Hold High the Torch, Part III

The 4th Marines: From Harry Truman’s War to the Street Without Joy

EGA BlackAmong the effects of Harry S. Truman’s presidential incompetence came the Korean War —and along with that, the re-activation of the 4th Marine Regiment.  The war began in late June 1950.  A stalemate in the war two years later resulted in the re-activation of the 3rd Marine Division and within that organization on 2 September 1952, the 4th Marines —Colonel Robert O. Bowen, commanding.  The regiment’s initial units included Headquarters & Service Company (H&SCo), Anti-Tank Company, 4.2-inch Mortar Company, and the 1st Battalion (1/4).  Within a short time, the regiment added 2/4 and 3/4.  A fourth battalion came on line in January 1953 but was deactivated within a period of seven months.

After reactivation, the 4th Marines began a series of pre-combat deployment training; spooling up to speed would take another six months.  The 3rd Marine Division was alerted to its far-east deployment shortly before the Korean Armistice.  Despite cessation of fighting, the 3rdMarDiv relocated from Camp Pendleton, California to Japan.  The regiment’s new home was Nara, on the island of Honshu.  Arriving too late to participate in the Korean War, the 4th Marines became a garrison force whose responsibilities included the defense of southern Honshu and its readiness [1] for rapid deployment to potential hot-spots in the Far East.  In January 1954, 3/4 was assigned to task of escorting former Chinese Communist soldiers who wanted to go to Taiwan (rather than be repatriated to mainland China) from Inchon, South Korea [2].

Eighteen-months later, the 4th Marines (and supporting units) was relocated to Hawaii where the regiment became the principal ground combat element (GCE) of the 1st Provisional Marine MAGTF at Kaneohe Bay. Once established in Hawaii, the regiment began an intensive program of coordinated training with the air combat element (ACE), which at the time was Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-13.  The MAGTF was redesignated as the 1st Marine Brigade on 1 May 1956.  The advent of combat helicopters led the regiment into vertical envelopment training. The 4th Marines was the first GCE to live and train with a co-located ACE.  As a Pacific area force in readiness, the 1st Marine Brigade (1stMarBde) engaged in rigorous training.  Maneuver areas included the California coast, Taiwan, and the Philippine Islands.  In March 1961, BLT 1/4 was diverted from its original destination (California) to the Far East when a communist insurgency threatened Laos.  The battalion was never sent into Laos, however.

Ngo Dinh Diem 001
Ngo Dinh Diem, 1960 Photo from Public Domain

The President of South Vietnam between 1954 and 1963 was Ngo Dinh Diem, and man whom the United States government decided to support because he was well-educated, smooth in his presentation, a true patriot to his country’s cause, and also because he shared the same religion with the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.  A devout Roman Catholic, Diem was staunchly anti-Communist, a nationalist, and socially conservative.  He also shared the same long-term goals with his enemy in the north: Ho Chi Minh. Both Ngo and Ho wanted to unify Vietnam under their own flag.

Between 1954-1957, South Vietnam experienced a large-scale resistance to Ngo’s policies from the areas outlying the national capital, Saigon.  Dissidents included the thugs in minor cities who fancied themselves as war lords, and Buddhist monks who seemed to keep South Vietnamese peasants in a constant state of instability. Ngo responded rather harshly, as he suspected that the culprits behind these destabilizing demonstrations were North Vietnamese insurgents.  His assumption was mostly correct; when the country was politically divided in 1954, about 90,000 hard-core communists remained in the South and Ho’s government encouraged these to engage in low-level insurgencies.

Upon Kennedy’s election to the presidency in 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned him against becoming entangled in the Indochinese conflict.  In 1961, the United States had around 50,000 troops based in South Korea.  Kennedy faced a four-pronged crisis in the early days of his administration: Bay of Pigs fiasco, construction of the Berlin Wall, the Pathet Lao movement in Laos, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).  The onslaught of communist schemes to disrupt the world balance of power led Kennedy to conclude that the United States and its free-world allies could not sustain another “failure” confronting global communism. This particular insecurity helped to drive Kennedy’s space program.  Kennedy was thus determined to “draw a line in the sand” to prevent another communist victory in Vietnam [3].

Kennedy’s policy toward Vietnam initially mirrored that of President Eisenhower, who saw no benefit to the United States by committing large-scale military forces to solve the Vietnam problem.  Given the poor state of South Vietnam’s military, however, Kennedy did continue Eisenhower’s program to provide US Army Special Forces to help train the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) across a wide range of areas: ground combat, air combat, and logistical resupply.  Kennedy advisors tried to convince the president to send US troops to Vietnam “disguised as flood relief workers [4].”  Others tried to convince Kennedy that sending troops to Vietnam in large numbers would be a tragic mistake.  By late 1963, Kennedy had increased the number of military advisors serving in Vietnam from 900 (Eisenhower) to 16,000.  On 2 November 1963, as the US government officials pretended not to know what was going on, President Ngo and his brother was assassinated and the man ultimately responsible for this was John F. Kennedy.  Twenty days later, Kennedy himself was assassinated and power shifted to Lyndon Baines Johnson.  Johnson wanted an escalation of the war and lied to the American people to achieve it. North Vietnamese patrol boats did not launch assaults against the USS Maddox (DD 731) on 2 August 1964; the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that precipitated War in Vietnam never happened.

Discounting a rather large number of special operations troops serving as advisors to the South Vietnamese government, the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa was the first ground combat force committed to the Vietnam War.  The 4th Marines received their warning order almost immediately after the decision was made to commit the Marines.  Forward elements of the 3rdMarDiv began landing at Da Nang on 8 March 1965; the 4th Marines started arriving from Hawaii (via Okinawa) in mid-April 1965, the first battalion to arrive being BLT 3/4, which deployed to the ancient Imperial City of Hue.  Regimental HQ, 1/4 and 2/4 disembarked at Chu Lai on 7 May 1965.  All 3rdMarDiv units came under the operational control of the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).

In Vietnam, the nature of the war changed the organization of Marine units.  Since the conflict in Vietnam was often fought at or below the battalion level, one or more battalions of a regiment were frequently fighting under the operational control of another regiment.  As an example, a regiment exercising operational control of two or more battalions belonging to another regiment could enlarge its operations to that of a brigade.  In the summer of 1965, the 4th Marine Regiment exercised operational control over its own first and second battalions, but also 3/3 and 3/12 and their supporting elements.  The 3rd Marines, meanwhile, had operational control over 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines.

Combat for the 4th Marines in Vietnam arrived on 19 April when 3/4 (assigned Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) of Hue City and Phu Bai) defenses were probed by communist forces.  Two days later, 1/4 and 2/4 (assigned responsibility for Chu Lai) also experienced light probing attacks.  Vigorous patrolling operations were implemented almost immediately. Such activities were variously called security patrols and “search and clear” operations.  They were later expanded to include security operations for other than military installations, and these in turn expanded to a full measure search for the enemy so that he could be destroyed (search and destroy operations).

Combat in Vietnam was limited by its weather, terrain, and the nature of an elusive enemy.  Marines (indeed, all ground forces) were beset with guerrilla warfare tactics, including anti-personnel mines, booby traps, and ambushes combined with the placement of punji-sticks (sharpened sticks dipped in human excrement) —all designed to hamper the progress of Marine operations.   Before the arrival of helicopters, Marines sought out the enemy on foot, and their aggressive operations kept the enemy off balance within the 4th Marines TAOR.

Op STARLITE 001The first major engagement was the regimental sized Operation Starlite —a combined amphibious and vertical assault against enemy fortified positions on the Van Tuong Peninsula, 15 miles south of the Chu Lai air base.  2nd Battalion, 4th Marines was air-lifted into the jump-off point on 18 August 1965 and began a drive to the sea to block off any escape route.  Within nine days, the 1st Viet Cong Regiment was decisively defeated.  The operation prevented the VC from attacking the Chu Lai air base.

In addition to engaging the enemy in small-unit actions, the 4th Marines participated in several major operations in Vietnam, some of these conducted in phases over extended periods of time.  They were Starlite, Hastings (1966), Prairie (1966-67), Deckhouse VI/Desoto (16 Feb-3 Mar 1967), Prairie IV (April-May 1967), Hickory (April-May 1967), Kingfisher (July-October 1967), and Kentucky (November 1967-February 1969).  Elements of the 4th Marines also participated in Operation Jay, Lancaster II, Scotland II, Napoleon/Saline, the Battle of Dai Do (also, Dong Ha).  Most of these combat operations involved several organizations (as previously discussed), including 2/1, 3/3, 1/4, 2/4, 3/4, 2/9, 2/12, and various units of the ARVN and RVNMD [5].

The Dong Ha Combat Base (also known as Camp Spillman) was a joint Marine Corps-US Army multi-purpose base along Route 9 in northwest of Quang Tri in central Vietnam.  The base was first used by 3/4 in late April 1966.  In late May 2/4 was deployed to Dong Ha to support Operation Reno, which was designed to render support to the ARVN forces assigned to this region.  The only US casualties during RENO involved a USAF team of six radar technicians who were ambushed and killed on 5 June 1966.  The Commanding Officer of 2/4 (LtCol P. X. Kelly [6]) offered to provide security for the radar team before it departed from Dong Ha, but this offer was refused.

Beginning in mid-July, Dong Ha also served as a Marine Corps helicopter base of operations for flight detachments of HMM-163 (December 1966-January 1967), HMM-164 (July 1966-March 1967), HMM-263(August 1966-April 1967), HMM-265 (April-June 1967), HMM-361 (June-November 1967), HMM-363 (April-June 1967, August-November 1967), and VMO-2 (July 1966-November 1967).  Dong Ha also served as an advance logistics base.  Army and Marine Corps artillery units used Dong Ha as a fire support base, and in October 1966, Dong Ha became the forward headquarters of the 3rdMarDiv; several operations (listed above) were initiated from the Dong Ha Combat Base. During 1968, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) made repeated attacks against Dong Ha, on one occasion destroying its ammunition depot.  In each attack, NVA forces experienced heavy casualties.

There were many accomplishments of the 4th Marines in Vietnam, a few of which were exceptional examples of Marines thinking outside the box.  Notwithstanding the regiment’s role in finding and killing the enemy, there was another war: the effort to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. The 4th Marines undertook civic action programs almost from the start of their arrival in Vietnam.  In May 1965, the regiment distributed nearly 1,000 pounds of clothing to the villagers at Chu Lai—clothing that had been collected by the dependents of these Marines in Hawaii and sent directly to the regiment. Marines also pitched in with “self-help” projects in Chu Lai and Hue City designed to improve the living conditions of the villagers: digging wells, road-grading, clearing home sites.  The Golden Fleece program aided villagers in the harvesting of rice, protecting them from harassment by the Viet Cong, and protecting the crop from confiscation by local VC thugs.

Operation County Fair was a program that originated within the 4th Marines (with the blessings of the Commanding General, FMF Pacific, LtGen Victor H. Krulak).  Its purpose was to pacify select villages known to harbor elements of the Viet Cong.  3rd Battalion, 4th Marines initiated a Combined Action Company, and from this concept evolved the Combined Action Platoons.  In the summer of 1965, the 1st ARVN Division assigned a number of Vietnamese Popular Forces (PFs) units in the Phu Bai area to operate under the auspices of 3/4.  Integrating Marine rifle squads with PFs initially fell under the leadership and direction of First Lieutenant Paul R. Ek (then known as Joint Action Company). The concept was one way of reestablishing government control over rural villages while freeing the people from the terror and intimidation of local VC elements.  See also: Vietnam Counterinsurgency and Combined Action Platoon (in six parts).

9thMAB 001One an example of the Navy-Marine Corps ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome all obstacles were operations conducted by Amphibious Ready Group (Task Force 76.5) and Special Landing Force (Task Force 79.5) (ARG/SLF). It was a powerful and versatile formation capable of striking along the length of the South Vietnam Littoral and inland.  Initially, the ARG consisted of three to four ships, including an amphibious assault ship (LPH), and dock landing ship (LSD), an attack transport ship (APA) or amphibious transport dock (LPD), and a tank landing ship (LST).  The SLF was composed of a medium helicopter squadron (HMM), a Battalion Landing Team (reinforced with artillery, armor, engineer, and other support units as required).  The SLF came ashore either as part of an amphibious assault (sea-land) or by vertical assault (air), or both.  While at sea, Marines of the SLF came under the administrative control of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade; when gearing up for a landing, they came under the operational control of the senior Marine commander in the area of their operations.

Operation Deckhouse VI/Beacon Hill was the first major operation of 1967 for the 4th Marines.  1st Battalion, 4th Marines (1/4) had been temporarily assigned to Okinawa for rest and refit.  BLT 1/4 was directed to make an amphibious landing near Sa Huyn in the southern portion of I Corps.  The battalion stormed ashore in search of Viet Cong forces on 16 February.  Nine days later, the Marines reembarked aboard ARG shipping and within a few days made another amphibious assault 200-miles farther north, landing near Gio Linh.  After a combined operation lasting 22 days, Marines had located and killed 334 Viet Cong.  The battalion’s casualties were 29 killed, 230 wounded.

3:4 - 001 1967
BLT 3/4 clearing NVA bunkers. DoD Photo.

The northern I Corps region continued to be the scene of heavy fighting throughout the year.  All three 4th Marines’ battalions were deployed against NVA and VC main line units.  Delta Company 1/4  was hit hard at Con Tien on 8 May; following a mortar assault of some 250-rounds, two enemy battalions assaulted the Marine Company.  In spite of these overwhelming numbers, the Delta Company Marines repulsed the NVA/VC attack, and although suffering 49 killed and over 100 wounded, the Marines killed 210 communists and captured ten.  Four days later, the battalion commander was himself wounded three times in successive enemy assaults.  In each instance, the Marines soundly defeated the NVA/VC units.  CG III MAF concluded that the NVA and VC main line units were using the DMZ as a staging area for attacks against US forces.

General Cushman ordered Operation Hickory:  Six infantry battalions with artillery support assaulted the NVA 324B Division within the DMZ.  Marine units included 3/4, 2/3, 1/9, 2/9, 3/9, 2/26, and 1/12.  On the morning of 18 May 2/26 and 2/9 began an advance from Con Thien to press the NVA while 3/4 landed by helicopter on the Ben Hai river as a blocking force.  Five Marine battalions assaulted a complex of heavily fortified bunkers within the so-called demilitarized zone.  At the conclusion of Hickory, 362 additional enemy had been killed with 30 taken as POWs; Marine losses were 142 KIA and 896 WIA.  A separate operation in the area involving the 1st ARVN Division killed another 340 NVA/VC with 22 of their own killed and 122-wounded.  Combined, Operations Lam Son 54, Hickory, Belt Tight, and Beau Charger ended with the removal of the entire civilian populations.  From that point on, the DMZ and northern I Corps became a free fire zone.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon announced that the US effort in the Vietnam War would be reduced.  It was time to turn this effort over to the Republic of Vietnam armed forces.  The 9th Marines departed Vietnam in August; the 3rd Marine Division began its stand down in September.  The 4th Marines was ordered to Okinawa, 1/4 departing the combat zone on 22 October. All 3rdMarDiv units were out of Vietnam by November 1969.

The 4th Marine Regiment has a long and proud history of service to the United States of America and her people. Whatever mission assigned, the Marines of the 4th Regiment have distinguished themselves time and again through courage, devotion to one another, and unparalleled sacrifice in the completion of their mission.  Today, the 4th Marine Regiment remains part of the 3rd Marine Division and while its battalions continue to rotate in and out of global hotspots, the regimental headquarters is anchored at Camp Schwab, Okinawa.

Sources:

  1. Organization of the United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Reference Publication (MCRP) 5-12D. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 2015.
  2. Santelli, J. S. A Brief History of the Fourth Marines.  Washington: U. S. Marine Corps Historical Division, 1970

[1] Readiness infers continual combat training.  During this period of time, the 4th Marines participated in training exercises in Japan, on Okinawa, and on the island of Iwo Jima.

[2] Even peacetime and training duty is hazardous in the military.  During 3/4’s deployment to Inchon, a landing craft capsized in Inchon Harbor resulting in the death of 27 Marines and two Navy Corpsmen.

[3] Kennedy told James Reston of the NYT, “Now we have a problem making our power credible; Vietnam looks like the place.”

[4] Another hair-brained scheme devised by General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow.

[5] Republic of Vietnam Marine Division  (SưĐoàn Thy Quân Lc Chiến) (1953-1975).

[6] Paul X. Kelly served as the 28th Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1 July 1983 to 30 June 1987.