Task Force Oregon
Operation Oregon, Malheur, Malheur II
The heavy fighting of earlyng of 1967 had been anticipated by the American command. Throughout the fall of the previous year, both III MAF and MACV expressed concern over the NVA buildup north of the Demilitarized Zone and along the Laotian border to the west. In a 13 September 1966 message to Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, Commander in Chief Pacific (CinCPac), General Westmoreland outlined his appreciation of the threat to I Corps:
The current enemy buildup . . . constitutes a direct threat to US/FW GVN forces in I CTZ and to the security of Quang Tn and Thua Thien Provinces. The seriousness of this threat underscores the importance and urgency of utilizing all practicable means to prevent the enemy from generating a major offensive designed to 'liberate' the provinces in question and to inflict maximum casualties on US/FW GVN forces.
He continues to use the DMZ as a troop haven and as a supply head for his forces moving into northern I CTZ. ... The size of his buildup, disposition of forces, forward stockage of supplies, AA weapons systems being deployed southward, and depth of patrols are developing an offensive as opposed to a defensive posture. By October, the weather in Laos will be clearing and the enemy may be expected once again to move personnel and supporting material in quantity through the area. . . . Utilizing traditional [infiltration] routes through the Laos panhandle, he will be able to reinforce large scale diversionary attacks further south in coordination with a main assault through the DMZ and the western flank....
To counter the threat, the Marines established positions covering the eastern and central infiltration routes across the DMZ. They had already occupied Khe Sanh, to the west, in late 1966, and they took over the ARVN camps at Ca Lu and Ba Long, both astride natural routes leading east through the Cam Lo Valley. While the occupation of these locations did not entirely halt infiltration, they did make it more difficult, but manning the positions seriously depleted III MAE's strength as the year began.
In early 1967 several developments, other than Vietnamese domestic problems, contributed to reduced III MAF troop availability. The necessity of protecting large bases and the resulting extension of the protective TAORs around them tied down a large number of men. The requirement to relieve ARVN units for redeployment to the revolutionary development program also drained available forces. The most threatening situation was the enemy troop buildup in Quang Ngai Province. Infiltration from Laos and the influx of NVA troops and supplies into the A Shau Valley and the mountains west of Hue caused some very touchy and precise repositioning of units. As January began, most of General Walt's reserve consisted of already committed forces ear marked for oncall helicopter redeployment.
MACV Headquarters appreciated the problem facing III MAF but viewed things from a different perspective. As Brigadier General Louis Metzger, the assistant division commander of the 3d Marine Division, recalled:
On one occasion General Westmoreland told me that he knew that the 3d Marine Division was overextended, but that he was achieving a victory (words not exact but that was the meaning) in the II Corps Area, and we would just have to hold on. One really cannot fault his position as he was following the principle of war "Economy of Force;" holding with the Marines while expecting his Army elements to the south to achieve a victory. It did make it lonesome along the DMZ
For all practical purposes, these troop shortages reduced the allied situation in I Corps to a holding action. III MAF did not have enough troops to expand TAORs and at the same time block NVA thrusts across South Vietnam's borders. III MAF needed additional forces to regain the initiative. On 11 January, after a visit to I Corps, General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., the Commandant of the Marine Corps, commented that ". . . one Marine division/wing team reinforced or its equivalent [was needed] in I Corps in addition to those forces already there." He contended that these forces would permit III MAF to counter enemy infiltration across the borders and regain momentum in pacifying the populated coastal areas. At the beginning of the year these forces did not exist.
After the Tet cease-fire of 8-12 February, enemy activity intensified. The NVA initiated aggressive efforts to offset the embryonic Revolutionary Development Program, while continuing the buildup of forces in I and II Corps. The 2d NVA Division and supporting battalions moved south from Quang Tin Province to Quang Ngai Province. This move appeared related to movement of other subordinate units at the turn of the year in preparation for a pro posed dry season offensive in Quang Ngai.
As enemy activity continued to intensify, both in southern I Corps and immediately south of the DMZ, on 19 February General Westmoreland directed his Chief of Staff, Major General William B. Rosson, to develop a contingency plan for the organization and deployment of a divisional task force to the troubled northern provinces. The purpose of the proposed shift was twofold: to release Marine units for action along the DMZ and to use the new force to expand the scope of operations in southern I Corps. Westmoreland's headquarters code-named the proposed task force, "Oregon."
The Oregon plan was not the first contingency plan prepared for the reinforcement of III MAF. At the time of the first NVA thrust across the DMZ in mid-1966, MACV Headquarters developed several schemes. The Tennessee plan proposed the movement of a U.S. Army brigade to Chu Lai. Another, dubbed the South Carolina plan, was to deploy an Army brigade to the 3d Marine Division's area of operation in northern I Corps, while North Carolina would have introduced an Army brigade into southern I Corps. The latter two contingency plans included the movement of a Republic of Korea Army regiment to Chu Lai. During November 1966, General Westmoreland gave consideration to the deployment of the 9th Infantry Division to I Corps when it arrived in South Vietnam, but shelved the idea in December 1966 and the division moved into the region east of Saigon.
While General Rosson and his staff were developing the Oregon plan, events in I Corps forced the planners' hand. On 27 February, NVA forces attack ed Da Nang Airbase with 140mm rockets, the first known use of large tactical rockets by the enemy in South Vietnam. The Da Nang attack preceded rocket attacks on Camp Carroll in Quang Tn Province on 6 and 12 March and another attack on Da Nang on 15 March. The rockets were the enemy's most economical weapon of the war. They were easily transported, usually backpacked, and required only a few personnel for installation and employment. The February Da Nang attack demonstrated the speed with which the rockets could be launched. More than 50 rockets hit the base in less than a minute.
With the introduction of rockets, the Marines expanded their protective patrolling out to a range of 9,000 meters, rather than 5,000 meters, the maximum effective range of heavy mortars which had been the primary concern before the rocket threat. The speed with which the rockets could be employed also required the Marines to deliver counterbattery fire on the rocket launching positions in a matter of two to three minutes, a factor which complicated the already complex problem of coordinating the use of air and artillery in populated areas.
Rocket attacks were not the only indication that the enemy's main target was I Corps. During the first six weeks after Tet, enemy attacks increased by approximately twice the 1966 rate. Enemy expenditures of artillery, mortar, recoilless rifle, and rocket ammunition for the month of March were 5,057 rounds, compared to 2,183 in January and 2,656 in February.
At the same time, the NVA buildup continued along the DMZ. Intelligence agencies reported that elements of another division, including fire support units, had reinforced the 324B and 341st NVA Divisions. Captured prisoners and documents verified the presence of the new units. Increased mortar fire and the employment of artillery and rockets con firmed the arrival of the fire support units. The seriousness of these developments was even more apparent when Marine intelligence officers learned that the NVA forces in the northern provinces of Quang Tn and Thua Thien were under the control of North Vietnamese Army Military Region 4, with head quarters in Vinh above the DMZ. The North Vietnamese considered the targeted provinces as a subregion of this command.
In an 18 March message to Admiral Sharp, General Westmoreland reflected his concern over the growing threat to I Corps. He stated: In I Corps, the situation is the most critical with respect to existing and potential force ratios. As a minimum, a division plus a regiment is required for Quang Tn Province as a containment force. The latter had been justified previously in another plan. Employment of this force in the containment role would release the units now engaged there for expansion of the Da Nang. Hue-Phu Bai, and Chu Lai TAORs as well as increase security and control along the corps' northern coastal areas. One of the most critical areas in RVN today is Quang Ngai Province. Even if a major operation were conducted in this area during 1967, the relief would be no more than temporary. A force is needed in the province to maintain continuous pressure on the enemy, to eliminate his forces and numerous base areas, and to remove his control over the large population and food reserves. The sustained employment of a division of 10 battalions is mandatory in Quang Ngal Province if desired results are to be realized. Employment of this force would provide security for the vital coastal areas facilities, opening and securing Route 1 and the railroad and, perhaps equally important, to relieve pressure on northern Binh Dinh Province.
One week later, on 25 March, reconnaissance photographs verified increased infiltration of the Tn Thien subregion. They revealed five new bivouac areas and two possible way stations on infiltration routes from Base Area 606 in central Laos to western Quang Tn Province. The photographs also pin pointed new bivouac areas along infiltration routes in ~he northern A Shau Valley, indicating reinforcement in that region. Equally alarming, the NVA continued to hold three divisions in or near the DMZ, despite heavy casualties suffered during the Marines' recently conducted Operations Prairie II and Beacon Hill.
At the same time, enemy activity in southern Quang Nam and Quang Tin increased; the enemy made multi-company attacks near Tam Ky. A high- ranking Communist officer, Colonel Haynh Cu, who surrendered to III MAE forces in early March, stated that the Que Son Basin would be a major objective for the forthcoming NVA summer campaign, scheduled to begin during April. He also revealed that Operation Desoto had uncovered a primary supply route which the VC believed required their control for effective operations in that region. This revelation added to the indications that Duc Pho would remain a primary enemy objective.
In a 28 March follow up message to CinCPac, General Westmoreland reiterated his earlier sentiments regarding additional forces required in I Corps, but this message reflected his increased concern over the growing enemy threat. General Westmoreland stated: Failure to provide two and one-third divisions for I Corps would result in the diversion of existing forces from other tasks to deny and defeat infiltration or invasion. Security in support of Revolutionary Development could not be increased to the desired degree in the coastal area, the major LOC's could be able to continue operating virtually unmolested throughout the key Quang Ngai Province.'
If this force were available, Westmoreland estimated that III MAF could make gains in 1967, especially in the restoration of the populated areas of I Corps to secure GVN control. Unfortunately, the additional forces were not available.
The first week of April confirmed the need for reinforcements as the enemy increased pressure throughout the five northern provinces. Intensified terrorism and regimental-size attacks marked the opening days of the month. On 6 April, a large enemy force broke into Quang Tn City, inflicting severe losses and permitting more than 200 VC prisoners to escape from the local jail. This was the first large-unit incursion into a provincial capital since early in 1965. The Quang Tn attack preceded an attack on an ARVN regimental headquarters 10 miles north of the city of Hue. Generals Walt and Westmoreland agreed that these incidents heralded a large-scale, coordinated enemy offensive in the two northern provinces. On 6 April, therefore, General Westmoreland decided to execute the Task Force Oregon plan.
As conceived and refined by General Rosson's staff, Operation Oregon was to be executed in three separate phases. First, an army brigade from II Corps was to move into the Duc Pho district. Two days later a second brigade from III Corps was to begin movement to Chu Lai, and at a later date a third brigade, and possibly a fourth, was to be shifted into the area. The Task Force Oregon headquarters was to be activated on the 12th, to arrive at Chu Lai no later than 20 April.
By the afternoon of the 7th, the headquarters of the 2d Brigade, 5th Cavalry, 1st Air Cavalry Division, and two battalions, arrived at Duc Pho and relieved the 3d Battalion, 7th Marines. The size and mobility of the Army force impressed the Marines. The Marine battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel John D. Counselman, recalled, "They had so many 'choppers' that the company defensive areas of 3/7 were occupied in less than an hour.
The use of the 1st Air Cavalry unit was only temporary; according to the Oregon plan it was to be replaced by the 3d Brigade, 25th Infantry Division before the end of April. To accomplish the logistical support for this unit, MACV temporarily included the two southernmost districts of Quang Ngai Province, Duc Pho and Ba To, in the 1st Air Cavalry Division's TAOR, pending the arrival of the Task Force Oregon headquarters.
On 9 April, Brigadier General Richard T. Knowles' 196th Light Infantry Brigade of four bat talions began arriving at Chu Lai. The brigade completed the move on the 14th, and the infantrymen assumed operational tasks in the Chu Lai area under the control of the 1st Marine Division. On 17 April, the brigade initiated Operation Lawrence, west of the airfield. This was the first U.S. Army operation in I Corps. Although the soldiers made no contact with the enemy during the three days of Lawrence, they gained a familiarity with their area of operation.
The task force command group activated as scheduled on 12 April. The headquarters and selected combat support and combat service support units began deploying to Chu Lai. Task Force Oregon headquarters became operational on 20 April and assumed control of all Army forces operating from Chu Lai . The task force commander was Major General William B. Rosson, the former MACV chief of staff and author of the original Oregon plan. When Colonel James G. Shanahan's 3d Brigade, 25th Infantry Division arrived at Duc Pho two days later, it also came under control of Task Force Oregon. Combat support for the task force consisted of four artillery battalions, an engineer battalion, and one medium and three light helicopter companies.
The arrival of the Army units allowed the Marines to concentrate in the northern three provinces of I Corps. The 7th Marines moved from Chu Lai to the Da Nang TAOR, completing the move on 13 April. The consolidation of the 1st Marine Division at Da Nang permitted the 3d Marine Division, in turn, to concentrate its regiments in the northern part of I Corps.
The shift that produced the most immediate results occurred on 25 April when the 5th Marines, with two battalions, moved into the Thang Binh area and assumed responsibility for operations in the Que Son Valley. The second of the two battalions did not arrive in the valley until 1 May because of a delay in the turn-over of its portion of the Chu Lai TAOR. The 2d Battalion, 5th Marines served as a separate battalion under the direct control of the 1st Marine Division with responsibility for the security of the An Hoa industrial complex 22 miles southwest of Da Nang.
With the shifting of these forces, the Marines deactivated Task Force X-Ray at 1200 on 26 April and Task Force Oregon, under III MAF operational control, assumed responsibility for all of the Chu Lai TAOR, including the Chu Lai Base Defense Command. The turnover went smoothly. The Army units were not equipped or manned to handle postal services, an exchange system, or a clubs system. Since the Marines previously had organized those services at Chu Lai, Marine personnel remained in place until the Army units took over these functions or substituted their own systems.
Chu Lai continued to be the home of a large component of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, Force Logistic Support Group Bravo, and the 7th Communications Battalion. In addition, approximately 200 Marines assigned to combined action units remained in the area. Brigadier General Foster C. LaHue, the former commanding general of Task Force X-Ray, stayed at Chu Lai as the installation coordinator. The command relationship between General Rosson and General LaHue was one of mutual coordination and cooperation, under the authority of General Walt.
During the first week of May, Brigadier General Salve H. Matheson's 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division joined Task Force Oregon. These additional battalions of the 1st Brigade permitted General Rosson to open a new offensive campaign in the important coastal region south of Quang Ngai City. On 11 May, five U.S. Army battalions began Operation Malheur in the area immediately north of what had been the Desoto TAOR. By the end of May, this extensive heliborne search and destroy operation had succeeded in killing 369 Communists and capturing.
Malheur II followed Malheur I and produced even better results. Experiencing almost daily contact with the Communists, the soldiers killed 488 of the enemy before the operation ended on 2 August. Both operations concentrated upon eliminating regular enemy formations in the area to reduce the pressure upon the rural populace. Once they accomplished this, the soldiers shifted their emphasis to eliminating the guerrilla infrastructure. During the ensuing months, the Viet Cong found it increasingly difficult to obtain support from the people in the surrounding countryside.
The introduction of Task Force Oregon was only the first step in the buildup and realignment of forces in I Corps. The second step was the temporary commitment of the CinCPac reserve, the Seventh Fleet's Amphibious Ready Group with Special Landing Forces Alpha and Bravo. In mid-May, BLT 3/4, the last major element of the Marines' Western Pacific reserve, arrived in a 42-plane shuttle at Dong Ha to participate in Operation Hickory. The 26th Marines' regimental headquarters followed from Okinawa to provide the operational control of units in the Khe Sanh area in northwestern Quang Tn Province.
The large number of enemy casualties in I Corps during the month of May reflected some of the impact of the sudden III MAF reinforcement. In I Corps 6,119 enemy died fighting the Americans, compared with a total of 3,723 in the other three corps areas. The surprise arrival of 12 new U.S. battalions and the reshuffle of forces already in I Corps upset the Communists' plans. They did not find the coastal plains undefended as expected, and Hanoi demanded adherence to the plan. The ability of the allies to reinforce I Corps against the anticipated summer campaign cost the Communists a high price in troops lost and doomed North Vietnam's hopes for a resounding 1967 summer victory.