The NVA and VC thought they controlled the Que Son Valley. The U.S. 1st Marine Division had other ideas.
This article by Eric Hammel first appeared in Vietnam Magazine. It is used with permission.
Copyright (c) 1994 by Eric Hammel
In late February 1967, at least two regiments of the first-rate 2nd North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Division infested the strategically vital Que Son Valley.
Located astride the boundary between Quang Nam and Quang Tin provinces in the southern portion of South Vietnam’s I Corps Military Region, the populous, rice-rich Que Son Valley was seen as one of the keys to controlling South Vietnam’s five northern provinces. Thus, coincidental with the 2nd NVA Division’s arrival, which had hitherto operated mainly in the coastal areas of southern I Corps, was tasked with permanently bolstering the out numbered and ineffectual Government of Vietnam (GVN) forces in the valley.
The ultimate objective of brining U.S. combat units into the Que Son Valley on a permanent basis was to eject all communist forces from a locale that provided the I Corps region and other areas of South Vietnam with both an abundant rice harvest and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of conscripts. The battles that were shaping up in the Que Son Valley were less a matter of real estate than control of a fertile food-producing region that also happened to be a major population center. In war, there are few prizes strategically more compelling than those.
One reinforced U.S. Marine company (Foxtrot Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment) had been permanently assigned in mid-January 1967 to man the outpost atop the southern Que Son Valley’s dominant overlook, Nui Loc Son (Loc Son Mountain). The Communist forces operating in the valley did not initially take much notice of the Marine outpost, and the small Marine force confined its activities to observation, close-in patrolling, and a number of light-action projects. However, as the two fresh NVA regiments gained political and physical dominance over more and more of the valley and its people, a clash between them and the Marines became inevitable. On April 15, 1967, the Marine company commander advised his regimental commander that communist units appear to be preparing for an all-out assault on Nui Loc Son.
On the morning of April 19, 1967, Colonel Emil Radics, the commander of the 1st Marine Regiment (1st Marines) presented Maj. Gen. Herman Nickerson, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, with the plan for Operation Union, a multi battalion assault and sweep aimed at clearing NVA units from the vicinity of the mountain. General Nickerson assented to the operation the next day, and the Marine infantry were ordered to jump off the following morning, April 21.
In a typical U.S. Marine response of that period, Foxtrot Company left its position atop Nui Loc Son and swept toward the nearest NVA-held village, a complex of several hamlets called Binh Son. The NVA began harassing Foxtrot Company around 7 a.m. and at 9:30 they attacked the Marine company in force. The NVA managed to pin foxtrot Company in a tree line near Binh Son, but, in so doing, also fixed themselves to that particular location.
So far, events were unfolding according to the plan for Operation Union. At 11 a.m. Foxtrot Company attacked Binh Son behind a sustained air and artillery bombardment; shortly after, most of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, joined the fight by way of a “hot” helicopter assault. Quickly, the fresh Marine battalion fought through to the bait company. Later in the afternoon at 4:10, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, landed from helicopters east of the battlefield in order to block the most likely escape route of the embattled NVA force. During the afternoon, U.S. Army 175mm self-propelled artillery and Marine 105mm howitzers moved into separate fire bases near the battlefield, and a third fresh Marine battalion (1st Battalion, 1st Marines) landed atop Nui Loc Son that evening.
On the morning of April 22, the NVA forces were driven out of the Binh Son area and forced to withdraw in a northerly direction. From then until May 14, when Operation Union was abruptly terminated, a revolving cast of U.S. Marine infantry battalions, bolstered by the 1st ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Ranger Group, hotly pursued the NVA force and fought a series of bitter battles that were extremely costly to both sides.
Although the 2nd NVA Division had sustained hundreds of casualties in Operation Union and had lost ground around Nui Loc Son, it remained in firm control of much of the rest of the Que Son Valley. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that the NVA division was reinforced during that period. In any case, on May 26, Colonel Kenneth Houghton’s 5th U.S. Marine Regiment, which had assumed control of the latter stages of Operation Union, kicked off Operation Union II.
Aimed at sweeping the NVA from the southern rim of the Que Son Valley, Operation Union II developed into a series of long-range sweeps centered on Nui Loc Son. A number of large, bitter and extremely costly battles stretched to early June, with the last one fought on June 2nd, 1967. (One result of that final action of Union II was that Marine Captain James Graham was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for defending to the last the dead and wounded of his Foxtrot Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, following an overwhelming NVA ambush.) In the end, the 2nd NVA Division ceded control of the southern Que Son Valley to the 5th Marines.
The Que Son Valley remained quiescent through the summer of 1967 as the 2nd NVA division licked its wounds and built itself up to a force of three NVA regiments and the 1st Viet Cong (VC) Regiment, which was a full-time Main Force unit. Two Battalions of the 5th Marines continued to operate in the valley, but contacts were light; the Marines did not patrol aggressively, and the communist forces did not molest them.
Following several major, multi battalion operations around Da Nang on the cost, the 1st U.S. Marine Division (commanded by Maj. Gen. Donn Robertson since June 1, 1997) refocused its attention on the Que Son Valley in early August. In the wake of a modest build-up, three Marine battalions launched Operation Cochise on August 11; but the NVA avoided the traps and pitfalls of the Union and Union II operations, and Cochise ended on August 28 with only modest results.
Operation Swift, the fourth and the last series of spring and summer battles in the Que Son Valley, was one of the worst-run and bloodiest Marine Corps operations of the Vietnam War. A direct outgrowth of sweep operations designed to shield the populace from election-day intimidation, Swift began unofficially on September 4, 1967, when Delta Company, 1st Battalion 5th Marines, on foot patrol, was attacked before dawn by a superior NVA force.
In typical reactive mode, the local Marine battalion commander attempted to relieve Delta Company with one other company, a force too small to take on the larger NVA force. After both Marine companies had been pinned in separate enclaves by 9 a.m., two companies from the adjacent 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, were sent to relieve them. But the two fresh companies were attacked and also became pinned in separate enclaves during the early afternoon.
The battle was taking on classic characteristics. If the Marine Corps high command in Vietnam deserves to be made accountable for only one thing, it is the steady stream of ad hoc operations that grew out of niggardly responses to situations precisely like the one that shaped up in the Que Son Valley on September 4th, 1967. By late afternoon, the four Marine companies were barely hanging on to their respective enclaves. All four companies were under resolute attack by vastly superior NVA forces that, no doubt, had carefully planned the trap. Only the timely arrival of Marine jet fighter-bombers and the pinpoint accuracy of Marine artillery prevented the Marine infantry companies from being overrun.
Two posthumous Medals of Honor would be awarded for the September 4th fighting. Although wounded in the leg while locating an enemy position, Sergeant Lawrence Peters, a squad leader serving with Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, refused relief so that he could continue to lead his Marines. Peters bled to death during the night. Also in the Mike Company perimeter, Father Vincent Capadonno, the 3rd Battalion Chaplain, refused relief when he was wounded. Father Capadonno was hit twice, but he continued to administer medical and spiritual aid to the wounded until he was killed by enemy fire.
Despite a large and growing toll of wounded and dead Marines, the night of September 4-5 was used to good advantage in aggressive air and artillery strikes against several NVA positions. A dawn counterattack by yet another fresh Marine company then succeeded in relieving pressure on the two surrounded companies of the 1st Battalion. As a result, the NVA broke contact and with drew from the area, thus freeing the two trapped companies of the 3rd Battalion. With that, the commander of the 5th Marines, Colonel Stanley Davis, ordered his bloodied 1st and 3rd battalions to pursue, and Operation Swift officially began.
The enemy reappeared in the early afternoon of September 6, when two battalions of the 1st VC Regiment attacked Bravo company, the lead company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. Bravo was isolated and nearly overrun before artillery-delivered tear gas brought respite. Meanwhile, the nearby 3rd Battalion became heavily engaged a few hours later. When India Company was dispatched to attack a VC-held hill, it was isolated and nearly overrun by the 1st VC Regiment’s previously uncommitted 3rd Battalion. Kilo Company was sent to relieve India and, though it fought through, the two company force then could not move because it was burdened with many casualties. Two determined VC night assaults were repulsed, and Mike Company eventually fought through against meager opposition. By dawn, the VC had melted away.
And so it went. The enemy withdrew and the Marine battalions attempted to run them down or run them out of the Que Son Valley. Terrible, costly battles ensued, the hasty, drastic measures had to be implemented to prevent disasters. Nevertheless on September 15, the 2nd NVA Division and 1st VC Regiment had largely given up the southern half of the Que Son Valley. As ill-considered as the Marines’ successive piecemeal strategy had been in response to the initial attacks, still the crack Communist forces were ultimately defeated. In fact, U.S. intelligence agencies determined that the two enemy regiments that had been most active during Operation Swift were subsequently unfit for combat.
Almost coincidental with the conclusion of Operation Swift was the arrival in southern I Corps of very large U.S. Army units. As a result, the 1st Marine Division was able to base a substantial force in the Que Son Valley on a permanent basis. From then until the Marines turned all of southern I Corps over to the U.S. Army at the beginning of 1968, the reinforced 2nd NVA Division never seriously molested the Marines who had bested them. Oddly, for all the tactical mismanagement, the Marines’ 1967 spring and summer operations in the Que Son Valley turned out to be among the strategically most successful of the entire U.S. involvement in I Corps.