Operation Union II
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Union II, like Union I, involved coordination with the 6th ARVN Regiment and the 1st ARVN Ranger Group. The 1st and 3d Battalions, 5th Marines once again became the maneuver elements for III MAF's portion of the operation. The operation plan directed Hilgartner's 1st Battalion to establish block ing positions in the western portion of the valley. The three RVN Ranger Group battalions were to at tack southwest from Thang Binh, while two units of the 6th ARVN Regiment were to attack northwest from a position near Tam Ky. Essingler's 3d Battalion would move by helicopters into the southern portion of the basin and sweep northeast. The ARVN named their part of the operation Lien Kit
On the morning of 26 May, Esslinger's Marines, three companies and a command group, made a heliborne assault into an area five kilometers east of Nui Loc Son outpost. Company L's first two waves experienced only sniper fire as they landed at LZ Eagle, but as Company M and the command group landed, heavy small arms and mortar fire struck the LZ. At 1134 the enemy defenders shot down a CH-46 over the LZ. As Company I landed, Companies L and M attacked north to relieve the pressure on the 12. The attacking companies found a well- entrenched enemy force northeast of the landing zone. While artillery and air strikes pounded the NVA positions, Company I moved to the northeast to envelop the enemy's flank, and in the face of strong resistance drove through the position. Fighting continued throughout the afternoon. When the Marines finally overran the last enemy positions at 1630, they counted 118 dead NVA soldiers scattered over the battlefield. The 3d Battalion lost 38 killed and 82 wounded, including Lieutenant Colonel Esslinger, who was wounded in the eye.
While the Marines of Esslinger's battalion engaged the enemy force, Hilgarrner's Marines established blocking positions to the northwest as planned. The ARVN ranger and infantry elements closed from the northeast and southeast to box in the enemy. For the next three days, all four forces swept the area. There were only isolated exchanges of fire; once more the 3d NVA Regiment had withdrawn from the basin. Convinced that the enemy had escaped, the South Vietnamese ended their opera tion, but Colonel Houghton did not believe that all the NVA forces had left the Que Son region.
After analyzing available intelligence, Houghton decided to change the direction of attack toward the hills along the southern rim of the basin, southeast of the 3d Battalion's battle area of the 26th. On 30 May, he had his two battalions flown into the area by helicopter and began a sweep to the northeast. Their advance encountered only long-range sniper fire. By the afternoon of 1 June, both battalions had reentered the basin and moved northwest generally toward the site of the original 26 May contact.
On 2 June, the Marines moved out, two battalions abreast, with the 1st Battalion on the right. Objective Foxtrot in the Vinh Huy Village complex was their destination. By 0930, the two lead companies of the 3d Battalion were under heavy fire from 200 dug-in North Vietnamese troops 1,000 meters east of the objective, and roughly 3,000 meters east of the scene of the 3d Battalion's heavy action on 26 May. By 1300, after savage fighting and extensive use of supporting arms, the Marines overran the position. As the companies consolidated and began to evacuate their casualties, a helicopter took a direct hit from a 57mm recoilless rifle, killing one Marine and wounding seven others.
While the units of the 3d Battalion, now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Webster, engaged the enemy, Hilgartner's 1st Battalion push ed forward to relieve the pressure. The battalion moved with Company D on the right and an attach ed company, Company F, 5th Marines, on the left. About 1130, Company D began crossing a 1,000-meter-wide rice paddy that contained a horseshoe-shaped hedgerow. The location of the hedgerow was such that the Marines could not approach it except by crossing the open paddy. When the company was halfway across the field, well- camouflaged NVA troops in fortified positions in the horseshoe opened fire. The enemy fire swept the Marines' front and left flank, catching the left flank platoons in a crossfire. The reserve platoon tried to envelop the enemy, but heavy automatic weapons fire forced it back. The Marines consolidated their positions while artillery and air strikes softened up the enemy fortifications.
Company F, commanded by Captain James A. Graham, was in serious trouble on Company D's left. Initially, Graham's unit moved under the cover of air and artillery strikes and encountered only sniper fire. As it began crossing a large open paddy area, a Kit Carson Scout with the company started shooting at several mats of hay lying in the paddy. The NVA had concealed themselves under the mats and the Marines killed 31 of them as the company advanced.
As the company continued across the open area, mortar and automatic weapons fire inflicted many casualties. Hardest hit was the 2d Platoon; two concealed enemy machine guns stopped it in the middle of the open field. Captain Graham quickly organized his small headquarters group into an assault unit and attacked through the 2d Platoon's position, forcing the North Vietnamese to abandon one of their guns. With some of the pressure relieved, the platoon moved some of the wounded to a more secure area. Captain Graham then tried to silence the second gun, but was unsuccessful. Wounded twice by this time and with his men's ammunition exhausted, the captain ordered his Marines to move back to friendly positions while he stayed behind to protect a wounded man who could not be moved. The last word over the radio from Captain Graham was that 25 enemy soldiers were attacking his position.
At 1420, Lieutenant Colonel Hilgarrner's CP came under heavy mortar, recoilless rifle, and RPG fire. Despite the extensive use of air and artillery by the Marines, the Communist force was too well dug-in and too big for the battalion to dislodge. Colonel Houghton, advised of the situation, asked for help. Since his 3d Battalion was already involved in heavy fighting, he asked for the commitment of the division reserve, Lieutenant Colonel Mallett C. Jackson, Jr.'s 2d Battalion, 5th Marines. Major General Donn J. Robertson, a Navy Cross holder who had just assumed command of the division on 1 June, con curred and 'the 2d Battalion prepared to move out by helicopter to join in the battle. The three companies that made up Lieutenant Colonel Jackson's force for this operation were his own Company E; Company D from the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines; and Company E, 2d Battalion, 7th Marines.
The 5th Marines' commander paved the way for the 2d Battalion's entry into the operation by ordering 90 minutes of air and artillery preparation of the planned landing zone. He intended to insert the battalion northeast of the enemy position so it could drive south into the left flank of the NVA force. By 1900, the battalion command group and two companies had landed. They were unopposed and quickly organized the position.
As night fell, one of Jackson's companies still had not arrived. Aware of the urgency of the tactical situation facing Hilgartner's battalion, and concern ed about the fate of Captain Graham's company from his own battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Jackson requested permission to begin his attack without the missing company. Colonel Houghton concurred. Leaving a security platoon in the landing zone, Jackson maneuvered his force south against the enemy. The battalion had not gone far in the darkness before it collided with an NVA force trying to withdraw to the north. The Marines quickly drove through the Communists and continued south.
The 2d Battalion, 5th Marines suffered almost 20 casualties in this initial contact. To evacuate the wounded, the battalion's forward air controller call ed in a passing CH-53. The pilot landed his helicopter in the middle of the command post, not far from where Company E still engaged the enemy. As Marines completed loading the wounded, an enemy mortar round landed just to the rear of the aircraft and enemy automatic weapons took it under direct fire. The pilot quickly took off. The 2d Battalion later heard that, on its arrival at Da Nang, ground crews counted approximately 58 holes in the helicopter.
The sudden presence of a strong force on its northern flank caused the NVA units to disengage and make a hasty withdrawal to the southwest, but the move proved costly. Once NVA soldiers left the protection of their fortifications, they were easy targets for Marine supporting arms fire. Air strikes were devastating. On one occasion two F-4 aircraft used an unusual technique of target acquisition which proved especially effective. The first aircraft approached the area at low speed and switched on its landing and running lights. When the enemy fired at the plane, the second aircraft, following closely behind without lights, spotted the enemy and dropped napalm on the firing positions.
While supporting arms fire hastened the Communist departure from the battlefield, the 5th Marines spent the night regrouping and evacuating casualties. The following morning, all three battalions swept the battle area. The Marines counted 476 dead North Vietnamese in and around the con tested rice paddy and its formidable hedgerow complex. The Marines themselves suffered 71 killed and 139 wounded in the fight.
During the sweep of the battle area, Lieutenant Colonel Hilgartner received a radio message from one of his companies that enemy working parties were out collecting the NVA dead. The company commander asked if he should open fire. Hilgartner declined for he saw this as a chance to recover his own dead, including Captain Graham's body. For the remainder of the day there was an undeclared truce; the two sides intermingled but ignored each other as they went about collecting their dead.
When the enemy main body withdrew, they transported their wounded on two poles lashed together, similar to the "travois" used by the American Plains Indians. The day after the undeclared truce, Hilgarrner's battalion tried to follow the travois skid marks but could not catch up with the main body of the NVA force. Halts to call in helicopters to evacuate casualties caused by the enemy's rear guard hindered the Marines' progress.
The NVA force escaped.
The action on 2 June marked the last significant battle of Union II. Total enemy casualties were 701 killed and 23 captured, a favorable ratio to 110 Marines killed (the same number as during Union I)and 241 wounded.
Despite the heavy losses suffered during the two Union operations, throughout the summer the enemy continued to pump replacements into the region in a determined effort to regain control of the Que Son Valley. Elements of III MAF met and thwarted each Communist thrust into the area. Government control was returning to the region, and forcing the Communists to pay a big price in men and material.