Australia and the Vietnam War

Background

One effect of the Truman Doctrine, although implemented during the Eisenhower Administration, was the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty (also the Manila Pact), signed on 8 September 1954.  The treaty sought to create bilateral and collective mutual defense treaties with member states in Southeast Asia.  The treaty not only formalized alliances but also sent an important message to Communist China that member states would not tolerate an expansion of communism through nefarious means.  SEATO was the brainchild of Soviet expert and historian George F. Kennan, who served in the Truman State Department but was implemented by Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles.  The model for SEATO was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

SEATO’s headquarters was located in Bangkok, Thailand.  Like NATO, SEATO was headed by a Secretary General, an office created in 1957 at a meeting held in Canberra.  An international professional staff supported the council of representatives (from member states) and various committees to consider and advise on such matters as international economics, security, and information/public affairs.  SEAT’s first Secretary General was a Thai diplomat named Pote Sarasin, formerly Thailand’s ambassador to the United States and his country’s prime minister from September 1957 to 1 January 1958.

Unlike the NATO alliance, SEATO had no joint military or naval command; no forces were standing by as a preventative measure; it was one of the organization’s significant fallacies.  As bad, SEATO’s response protocol in the event of communism presenting a common danger to member states was vague and ineffective — although the SEATO alliance did provide a rationale for large-scale U.S. military intervention between 1955-1975.

Despite its name, most of SEATO’s member states were located outside the region, interested in the area or the organization itself.  These were Australia (administering Papua New Guinea), France (recently having relinquished French Indochina),[1] New Zealand, Pakistan,[2] the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom (administrator of Hong Kong, North Borneo, and Sarawak), and the United States.

The Philippines and Thailand were the only Southeast Asian countries participating in the organization — primarily because they were the only two member countries threatened by communist insurgencies.  Thailand was motivated to join SEATO by its fear of Maoist subversion in the Thai Autonomous Region.  Burma and Indonesia were more concerned about internal political instability than any threat of communist insurgency and rejected joining SEATO.  Malaya and Singapore also decided not to participate officially but maintained a close relationship with the United Kingdom.

Geneva Agreements prevented the newly created states formed from French Indochina (North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) from joining the SEATO alliance.  However, North Vietnam provided an ongoing domino threat, turning Indochina into a communist frontier — prompting SEATO to take South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos under its protection.  This argument, offered as early as 1956, prompted the United States to take a greater interest in involvement in South Vietnam.  In 1956, however, Cambodia had no interest in joining SEATO.

The majority of SEATO members were located outside Southeast Asia.  To the Australians and New Zealanders, SEATO was more satisfying than ANZUS.  The U.K. and France joined because of their colonies in the region.  The United States viewed SEATO as an instrument of containment.

The Vietnam War

Australia became involved in the Vietnam War because of concerns about the rise of communism in Southeast Asia following World War II and the fear of it spreading into Australia in the 1950s and early 1960s.

After World War II, France tried to reassert its control over its former colony, then named French Indochina.  During the war, French Indochina was controlled by the Vichy French government (an ally of the Axis Powers) and occupied by Japan throughout the war.  After the war, Vietnamese nationalists under Ho Chi Minh objected to the French reoccupation of its former colony — initiating the First Indochina War.  After France’s defeat in 1954, Geneva Accords led to the splitting of the country at the 17th Parallel North.  The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was almost immediately recognized by the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the State of Vietnam.[3]

The Geneva Accord of 1954 imposed a deadline of 31 July 1956 for the governments of the two Vietnams to hold elections with a view toward re-uniting the country under one government.  In 1955, State of Vietnam Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem deposed Bao Dai and declared himself President of the Republic of Vietnam (also South Vietnam).  He then refused to participate in the national referendum, but in fairness, Diem and Minh had always had the same goal: to become the leader of one Vietnam.  Later, American politicians sold the idea of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam as necessary to “defend” South Vietnam from communist absorption.  It was a blatant lie — or, as John Paul Vann argued, “A Bright Shining Lie.”

Once the election deadline passed, North Vietnamese military commanders began preparing a plan for the invasion of South Vietnam.  Over the next several years, the northern attack took the form of an insurgency campaign, subversion, sabotage, assassination, and terror.  In 1957, President Diem visited Australia and received the strong support of Prime Minister Robert Menzies, the Liberal Party of Australia, and the Australian Labor Party.  Diem was notable among Australian Catholics for pursuing policies that discriminated in favor of Vietnamese Catholics against traditional Buddhists.

By 1962, the situation in South Vietnam had become so unstable that Diem submitted a request for assistance to the United States (and its allies) to counter the growing communist (DRV) insurgency and the threat it posed to South Vietnam’s security.  Following Diem’s petition, the U.S. began to send military advisors to provide tactical and logistical advice to the South Vietnamese military establishment.  At the same time, the U.S. sought to increase the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government and discredit North Vietnamese propaganda.  Australia, as an American ally, joined the pro-Vietnamese Republic coalition.  In the ten years between 1962 and 1972, Australia committed 60,000 military personnel to the Vietnam War, including ground troops, naval assets, and air forces.

Australian Military Advisors

While assisting the British during the Malayan Emergency, Australia and New Zealand military forces gained considerable experience in jungle warfare and counter-insurgency operations.  This was particularly important to U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who in 1962 admitted to Australians and New Zealanders that the U.S. military knew very little about jungle warfare.  On this note, Australia and New Zealand believed they could contribute most to the Vietnamese emergency by providing military advisors with expertise in jungle warfare.

The Australian government’s initial response was to send thirty military advisors to Vietnam as the Australian Army Training Team, Vietnam (AATTV) — colloquially referred to as The Team.  These troops, both officers and NCOs, were experts in jungle warfare.  Led by Colonel Ted Serong, the advisors arrived in Vietnam in July and August 1962 — marking the beginning of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Generally, the relationship between AATTV and U.S. advisors was professional and cordial, with occasional differences of opinion about training and tactics.  Colonel Serong expressed doubt about the value of the U.S. Strategic Hamlet Program at a meeting in Washington, D.C., in 1963, drawing a “violent challenge” from U.S. Marine Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak.  As it turned out, Serong was correct in his assessments, and Krulak was wrong.  The Strategic Hamlet Program was a complete failure — as attested by both John Paul Vann and journalist David Halberstam.

Captain Barry Petersen was another interesting side note about the Australian military advisory period.  The 84-year-old Petersen (who died in 2019 while living in Thailand) was a former Australian Army officer who led top secret CIA operations in South Vietnam’s central highlands.  His work involved raising an anti-communist Montagnard force between 1963 and 1965.  Petersen, operating alone in the mountains, was so successful in organizing native Montagnard forces that within a year, he had more than a thousand militia fighters using the same guerrilla tactics as the Viet Cong: ambush the enemy and disappear into the jungle.  But, as with the fictional character “Colonel Kurtz” in the film Apocalypse Now, Captain Peterson “went native” and was so “out of control” that his CIA handlers eventually insisted that Petersen be tracked down and removed, dead or alive.[4]

Australian Warrant Officer Class Two Kevin Conway and Master Sergeant Gabriel Alamo, U.S. Army, were killed on 6 July 1964 during an attack on the Nam Dong Special Forces Camp.  Conway was Australia’s first Vietnam War battle casualty.

Australia’s Increased Commitment: 1965-1970

During mid-summer 1964, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) dispatched a flight of Caribou transport aircraft to the coastal town of Vũng Tau.  By the end of the year, nearly 200 Australian military personnel served in South Vietnam — including combat engineers, a surgical team, and a large AATTV team.  In November 1964, Australia imposed military conscription to provide an increased pool of foot soldiers.  It was not a popular move within the Army or in civilian society, but after that, all Australian units serving in Vietnam contained “national servicemen.” By December 1964, the AATTV increased to 100 men — reflecting that the war was escalating.

In late April 1965, Prime Minister Menzies announced that his government would send an Australian Army battalion to Vietnam.  He sold this idea to the Australian people by saying that a communist victory in Vietnam would threaten Australia’s security.  Which, of course, was pure poppycock.  In any case, Menzies decided against the advice of the Australian defense establishment.

Menzies’ decision resulted in the deployment of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (also, 1 RAR).  Advance elements of the battalion arrived in South Vietnam in late May 1965, accompanied by a troop of armored personnel carriers from the 4th Battalion, 19th Prince of Wales Light Horse, and several logisticians.  In Vietnam, the Australians were attached to the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade (along with a Royal New Zealand Artillery battery) in Bien Hoa Province.  Throughout the year, Australians participated in combat operations in Gang Toi and Suoi Bong Trang.

1 RTR’s attachment to the U.S. Army revealed important differences between American and Australian military operations — without any detail of what these differences might have been, we only know that military leaders decided to employ Australian combat forces in a discrete province, and this would allow the Australian Army to “fight their own tactical war” independent from the American Armed Forces.

In the spring of 1966, the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) was established in Phước Tuy Province, at Nui Dat.  Ultimately, 1 ATF consisted of three rifle battalions, a squadron of armored personnel carriers, a detachment of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), and logistical support units of the 1st Australian Logistics Support Group headquartered at Vũng Tau.  By 1967, a squadron of tanks joined 1 ATF, and a battery of New Zealand artillery joined and integrated with a firing battery of the U.S. 35th Field Artillery Regiment.  These combined forces were later designated “ANZAC Battalions.” Collectively, these units assumed responsibility for the security of the Phước Tuy Province.[5]

At the same time, the Australian air contingent was expanded to three squadrons (No. 35, No. 9, and No. 2), including Caribou, Iroquois, and Canberra Bombers.  At its peak, the RAAF included more than750 aviation personnel.  No. 79 Squadron (Sabre fighters) served at Ubon Air Base in Thailand as part of Australia’s SEATO commitment, withdrawn in 1968.

Australia converted the aged aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney, to a troop carrier. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) contributed a destroyer, helicopter flight, and a diving team. Australian Army and RAAF nurses supported their ground and aviation forces from the outset of their country’s decision to join the war effort, including the 1st Australian Field Hospital (1 AFH) at Vũng Tau.

Vietnamization

After thirty years of frustration dealing with Vietnamese politicians and military leaders and a decade of lying to the American people and SEATO allies about the purpose behind the Vietnam War, the American President decided it was time to turn the war over to the Vietnamese.  If the Vietnamese wanted their freedom, they would have to win it.  Of course, that, too, was part of the lie.  President Nixon called this new policy Vietnamization.  It began in the latter days of the failed presidency of Lyndon Johnson, but even then, it followed an earlier French program called jaunissement (yellowing the war).  Lyndon Johnson’s departure did nothing to end the war; it only caused the war to spread into other areas.

Newly elected Nixon needed policy options, so through Henry Kissinger, he turned to the Rand Corporation (a think tank) for assistance.  The primary advisor from Rand was Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, who told Nixon and Kissinger that winning in Vietnam wasn’t one of the options.  In Ellsberg’s opinion, under two Democratic presidents, South Vietnam had become America’s tar-baby.  Accordingly, Nixon directed the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare a six-step withdrawal plan.  Marine Commandant General Leonard F. Chapman remembered, “… the time had come to get out of Vietnam.”

Vietnamization was a process of turning the war over to the Vietnamese.  They would have to fight the land, air, river, and sea battles.  American and allied unit commanders began organizing procedures to turn over all equipment and regional combat authority to the Vietnamese counterparts.

Australia, keen to reduce its footprint in the failed war effort, began its withdrawal in November 1970.  Australia did not replace 8 RTR once it had completed its tour of duty and decided to reduce 1 ATF to two infantry battalions (although retaining significant armor, artillery, and air support).  The TAOR remained unchanged, which added to the burden of control with fewer troops, but in any case, the bulk of VC/NVA activities had ceased in the Bien Tuy area by 1971.[6]

One of the last fights involving Australian forces occurred on 6 – 7 June 1971 at Long Khanh.  In August, Australia and New Zealand correctly decided that if the U.S. was no longer serious about winning the war, there was no justification for keeping their forces involved in a lost cause.  Australian Prime Minister William McMahon announced that 1 ATF would cease operations in October 1971.  1 ATF handed over responsibility for Nui Dat to Vietnamese commanders on 16 October.  4 RTR remained in Vietnam until 9 December 1971.

Australian participation in the military advisory effort continued until the end of 1972.  On 11 January 1973, Australian Governor-General Paul Hasluck formally announced the cessation of combat operations, and the Australian Labor government under Gough Whitlam officially recognized the government of North Vietnam as the sole legitimate authority in Vietnam.  Australian troops remained in Vietnam at the Australian Embassy until 1 July 1973 — marking the first time since World War II (1939) that Australian troops were not involved in a conflict somewhere in the world.

In Remembrance

In total, some 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam between 1962 – 1972.  More than five hundred died in combat, 3,000 received combat wounds, and of the conscripts, 202 perished.  The remains of six missing in action Australians were returned home in 2009.  The war’s cost to the Australian taxpayer was around $300 million.

In 1975, Australia dispatched RAAF transport aircraft to South Vietnam to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees fleeing North Vietnam’s armed invasion.  The first aircraft landed at Tan Son Nhut Airbase on 30 March, but in mid-April, 8 Australian C-130s evacuated Vietnamese to Malaysia and continued supporting the effort by transporting supplies into refugee camps.  These mercy flights terminated when Australia withdrew its embassy from South Vietnam.

Australia’s withdrawal from South Vietnam became a contentious political issue during the elections of 1975.  Noting that 130 Vietnamese employees of the Australian Embassy in Saigon had been left behind during its evacuation, Liberal Malcolm Fraser viciously condemned Whitlam.  Ultimately, Fraser opened Australian borders to refugee settlement in 1975.  In June 2020, 270,000 Vietnamese-born ethnic Vietnamese people were living in Australia.

Endnotes:

[1] Primarily relinquished after the French Foreign Legion was overwhelmingly defeated by Vietnamese communists in 1954.

[2] Including East Pakistan through 1971 (now, Bangladesh).

[3] The State of Vietnam existed from 1949 to late October 1955, created by France as part of the French Union (colonial period).  Vietnam’s head of state was the wealthy playboy Emperor Bao Dai.  The state claimed authority over all of Vietnam during the First Indochina War, although in reality, most of the area was controlled by the DRV. 

[4] Source: The Sydney Morning Harald, 6 March 2019.

[5] Initially, the 1 ATF commander was Brigadier Oliver D. Jackson.  Below him, Lieutenant Colonel John Warr and Lieutenant Colonel Colin Townsend commanded 5 RAR and 6 RAR, respectively.  Jackson’s command also included the 1 APC  Squadron, 1st Field Regiment (RAA) (including the New Zealand 161st Battery) (105mm and 155mm howitzers), 3 SAS, 1st Field Squadron, 21st Engineers, 103rd Signals Squadron, 161st Reconnaissance Squadron, and an intelligence detachment.

[6] By 1971, the Viet Cong had been all but destroyed by American and allied forces.  All VC units became heavily reliant on re-staffing or reorganization by NVA units.


The Bay of Pigs

Background

I originally intended to begin this essay by asserting that the fifteen years following World War II were not a particularly good time to be an American.  On further reflection, the statement remains valid, but I’d have to suggest a much extended time period — maybe three decades to around 1980.  Looking back upon the post-World War II period, it seems as if the American Republic was suddenly beset with utter morons occupying high government positions when, in fact, they should not have been allowed to work at a car wash.

Following the Second World War, military veterans returned to their homes with the expectation of owning a piece of the good life everyone fought so hard for … that having the tragedies and heartbreaks of war, the inconveniences of rationing, and all the uncertainties behind you, that a new day was coming.  It was dawn in America.  Everyone could smell the Maxwell House Coffee — good to the last drop.

We drank the coffee but didn’t enjoy much of the good life.  The American economy was in flux, but almost everyone expected that sort of thing.  Politicians were telling Americans that we were somehow responsible for putting Europe back together, and yes — Americans would have to pay for it.  Americans would have to pay for the U.S. arms race with the Soviet Union, too — after giving the Russians all of our military technology and secrets to the atomic bomb.  Writer and former socialist George Orwell (real name, Eric Blair) called that period the “Cold War.”  In Orwell’s context, the “cold war” was the threat of nuclear war.  If Orwell was anything at all, he was perceptive.

None of the news was particularly good (for anyone). Almost everyone enjoyed the Cuban Missile Crisis — especially the kids who had to practice getting under their desks at school and the families that began borrowing money for a backyard bomb shelter. Iron curtains, bamboo curtains, and civil wars broke out from Indochina to Greece, Palestine to Iran, China, and Malaya. And then there was a period when it seemed as if every Jew who ever worked for the U.S. government was a spy for the Soviet Union — more than a handful, at any rate.

After John F. Kennedy was elected to the presidency in November 1960, one of his chief concerns was the loss of America’s prestige among world nations and the credibility of its government among the American people.  He was determined to “draw a line in the sand.”  There would be no more stalemates in the containment of global communism.  In a comment made to journalist James Reston of the New York Times, Kennedy said, “Now, we have had a problem making our power credible; Vietnam looks like the place.”

Vietnam was not the place.

After taking office in January 1961, Kennedy was correct to acknowledge a failure in American diplomacy, but he might have given some consideration to the government’s inability to reason.  Given the United States’ long history in Cuba, one wonders what Eisenhower thought when he authorized the CIA to plan a paramilitary invasion there.  Even if it was true that just the mention of Fidel Castro’s name gave Eisenhower gas, what did the United States hope to gain by funding, organizing, and then screwing up an ex-pat invasion of Cuba?

It wasn’t just Eisenhower, his predecessor, or even Kennedy — the deficiency was in the entire body of American policy-makers whose collective brains couldn’t charge a triple-A battery.  The cost of this deficiency was five million in Korea and Vietnam, and only the Almighty knows how many dead we’ve left behind in the Middle East.  Yes, the madness continues —

If one could go back in time and sit with and engage one of the long-dead presidents in conversation, who would that be, and what would one wish to talk about?  There are several presidents that I’d like to speak with.  I might ask Roosevelt, for example, what he thought when he ordered the OSS to create and arm communist guerrillas in Southeast Asia?  I might ask Truman, “What did you think North Korea and the Soviet Union would do after your Secretary of State neglected to include the Korean Peninsula under the umbrella of the United Nation’s defense pact?  I would ask Mr. Eisenhower, given his background as a five-star general, “What was the likely result of invading Cuba with a mere 1,400 irregular Cuban exiles?”  In other words, “What in the hell were you guys thinking?”

Nightmare

Fidel Alejandro Castro-Ruz was born into wealth.  His father was a successful farmer from Galicia, Spain and his mother was the child of a Spanish Canarian.  Fidel Castro was well-educated but an unruly child (typical of the way Hispanic boys are raised).  He turned out just as his parents wished.  Fidel began law studies at the University of Havana in 1945, which became the birthplace of his political activism.  When he failed in his candidacy for class president, he became critical of corrupt politics — defined as anyone who disagreed with Fidel Castrol.  It was an attitude quickly and easily transferred to real Cuban politics.

In college, Castro adopted the political philosophy of Eduardo Chibás, advocating for social justice, honest government, and political freedom.  Ultimately, however — even while still in college — Fidel Castro became a man just like those he claimed to detest.  He hired gangsters to suppress anyone whose views differed from his own, which was problematic because, according to historian John Gaddis, Fidel Castro was a revolutionary without an ideology.  He was a street fighter, guerrilla, assassin, interminable speaker — and a pretty good baseball player, but Castro had only one focus: his lust for power.  Fidel Castro was willing to use any means to obtain it.  If he followed any example, it was that of Joseph Stalin — not Karl Marx.

Until 1898, Cuba was part of the Spanish Empire.  In the preceding thirty years, Cuba was a troubled land with three wars of liberation, which began in 1868.  Liberation finally came to Cuba through the Spanish-American War, but the United States withheld self-rule until 1902 when a Cuban-born American named Tomás Estrada Palma became Cuba’s first president.  Afterward, large numbers of American settlers and businessmen began arriving in Cuba.  Within three years, non-Cuban Americans owned sixty percent of Cuba’s rural properties.  Palma’s growing unpopularity over these conditions prompted the US government to dispatch 5,000 Marines to “police” the island between 1906-1909.  Marines returned for the same purpose in 1912, 1917, and 1921.

In 1952, Cuban general Fulgencio Batista seized power and proclaimed himself president.  After consolidating his power, Batista canceled planned elections and introduced a new form of democracy to the Cuban people.  He called it “disciplined democracy.” Until the appearance of Fidel Castro, the US Ambassador to Cuba was the second-most popular (the second most powerful) man in Cuba.[1]

Batista’s tyranny resulted in an armed rebellion with several groups competing for domination.  College professor Rafael G. Barcena headed the National Revolutionary Movement, University Student President Antonio Echevarria led the Revolutionary Student Union, and Fidel Castro led the 26 July Movement (M-26-7).  Castro also led his guerrilla army against the Batistas from 1956 to 1959.  The more Batista tried to repress Castro, the less popular he became.  By mid-1958, when his army was in full retreat, Batista resigned the presidency in December and went into exile.  Before he departed Cuba, Batista liberated $ 300 million US dollars.  One can live comfortably in Malaga, Spain, on that money.

Cuban attorney Manuel Urrutia Lleo replaced Batista as president.  Castro approved of Lleo, particularly since most of Manuel’s cabinet were members of M-26-7.  Lleo appointed Castro to serve as prime minister.  Dismissing the need for new elections, Castro proclaimed the new administration a “direct democracy,” in which the Cuban people would assemble en masse and express their democratic will.

Yet, despite Castro’s political success and relative popularity, not every Cuban was happy — so the revolution continued for several years.  It’s how Latino politics is done.  The Escambray Rebellion (which lasted for six years) had the support of Cuban exiles, the American CIA, and Rafael Trujillo’s regime in the Dominican Republic.  As rebellions go, it was a bloody mess.  There were explosions, arsons, assassinations, firefights in downtown areas, and a few melees in outlying areas.  A few revolutionaries even hijacked an airline and ordered it flown to Jacksonville, Florida.  By May 1961, Castro decided he’d had enough “revolution” and started getting serious about cracking down on all political opposition.  Castro-friendly police officials began arresting hundreds of the usual suspects.

In public, Castro objected to the torture and torment Batista inflicted on the Cuban people, but Castrol increased the amount of suffering forced on Cuban dissidents.  Reacting to stories of widespread prison torture and assassination, Cubans demanded fair trials for those accused of crimes.  At first, Castro appeared as a moderating force and helped set up public trials, but a responsible American press openly challenged  Castro’s claims, accusing those efforts of a sham.  They reported that Castro’s “fair trials” always ended with execution.  The American press was right about Castro.  Behind the scenes, press members daring to criticize Castro for any alleged atrocities found themselves at odds with media union members.  In 1960, a government edict mandated that every news article criticizing government policy contain a “clarification” by a printer’s union representative attesting to the truth of the article.  It was the beginning of government censorship in Cuba.

Castro’s reaction to allegations in the press was vociferous.  “Revolutionary justice,” he said, “is not based on legal precepts but moral conviction.”  As a demonstration of his support for revolutionary justice, Castrol organized the first Havana trial in front of an audience of 17,000 onlookers.  When a revolutionary jury found a group of former Cuban pilots “not guilty” of intentionally bombing a Cuban village, Castro ordered a retrial.  At the second trial, the jury found all of the accused “guilty as charged.”  Revolutionary justice also saw the execution of former Castro ally William A. Morgan.[2]

In 1960, the U.S. government wasn’t happy with the direction of Castro’s government.

Fiasco

In 1960, the US and Cuba entered into a period of quid-pro-quo diplomacy.  Castro ordered the country’s oil refineries (then controlled by Exxon, Standard Oil, and Shell) to process crude oil purchased from the Soviet Union.  The US government ordered the companies to refuse.  Castro then nationalized the refineries.  The US canceled all sugar imports from Cuba.  Castro responded by nationalizing all US banks, sugar mills, and other holdings.  The US imposed an embargo on all American-made exports (except medicines and certain foods).  Castro seized over 500 American-owned businesses, including Coca-Cola and Sears Roebuck.

At a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), the US Secretary of the State accused Castro of being a Bolshevik, a Stalinist, and a tool for global communism.  Secretary Christian Herter urged the OAS to denounce the Castro regime.  Castro pointed to the plight of American blacks, suggesting that the United States might consider getting its own house in order before criticizing others. At the meeting, the US pledged not to interfere in the domestic affairs of the Cuban government — but, of course, the pledge was a major fib because, by the time of the OAS meeting, the American CIA was already passing around its catalog of dirty tricks for comments and recommendations.

The idea of overthrowing the Castro regime took root early in 1960.  As the threat of global communism grew larger, the CIA increased its effort to undermine communist countries, organizations, and activities — even if that meant supporting brutal neo-fascist dictatorships.

Heading this effort was CIA Director Allen Dulles, a former member of the OSS.  Recognizing that the Castro regime was becoming openly hostile toward the US, Dulles urged President Eisenhower to authorize a para-military invasion of the island.  Eisenhower wasn’t convinced an attack was a good idea, but based on developing options, the president permitted Dulles to “begin planning.”  Richard M. Bissell, Jr., one of the “Georgetown set” insiders, was in charge of this effort.[3]

On 17 March 1960, the CIA submitted its plan to overthrow Fidel Castro to the National Security Staff.  President Eisenhower suggested that he might be able to support it, and then he approved $13 million to explore further options.  The plan’s first objective was to replace Castro with someone more devoted to the interests of the Cuban people and the United States — and of course, in a manner that would not implicate the United States.

In August 1960, the CIA contacted the Cosa Nostra mob in Chicago, offering them a contract to assassinate Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, and Revolutionary Che Guevara.[4]  If the mob’s operation should prove successful, the CIA promised to reward them with a monopoly on gaming, prostitution, and drugs inside Cuba.  [Morality is only an 8-letter word].

After this 1960 CIA-Mob meeting, planning for Fidel Castrol’s assassination began in earnest.[5]  Some of the CIA and Chicago mob’s methods were creative in the same way as James Bond’s awesome gadgets: poison pills, exploding seashells, and clothing coated with toxins.  The CIA also considered the usual methods of murder: snipers, ambuscades, and explosives.  No Aston Martin was ever mentioned.  Later, in 1961, when President Kennedy was making secret overtures to Castro, CIA officer Desmond Fitzgerald assigned CIA agent Rolando Cubela to murder Castro.  Fitzgerald told Cubela that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had sanctioned the kill.

Bissell assembled agents to help him put the plan together, several of whom had participated in the coup d’état in Guatemala in 1954 — including David Philips, Gerry Droller, G. Gordon Liddy, and E. Howard Hunt.[6]  Droller was placed in charge of rounding up anti-Castro Cuban ex-pats living in the United States.  Hunt helped fashion a government in exile (which the CIA would control) and then traveled to Havana to meet with people from various backgrounds.  When Hunt returned to the United States, the State Department denied the CIA’s request to conduct irregular military training on U. S. soil.  Cuban exiles were afterward informed that they would have to travel to Mexico for their training.

The plan involved four elements: propaganda, covert operations inside Cuba, assembling paramilitary forces outside of Cuba, and providing naval gunfire, air, and logistical support for the ground forces once the invasion occurred.  At this point, however, it was only a planning session.  Contrary to what many people now claim, there is no evidence that Eisenhower ever approved a final plan or gave his final approval for “launch.”

On 20 October 1960, presidential candidate John Kennedy released a scathing criticism of Eisenhower’s Cuba policy which stated, in part, “We must attempt to strengthen the non-Batista democratic anti-Castro forces … who offer eventual hope of overthrowing Castro.”  At this point, Castro must have had a good inkling about U. S. intentions toward Cuba. 

By 31 October, in addition to John Kennedy’s “heads up” to Castro, the CIA had already experienced several “war stoppers.”  In fact, it almost couldn’t get any worse.  The Cubans intercepted every attempt to infiltrate covert agents, and the CIA’s aerial supply drops all fell into the hands of the Cuban military.  Fidel Castro would have had to have been the deaf, dumb, and blind kid not to suspect something “big” was about to happen.  Bissell began to re-think his game plan.  His best new idea was an amphibious assault involving some 1,500 men.  Note to clarify: that would be fifteen-hundred lightly armed men opposing around 89,000 well-armed home guards.

John Kennedy’s election in early November 1960 re-energized CIA operatives.  Dulles and Bissell provided a general outline of their plan to president-elect Kennedy on 18 November 1960.  Dulles voiced confidence that the CIA was capable of overthrowing the Cuban government.  On 29 November 1960, President Eisenhower met with the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Treasury Department, and CIA to discuss Bissell’s amphibious raid idea.  No one expressed any objection, and Eisenhower gave his tentative approval subject to the preferences and prerogatives of president-Elect Kennedy.

Bissell presented his outline to the CIA’s “special group” on 8 December 1960.  Of course, he would not commit any details to written records because if there was ever a time for “plausible deniability,” this operation was it.  The planning continued until 4 January 1961.  Bissell added a “lodgment” of about 750 men at an undisclosed location in Cuba.

Following the election of 1960, President Eisenhower conducted two meetings with president-elect Kennedy at the White House.  Eisenhower informed Kennedy that since the previous March, the CIA had managed to train several small units of Cuban ex-pats in Guatemala, Panama, and Florida, but it was nothing of significant consequence.  President Eisenhower emphasized that despite the Cuban ex-pats’ stated preferences, he was not in favor of returning Batista to power at the head of an American-funded foreign militia.

Going Rogue

On 28 January 1961, CIA officials briefed President Kennedy together with key members of his cabinet.  The plan was code-named Operation Pluto, which called for a 1,000-man amphibious landing at Trinidad, Cuba, 170 miles southeast of Havana, near the foothills of the Escambray Mountains.  Secretary of State Dean Rusk offered a few embarrassing observations.  He didn’t understand, for example, why the CIA was talking about airfields and B-26 aircraft.  If this was a covert operation if the United States intended to blame everything on Cuban ex-pats, where would such men come up with the B-26 Marauder?  Kennedy wasn’t pleased with Trinidad; he wanted a less likely landing site.  After the meeting, the unenthusiastic new president authorized planning to continue but directed additional briefings with progress.

In March, CIA officers helped Cuban exiles in Miami create the Cuban Revolutionary Council.  The CIA ensured that the Revolutionary Council approved former Cuban prime minister José Miró Cardona as Cuba’s new head of state.

CIA planners divided its fifteen-hundred-man paramilitary force into six battalions (five infantry and one paratroop).  According to the plan, these men would assemble in Guatemala on 17 April and launch their assault from that location.

Despite the deep reservations of Secretary Rusk and U.S. Army General Lyman Lemnitzer, JCS Chairman, President Kennedy approved the CIA’s plan, now known as Operation Zapata, on 4 April 1961.[7]  The Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) in Las Villas Province was chosen as the point of assault because it was relatively isolated and had a sufficiently long airfield.  Also, its location would make it easier for the United States to deny direct involvement.  Bissell designated three landing sites (Blue Beach, Red Beach, and Green Beach).

On 15 April, eight CIA-owned B-26 bombers attacked Cuban airfields and returned to their South Florida base.  On 17 April, the main invasion force landed at Blue Beach and quickly overwhelmed a local militia.

Initially, José Ramon Fernandez led the Cuban army’s counter-attack.  Later, Fidel Castro took control of the Cuban force.  The Cubans quickly publicized the event as a U. S. invasion.  For whatever reason, the invaders lost their initiative and faltered in the face of Castro’s overwhelming response.  Back in Washington, President Kennedy chickened out and withheld the CIA’s promised naval and air support, without which the CIA plan could not — and did not succeed.

The Cuban exiles surrendered to Castro’s forces on 20 April.  More than an overwhelming defeat for the Cuban invaders, it was an unmitigated disaster for American foreign policy and CIA whizbangmanship — even worse than that, the invasion elevated Fidel Castro to the position of a national hero, solidified his place in Cuba, and pushed Cuba toward closer ties with the Soviet Union.  The stage was thus set for the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Debrief

In the history of American clandestine operations, there may not have been a less covert operation than the Bay of Pigs invasion.  To begin with, all the Cubans had to do to achieve a forewarning of the invasion was read the American newspapers.  The Cuban invaders themselves openly bragged about what they were up to throughout the entire training period.  Loose lips sink ships.

In addition to this lack of security, the CIA’s covert operators initiated several acts of sabotage before the landing, such as setting fire to government buildings and department stores, a robust propaganda effort, and of course, Castro was receiving regular reports on the CIA’s activities, courtesy of his new best friends, the Soviet KGB.  Everyone who was anyone knew all about the CIA’s top-secret Cuban invasion plan.[8]

Despite all the Navy’s efforts to mask their role in support of the invading force, Cuban-flown Soviet MiG-15’s kept regular tabs on the position of naval support platforms beginning on 14 April 1961.  More than this, the Cuban aircraft wanted the navy to know that the Cuban air force was keeping an eye on them.  A planned diversionary amphibious assault on the night of 14/15 April turned back mid-way to shore when Cuban defense forces opened fire.  Later that morning, the CIA dispatched a T-33 reconnaissance sortie over the diversionary site, which the Cuban defense force promptly shot down.  The plane crashed into the sea, and its pilot, Orestes Acosta, did not survive.

Also, on 15 April, eight B-26 aircraft with Cuban air force markings attacked three Cuban airbases (two near Havana and one close to Santiago).  The strike intended to cripple the Cuban air force, and while a few Cuban military aircraft were destroyed, most casualties were civilian airframes.  However, this was not the story told to CIA handlers by the pilots during their post-mission debrief.  The CIA didn’t know the truth of these strikes until after reviewing aerial films taken by a U-2 overflight on 16 April.  It was based on this U-2 film and President Kennedy’s intention to continue his (worst-ever) deception that he canceled all future air support missions.

At mid-day on 15 April, Cuba’s UN ambassador began screaming bloody murder about a U. S. invasion of his country.  Much earlier in the year, CIA operatives approached Cuba’s UN ambassador, Señor Raúl Roa, attempting to encourage his defection.  It was an effort, Roa, no doubt reported to this foreign minister — and this would have been another piece in the puzzle for the Castro government.

Responding to Roa’s accusations, America’s UN ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, denied US involvement in the reported incident.  President Kennedy’s statement to the press was, “I have emphasized before that this was a struggle of Cuban patriots against a Cuban dictator.  While we could not be expected to hide our sympathies, we made it repeatedly clear that the armed forces of this country would not intervene in any way.”

Castro’s government knew better.  Before the end of the day on 15 April, the head of Cuba’s National Police, Efigenio Amerijeiras, began rounding up all the usual suspects.  The National Police would eventually arrest upwards of 100,000 Cuban citizens.  They would become the hapless casualties in the CIA’s war against Fidel Castro.  In all likelihood, probably no more than a handful of Cubans living in Cuba at the time had any knowledge of the invasion.

The Scoundrels

Bissell’s numerous assistants included Tracey Barnes, Allen Dulles, a training cadre from the U. S. Army Special Forces Group, members of the U. S. Air Force and Air National Guard, and CIA officers David Atlee Philips, E. Howard Hunt, David Morales, Gary Droller, Jacob Esterline, Colonel Jack Hawkins, Colonel Stanley Beerli, and Felix Rodriguez.[9]

According to Allen Dulles, CIA planners always believed that once the invasion force went ashore, President Kennedy would authorize any action required to prevent mission failure (which is what Eisenhower did in 1954 in Guatemala).  Kennedy would not pursue that path, but the mission’s failure depressed the president and, in fits of anger, indicated to a confidante that he wanted to splinter the CIA “into a thousand pieces.”[10]

After Kennedy’s assassination, investigators considered (very briefly) whether the threat might have been connected to his untimely death.  Splintering the CIA did not occur, but from that moment forward, Kennedy had little confidence in the advice of the CIA or senior officers inside the Pentagon.  According to Kennedy’s friend Ben Bradlee, the president told him, “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that because they were military men, their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”

Political Fallout

The Kennedy administration didn’t mind playing fast and loose with international law or ignoring gentlemanly behavior, but it was mightily embarrassed when the secret invasion plan turned into a well-publicized failure.  During a State Department press conference on 21 April, John Kennedy issued his often quoted statement, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers — and defeat is an orphan.”  He then accepted responsibility for the shenanigans, even though Secretary Adlai Stevenson denied involvement with the United Nations.  A few months later, revolutionary and mass murderer Che Guevara sent a note to President Kennedy thanking him for the invasion, saying, “Before the invasion, the revolution [in Cuba] was weak.  Now it’s stronger than ever.”

Subsequently, the Castro regime became (understandably) paranoid about US intentions, particularly after Kennedy imposed trade sanctions, which he followed with a formal embargo.  The invasion didn’t work out, but that didn’t stop Kennedy from doubling his efforts to depose Fidel Castro.  A short time later, Kennedy ordered the Pentagon to design a secret plan to overthrow Castro.  The plan, codenamed Operation Mongoose, included sabotage and assassination.[11]

Sources:

  1. Ambrose, S. E.  Eisenhower: Soldier and President.  American Biography Press, 2007.
  2. Anderson, J. L.  Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.  Grove/Atlantic Press, 1997.
  3. Bathell, L.  Cuba.  Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  4. Bohning, D.  The Castro Obsession: U.S. Covert Operations Against Cuba, 1959-1965.  Potomac Books, 2005.
  5. Lynch, G. L.  Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs.  Brassy Publishing, 1998.
  6. Schlesinger, A. M. Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Houghton-Mifflin, 1965, 2002.

Endnotes:

[1] Disciplined democracy is somewhat like compassionate conservatism.  It may be disciplined, but it isn’t democracy, and it might be compassionate, but it isn’t conservatism. 

[2] Morgan (1928 – 1961) was a U.S. citizen who fought in the Cuban Revolution as a commandante instrumental in helping Castro’s forces achieve victory.  Morgan was one of about two dozen U.S. citizens to fight in the revolution and one of only three foreign nationals to hold high rank.  Following the revolution, Morgan became disenchanted with Castro’s turn to communism.  When Castro discovered that Morgan was one of the CIA operatives in the Escambray rebellion, Cuban authorities arrested, tried, and executed him in the presence of Fidel and Raul Castro.

[3] Including a number of former OSS officers, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Desmond Fitzgerald, Clark Clifford, Eugene Rostow, Cord Meyer, William Averell Harriman, Felix Frankfurter, James Reston, Allen Dulles, and Paul Nitze.

[4] If verifiably true, then there is a justifiable reason to corollate the relationship between the CIA and the plot to assassinate South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem (2 Nov 1963) and the CIA, American mafia, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 Nov 1963.    

[5] The American people never knew about this, of course, until the Church Committee Hearings in 1975.  The Church Committee investigated CIA abuses, such as the assassination of foreign leaders.  Since most of these were never proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the committee labeled them “Alleged Assassination Plots.” 

[6] Later, Liddy and Hunt were both convicted of illegal activity involving the White House Plumbers. 

[7] Both Kennedy brothers appeared enthusiastic about the operation, and both seemed to play down any hesitation from cabinet advisors.  They had made a campaign promise to rid Cuba of Castro, and that’s what they intended to do.

[8] It was later learned that the CIA knew that the KGB knew about the invasion plan and that the KGB had likely informed Castro, but it was something the CIA never shared with President Kennedy.  The CIA was also informed by British Intelligence that, according to their sources, the Cuban population was overwhelmingly behind Fidel Castro.  There would likely be no groundswell of support for the ex-pat invaders.

[9] Colonel Hawkins, a Marine Corps Officer, was assigned to the CIA to assist in planning for amphibious operations.  After completing basic officer’s school in 1939, Hawkins served with the 4th Marines in Shanghai, China, and later moved with that regiment to the Philippine Islands.  Captured on Bataan, the Japanese interned him at a POW camp on Mindanao.  He and several others escaped, eventually making their way to Colonel Wendell Fertig’s guerrilla band.  Hawkins led several guerrilla raids against the Japanese until evacuated by submarine to Australia.  He later authored a book about his Philippine experiences, titled Never Say Die.

[10] Quick review: a new president who wants to split his spy agency into a thousand pieces could become a primary target for assassination. If the CIA had a hand in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it was very likely the only project they undertook in the 1960s that worked out as planned.

[11] An extensive campaign of terrorist attacks against Cuban (civilian) government officials, led by Edward Lansdale and William K. Harvey.  


Marine Corps Explosive Ordnance Disposal

Honor — Courage — Commitment

Senior EOD Technician Insignia

Pick almost any job in the U.S. military; it will be dangerous work.  Most people do not understand that to win in battle, a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine must constantly train to master his particular combat skills, maintain them, and rehearse them — so that they become second nature.  Two things are true about this: first, even the sharpest, gutsiest, most skilled trooper runs the risk of being killed in combat.  Second, training for war can be as lethal as combat.  Military men and women die in training accidents all the time.  Wearing our nation’s uniform is risky, but some military occupations are exponentially more dangerous than others.  So dangerous, in fact, that someone looking in from the outside might wonder why people do those kinds of jobs.  The answer is because someone has to.

Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) is one of those jobs.  It’s one of those occupations where, after everyone takes cover, the EOD technician suits up and approaches the explosive device intending to render it inert.  Sometimes they’re able to do that. Sometimes they die trying.

Highly specialized training for these men and women lasts a year.  The EOD schools not only teach their students how to do their jobs, but they also teach them how to survive it — or, they try to.  The fact is that explosive devices can be pretty complex — made so by the bombmaker whose goal is to kill the EOD technician or as many people as possible in the explosion.

It is not only the bomb that EOD technicians must defeat; they must destroy the explosive where the bombmaker placed it.  It is one thing to demolish a bomb along an isolated stretch of road — something else to defeat it when it’s been placed near a school or hospital.  Of course, this presumes that the EOD technician locates the bomb before it goes off.

EOD is also one of those jobs where complacency will kill you as quickly as cocky self-confidence.  One Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer instructs his men, “If you think it’s going to blow up, don’t go down there.”  But no one in EOD wants to admit defeat (even when discretion is the better part of valor).  Such stubbornness is suicidal.  When evaluating a disposal task, Marine EOD technicians are foolish if they do not carefully think about a few of the Marine Corps’ leadership principles: (1) Be proficient; (2) Know yourself; (5) Set the example, and (8) Make sound and timely decisions.

EOD technicians indeed wear protective suits — the operative word being “protective.”  It’s like saying “fire retardant.”  It may offer some protection from small bombs, but it won’t save the technicians from death or severe injury if the blast is large. Speaking of serious injury, anyone within a certain radius of an explosion is likely to experience one of the more devastating injuries: traumatic brain injury (TBI).

The protective suit can also be a hindrance.  It’s bulky.  It limits dexterity.  It restricts a technician’s vision.  When that happens, the highly motivated (and exceedingly confident) bomb disposal technician is likely to begin shedding his protective gear so that he can get to the bomb — and do his job.

By the way, whether soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine … all EOD technicians are volunteers.  But volunteerism isn’t enough.  Applicants for EOD training must go through an extensive screening process.  They have to be physically and mentally (psychologically) suitable for the most stressful of all combat assignments.  This is not the job you go to in the morning with a hangover.

EOD Marines — well done!

Snake Eaters

De Oppresso Liber

The term “Snake Eater” originated after the U. S. Army Special Forces (also known as the Green Berets) served members of the press and visiting dignitaries a meal of snake meat following a public relations demonstration at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  Sadly, the meal was fit for human consumption, and no journalist or politician died from ingesting snake venom.  Since then, members and former members of the Green Berets are sometimes referred to as snake eaters.

The Green Berets have nine distinctive missions: unconventional warfare, direct action, counter-insurgency operations, special reconnaissance, counter-terrorism, psychological operations, counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, security force assistance, and foreign internal defensive operations.  As part of the U. S. Special Operations Command, Green Berets have consistently distinguished themselves in combat arms since their establishment in 1952.  Modeled on the First Special Service Force and the covert missions of the Office of Strategic Services in World War II, its founding members included Colonel Wendell Fertig, Colonel Aaron Bank, and Lieutenant Colonel Russ Volckmann.  Since 1952, Green Berets have participated in combat operations in South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Philippines, Syria, Yemen, Niger, and the so-called Gulf Wars in the Middle East.

Currently, there are around 4,000 Green Berets performing missions around the world, from the Middle East to Africa and Asia.  Most people never hear about these “quiet professionals,” and that’s the way the Green Berets prefer it.

“These guys [Green Berets] are never going to quit, they’re never going to accept defeat, and they’ll fight to the end. And it’s always been that way.  So, the American people should be proud of that.”  — Master Sergeant Matthew Williams (Awarded the Medal of Honor in 2019).

As a case in point, on 2 May 1968, Master Sergeant Raul “Roy” Perez Benavidez (1935-1998), while risking his life to save eight of his comrades, received 37 wounds, including being shot several times, shrapnel from two grenades, and a bayonet wound, but he survived and — more to the point, he completed his mission.  Benavides was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 after the Army delayed recommending him for the medal for ten years.  Freaking bureaucrats.

And now, we turn to Captain Richard J. Flaherty (1945-2015), whose short stature required a waiver for acceptance for service in the U. S. Army.  Standing 4’9” tall, Flaherty became known as the “Giant Killer” for his service to the United States.  Captain Flaherty struggled throughout his life, from the moment of his birth when he was stunted in his growth from the infusion of his mother with the wrong blood type during his birth.  From his sensitivity to being called a “shrimp” in school, Flaherty began a life-long, intensive physical fitness regimen that transformed him into acquiring a robust physique.  To put an edge on his physical strength, he became an expert in martial arts.  Richard Flaherty received his Army commission to Second Lieutenant in August 1967.

In 1968, Flaherty was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, where he served as a platoon commander, with later service as a Reconnaissance Platoon Leader.  During his tour in Vietnam, he participated in fierce combat outside of Hue City during the Tet Offensive.  His tenacity and tactical superiority in combat resulted in the award of the Silver Star Medal, two Bronze Star Medals, and two Purple Heart Medals.

Upon returning to the United States, Flaherty attended the Special Forces Officer’s Course at Fort Brag, North Carolina, with subsequent service with the Third Special Forces Group (Airborne), where he served in one of the Army’s “A” Teams.  Captain Flaherty was discharged from active duty service when the Army reduced its manpower in 1971.  Freaking bureaucrats.

After his separation from the Army, Flaherty did private and military contract work in Rhodesia (present-day Republic of Zimbabwe) and Angola.  The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruited Flaherty in the late 1970s, which involved him in the CIA’s scheme of supplying arms and munitions to the Contra forces in Nicaragua.  The CIA dismissed Flaherty when found in possession of “silencers,” which today are legal in 42 states.

After leaving the CIA, Flaherty helped the Army uncover a smuggling ring at Fort Bragg.  He also worked as an undercover informant with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

Captain Flaherty was the victim of a hit-and-run incident in 2015 that cost him his life.  At the time of his death, the 69-year-old Captain Flaherty, recipient of five medals for extraordinary courage under fire, was living as a homeless man in Miami, Florida.

Homelessness among military veterans isn’t a new phenomenon.  We’ve had military veterans without proper accommodations since the post-Civil War period.  Between 1865-1880, homeless veterans made up the majority of America’s homeless population. Americans didn’t wake up to this situation until after the Vietnam War.  At present, the Veterans Administration estimates the number of homeless veterans at around 40,000 (mostly) men on any given night.  The leading causes of homelessness among veterans are post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain disorder, social isolation, unemployment, and substance abuse.  The state of California has the highest number of homeless veterans in the United States.

It’s enough to make one wonder, “What in the hell is the matter with this country?”  The answer, of course, is “Freaking bureaucrats.”

Hat tip:  Major Paul Chapman, USMC (Retired)

Operation Urgent Fury — Part 2

The Invasion of Grenada

(Continued from Last Week)

Land the Landing Force

Reveille sounded for the Marines at 0100.  They consumed their traditional pre-assault breakfast, drew live ammunition, and the squad and fire team leaders began checking their men.  ACE flight crews made ready to launch aircraft.  Only a few of the pilots in HMM-261 (or their enlisted men) had previous combat experience.  Twenty-one helicopters lifted off at 0315.  Marine pilots maintained radio silence and navigated using night vision goggles.  Intermittent rain showers delayed the launching of aircraft.

Company E 2/8, under the command of Captain Henry J. Donigan III, was “first in.”[1]  Their helicopters went ashore with AH-1 Cobra escorts.  The company’s target was LZ Buzzard, an unused race track south of the Pearls airfield.  Colonel Smith accompanied the lead element.  Smith ordered one platoon to take Hill 275, an anti-aircraft gun site.  Even though Grenadians manned the hill, they opted not to engage the Marines — which they demonstrated by dropping their weapons and fleeing down the other side of the hill.

With Hill 275 secure, Smith ordered Echo Company to push along a road toward the West side of the airfield.  Rugged terrain delayed the Marine’s progress by two hours.  As Echo Company was about to move toward the air terminal, they began receiving enemy mortar fire.  Two or three rounds landed near the terminal complex: five more landed in the vicinity of LZ Buzzard.  There were no casualties, and the firing soon stopped.

Following Echo Company an hour later, Fox Company went ashore just outside the town of Grenville.  The terrain was much rougher than reflected on aerial photographs, and the pre-designated landing site proved unsuitable.  Colonel Amos determined the only alternative landing site was an adjacent soccer field.  The problem with the soccer field was that it had a high brick wall that surrounded it.  Potentially, the field was a kill zone, but because the people of Grenada seemed welcoming of the Marines, Amos approved the landing and designated the soccer field as LZ Oriole.

Local citizens treated the Marines of Echo and Fox Companies as liberators.  In the minds of these civilians, Grenada had been cursed by thugs for far too long.  The locals led Marines to the homes of members of the Revolutionary Army; they pointed out members of the local militia.  They told the Marines where they could find concealed arms and munitions.  Locals even loaned the Marines their private vehicles to carry away dangerous munitions.

Marine Air/Army Rangers

Lieutenant Colonel Smith, who had gone ashore with Echo and Fox companies at Pearls/Grenville, was having a difficult time establishing radio contact with USS Guam.  He suspected that Colonel Faulkner was planning a surface landing at Grand Mal Bay or possibly at Gouyave, but he couldn’t know Faulkner’s intent without radio contact.  At around 1500, Smith received a radio message from his reconnaissance platoon commander informing him of the new plan.  Smith, with only sporadic radio contact, was confused.  He boarded a resupply helicopter, leaving his XO in charge, and returned to Guam.

Back aboard the ship, Smith received an update/briefing from the MAU operations officer, Major Tim Van Huss.  The objective of the Grand Mal Bay operation was to relieve Golf Company of its special mission.  The plan called for an amphibious landing at Grand Mal with Fox Company transferring by helicopter from Grenville — scheduled for execution that very evening.  Smith requested and received permission to delay the landing by two hours.

Captain R. K. Dobson, commanding Golf Company, was becoming irritated.  His company had been “on deck” since 0430; each time he received a “go” order, it was put on hold, rescheduled, or canceled.  Finally, after standing by inside the amphibious tractors for several hours aboard USS Manitowoc, Dobson ordered his Marines out of the tractors and informed them that they would go ashore by helicopter.  From 1330, the company was staged on the flight deck of the LST; Dobson fidgeted because he had no clear idea where his company would be employed — but then, neither did anyone else.

By 1750 it was growing dark; Captain Dobson instructed his platoon commanders to secure all weapons and ammunition return the men to their berthing spaces for much-needed sleep.  No sooner had Dobson given these instructions, he was called to the bridge.  Company G would go ashore at Grand Mal Bay in forty minutes; the amphibious landing was back on.  Marines were mustered and loaded aboard the AAVs … the first tractor left the ship precisely at 1830.  It was by then completely dark — there was no moon to navigate by reckoning.  The track vehicles headed for the beach in single file.  Thirty-one minutes later, the first tractor went ashore on the narrow beach with no opposition.  Captain Dobson was finally ashore, but he still had no instructions.  There was no radio communication with the BLT commander.

At around 1930, Navy LCUs began bringing in tanks, jeeps, and heavy weapons.  Within a short time, the narrow beach became congested with combat Marines and equipment.  Captain Dobson established area security with roadblock positions on the coastal road some 200 meters north and south of LZ Fuel.  After establishing flank security, Dobson sent his recon platoon to reconnoiter the roadway.

At 2300, Dobson could hear the sound of approaching helicopters.  Marines quickly rigged the LZ with red lights and a strobe to guide the aircraft, a Huey UH-1 bearing the MAU air liaison officer (ALO), Major William J. Sublette.  Sublette brought Dobson up to date on the operation and told him that there was a strong enemy force between G Company’s present position and St. George’s.  He also informed Dobson that Fox Company would arrive at his position sometime after midnight.  Dobson asked the major to contact Colonel Smith, give him Dobson’s present position, and request the battalion commander’s orders.

Lieutenant Colonel Smith arrived in a CH-46 an hour later.  The beach was so narrow, the helicopter had to unload its passengers with its back wheels in the surf; Smith and his staff had to wade ashore through the surf.  So far, the operation had been a communications disaster.  When the CH-46 returned to the ship, it carried a message to Colonel Amos asking that he airlift Fox Company from Grenville to Grand Mal Bay.

Smith directed Dobson to begin the process of moving Golf Company to the Queen’s Park Race Track; Fox Company began making its airlift movement from Grenville to LZ Fuel for a link-up with Golf at 0400 — the small LZ could only accommodate two CH-46s at a time, so the movement lasted until near daylight.  With Dobson receiving only light resistance from the Grenadians, Smith directed that he proceed to the Governor-General’s house to reinforce a 22-man special mission team and help evacuate Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon, his wife, and nine other civilians to USS Guam.

Once the Scoon party had safely departed Grenada, Smith ordered Dobson to proceed to and seize Fort Frederick, which dominated the entire area of St. George’s.  En route, local civilians informed Dobson that there remained a company-size unit and a large supply of ammunition inside the fort.

Captain Dobson sent a reinforced platoon to seize the high ground adjacent to Fort Frederick where they could provide supporting fire if needed.  With the balance of the company, Dobson proceeded through dense foliage along the ridgeline.  Nearing the fort, the Marines observed several men climbing down the outside wall as if abandoning their positions.  Within a short time, Captain Dobson’s company entered the fort unopposed, where they found randomly discarded uniforms — a suggestion that perhaps the Grenadian military had taken early retirement from active military service.[2]

Golf Company Marines quickly seized a large store of weapons and ammunition.  Additionally, in a lower chamber inside the fort, Captain Dobson discovered numerous documents purported to be arms agreements with Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Soviet Union, along with detailed maps of the disposition of Grenadian armed forces.  As Golf and Fox company consolidated their positions at Fort Frederick, the Marines of HMM-261 began preparing for the evacuation of American medical students.

Grand Anse

Colonel Amos was organizing additional lift support for BLT 2/8 when he received a directive from Admiral Metcalf to provide airlift support to the Army for NEO evacuations from the Grand Anse area.  Amos proceeded to the Salines airfield where he conferred with the CO 2nd Ranger Battalion (2/75th), Lieutenant Colonel Ralph L. Hagler, Jr., who, as it happened, was a classmate of Colonel Amos at the Virginia Military Institute.  Amos and Hagler sat down and planned the evacuation operations for the next day.  The beach at Grand Anse was narrow in width, short in length, and overgrown with heavy vegetation extending almost to the water’s edge.

The evacuation plan called for CH-46s carrying Rangers to land on the beach in three flights of three helicopters.  Four CH-53s would follow the 46s to pick up medical students.  Once the students had been taken off the beach, the 46s would return for the Rangers.  Amos would personally direct the airlift operation from an airborne UH-1 and coordinate additional air support from the Navy’s A-7 squadron from USS Independence and the USAF AC-130 detachment.  Naval gunfire would provide additional on-call fire support.

At 1600, CH-46s began airlift operations from Salines.  Artillery, mortars, and overhead aircraft opened up on suspected Grenadian and Cuban military positions five minutes later.  The bombardment continued until about twenty seconds before the first flight of 46s touched down on the beach.  The helicopter landings prompted a steady increase of enemy small arms fire. Waist gunners returned fire with their .50 caliber machine guns.

The narrowness of the beach forced the last CH-46 too close to an overhanging palm tree.  When a rotor blade contacted the palms, the pilot had to shut the aircraft down and order the crew to abandon the damaged helicopter.   

As soon as the Rangers exited the aircraft, they sprinted to the medical school dormitories.[3]  When the last of the remaining eight aircraft had departed, Colonel Amos ordered in the CH-53s.  Despite increasingly heavy fire from the Grenadians/Cubans, all students were safely evacuated.  As soon as the last 53 lifted off, the downed 46 became the focus on the enemy’s attention — which pissed off Lance Corporal Martin J. Dellerr, the downed helicopter’s crew chief.  When Dellerr saw that his helicopter was being peppered with small arms fire, he sprinted to the bird, conducted a full inspection of the aircraft, and then sprinted back to the pilot and announced that the bird could fly.[4]  The aircraft was shaking more than usual during takeoff, but it did return to Salines without further mishap.

Back to the Northeast

While Fox and Golf companies were operating in the southwest, Captain Donigan’s Echo Company continued operations in the north.  During the late afternoon of D Day, the company commander received information that armored vehicles, including one tank, were approaching from the north.  It was a false report, but it did cause Company E to suspend its operations and prepare for an armored attack.  Locals offered to help the Marines erect anti-vehicle obstacles, but the Marines urged them to vacate the area.

On 27 October, Colonel Smith ordered Captain Donigan to carry out a reconnaissance in force to the Mount Horne area, a little over two miles from Greenville.  Captured documents from Fort Frederick identified Mount Horne as the location of the headquarters element of the People’s Revolutionary Army Battalion.  Donigan led a reinforced rifle platoon to that location, encountering no enemy resistance.  On the contrary, local civilians welcomed the Marines and pointed them to two buildings that had served as a battalion command post.  One building housed a complete communications center, island maps, and modern radios.

Acting on information from residents, Donigan dispatched another reconnaissance on Mount St. Catherine, where a suspected enemy force controlled a television and microwave station.  En route, Marines weathered a heavy rain squall.  Their approach to the communications station prompted a handful of enemy soldiers to make a rapid withdrawal in the opposite direction.  The Marines discovered and confiscated several mortar and anti-tank munitions.

Smith directed Donigan to check out a report of a large cache of arms stored at the Mirabeau Hospital.  Once more, local civilians helped direct Donigan’s Marines to a large cave thought to contain ammunition.  The cave was empty, so Marines proceeded toward the hospital.  At the crest of a hill, the Marines encountered three Cubans who attempted to flee.  Marine riflemen wounded two of these men and placed them in custody.  In the fading light of day, unknown persons began firing at the Marines from a densely wooded ridgeline, but the enemy broke off contact after a few minutes.  There were no casualties among the Marines.  Donigan led his Marines back to Pearls the following morning.

St. George’s

Following the capture of Fort Frederick, Fox and Golf companies continued seizing the strong points around St. George’s.  The Marines destroyed one Soviet BTR-60 armored personnel carrier blocking the road between Fort Frederick and the Governor-General’s residence.  On 27 October, Smith was ordered to seize Richmond Hill Prison, Fort Adolphus, and Fort Lucas.  Captain Dobson’s Marines quickly took the prison, which had been abandoned, and organized his company for an assault on Fort Adolphus.  Dobson observed human activity inside the fort and reported this by radio to Smith during his approach.  After discussing the employment of prep-fire into the Fort, Smith decided against it because he believed, given the tendency of the Grenadians to flee, pre-assault fire may not be necessary.

Dobson’s Marines cautiously approached the fort.  Along the way, the Marines encountered the Ambassador to Venezuela, who informed the Marines that Fort Adolphus was, in fact, the Venezuela Embassy.  Smith’s discretion had avoided a serious international incident.

There was no enemy resistance as Marines from Fox Company entered St. George’s.  Once more, local civilians helped the Marines to discover caches of weapons and munitions and took into custody suspected members of the People’s Revolutionary Army.

Confusing Tactical Areas of Responsibility

To allow the Marines to continue their southward advance, Admiral Metcalf changed the boundary line between 82nd Airborne units (TF 121) and Marine Amphibious forces (TF 124).  The new line ran from Ross Point on the east coast to Requin Bay on the west.  This vital information never reached the Army’s operating elements and, to make matters worse, Marine and Army units had not exchanged liaison officers.   Radio call signs had not been disseminated for joint fire control center operations.  Both Marine and Army units remained unaware of their close proximities.

With the boundary shift, Colonel Smith’s Marines were no longer an adequate-sized force for controlling the new area of operations.  Since his artillery battery had remained aboard ship, Smith employed these Marines as part of a provisional rifle company and tasked them with area security in and around St. George’s.  Smith’s decision allowed him to employ Fox and Golf companies in other areas.

Smith received a report that as many as 400 Canadian, British, and American nations were located at the Ross Point Hotel, on Mattin’s Bay, south of St. George’s, and eagerly awaiting evacuation.  Fox Company Marines arrived at the hotel just after dark.  They discovered less than two dozen foreign nationals, mostly Canadians with no Americans.  Moreover — no one wished to be evacuated.

At the end of the second day, there was still no sign of Army units, so Fox Company set up a night defense around the Ross Point Hotel.  The next morning, the lead element of the 2nd Battalion, 325th Infantry Regiment (2/325th), reached the hotel.  No one in 2/325 was aware of the boundary shift, and insofar as they knew, the area of the Ross Hotel was a “free-fire zone.”  The only army people aware of the boundary shift were the division and brigade commanders, who had not passed the word to their subordinate units.  Smith became concerned that his Marines might become the targets of US Army units operating “in the dark.”

Mopping Up

By the end of the third day, peacekeeping forces from allied Caribbean nations began to arrive and take up their stations in the St. George’s area.  Smith’s provisional company continued to arrest and detain enemy personnel and confiscate arms and other equipment.  By this time, the number of “enemy” leaders had grown considerably, and these individuals also needed to be turned over to the peacekeepers.  Included in the detained number were the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of National Mobilization, and Lieutenant Colonel Liam James of the New Jewel Movement.

Marines began preparing to turn over their positions to the 82nd Airborne Division units.  The 22nd MAU was needed in Beirut. 

Finalizing the North

On the fourth day, Captain Donigan’s Marines prepared to seize Sauteurs … an operation interrupted by the discovery of the PRA leader in the northern sector of Grenada, someone calling himself Lieutenant George.  Donigan’s first platoon took George into custody in Greenville.  With George’s surrender peacefully accepted, Echo Company moved out for Sauteurs at around 0300 the following day.  Donigan split the company into two teams.  Donigan intended his raiding team to assault the PRA camp near Sauteurs before the general advance on the town.  The company mortar section was set up on Mount Rose, halfway between Sauteurs and the Pearls airfield, and communicators set up a radio relay station at the same place.  The company’s second team readied for entering the town.

Donigan launched his raid at 0530; the camp seized without any resistance.  With no shots fired, residents awakened to find U.S. Marines in control of their town without resorting to violence.  Having been made aware that the people of Sauteurs were short on food, Captain Donigan took with him enough rations to feed the town for several days.  Red Cross workers undertook to effect fair distribution of these rations.  The goodwill of the Marines toward the town folk resulted in a cooperative attitude, and local people were happy to identify local members of the PRA.  Captured PRA couldn’t sing long enough or loud enough about other members and the locations of arms and munitions.

Meanwhile, Colonel Faulkner planned to move Fox and Golf companies to Gouyave and Victoria on the northwest coast — the only sizeable towns not already under Marine control.  Colonel Smith objected to removing Fox Company away from St. George’s, so Golf Company moved to the two towns alone.  There was no opposition in either of these towns, and both were peacefully seized.

Admiral Metcalf had one final concern: the island of Carriacou, one of two inhabited islands between Grenada and St. Vincent. Naval intelligence reported unconfirmed information that a North Korean military presence existed on Carriacou and that some PRA members had fled to the island.  Accordingly, Metcalf ordered the Marine Amphibious Unit to seize the island before daylight on 1 November 1983.  Once army units had replaced the Marines at Sauteurs, Pearls, St. George’s, Gouyave, and Victoria, the MAU returned to the sea and prepared for an amphibious/vertical landing at Carriacou.

The early morning landing at Carriacou was unopposed.  There were no North Korean soldiers on the island.  All PRA members voluntarily surrendered, and the citizens could not have been happier to see the American Marines.  One native asked if the island had become part of the United States and seemed disappointed with the negative response.  Army units arrived on 2 November to replace the Marines — which brought their role in Urgent Fury to an end.  The 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit Marines then proceeded to relieve the shattered battalion in Beirut, Lebanon.

Post Script

If the invasion of Granada proved anything at all, it was that the National Security Act of 1947 did not resolve age-old problems associated with joint missions’ interoperability.  The military services have different missions, but they also had dissimilar chains of command, incompatible equipment, different ways of completing similar tasks, and, always-present, interservice rivalry.

Service competition, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.  Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines take great pride in their service affiliation.  And, the fact is that interservice rivalry has existed since the Spanish-American War.  It continued through two world wars, the Korean War and Vietnam.  But at some point, an unhealthy rivalry is self-defeating.  During the invasion of Granada, Army Rangers had no way of communicating with Marine or Navy forces.  Senior army and air force officers routinely treated the Navy and Marine Corps as second-class citizens — as if only the Army and Air Force knew how to fight a war — and the Navy and Marines deeply resented it.[5]  Even now, under the unified command system, there is a cultural divide between Army and Marine forces, and nowhere is that better illustrated than the story of Marineistan. 

To fix this problem in 1985, Senator Barry Goldwater and Representative William Flynt Nichols developed a bill to reorganize the Department of Defense (Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, 1986).  The Act essentially streamlined the military chain of command, designated the Chairman, JCS as the principal advisor to the President, National Security Council, and Secretary of Defense.  It also changed how the various services organize, train, equip, and fight.  The first test of Goldwater-Nichols was the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.

Sources:

  1. Adkin, M.  Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada: The Truth Behind the Largest U.S. Military Operation since Vietnam.  Lexington Books, 1989.
  2. Cole, R. H.  Operation Urgent Fury: The Planning and Execution of Joint Operations in Grenada.  Washington: Pentagon Study, 1997.
  3. Dolphin, G. E.  24 MAU 1983: A Marine Looks Back at the Peacekeeping Mission to Beirut, Lebanon.  Publish America, 2005.
  4. Moore, C.  Margaret Thatcher: At Her Zenith in London, Washington, and Moscow.  New York: Vintage Books, 2016
  5. Russell, L.  Grenada, 1983.  London: Osprey Books, 1985. 
  6. Spector, R. H.  U. S. Marines in Grenada.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1987.
  7. Williams, G.  US-Grenada Relations: Revolution and Intervention in the Backyard.  Macmillan, 2007.

Endnotes:

[1] Echo 2/8 was my first line unit (1963-1964)

[2] A captured Grenadian captain explained that none of the Grenadians expected a combined surface/vertical assault.  Observing U. S. Marines coming toward them from different positions became a psychological shock to defenders and senior officers alike.

[3] [3] The pilot of the last helicopter of the first flight misjudged the distance to an overhanging palm tree; when the rotor blade brushed against it, the pilot was forced to shut down his engines and abandon the bird where it came to rest on the beach.  The beach area had then become even tighter — another helicopter would have a similar problem.  

[4] Marine Corps crew chiefs become attached to their aircraft and crews.  

[5] Particularly in light of the hard feelings that existed from the earliest days of the Korean War when army units were unprepared to fight.