The Hill Fights

Hill 881N as seen from 881S

Increases in elevation on military maps are measured in meters above sea level.  A section of terrain that rises above its surroundings is generally regarded as a hill.  On military maps, hills are designated as a number that equates to the number of meters its summit rises above sea level.  For example, a hill designated 861 has a summit that rises 861 meters above sea level.  Note: Until the mid-twentieth century, the official definition of a hill was a rise in land with summits less than 1,000 feet above sea level, but this definition was abandoned.  Today, there is no official distinction between hills and mountains.

Hills aren’t uniform things, of course.  Some are natural formations, others are man-made (usually called mounds).  Forces of nature shape hills through erosion and land movement, producing such things as ridges and saddles.  And there are different kinds of hills.  A drumlin is a long hill formed by the movement of glaciers. A butte is a hill that stands alone in a flat landscape.  A tor is a rock formation on top of a hill.  A puy is a cone-shaped, volcanic hill, while a pingo is a mound of ice covered with earth.

Higher elevations allow humans to establish defenses, particularly when the hills are heavily forested or covered by thick shrub.  During the Viet Nam War, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) sought to make use of an extensive network of hills and caves to challenge US and South Vietnamese forces.  The hills in the northern regions of South Viet Nam did not stop the U. S. Marines from finding and killing them.

881-001This is an account of the First Battle of Khe Sanh, also known as the Hill Fights.  The NVA 325C Division [1] occupied significant portions of Hills 861, 881-S(outh), and 881-N(orth), which overlooked the Khe Sanh combat base in I Corps. On 20 April 1967, operational control of Khe Sanh passed to the 3rd Marine Regiment (3rd Marines).  The 3rd Marines had just initiated OPERATION PRAIRIE IV, and although the Khe Sanh area was not included as part of the operational area, it was a territorial appendage assigned to the 3rd Marines because that regiment was in the best position to oversee and reinforce the base if necessary.

On 22nd April the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines (2/3) commenced Operation BEACON STAR (a search and destroy operation) in the southern portion of Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces against elements of the VC 6th Regiment, which at the time included the 810th and 812th battalions.

On 23 April 1967 Marines of the first and third platoons of Company B, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment (B/1/9) were conducting security patrols (unrelated to Beacon Star) in the area north and east of Hill 861.  Late in the afternoon, the Bravo Company commander, Captain Michael W. Sayers [2], ordered these platoons to link up and establish a night position north of 861 in preparation for a sweep the following morning. Of interest to the Marines was a cave complex located to the northwest.

On 24 April 1967, 2ndLt Thomas G. King’s 2nd Platoon, B/1/9 led his 30 Marines and an 81mm mortar section to Hill 700, south of Hill 861.  Their mission was to provide additional fire support for a company sweep to the northwest.  Once the mortar section was in position, 1stLt Phil Sauer led four men (including a forward observer [3]) to the top of Hill 861 to establish an observation post.  As soon as the FO team entered a bamboo thicket NVA forces ambushed them.  The first Marine was instantly killed.  1stLt Sauer ordered a withdrawal, remaining behind firing at the enemy with his side arm as his men attempted to reach safety. Only the forward observer managed to escape.  This was the opening engagement of the First Battle of Khe Sanh [4].

2ndLt King, having lost radio contact [5] with the FO team, but being aware of the firefight, dispatched a rifle squad to investigate the incident.  As the squad moved forward, it came upon the FO, the team’s only survivor.  The squad returned to the area of contact to recover the other members of the team. Enemy fire kept them from retrieving the dead Marines.  The rifle squad returned to King’s mortar position.

King radioed for artillery support and then led another squad to the ambush site.  Marine artillery and air support missions pounded the hill with napalm, white phosphorous, 500-pound bombs, and gunship fire —measures that appeared to have no discernible effect on the enemy.  By the time King arrived back at the ambush site, the enemy had withdrawn, and he was able to recover two bodies.  Two other Marines were initially unaccounted for [6].

King withdrew his men to a location suitable for helicopter landing and ignited a smoke grenade marking his position and called for a medevac.  A UH-34 came in for the extraction, but no sooner had its wheels touched the deck, the whole crest of Hill 861 opened up with automatic weapons.  The chopper was hit 35 times in a matter of seconds. King’s men took cover as two UH-1E gunship escorts delivered withering fire toward the enemy positions.  As the NVA fire fell off, King’s Marines loaded the bodies aboard the helicopter, and it took off.  King and his men returned to the mortar position.

King was soon joined by Captain Sayers, who radioed the first and third platoons to sweep further east across Hill 861 and strike the NVA from the rear.  The two platoons were positioned roughly 2,000 meters (1.2 miles) northwest of their new objective.  As these two platoons turned toward their new objective, five enemy mortars dropped among them, killing one Marine and wounded several others.  The Marine advance continued [7] until halted by intense enemy fire.

After an intense engagement, with Marines running low on ammunition, they withdrew back over the crest of the hill and called for medevac assistance for their wounded comrades.  Two landing attempts were thwarted by enemy fire; the grunts took several more casualties.  Sayers ordered them to withdraw to a more secure position and dig in the night.  From the outset, Sayers realized that the NVA presence on Hill 861 was formidable.  Bravo Company Marines (through aggressive patrolling) had forced the NVA into a premature revelation of their plan to seize Khe Sanh [8].  NVA forces operating in the hills around Khe Sanh were about to receive more attention from the Marines than they had hoped for; in addition to an influx of more ground units, Hill 861 was soon receiving massive quantities of napalm and 500-pound bombs.  The NVA had broken cardinal rule number one: do not shoot at a US Marine.  Bravo Company’s losses for this day were 14 dead, 17 wounded.

The job of engaging the NVA in the hills around Khe Sanh fell to Colonel John P. Lanigan’s 3rd Marine Regiment.  Twenty-two years earlier, Lanigan had been engaged in a similar mission, one that earned him the Silver Star Medal during the Battle for Okinawa.  Prior to the incident involving King’s second platoon, Lanigan planned to replace Company B with K/3/3 on 29 April.  The events of 24th April changed that plan.

On the morning of 25 April, dense fog at Khe Sanh delayed the arrival of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines (3/3), commanded by LtCol Gary Wilder.  By the time 3/3 arrived at Khe Sanh,  Captain Sayers’ Bravo Company had begun its advance on Hill 861.  Heavy fog, difficult terrain, and concentrations of enemy fire hampered the company’s progress.  Radio communications with HQ 3rd Marines was hampered by the fact that Sayers did not have 3/3’s radio frequencies.  Sayers was also convinced that the enemy was monitoring radio communications, so he sent coded messages back to his rear echelon, who passed that information to the regimental headquarters.

Shortly after arriving at Khe Sanh, Colonel Wilder began moving his battalion north to assist B/1/9. Captain Bayliss L. Spivey, Jr., commanding Kilo Company 3/3 reached the base of Hill 861 around 1500 hours and deployed his platoons on two axes: first platoon moved up along a ridgeline, followed by the company command group.  Third platoon advanced along another ridgeline on the right flank.  Kilo’s under-strength second platoon provided security for the battalion command group and a 60mm mortar section.  Spivey had his Marines positioned for an attack at 1530. Artillery check fire was in effect as the Marines closed with the enemy.

On order from Spivey, First platoon (1PLT) continued its advance through the heavy foliage on the ridgeline.  Three hundred meters from the crest, 1PLT made contact with an NVA company-size unit and encountered heavy grazing fire from well-fortified positions and mortars from reverse slope locations.  US counter-mortar and artillery was ineffective in silencing NVA mortars. 1PLT continued its attack for another 200 meters, but by 1730, the platoon had been reduced to only ten combat-effective Marines.  With darkness approaching, Spivey needed additional Marines on the line.  Irregular terrain hindered 3PLT from providing immediate assistance.  Spivey requested the release of 2PLT from 3/3 and was soon engaged in heavy combat, which continued until nightfall.  Captain Spivey ordered his Marines to dig in for the night.

881-004Bravo Company also had a hard day.  Enemy fire prevented helicopter evacuations of Sayers’ wounded; attached Navy corpsmen were nearly exhausted.  Bravo company’s advance was limited to less than a half-mile to a position 800 meters northwest of Hill 861.

Heavy enemy resistance necessitated a call for more Marines. Captain J. E. Giles’ K/3/9 was flown to Khe Sanh from Camp Carroll.  Arriving after sundown, Giles’ company remained at Khe Sanh for the night.

The NVA launched a massive mortar assault against the 3/3 command group at 0500 on 26 April.  At the same time, NVA mortared the Khe Sanh combat base.  The shelling caused no damage at Khe Sanh, but the attack revealed a heavy NVA presence on Hill 881-S.  From information provided by Captain Sayers, Marine artillery blanketed the eastern slope of 881-S, which silenced the NVA’s recoilless rifles [9].  The mortars were more difficult to target.

K/3/9 departed Khe Sanh at 0800, arriving at the 3/3 command post (CP) at noon.  Spivey’s K/3/3 had been heavily engaged throughout the morning. NVA forces, operating from strongly fortified positions, repelled every attempt to seize the crest of the hill. By noon, Spivey’s 3PLT had taken so many casualties that it was unable to withdraw.  Wilder ordered Giles to send two platoons to help Spivey disengage and evacuate the dead and wounded.  The two companies linked up, but despite the effective use of helicopter gunships, efforts to disengage lasted until 1900.

Sayers’ Bravo company was also stopped by fierce enemy resistance.  Well-concealed enemy allowed the Marines to advance to within five meters before opening up on them.  It was a killing zone.  Sayers and his first sergeant were wounded.  NVA mortars produced additional casualties.  Nevertheless, Bravo Company gained fire superiority at noon, and the enemy withdrew.  Sayers moved his Marines to the top of a small knoll and called for medevac assistance. As the helicopters began the descent, the Marines waived them off because the aircraft were helping the NVA to pinpoint their position.  At 1445, Sayers informed Wilder that he had so many casualties he could not move his Marines further.

Colonel Wilder ordered Sayers to leave his dead and bring out his wounded.  Sayers reiterated that he could not move, even with only his wounded. Resupply was impossible.  Bravo Company had five operational radios remaining; batteries were running low.  Captain Glen Golden, commanding Battery F, 12th Marines at Khe Sanh, managed to place a ring of steel around Sayer’s position.

Wilder sent Giles and his one remaining platoon to assist Sayers.  It took Giles four hours to reach Company B.  Under the cover of darkness, heavy fog and rain, Giles and Sayers began their withdrawal.  Every man (except point and rear guard) carried stretchers of wounded and dead Marines and their equipment.  The weary Marines finally reached Wilder’s CP at 0500 on 27 April.  The few Bravo Company Marines who remained effective refused to ride trucks back to Khe Sanh.  They marched in.

Commanding the 3rd Marine Division, Major General Bruno Hochmuth [10] realized that 3/3 was an insufficient force to carry Hill 861. He shifted the Special Landing Force [11] (SLF) Battalion (2/3) under LtCol Earl R. Delong back to the 3rd Marines.  2/3 had been conducting Operation BEACON STAR at a location 16  miles north of Hue City.  The battalion was loaded on to helicopters beginning around noon on 26 April and flown to Phu Bai.  From there, the battalion was loaded aboard C-130s and dispatched to Khe Sanh.  By 1600, the 2/3 command group and letter companies E, G, and H had arrived and began their movement toward Hill 861. 2/3 set into night positions 500 meters east of Wilder’s battalion.

27 April was a day for preparations.  3/3 completed medevac operations by 1130 and moved to Khe Sanh for replacements.  Colonel Lanigan transferred M/3/9 and M/3/3 to Wilder’s battalion as relief for K/3/3 and B/1/9 —both of which were no longer capable of combat operations.  F/2/3 arrived from Phu Bai and was assigned as regimental reserve.  Battery B 12th Marines arrived at Khe Sanh at 1900 and was ready for firing missions by 2045.  Together, Batteries B and F had linked in such a manner as to allow them to perform artillery support as an artillery group.  Each battery served in direct support of an infantry battalion; two 155mm howitzers and two 4.2-inch mortars were allocated as general support of regimental operations.

Throughout 27-28th April, artillery and air delivered munitions focused on the NVA positions. The Army’s 175mm guns, situated farther east, began pouring high explosives onto Hill 861.  It was a 24-hour long onslaught of artillery and air-delivery munitions.  Snake-eye [12] munitions were used to clear away the dense vegetation so that other aircraft, armed with 750, 1,000, and 2,000-pound bombs could destroy the NVA’s well-fortified bunkers.  A preponderance of these air missions were performed by the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW).

Late in the afternoon of 28 April, the infantry was ready to resume their attack.  Colonel Lanigan decided on a two-battalion assault to achieve three objectives: Hill 861 was Objective 1; Hill 881-S was Objective 2; Hill 881-N was the final objective.  Delong’s 2/3 would seize Objective 1 on 28 April.  Wilder’s 3/3 would follow 2/3.  After Delong achieved his objective, Wilder’s Marines would turn west, secure the ground between 861 and 881-S, then assault Objective 2 from the northeast.  As Wilder went into the attack, Delong would consolidate Objective 1 and then move out toward 881-N, screening Wilder’s right flank, reinforcing him if necessary. After securing Objectives 1 and 2, Delong would continue on to achieve Objective 3, Hill 881-N.

861-002Following preparatory fires, 2/3 assaulted 861 with two companies abreast.  Beyond sporadic mortar fire, there was no NVA resistance; the NVA had withdrawn.  Both companies dug in on the crest, the command group and reserve took up positions on the southern slope.  The stench of human remains permeated the entire hill. Marines discovered more than 400 mutually supporting fighting holes and 25 interlocking reinforced bunkers.

Once Delong declared 861 secure, 3/3 took up their position on the west flank of 2/3.  Wilder began his advance early the next morning. M/3/9 was the lead element.  At 1120, Mike Company’s point encountered an NVA platoon is a draw.  The company commander called for artillery and air support.  At about the same time, M/3/3 advanced to take the lead. Objective 2 was achieved at around 1915 with scant enemy contact.  3/3 dug in for the night.  Shortly after laying in their defenses, M/3/3 observed an NVA mortar team attempting to set up on Hill 881S and called in artillery.  The NVA were able to fire four rounds before being dusted by the 12th Marines.  An hour later, Marine listening posts (LPs) detected enemy movement outside their perimeter.  The company FO adjusted variable time (VT) fuzed artillery fire [13] on the enemy’s position.  Marines could hear the NVA screaming as artillery destroyed them. The Marines were not bothered for the rest of the night.

At first light on 30 April, Wilder prepared to assault 881-S and Delong moved off 861.  Delong’s mission was to clear the area on Wilder’s right flank and secure positions for the assault on Objective 3.  Company H 3/3 encountered two NVA platoons in a bunker complex.  After a particularly vicious firefight, Hotel Company backed off to evacuate casualties: 9 dead, 43 wounded.  Artillery fire was directed onto the NVA positions.  Later that day, Hotel 3/3 assaulted the bunker complex and secured it. Of this assault, the Marines concluded that the NVA regular was every bit as fanatical as the World War II Japanese Imperial Army.

The next morning, following preparatory fires, Colonel Wilder began his assault on 881-S.  He wasn’t sure where the NVA positions were, but 33 air sorties and 1,300 artillery rounds should have done some damage.  The terrain on Wilder’s approach was broken, restricted access to the ridge line, and severely constrained the maneuver of his line companies.  M/3/3 took the lead, followed by K/3/9.  By 1030, the lead platoon reached the western end of the top of the hill, having encountered only occasional small arms fire.  A second platoon moved up and together launched an assault on enemy positions.

NVA defended with automatic weapons from well-concealed bunkers and accurate sniper fire.  Thirty mortar rounds fell on these Marines.  They were stuck —unable to advance or withdraw.  NVA infantry from bypassed (unseen) bunkers blocked their way out.  K Company and the 3rd platoon of Mike Company advanced into the savage battle.  UH-1E gunships and attack aircraft streaked in dropping bombs within 50 meters of the Marine line.  Wilder ordered his Marines to disengage and pull back off the hill.  It took the Marines several hours to disentangle themselves.  They brought out their wounded but could not evacuate the dead.  Forty-three Marines were killed, 109 were wounded. Mike Company was rendered ineffective.

Fox Company 2/3 was brought in from reserve.  With the reserve committed and no other to replace it, General Hochmuth committed another rifle company to the hill fight: Company E 2/9 was flown in to Khe Sanh.  Marine artillery and aircraft reengaged Hill 881-S.

Wilder was ready to resume his attack on the morning of 2 May.  M/3/9 and K/3/9 led off in that order.  By 1420, the Marines had secured the hill, having encountered only sporadic sniper fire.  Wilder established his CP on 881-S and dug in for the night with two assault companies. F/2/9, the most recent arrival, took up a position on the intermediate objective.

The NVA had prepared around 250 bunkers on Hill 881-S.  After four days of heavy air strikes and artillery fire, 50 of these remained. The bunkers were wired for communications and arranged with interlocking fields of fire.  The extent of these bunkers surprised the Marines, but their discovery alerted Colonel Delong of what he might expect on 881-N.

Since 28 April, Delong’s Marines had been sweeping the area northwest of the hill, carefully checking its ravines and ridgelines.  By the morning of 2 May, Delong was ready to begin his objective.  Echo Company 2/3 assaulted the hill from the south; Golf 2/3 moved in from the east.  Hotel 2/3 was in reserve between the maneuver companies.  Golf made contact almost immediately and after a brief firefight, moved back and called in artillery.  After the artillery was lifted, Golf moved forward again, encountering automatic weapons fire and mortars.  Additional supporting arms silenced the enemy.  Hotel Company moved into position to support Golf and also came under mortar fire, which ceased when Golf called in for additional artillery.

Echo Company had almost battled its way to the crest of the hill when a fierce rain squall lashed at the hills.  Delong, realizing that control of his men under these circumstances would be impossible, pulled the battalion back to a more defensible position and ordered his Marines to dig in for the night.  Early in the morning of 3 May, the NVA launched a strong counter-attack.  Echo Company set in on a small hill 500 meters south of Hill 881-N received small arms fire and incoming mortars.  This was followed by a two-company NVA assault.  The engagement soon devolved into hand-to-hand combat with the NVA penetrating the line on the northeast quarter. The NVA either killed or wounded all the Marines in this area.  They then moved into a tree line in the middle of the company position and reoccupied bunkers that the engineers had yet to destroy.

106mm Recoiless RifleAbout ten minutes after the initial attack, First Lieutenant Frank Izenour (whose platoon held the western section of the perimeter), received orders to take a squad of Marines and seal off the penetration. With the second squad in tow, Izenour moved forward but was immediately taken under fire by two machine gun positions; several of his men were hit.  Izenour called for reinforcements.

Captain Alfred Lyon did not want to weaken the 1st platoon further, so he organized eleven engineers and sent them into the fight.  Both squads took positions on the left edge of the penetration and fired into the enemy’s flank.  With the help of artillery and on-call gunships, the Marines stalled the NVA attack, but Izenour still did not have sufficient strength to drive out two companies of NVA regulars.  A flare ship arrived and transformed the dark of night into day.  From 881-S, the Marines of 3/3 could see about 200 NVA soldiers moving toward Echo Company from the west.  106mm recoilless rifles were quickly positioned; 100 rounds were fired into the enemy’s flank, which broke up the assault.  Additional artillery pounded the NVA as they withdrew.

881-003By first light, the Marines had shattered the NVA attack, but some enemy soldiers remained inside the company perimeter.  At 0700, Fox 2/3 moved into the line and one platoon was quickly transferred by helicopter to Echo Company’s position.  These Marines immediately attacked the southern edge of the penetration.  Delong ordered Hotel Company to close in on the enemy’s rear.  Echo and Hotel companies finally managed to seal the breach. After a short rest, Hotel Company began the difficult task of eliminating NVA in the bunkers and tree line. Bitter close-quarters fighting continued until 1500 when the company commander declared all bunkers cleared of the enemy.  The NVA had fought to the last man.  Company E lost 27 Marines KIA with 84 wounded.  NVA dead covered the battle area.  Only three prisoners were taken, these all admitting that another attack was scheduled for the night of 4 May.

Despite Delong’s preparations for that night, the expected attack never came.  Instead, an NVA company attacked the Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei.  The attack had no effect on The Hill Fight, but it was a tactical victory for the NVA, who quickly penetrated the camp’s defenses and killed everyone they could find, including the Special Forces Detachment Commander and his Executive Officer. The NVA then began destroying vital equipment.  Despite artillery fire from the Marines at Khe Sanh, the NVA withdrew with only light casualties.  South Vietnamese irregulars at Lang Vei were destroyed: 20 killed, 39 missing.

Given the attack at Lang Vei, General Hochmuth ordered Company C, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines flown in from Phu Bai to bolster security at Khe Sanh.  On 5 May, Delong’s Marines advanced toward the final objective. While organizing his Marines for the assault, artillery and air strikes dropped tons of munitions on Hill 881-N. E/2/3 and F/2/3 took the lead, meeting steadily increasing resistance.  The Marines halted their advance on several occasions while additional artillery could soften up the enemy’s opposition.  Echo Company established a base of fire while Fox Company resumed the advance and Golf Company made an envelopment maneuver.  By now, the only resistance encountered was sporadic sniper fire.  2/3 achieved the objective at 1445.

For the next three days, Marines conducted sweeps of the area, searching the hills for any additional NVA presence.  Engineers destroyed all remaining bunkers.  Marine air attacked suspected enemy positions to the north and west. Air observers reported enemy troops moving toward the northwest, indicating that the 325C Division was withdrawing toward Laos and North Vietnam.

During The Hill Fight, 1stMAW flew more than 1,100 sorties, expended 1,900 tons of ordnance.  USAF B-52s made 23 air strikes against enemy concentrations.  Combined Marine and Army artillery fired 25,000 rounds.  NVA casualties between 24 April and 11 May stood at 940 confirmed killed. Of the Marines, 155 were killed in action, 423 suffered combat wounds.


  1. Telfer, G. L. and others. U. S. Marines in Viet Nam: Fighting the North Vietnamese.  History & Museums Division, HQ U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C.  1984
  2. “Arrow of Death.” Time Magazine, 12 May 1967


[1] The 325th Infantry Division was first formed in 1951 from independent units in Thua Thien Province, one of six “iron and steel” divisions of the Viet Minh.  The 325th Division remains part of the Army of Viet Nam.

[2] Sayers was responsible for the security of the Khe Sanh combat base.  Conducting security patrols in the surrounding area was part of that responsibility.

[3] Forward observers are trained to direct artillery and close air support to enemy positions within the battle space.

[4] Communist gunners held their fire until Marines were at near point-blank distance from concealed machine gun positions and made liberal use of their 82mm mortars, the blasting radius of which was about 40 meters.

[5] Line of sight propagation is a characteristic of electromagnetic radiation or acoustic wave propagation.  The means that radio waves travel in a direct path from source to receiver. Mountainous terrain interrupts these signals.

[6] The bodies of the two missing Marines were later found.  The NVA had decapitated them.

[7] Advancing toward the enemy is a standard defense against mortar attack.

[8] The NVA plan for Khe Sanh was a rehash of the one they had used against the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  First, a major effort to build up troops and supplies; second, isolation of Khe Sanh by targeting helicopters and cutting the main supply route; third, launch diversionary assaults at Con Thien, Dong Ha, Gio Linh, Phu Bai, and Lang Vei.

[9] Recoilless rifles provide a lightweight artillery capability to forward units.  It fires a 105mm shell that has a destructive effect on troops operating in mountainous areas where heavy artillery is much too cumbersome.

[10] MajGen Hochmuth was killed on 14 November 1967 when his helicopter exploded mid-air.  Hochmuth was the most senior US military officer killed in the Viet Nam War.  He was succeeded in command by BrigGen Louis Metzger, the Assistant Division Commander, previously Commanding General, 9thMAB.

[11] The special landing forces belonged to the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade as part of a naval task force, designated Task Force 79.  When the SLF went ashore, operational control of the battalion landing teams (BLTs) were transferred to the senior operational commander ashore.

[12] Snake-eye refers to the high drag fin system of the Mk-82 bomb, but the fin configuration was also used on all Mk-8 series munitions.  The Mk-82 is an unguided, low drag, general purpose bomb.  In low-level operations, it is possible for the delivery aircraft to receive damage from the blast and fragmentation effects of the bomb because the aircraft and bomb arrive at the target very close to the same time.  This was the reason for the high-drag tail fin configuration.

[13] VT fuze detonates an artillery round several meters above the ground, which increases fragmentation and kill radius.  Air bursts are especially effective against troops in the open or in unprotected positions, such as fox holes or open trenches.

Vietnam Counterinsurgency

Phoenix 001Designed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Phoenix program evolved into a cooperative effort between US, South Vietnam, and the Australian military.  It was designed to identify and destroy Communist Viet Cong infrastructure through infiltration, capture, interrogation, and assassination.  This all may sound hideous now, but in the late 1950s and the next ten years, some of the worst abominations were committed against innocent peasants by the Viet Cong.  To stabilize the South Vietnamese government, it was necessary to find out who these people were, and deal with them.

This is precisely what the Phoenix program did.  By 1972, Phoenix operatives had neutralized a bit under 82,000 suspected Viet Cong operatives, informants, and shadow-government cadres.  Sounds bad, I suppose.  Yet, at the same time, Viet Cong murdered 34,000 South Vietnamese village officials, innocent by-standers, and district or provincial civil servants.  As soon as the NVA and VC units had seized Hue City in 1968, they immediately began rounding up and killing civil servants, priests, teachers, any foreigner they could find, and anyone found at the US Special Forces compound.

History doesn’t change, only man’s perceptions of it.  Those who have never placed themselves in harm’s way are quick to criticize the program’s methods and results, never thinking what a blight upon humanity the Viet Cong were.  And by the way, I was in Vietnam in 2012; the deportment of Vietnamese uniformed personnel toward any and all foreigners hasn’t changed from the days when NVA and VC contemptuously beheaded fallen soldiers and marines.  The communists were then, and remain now, pure evil.

The main players in the Phoenix program were the CIA (in a supervisory role), USMACV (both military and civilian agencies), the government of South Vietnam, and the Australian special forces.  Speaking of this today, there appears three points of view: (1) Phoenix was a low-cost, well-coordinated, targeted effort to eliminate a ruthlessly vile enemy; (2) It was a counterinsurgency program run amok, and (3) A balanced analysis of historical fact.

Let’s take a look at it—because there are consequences to every human decision.  In history, we sometimes refer to these decisions and their resulting actions as “causes and effects.”  There may be one or more causes of an event, and these may produce any number of effects. Whenever we make important decisions, we hope (and sometimes pray) that there are no unintended consequences.  It does happen—and while there is not a lot we can do once Pandora’s box is opened, we should at least learn important lessons from our foopahs.


A sense of nationalism (national and cultural unity) began in Vietnam around 3,000 years ago—at a time when the Vietnamese lived in two independent kingdoms.  Since then, the Vietnamese have constantly rejected (often through war) foreign meddling by the Chinese, Champs, Khmers, Siamese, French (twice), Japanese, internal civil strife, and then finally, the Americans.

Before World War II, Vietnam was colonized and brutalized by France.  By the time the Japanese enveloped Indochina, France was an ally of Japan and Germany.  Throughout Japanese occupation, an official French presence remained in Hanoi (even if it was ignored by the Japanese).  In September 1945, the Japanese Empire was defeated.  France quickly moved to recover its former colony. Vietnamese Nationalists had a different preference.

One of these nationalists was a communist named Ho Chi Minh (not his real name).  He wasted no time announcing the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  It was a short-lived republic, however.  Nationalist Chinese and British occupation forces sided with the anti-communist Vietnamese who, having had enough slavery under French colonialism, rejected slavery under a communist regime.  Anti-communist Vietnamese were well-aware of what Stalin did to the Russian people between 1924 and 1945.

Vietnam held its first national assembly election in 1946.  Central and northern Vietnamese favored the communist ticket [1], those living in the south —not so much.  Then, France attempted to reclaim its previous authority by force —an unpopular move among many (but not all) Vietnamese.  It was the beginning of the First Indochina War and it lasted until 1953.

After the French defeat in 1953, the United States stepped in to help broker an agreement that would bring peace to the region.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  The 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation.  Ho Chi Minh ruled the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north from Hanoi, and Ngo Dinh Diem ruled the Republic of Vietnam in the south from Saigon.

Between 1953 and 1956, North Vietnam instituted oppressive reforms.  Witness testimony from those living in the north suggested a government run assassination campaign that produced a murder ratio of one for every 160 residents.  If true, then the North Vietnamese regime murdered upwards of 100,000 people.  Today we think this number is a bit high, but it is true that an awful lot of people were brutalized and murdered.

As Ho Chi Minh crushed his people in the north, Ngo Dinh Diem crushed his people living in the south, carrying out murderous campaigns against political and religious opponents.

Today we can conclude that America’s involvement in South Vietnamese affairs was a massive mistake, but we should remember that there were other things going on in the world. President Truman had a lot of irons in the fire after 1946, and he wasn’t all that bright to begin with. The United States became involved with Vietnam as a consequence of its trying to convince France to relinquish its former colonies and to join an emerging NATO alliance.  Ultimately, tens of millions of American tax dollars went to French Indochina and then later, to the newly created Republic of Vietnam.  It was a commitment inherited by President Eisenhower who, to his credit, refused to engage the United States militarily beyond providing arms, equipment, and a small cadre of military and civil advisors.

The Second Indochina War broke out in 1954.  It was more on the order of a civil war between the communist north and the non-communist south.  Ho Chi Minh sought to unify Vietnam under his rule.  Ngo Dinh Diem sought to unite Vietnam under his rule [2].  Vietnam entered into a period of bloody civil war and the United States became South Vietnam’s proxy much in the same way that China became North Vietnam’s source of support.  Of course, there was one difference between the two Vietnam’s: Diem focused on consolidating his power in the south; Ho Chi Minh’s ruthlessness between 1946 and 1957 solved his problem.  Not having a lot of people nipping at his heals allowed Uncle Ho to initiate a communist insurgency in the south.  There are several names for these insurgents.  We mostly remember them as Viet Cong.

The Viet Cong Insurgency

Recall that most Vietnamese from the central highlands who participated in the first national assembly (1946) threw their support behind the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the communist regime). According to the 1954 Geneva accord, the people of Vietnam could relocate to one country or the other, of their choosing, through 1956.  In the mean, the shift in populations north or south was probably even.  Around 90,000 pro-communist Vietnamese relocated to the north; 10,000 of like persuasion remained behind.  Of those migrating south, some percentage were no doubt sent into the south to agitate.

From these pro-communist factions came the Viet Cong, or more formerly, the National Liberation Front and the People’s Liberation Army.  Their task of creating an insurgency was made easier by the fact that Diem was a tyrant [3].  It wasn’t long before the communists began a campaign of assassination and intimidation. They called it “exterminating traitors.” Another euphemism was “armed propaganda.”

The North Vietnamese Communist Party approved a people’s war on the South in January 1959.  Arms began flowing into the south along the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos.  A communist command center was created, called the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN).  Afterwards, with increasing frequency, communist insurgents began targeting US military and civilian advisors.  Bombings in Saigon were becoming more frequent.

The People’s War was waged primarily in the rural areas, home to a vast majority of South Vietnam’s (then) 16 million inhabitants.  Central to the task of fomenting rebellion and revolution in the countryside was what the Americans called the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) —a shadow government called the People’s Revolutionary Party and the National Liberation Front. NLF subcommittees existed in secret alongside South Vietnam’s political entities at the village, district, provincial and national levels.  A key mission of VCI was providing support to local communist military units: recruitment, intelligence-gathering, logistics support, and obtaining needed funds.  To achieve this last task, the VCI imposed taxes on peasant farmers and business owners.  People who refused to pay (or were unable to pay) simply disappeared. It was quite an operation: the Republic of South Vietnam governed during the day, the VCI governed at night.

VCI success depended in large measure on its ability to break the Vietnamese peasant’s strong kinship, adherence to tradition, including literally thousands of demonstrations where the village head man was humiliated in front of his villagers to emphasize the fact that the National Liberation Front would no longer tolerate adherence to the old ways.  Officials disappeared with amazing regularity.

In 1967, VCI teams numbered as many as 100,000 willing insurgents.  Most of South Vietnam’s efforts and resources, and those of the US military, went toward combating guerrillas and main-force units.  Citizen Nguyen was caught in the middle. Something had to be done.


US and allied efforts haven’t all been 007ish.  Beginning in the early 1960s, and with the assistance of the USA, RVN launched a series of programs to identify, disrupt, and dismantle the VC’s shadow-government. Now anyone who suggests that this was a wrong move, or inappropriate, needs a few reality checks.  I wonder what the United States would do today if suddenly an insurgency developed from within our largest (and most dangerous) cities. Slap on the wrist, perhaps?  And, as they tried to destroy the VC shadow government, they stepped up military operations against VC and NVA units. Again, how would the US react to Mexico smuggling dangerous weapons across our border and putting them into the hands of MS-13 thugs?

Here are a few of the programs implemented under the Phoenix umbrella:

(1) The Open Arms program, beginning in 1963.  It offered amnesty and resettlement to encourage defections from the VC.  Through this one program, close to 200,000 people came in and spilled their guts about the VC: who, what, where, and how.  We already knew the why.

(2) Census Grievance Program sought to interview family members to see how the government could be more responsive to the needs of average families. Actually, the questions were asked in such a way as to elicit information about VC activities in that locality.  This ploy generated more information than RVN officials could manage.  It was the time before computers.

(3) Counter-Terror Teams attempted to mirror the VC counterparts.  These individuals were organized, trained, and equipped by the CIA to perform small-unit operations within VC dominated areas.  The teams were to capture or kill members of the VCI.  Success was personality driven.  Some teams were effective, others not so much.  If one looks hard enough, it was possible to find corruption at every level of Vietnamese government and society.  It was true in 1960, its’ true today.  A lot of people died under the auspices of this program.  If someone made a mistake, well … you can’t bring them back.

As previously mentioned, the program was the brainchild the CIA, but Army Special Forces and other snake eaters loved it.  It was great fun.  Thousands of people running around killing other thousands.  But while it did reduce the number of VC (and some of the RVNs as well), it really didn’t do much for the rice farmer who just wanted everyone to leave him alone.  More to the point, Phoenix didn’t save South Vietnam, either.

The Marine Corps had a better idea —one that General Westmoreland, the MACV commander absolutely detested and fought against.  The Combined Action Program (CAP) began in 1965 as an operational initiative/counterinsurgency program whereby a Marine rifle squad of thirteen Marines and one attached U. S. Navy Corpsman was placed within or adjacent to a rural Vietnamese village or hamlet to provide security to the villagers.  The Marine squad was augmented by a Vietnamese Popular Forces (PF) squad consisting mostly of individuals too young or too old for active service with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

CAP was not a perfect counterinsurgency tool, however; there were problems:

  • Training for Marines/Navy personnel assigned to CAP was inadequate. The in-country school consisted of two weeks of orientation to Vietnamese history and culture.  Under the best of circumstances, Marine volunteers spoke only rudimentary Vietnamese, so at the very outset, there was a language deficiency.
  • Marines assigned to the CAP first served half of their 13-month in-country tour of duty with a regular rifle company. Unless these Marines “extended” their tours of duty in Vietnam, they would rotate back to the United States within six or so months.  Frequent turnovers of key personnel resulted in a lack of continuity.
  • The program was personality dependent. Squad leaders who were fully engaged and proactive in this mission helped to produce quality results within the village.  Not every NCO was detail oriented, and these kinds of situations produced villagers who would not cooperate with the Marines and, in fact, may have created the greatest danger to CAP personnel.
  • Not every village could produce a sufficient number of Vietnamese to serve in a PF contingent. Whenever villages communicated apathy to the Marines, too often the Marines developed a “to hell with it” mindset.  It was for this reason that program managers wanted only the best sergeants to serve as NCOIC of the CAP.  This didn’t always happen, however.

The genesis of the Combined Action Program/Platoon was the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual (1940), which was developed over many years from Marine Corps experience in the Caribbean/Central America during the so-called Banana Wars.  Between 1915-1933, Marines learned how to defeat a counterinsurgency —they passed these lesson on to future generations.  Was the CAP successful?  The answer is “mostly,” but the only people who can authoritatively answer this question are those who served in Combined Action Platoons.  I’ve provided a few posts about the CAP in the past:

Go ahead and check them out. I’ll be here if you have any questions.


  1. Combined Action Platoons: A Possible Role in the Low-Intensity Conflict Environment, Major Charles W. Driest, USMC, School of Advanced Military Studies, U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1990
  2. The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency, William Rosenau and Austin Long, National Defense Research Institute, The RAND Corporation, 2009


[1] Communist agents employed a wide range of strategies to secure a pro-communist referendum, including the murder of non-communist politicians and intimidation at polling stations.

[2] Lyndon Johnson told the American people that it was necessary to commit US forces in defense of South Vietnam.  It was only partially true.  The series of South Vietnamese presidents following (but also including) Diem had every intention to unify the country under his own flag.  American troops were fighting and dying in Vietnam in furtherance of this goal.

[3] Ngo Dinh Diem had unique problems in the south.  Culturally, they were fiercely independent and wanted to stay that way.  In the vacuum of repatriated Japanese, war lords began taking control of large areas of South Vietnam.  Diem acted harshly to squash these gangsters.  Ho Chi Minh never had these kinds of problems.  The people of North Vietnam were used to doing what they were told.

Operation Beleaguer

China Marines — the Final Chapter

EGA BlackDuring World War II, China was a battlefield with three opposing armies: Nationalists, Communists, and Imperial Japanese.  When World War II ended in 1945, more than 650,000 Japanese and Korean military personnel and civilians were still in China and in need of repatriation.  There is an interesting prequel to this event.

In 1912, Imperial China was overthrown and replaced by a Republic under President Sun Yat-sen.  The Republic had a short lifespan, however.  General Yuan Shi-Kai (commanding the New Army) forced Sun from office and proceeded to abolish national and provincial assemblies.  In late 1915, Yuan declared himself Emperor. This too was a short-lived government. Overwhelming opposition to imperial rule forced Yuan from office in March 1918.  He died a few months later.

Yuan’s abdication created a power vacuum in China —one almost immediately filled with local or regional warlords.  Whatever China’s skeptics thought of government in 1918, negative popular opinion grew steadily worse over time.  A nation-wide protest movement among anti-Imperialists in 1919 developed out of the government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles, which ceded Chinese territory to Japan —the consequence of which made China a victim of Japan’s expansionist policies— aided and abetted by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  These protests sparked a sudden upsurge in Chinese nationalism, the creation of populism, and a move toward radical socialism.  It was the birth of China’s “new culture movement.”

Repudiating western political philosophy, the Chinese became even more radicalized, inspired as they were by the Russian Revolution and the tireless efforts of Russian agents living in China at the time.  The result of this was the growth of irreconcilable differences between the political left and right —a condition that dominated Chinese political history for most of the rest of the twentieth century.

In the 1920s, former-President Sun Yat-sen established a revolutionary base in south China.  His mission was to unite China’s fragmented society.  Influenced and assisted by the Soviet Union, Sun formed an alliance with the Communist Party of China.  Sun, who passed away in 1925, was eventually replaced by one of his protégés, Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang seized control of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and having brought most of south and central China under his rule, then launched a military campaign called the Northern Expedition.  It was Chiang’s intent to secure the allegiance of northern warlords.  In 1927, Chiang turned his attention to the Communist Party, pursuing them relentlessly in a campaign history recalls as the “White Terror.”  In addition to killing off as many communists as possible, he also rounded up political dissidents  —killing as many of them as he could find.

Communist leader Mao Zedong led his followers into northwest China, where the established guerrilla bases in Yan’an.  A bitter struggle between Chiang and Mao even continued through the 14-year long Japanese occupation of China (1931-1945).

During this period, Chiang and Mao nominally formed a united front to oppose the Japanese, the so-called Second Sino-Japanese War, which became part of World War II.  In reality, Mao made every effort to avoid contact with the Japanese during World War II —even despite the fact that he was regularly receiving US-made military equipment.

At the conclusion of World War II, Chiang and Mao wanted nothing to do with repatriating Japanese soldiers to their homeland.  US President Harry S. Truman therefore ordered the Navy and Marine Corps into China.  Their assigned mission was to (1) accept the surrender of Japanese forces, (2) arrange and affect their shipment back to Japan (or Korea), and (3) assist Chinese Nationalists in reasserting their control over areas previously occupied by Imperial Japan.  After four years of a bloody Pacific War, US Marines were handed another combat assignment.

LtGen K. E. Rockey USMC

In China, 1945-49

The US 7th Fleet and III Amphibious Corps (III AC) were assigned to duty in China.  By presidential order, Marines were prohibited from taking sides during the Chinese civil war.  They were, however, authorized to defend themselves against any hostile assault. Major General Keller E. Rockey [1] commanded III AC.  He answered to the China Theater commander, Lieutenant General Albert C. Wedemeyer [2], U. S. Army.

In Hopeh Province

The 1st Marine Division occupied positions in the vicinity of Tang-Ku, Tientsin, Peking, and Chinwangtao; the 6th Marine Division was assigned to Tsingtao.  The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing established air base operations at Tsingtao, Tientsin, and Peking.  General Rockey was assigned to command the Shanghai Corps region as an additional duty. III AC began its relocation to China on 15 September 1945.  The 3rd Marine Division at Guam and the 4th Marine Division in Hawaii were designated as area reserve forces.  The operation was designated BELEAGUER.

The Marine’s arrival in China was met by joyful crowds of Chinese civilians.  Brigadier General Louis R. Jones, then serving as the Assistant Division Commander, 1stMarDiv immediately met with port officials in Tang-Ku to make arrangements for the surrender of the Japanese garrison.  Scenes of elated Chinese, anxious for liberation from Japanese control, was repeated wherever the Marines came ashore.

On 1 October 1945, Lieutenant Colonel John J. Gormley at Chinwangtao was faced with desultory fighting between Chinese Communist (Chicom) and Japanese Imperial troops, who had yet to be disarmed.  Gormley, commanding the 1stBattalion, 7thMarines (1/7) ordered the Japanese troops with withdraw from the town to a bivouac he designated and then detailed his Marines to establish a buffer-zone on the outskirts of the city.  Initially, the Chicom seemed satisfied, but cooperation between the Marines and Chicom didn’t last very long.  Before the end of October, Chicom elements began sabotaging railroads leading into Chinwangtao and ambushing American held trains.  Eventually, Chinwangtao became a major center for communist resistance to American peace-keeping operations.

Japanese Imperial soldiers had also had their fill of war.  They were ready to return home, so most Japanese military personnel surrendered to the US Marines within days of their arrival in China.  On 6 October, General Rockey accepted the surrender of 50,000 Japanese at Tientsin. An additional 50,000 Japanese surrendered to General Lien Ching Sun, Chiang’s personal representative, four days later.  The Marines assigned all surrendering Japanese to bivouac or barracks near the seacoast.  Because the number of American personnel was insufficient to the task assigned to them, some Japanese Imperial troops were re-armed and utilized as area guards until they could be replaced by Chiang’s Nationalist forces.

Trouble began on 5 October when a Marine reconnaissance patrol traveling along the Tientsin-Peking road found 36 unguarded roadblocks.  An engineer section and a rifle platoon were called up to dismantle the obstructions and restore the highway to usefulness.  The next day, at a point about 22-miles northwest of Tientsin, these 35-40 Marines were attacked by an estimated 50-60 Chicom soldiers.  A brief firefight forced the Marines to withdraw with their wounded.  Another detachment of Engineers was sent back the next day to complete the removal of roadblocks —this time accompanied by an infantry company reinforced by tanks and on-station air support.  The road was reopened and, from that point on, Marines were detailed to provide a regular motorized patrol of the vital roadway.

In Peking, the 5th Marines who established themselves in the old Legation Quarter, co-located Brigadier General Jones’ advance command post.  A rifle company was placed at each end of the Peking airport.  The 1st Marines and 11th Marines under overall command of Colonel Arthur T. Mason set in at the Tientsin airfield.  The Taku-Tang-Ku area was garrisoned by 1/5.  Battalions 1/7 and 3/7 (with necessary attachments) were assigned to protect the Tang-Ku-Chinwangtao railroad.

Maj Gen C. E. Larkin USMC

1stMAW units under Major General Claude E. Larkin established control over the Tientsin airfield.  Flight echelons were assigned to airfields at Tsingtao, Peiping, and Tientsin.  However, due to adverse weather conditions in Japan, Marine air operations were initially limited between 9-11 October 1945. The first extensive use of airfields under American control was made by Chinese Nationalist forces.  Between 6-29 October, fifty-thousand Chinese Nationalist forces were airlifted to Peking from central and southern China by the 14th Army-Air Force.

The Chicom 8th Route Army observed these movements with interest. Communist raids and ambushes against the Marines soon became a regular occurrence.  President Truman had set the Marines down in the middle of a fratricidal war with ambiguous instructions to abstain from participating in the civil war, while at the same time “cooperating” with Nationalist Chinese forces.  It was a very thin tightrope, but in time, President Truman made things even worse.

In November 1945, Chiang Kai-shek began preparing for a campaign to take control of Manchuria.  General Wedemeyer, who also served at Chiang’s military advisor, warned him to secure his hold on the vital provinces in northeastern China before entering Manchuria because military operations there would require an overwhelming force. Disregarding this advice, Chiang pulled his Nationalist troops out of Hopeh and Shantung, leaving them unprotected from Chicom guerrillas, who quickly seized control.  Chiang’s operation into Manchuria was the beginning of his end on the mainland.

In Shantung Province

A much larger Communist force controlled most of the countryside and coastal regions in Shantung.  Tsingtao remained a Nationalist stronghold, but they were little more than an island in a Communist sea.  Japanese guards controlled the rail line leading from Tsingtao.  Until Nationalist troops were able to relieve them, there was no hope of rapid repatriation.  Shortly after General Rockey accepted the surrender of Japanese forces in Tientsin, he departed for Chefoo, more or less as an advance party for the 6thMarDiv. General Rockey wanted to investigate conditions at that port city.  Upon arrival, Rockey discovered that Chicom elements had already taken control of the city. Moreover, the Communists were determined not to cooperate with the American Marines.

Prior to General Rockey’s arrival, Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, commanding the US 7th Fleet, messaged the Communist commander requesting that he withdraw his men.  The Communist-installed Mayor demanded terms that were unacceptable to Admiral Kinkaid. Vice Admiral Daniel E. Barbey, Commander, VII Amphibious Force, recommended that the landing of 6thMarDiv be postponed.  General Rockey agreed.  The 6thMarDiv came ashore at Tsingtao on 11 October.

6MARDIV 001On that very day, 6thMarDiv’s reconnaissance company preceded the main body and moved through the city’s streets lined with flag-waving citizens to secure the Tsang-Kou airfield, located ten miles outside the city.  On the following day, Marine observation aircraft landed at the airfield.  On 13 October, a Communist emissary arrived in Tsingtao with a letter for the Commanding General, 6th Marine Division —Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd [3].  In this letter, a Chicom official offered to cooperate with the Marines to destroy the remaining Japanese Imperial Army and the rest of the “traitor” (Nationalist) army.  The official expected that in return for his cooperation, the Marines would not oppose his forces.  General Shepherd’s response included a reaffirmation that his Marines were not present to destroy either the Japanese or any Chinese force.  Shepherd also clearly stated that a Communist occupation of Tsingtao was undesirable because the city was peaceful.  Moreover, he would not cooperate with Chicom forces and assured this official that should it become necessary to employ his Marines against anyone, they were capable of coping with any situation.

The 6thMarDiv was fully disembarked by 16 October.  A formal surrender of the 10,000-man Japanese garrison at Tsingtao was affected on 25 October 1945.  Again, despite their surrender, Japanese troops were retained to help defend Tsingtao against Chicom aggression.  Clashes between Chicom and Japanese Imperial troops was a frequent occurrence.  Marine Aircraft Group 32 (MAG-32) commenced regular reconnaissance missions on 26 October. MAG-32 landed at Tsingtao on 21 October, soon joined by MAG 25.  MAG 12 and MAG 24 took possession of the Peking airfield.  Major General Louis A. Woods replaced General Larkin as air wing commander on 31 October.

Combat ensues

On 14 November 1945, Chicom elements attacked a train carrying General Dewitt Peck and a component of the 7th Marines near the village of Ku-Yeh. An intense battle lasted for more than three hours.  Chinese fire from the village was so powerful that the Marines were forced to called in air support.  Unfortunately, since Marine aircraft could not clearly distinguish the enemy’s positions, and because of the risk to civilians, permission to fire was not granted.  In time, the Chicom forces withdrew and as there were no Marine casualties and the train proceeded.

General Peck’s train was ambushed again the next day.  This time, Chicom forces had ripped up 400-yards of the track. Workers sent to repair the line were killed or wounded by land mines.  Since repairs would take longer than two days, General Peck returned to Tangshan and boarded a flight to Chinwangtao.  In the minds of the Marines, what was needed in this area was a strong offensive by Chinese Nationalists.  Commanding the Northeast China Command, General Tu Li-Ming agreed to drive back Chicom forces in order to keep the Marines from becoming involved in the conflict.  In return, General Peck agreed to assign Marines to guard duty at rail bridges between Tang-Ku and Chinwangtao —a distance of 135 miles.  The problem was that the 7th Marines were already under-manned. General Shepherd transferred the 29th Marine Regiment to Tsingtao to serve under the operational control of the 7th Marines.

On 7 July 1946, China’s communist party issued a statement condemning US policy toward China.  Within a short time, Chicom troops launched two minor attacks against the Marines. The first occurred on 13 July when a Chicom unit ambushed Marines who were guarding a bridge fifteen miles outside Peitai-ho.  The Marines were overwhelmed and taken prisoner.  After some negotiation with American officials, these Marines were released unharmed.  Then, on 29 July, a small convoy was ambushed near the village of An-ping by a sizeable well-armed force of uniformed Chicom soldiers.  The ensuing battled lasted approximately four hours.  Marine aircraft were called in to provide support to the beleaguered Marines and a relief force was also dispatched.  The Marine commander intended to encircle the Chicom force, but the reinforcing unit failed to arrive before the Chicom force has withdrawn.  Four Marines were killed, including the platoon/convoy commander, Lieutenant Douglas Cowin, Corporal Gilbert Tate, and PFCs Larry Punch and John Lopez. An additional twelve Marines were wounded in the action.  This was a serious incident and a signal for the Marines that peace in China would be next to impossible to obtain.

Six miles northwest of Tang-Ku, Hsin-ho was the location of a 1stMarDiv ammo depot.  On the night of 3 October 1946, Chicom raiders infiltrated the depot intending to steal munitions.  A sentry from 1/5 discovered the intrusion and opened fire on the infiltrators.  A Marine reaction force responded immediately but was ambushed.  A firefight of some 40 minutes resulted and, once again, the Chicom raiders withdrew before additional reinforcements could arrive.  An investigation conducted immediately after the incident discovered the body of one Chicom raider and revealed that several cases of ammunition had been taken [4].  One Marine was wounded during this engagement.

Another engagement at Hsin-ho occurred on the night of 4-5 April 1947.  A company size Chicom force initiated a well-planned, well-coordinated attack on three isolated ammo-storage areas within the Depot.  A small guard force attempted to defend the depot but was overwhelmed. Within the guard detachment, five Marines were killed, eight more were wounded, and the Chicom force successfully intruded the depot and hauled away a considerable store of ammunition.  Marine reinforcements were delayed by the clever placement of landmines, preventing a rapid deployment of combat/reaction forces. An additional eight Marines of the reaction force received serious wounds.  Nationalist Chinese assumed control of this ammunition storage site at the end of April.  The second engagement at Hsin-ho was the last hostile engagement between Chicom and Marine forces in China.

President Truman’s attempt to reconcile Communist and Nationalist parties, to achieve peace and promote economic recovery, was an utter failure. It was not Truman’s last failure. He would fail again in 1950 —and 38,000 more Americans would die in the Korean War.  Not even the formidable George C. Marshall could save China from herself.  Nevertheless, the “Committee of Three [5]” began a series of meetings on 7 January 1946.  A cease-fire was proclaimed, and yet, for the Marines in China, there was never a time when a guard detachment considered itself “safe” from Chicom ambush or assault.

Only half of the estimated 630,000 Japanese and Koreans in China had been repatriated between March-April 1946.  Chiang Kai-shek demanded the stores of weapons and ammunition that had been taken from the Japanese prisoners, but General Wedemeyer refused Chiang’s request until Nationalist forces had officially assumed control of the repatriation program.  As this work continued, Marines were assigned to guard duty watching over the Japanese and Koreans embarking aboard ships to take them home.  There was one other mission the Marines performed: that of protecting American lives and property in China, which is precisely what the Marines had always done in China.

Even though President Truman had tasked the Marines with a nearly impossible mission, he almost immediately began a general demobilization of the Armed Forces.  Marines serving in China were eligible to return home for discharge under Operation Magic Carpet.  This sudden reduction in force left the China occupation force in a quandary: how to achieve their objectives with far fewer troops.

Truman’s decision and timing placed the Marines in a dangerous situation.  General Wedemeyer was notified on 13 December 1945 that the 6th Marine Division would be deactivated.  Major General Shepherd was ordered back to the United States.  He was relieved by Major General Archie F. Howard [6], who was soon ordered into retirement.  Including grunts and air-wingers, there were not enough Marines left in China to man a regiment: 1/29 was disbanded; the third battalion of each infantry regiment was deactivated along with the last lettered battery of each artillery battalion within the 1stMarDiv.

The Fourth Marine Regiment, the historic backbone of the China Marines would be the only regiment in the Corps left intact with three infantry battalions—it was only a temporary reprieve.  1stMAW deactivated the Headquarters and Service squadrons of MAG-12, which also lost VMFN-541, and VMTB-134.  Control of the south end airfield at Peking was turned-over the US Army Air Force.

On 1 April 1946, the 3rdMarDiv was redesignated as 3rdMarine Brigade.  Of the remaining 25,000 Marines in China, most were young, inexperienced replacements. With their back to the wall, Marine leaders immediately began training them for possible combat.

Control of the Chinese theater was reassigned to the Commander, US 7th Fleet.  While still facing the possibility of hostile acts by Chicom forces, the Marines were ordered to begin their withdrawal from China in the summer of 1946.  The process of organizational shrinkage continued: 3rd Brigade Marines merged with the 4th Marine Regiment.  III Amphibious Corps was deactivated.  Officers and troops were either reassigned in-country or returned to the United States.  1stMarDiv regiments in China became battalions.  Ultimately, the 4th Marine Regiment was ordered back to the United States —its last organization departing on 3 September 1946.  Battalion 3/4 was ordered detached from the 4th Marines and served as a separate battalion under the operational control of the fleet commander.

Within two years, the Nationalist Chinese forces were on the verge of collapse.  Chicom forces were taking control of China in leaps and bounds.  Accordingly, Marine units were continually shifted to avoid being isolated by Chicom military units.  When the Chinese communists captured Nanking, on 24 April 1949, the Chinese Revolution was essentially over.  The last American Marines to leave China departed on 16 Mary 1949.

In total, Marine ground forces lost 13 KIA and 43 WIA in clashes with Chicom forces.  During this same period, Marine Corps Aviation lost 14 aircraft and 22 aircrewmen.


[1] LtGen Rockey (1888-1970) commanded the 5thMarDiv during the Battle for Iwo Jima.  He is a recipient of the Navy Cross and three Distinguished Crosses.  Prior to his retirement, he served as CG FMFLant and Assistant CMC.  General Rockey retired in 1950.

[2] A staunch anti-Communist.

[3] Twentieth Commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps (1 Jan 1952-31 Dec 1955).  Shepherd served in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. He was a recipient of the Navy Cross, the last World War I veteran to service as Commandant, the first CMC to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and served as Commandant during the Korean War.

[4] During World War II, President Roosevelt’s lend-lease program was extended to both Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists in equal measure.  The apparent hope was that both forces would use this equipment against the Japanese in China.  The Communists, however, stored these arms and equipment in caves located in northwest China, intending to use them against the Nationalist forces at the conclusion of the war.  Chicom raiders wanted to steal US caliber ammunition because it was suited their American-provided weapons.  In essence, American Marines were being killed and wounded by US manufactured equipment, provided to a potentially enemy by a President of the United States.

[5] The Committee of three consisted of General Marshall, representing President Truman, General Chang Chung, representing Chiang Kai-shek, and Zhou Enlai, representing the Chairman of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong.  The purpose of the committee was to establish a framework within which good-faith negotiations could proceed to achieve peace in China.  It didn’t work out that way.

[6] Captain Archie F. Howard served in the Polar Bear Expedition to China 1918-1919.

Operations in the Dominican Republic, Part III

cropped-cropped-ega-flags.jpgBrigadier General Pendleton served in the Dominican Republic until October 1918.  He was followed by a succession of fine Marine officers, including: Brigadier General Ben H. Fuller [1], Brigadier Logan Feland [2], and Brigadier General Charles G. Long [3].  They each served in command for about one year.  Brigadier General Harry Lee [4] replaced long in August 1921, serving until the Marines were withdrawn in 1924.

Despite a plethora of exceptional accomplishments by Marines in the Dominican Republic, they were not then (and are not now), free of chinks in their armor.  One of the problems shared among senior officers in the DomRep was a shortage of junior officers, and of those who they did have, a scant few who were prepared to lead Marines during an insurgency war.  According to one company commander, in late 1918 he was stationed in the hills of eastern Santo Domingo with only two lieutenants for 150 enlisted men.  He was forced to relieve one of these lieutenants from duty in the field due to officer misconduct.  We don’t know what that misconduct was, and it may not be important.  He may have thought that as a lieutenant, he knew more about leadership than his sergeant, which is almost never the case —even today.

The caliber of enlisted Marines serving in the DomRep also changed over time.  Initially, the NCOs were old salts; men who had served in the Spanish-American or Philippine Insurrection.  These were often tough old bastards who liked to drink but were always able to carry out their duties with courage and intellect.

After the commencement of a military draft in 1917, not all enlisted men had the temperament needed for independent duty. In fact, some of these Marines were so poorly trained that they were dangerous to themselves and their fellow Marines.  Serving in the 15th Regiment was a First Lieutenant (temporary captain) named Edward A. Craig [5].  When Craig joined his company in 1919, he found his men lacking in certain areas of fieldcraft, in marksmanship, in discipline, and in ability.  To correct this deficiency, Captain Craig gathered together two experienced NCOs and told them to “fix the damn problem with these Marines.” They did, and Craig’s company later distinguished itself in the Dominican country side.  There is no substitute for good NCO leadership.

And then there were the Marines who volunteered for service in World War I only to find themselves assigned to a Dominican backwater.  They were a disgruntled lot and didn’t care who knew it.  All of these Marines lived in the field —very few of them getting to pull liberty in Santo Domingo City.  Their homes were the villages and small towns.  They lived in primitive tent camps or in insect-infested native huts. Their rations were meager, consisting mostly of canned meat, vegetables, bacon, flour, and other nonperishables.  Typical of Marines even today, they often traded their government rations with natives for fresh eggs and chickens, if the poor natives had any to spare.  Occasionally an enterprising Marine encountered a cow being held against its will and liberated it.

Food and water became a serious problem during extended patrols.  Marines took with them food and water rations, of course, but if these ran out the Marines were forced to forage for food on their own.  Even with hunger pangs, the Marines were always mindful of not taking food from the mouths of local native —but one does have to survive.  And, despite Colonel Pendleton’s stern letter about what he expected of his Marines, those who served in the countryside sometimes engaged in illegal activities —the things Pendleton expressly forbade.  A few Marines extorted money and goods from the natives, made arbitrary arrests, fought with civilians or among themselves, and stealing government property sold it to the natives.  Whenever Marines were caught doing such things, they were court-martialed and severely punished.

Captain Charles F. Merkel was accused of severely beating and disfiguring a native prisoner, and for ordering four other Dominicans shot near Hato Mayor in the Eastern district. Major Robert S. Kingsbury conducted an investigation and based on his findings of fact, arrested Merkel and confined him to quarters awaiting trial.  Merkel took his own life before trial.

Clearly, however, most Marines acquitted themselves with honor and distinction during the occupation of the Dominican Republic. They were well-disciplined, law-abiding, and they discharged their duties at levels at or above their pay grade under the most difficult of conditions. They exhibited skill, patience, and esprit-de-corps in the fulfillment of suppressing banditry, training native constabulary, and civil administration.

Throughout the Marine Corps experience in the Dominican Republic, hardly a month went by when there wasn’t a clash between Marines and “bandits.”  Back then, “bandit” was a label attached to anyone suspected of being an enemy —much in the same way Marines applied the label “VC” to Vietnamese civilians (whether or not true), if they looked at a Marine with hateful or suspicious looks. A civilian may think that suspicion is a horrible way to live your life —and this may be true— but Marines aren’t paranoid when people really are trying to kill them.

In the DomRep, bandits were not homogeneous. Some were highway men (gavilleros), others were politicians who used natives to advance their own ambitions.  Some were unemployed laborers whose level of poverty drove them into a bandit camp. Some were common peasants pressed into service.  And then there were the professional criminals: murderers, kidnappers, and thieves. Most of the Dominican people were none of these.

Bandit bands seldom ever exceeded around 200 in number; most around 50 in number.  They robbed and terrorized rural communities, extorted money, confiscated ammunition, stole supplies from the sugar plantations, and some even had the courage (or stupidity) to attack a Marine patrol.  For the Marines, the bandits seemed ever present.  It was stressful duty.  And while many of the bandits were little more than hoodlums, there were also quite dangerous warlords.  When bandit groups of any size believed that they had an advantage over the Marines, they would fall upon them with machetes and knives.  Marine rifle and machine gun fire usually worked to discourage such attacks, but not always.

DH4B USMC 001In addition to courageous skill in the combat arms, the Marines had another advantage: Marine Aviation. The 1st Air Squadron joined the occupation force early in 1919.  The squadron commander was Captain Walter E. McCaughtry, a pilot of some skill who had risen from the warrant officer ranks.  Initially, the squadron was equipped with six JN-6 (Jenny) bi-planes. Air operations began from an airstrip hacked out of the dense jungle near Consuelo, 12-miles from San Pedro de Macoris.  When the squadron was moved to a field outside Santo Domingo City, it was re-equipped with DeHaviland (DH)-4Bs.  The DH-4B was a single engine, two-seat bi-plane improved from World War I day bombers. It was sturdy, maneuverable, and versatile.

In December 1920, 1st Air Squadron received a new commanding officer, Major Alfred A. Cunningham —the Marine Corps’ first aviator.  Cunningham had organized and led the 1st Marine Aviation Force in France during World War I.  He was transferred to the DomRep after serving as Director of Marine Corps aviation. Cunningham was later replaced by Major Edwin A. Brainard, who remained with the squadron until the end of occupation duty.  1st Air Squadron had an average strength of 10 officers and 130 enlisted men. It took a lot of men to keep six aircraft operational.

Flying combat missions in the Dominican Republic was no piece of cake.  Mountainous terrain made flying conditions difficult and dangerous.  With a lack of airfields, an in-flight emergency could produce disastrous results.  At this time, there were no navigational aids and the difficulties of aircraft maintenance were complicated by the logistics train.

On 22 July 1919, Second Lieutenant Manson C. Carpenter and his observer/rear gunner, Second Lieutenant Nathan S. Noble undertook a mission communicated to them by telephone of a skirmish near Guaybo Dulce.  A Marine patrol reported 30 mounted bandits fleeing across an open meadow. Carpenter conducted a strafing attack, diving from an altitude of about 100 feet and then maneuvering in such a way that brought both his front and rear cockpit guns to bear.  As Carpenter climbed to regain altitude before beginning another run, the bandits scattered into the tree-line.  During his second pass, Carpenter counted six bodies.  It was a successful mission —but the truth is that these kinds of engagements were rare.  There were no sophisticated air-to-air/air-to-ground communications —and this meant there was also no transmission of timely intelligence, no coordination of field operations.  But this was in the early stages of Marine Aviation and all of this would change in the not-too-distant future.

Marine Aviation’s greatest value lay in its support role.  1st Air Squadron carried mail and passengers from major cities to outlying districts and towns.  They also delivered much-needed supplies to remote units and evacuated wounded Marines —the first application of aeromedical evacuation. By 1922, Marine aviators were helping ground commanders control operations in widely dispersed areas by dropping messages to them from the air and keeping the regimental headquarters informed of the whereabouts of ground elements.  Marine pilots also conducted aerial surveys of the Dominican coastline, mapping important rivers, and developing photographic maps.  The regiments also sent newly arrived company officers up in planes to orient them to the areas they would later patrol on foot. Dominican operations were significant, too, in another respect: they enabled the Marine aviators to demonstrate their value to Marine ground forces.  DomRep was the birthplace of the Marine Corps Air-Ground team.

In mid-1922, the 2nd  Brigade commander summarized operations since 1916.  His report concluded that the Marines had engaged with bandits on 467 occasions.  Bandit losses exceeded 1,100 killed or wounded, with Marine loses of 20 killed and 67 wounded.  Most of these contacts transpired from within the Eastern District.  With the passage of time, bandits became more difficult to engage because they rarely attacked Marine security patrols.  It was easier (and safer) for bandits to focus their attentions on unarmed peasants.  The problem for Marines were three: (1) a paucity of accurate and timely intelligence; (2) a lack of communications with and among scattered units —noting that field radios were sent to the Marines in late 1921; (3) the absence of effective planning and coordination of security patrols.  Normally, regimental headquarters had no clear idea where their Marines were located.  Frequently, patrols from two or three commands were discovered operating in the same area, each of these unaware of the other’s presence.

By 1921, senior Marine commanders realized that time was running out and they still had not solved the bandit problem. Brigadier General Harry Lee wanted to step up ground operations.  Colonel William C. Harllee [6], then commanding the 15th Regiment, launched a systematic drive to finish off the bandits operating in the Eastern District.  Between October 1921 and March 1922, Harllee employed his entire regiment, reinforced by the newly created Policia Nacional, in a series of large-scale cordon operations in Seibo and Macoris. Harllee’s scheme involved a series of encirclements that were coordinated through the use of newly received field radios and air-dropped messages.

Harllee’s search and destroy maneuvers dispatched more than a few bandits and netted 600 or so “suspected” bandits.  General Lee halted the cordon operations, however, because they proved unpopular with the local peasantry.  Harllee reverted to security patrols, better coordinated by the introduction of field radios, and these resulted in seven enemy engagements.

In March 1922, General Lee implemented the formation of “home guard” units at Consuelo, Santa Fe, La Paja, Hato Mayor, and Seibo.  Home guard units consisted of around 15 men each, accepted for service upon the recommendation of municipal officials.  They were generally men who had suffered depredation at the hands of bandits and were therefore eager to serve their communities.  Trained, armed, and led by Marines, home guard units patrolled their own localities.  Two or three Marines armed with automatic weapons reinforced home guards units. General Lee’s plan was the precursor to Combined Action Platoon (CAP) operations used in the Viet Nam War.

Between 19-30 April 1922, home guard units effectively destroyed six bandit groups.  General Lee believed that these home guard units, more than any other single factor, broke up banditry in the Eastern District.  In late April, prominent Dominicans acting under the authority of the Military governor negotiated the surrender of one of the more prominent bandit leaders.  Subsequently, seven more of these brigands surrendered to the Marines —along with 170 of their followers.  In exchange for voluntarily surrendering, they received suspended sentences so long as they maintained good behavior.  In June 1922, General Lee reported that all banditry in the Eastern district had ceased.  The Dominican Republic was pacified.

With the success of anti-bandit operations, the Marines could then concentrate on the training of an efficient national constabulary.  It was a necessary step in safeguarding all the hard work that had been theretofore accomplished.  Previously, the Dominican Guardiahad been untrained, prone to loyalty toward charismatic leaders rather than to their duly elected national authority.  Most, if not all, Guardia officers were corrupt.  Those who shared their booty with their men were most popular of all.  More than this, Guardia officers were too easily persuaded to become the useful tools of corrupt politicians.  It was President Henriques’ refusal to accept the creation of an American-trained constabulary that led to American occupation to begin with.  Corruption was so deeply engrained that the only possible solution was to completely disband the Guardia.

This was accomplished on 7 April 1917, when the military governor created a new national police force, called the Guardia Nacional Dominicana (GND).  The GND replaced the Dominican Army, Navy, Guardia Republicana, and frontier guard.  The GND would be staffed with 88 officers and 1,200 enlisted men.  Initially, the GND was placed under the command of a Marine officer, who answered to the Commanding General, 2nd Brigade.  Over time, the GND created its own headquarters staff and territorial organization, which paralleled the organizational structure of the Marine brigade. One company of GND was assigned to each province.  In 1920, half of the GND’s officers were still U. S. Marines, officers and NCOs [7] who accepted Dominican commissions. Developing native officers was a long process of reforming attitudes and teaching them good leadership principles. Culture (corruption) was always an impediment to this process.

The GND enlisted force was entirely composed of natives.  They earned $17.00 per month, which was a hefty amount of money considering that they were accustomed to working for twenty-five cents per day, or around $7.50 per month.

Part of the difficulty of training the GND was the frequent reassignment of its senior (Marine) officers.  Generally, assignment to the GND involved a seven-month rotation. Added to this, all Marine officers were overloaded with additional duties.  Under these circumstances, combined with rapid deployments of GND forces to deal with bandits in outlying areas, effective training was significantly impaired.  Budget cuts were another stopgap to effective training.  At one point in 1921, the GND was reduced by 346 men simply because there was not enough money to pay them.  Arming the GND was another problem —that and providing them with horses and motorized transportation.

Despite so many handicaps, the GND ably assisted US Marines in their campaign against banditry and then taking pacification to the next level: security for all.  In 1921, the United States committed itself to an early withdrawal from the Dominican Republic.  Marines intensified their efforts to develop the GND into a fully professional force. The GND was renamed Policia Nacional Dominicana (PND) to emphasize the character and mission of the organization.  A new recruiting effort began, along with an effort to weed out less desirable veterans.  By August 1922, the PND fielded a force of 800 men, its ceiling remaining at 1,200.

No one did more to guarantee the success of the PND than Lieutenant Colonel Presley Marion Rixey [8] who served as its commandant from 1921 to 1923. Rixey was a superb combat commander and administrator who served on the Brigade staff before assuming command of the PND.  He transformed the PND into a highly mobile and strategically placed police agency and was responsible for the creation of two police training centers which included a five-month course of instruction for mid-level officers, including administration, tactics, weapons, topography, first aid, hygiene, and agriculture.

Training courses were also designed for enlisted men lasting two months.  Training emphasized guard duty, discipline, personal cleanliness, hygiene, and marksmanship.  An emphasis on marksmanship gave the PND a distinct advantage over bandits and other criminals.  Marines worked hard to inculcate unit pride and esprit de corps with emphasis on winning the confidence of the Dominican people, treating them fairly and consistently, offering them more than protection, but also justice.

Nevertheless, it had come time for the United States to return control of the Dominican Republic to the people.  President Warren G. Harding, Wilson’s successor, worked to end the occupation —which was something he promised to do during his campaign for the presidency.  In 1924, the Marines packed up and went home, leaving behind them a nation with a stable economy, a countryside free of bandits, and a national police organization capable of maintaining the peace.  Would these police officials acquit themselves with honor and integrity?

Rafael L TRUJILLO 001One of these young police officers was Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who was in the first class to graduate from the academy at Haina.  Trujillo was born near San Cristobal in 1891.  Most of his youth was spent drifting in and out of minor jobs and petty crime.  In 1916, he obtained a respectable job as a security officer on a sugar plantation. He was attracted to the exciting life, so in 1918, he applied for a commission in the GND.  He was sworn in as a second lieutenant in January 1919. Stationed with the 11thGuardia Company at Seibo, Trujillo earned good efficiency reports from his superiors.  On one occasion, however, he was placed under arrest for allegedly attempting to extort money from a civilian.  These charges were dismissed before trial.

After graduation, Trujillo rose rapidly through the ranks of the PND.  After the Marines departed the Dominican Republic, Trujillo was advanced from second lieutenant to major.  In 1924, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assumed the post of chief of staff of the PND.

In the elections of 1924, the Dominican people elected Horacio Vásquez.  Vásquez had cooperated with the American occupation force. He gave the Dominican Republic six years of stable and successful government, one in which political and civil rights were respected and the economy became vibrant in a country with a peaceful atmosphere.

Under Vásquez, Trujillo was advanced again to Colonel Commandant of the PND.  In 1930, when Vásquez attempted another term as president, his political opponents made a deal with Colonel Trujillo.  The deal was that Trujillo would stand back and do nothing if Rafael Estrella Ureña overthrew the Vásquez government.  As promised, Trujillo ordered his men to remain confined to barracks as Ureña marched on the capital.  After Ureña was proclaimed acting president, he appointed Trujillo to command the national police and armed forces.  In this capacity, Trujillo announced himself as a candidate as Presidency of the Dominican Republic.  During the “campaign,” Trujillo unleased his police and army forces to repress all political opponents.  He was elected president unopposed, ascending to power in August 1930.  Trujillo become the Caribbean’s longest-lived and more feared dictators.  He was assassinated on 30 May 1961.

In February 1963, Juan Bosch was elected president of the Dominican Republic.  He was overthrown on 24 April 1965.  After nineteen months of military rule, the people revolted.  US President Lyndon Johnson, concerned that communists may seize power and create a second Cuba, sent the Marines back to the Dominican Republic to restore order. As part of Operation Powerpack, Johnson authorized the US 82nd Airborne to occupy the DomRep.  They were soon joined by a small military contingent from the Organization of American States.  Foreign military forces remained in the DomRep for well over a year, departing after supervising presidential elections in 1966.  President Joaquin Balaguer remained in power for 12 years.

In retrospect, the performance of the United States Military Government (of which the  2nd Marine Brigade was its most conspicuous agent) and the American policy of Caribbean intervention, remains controversial.  By improving communications, transportation networks, promoting education and public health, and improving police and other government agencies, the Marines did much to establish an infrastructure for success.  There was one failure, however.  No matter how much money was expended improving local conditions, the United States Marines could not have created a stable Dominican democracy. This can only be accomplished by a people who most desire it and who have the means and the will to achieve it [9].  It is a lesson unlearned by modern American diplomats and senior military advisors in Washington, D. C.

Today, the Dominican Republic has the ninth largest economy in Latin America and the largest economy in the Caribbean/Central American region, bolstered by construction, manufacturing, tourism, and mining.  The Dominican people have achieved what most other Hispanic societies in the Americas never have: a political environment within which a free and independent people may succeed.


  1. Wiarda, H. J. and Michael J. Kryzanek. The Dominican Republic: A Caribbean Crucible.  Boulder: Westview Press, 1982
  2. Diamond, J. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books, 2005
  3. Fuller, S. M., and Graham A. Cosmas. Marines in the Dominican Republic, 1916-1924.  History and Museums Division, U. S. Marine Corps, 1974


[1] Ben Hebard Fuller (1870-1937) initially joined the US Navy (1889-1891) and then served in the Marine Corps (1891-1934).  His final post was Major General Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1930-1934. General Fuller was laid to rest next to his son, Captain Edward C. Fuller of the 6th Marines, who was killed in action during the Battle of Belleau Wood in World War I.

[2] Logan Feland (1869-1936) initially served in the Volunteer Infantry (1898-1899) and served as a US Marine (1899-1933).  Among his several duty stations, General Feland served during the Spanish-American War, World War I, and several of the so-called Banana Wars.  Feland retired as a Major General commanding the Department of the Pacific.  He was a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross (Army), Distinguished Service Medal (Army), Distinguished Service Medal (Navy), five Silver Star medals, and the French Legion of Honor.

[3] Charles G. Long (1869-1943) served in the USMC from 1891-1921.  Major General Long served in the Philippine-American War, Spanish-American War, Boxer Rebellion, World War I, and during the so-called Banana Wars. General Long was the recipient of the Marine Corps Brevet Medal and the Navy Cross.

[4] Harry Lee (1872-1935) served in the Marine Corps from 1898-1933.  Lee commanded the 6thMarine Regiment, Marine Barracks, Parris Island, Marine Corps Base, Quantico, and the 2ndProvisional Brigade while serving as Military Governor of the Dominican Republic.  He served in the Spanish-American War, World War I, and during the so-called Banana Wars.  Retiring as a major general, Lee was the recipient of the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Army Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star medal, and Legion of Honor.

[5] See also: Edward A. Craig—Marine.

[6] William Curry Harllee (1877-1944), referred to as Bo by his friends, was a large man who stood over 6’2” tall and weighed 200 pounds.  His military service began with some difficulty.  He was expelled from the Citadel for having accumulated excessive demerits, and later expelled from the U. S. Military Academy (where he ranked second in his class) for being too willful and too independent for military service.  In 1899, Corporal Harllee distinguished himself during the Philippine Insurrection of 1899 while serving with the 33rdUS Volunteer Infantry.  In 1900, he finished first among applicants for a commission in the U. S. Marine Corps.  He was nearly court-martialed in 1917 for repudiating the “dead wood” in charge of the US military.  Harllee was advanced to Brigadier General upon his retirement and is remembered as a no-nonsense, tough, and completely politically-incorrect ground officer. Harllee was laid to rest next to John A. Lejeune at Arlington National Cemetery.

[7] The GND officer corps also consisted of US civilians having a law enforcement background in the United States.

[8] Presley Marion Rixey (1879-c.1949) was the nephew of Rear Admiral Presley M. Rixey, USN, Surgeon General of the United States Navy and personal physician to Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.  Colonel Rixey served in the Marine Corps from 1900-1936 serving variously as Commanding Officer, 2nd Marines, 1st Marine Brigade, and Commander of the Legation Guard, Peking, China.  Colonel Rixey’s son was Brigadier General Presley Morehead Rixey, USMC (1904-1989).

[9] Most Hispanic societies in the Americas continue to struggle —this has been the over-arching legacy of Spanish culture.