In late February
1967, at least two regiments of the first-rate 2nd North Vietnamese
Army (NVA) Division infested the strategically vital Que Son Valley.
Located astride the boundary between Quang Nam and Quang Tin
provinces in the southern portion of South Vietnam's I Corps
Military Region, the populous, rice-rich Que Son Valley was
seen as one of the keys to controlling South Vietnam's five
northern provinces. Thus, coincidental with the 2nd NVA Division's
arrival, which had hitherto operated mainly in the coastal areas
of southern I Corps, was tasked with permanently bolstering
the out numbered and ineffectual Government of Vietnam (GVN)
forces in the valley.
The ultimate objective of brining U.S. combat units into the
Que Son Valley on a permanent basis was to eject all communist
forces from a locale that provided the I Corps region and other
areas of South Vietnam with both an abundant rice harvest and
a seemingly inexhaustible supply of conscripts. The battles
that were shaping up in the Que Son Valley were less a matter
of real estate than control of a fertile food-producing region
that also happened to be a major population center. In war,
there are few prizes strategically more compelling than those.
One reinforced U.S. Marine company (Foxtrot Company, 2nd Battalion,
1st Marine Regiment) had been permanently assigned in mid-January
1967 to man the outpost atop the southern Que Son Valley's dominant
overlook, Nui Loc Son (Loc Son Mountain). The Communist forces
operating in the valley did not initially take much notice of
the Marine outpost, and the small Marine force confined its
activities to observation, close-in patrolling, and a number
of light-action projects. However, as the two fresh NVA regiments
gained political and physical dominance over more and more of
the valley and its people, a clash between them and the Marines
became inevitable. On April 15, 1967, the Marine company commander
advised his regimental commander that communist units appear
to be preparing for an all-out assault on Nui Loc Son.
On the morning of April 19, 1967, Colonel Emil Radics, the
commander of the 1st Marine Regiment (1st Marines) presented
Maj. Gen. Herman Nickerson, the commanding general of the 1st
Marine Division, with the plan for Operation Union, a multi
battalion assault and sweep aimed at clearing NVA units from
the vicinity of the mountain. General Nickerson assented to
the operation the next day, and the Marine infantry were ordered
to jump off the following morning, April 21.
In a typical U.S. Marine response of that period, Foxtrot Company
left its position atop Nui Loc Son and swept toward the nearest
NVA-held village, a complex of several hamlets called Binh Son.
The NVA began harassing Foxtrot Company around 7 a.m. and at
9:30 they attacked the Marine company in force. The NVA managed
to pin foxtrot Company in a tree line near Binh Son, but, in
so doing, also fixed themselves to that particular location.
So far, events were unfolding according to the plan for Operation
Union. At 11 a.m. Foxtrot Company attacked Binh Son behind a
sustained air and artillery bombardment; shortly after, most
of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, joined the fight by way of
a "hot" helicopter assault. Quickly, the fresh Marine
battalion fought through to the bait company. Later in the afternoon
at 4:10, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, landed from helicopters
east of the battlefield in order to block the most likely escape
route of the embattled NVA force. During the afternoon, U.S.
Army 175mm self-propelled artillery and Marine 105mm howitzers
moved into separate fire bases near the battlefield, and a third
fresh Marine battalion (1st Battalion, 1st Marines) landed atop
Nui Loc Son that evening.
On the morning of April 22, the NVA forces were driven out
of the Binh Son area and forced to withdraw in a northerly direction.
From then until May 14, when Operation Union was abruptly terminated,
a revolving cast of U.S. Marine infantry battalions, bolstered
by the 1st ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Ranger Group,
hotly pursued the NVA force and fought a series of bitter battles
that were extremely costly to both sides.
Although the 2nd NVA Division had sustained hundreds of casualties
in Operation Union and had lost ground around Nui Loc Son, it
remained in firm control of much of the rest of the Que Son
Valley. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that the NVA division
was reinforced during that period. In any case, on May 26, Colonel
Kenneth Houghton's 5th U.S. Marine Regiment, which had assumed
control of the latter stages of Operation Union, kicked off
Operation Union II.
Aimed at sweeping the NVA from the southern rim of the Que
Son Valley, Operation Union II developed into a series of long-range
sweeps centered on Nui Loc Son. A number of large, bitter and
extremely costly battles stretched to early June, with the last
one fought on June 2nd, 1967. (One result of that final action
of Union II was that Marine Captain James Graham was awarded
a posthumous Medal of Honor for defending to the last the dead
and wounded of his Foxtrot Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines,
following an overwhelming NVA ambush.) In the end, the 2nd NVA
Division ceded control of the southern Que Son Valley to the
The Que Son Valley remained quiescent through the summer of
1967 as the 2nd NVA division licked its wounds and built itself
up to a force of three NVA regiments and the 1st Viet Cong (VC)
Regiment, which was a full-time Main Force unit. Two Battalions
of the 5th Marines continued to operate in the valley, but contacts
were light; the Marines did not patrol aggressively, and the
communist forces did not molest them.
Following several major, multi battalion operations around
Da Nang on the cost, the 1st U.S. Marine Division (commanded
by Maj. Gen. Donn Robertson since June 1, 1997) refocused its
attention on the Que Son Valley in early August. In the wake
of a modest build-up, three Marine battalions launched Operation
Cochise on August 11; but the NVA avoided the traps and pitfalls
of the Union and Union II operations, and Cochise ended on August
28 with only modest results.
Operation Swift, the fourth and the last series of spring and
summer battles in the Que Son Valley, was one of the worst-run
and bloodiest Marine Corps operations of the Vietnam War. A
direct outgrowth of sweep operations designed to shield the
populace from election-day intimidation, Swift began unofficially
on September 4, 1967, when Delta Company, 1st Battalion 5th
Marines, on foot patrol, was attacked before dawn by a superior
In typical reactive mode, the local Marine battalion commander
attempted to relieve Delta Company with one other company, a
force too small to take on the larger NVA force. After both
Marine companies had been pinned in separate enclaves by 9 a.m.,
two companies from the adjacent 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines,
were sent to relieve them. But the two fresh companies were
attacked and also became pinned in separate enclaves during
the early afternoon.
The battle was taking on classic characteristics. If the Marine
Corps high command in Vietnam deserves to be made accountable
for only one thing, it is the steady stream of ad hoc operations
that grew out of niggardly responses to situations precisely
like the one that shaped up in the Que Son Valley on September
4th, 1967. By late afternoon, the four Marine companies were
barely hanging on to their respective enclaves. All four companies
were under resolute attack by vastly superior NVA forces that,
no doubt, had carefully planned the trap. Only the timely arrival
of Marine jet fighter-bombers and the pinpoint accuracy of Marine
artillery prevented the Marine infantry companies from being
Two posthumous Medals of Honor would be awarded for the September
4th fighting. Although wounded in the leg while locating an
enemy position, Sergeant Lawrence Peters, a squad leader serving
with Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, refused relief
so that he could continue to lead his Marines. Peters bled to
death during the night. Also in the Mike Company perimeter,
Father Vincent Capadonno, the 3rd Battalion Chaplain, refused
relief when he was wounded. Father Capadonno was hit twice,
but he continued to administer medical and spiritual aid to
the wounded until he was killed by enemy fire.
Despite a large and growing toll of wounded and dead Marines,
the night of September 4-5 was used to good advantage in aggressive
air and artillery strikes against several NVA positions. A dawn
counterattack by yet another fresh Marine company then succeeded
in relieving pressure on the two surrounded companies of the
1st Battalion. As a result, the NVA broke contact and with drew
from the area, thus freeing the two trapped companies of the
3rd Battalion. With that, the commander of the 5th Marines,
Colonel Stanley Davis, ordered his bloodied 1st and 3rd battalions
to pursue, and Operation Swift officially began.
The enemy reappeared in the early afternoon of September 6,
when two battalions of the 1st VC Regiment attacked Bravo company,
the lead company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. Bravo was
isolated and nearly overrun before artillery-delivered tear
gas brought respite. Meanwhile, the nearby 3rd Battalion became
heavily engaged a few hours later. When India Company was dispatched
to attack a VC-held hill, it was isolated and nearly overrun
by the 1st VC Regiment's previously uncommitted 3rd Battalion.
Kilo Company was sent to relieve India and, though it fought
through, the two company force then could not move because it
was burdened with many casualties. Two determined VC night assaults
were repulsed, and Mike Company eventually fought through against
meager opposition. By dawn, the VC had melted away.
And so it went. The enemy withdrew and the Marine battalions
attempted to run them down or run them out of the Que Son Valley.
Terrible, costly battles ensued, the hasty, drastic measures
had to be implemented to prevent disasters. Nevertheless on
September 15, the 2nd NVA Division and 1st VC Regiment had largely
given up the southern half of the Que Son Valley. As ill-considered
as the Marines' successive piecemeal strategy had been in response
to the initial attacks, still the crack Communist forces were
ultimately defeated. In fact, U.S. intelligence agencies determined
that the two enemy regiments that had been most active during
Operation Swift were subsequently unfit for combat.
Almost coincidental with the conclusion of Operation Swift
was the arrival in southern I Corps of very large U.S. Army
units. As a result, the 1st Marine Division was able to base
a substantial force in the Que Son Valley on a permanent basis.
From then until the Marines turned all of southern I Corps over
to the U.S. Army at the beginning of 1968, the reinforced 2nd
NVA Division never seriously molested the Marines who had bested
them. Oddly, for all the tactical mismanagement, the Marines'
1967 spring and summer operations in the Que Son Valley turned
out to be among the strategically most successful of the entire
U.S. involvement in I Corps.