Raids and Rockets in Quang Nam
During June allied units intensified operations against elements of the 2d NVA Division and Viet Cong units in the southern three provinces of I Corps. The enemy continued to pump replacements into the region in a determined effort to regain control of the area, particularly the Que Son Basin. The allied forces, in greater numbers and with increased firepower, thwarted each Communist move as it developed. As a result of continuing enemy defeats, the pacification program began to show positive results as demonstrated by its expansion into virgin territory.
As July began, the 1st and 7th Marines, both from the 1st Marine Division, which Major General Donn J. Robertson still commanded, were operating in the densely populated area around Da Nang. Two battalions of the 5th Marines continued operations against elements of the 2dNVA Division in the Que Son Basin, while the other battalion of the 5th Marines, the 2d, provided security for the An Hoa industrial complex and Nong Son coal mine, southwest of Da Nang.
Further south, the nine U.S. Army battalions of Task Force Oregon, now commanded by Major General Richard T. Knowles, USA, continued their operations in southern I CTZ. Four of the Army battalions operated in and around Chu Lai, while the remainder of the force expanded allied control over the populated coastal plain of Quang Ngai Province. The Korean Marine Brigade of three battalions remained in its TAOR south of Chu Lai.
The combined efforts of these units forced NVA and VC main force units to pull out of the populated regions and move back into the mountains. Despite this setback, the enemy tenaciously maintained a presence in the three provinces by cutting lines of communication and attacking allied installations by fire. The Communists targeted Revolutionary Development teams and isolated units for their main efforts. These tactics enabled the enemy to limit force commitments and still gain moral and propaganda victories while, at the same time, reconstituting regular units. Communist actions in Quang Nam Province during July 1967 provide an excellent example of this modus operandi.
The Communists chose the relatively isolated Marine outpost at Nong Son, the site of the only producing coal mine in South Vietnam, as their first target. First Lieutenant James B. Scuras' Company F, 5th Marines provided security 'for the mine. The company manned two positions near the mine itself and a third, with an attached 81mm mortar section and two 4.2-inch mortars, on top of the hill overlooking the mine. The enemy chose the mortar position as his objective.
At 2327 on 3 July, a Marine listening post outside the upper position reported, "I have movement to my front," and within seconds, "They're all around me," and then, "We've been overrun."' Next, the main position came under mortar attack. One of the first rounds blew up the 4.2-inch mortar ammunition dump. Immediately following their mortar bar rage, enemy sappers moved into the position, throw ing grenades and satchel charges into the Marine bunkers. Simultaneously, other enemy units made a mortar attack on the Marine artillery positions at An Hoa to neutralize their support of the Nong Son out post. The Marines of Captain John Pipta's Battery E, 2d Battalion, 11th Marines, however, immediately began filing in support of the Company F Marines.
By the time Pipta's first artillery barrage landed around the edge of the position, the enemy assault had already faltered. The attackers had not caught all of the Marines in their bunkers. Private First Class Melvin E. Newlin, an 18-year-old machine gunner from Wellsville, Ohio, and four other Marines had been manning a perimeter position when the attack started. Although the initial attack killed his four companions and wounded him, Newlin kept his machine gun in action. He fought off two additional attempts to overrun his position before a grenade wounded him again and knocked him unconscious.
Newlin regained consciousness, remanned his machine gun, and opened fire. His fire caused the VC to break off their assault of the remaining Marine bunkers and once again they attacked him. Newlin withstood two additional enemy attempts to silence his gun before he died.
When the attack started, Lieutenant Scuras took two squads and moved to relieve the 1st Platoon in the upper outpost. Arriving at the top of the hill at about midnight, the reinforcements, with the assistance of the surviving defenders, drove the enemy out of the position. As the VC withdrew from the hill, the Marines remanned their 81mm mortars and brought them to bear on the retreating force. In addition, they called in artillery on suspected escape routes.
At approximately 0100, the battalion's Company E arrived at Nong Son and assumed responsibility for the two lower positions. The remaining elements of Company F then moved to the top of the hill to reconsolidate their position and evacuate the casualties. The attack had killed 13 Marines and wounded 43.
For the Viet Cong, the attack on the position was expensive. They did not overrun the entire outpost as they hoped, and the loss of 44 of their members made the effort very costly, but they succeeded in destroying the two heavy mortars in the position.2
The Communists executed two other attacks to influence the people in Quang Nam Province. Both mutually supporting actions took place on the night of 14 July. The first attack occurred in the town of Hoi An at 2300 when an enemy force hit the U.S. advisors' compound with mortar fire. At the same time, two platoons of VC, dressed in ARVN uniforms, attacked the nearby provincial jail. The enemy force broke into the jail and released 1,196 military and political prisoners. During the confused fighting that followed, the ARVN recaptured 206 prisoners and killed 30, but 960 escaped. Only 5 of the Viet Cong died in the attack; ARVN units wounded another 29. The return of almost 1,000 cadre to the VC ranks increased their capacity to op pose the September elections, but the psychological blow caused by the untimely "liberation" had an equally severe impact.
The Communists chose their other target equally well: the Da Nang Airbase, center of American presence in the northern provinces. The home of Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF), Marine, and U.S. Air Force tactical squadrons, the Da Nang Airbase stood as an undisputed symbol of U.S. and GVN strength. The Communists were aware that an attack on Da Nang would be more difficult than their earlier at tempts to strike the base. Since the first rocket attack on the base in February, the Marines had intensified their defensive efforts, instituting as many as 800 daily patrols and ambushes. Allied aircraft con ducted overflights of the rocket belt itself to detect any movement in the area, and artillery filed more than 2,000 rounds every 24 hours to interdict likely avenues of approach to the rocket belt.
Despite these impressive Marine countermeasures, the Communists were confident they could attack the base successfully. The reason was their new 122mm rocket, a weapon which they had not used south of the DMZ. This rocket was a high trajectory weapon, capable of being emplaced virtually anywhere. A trained crew could prepare a 122mm rocket for firing in less than 30 minutes. Its range of 12,000 meters, 2,000 meters greater than that of the 140mm rocket, allowed emplacement beyond what the Marines had established as the rocket belt.
During the night of 14 July, enemy rocket units moved out of "Happy Valley," southwest of Da Nang, and established six firing positions, divided into two clusters of three positions each. Each firing position contained six individual launcher sites. Shortly after midnight the enemy fired their rockets at the airfield; within five minutes 50 projectiles hit the base.
Marines responded swiftly to the first volley. Almost instantly, a number of friendly units reported the firing and three minutes after the enemy launched the rockets an Air Force plane at tacked one of the sites. At the same time, artillery units plotted the launch site locations and commenced firing at both the sites and the probable escape routes. This rapid reply by supporting arms was exemplary, but it was only a countermeasure and not a solution to the problem of defending the Da Nang complex against the new, long-range threat. In the attack, the rockets destroyed 10 aircraft, 13 barracks, and a bomb dump, and damaged 40 more aircraft. Eight Americans died and another 176 suffered wounds.
The Communists had not only succeeded in destroying a large quantity of material, but the resulting fires provided visible evidence of a successful attack to the 300,000 people living around Da Nang. That the VC carried out the attack successfully, while the Marines and ARVN forces had been actively trying to prevent it, vastly increased its propaganda value.
The 14 July attack forced immediate adjustments of III MAF's defense of the airfield. III MAF extend ed the rocket belt to include the space between two radii of 12,000 and 8,000 meters, the maximum ranges from which the VC could launch both 140mm and 122mm rockets. The new belt also included the most likely areas of penetration by enemy launching units. The Marines established a centralized control system for all aspects of the counter- rocket effort and increased their patrols and overflights. They also instituted a waterway control plan which included an 1800-0600 movement curfew on all streams within the belt. Deep recon naissance patrols along the enemy's approach routes outside the belt increased by 40 percent. In addition, the 1st Marine Division developed an elaborate psychological operations (PsyOps) campaign to counter the threat, including the offer of 10,000- piastre rewards for information on rockets, location of caches, and routes used to bring rockets into the Da Nang area. On a day-to-day basis, the division allocated more than 90 percent of its PsyOps assets to this program.
For the Marines operating in the rocket belt the war was particularly frustrating. Each patrol con tended with the probability of encountering mines and booby traps. So called secure areas were never entirely free from these threats. Over 50 percent of the division's casualties during the first half of 1967 resulted from explosive devices encountered while patrolling in these dangerous though densely populated areas. There was no easy solution, and in spite of the Marines' efforts rocket attacks continued.