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The 1st Marines followed up the 31 January action with Operation Stone, which lasted from 10-12 February. Three Marine battalions participated in the operation's first phase on Go Noi Island, a 12-kilometer-long island formed by the river south of Company H's action. Phase II took place north of the river and included the Thuy Bo area. However, only a single reinforced battalion, the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, conducted the remainder of the operation.
The 1st Battalion managed, to establish a cordon on 19 February around elements of the Viet Cong R-20 Battalion. Beginning the following morning, the Marine battalion's companies took turns sweep ing back and forth across the cordoned area. By the end of the operation on 12 February, the 1st Battalion had killed a confirmed total of 68 Viet Cong soldiers and captured 25 prisoners and 17 weapons.
Marine casualties for all of Operation Stone total ed 9 dead and 76 wounded. One Kit Carson Scout also died. The 1st Marines claimed 291 Viet Cong killed in the entire operation and listed another 112 as probably killed, plus 74 enemy captured.
While such actions established a tedious balance in the "cat-and-mouse" game of subduing local guerrillas, operations of a larger scale, responding to con firmed intelligence reports, attempted to smash larger, established Communist concentrations. Four major operations, Desoto, Deckhouse VI, Union, and Union II, produced the most significant results during January-June 1967, and are discussed in this chapter as being representative of the major unit fighting in southern I Corps during this period. Although these operations produced tangible and significant results, it is, and was, impossible to measure the full impact of the "unsuccessful" operations, much less the small unit patrols and ambushes that encountered no enemy. "No contact" had to be considered as a potential victory in the war for area and people control.
The Vietnamese-U.S. 1967 Joint Combined Campaign Plan specified several areas of southern I Corps for allied operations in early 1967. The Thu Bon area between Da Nang and An Hoa and the rich, densely populated Que Son Valley were main areas of concern. The results of Marine and ARVN efforts in these regions for the past two years were tangible, but continued pressure was required to extend and consolidate government authority there. Pacified areas, and those undergoing pacification, required protection, as did military bases and population centers. The gradual increase of Communist capabilities made it necessary to pay higher costs for the security of these locations. At the same time, the enemy sanctuary in the Duc Pho-Mo Duc sections of Quang Ngai, demanded immediate attention. Intelligence reports indicated that NVA units had moved north into these two districts from II Corps.
Duc Pho, the southernmost district of Quang Ngai Province, had been under Communist influence for many years. The salt flats at Sa Huynh, as well as the rich and populated, fertile coastal plain, were a vital source of supply for the Viet Cong war effort. Furthermore, the Tra Cau inlet and the coast immediately to the north had long been suspected as infiltration points. Intelligence reports also indicated that the district harbored the Viet Cong political subdivision of the region. South Vietnamese Army activity in Duc Pho had been restricted to the out- posting of two predominant hills, Nui Dang and Nui Dau. An ARVN battalion occupied these hilltops and controlled the area around the district capital of Duc Pho, but nothing more. As a result, the guerrillas developed extensive fortifications and supply installations throughout the countryside. Astonishing as it may seem, the Communist control over the area was so complete that many of the in habitants had never come in contact with military forces other than the Viet Cong.
Geographically, the Duc Pho region is a predominantly flat rice paddy interspersed with numerous small streams having steep banks four to five feet high. The majority of the streams are fordable. Hedgerows border virtually all the rice paddies and cane fields and bamboo groves are scattered throughout the area.