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Operation Union, like Desoto, was an outgrowth of the 1967 Joint Combined Campaign Plan and the requirement for III MAF to replace ARVN units at isolated outposts. The hill complex of Nui Loc Son, overlooking the Que Son Valley, is 25 kilometers northwest of Tam Ky. In 1967 it was the site of one of the ARVN manned outposts.
The Marines realized that dominance of the fertile, densely populated Que Son Basin region astride the Quang Nam-Quang Tin boundary was one of the keys to control of the five northern provinces of Vietnam. The enemy needed this agriculturally rich and populous area to support operations in the coastal lowlands. Despite a number of operations in the basin by both Marine and ARVN forces, Government control continued to be negligible.
The principal enemy force in the basin was the 2d NVA Division. Although headquarters elements of the division appeared there in July 1966, units of its 3d and 21st NVA Regiments did not arrive in force until late February 1967. As the year progressed, the 3d VC Regiment, also part of the 2dNVA Division, joined them after moving north into the region from Quang Ngai Province.
The demand for Marine units elsewhere long denied the permanent assignment of a battalion or larger formation to the valley, and ARVN troops lacked the strength to carry the burden alone. However, the deployment of U.S. Army units to southern I Corps during April freed the 1st Marine Division for operations in this critical area. Operation Union marked the beginning of the bitter campaign for control of the Que Son Basin.
In mid-January 1967, Captain Gene A. Deegan's Company F, 2d Battalion, 1st Marines had relieved the ARVN unit on Nui Loc Son and began operations under the direct control of Colonel Emil J. Radics' 1st Marines. By positioning Marines on this small hill mass, III MAF hoped to achieve three goals: establish a modicum of control over VC / NVA access to this rice producing area; initiate a much needed civic action effort in a region frequented regularly by U.S. Forces; and force the 2dNVA Division into open battle.
Company F, reinforced with an 81mm mortar section and a 106mm recoilless rifle section from the battalion and a 4.2-inch mortar battery from the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, engaged small enemy units attempting to cross the valley floor. The company undertook civic action projects which generated a good relationship with the Vietnamese and produced accurate intelligence of NVA / VC activities in the area. The successful combination of small unit operations and civic action disturbed the NVA who had previously operated with impunity in the Que Son Basin. Colonel Radic's described these actions as the planned and premeditated utilization of a Marine rifle company to create a situation. The 2d NVA Division took the bait; in April it came out in force to fight.
The enemy's desire for a fight did not go unnoticed. As Colonel Radic's recalled: During early April, while malting one of my twice weekly visits to Nui Loc Son, Captain Deegan advised me of in creasing enemy movement in the hills to the west and south of the Que Son Basin. We deduced that, perhaps, he was at last making his move. On April 15, the enemy started infiltrating small units into the valley floor east of F Company's position. This buildup continued through the 16th and 17th, and on the night of April 18, Captain Deegan reported . .. that he believed the enemy force to be of at least two regiments in size.
My options were two. Let the enemy initiate action against F Company on Nui Loc Son and then react or assume the initiative and strike him first. I chose the latter option . . . The concept of a heliborne assault had been on the books and we only needed to know where the enemy would locate his major elements. . . . His option to locate east of Nui Loc Son was just what the 1st Marines wanted. This would enable the regiment to inhibit the enemy from either assaulting F Company's position or rapidly seeking sanctuary in the mountains to the south and east.
The 1st Marines staff worked throughout the night of 18-19 April developing its final plan of at tack. The plan provided for the following: Company F was to make contact from its outpost position, covered by supporting arms fire; elements of the 3d Battalion, 1st Marines would make a helicopter- borne assault into the operational area, followed by the 1st Battalion 1st Marines; and another, as yet undesignated, battalion from Chu Lai would act as regimental reserve. Artillery from the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines would move by helicopters to Que Son village for direct support. The 1st Marines command group would control the operation from the Nui Loc Son outpost.
The 1st Marines presented its plans to General Nickerson on the morning of the 19th, with the recommendation for execution that same day. General Nickerson approved the plan but delayed its execution because of another operation in progress within the division TAOR. On the afternoon of the 20th, he gave permission to begin Operation Union the following day.
Early on the morning of the 21st, Company F moved our from Nui Loc Son. By 0700, the company had several brief encounters with small NVA elements and had seen a large enemy force moving into the village of Binh Son four kilometers to the northeast. At 0930 the Marine company came under heavy small arms fire and pulled back to a tree line where it called in artillery and air strikes on the enemy positions. At 1100, Captain Deegan moved his 2d and 3d Platoons against the village, while the 1st Platoon provided covering fire. The assault elements encountered almost no resistance as they jumped off in the attack, but as they started to enter the village they were stopped cold by heavy fire. The 1st Platoon tried to flank the enemy position, but as it moved it came under equally heavy fire. Despite repeated artillery and air strikes on the NVA positions the company was stuck, unable to maneuver because of the volume of enemy fire.
Lieutenant Colonel Hillmer F. DeAtley, 3d Battalion, 1st Marines, his command group, and Companies I and M, joined the fight, entering a hotly contested landing zone 1,500 meters from the Company F action. The force fought its way to help Deegan, who, despite serious wounds, continued to direct his company until evacuated after DeAtley's battalion arrived. At 1610, the lead elements of Lieutenant Colonel Dean E. Esslinger's 3d Battalion, 5th Marines from Chu Lai began landing east of the battlefield. Esslinger's Marines moved west through scattered resistance to link up with DeAtley's Marines. Lieutenant Colonel Van D. Bell, Jr.'s 1st Battalion, 1st Marines arrived from Da Nang, landing in darkness near the 1st Marines command post at the Nui Loc Son outpost. Bell's battalion moved out immediately to join the battle.
To support the rapidly committed battalions, helicopters lifted Battery B, 1st Battalion, 11th Marines to Que Son village and a platoon of U.S. Army 175mm guns from the 3rd Battalion, 18th Field Artillery moved from Chu Lai to Tam Ky. The heaviest supporting arms fire power for the opening phase of the operation came from planes of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.
During the first day's action, the men of Company F and the 3d Battalion, 1st Marines bore the brunt of the fighting, but by dawn of the 22nd, all elements were locked in battle. The Marines drove the enemy soldiers out of their positions and maneuvered to force them northward. While withdrawing, the Communists suffered severe casualties from air strikes and artillery. Bell's and Esslinger's battalions attacked northeast, while the three-battalion ARVN 1st Ranger Group moved southwest from Thanh Binh to catch the fleeing enemy returned to their Da Nang TAOR. By 26 April, all elements of the 1st Marines had returned to Da Nang, with the exception of Company F which remained at the Nui Loc Son outpost.
Lieutenant Colonel Esslinger's battalion began a thorough search of the mountains south and west of the basin to find the NVA. Action was generally light, but an incident on the night of the 27th proved that the enemy remained active in the area. A Marine stepped on a mine which triggered a series of explosions throughout a landing zone. Marine casualties were one killed and 43 wounded, 35 of whom required evacuation.
On 28 April, Colonel James A. Gallo, Jr.'s new SLF Alpha, which landed by helicopters southeast of the Nui Loc Son outpost, joined Esslinger's battalion . Both battalions met only light resistance as the pursuit continued as the infantrymen searched north and east of Nui Loc Son, but there were only scattered contacts. On the 25th, Colonel Kenneth J. Houghton's 5th Marines arrived from Chu Lai and moved into the valley, allowing the 1st Marines to be they swept their respective zones. Despite the lack of contact, intelligence reports indicated that major enemy forces were still in the area.
Colonel Houghton, an experienced combat commander in two wars, responded to this information by helilifting Lieutenant Colonel Hilgartner's 1st Battalion, 5th Marines into the mountains 13 kilometers east of Hiep Duc on 1 May. Initially, the battalion encountered only light opposition, but as it swept west along the Song Chang, there was a sharp increase in the number of engagements.
On 5 May, Hilgartner's Company D came upon an enemy regimental storage site three kilometers north of Hiep Duc. The cache contained recoilless rifle rounds, shoes, 8,000 uniforms, 3 complete surgical kits, maps, and other assorted equipment."
As the two battalions of the 5th Marines continued to sweep north, Lieutenant Colonel Peter A. Wickwire's 1st Battalion, 3d Marines helilifted into the Que Son area of the basin and began a sweep northwest of Que Son village. As the operation progressed, all three battalions had brief contacts with small enemy units, but in each case the NVA withdrew.
On 10 May the Marines engaged a larger and more determined Communist force. Hilgarrner's Company C was moving up the southwestern slope of Hill 110, 4,000 meters north of Que Son, when it came under heavy fire from a battalion entrenched along the face of Nui Nong Ham to the southeast. The Marines took Hill 110, but when they reached the summit they found themselves still under deadly fire from a cane field below and from caves in the lower slopes of Nui Nong Ham. Captain Russell J. Caswell, the company commander, called for help.
Companies B and C of Wickwire's battalion were the nearest units to Caswell's Marines; they were northeast of Hill 110. The two companies shifted to Hilgartner's operational control. They moved to join the action but a determined enemy and heavy NVA fire halted their advance. The Marines adjusted sup porting arms fire on the Communists' positions, but it was not effective; friendly and enemy forces were too close. The two companies requested reinforcements. Marine helicopters flew a platoon of Wickwire's Company A to the area. The platoon met such fierce resistance while landing that further helicopters could not land. The enemy shot down one UH-34 in the landing zone which further complicated the situation.
Hilgartner's Company A, 2,000 meters to the east, moved to help Wickwire's companies. As the company approached the battle area it also came under fire. The company commander, Captain Gerald L. McKay, quickly deployed his troops to push through the enemy positions. Just as the company began its assault, an airborne forward air controller mistakenly marked the company's position with rockets and four Marine F-4s strafed the company, killing five Marines and wounding another 24. The combination of the attack and the enemy fire halted Company A's advance.
Hilgartner's command group and Company D were on the slope of Nui Nong Ham, southeast of Hill 110. They climbed over the crest of Hill 185 to assist Company D and BLT 1 / 3 below them.. By 1500, they had arrived at a position from which they could support by fire. The battalion's mortarmen could see the enemy in the valley below and could immediately adjust their weapons. They fired at a rapid rate; the tubes were "just about red hot.
At 1530, Esslinger's Company M landed at Hilgartner's position from helicopters and Company D moved into Nui Nong Ham to join up with Captain Caswell's Company C. The two companies quickly consolidated their position and began to provide covering fire for the Marines below. Under the cover of supporting fire from above, the BLT companies maneuvered against the NVA in the sugar cane field and on the northern slope of Nui Nong Ham. By evening the Marines drove the enemy force from its position and forced it to withdraw to the northeast. Artillery and air strikes followed the retreating North Vietnamese. Not all of the NVA escaped. The Marines found the bodies of 116 enemy soldiers the following day. Marine losses were also high: 33 died and another 135 received wounds, including the casualties from the misguided air strikes on Company A.
On 12 May, BLT 1/3 turned over its responsibilities to the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines and the SLF flew by helicopters to its ships off the coast. Although the operation was over for the SLF, it was far from over for Lieutenant Colonel Bell's battalion and the two battalions of the 5th Marines. On the 12th and 13th of May, all three elements stayed in almost continual contact with enemy platoons and companies in the valley. Esslinger's battalion engaged an enemy battalion five kilometers east of Que Son the evening of the 13th. After an exchange of mortar and small arms fire, the battalion called in artillery and air strikes. As the Marines began their assault, aerial observers shifted supporting fires to block possible withdrawal. The attacking Marines met only token resistance as the assault moved through the area, but 122 Communist bodies scattered over the position attested to the ferocity of the battle.
For the next two days firefights continued and artillery missions and air strikes harried enemy units as they tried to avoid the Marines in the valley. The devastation caused by supporting arms became most apparent on the afternoon of 14 May when Bell's Company D found 68 dead enemy soldiers in one location, all killed by fragments or concussion.
The last major battle of the operation took place on 15 May, when the 5th Marines' Companies A and M found another bunker complex. Artillery and air strikes pounded the fortifications as the Marines maneuvered into assault positions. After the heavy preparation fires, the Marines attacked. They met only light resistance and secured the position quickly. They counted 22 enemy bodies in what remained of the fortifications.
The next day, Lieutenant Colonel Bell's battalion, following its orders, departed the valley and returned to the Da Nang TAOR. The following morning Colonel Houghton closed down Operation Union. It had lasted for 27 days, during which time the Marines killed 865 enemy troops; including a reported 486 who were NVA regulars of the 2dNVA Division. The Marines suffered 110 killed, 2 missing in action, and 473 wounded.
Although the number of enemy casualties was large, Colonel Houghton believed that the psychological impact of Operation Union on the population of the basin was even more important. As he stated: The prolonged operations by the 5th Marines in the agriculturally rich Hiep Duc-Que Son-Thang Binh corridor broke the VC control of the area that had spanned almost twenty years. With the establishment of two permanent bases deep in this corridor, the fixing and subsequent destruction of hundreds of the enemy, the capture of significant quantities of supplies, equipment and weapons, the enemy loss in prestige in the eyes of the people is readily apparent. The psychological impact of Operation Union equaled or even exceeded the material damage to the Communist effort in this area of operations.
Despite this optimistic opinion, enemy influence in the Que Son Basin was far from erased. The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, which assumed the responsibility for the Nui Loc Son outpost and established its battalion command post on Hill 51 west of the village of Que Son, had daily skirmishes with enemy forces remaining in the area. Continuing activity substantiated reports that the 3d and 21st NVA Regiments were moving back into the basin. Operation Union II was the response.