The Fate of the 18th Marine Battalion

                          

By Tran Ngoc Toan

(Historical Context)

    In mid-1974, after carrying out a series of evil plots for more than a decade to send their troops into South Vietnam, the Americans were arranging to withdraw from the “military quagmire” as part of President Nixon’s plan for the “Vietnamization” of the war and for “purifying the army.”  The U.S. Marine Corps made an intense effort to form another Vietnamese Marine Division using units taken from the Special Forces and Railroad Security units.

Meanwhile, since the end of the “Easter Offensive” battles in Quang Tri, the Vietnamese Marine Division worked ceaselessly to recruit and “pre-assemble” platoon and company-sized units in its replacement corps and held them as a rapid response force at Rung Cam [the Forbidden Forest] in Thu Duc.  These units were made up of new recruits, NCOs and officers from combat units who had either just been released from the hospital after recuperating from wounds or who had just returned from foreign studies and were thus considered “excess manpower” in the division’s TO&E structure.

At the Marine Division’s operational headquarters in Huong Dien in the Hue area, a plan to form the 468th Marine Brigade made up of the newly formed 14th, 16th, and 18th Marine Battalions was approved.  This plan was to be implemented using assistance provided by the U.S. Marine Corps directly to the Brigade (not through the General Logistics Department of the Joint General Staff).  Because of traditional superstitions, no one wanted to have a 10th or a 13th Battalion, so the numerical designations of the new units jumped from the 9th Marine Battalion to the new 14th, 16th, and 18th Battalions.  These units were then combined to form the 468th Brigade.  Colonel Ngo Van Dinh  transferred command of the 258th Marine Brigade over to Colonel Nguyen Nang Bao to form and command the new 468th Brigade. He took Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Canh from the 3rd Marine Battalion and Major Dinh Xuan Lam from the 5th Marine Battalion to command the 14th and 16th Battalions, respectively.

In late 1974, the Headquarters of the 468th Brigade, with Major Nguyen Cao Nghiem, former Executive Officer of the 1st Marine Battalion serving as Brigade Operations Officer, were assembled at the Song Than Base in Thu Duc, together with the 14th and 16th Battalions.  According to the plan for the formation of these new units, each of the original organic Marine battalions, Battalions 1 through 9, was given a number of new replacement troops, and each unit was ordered to form one company outside of its TO&E structure.
According to instructions, the cadre core of these companies was to consist of officers and NCOs with battlefield experience.  Once these new companies were formed, they were transferred to the new battalions, and these units could be immediately sent into battle.  For that reason, beginning in early 1975, the 468th Brigade at that time consisting of only the 14th and 16th Marine Battalions, participated in combat operations against Viet Cong main force units in the Long An province area.  These operations continued until the brigade was airlifted to Da Nang to join the Marine Division in early March of 1975.

 The Fate of the 18th Marine Battalion

            In early March of 1975, after the 4th Marine Battalion crushed VC Thua Thien province’s local force regiment’s plans to cut our northern territory in two along the Bo River, and after the battalion had recaptured Hill 51 and reestablished its defense line after capturing almost 50 enemy weapons (including 61mm mortars), Major Tran Ngoc Toan was ordered to turn the battalion over to Major Dinh Long Thanh.  Major Toan then took two companies drawn from the 3rd and 4th Marine Battalions down to a military transportation landing craft, which transported the force down to join the 468th Brigade on 20 March 1975.

At that time, in the Central Highlands Ban Me Thuot had fallen, and the bloody evacuation along Route 19 from Pleiku to Qui Nhon had shaken the entire nation of South Vietnam. Prior to the evacuation, the Marine Division had been ordered to leave its operating area in Quang Tri to move down to defend Da Nang from the northern end of the Hai Van Pass southward.  The Marine Division Headquarters had moved down to Non Nuoc Base in Da Nang.  Only a light division headquarters element, under the command of Deputy Division Commander Colonel Nguyen Thanh Tri, was left up in the Hue area.

During the second stage of the movement from An Lo down to Thuan An, the Viet Cong threw a hand grenade into one of the trucks of a five truck convoy in which the future commander of the 18th Battalion was riding.  The attack, which occurred in the Nam Hoa area, destroyed the truck, but none of the Marines riding in the truck were killed or wounded.  Major Toan decided to load all his troops aboard the remaining trucks in order to complete the move as quickly as possible.

The situation in Hue on March 20, 1975 was shaky as local residents fled from Quang Tri behind the withdrawing Marine units down to Hue , and then flooded south from Hue toward Da Nang.  The Viet Cong towed their big 130mm guns in close to Hue city, and the guns were now able to reach the Thuan An Inlet, where the soldiers and families of the 1st Infantry Division were gathering to prepare to board Military Transportation Corps vessels to evacuate down to Da Nang.  There was also a re-deployment of forces being carried out along the northern front lines, involving the 147th Marine Brigade, the 15th Ranger Group, three RF Groups, and the 1st Cavalry Brigade.

In the early morning hours of March 20th, the Military Transportation Corps vessel cast off from the dock as the sound of exploding 130mm shells echoed down from areas west and north of Hue city. The vessel sailed straight south to Da Nang.  In Da Nang, refugees from the Quang Nam and Quang Tri areas jammed the entire city, causing the city to collapse into riot and disorder. The 18th Marine Battalion was ordered to protect the Non Nuoc Base, and deployed its forces from the other side of the Trinh Minh The Bridge through Ngu Hanh Son to Tien Sa.  The Non Nuoc Airfield could handle the C-130 aircraft and U.S. “personnel” fleeing from the city waiting for the order to evacuate.

Although the Headquarters of the 18th Marine Battalion had arrived in Da Nang, it had not yet established communication links with the Headquarters of the 468th Marine Brigade, defending the Hai Van Pass, because it was waiting for the arrival of its other two companies, which were to be transferred to the battalion from the 2nd and 6th Marine Battalions. Unfortunately, the 2nd and 6th Marine Battalions were then completely tied down defending the Quang Nam province and the southern approaches to Da Nang. The 18th Battalion’s Operations Officer, Captain Duong Cong Pho, formerly the commander of 1st Company/4th Marine Battalion, had just graduated the Advanced Army Course  (Bo Binh Cao Cap) at Thu Duc. The Battalion Executive Officer, Captain Le Quy Binh, formerly of the 3rd Marine Battalion, had also arrived at the headquarters.

On March 23, 1975, Hue city was abandoned, following the evacuation of Quang Tri.  Only a little more than one hundred officers and men of the 147th Marine Brigade, including Colonel Nguyen The Luong and Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Dang Tong, managed to escape back to the Tien Sa dock aboard a Navy LCU.  The rapidly changing situation trapped the individual Marine battalions where they were, thereby preventing the full formation of 18th Battalion, which still had only its two companies from Quang Tri defending the outer perimeter of the Non Nuoc Military Base.

Finally, in the early morning hours of March 29, 1975, all Marine Corps units received orders to abandon their defensive positions, pull back to the Non Nuoc Base to board transport vessels of the South Vietnamese Navy, and make a “tactical withdrawal,” abandoning Da Nang city to the communists. The Viet Cong had moved 130mm guns up to the top of the Hai Van Pass, and these guns were able to fire directly down into the harbor, so the Navy’s ships hastily sailed away from the beaches. ARVN infantry and armored units that had learned that the Marines were evacuating sped down to the beach, therefore creating panic, confusion, and disorder along the Non Nuoc beaches.

The 18th Marine Battalion (minus) shared the fate of the rest of ARVN’s general strategic reserve forces at Da Nang.  The battalion received only orders to evacuate, and never received a single order to “attack” or to “defend” the city.  In the end, the Marine Division, which had an original strength of more than 16,000 personnel, had only about 4,000 disorganized Marines left when it arrived at Cam Ranh Bay on April 1, 1975.  The 18th Marine Battalion, still in the womb and not yet fully born, died on March 29, 1975 in Da Nang.