Operation Utah - First Contact with the NVA

Intelligence and Planning

The senior USA advisor to the 2d ARVN Division visited with Gen. Platt and informed him that reliable sources placed the 21st NVA Regiment approximately 7 miles northwest of Quang Ngai, a coordinated attack was immediately planned using one Marine and one ARVN Battalion. Gen. Platt ordered his senior Regimental Commander Col. Peatross the task of meeting and destroying the enemy forces. Peatross chose his 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines and informed LtCol. Leon Utter the Battalion Commader to prepare his men for departure.

The objective area consisted of paddy lands and hamlets of the Chau Nhai village complex with two hills overlooking the planned landing zone. Hill 50, just northeast of the LZ was the dominant feature in the open rice paddies and southwest of that hill proved to be the area of the heaviest fighting during the next few days.

The Battle

On the morning of 4 March, 1966 the objective area was strafed and bombed. Despite the prep of the landing zone, at 0:900 the first wave of Marine Corps helicopters landing the 1st ARVN Airborne Battalion were taken under heavy ground fire. Anti-aircraft fire downed one of the armed escort UH-1Es and a Marine Phantom F-4 that was making a napalm run. The Marine avaitors managed to land all the ARVN troops by 10:30. Once on the ground, the South Vietnamese troops met little resistance as they attacked north and then west toward hill 50. Having completed the insertion of the ARVN, the helicopters returned to Chu Lai and would begin to ferry LtCol. Utter's Marines to the objective area.

During the first wave, the helicopters were once again taken under fire and the 1st Platoon of "K" Company was isolated for 15 minutes before the rest of the Company could be landed. "F" and "G" Companies and the Battalion Command Group were on the ground meeting little resistance by 11:30, "H" Companys' arrival was delayed until 13:00 due to heavy ground fire directed at the helicopters. With reports coming in from the battlefield, it was decided to expand the operation and Task Foce Delta was reactivated with Gen. Platt Commanding and Col. Peatross as his Chief of Staff. A Command Post was set up on Nui Tien An (Buddah Hill) just north of Quang Ngai City in close proximity to the 2d ARVN Division Headquarters which was located in Quang Ngai City.

Shortly after 13:00 the Marines secured Hills 97 and 85. They began moving south toward the ARVN, who had taken Hill 50 but were encountering strong oppositon and asking for help. LtCol. Utter received permission and began moving his Companies toward the ARVN. However, he had to adjust his movement because the South Vietnamese hadn't moved forward according to plan. Advancing in a general easterly direction, the Battalion, with Company "F" on the left, "Company "G" in the center, and Company "H" in an echelon formation, pushed forward for a few hundred meters before they were taken under heavy fire from what was later estimated to be two Battalions of the 21st NVA Regiment. The enemy fought from well prepared positions which were too close for the Marines to call in artillery or airstrikes. Company "G" penetrated the enemy positions in two places but the Marines couldn't take advantage of these minor gains because of a lack of reserves. Enemy machine-gun fire was so heavy at times that it actually destroyed sections of the rice paddy dikes. Company "H", on the Battalion right, made some progress when the NVA counterattacked. The attack was repulsed when the Marines' Company Commander used his 81mm mortars with good effect. There was a growing gap on the Marine Battalions left flank. The ARVN, who were asked to close it but refused to do so, that left Company "F" on the exposed left flank and most vulnerable to attack.

The enemy struck Company "F" with a heavy volume of fire, causing the entire Company to take heavy casualties and cutting off the 1st and lead platoon from the rest of the Company. The Company Commander was wounded and reported his situation to the Battalion CP. A replacement was dispatched immediately and reached the embattled Marines under heavy fire. Taking Command of the embattled Marines he reported immediately that the situation was serious and that the Marines were running out of ammunition. A Platoon of "H" Company was sent as reinforcements, but the whole Battalions' postion remained precarious and Utter ordered all of his Company's to fall back. As Company "H" began to pull back it came under heavy 60mm mortar fire with the enemy advancing towards the Marines. The attack was repulsed with airstrikes, using bombs, rockets and napalm that were called in on the enemy until the Battalion reached it's night defensive positons near Chau Nhai (4).

During the night of 4 -5 March, the enemy continued to harass the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, particularly when helicopters arrived. Company "H" took a trench line in a night assault and killed 20 NVA when they revealed themselves by firing 60mm mortars at the Marines and machine-guns at the resupply helicopters. Much need supplies were brought in to the Marines and 70 casualties were evacuated by those brave helicopter pilots who flew through a hail of steel each time they arrived to the Battalions perimeter. With the heavy contact and loss of personnel, Gen. Platt had already taken measures, he ordered another 155mm Battery deployed to Binh Son, and the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines to establish blocking defenses north of Utters Battalion. LtCol. P. X. Kelleys 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines was ordered to standby in Chu Lai and be ready for deployment in the morning.

The NVA stuck the ARVN near Hill 50 around 05:00 in the morning. Marine Corps artillery battery's fired 1,900 rounds in support for period of two hours and the 1st Marines were ordered to leave their blocking poasitions advance south . While the 1st Marines were to link with the ARVN under attack, the ARVN 2d Division Commander ordered addition ARVN troops to join the operation in progress. The 2d Battalion, 7th Marines were ordered to clear a landing zone of the arrival of fresh troop, clear it's battlefield from the previous day , and serve as the Task Force Delta reserve unit. Kelly's Marines began landing shortly after 08:30 and the helicopters once again were immediatly taken under fire. Several helicopters were put out of commission before all the troops were on the ground and moving towards their objectives. Two Company's of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines engaged the NVA in close quarters but persevered until all the Companies reached LtCol. Utter's Battalion and established night defensive postions. North of Utter's and Kelley's Marines the 1st Marines were slugging it out with a persistant enemy who was dug into a network of interconnected tunnels, bunkers and spider traps. Despite these defenses the Marines pressed the attack with Company "L" succeeding in taking Hill 50 after a three hour engagement. Little headway was made in the vicintiy of Chau Ngai (3) and with the coming of darkness the Marines were forced to withdraw. The 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines losses for the day were 32 killed and 90 wounded.

Company "B", 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, which had been attached to the 4th Marines and guarding a downed helicopter, came under heavy small arms fire and a mortar attack. The Marines came under increasing pressure and at about 01:30, the NVA launched a three pronged assault. This was repulsed with the help of supporting artillery fire. By morning, when relief arrived, 38 enemy dead were found. Twice that number were believed to have been carried away during the previous night. The Marines and ARVN pulled back and a intensive two and one-half hour air and artillery bombardment was launched. At approximately 12:40 on 6 March, the three Battalions advanced but the North Vietnamese were no longer there.

The Aftermath

A search of the area revealed a cave complex which apparently served as the NVA Regimental Command Post, and 100 enemy bodies on hill 50 were found by the 1st Marines. LtCol. Utter's Marines discouvered 43 enemy bodies in another tunnel complex. During Utah, the allied forces claimed to have killed 600 North Vietnamse soldiers, captured 5 prisoners, and 49 weapons including three 12.7mm machine-guns and two mortars. Marine casualties were 98 dead and 278 wounded, while the ARVN lost 30 killed and 120 wounded, the battle had been hard fought and won by Marines who stood their ground.

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