Week of October 8
During the first two weeks of October 1967, some of the heaviest fighting of Operation WHEELER took place in I Corps, as elements of the 23d Infantry Division (Americal) engaged multiple regiments of the North Vietnamese Army 2nd Division west of Tam Kỳ.
General William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, had recently moved the Americal Division into I Corps to counter the growing Communist buildup in the region and to allow the Marines to move reinforcements closer to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). General Westmoreland soon decided that the Americal Division would need to stay in I Corps indefinitely, and they replaced the 5th Marines in the Quế Sơn Valley, home of the North Vietnamese 2nd Division. This enemy division had long used the jungle-covered hills and extensive rice paddies in the region as bases from which to launch attacks on both Đà Nẵng and Chu Lai. The U.S. hoped the troops of Operation WHEELER would find and eliminate those bases, along with the North Vietnamese 2nd Division itself. WHEELER officially began on September 11, 1967.
By the end of September and during the first weeks of October, the monsoon season had made for rough combat conditions. Increasingly heavy downpours and nearly constant low cloud cover snarled supply lines, both on the ground and in the air, and kept most aircraft grounded except for a few medevac helicopters. With resupply, reinforcement, and air support unreliable, on October 5 just after midnight a large enemy force surrounded and attacked the weakened 2d Battalion of the 502d Infantry using grenades, machine guns, and small arms fire. In the middle of a drenching rain, the American battalion managed to hold out while taking heavy casualties, and the enemy units withdrew in under an hour.
Days later, on October 8, as the rain continued to pour, a platoon was ambushed while on a sweep looking for the 2nd Division’s headquarters. The weather continued to make air support virtually impossible, and the platoon commander radioed that they were being overrun, having been forced into hand-to-hand fighting. By the time a relief column reached the platoon’s last known position, no survivors could be found.
The Americal Division withdrew back toward the coast late in the month, as the terrible weather continued. Though U.S. troops did not manage to locate the North Vietnamese Army base areas, they inflicted severe losses on the 2nd Division. Between 500 and 1,100 Communist troops were killed in Operation WHEELER, and U.S. forces captured 50 enemy POWs, reducing the 2nd Division by at least 12 percent. U.S. losses were also relatively heavy. Nearly 500 Americans were wounded and 126 were killed. The vast majority of these casualties occurred during the first two weeks of October 1967.1
1 George L. MacGarrigle, Combat Operations: Taking the Offensive, October 1966 to October 1967, The United States Army in Vietnam (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1998), 267–75, 283; David Burns Sigler, Vietnam Battle Chronology: U.S. Army and Marine Corps Combat Operations, 1965–1973 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.), 54.