Page 091

Page 91 (1968: The Defining Year)



equipment, the NVA could keep an entire Marine division occupied.14*


For the most part, the 1st Marine Division war in the Da Nang TAOR was a small-unit war. The nature of the war and the terrain in the area were such that the most effective form of military action was usually the small-unit patrol or ambush, carried out by a squad or fire team. As a consequence, in 1967, more than 50 percent of division casualties resulted from enemy mines and boobytraps, officially called surprise firing devices (SFD). General Robertson, the division commander, called it a "vicious" type of combat which inflicted the most cruel type of wounds, ranging from blindness to multiple loss of limbs. The enemy exploited anything on hand to make these devices, from discarded ration cans to spent artillery shells, "any time they could get powder, they used it." Operating against an unknown and often unseen enemy in an unfamiliar environment among largely a hostile or at best neutral rural populace, the Marines of the 1st Division fought an unspectacular and difficult war. As Lieutenant General Cushman, the III MAF commander, commented, the Marines at Da Nang "had a lot of slogging to do, a lot of patrolling to do ... And their casualties from mines were considerable as a result."15


Through 1967, the enemy in the Da Nang area of operations consisted for the most part of the VC infrastructure and the local guerrillas in the surrounding villages and hamlets. There was no clear distinction between friend and foe. The innocent appearing farmer in his field, or his wife or child for that matter, could easily be a VC agent or even terrorist. According to Marine estimates at the beginning of 1968, enemy irregular or local force strength in the Da Nang area was about 17,500, but only 4,000 of this number were "full-time guerrillas." The remaining members of the irregular classification belonged to either Communist local "Self-Defense or Secret Self-Defense forces." For the Marine on patrol, however, it made little difference if the enemy who shot or threw a grenade at him was a full-time guerrilla or belonged to the local defense forces. Too often the results were the same.16

Operation Auburn: Searching the Go Noi

The appearance of the North Vietnamese units near Da Nang and the
formation of Group 44 added another dimension to the danger
that the enemy posed to the airbase and the city of Da Nang. Marine
intelligence suspected and later confirmed that the North Vietnamese
31st Regiment, also known as the Red River Regiment,
with all three battalions, had moved in December into the Dai Loc sector
in the southwestern reaches of the Da Nang TAOR. Although the 2d
NVA Division
with its three regiments continued to challenge the
U.S. 1st Air Cavalry's 3d Brigade in the Que Son Valley, it had the
potential to move north through the Que Sons to reinforce the enemy
forces in the Da Nang area of operations. The NVA 368B Artillery
Regiment
, consisting of four independent battalions and five independent
companies, armed with the 122mm and 140mm rockets, presumably operating
from secret bases in "Happy Valley," some 15 miles southwest of Da Nang,
in the far western confines of the division operating area, remained
a constant irritant to the Marine defenders. Even with the greater strength
of the Communist forces around Da Nang, General Robertson, the 1st Marine
Division commander, later maintained: "Ours was a small war, and divisions
aren't small, even NVA divisions, but I never had the feeling that we
were going to get pushed around or pushed out."17**

At the same time, however, the VC local force battalions in the Da
Nang area also became more active. Two enemy local battalions, the V-25th
and the R-20th, had long operated in the Da Nang area. In fact,
the R-20 or Doc Lap Battalion, as early as September,
1965, launched one of the first enemy attacks against a Marine battalion
command post on Hill 22 near the Yen River. By December 1967, agent
reports located both battalions on the so-called Go Noi Island, about
25 kilometers south of the airbase near the demarcation between the
Marine division and the Americal Division. According to Marine intelligence
officers, the enemy in the Da Nang sector during early 1968 would continue
to harass the South Vietnamese Revolutionary Development program in
the Da Nang



* Colonel William J. Davis, who commanded the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines at this time, observed that the 122mm rocket was most accurate when fired with a tripod and launcher, but that the VC had fired both weapons without tripod or launcher by leaning them against inclined dirt banks, facing the airbase, and then set off. Col W. J. Davis, Tet Marine, An Autobiography (San Diego, CA, 1987), pp. 42-48, End to Col William J. Davis, Comments on draft, dtd 2Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Davis, Tet Marine.


** Brigadier General Paul G. Graham, who was the 1st Marine Division operations officer or G-3 during this period, reiterated in his comments that the war around Da Nang "was strictly a guerrilla war" and that enemy activity "was invariably hie and run tactics by small ambush or rocket firing units." BGen Paul G. Graham, Comments on draft, dtd 20Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Graham Comments.






Page 91 (1968: The Defining Year)