. Everybody had a problem and an opinion and nobody I talked to had a solution. B and D 1/5 were to the west of M company about a mile and were themselves under NVA attack. They were attempting to call artillery strikes around their positions from 105mm howitzers located about three miles away at the 1/5 base camp at Que Son. However, the gun target line of the artillery was directly through the run- in-pull out heading of our attacking jets, so we could not clear their fire. The fact that M company had priority was understandably upsetting to them. But, we had enough problems to manage without having a jet being blown from the sky by our own artillery fire. Interestingly, North Vietnamese were on our radio net, speaking English clearly, telling us to run air strikes on bogus targets. They were also whistling and chattering into the radio traffic, interrupting radio communications. They were only a minor distraction. Reflecting back on the bizarre events of that night, the sometimes they made more sense than instructions I was receiving from our command centers!

As if all of this was not confusing enough, an Air Force Spooky (either an AC-47 or AC –130) gun ship was on top of the entire stack of Marine jets, requesting permission to fire its mini guns on the NVA anti aircraft gun positions. The Spooky had already dropped a string of flares over the battlefield, which only served to silhouette aircraft and trigger more anti aircraft fire. The flares also screwed up the Marine's night vision. I believe the 5th Marine Regimental CP, located five miles out of the battle on Hill 63, had requested the flare drop. We had ordered him not to drop any more flares. 

Finally, we gave Spooky approval to strike against the anti air craft gun positions. As I recall, we told the circling jets to extend their orbits wider since the Spooky would be firing down through the stack of jets orbiting at lower altitudes and could easily hit one since nobody, including the Spooky had lights on. The gunship erupted with a stream of tracers from 10,000 feet and was hit almost immediately by NVA anti air fire which locked onto Spooky’s tracer stream and walked right back up to the plane. The duel was on! 

The Spooky pilot climbed up to 12k feet and the episode was repeated. Finally, Spooky went to 14K feet (I assume it's maximum effective range) and fired again and was hit again. The pilot came on the radio and said he could not operate in this environment and either went back to Da Nang for repairs and a change of underwear or went to look for a more favorable operating environment. Anyway, he was more of a bother than a help--that I remember clearly. After he departed, we continued to run Marine air strikes. Aside from providing a colorful intermission, Spooky was pretty ineffective that night. His abortive attacks on the anti air craft positions had no noticeable effect. Their firing continued after his departure. And his flaredrops were a near disaster to us as the NVA gunners blasted at us again. Fitzsimmons flew the Bird Dog south into the darkness, out of the lighted skies until the flares fell to the ground. I also remember that the bright light of the flares impaired my night vision. For several minutes I could not read the maps and I momentarily lost the ground position of M Company, which was critical. Fortunately the strobe light was still blinking and allowed me to reorient myself to the target area.

An NVA mortar complex, probably about six to eight, maybe ten mortars, was firing on M company from about 1,500 meters to their immediate south, maybe closer. We could clearly see the flashes of he mortar tubes, which seemed to be firing almost simultaneously, and could see the explosions impacting a few seconds later in M company’s position. We actually were forced to shift our orbit ever so slightly from directly over M company to avoid the possibility of being struck by a mortar round as they went up and came down through our flight path on their trajectory toward M Company. The shift was very slight--the trace of our orbit was still directly over the westernmost edge of M company’s position. The mortar fire had continued since early evening, but we could not get target clearance from the 5th Marines to hit the mortars because K Company was down there somewhere in the dark and neither the 5th Marines nor I had any idea where they were. I had this gnawing feeling that maybe the NVA assault columns which had been attacking M Co from the north at dusk could somehow have been K Company and that we had bombed them inadvertently under bad visibility. Remember, I had come on station after the first bomb strikes had been run and the smoke and dust from the first 1,000 pound bombs had made visibility very marginal. Maybe their radios had been knocked out by the first strike and they could not call us. I knew that was unlikely, since the NVA that we had seen just before dark were wearing heavy camouflage foliage on helmets and packs. Nevertheless,  given the stress and confusion, the thought continued to nag at me. I knew that stranger things had happened in the confusion of battle and that intramural firefights were within the realm of possibility.

Finally, Colonel Davis, the CO of 5th Marines came up on the radio net. He was located with the regimental CP on Hill 63. I had debriefed with Colonel Davis on a number of occasions while he was serving as Division G -2 (intelligence) at Da Nang. Davis said: Bob, if you see those mortar positions, and you have positive identification, run the strike. Not precise words, but pretty darned close. I distinctly remember that he did not use my radio call sign (Black Coat 3) but called me by my first name. (He had remembered my call sign apparently from some of the previous scrapes I had to debrief him on...). Next in the bombing rotation was a flight of two A 6 Intruders, each carrying thirty four 750 pound bombs. We briefed the pilots carefully, describing the two sets of flashes they were seeing, and directing him to strike the set of flashes furthest south, and south of the blinking strobe light. We didn't use south as a direction but use 9 o’clock from the strobe light. The flight leader said he was low on fuel  and would have to salvo his entire bomb load on the first pass but that he had the target in view. Believe me, nobody wanted to make multiple bomb runs that night! 

So, the lead A-6 made his target run from the east, dropped all 34 bombs, and took heavy anti aircraft fire. and miraculously the bombs dropped directly onto the mortar positions. Miraculously, it was a precision drop, which A-6's were not known for. The concussion of the heavy explosions rocked our small airplane. At the moment of impact, a radio operator from K company came upon the radio screaming that the bombs had hit them. I was immediately sick at my stomach and for the first time that night was shaken. I put my head out the open right window and tried to vomit but nothing came up. This was the most disastrous possible outcome of an air strike! Thirty four 750 pound bombs could easily have killed every Marine on the ground. We told the next A-6, the wing mate, who was now making his approach dive to the target, to abort the bomb run and take it high and dry. He pulled off target before dropping and both Intruders went off our frequency and headed back to Da Nang. 

After the K Company radio operator calmed down some we learned that the bombs had been extremely close to K Co position but very luckily had not hit them. While there was definitely cause for alarm, there were no casualties from the strike. As it also turned out, once the mortars were knocked out, the NVA broke off their major attacks on M company. I think we may have run more strikes to the north of M Co again after hitting the mortars, but the fighting had died down and my memory is not clear on that point. The NVA assault battalions had taken a heavy pounding from Marine air for three continuous hours.

A side note to this entire episode was that another Marine Birddog had launched from Marble Mountain to relieve us on station. One of my best friends, Bill Moxley, a 2 Lt who had been a Master Gunnery Sgt prior to being demoted to lieutenant, was the AO in the back seat. Moxley was a veteran of WWII as a PFC rifleman on Okinawa and a Sgt in Korea. He had won a Silver Star at Chosin Reservoir and was one tough old NCO. He was also a damned good AO and was totally fearless. About ten minutes after taking off at Marble Mountain, he radioed and said his pilot had developed radio problems and they were returning to Marble Mountain for repairs. Moxley's radio was clear and it was also clear in his voice that he questioned whether the pilot really was experiencing radio problems. They had been monitoring the air ground frequencies during their flight southward and could see the sky lit up with tracer fire as they neared the Que Son Valley. Moxley told me later he thought the pilot had faked the radio problems to return to Da Nang and avoid the mission. I have no idea who the pilot was and since the Bird Dogs had frequent radio problems as well as a wide variety of other mechanical problems, no one will ever know the truth, or even care. It's just an interesting bit of information to add to an otherwise obscure story.

But it affected Fitzsimmons and me pretty dramatically because at that point the battle was still raging and with no relief we stayed on station. The Bird Dog had a maximum time of flight, limited by fuel load, of 4 hours. We stayed over M company following the strike on the mortar position as we neared the four hour limit. Loaded a magazine into my M16 and my 45 automatic and tightened my shoulder harness and helmet strap because I had resigned myself to the fact that we were going to run out of fuel soon and be forced to crash land at night somewhere in the middle of the fighting. I didn't think much about it at the time because I was so busy. But I prepared myself for a crash landing as best I could. I clearly remember thinking that I better turn off that red flashlight before we hit the ground! Assuming I escaped the crash, I definitely did not want to be walking around the Que Son Valley with a red light hanging on my flack jacket. Not that night, anyway!

When we landed at Marble Mountain, we had flown 4.2 hours, unheard of for a Marine Bird Dog. God was with us that evening. I think the reason we were able to extend the time was that we flew such a slow and consistent pattern all night. We never left the orbit above M company. I am sure that Fitzsimmons probably had leaned out the fuel mixture. We were just flying slow, tight circles hour after hour, consuming the minimum amount of fuel possible. We never even considered or talked about the decision to stay. There was no decision: Marines on the ground were under heavy attack and our job was to protect them with air strikes. Pure, simple and clean with no gray areas. It never even occurred to either of us to leave while the ground fighting was heavy.

I am unsure of the meaning of all of this, having put it all away for years until my recent connections with some of the men who fought on Swift. I have always known that the Marine Corps was made up of a unique collection of the bravest patriots and best friends I will ever know. Distressingly, it also had it's element of incompetents and disgusting petty career seekers. The best and the worst! The stresses of combat in Vietnam seemed to amplify and magnify the good and the bad. The more intense the situation, the more sharply the ideal and the reality seemed to contrast. Unfortunately at 23 years old, I still believed strongly that Marine Corps should reflect the perfect ideals all Marines were indoctrinated in at either Quantico, Parris Island or San Diego. 

My talks and connections with the Marines of SWIFT have restored my faith in the Marine Corps by reminding me of the incredible strength of the Marine fighting man--rare Americans who were willing to risk their life in defense of their country and a cause. I have met people who endured great pain and suffering and who still suffer as a result of their service. I am convinced that our generation of Marines was every bit as tough and as patriotic as Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation, the Americans who fought WWII. Certainly the hardships faced by our ground fighting men were as severe and the dangers and fighting conditions were as extreme as in any previous American war. 

And our Marines didn't return to patriotic fanfare and often not even to the thanks of their families. Instead, the civilians who ordered us to Vietnam and who we were theoretically, treated Vietnam veterans more like criminals than heroes when we returned. Marines more so than other service veterans I feel because of our reputation as warriors who did much of the actual killing. I lost faith and confidence in our country, particularly our politicians and press, as a result of the entire experience. It is being restored now as I reflect back and know that we did something truly significant and as I meet and talk with the fighting Marines who served on the ground, suffered, lost friends, and had their lives changed forever by their experience in Vietnam. I realize now that the fabric of our country is strengthened by their sacrifice and by their citizenship. They were brave, proud, and unselfish and it has been the great honor of my life to have served with them.

Semper Fi,
Rob Whitlow


Photos from my trip back to Que Son Valley last year

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Que Son Valley, looking west.
17 May 2000

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NUI LOC SON in center left of picture, small mountain where 1/5 had a company outpost. This was the rice paddy land north & west of M Company's position on 4 Sept. 67.

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Left: Bomb crater just south of M Co.'s hill. This could have been made at another time, later in the war. We did not bomb this location on 4 Sept. This was very near where K Company was on the night of the 4th. The only real bomb crater we found. The kids knew where it was, they called it "BOMB."

Center: Kids from Dong Song Village who followed us on the trip. Standing on hill I think M Co. was on 4 Sept. 67. Kids were incredibly friendly-No one in Que Son Valley remembers the War. We were the first Non-Vietnamese these kids had ever seen! The little girl in the middle was beautiful!

Right: My nephew on the hill where M Co. 3/5 fought on night of 4 Sept. 67. Standing in a small hole that could have been an old bomb crater. May have been a sink hole, but could have been an old bomb crater.


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