Is it appropriate to argue and jockey for position in announcing the name of the first serviceman to die in Vietnam? This controversy has been going on now for far too long, but families continue to rush forward to have their relative named as the first to die in America’s most unpopular war. The problem is some confusion about what it is we’re talking about. Do we mean to recognize the first serviceman killed in the Vietnam War? Or do we mean the first serviceman killed in Vietnam? Or do we mean the name of the first serviceman killed while engaged in combat?
Does it even matter?
Lieutenant Colonel Albert P. Dewey, U.S. Army, was killed by Viet Minh insurgents on 26 September 1945.
Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbons, Jr., was killed in Saigon, South Vietnam on 8 June 1956 — shot and killed by a fellow airman during off-duty hours.
Captain Harry Griffith, U.S. Army (Special Forces) was killed at Nha Trang, South Vietnam on 21 October 1957, the result of a training accident.
Major Dale R. Buis and Master Sergeant Chester C. Ovnand of the U.S. Army, were both killed at Bien Hoa Air Base when the officer’s mess was attacked by Viet Cong sappers on 8 July 1959.
Specialist Fourth Class James T. Davis, U.S. Army was killed in a Viet Cong ambush on 22 December 1961.
Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., was born in Stoneham, Massachusetts on 21 June 1920. During World War II, Fitzgibbon served with the U.S. Navy, but after his discharge, he opted to join the newly created U.S. Air Force. In the Air Force, Fitzgibbon was promoted to Technical Sergeant (E-6). At the time of his demise, he was assigned to duty with the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) while attached to Detachment One, 1173rd Foreign Mission Squadron. Fitzgibbon was involved in the training of Vietnamese Air Force Personnel.
The official date for the beginning of the Vietnam War, 1 January 1961, was officially announced by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson who, at the same time identified Specialist Davis as the first American serviceman killed in that war.
Believing that she had discovered a grievous error, the sister of Fitzgibbons, Ms. Alice Fitzgibbon Rose Del Rossi promptly notified the Department of Defense of its error, bringing to their attention her brother’s death in 1956. Ah, but the Vice President had already spoken and Johnson was not a man who liked anyone to correct him about anything. Ms. Del Rossi then petitioned her congressman who asked the DoD to reconsider the beginning of the Vietnam War. Until then, hardly anyone even knew about Technical Sergeant Fitzgibbons.
After a high-level review by the Defense Department, the start date of the Vietnam War was changed to 1 November 1955, which was the creation date of the U.S. Military Advisory Assistance Group, Vietnam (MAAGV). This date change resulted in the proposition that (at least chronologically), Sergeant Fitzgibbons was the first American serviceman to die in the Vietnam War — and his name was added to the Vietnam Wall. Fitzgibbons, however, was not the first combat death in Vietnam, nor even the first to die in wartime Vietnam. Colonel Dewey owns that plank.
The story of the Fitzgibbon family in Vietnam isn’t over. Lance Corporal Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, U.S. Marine Corps (1944 – 1965) was killed while serving in Vietnam on 7 September. Father and son are interred next to each other at the Blue Hill Cemetery in Braintree, Massachusetts.
And The Last …
Corporal Charles McMahon from Woburn, Massachusetts, and Lance Corporal Darwin Lee Judge from Marshalltown, Iowa, were both serving with the Marine Corps Security Guard, U.S. Embassy, Republic of Vietnam (Saigon) on 29 April 1975 (the day the Vietnam government collapsed) when they were killed by a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) rocket attack on the embassy. At the time of McMahon’s death, he had served in Vietnam for less than thirty days; he was 21 years old. Lance Corporal Judge had served in Vietnam for less than 60 days; he was only 19 years old.
The remains of these two Marines were transferred to the Saigon Adventist Hospital near Ton Son Nhut Air Base, pursuant to the procedures outlined by the State Department, but with the collapse of the South Vietnamese government and the rapid evacuation of the U.S. Embassy, their bodies were left behind during the withdrawal.
It was a year before their bodies could be returned to the United States, and only then because of the intervention of Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA). Corporal Judge was buried with full military honors in his hometown, however, no one from the American news media covered the burial ceremony. I have no information about the burial ceremony of Charles McMahon. The Vietnam War was never very popular and it was probably too much trouble to report these sad events in the press.
McMahon and Judge were the last U.S. Servicemen to die in Vietnam; they were not the last young men to die in the Vietnam War. The term “Vietnam War” includes the U.S. involvement in the so-called Mayaguez Incident, which resulted in another 18 Americans killed in the line of duty (and forsaken by their countrymen). See also: Mayaguez: Crisis in Command.
The Mahabharata is an ancient epic poem that offers philosophical discourses interwoven in the stories of two families during a time of great stress on the Indian subcontinent. It may date 5,000 years ago, but there is considerable debate about its exact dating. Within the Mahabharata is a discussion between ruling brothers concerning what constitutes acceptable behavior on a battlefield. The debate involves the concept of proportionality:
“One should not attack chariots with cavalry; chariot warriors should attack chariots. One should not assail someone in distress, neither to scare him nor to defeat him. War should be waged for the sake of conquest; one should not be enraged toward an enemy who is not trying to kill him.”
The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the ancient Torah, also called the words of Moses, is believed to be around 3,300 years old. Verse 19 tells us:
“When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human that they should be besieged by you? Only trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siege works against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.”
The preceding are examples of ancient “laws of warfare.” In modern times, such laws are a component of international law that regulates the conditions for initiating war and the conduct of warring parties. The laws define sovereignty, nationhood, states, territories, occupation, and other “critical” aspects of international law, such as declarations of war, acceptance of surrender, treatment of prisoners, military necessity, and distinction and proportionality. There are also prohibitions on certain weapons that may cause unnecessary human suffering.
War crimes are violations of the laws of war that give rise to individual criminal responsibility for actions by combatants, such as the intentional killing of civilians, prisoners of war, torture, taking hostages, unnecessarily destroying civilian property, perfidy, rape, pillaging, conscription of children, and refusing to accept surrender. In the modern sense, laws of war have existed since 1863, codified during the American Civil War.
During Japan’s imperialist expansion, militarism had a significant bearing on the conduct of the Japanese Armed Forces before and during the Second World War. At that time, following the collapse of the shogunate, Japanese Emperors became the focus of national and military loyalty. Japan, and other world powers, did not ratify the Geneva Convention of 1929, which sought to regulate the treatment of prisoners of war. Japan did ratify earlier conventions, however, in 1899 and 1907. An Imperial proclamation in 1894 instructed Japanese soldiers to make every effort to win a war without violating international laws. History reflects that the Japanese observed these rules after 1894 and during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.
According to apologists, pre-World War II Japanese servicemen were trained to observe the Code of Bushido, which extols to every serviceman that there is no greater honor than to give up their lives for their Emperor, and nothing is more cowardly than to surrender to one’s enemy. This argument seeks to explain why Japanese servicemen in World War II mistreated POWs. The POWs were contemptible to the Japanese because they were “without honor.” When the Japanese murdered POWs, beheaded them, and drowned them, it was acceptable because by surrendering, the POWs had forfeited their right to dignity or respect. However, the apologists do not seem able to explain using POWs for medical experiments or as guinea pigs for chemical and biological weapons.
The Japanese military between 1930-1945 is often compared to the German army of about the same period because of the sheer scale of destruction and suffering both armies caused. According to Sterling Seagrave, a noted historian, Japan’s criminal conduct began in 1895 when the Japanese assassinated Korean Queen Min. He tells us that estimates of between 6-10 million murdered people, a direct result of Japanese war crimes, is exceedingly lower than the actual number of people the Japanese killed. He estimates between 10-14 million would be closer to the truth.
According to the Tokyo Tribunal, Japan’s death rate of Chinese held as POWs was considerably higher than the average (as a percent) because Emperor Hirohito removed the protections accorded them under international law in 1937. After 1943, a similar order was issued to the Imperial Japanese Navy to execute all prisoners taken at sea.
In addition to charges (and convictions) for the torture of POWs, the Tokyo Tribunal also charged Japanese war veterans with executing captured airmen, cannibalism, starvation, forced labor, rape, looting, and perfidy. Japanese Kamikaze pilots routinely attacked hospital ships marked with large red crosses, a tell-tale sign that they were noncombatant ships. Some have suggested that Kamikaze pilots did this to escape being shot down before they could damage an enemy vessel.
Trial and punishment
After Japan’s surrender, on 29 April 1946, the International Military Tribunal (Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal) began proceedings to try certain Japanese personnel for war crimes. The Tribunal brought charges against twenty-five individuals for Class A war crimes and 5,700 for Class B violations. Of these, 984 received death sentences (920 executed), 475 received life sentences, 2,944 received “some” prison time, 1,088 individuals obtained acquittals, and 279 charged individuals never went to trial.
Efforts to reduce non-capital sentences began almost immediately. In 1950, General Douglas MacArthur, serving as Supreme Allied Commander, Far East, ordered reduced sentences for good behavior and paroled those serving life sentences after fifteen years. In April 1952, Japanese citizens began to demand the release of prisoners because they had not received “fair trials” or because their families were suffering hardships. The Japanese (mostly civilians, by the time) began to argue that the war criminals were not criminals — they were only doing their duty. In May 1952, President Truman issued an executive order establishing a clemency and parole board for war criminals. By the end of 1958, the Tokyo Tribunal ordered all Japanese war criminals not already executed, including Class A convicts, to be released. All of these people were suddenly “rehabilitated.”
In Japan, there is a difference between legal and moral positions on war crimes. Japan violated no international law, they argue, because Japan did not acknowledge such international laws. But the Japanese government has “apologized” for such incidents because they caused unnecessary suffering. The Japanese like to apologize for issues where no apology is adequate. It’s all about “saving face” for themselves — without genuine guilt for the horrific suffering they inflicted upon men (and women) who were only doing their duty as members of the Allied forces.
The other side
The preceding discussion in no way attempts to absolve American servicemen who were also guilty of war crimes, particularly since this topic addresses war crimes perpetrated against Japanese soldiers taken as prisoners of war. There is no excuse for such behavior, even though there are reasons for it.
Recently landed Marines of the 1st Marine Division on the island of Guadalcanal were not in a particularly happy frame of mind on 11 August 1942. Since their arrival five days earlier, they had been under constant assault by Japanese naval artillery and air attacks. Ground fire and snipers continually harassed the Marines, and they were getting fed up with it.
The Marines weren’t too happy with the Navy, either. Two days earlier, Admiral Fletcher made the difficult decision to withdraw several amphibious supply ships that were in the process of unloading ammunition, food stores, and medical equipment needed to sustain the Marines in ground combat. Although the average Marine grunt didn’t realize it, Fletcher’s decision was prudent and responsible because, had Fletcher not withdrawn those supply ships, Japanese submarines and destroyers would have sunk them.
On 12 August, a Marine security patrol observed what they thought was a white flag near the Matanikau River, not too far from the Marine perimeter. Later in the day, Marines captured a Japanese sailor who, after a liberal dose of whiskey, divulged that many of his comrades in the jungle were starving and on the verge of surrendering.
At this point, Guadalcanal Marines were full of beans, itching for a fight, and still untested in combat. The information received that day was exciting but unverified. A drunken sailor is hardly a good source of information, and while everyone knew what a white flag meant, could it be possible that the Japanese were interested in surrendering this early in the game?
To find out, the Division Intelligence Officer (G-2) was tasked to lead a reconnaissance patrol to the area where an earlier patrol had spotted a white flag. On the evening of 12 August 1942, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Goettge, USMC, the G-2, led a 25-man patrol to verify the veracity of earlier reports, accept the surrender of Japanese soldiers, disarm them, and escort them back to Marine lines. The patrol’s secondary mission was to gather information about the enemy.
The problem was that Marine operations had already scheduled a patrol. Since it wouldn’t do to have combat patrols bumping into one another in the dense jungle or after dusk, the Marines simply re-tasked the patrol and placed it under the operational control of Colonel Goettge.
Goettge hand-selected several men to accompany him on patrol. Lieutenant Commander Malcolm L. Pratt was a navy surgeon. Captain Wilfred Ringer, the 5th Marines intelligence officer; First Lieutenant Ralph Corey, a Japanese language specialist, and First Sergeant Stephen A. Custer, from the 5th Marines staff. The riflemen assigned to the patrol included Sergeant Charles C. “Monk” Amdt, Sergeant Frank L. Few, and Corporal Joe Spaulding.
After loading his men into the Higgins boat, the patrol shoved off at 18:00 hours, a delay caused by Goettge making last-minute changes to the route of march. Rather than leading the patrol directly into the heavy jungle from the Marine perimeter, Goettge elected to ferry the patrol by boat to the west of Lunga Point, east of Point Cruz, and just off the mouth of the Matanikau River. It was already getting dark, so Goettge planned to land his men, bivouac for the night, and proceed up the Matanikau River in the morning.
In the darkness, Goettge lost sight of his landing point, and he directed the landing point further east. As the boat approached the mouth of the river, its engines throbbing loudly in the night, Japanese defenders became aware of their enemy’s presence. As the boat came into contact with the shoreline, the Marines disembarked on the west side of the river — precisely where they were warned not to go.
Once the Marines were ashore, Goettge had his Marines establish a defensive perimeter on the beach. With the Japanese sailor trussed in a tightrope, Goettge, Ringer, and Custer followed the prisoner into the jungle toward the supposed location of the weary, starving, ready-to-surrender soldiers. Shortly after these men disappeared into the thick foliage, gunfire shattered the night. Goettge and the Japanese sailor fell dead; Ringer carried the wounded Custer back to the beach within hail of small arms fire. Dr. Pratt tended to Pratt and a few other wounded men. Members of the patrol returned fire to keep the enemy from approaching their position.
After a few minutes, the Japanese stopped firing. Sergeant Few, Sergeant Arndt, and Corporal Spaulding low-crawled into the jungle to find Goettge and the Japanese squid. Goettge was found dead, with bullet wounds to his head. Spaulding crawled back to the beach to secure the help of additional men. While he was making his way, Japanese soldiers rushed Sgt Few’s positions. Few, thinking the Japanese were his men, called out with a challenge, but rather than offering a password, the Japanese soldier bayonetted Sergeant Few. Sergeant Few, now highly pissed off, grabbed the Japanese soldier’s rifle, took it away from him, bayonetted him to death, and shot and killed another soldier with his pistol.
As Few and Arndt returned to the beach, they killed two additional Japanese. Captain Ringer established a tight defensive perimeter but knew that his vastly out-numbered men could not sustain a major assault. Worse for the Marines, the Japanese knew exactly where they were. It was only a matter of time. Meanwhile, Dr. Pratt, wounded in an earlier fusillade while treating a wounded Marine, died from his wounds. Captain Ringer tried to improvise without a radio by firing tracer rounds into the air. The call for help went unanswered.
Next, Ringer asked for volunteers to return to the Marine perimeter. Sergeant Arndt, a trained scout and a strong swimmer, agreed to swim five miles back for help. Arndt departed at around 01:00 on 13 August. As Arndt waded into the surf, the remaining men accepted their situation in stride; they were, after all, Marines.
Slowly and carefully, Japanese soldiers approached the Marine position. The closer they got, the more accurate their rifle fire. Twenty Marines dwindled to ten. Custer had fallen to gunfire. An hour had passed since Arndt went into the water, and Ringer had no idea if he’d made it. He dispatched Spaulding on the same mission.
An hour later, the Marine’s situation turned desperate. Only four Marines remained effective, including Ringer, who led his men toward the jungle with hopes of concealing themselves. Within a few moments, only Sergeant Few remained alive. If the sergeant had any chance of survival, he had to leave the area immediately. He did not believe any of his comrades were still alive. While under enemy fire, Few headed for the surf. Upon reaching deeper water, Few observed the Japanese mutilating the dead Marines. “The Japs closed in and hacked up our people,” Sergeant Few testified. “I could see their swords flashing in the sun.”
At 08:00, an exhausted Sergeant Few dragged himself out of the water near Marine’s lines and delivered his report to a Marine officer. Within a short time, the 5th Marines commander ordered Company A, supported by two platoons from Company L and a machine gun section, to proceed to Point Cruz. The problem was that they were looking for the Goettge patrol where he was supposed to be. A thorough search of the area failed to locate the remains of the Marines — that was the official report. However, Private Donald Langer, one of the scouts, reported spotting dismembered body parts half buried in the sand. Before Marine headquarters could organize a third search party, a tropical storm hit the island, and the remains of the Marines were washed out to sea.
The final disposition of the remains of the Goettge patrol is unknown. What is not disputed is that the Japanese mutilation created far-reaching consequences. Accounts of what happened spread throughout the entire Pacific theater. The least of these consequences was that the 1st Marine Division lost its entire intelligence section in a futile, ill-conceived, poorly executed patrol. The worst of these consequences (arising from two provocative Japanese behaviors — perfidy and mutilation) was that the Marines began hating the Japs with unbridled passion. They subsequently refused to take prisoners, even those few who indicated surrender. And the Marines were angry at themselves for having fallen for such an obvious trap. They wouldn’t make that mistake again.
News of this incident reached the United States through Richard Tregaskis. No one in the United States thought that their armies should take prisoners. “The only good Jap is a dead Jap” became a popular catchphrase, and in the minds of Marines and soldiers alike, if the Japs wanted a dirty war, they’d get one. Private Langer recalled, “After this, ‘no prisoners’ became an unspoken agreement.” After the Goettge incident, the brutish killing of Japanese became as common as Pacific Island palm trees.
Two wrongs do not make a right — we all heard that from our parents. At the same time, on this issue, those who monitor battlefield behavior (as well as the folks back home) must understand that war is not a humane endeavor.
The military forces of all countries train their combatants to locate, close with, and kill the enemy. Armed conflict is, by its very nature, deadly. Combat is an adrenaline-rich environment, fluid, stressful, and always influenced by the actions (or perceived actions) of the opposing force. Combatants make life and death decisions within split seconds, and no combatant is ever dispassionate about what transpires within those mere seconds.
The enemy is not human. He is the enemy. He must surrender or die. The duty to inflict death or greater pain and suffering on the enemy is what we pay our soldiers to do, and they must do it with intentional resolve, in the space of a second, in a lethal environment. Once these events have begun, they cannot be turned on and off again as a faucet. No government bureaucrat or military lawyer has the right to judge these events when they’ve never experienced them firsthand.
Before and during the Pacific War, Japan’s imperial forces violated every tenet of generally accepted battlefield proscriptions. They murdered, mutilated, tortured, raped, and inflicted grossly inhumane treatment upon those who, as POWs, could no longer defend themselves. When American Marines and Soldiers became aware of these inhumane behaviors, they reacted as any civilized person would (or should). In this context, the Japanese obtained their just rewards at the hands of U. S. military personnel.
Bergerud, E. M. Touched with Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific. Penguin Books, 1997.
Manchester, W. Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific. Little/Brown, 1980.
Tregaskis, R. Guadalcanal Diary. Landmark Books, 1943; Modern Library, 2000.
Wukovits, J. The Ill-Fated Goettge Patrol Incident in the Early Days of Guadalcanal. Warfare History Network (online), 2016.
 Unit 731 under LtGen Shiro Ishii, was established under the direct order of Emperor Hirohito. POW victims suffered amputations without anesthesia, vivisection, transfusing horse blood, and biological weapons testing. Ishi was never prosecuted because the U.S. Government offered him immunity in exchange for handing over the results of his experiments. We may deplore General Ishi for his incredible inhumanity, but we must abhor the American government even more.
 Feigning injury or surrender to lure an enemy and then attacking or ambushing them.
 Sergeant Few was prominently mentioned in the book titled Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis, who described him as a half-breed Indian “vastly respected by the men because he is, as the Marines say, ‘really rugged.’”
Every Marine has his (or her) own reasons for joining the U.S. Marine Corps. I suspect there are so many reasons that it may be impossible to catalog them all. Jim Anderson was 19 years old when he signed up from Los Angeles, California. Whatever his reason, Jim had just completed 18 months of college. Apparently, his sense of duty to his country was more important than staying in college.
As with most “West Coast” Marines, Jim Anderson attended recruit training (boot camp) at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California. After graduation, he was promoted to Private First Class, and, as with all West Coast Marines, attended Infantry training at Camp Pendleton, California.
In late 1966, the Marines had been fighting in South Vietnam for going on two years. In December, James joined the 3rd Marine Division, and he was subsequently assigned to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (Fox 3/3). In February, the elements of five battalions participated in Operation Prairie II — a continuation of Operation Prairie I. which took place under the overall command of Brigadier General Michael P. Ryan, formerly the Commanding General, 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade. Ryan supervised the employment of 2/3, 3/3, 3/4, 1/9, and 2/9.
These operations were necessary because during the Tet Holiday, having agreed to a cease-fire, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) used the temporary truce to infiltrate across the DMZ into the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). On 25 February, Marine artillery initiated the bombardment of NVA units within (and north of) the Demilitarized Zone (called the DMZ). The NVA responded by bombarding the area of Con Thiên and Firebase Gio Linh.
On the morning of 27 February, a Marine reconnaissance patrol northwest of the Cam Lo Combat Base attempted to ambush a small unit of NVA soldiers. As it turned out, the NVA unit was larger than the Marines thought, which became apparent when the NVA suddenly attacked the attackers. The NVA unit was a rifle company of the 812th infantry regiment. It didn’t take long for the Marines to get on the radio and call for assistance. When the request came in for support, Lima Company, 3/4 was in the process of conducting a security patrol north of Cam Lo. Operational authority diverted Lima Company to aid the recon unit. Nothing seemed to be working out for the Marines that day because beyond being bogged down by thick vegetation, a company of NVA regulars attacked Lima Company, which stalled the effort to save the Recon Marines.
In view of these circumstances, Ryan ordered Golf Company, 2/3 from Camp Carroll to extricate the beleaguered recon patrol. Golf Company linked up with the recon Marines at around 2340 that night.
At 0630 on 28 February, the NVA hit Lima Company’s position with more than 150 mortar rounds. The communists followed their artillery bombardment with a major ground attack against three sides of the Lima Company’s perimeter. Rocket-propelled grenades slammed into both Marine tanks supporting the company but remained in operation. Within a period of two and a half hours, Lima Company repulsed three separate attacks. In that time, the company lost four Marines killed and 34 wounded. Ryan dispatched Marines from Fox Company 3/3 to reinforce Lima 3/4. Fox Company linked up with Lima Company at around 1030. Meanwhile, Golf Company 2/3 formed a blocking position on Hill 124. En route to the blocking position, the Golf Company Marines found themselves engaged by NVA from both sides of their route of march. The battle lasted well into the afternoon — with Golf Company losing seven killed, and 30 wounded.
At 1430, the 2/3 command element under Lieutenant Colonel Victor Ohanesian moved with Fox Company from Lima Company’s position toward Hill 124. Jim Anderson’s platoon had the point position. This movement triggered an NVA ambush, and the Marines were hit with intense small arms and automatic weapons fire. The platoon reacted quickly, forming a hasty defense, and mounting a stiff resistance.
PFC Anderson found himself bunched together with other members of his squad twenty yards in front of the enemy line. As the battle intensified, several of Anderson’s squad members received debilitating gunshot wounds. When an enemy grenade suddenly landed in the midst of the squad near Anderson’s position, Jim Anderson unhesitatingly, and with complete disregard for his own safety, reached out, grasped the grenade, and pulled it under his chest to shield his fellow Marines from shrapnel. PFC Anderson’s personal heroism saved members of his squad from certain death. In an instant, Private First Class James Anderson, Jr., gallantly gave up his life for his fellow Marines.
When Operation Prairie II concluded on 18 March 1967, U.S. Marines had suffered 93 killed in action, and 483 wounded. In this one operation, American forces killed 694 NVA regulars. The fight continued under Operation Prairie III on 19 March.
Richard Allen Anderson
Richard was born in Washington, D.C. on 16 April 1948 but raised in Houston, Texas, graduating from M. B. Smiley High School in May 1966. Richard Anderson also attended college before dropping out to join the Marines on 8 April 1968. After graduating from boot camp in San Diego, California, and infantry training at Camp Pendleton, California, the Marine Corps ordered Richard to Sea School in San Diego. Promoted to PFC on 1 July 1968, Richard completed his training in October and proceeded to Okinawa, Japan, where the Marine Corps assigned him to the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade and assigned to Company D, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines.
In January 1969, Marine Headquarters assigned Anderson to Company E, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion where he served as a platoon scout and later, as an Assistant Fire Team Leader. The Marines promoted Anderson to Lance Corporal on 1 June 1969.
In the early morning hours of 24 August 1969, Anderson’s recon team came under heavy automatic weapons fire from a numerically superior and well-concealed NVA ambush. Although knocked to the ground by the enemy’s initial fire and painfully wounded in both legs, LCpl Anderson rolled into a prone shooting position and began to return fire into the enemy’s ranks. Moments later, he was wounded for a second time by an enemy soldier who had approached within eight feet of the Marine defensive line.
Undeterred by his wounds, LCpl Anderson killed the enemy soldier and continued to pour a relentless stream of fire into the enemy. Observing an enemy hand grenade land between himself and members of his fire team, Anderson immediately rolled over onto the grenade and absorbed the full impact of its deadly explosion. Through Richard’s indomitable courage and selflessness, he saved his fellow Marines from certain death. In that instant, Lance Corporal Richard A. Anderson gallantly gave up his life for his fellow Marines.
Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends
James and Richard Anderson, though sharing a last name, were unrelated — except that both were United States Marines. Both men were in their twenties; both Marines distinguished themselves through virtuous behavior on the field of battle. Both Marines were posthumously awarded the nation’s highest recognition: the Medal of Honor. There was but one difference in these young men: their skin color. Both of these young men gave all they had to give — and did it in order to save the lives of their Marine brothers.
 Traditionally, honor graduates from recruit training receive promotions to Private First Class upon graduation. It is likely that Anderson was so recognized in his graduating platoon.
 Michael P. Ryan, a former enlisted Marine, served at Iceland, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian during World War II. For service at Tarawa, Ryan was awarded the Navy Cross medal for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service as a company commander and provisional battalion commander on Betio Island.
The Republic of Vietnam was divided into four corps-sized tactical zones during the Vietnam War. Generally, a corps consists of three infantry divisions and additional supporting units. This is not to say that three infantry divisions were always present inside each tactical zones (also known as CTZs), but rather, how war planners in Saigon decided to manage the war in South Vietnam. The northernmost of these CTZs was the I Corps Tactical Zone (also, I CTZ).
In terms of square miles, I CTZ was a massive area — the size of which necessitated dividing the zone into smaller regions labeled Tactical Areas of Responsibility (TAOR). The senior American military commander in I CTZ was the Commanding General, III Marine Expeditionary Force. His command included two Marine Divisions, two Marine Air Wings, a U.S. Army infantry division, several Army aviation companies, and a substantial logistical footprint. Within each of the “major command” TAORs were smaller TAORs, usually assigned to brigades or regiments and broken down further into battalion TAORs.
Form follows function
This arrangement was complex but necessary because the war itself was problematic. Not only were there U.S. Army and Marine Corps units fighting in Vietnam, but there were also U.S. Navy and Air Force units — and all of these were operating along with South Vietnamese military units (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force). What made this even more confusing was that Marine Corps regiments (three battalions each) frequently “loaned” their battalions to other regiments, either as reinforcing organizations or as a replacement for battalions that had suffered significant numbers of casualties (making them ineffective in combat). So, for example, battalions of the 5th Marines, 7th Marines, and 27th Marines might operate under the control of the Commanding Officer, 7th Marines, or just as easily be assigned to serve under another regiment’s TAOR. In this story, elements of all three regiments operated together in a single combat operation known as ALLEN BROOK in the spring of 1968.
At the beginning of 1968, both the Marines at Da Nang and the communists operating in Quang Nam Province were preparing to launch offensive operations against one another. Initially, the enemy confined its activities to guerrilla-styled warfare; information from Marine Corps reconnaissance forces (known as Stingray) seemed to indicate that the communists were re-infiltrating previously held positions in I CTZ. Of particular concern to the Marines was the repopulation of communist forces in the area of Go Noi Island. The island was formed by the confluence of the Ky Lam, Thu Bon, Ba Ren, and Chiem Son Rivers, some 25 13 miles south of Da Nang.
Here’s what happened
One might note that U.S. Marines are good at many things, including finding suitable names for God-forsaken places. Vietnam offered an almost unlimited opportunity for Marines to identify and then name some of the worst places on the earth. They named one of these places Dodge City. They called it that because it was an area where gunfights were almost a daily occurrence.
Dodge City was a flat area crisscrossed by numerous canals and small waterways — an area of around 23 square miles located 13 miles south of Da Nang, west of Highway One. Go Noi Island lay just south of Dodge City. The island became a stronghold and logistics base for hundreds (if not thousands) of Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars of the R-20, V-25, and T-3 Sapper Battalions and the 36th NVA Regiment. Communist forces had the overwhelming support of local villagers, so recruiting VC fighters was never a problem.
The terrain of Go Noi Island was relatively flat, but the island’s several hamlets were linked together by thick hedges, well-concealed paths, and barriers to rapid movement. The net effect of hedges, pathways, and obstructions was a solid defensive network. U.S. Marines operating within the 7th Marine Regiment were knowledgeable of Go Noi Island, having conducted Operation JASPER SQUARE — with only minimal results. The Marine Corps standard for any endeavor exceeds “minimal,” which might explain the Commanding General’s overall unhappiness with the 7th Marines’ performance in Go Noi — so the 7th Marines would have to give it another try.
On the morning of 4 May 1968, Company E, Company G 2/7,  and a platoon of tanks crossed the Liberty Bridge onto the island. Their main task was to evacuate 220 civilians (mostly women, children, and the elderly) from Dai Loc, the district capital. For the first few days, the Marines experienced only light resistance. Afterward, 2/7 aggressed eastward along the main north-south railroad track, experiencing light but increasing resistance from local VC fighters.
Company A 1/7 relieved Company G 2/7 on 7 May. Company K 3/7 reinforced Mueller’s battalion on the morning of 8 May. In those four days, Marines killed 88 communists at the cost of 9 Marines KIA and 57 WIA. Around 1830 on 9 May, Marines sweeping west of the railroad track came under heavy small arms, machine guns, and mortar fire near the hamlet of Xuan Dai. The sudden assault resulted in one Marine killed and 11 wounded.
After air and artillery strikes, Marines pushed into the hamlet, killing an additional 80 communists. A few minutes later, a Marine Corps reconnaissance team (called a Stingray Team) noted the movement of 200 or so enemies moving southwest of Xuan Dai and called additional artillery and air strikes. The air strike set off a secondary explosion of unknown origin.
Over the next four days, Marines met with only token resistance and encountered no regular NVA units. This was a bit strange to Marine operations officers because earlier, the Marines discovered evidence of the 155th Battalion of the 2nd NVA Regiment. Colonel Mueller assumed the NVA battalion was only a temporary infiltration group rather than a regular infantry battalion.
It was at this time that Operation ALLEN BROOK was reoriented to an east-to-west sweep. On 13 May, General Robertson (Commanding General, 1stMarDiv) directed that India Company 3/27 reinforce Mueller’s battalion (2/7). Accordingly, Marine helicopters airlifted India Company to an LZ in the Que Son Mountains (north and overlooking Go Noi Island). On the morning of 14 May, India Company moved to a blocking position near the Ba Ren River, soon joined by additional companies of 2/7.
On 15th May the reinforced 2/7 reversed across the Liberty Bridge as part of a deception campaign, indicating that the Marines were abandoning Go Noi Island. Then, at 1800, Marine helicopters airlifted Echo Company 2/7 and Colonel Mueller’s command group out of the operational area. Lieutenant Colonel Roger H. Barnard, commanding 3/7, assumed command of the remaining forces assigned to ALLEN BROOK.
At midnight on 16 May, Barnard’s command group with Alpha Company 1/7, Golf Company 2/7, and India Company 3/27 recrossed the Liberty Bridge and moved in single file under cover of darkness. At some point in the early morning, Barnard repositioned his companies, two online with one in reserve, and continued moving southward in a search and destroy mission.
At 0900, 3/7 encountered a suspected NVA battalion in the hamlet of Phu Dong, some 4,000 meters west of Xuan Dai. Barnard’s battalion had disrupted a hornet’s nest of communists. Both forward companies walked into deadly small arms and machine gun fire. Barnard attempted to flank the communist defenders, but he didn’t have enough men for that maneuver. Not even Marine artillery or mortar fire could dislodge the stubborn NVA unit. Finally, massive air support (50 air strikes) dislodged the communists, and by early evening, Marine rifle companies were able to push the remaining enemy out of Phu Dong. But that didn’t happen without numerous Marine casualties.
Operating with Golf Company was a nineteen-year-old U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman (Third Class) by the name of Robert Michael Casey from Guttenberg, New Jersey. Doc Casey distinguished himself by exhibiting extraordinary heroism as a field medic. As Golf Company moved into Phu Dong, they encountered overwhelming defensive fires from an estimated four hundred enemy, imposing a substantial number of casualties on the advancing Marines.
Casey unhesitatingly moved forward through the hail of bullets to render medical assistance to wounded and dying Marines. Within fifteen minutes, Doc Casey was hit four times by enemy rifle fire. Each time he was struck by enemy bullets, Casey refused to leave his post and continued to render medical assistance to “his Marines.” But U.S. Marines love their corpsmen; G Company Marines tried to convince Casey to fall back where he could receive medical treatment. Casey steadfastly refused, stating that he had Marines to treat. Casey continued to refuse evacuation until the Company Commander ordered him to withdraw. Casey moved to the rear, as ordered, but at his new location, Doc Casey continued to aid and comfort his wounded comrades. Then, hearing a Marine calling for help, he crawled to that individual and began administering medical treatment. It was at that time that Casey received his final wound and died.
Doc Casey’s unwavering courage, selfless concern for the welfare of his comrades, and steadfast devotion to duty brought great credit upon himself and the United States Navy. Doc Casey’s next of kin later received the posthumous award of the nation’s second highest combat decoration: the NAVY CROSS. More recently, the Marine Corps honored Doc Casey further by naming the Navy Branch Medical Clinic at Marine Corps Air Station, Iwakuni, Japan, in his honor (pictured right).
Golf Company had taken on a battalion-sized enemy organization and defeated them. In this fight, the Marines lost 25 dead and 38 wounded — one of whom was Doc Casey. After seizing the hamlet, the company commander discovered the evacuated headquarters of an NVA regiment and vast quantities of enemy supplies.
The following day, the Marines vacated Phu Dong to continue their sweep toward another hamlet named Le Nam. India Company 3/27 was the lead element of the column. Before mid-morning, India Company’s advance element walked into a concealed, well-placed ambush, offering almost no time for the Marines to fall back and reorganize for a coordinated attack.
The NVA positions were solid, preventing the other companies from assisting India Company. While India Company called for artillery and air strikes, Colonel Barnard put together a two-company air assault. Elements of Kilo Company and Lima Company initiated their attack around 1500, an effort that finally broke through the enemy’s main line of defense at about 1930.
Marine successes prompted yet another enemy withdrawal. By the end of the day, the Marines had lost another 39 KIA and 105 WIA. Private First Class Robert C. Burke (pictured above right), assigned to India Company as a machine-gunner, was later posthumously awarded the MEDAL OF HONOR.
The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, replaced 3/7, and the Commanding Officer 3/27 assumed operational control of ALLEN BROOK on 18 May 1968. At the same time Woodham took control of the operation, Colonel Adolph G. Schwenk, Jr. assumed overall operating authority from the 7th Marines. At that time, Woodham had only two rifle companies: Kilo and Lima Company. Company M was assigned security duties at Da Nang, and Company I was still attached to Barnard’s battalion.
Operation ALLEN BROOK continued until 27 May 1968. It was more or less a series of conventional battles against a well-entrenched, well-armed, and well-trained enemy force of North Vietnamese regulars. Casualties on both sides had been heavy, with Marine losses of 138 KIA, 686 WIA, and another 283 heat casualties (noting that the battle took place in 110-degree heat). Enemy losses were estimated to be around 600 killed and wounded. The deceptive tactics employed by the Marines resulted in defeating the enemy’s plan to launch a major offensive against the Da Nang airfield and surrounding area before the end of May.
Kelley, M. Where We Were in Vietnam. Hellgate Press, 2002.
Shulimson, J. U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1968: The defining Year. HQMC Washington, D.C., 1997.
 Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. Mueller, Commanding.
 Information provided to me by Master Sergeant George Loar, Jr., USMC (Retired).
 PFC Burke was the youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War. At the time of his courageous action, he was 18 years of age.
 3/27 was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Tullis J. Woodham, Jr.