Our Marine Corps drill instructor marched us into a classroom at Parris Island, South Carolina and ordered us to sit down and remain quiet. We were used to following orders, so we did what we were told. We weren’t the only recruit platoon in the room. When the room was full of buzz-headed Marine hopefuls, a first lieutenant took center stage and introduced himself. This was a long time ago. I’m guessing the time frame would have been around May 1963. I cannot now recall this officer’s name, but I can still see him standing in front of us. He was short in stature, had short cut blondish colored hair, and spoke with a resonate voice. Over the period of about one hour, he presented a slide show of events in a far-off place —an emerging conflict, he said. We needed to know about this place because we might be called upon to serve there. He told us the name of this place was Viet Nam. No one in my platoon had ever heard of Vietnam.
But the lieutenant was right: we ended up there. How did that happen?
Prior to 1954, the expanse of the Southeast Asia Mainland was in the hands of the French —and, at least technically, had been from about the mid-1800s. They controlled this place for so long, in fact, that it became known as French Indochina, which included the northern two-thirds of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
After Germany’s invasion of France at the beginning of World War II, the French government went into exile. To replace it, French President Albert Lebrun appointed Marshal Philippe Petain to form a new government as its prime minister. While Paris remained the nominal capital of France, Petain moved his government to the city of Vichy, hence the name Vichy France. The Vichy government signed a peace accord with the Axis powers, making France a collaborative ally of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Under this arrangement, the Vichy government continued to supervise the civil administration of France and its colonial empire, including French Indochina.
In late September 1940, the Empire of Japan joined Germany and Italy through the Tripartite Pact, which provided for mutual support and assistance should any of the signatories find themselves at war with any other nation. Initially, when Japanese forces invaded Indochina on 22 September, the French colonial government resisted. It was a war that lasted all of four days. Then, after recognizing the Vichy French colonial administration as an ally, Japan was “permitted” to occupy portions of present-day north Vietnam. Under this arrangement, the French colonial government continued to exercise authority over civil functions in Tonkin and Annam, but the Japanese soon implemented the golden rule in Indochina, which was that whoever had the guns made the rules. Japan continued to occupy Indochina as a guest of the French through March 1945 when Japan’s mask of congeniality was removed. Without so much as a “by your leave,” Japanese soldiers arrested all French colonial officials and seized control of all their functions.
At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, allied leaders made the decision to divide Indochina in half —at the 16th parallel— in order to allow Chiang Kai-shek to receive the Japanese surrender in the North, while British Lord Louis Mountbatten would receive the Japanese surrender in the South. The allies agreed that France was the “rightful owner” of French Indochina but given the weakened state of France at the time, a British-Indian force would take on the role of helping France re-establish its control over their former colony.
Within three months the Empire of Japan unconditionally surrendered to the Allied powers and pursuant to the previously agreed-to allied protocols, the Chinese Nationalist military moved into Tonkin and northern Annam to accept the surrender of Japanese forces. Elements of the British army arrived from India to accept the surrender of Japanese operating south of the 16th parallel, which included the southern portion of Annam and all of Cochinchina. Surprising to the British, a detachment of 150 men from the French Expeditionary Corps arrived in Saigon to “assist” the British in their task —the oddity being that France was not slated to participate in the surrender of Japanese forces.
The end of World War II did nothing to settle the struggle for control of French Indochina. Rather, it was the beginning of a new conflict. The French intended to restore their former colonial presence in Indochina. To achieve this, the French rushed legionnaires to Tonkin and Annam before the end of 1945. In early 1946, France secured an agreement with Chinese Nationalists to relinquish their control of towns and cities north of the 16th parallel. At this stage, it might have appeared that the French plan of action was coming to fruition but there remained one problem: Vietnamese nationalism.
The leader of this nationalist movement was a rather nondescript fellow who called himself Ho Chi Minh. Minh was a devout communist who had managed to transform a weak political movement into a powerful guerrilla organization known as the Việt Nam độc lập đồng minh (shortened to Viet Minh). The man responsible for organizing and training the Viet Minh was a young history teacher from Annam named Vo Nguyen Giap.
American officials in 1945 knew of Ho Chi Minh and his organization. In the latter days of World War II, the American OSS had provided the Viet Minh with military supplies in exchange for their assistance in rescuing downed Allied airmen and helping them avoid Japanese capture. The Viet Minh, however, performed only limited services to allied forces while reaping the reward of guns and ammunition —which they added to their growing arsenal of French, Japanese, and British armaments. In 1944-45, it was not in the long-term interests of Ho Chi Minh to risk limited manpower fighting the Japanese. There was a bigger fish to fry.
Even before the arrival of Chinese Nationalists in late 1945, Viet Minh forces managed to seize control of Hanoi (the capital of Tonkin) and, after doing so, proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Part of what made this possible was the Viet Minh’s elimination by lethal means of all potential political opponents. Having made their pronouncement, the Viet Minh shifted its focus away from surrendering Japanese and toward contesting the reemergence of French colonialism.
Overwhelmed by Viet Minh activity, French officials agreed to open negotiations with the communists and by early 1946, France agreed to recognize the DRV as a free state within the French Union. In return, Ho Chi Minh announced his willingness to welcome the French Army to relieve Chinese Nationalist forces. French forces thus began a reoccupation of Tonkin and northern Annam. By late summer 1946, the French military controlled every major strategic position from the Chinese border to the Ca Mau Peninsula, the southern tip of Cochinchina.
French and Viet Minh officials ceased being friends in December 1946 after negotiations failed to reach a final agreement about political control of Tonkin and Annam. Open warfare soon followed with Ho withdrawing the bulk of his military forces into the mountainous regions of China and Laos but leaving guerrilla forces scattered throughout the Red River delta region. The French sent for reinforcements from Africa and Europe to bolster their forces, while the Viet Minh drew their strength from a growing nationalist sentiment. By the late 1940s, Ho’s communist movement was in full swing and the First Indochina War spread into Annam and Cochinchina. In 1949, Ho Chi Minh’s staunchest supporter, Mao Zedong, won the Chinese Civil War, seizing control of mainland China.
In 1950, Communist Korean forces invaded the Republic of South Korea —events that added a new dimension to the struggle for French Indochina. In the view of American officials, China, North Korea, and Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh threatened the peace and security of the entire Southeast Asia Mainland. In response, President Harry S. Truman promised US military aid to French Indochina. Ostensibly, Truman made this decision out of concern that Ho Chi Minh would begin cooperating with Mao Zedong in the takeover of the entire Southeast Asia Mainland. The US congress added $4-billion dollars to Truman’s military assistance budget, all but roughly $300 million was earmarked for French efforts in Vietnam.
Dwight Eisenhower wrested the presidency away from Truman in the 1952 elections. The relationship between Truman and Eisenhower was never cordial, so the transition from one president to another was strained. Eisenhower believed that Truman had made a mess of US foreign policy. Eisenhower’s plan was to balance the federal budget, end the war in Korea, and continue Truman’s policy of reliance on nuclear deterrence to keep the peace elsewhere. When the French approached Eisenhower in early 1953, asking for continued financial assistance in the First Indochina War, they argued that Ho Chi Minh was receiving massive amounts of aid from the Chinese Communists. Without committing the United States, Eisenhower sent Lieutenant General John O’Daniel to Vietnam to study and assess the French effort. Eisenhower’s chief of staff, retired General Matthew Ridgeway, dissuaded the president from any notion of military intervention in Vietnam —arguing that the cost of an Indochinese war would be too high.
Eisenhower followed Ridgeway’s advice. He instead counteroffered the French teams of US military advisors, financial, and material support. The French wanted more, of course, and to this Eisenhower offered a further conditional agreement: the US might become involved in Indochina, but only with congressional approval and allied (UN) participation. Eisenhower knew at the time that this would never happen. After the resounding defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu, Eisenhower refused to intervene. Instead, Eisenhower spearheaded the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), an alliance with the UK, France, New Zealand, and Australia, in defense of Vietnam against communist aggression.
When China and France agreed to reconvene peace talks at Geneva, Eisenhower agreed to US participation, but only as an observer. France and China (representing the interests of Vietnamese nationalists) agreed to a partition of Vietnam, which Eisenhower rejected as foolhardy. Nevertheless, he offered US military assistance to the government of South Vietnam (the Republic of Vietnam (also, RVN)), and supported the Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. What Eisenhower was hoping for was the introduction of political stability in South Vietnam while at the same time creating a bulwark of nations opposed to communist expansion throughout the rest of the Indochinese peninsula. One key to this undertaking was a Truman creation: the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (USMAAG). Eisenhower tasked this organization with organizing, advising, training, and supplying the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
Lieutenant General John M. O’Daniel assumed command of the USMAAG in the spring of 1954. His bona fides for this appointment were his work in building the South Korean Army during the Korean War. In Vietnam, he and his 350-man staff would be starting from scratch: beyond French forces and auxiliaries, South Vietnam had no appreciable defense establishment. Its initial complication was a US agreement with the French to phase out their participation in RVN, which cost the United States both time and money. A combined Franco-American training command was activated in February 1955. The kicker to this agreement was a provision that the USMAAG would have to shape the ARVN into a cohesive defense force prior to the complete withdrawal of French forces.
The first Marine Corps officer tasked with advisory/assistance on the MAAG staff was Lieutenant Colonel Victor J. Croizat, who was fluent in French and had earned a laudable reputation while attending the French war college in 1949. His first assignment was as head of the commission on refugees, but he later headed the USMAAG detachment at Haiphong. Upon his return to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Croizat was tasked to create a small Vietnamese Marine Corps (VMC), which became necessary after the birth of the Vietnamese Navy. To accomplish this new military organization, it was also necessary to transfer existing ARVN units of various types to the new VMC. These were mostly small organizations with practical experience operating along Vietnam’s coastal plain and river estuaries. The VMC would experience “growing pains” over the next several years.
South Vietnamese political stability appeared to be on the horizon in 1958, but this was challenged by an ever-increasing insurgency directed behind the scenes by North Vietnamese officials and a large number of Viet Minh operatives who had remained in South Vietnam after the Geneva Cease Fire. President Diem focused on neutralizing this threat through pacification operations in communist areas; he achieved only mixed results, however —made worse when he abruptly discontinued these operations before they had a chance to achieve the desired effect. Then, to make matters worse, President Diem sought to eliminate Viet Minh sympathizers from positions of leadership at the local level, and in that process, extend his own control over rural populations. His scheme was to replace locally elected officials with government-appointed village chiefs.
Diem’s decision made one wonder if he was really a Vietnamese since this decision was counter to every cultural tradition over the previous two-thousand years. And, it made Diem very unpopular among his people. His popularity suffered further after he implemented an anti-communist denunciation campaign, intending to discredit former associates of the Viet Minh but the campaign ended up being little more than a witch hunt. It was thus that President Diem alienated many Vietnamese who might otherwise have supported his central regime. Perhaps even worse, Diem’s programs sent Viet Minh operatives underground. From beneath the shadows, the communists gradually increased their support from rural populations who saw the Diem government as a threat to time-honored traditions, not to mention to their personal safety. By the late 1950s, the Viet Minh were labeled as Việt Cộng (Vietnamese Communists); this organization resurrected a program used earlier in Tonkin; the assassination of government officials, village chiefs, rural police officers, district officials, schoolteachers, and pro-western citizens.
South Vietnam’s armed forces were a puzzle. President Diem didn’t trust his senior officers, with good reason. Many of his senior officers were self-serving and corrupt. Most were only marginally competent to command large numbers of men. Many were unwilling to put their own lives in jeopardy for their country. Some were on the payroll of the Việt Cộng. Still, Diem needed his army to counter any conventional attack across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), a fear that prevented him from employing his troops against a growing Việt Cộng (VC) rural insurgency. Despite the fact that 700 officials were murdered by the VC between July 1957 and July 1958, Diem continued to believe that the VC problem was one for local police and village defense forces.
John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States in 1960. His foreign policy was dominated by American confrontations with the Soviet Union and numerous proxy challenges in the early stages of the Cold War. As a senator, Kennedy advocated greater US involvement in Vietnam, but he was cautioned by Eisenhower to walk carefully through that minefield. In 1961, Kennedy changed US policy from supporting a free Laos to supporting a “neutral” Laos. Vietnam, he argued, was America’s tripwire for communism’s spread through Southeast Asia, not Laos. In May 1961, Kennedy sent Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to assure President Diem that the US stood ready to aid him in funding and organizing a fighting force capable of resisting communist aggression. Under Kennedy, the United States became South Vietnam’s rich uncle. Throughout his short presidency, Kenney continued policies that provided political, economic, and military support to the Diem regime.
In late 1961, the VC became a dominant presence in South Vietnam, even to the extent of seizing the provincial capital of Phuoc Vinh, 30 miles northeast of Saigon. Kennedy responded by increasing the numbers of US military advisors to around 11,000 men, but he remained reluctant to commit regular combat troops. Still, the progressive erosion of government strength and steady growth of the VC prompted Kennedy to dispatch, as a special envoy, retired General Maxwell D. Taylor to Vietnam to assess the political situation in Vietnam. One of Taylor’s recommendation was to add military helicopters to the arsenal of US military advisors. The arrival of American helicopters signaled the beginning of a more dynamic phase of US involvement in South Vietnam.
The decision to employ Marine Corps aviation units to Vietnam’s combat zones originated in the immediate aftermath of General Maxwell’s report to President Kennedy. In January 1962, the JCS directed the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, to prepare for increased operations in South Vietnam, specifically, helicopter units “should it become necessary” to augment US Army aviation units already operating in-country. CINCPAC not only agreed with the JCS on aviation asset deployments, but he also recommended an additional Army aviation company, an aviation support unit, and a field medical group. Army aviation units assigned to Fort Ord were notified of their impending deployment. General Timmes, at the time Chief of the MAAG, made a counter-proposal: why not augment Army aviation with Marine Corps helicopter units? General Timmes wanted nine (9) Marine helicopters and their crews.
What General Timmes eventually received was a Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM-362) (24-H34D aircraft), Reinforced by three single-engine OE-1 observation aircraft, one R4D transport craft, an additional 50 maintenance personnel, a sub-unit of Marine Air Base Squadron (MABS-16), (including navy medical/dental/chaplain support), a Tactical Airfield Fuel Dispensing System (TAFDS), and a Marine Airfield Traffic Control Unit (MATCI). Designated as (code word) SHUFLY, the Marines were assigned to the airstrip at Soc Trang, South Vietnam.
Lieutenant Colonel Archie Clapp, Commanding Officer, HMM-362, ordered the commencement of combat operations on Easter Sunday, 22 April 1962 —one week after the unit’s arrival in Vietnam. Its first mission was to support/assist the US Army’s 57th Helicopter Company in OPERATION LOCKJAW. American aviation assets would support the ARVN 7th Infantry Division (headquartered at My Tho), 53 miles northeast of Soc Trang. Unlike Army aircraft, the Marine helicopters were unarmed; the only weapons aboard Marine aircraft were individual sidearms and two M3A1 submachine guns. On the same day, the Marines were fragged to extract a US Army advisor from Vinh Long. HMM-362 airlifted a VMC company to a threatened government outpost at Ca Mau the next day; it’s 57-man ARVN garrison was extracted on the same day.
HMM-362 suffered its first combat damage on 24 April. Sixteen birds supported the 21st ARVN Division in OPERATION NIGHTINGALE, conducted near Can Tho. After delivering 591 ARVN troops into eight landing zones, a vicious small-arms fight broke out and one of the helicopters was forced down with a ruptured oil line. Clapp ordered in a maintenance team to repair the aircraft; a platoon of ARVN troops provided security while the repairs were underway. The bird was airborne again within two hours. In this operation, ARVN inflicted 70 KIA on VC forces.
Given their experiences in the first few weeks of the deployment, the Marines began experimenting with new tactics. These were incorporated into their “lessons learned,” important experiences later shared with other Marine Corps helicopter pilots. HMM-362’s most significant operation came on 9 May. Twenty-three helicopters and two OE-1s launched from Ca Mau for an assault on Cai Ngai, a VC controlled village 21 miles south. The squadron began landing at six sites. Only five minutes earlier, Vietnamese air force (VNAF) fighter bombers had bombed suspected VC positions. Firing broke out even before the ARVN troops could disembark. Eight Marine helicopters were hit; one of these made a hard landing a few miles away but was repaired and returned to Soc Trang. So, what did the Marines learn? Airstrikes conducted just prior to a helicopter landing had the effect of disclosing the location of landing zones to the enemy. In this instance, the VC had been able to reach the landing zone between the VNAF bombing and the Marine landings. In future operations, HMM-362 dispensed with any help from the Vietnamese Air Force.
(Next week: The Marines Head North).
- Castle, T. At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U. S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-1975. Columbia University Press, 1993.
- Conboy, K. J. War in Laos, 1954-1975. Squadron/Signal Publications, 1994.
- Freedman, R. Vietnam: A History of the War. Holiday House, 2016.
- Hastings, M. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75. Canada: HarperCollins, 2018.
- Hitchcock, W. The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World of the 1950s. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018
- Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking/The Penguin Group, 1983
- Sturkey, M.F. Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam. South Carolina: Heritage Press International, 1996
- Whitlow, R. H. S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964. History & Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1977
 Henri Philippe Pétain served with distinction in World War I but became a collaborator with Nazi Germany 1940-44. Following World War II, Pétain was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. In view of his previous service to France, however, and his age, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison. Pétain died in 1951 of natural causes. At the time of his death, Pétain was 95 years old.
 Japan’s purpose of invading Indochina was to prevent the importation of war materials into Yunnan, China through Haiphong and Hanoi.
 The French Far East Expeditionary Corps (CEFEO) was a colonial expeditionary force of the French Union Army formed in Indochina in 1945 in the latter days of World War II. The Corps was largely manned by voluntary light infantry from colonial or territorial forces —mostly from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Madagascar. The French Foreign Legion, in contrast, was made up of mainly European volunteers. In 1953, these were augmented by French UN volunteers returning from service in the Korean War.
 A French ploy to reassert itself in Indochina. According to long-serving US Ambassador W. Averell Harriman, the seeds of US policy toward Indochina in 1945 was a secret agreement between Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin that “it would be best if the French did not return there.” Moreover, Stalin was unhappy that the Truman stood by while France used money from the Marshall Plan to support its military operations in Vietnam.
 Ho Chi Minh was known by several other names, as well.
 An important note about the Vietnamese naming convention. Personal names are usually three syllables long (but sometimes two or four syllables). The first syllable is the family name. Because certain family names are common, such as Nguyen, they cannot be used to distinguish individuals. Accordingly, an individual named Ngo Dinh Diem is always referred to as Diem. Two syllable names, however, such as Le Duan, are never shortened. This person is always referred to as Le Duan. A name containing four syllables, such as Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, is always referred to as Minh Khai. The second syllable in four-syllable conventions and the middle syllable in three-syllable conventions often reveals the individual’s sex. The name Nguyen Van Giap is male, while Nguyen Thi Nam is female. The surname of children always follows the father and women do not take their husband’s names upon marriage.
 The numbers of French Foreign Legionnaires swelled due to the incorporation of World War II veterans unable to find employment in post-war France.
 It was never the intent of former president Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow the French to reclaim their colonial empire. Truman was a different sort of fellow who, as previously noted, decided to bankroll the French as a stopgap to the expansion of communism on the Southeast Asia Mainland. This might have proved a useful strategy had it involved anyone in the world other than the French.
 Diem was a major opponent of Ho Chi Minh. Formerly an aide to Emperor Bao Dai, American diplomats seriously misread Diem. He was a Catholic, but that was as far as he would ever get to having a “western” mind. Diem and Ho Chi Minh shared the same passion: to unify Vietnam —albeit under their own ruthless style of leadership.
 Born on 27 February 1919, the son of Italian-French parents, Croizat moved with his family to the United States in 1940. He was commissioned in the U. S. Marine Corps after graduating from Syracuse University and was assigned to the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion at New River, North Carolina in December 1941. During the Pacific War, he participated in USMC operations at Guadalcanal. Later, as a battalion commander, he led Marines in the assault of Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. His French language ability resulted in his assignment as an observer, advisor, and later, as a diplomat. Croizat authored the book, “Across the Reef: The Amphibious Tracked Vehicle at War,” Croizat passed away on 8 May 2010 at the age of 91.
 In 1962, US Marine Corps activities in Vietnam dramatically increased. From only three Marine advisors in January 1962, and a standard complement of Embassy Marines, the end of the year found Marines functioning at the MAAG, MACV, Army communications facilities in the central highlands, and at every location where Vietnamese Marine Corps units were assigned.
 It wasn’t until after Kennedy’s assassination, under President Lyndon Johnson that the United States committed combat troops to Vietnam.
 Vietnamese officials were perplexed by so many special envoys “assessing” the situation, particularly since these men knew nothing about Vietnam, its culture, or its history. Yet, owing to the massive amount of money flowing into Vietnam from the United States, they managed to suffer through the indignity.
 There were three US Army aviation companies operating in South Vietnam at that time.
 Major General Charles J. Timmes served first as deputy chief, USMAAG and then later as Chief, USMAAG (1961-64). After his retirement, Timmes joined the CIA and was returned to the RVN to serve alongside Frank Snepp as a liaison officer with various elements of ARVN forces. Snepp is the former chief analyst of North Vietnamese strategy for the CIA in Saigon during the war. For five out of eight years, Snepp worked as an interrogator, agent debriefer, an analyst at the US Embassy in Saigon. His book “Decent Interval” reveals the general ineptitude of the CIA and foreign service in Vietnam. He is currently a news producer at a local TV station in Southern California.
 The Marine Corps replaced the M3A1 “grease gun” with AR-15 rifles during the summer, but the Marines of HMM-362 quickly discarded these in favor of M-14 (7.62mm) rifles.
 Given the nature of Vietnamese army units at the time, the Marines worked furiously to repair the aircraft and “get the hell out of Dodge.”