Union I

Background

During the Second Indochina War (known to the west as the Vietnam War), the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) consisted of four tactical zones.  The northern-most of these was the First Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ), which included South Vietnam’s five northern provinces: from north to south, Quảng Trị, Thừa Thiên, Quảng Nam, Quảng Tín, and Quảng Ngãi.  The responsibility for combat operations within these provinces was assigned to the Third Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF)[1], involving about 14,000 square miles.  The Commanding General, III MAF, answered to the Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV).

Efforts to create a stabilizing security force in South Vietnam had begun in the mid-1950s.  The only way to describe these efforts — and their effects — is that they were an unmitigated disaster.  The most significant security force in 1955 was the Civil Guard, a paramilitary organization administered by South Vietnam’s interior ministry but controlled by the country’s 38 province chiefs.  The civil guard was a 55,000 man force serving in static defense positions.  Lacking mobility and modern communications, the civil guard’s small company and platoon sized units had no way to respond to Viet Cong attacks.  But even if they were capable of challenging the VC, most provincial chiefs had no interest in doing so.

In 1960, the South Vietnamese military force was no more capable of performing combat operations than it was in 1955. Built mainly on the remnants of French-trained colonial forces, the South Vietnamese army, navy, and air force numbered 150,000; the army (known as ARVN) numbered 138,000.  On paper, the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) looked formidable.  It wasn’t.  The military chain of command was convoluted. The quality of its officer corps ranged from excellent to horrible.  The efficiency and loyalty of ARVN units was dependent on the personality of its senior-most commander.  Few ARVN units were interested in sharing information with other units.  Vietnamese commanders were inflexible, prideful, and arrogant; they would spare no effort making themselves look good at someone else’s expense.

The Vietnamese high command treated the ARVN much in the same way as the civil guard — relegating them to static positions where the enemy always knew where they were.  This worked out well enough for senior commanders since few of them were willing to put their necks on the line confronting Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army units.

Despite significant funding from the United States for military training in1963, most combat training in Vietnam was a paper chase.  Vietnamese troops themselves were poorly paid, poorly educated, unmotivated, and inexperienced.  Some were capable of extraordinary acts of courage, but not many.  In the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963, which took place over several days, 300 Viet Cong irregulars fought 1,200 South Vietnamese Army troops to a standstill.  Once the VC had had their way with the ARVN, they melted away into the dense jungle.

Nui Loc Son

Que Son Valley

In mid-1966, American intelligence learned that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 2nd Infantry Division had begun infiltrating the Que Son Valley.  The densely populated valley was a central agricultural area that sat astride the boundaries of Quảng Nam and Quảng Tin provinces in the I CTZ.  Both US and NVA military commanders recognized that available food sources and the rugged terrain made the Que Son Basin a crucial military objective.  To control the valley was to dominate the entire I CTZ.

In January 1967, the 3rd and 21st NVA Regiments began operations within the Que Son Valley.  Joining them a short time later was the 3rd VC regiment from Quảng Ngãi Province.  The NVA intended to seize Que Son, which meant destroying isolated ARVN units, who at the time were occupying static defensive positions.  COMUSMACV directed the CG III MAF to replace all ARVN units with American forces.  III MAF’s challenge in carrying out his directive was the constant demand for combat troops elsewhere in I CTZ.  The Marines could simply not afford to send battalions or regiments into the Que Son region.  Yet, it was at the same time evident that ARVN units lacked the strength or effectiveness to carry out their defensive burden alone.  To bolster Marine forces, USMACV assigned US Army units to the southern I CTZ, which released the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv) for operations within the Que Son Valley area.

Operation Union I

Operation Union I was the initiating campaign for what evolved into a bitter contest for control of the Que Son Basin.  In mid-January 1967, Fox Company 2/1 relieved the ARVN unit at Nui Loc Son and began operations under its parent command’s operational authority, the 1st Marine Regiment, commanded by Colonel Emil J. Radic.  By placing a Marine company on this small hill mass, III MAF hoped to achieve three goals: (1) deny VC/NVA access to this rice-producing area, (2) initiate a much-needed civic action effort, and (3) force the NVA into open battle.  The Marines of Fox 2/1 were the bait.

Under the command of Captain Gene A. Deegan, Fox Company was reinforced by an 81mm Mortar section, a 106mm Recoilless Rifle section, and a 4.2-inch Mortar Battery from the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines (artillery) (1/11).  Deegan soon began engaging small enemy units attempting to cross the valley floor.  Fox Company also undertook limited civic action projects, which generated a mutually beneficial relationship with local citizens and aided in collecting critical intelligence concerning VC/NVA operations.

The NVA found Fox Company’s aggressive behavior irksome.  Previously, NVA and VC units operated in the Que Son Basin with impunity but irritating the communists was why Marine HQ sent Fox Company to Nui Loc Son to begin with.  The 2nd NVA Division took the bait.

By mid-April, Captain Deegan informed his battalion commander that he believed enemy forces operating near Nui Loc Son involved two regiments in strength.  Colonel Radic decided to initiate a vertical assault against the enemy. Radic’s plan called for Fox Company to initiate contact from its observation post while elements of the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 1st Marines (1/1) (3/1) would make a heliborne assault into the operational area; another battalion would serve in reserve.  Additionally, elements of the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines would move by helicopter to Que Son village to provide artillery support to the operation.  Colonel Radic would control the operation from Nui Loc Son.  The CG 1stMarDiv approved Radic’s plan but delayed its execution until another operation had reached its final objective.

At 0700 on 21 April, Captain Deegan led his company out of Nui Loc Son.  The company experienced several minor encounters with small groups of enemy soldiers en route to the village of Binh Son, three miles to the northeast.  At 0930, Fox Company encountered heavy enemy small arms fire, pulled back into a tree line, and set up a  hasty defense.  From that location, Deegan called for artillery fire and airstrikes on the enemy’s positions.  At 1100, Deegan moved his 2nd and 3rd platoons against the village while the 1st platoon provided covering fire.  Initially, Deegan’s assault elements encountered little resistance, but as they approached the village, the intensity of enemy fire increased to such a degree that Deegan could no longer maneuver the assault platoons.  The 1st platoon, having attempted a flanking maneuver, was also halted.

Lieutenant Colonel Hillmer F. DeAtley, commanding 3/1, led his command group and India and Mike companies into the fight some 1,500 meters from Fox Company’s position.  Eventually, 3/1 fought its way to Deegan’s location.  Despite his several wounds, Captain Deegan continued to direct his company’s action until Colonel DeAtley relieved him of his command and ordered his evacuation.

Lieutenant Colonel Dean E. Esslinger, commanding 3/5, arrived from Chu Lai at around 1600 and linked up with DeAtley’s flank.  Lieutenant Colonel Van D. Bell’s 1/1 arrived from Da Nang after dark.  After reforming his Battalion adjacent to Colonel Radic’s command post, Bell led his Marines into the battle, which was already shaping up into a hell of a fight.  At the conclusion of the first day, Fox 2/1 and India & Mike 3/1 had borne the brunt of the fighting.  At dawn on the morning of the second day, 1/1, 3/1, and 2/5 had joined the battle.

Punishing Marine fire and aggressive maneuvering finally began to dislodge the enemy from their positions, forcing them northward into a blocking force of three ARVN ranger battalions.  In its withdrawal, the NVA suffered significant casualties from artillery fire and airstrikes. Bell and Esslinger continued their attack, pursuing the enemy east and north of Nui Loc Son, but there were only intermittent contacts with the retreating enemy.

On 25 April, Colonel Kenneth J. Houghton’s 5th Marines (-) arrived from Chu Lai and moved into the Que Son Valley.  Responsibility for Union I passed to Colonel Houghton, and by the end of next day, all of Colonel Radic’s 1st Marines had returned to Da Nang — leaving Fox Company under a new commander to man the outpost at Nui Loc Son.

3/5 began a thorough search of the mountains south and west of the basin; enemy contact was generally light until the evening of the 27th when a Marine triggered an anti-personnel mine that set off several explosions.  One Marine died; 43 received wounds, and of those, 35 required medical evacuation.  On the 28th, Esslinger’s 3/5 was joined by Lieutenant Colonel Peter A. Wickwire’s 1/3, which was part of the Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force Alpha[2].  Both battalions began a sweep within their respective tactical zones.  Despite intelligence reports indicating a significant enemy presence, contact with enemy forces was sporadic and light.

Kenneth J. Houghton

Colonel Houghton was an experienced combat commander.  On 1 May, he directed 1/5, under Lieutenant Colonel Peter L. Hilgartner, into the mountains eight miles east of Hiep Duc. 1/5’s sweep initially encountered light resistance, but as the Battalion moved westward, the frequency and intensity of enemy engagements increased.  On 5 May, Delta Company 1/5 stumbled upon an enemy storage site containing weapons, ammunition, military uniforms, surgical kits, and other military gear.  Both 1/5 and 3/5 continued sweeping north; 1/3 began sweeping northwest of the Que Son village.  All three battalions were experiencing only sporadic enemy contacts — the enemy withdrew away from the Marines.

On 10 May, the Marines ran into a more significant enemy force.  Charlie 1/5 was moving up the slope of Hill 110 some 4,000 meters north of Que Son when the company came under heavy fire from a battalion-sized unit entrenched along the edge of Nui Nong Ham.  The Marines took Hill 110, but when they set into a hasty defense on the hill’s summit, they began taking heavy fire from a cane field below and inside caves along Nui Nong Ham’s lower slopes.  Captain Russell J. Caswell, commanding Charlie Company, called for assistance.

The nearest units were Bravo and Charlie companies 1/3.  They responded to relieve Caswell, but heavy NVA resistance stopped their advance.  Operational control of Bravo & Charlie shifted to Hilgartner’s 1/5.  Calls for artillery fire were ineffective because the Marines and the NVA forces were too close.  Bravo & Charlie companies soon called for reinforcements.  One platoon from Alpha Company 1/3 arrived by air to support them, but enemy fires were so intense that Hilgartner’s air officer waived off subsequent landings.

Alpha Company 1/5, commanded by Captain Gerald L. McKay, situated 2,000 meters to the east, moved to support Wickwire’s companies and came under heavy enemy fire.  Captain McKay was determined to push through.  Just as he positioned his company for an assault, an air support controller mistakenly marked the company’s position for an airstrike.  Marine F-4’s strafed the company — killing five Marines and wounded 24.  The combination of the enemy and friendly fire halted McKay’s advance.

By 15:00, Colonel Hilgartner’s command group (with Delta Company 1/5), was positioned on the slope of Nui Nong Ham from which they could lend fire support to Delta 1/3. Hilgartner’s Marines began lobbing mortars into the enemy’s positions.  Soon after, helicopters landed Esslinger’s Mike Company 3/5 at Hilgartner’s position and joined Captain Caswell’s Charlie Company.  The two companies quickly consolidated their position and began delivering fire into NVA positions.  With this support, Bravo & Charlie Company 1/3 aggressed the NVA positions in the cane field and on Nui Nong Ham’s northern slope.  By nightfall, the Marines had driven off the NVA force, leaving behind 116 dead communists; the cost to the Marines was 33 killed and 135 wounded (including those killed and injured from friendly fire).

On 12 May, Colonel Wickwire’s 1/3 was withdrawn and replaced by Colonel Bell’s 1/1.  On the 12th and 13th, 1/1, 1/5, and 3/5 remained in perpetual contact with enemy forces.  Esslinger assaulted an enemy battalion 3 miles east of Que Son in the evening of 13 May.  After making maximum use of artillery and airstrikes, Esslinger’s Marines ruthlessly attacked the NVA; artillery and aircraft support then shifted to block an NVA withdrawal.  On the other end of the Marine assault, 122 dead communists littered the battle site.

On 13-14 May, the Marines continually employed artillery and air power to strike enemy positions.  In the late afternoon of 14 May, Delta Company 1/1 discovered 68 enemy dead — all killed by either fragmentation or concussion.

The last battle of Union I took place on 15 May when Alpha 1/5 and Mike 3/5 discovered another bunker complex.  After preparatory fires and a coordinated assault, the Marines found 22 dead enemies within the bunker complex.  Operation Union I ended the next day.  Within these 27 days, the Marines had killed 865 enemy troops, of which 465 were NVA regulars of the 2nd NVA Division.  The number of communists killed was impressive, but Colonel Houghton believed that the most significant damage inflicted on the enemy was the psychological impact on the Que Son Valley population.  Houghton thought that the VC’s hold over local villages and hamlets was broken.

If Colonel Houghton was right about that — the enemy didn’t seem to realize it. The story of the fight for the Que Son Valley continues next week.

Sources:

  1. Steward, R. W.  Deepening Involvement: 1945-1965. Washington: Center for Military History, 2012.
  2. Telfer, G. L. et al. U. S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1974.

Endnotes:

[1] The official name of this Marine Corps organization is III Marine Expeditionary Force.  It was temporarily changed to III Marine Amphibious Force in 1965 because the South Vietnamese government expressed a psychological objection to use of the word “expeditionary.” 

[2] The SLF(A) code name for this operation was Beaver Cage.


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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.