Union II

There was a time when American liberalism was identified with anti-Communism.  That time ended with the Vietnam War, because in starting that war, the Democratic Party delivered American liberalism into the arms of global communism.

—Observation

Introduction

During the Vietnam War, the III Marine Amphibious Force[1] had overall tactical responsibility for the I Corps Tactical Zone (also, I Corps and I CTZ).  I Corps was one of four separate military operating zones and the northern-most in the region of the former Republic of Vietnam (also, South Vietnam and RVN).

In land area, the size of I Corps involved around 1,800 square miles.  Its vast size is further complicated by terrain dominated by hills and the Annamite Mountains, steep slopes, sharp crests, deep narrow valleys, and dense broadleaf forests.  Most o the peaks range from 4,000 to 8,000 feet high.  The narrow coastal plain is compartmented by rocky headlands and belts of large sand dunes.  Prior to 1975, I Corps was the official border with North Vietnam—the two warring nations separated by the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

The I CTZ encompassed five political regions or provinces: Quang Tri, Thira Thien-Hue, Quang Nam, Quang Tin, and Quang Ngai.  Major cities or population centers included Khe Sanh, Dong Ha, Quang Tri City, Da Nang, How An, Tam Ky, Chu Lai, and Quang Ngai City.

Tactical units subordinate to III MEF included the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Marine Division, the US Americal Division, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, US 35th Tactical Wing, and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 1st Division, 2nd Division, and 51st (Independent) Regiment.

Operation Union II was a search and destroy mission within the Que Son Valley between 26 May — 5 June 1967.  The operational commander for Union II was Colonel Kenneth J. Houghton[2].  Que Son was in the southern part of South Vietnam’s I Corps.  Populous and “rice rich,” the valley was one of the keys to controlling South Vietnam’s five northern provinces.  The densely vegetated area was occupied by two regiments of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 2nd Division.  Que Son was also strategically important to the theater commander, (then) General Westmoreland, Commander U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (also, COMUSMACV).

During Operation Union (21 April—16 May 1967) 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1) engaged the 21st NVA Regiment near the Marine outpost on Loc Son Mountain.  Operation Union II focused on the destruction of the 21st Regiment.  Colonel Houghton’s 5th Marines coordinated offensive operations with the ARVN 6th Regiment and 1st Ranger Group.

Operation Union II called for two rifle companies (A & D) of 1/5 and Company F 2/5 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hilgartner, to establish a blocking position in the western portion of the valley.  Lieutenant Colonel Esslinger’s 3/5 would make a helicopter (vertical) assault into the southern portion of the valley and sweep northeast.  2/5 would serve as Houghton’s reserve.  Meanwhile, three ARVN battalions would attack southwest from Thang Bing, and two additional ARVN battalions would attack northwest from Tam Ky.

Union II kicked off as planned on 26 May.  1/5 took up its position and 3/5 (three rifle companies, a weapons company, and the battalion headquarters element) flew in to Landing Zone (LZ) Eagle, 3 miles east of Loc Son.  The first two waves of helicopters received light enemy small arms fire.  By the time the rest of 3/5 arrived, however, the battalion was under heavy weapons and mortar fire.  Lima and Mike companies launched an attack to relieve the pressure on the LZ and discovered a well-entrenched NVA force, which turned out to be elements of the 3rd NVA Regiment.  India Company, supported by Marine artillery, enveloped the enemy’s flank.  The assault was expensive for both sides, with 118 NVA dead and 38 Marine KIA/82 WIA.  Marine and ARVN forces swept the area for the next three days, but the NVA force had withdrawn.  ARVN commanders withdrew having concluded that their enemy had been routed.

Colonel Houghton, on the other hand, was not convinced that the NVA had been routed.  Relying on numerous intelligence reports, Houghton directed the regiment continue with the plan for Union II (less ARVN forces).  On the morning of 2 June, 3/5 swept toward the village of Vinh Huy.  Operating adjacent to 3/5, the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1)  encountered an estimated 200 NVA troops about one mile east of the engagement site on 26 May.  3/1 engaged and overran the defending NVA.  Meanwhile, while pushing forward to relieve the pressure on 3/5,  1/5[3] ran into a NVA ambush while crossing a 3,000 yard-wide rice paddy.  On battalion point, the well-concealed NVA caught Fox Company in a murderous crossfire with mounting casualties due to enemy mortar fires.  1/5 established a hasty defense posture.

Captain James A. Graham, commanding Fox Company, immediately set about consolidating his Marines, and calling for artillery and air support.  Hardest hit in the enemy assault was 2nd Platoon, which was pinned down by two enemy machine gun positions.  Forming his headquarters unit into an assault force, Captain Graham boldly led an attack against NVA positions.  The effect of Graham’s attack was that it diverted the enemy’s attention away from 2nd Platoon.

While Graham attacked the NVA, platoon NCOs began evacuating wounded Marines back toward positions of relative safety.  Determined to silence the NVA’s second machine gun, Graham’s small assault force withstood concentrated enemy fire and accounted for fifteen enemy dead, but Captain Graham suffered two bullet wounds and the assault force was inadequate to dislodging the enemy.

Running low on ammunition, and with one man critically wounded, Captain Graham ordered his men to withdraw back to the company perimeter.  Realizing that he could not survive in the forward position, Graham nevertheless elected to remain in place with his one critically wounded Marine, who could not be moved.  Shortly after his men withdrew, an NVA force of twenty-five men attacked Graham who resisted for as long as he had ammunition and gave up his life for the wounded Marine, whom he would not abandon.  In recognition of his exceptional courage while under fire, his indomitable fighting spirit, and his intrepidity while relieving his second platoon from danger, Captain Graham received a posthumous award of the nation’s highest recognition for gallantry in combat, the Medal of Honor.

At around 14:00, Colonel Houghton called for reinforcement from the Division’s rapid-reaction force[4].  Jackson’s force arrived by helicopter at 19:00 in total darkness.  Delta and Echo Companies (1/7) were inserted northeast of the fortified enemy position and quickly moved south to engage the NVA’s left flank.  Both companies encountered stiff enemy resistance; Delta Company suffered many casualties.  Owing to the darkness, Division operations denied Delta Company’s request for Medevac helicopters.  At that moment, a Marine CH-53 helicopter that had just inserted Echo 2/5 heard the call for assistance and  responded to the call for help[5].

With the arrival of E 2/5, NVA forces began to disengage and withdraw southwest; it was a costly decision because they ran right into elements of 3/5 and Marine artillery.  Despite being wounded himself, Houghton remained in the field to supervise re-consolidation of his regiment.  The next morning, Houghton directed another sweep of the area, during which the Marines uncovered the remains of 701 dead NVA soldiers and 23 injured NVA who were medically treated and taken as prisoners of war.  Operation Union II Marine casualties included 71 killed in action with 139 wounded.  This action rendered the 2nd NVA Division combat-ineffective for several months.

Operation Union II was significant for another, albeit unrelated reason.  It was during this operation that Marines began communicating with their parents and  loved-ones back home that their M-16 rifles were malfunctioning with such regularity that Marines were being killed because of jammed weapons at critical moments during battle.  In a random inspection of rifles by the III MAF staff, weapons experts and armors reported that a large number of rifles had pitted and eroded chambers.  Marine headquarters then suspended issuance of the M-16s in December 1967 because of the 9,844 rifles inspected, experts found 67% of the rifles required immediate replacement.

Sources:

  1.  Telfer, G. L. And Lane Rogers (et.al.).  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese.  Washington: Headquarters U. S. Marine Corps, 1984.
  2. Carland, J. M.  Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide, May 1965-Oct 1966.  Washington: Center of Military History, 2000.

Endnotes:

[1] The Marine Corps has since renamed its largest task force organizations “Expeditionary Forces.”  Today, III MAF is known as III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF).

[2] Colonel (later, Major General) Houghton (1920-2006) was commissioned in September 1942 and  served during World War II and participated in the Battles of Tarawa and Saipan.  During the Korean War, he participated with the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade at Pusan and the 1st Marine Division at the landing at Inchon.  He served in I Corps RVN during the Vietnam War commanding the 5th Marine Regiment.  He was awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, three Legion of Merits, two Bronze Star medals, and three Purple Heart medals.

[3] Fox Company 2/5 reinforced the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.

[4] Known as the Bald Eagle Reaction Force, a battalion-sized reserve then composed of Echo Company, 2/5, Delta Company, 1/7, and Echo Company, 2/7 (under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Mallett C. Jackson, Jr., whose primary assignment was Commanding Officer, 2/5).

[5] When the CH-53 returned to Da Nang, it had received 57 hits from small arms fire and mortar fragments.


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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

2 thoughts on “Union II”

  1. Great commentary. Thank you for your research.

    I would love to see a rendition of the Vietnam Operation Buffalo up on the DMZ. Lost a good friend there.

    Willy Carroll

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a tragedy to lose a fine man like Captain Graham and his marines over a campaign of inchoate and ill-defined goals (while Averell Harriman rode off into the sunset on his unicorn). An old flame recalled when they first issued the M-16’s with the gas port problem (and what else I don’t know). 6 guys go out. Firefight. 3 jam. Upon their return and report, their captain permanently “disabled” the remainder in their possession.

    Enjoy your stories, but lost the thread for a long time.

    Liked by 1 person

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