Viet Nam: The Marines Head North

Đà Nẵng[1], Vietnam was first established in the year 192 AD as part of the ancient kingdom of Champa.  The capital of Champa was a city named Indrapura (present-day Dong Duong, in Quang Nam Province).  In the last half of the tenth century, the kings of Champa came into conflict with the Đại Việt, a people living near modern-day Hanoi.   It was a conflict that lasted for over a hundred years and ended in territorial gains for the Dai Viet during the Ly Dynasty.  The expansion of the Dai Viet continued for several centuries.  By the end of the fifteenth century, Champa had all but ceased to exist.

The first European to appear at Da Nang was the Portuguese explorer António de Faria in 1535.  Afterward, Portuguese ships regularly visited the city hoping to establish trade with its citizens.  Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, French and Spanish traders and missionaries made landfall at Hoi An, south of Da Nang.  The first known American to visit the city was John White on the brig[2] Franklin of Salem, Massachusetts.  American ships soon after made regular visits, but because the area was poor in resources, trade agreements with local officials simply wasn’t possible because the Emperor Minh Mang prohibited foreign vessels from making landfall at any location other than present-day port city of Haiphong.

French Flag 001French vessels bombarded Da Nang in 1847 and again in 1858 to punish the people for their abuse of Catholic missionaries.  Under orders from Napoleon III, the French landed infantry as part of their Cochinchina Campaign.  French gains in Vietnam were only temporary, however, as a large Vietnamese army forced a French retreat in 1860[3].  By the end of 1862, however, French forces were able to capture and retain the southern stronghold of Saigon.  Several southern provinces were ceded to the French by the Treaty of Saigon[4] (1862).  Over the next twenty years, the French were able to strengthen their hold on Vietnam, culminating in the establishment of the Union de l’Indochine Française in October 1887.  Two years later, Da Nang became one of Indochina’s five most important cities (along with Hanoi, Saigon-Cholon, Haiphong, and Hué.

On 30 July 1962, Colonel Julius W. Ireland replaced Colonel Carey as the operation shufly task force commander.  Ireland had served briefly in Vietnam in 1954 while commanding VMA-324 and delivered 25 F4U Corsair fighter-bombers to the French, who at the time were in desperate need of attack aircraft.  Soon after Ireland’s arrival, additional personnel changes took place: Ralph R. Davis replaced Lieutenant Colonel William W. Eldridge as CO MABS-16 Sub-unit, and Lieutenant Colonel Alton W. McCully replaced Harry C. Dees as executive officer of the task unit.

HMM-163, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Rathbun replaced HMM-362, participating in its first combat mission on 1 August.  HMM-163, known as the Ridge Runners[5], maintained a brisk operations schedule throughout the summer.  HMM-163 suffered its first aircraft damage on 18 August.

HMM-163 001The mission, which involved 14 helicopters led by Rathbun, arrived at a pre-arranged pickup point to rendezvous with an ARVN infantry unit.  Upon their arrival, the Marines discovered that the ARVN unit was nowhere to be seen.  One crewman reported seeing ARVN troops about a half mile away from the pickup point.  Rathbun and his wingman then spotted white smoke at that approximate location and took off to investigate the area.  While making a low pass, Rathbun’s bird was hit several times by small arms fire.  The rudder control cable was severed, which punctured the main rotor transmission.  Oil loss forced Rathbun to land on a nearby road.  On site repairs enabled the Marines to return the aircraft to a more secure area.

What happened was that as Rathbun’s flight set down at the pre-arranged pickup point, ARVN forces commenced to engage a VC force of unknown strength about a half mile from the rendezvous point; a VNAF[6] forward air controller (FAC) in an observation aircraft dropped smoke to mark the VC position for an air strike.  Rather than dropping white smoke, the FAC should have dropped red.  HMM-163 learned valuable lessons from this incident, including (a) the advisability of last-minute radio coordination with ground units before landing aircraft to support them, (b) that helicopters were not suitable for low level reconnaissance, and (c) pre-arranged smoke signals lend themselves to enemy deception.  In Vietnam, there was no such thing as keeping secrets.

HMM-163 operations continued throughout August.  Thinking outside the box, helicopter mechanics proposed modifying the H-34D by mounting M-60 machine guns inside the cargo hatch.  A flexible machine gun mount made sure that the weapons would not obstruct the hatch during loading and unloading men and material.  The addition of side-mounted automatic weapons allowed the crew chief to protect the helicopter during crucial landings and take offs.  Of course, by regulation, door gunners were restricted from using their weapons until first fired upon and then only at clearly identified enemy targets.  This rule of engagement (ROE) applied equally to US ground advisors.

In early September, General Harkins directed Colonel Ireland to begin planning for the relocation of his helicopter force, northward to Da Nang.  The shift to I CTZ (also, I Corps) was part of a unit realignment; HMM-163 would switch places with the Army’s 93rd Helicopter Company.  The movement took place in stages beginning on 4 September.  But even after the squadron began the process of relocation, HMM-163 continued flying missions in support of the III CTZ commander.  On 5 September, three helicopters were hit by enemy small arms fire.  All aircraft returned safely to Soc Trang, but Corporal Billy S. Watson, a crew chief, became the first Marine wounded during the Vietnam War.

When the U. S. Marines arrived in Da Nang in September 1962, the city still retained many of the characteristics of an old French colonial city.  The airfield was a French construct following World War II.  It was modern and large enough to support VNAF, U. S. Air Force, Marines, and commercial aircraft —even though the field was literally surrounded by the city.  Thus, Da Nang became the new base for operation shufly and in terms of its facilities, it was an improvement over Soc Trang.  One of Colonel Ireland’s biggest worries was adequate security for his Marines and their aircraft.  Initially, Ireland detailed a guard force from among the enlisted men of the flying squadron and MABS-16.  Guard posts were set up around the flight line, maintenance hangar and communications center, but this arrangement was far from ideal.  It necessitated that Marines with full time jobs take on the additional task of area security.  Tired mechanics are lousy mechanics.  Ireland requested the assignment of a permanent security force so that his operating force could concentrate on their assigned mission, but his request was not immediately approved.

At the time HMM-163 arrived in Da Nang, the I CTZ included South Vietnam’s five northern-most provinces, from the DMZ to Quang Ngai.  All of these were coastal provinces, and with the exception of Quang Ngai, extended inland from the seacoast to the Laotian border, distances that ranged from 30 to 70 air miles.  I Corps occupied the central portion of the region formerly known an Annam; it extended 225 miles south of the DMZ.  The climate pattern of I Corps was almost the opposite of that experienced by Marines at Soc Trang.  The dry season dominates the summer months, and monsoons govern the winter months.  Monsoons are a weather phenomenon that influence large climate regions and reverses its direction seasonally. Generally, it is a strong wind from the southwest that brings heavy rainfall.  In I Corps, monsoons bring heavy rains and dense fog, generally beginning around October and ending in March.

The terrain of I Corps ranges from a flat coastal plain to towering mountains, which protrude several miles west of the flat coastal plain.  Most of the populated areas of I Corps are located along streams and rivers that empty into the Gulf of Tonkin.  In 1962, two and a half million people lived in I Corps; their social patterns and economies were dictated by geography and climate and had existed for thousands of years.

Colonel Ireland’s aviators were tasked with supporting ARVN units in I Corps, which included the 1st and 2nd ARVN divisions.  The 1st ARVN Division was stationed at Huế, the old Imperial City; the 2nd ARVN Division was headquartered at Da Nang.  ARVN units operating in I Corps were occasionally augmented by the 25th ARVN Division from Kontum to achieve specific operational objectives.

Enemy forces within I Corps included four VC battalions, four separate infantry companies, and three district level (independent) platoons.  Altogether, communist forces numbered around 5,000 men.  Additionally, a not-so-veiled threat of an invasion across the DMZ from North Vietnam was always present.  Across the Laotian border were the Ho Chi Minh trails from which men and material were funneled from the North into South Vietnam.

Nationally, the government’s military strategy was to pacify and control heavily populated areas, but in I Corps, dense forests and valleys demanded a more aggressive policy.  This meant more airlift missions for HMM-163.  The problem for Marine aviators was rough terrain and foul weather for at least half of the year.

Vietnamese ground commanders in I Corps, who had learned the value of helicopter support, lost no time requesting assistance from the Marines.  HMM-163 flew its first mission from Da Nang on 18 September.  Rough terrain and the fact that enemy units easily controlled all landing zones in I Corps prompted the Marines to again modify their tactics.  For example, the Marines withheld landing operations until after VNAF bombers had softened likely enemy positions around landing zones.  Marines additionally relied on coordinated pre-arranged artillery and air strikes to neutralize enemy troops in the area of operations.

USMC H-34 DAnother issue facing the Marines was refueling their gas-guzzling H-34D’s[7].  To solve this problem, HMM-163 lifted a 10,000-gallon fuel bladder into Quang Ngai, 65 miles south of Da Nang to serve as a permanent refueling point.  Additional bladders were later positioned in Hué and Tam Ky.

On 19 September, the Marines helped evacuate a threatened government outpost from the mountains directly west of Da Nang, including an odd assortment of troops, their families, and personal belongings (livestock) to the relative safety of the coastal plain.  This type of mission became routine for the Marines, which indicated a substantial increase in VC activity in I Corps, particularly after North Vietnam stepped up its support of VC units.  While lifting elements of the 2nd ARVN Division, HMM-163 suffered its first battle damage near Tam Ky on 26 September.  The Marines had become a favorite target of VC units.  In one incident two ARVN soldiers were killed and Lance Corporal James I. Mansfield became the second Marine to receive combat wounds in Vietnam.  Between 26 September and 4 October, five H-34’s received battle damage from enemy small arms fire.

On 6 October, five Marines and two sailors were killed when their Search and Air Rescue (SAR) helicopter crashed in the jungle fifteen miles west of Tam Ky.  The crash resulted from a catastrophic mechanical failure.  First Lieutenant William T. Sinnott, the pilot and only survivor, was successfully airlifted to medical facilities at Da Nang.

In airlifting ARVN troops, there was one aspect of such operations that became a source of irritation to the Marines.  It was that ARVN troops were improperly prepared for airlift.  Getting the ARVN troops loaded onto the aircraft more closely resembled a Chinese fire drill than an orderly military operation.  The ensuing gaggle produced a waste of time and an increase of danger to the Marines and their birds.  HMM-163 solved this problem by assigning a senior noncommissioned officer to act as loadmaster.  Equipped with a radio, the loadmaster would arrive at the assembly area in advance of the main flight and supervise loading operations.

Monsoons arrived in I Corps in early November.  Flight operations were restricted by heavy fog and low clouds in the mountain areas, forcing the Marines to concentrate their efforts along the coastal regions.  Rathbun began sending his OE-1 to obtain current weather and climate conditions before allowing his aircraft to lift off.  At best, it was a partial fix to the problem because monsoon rains moved quickly in from the South China Sea, and these heavy rains always disrupted flight operations.

Operation Shufly in I Corps was the beginnings of what would be come a long-time association of Marines with RVN’s rugged highlands.  The officers and Marines of HMM-163 learned important lessons from their experiences and shared these with their brothers throughout the helicopter community.  By the end of 1962, U. S. Marines had established an enviable record of service to the Republic of Vietnam and earned an exceptional reputation for their courage, innovation, and generosity toward their Vietnamese counterparts.

(Next week: The Laotian Problem)

Sources:

  1. Castle, T. At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U. S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-1975.  Columbia University Press, 1993.
  2. Conboy, K. J. War in Laos, 1954-1975.  Squadron/Signal Publications, 1994.
  3. Freedman, R. Vietnam: A History of the War. Holiday House, 2016.
  4. Hastings, M. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75.  Canada: HarperCollins, 2018.
  5. Hitchcock, W. The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World of the 1950s.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018
  6. Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History.  New York: Viking/The Penguin Group, 1983
  7. Sturkey, M.F. Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam.  South Carolina: Heritage Press International, 1996
  8. 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

 Endnotes:

[1] Its usage appears here in the written language of Vietnam.  I will dispense with using this style further.

[2] A brig is a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts.

[3] A well-practiced French maneuver since 1812.

[4] Saigon has had many names.  As far as we know, its earliest name was Bai gaur in the 11th century.  After falling to the Khmer, it was named Prey Nokor (forest city).  Vietnamese moving south occupied the area and eventually displaced the Khmer and the city was named Gia Dinh, but later named Saigon (Cotton Stick) in the 18th century.

[5] So-named for their participation in rescue and relief operations after a typhoon had devastated the mountainous region of Hagman, Japan.

[6] Vietnamese Air Force

[7] With a max takeoff weight of 14,000 pounds, the H-34 had a range of 182 miles.  Fuel bladders were very necessary for these aircraft.

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.