Louis Cukela, U.S.M.C.

Ven I vaunt to send a damned fool, I send myself.

One of the Marine Corps’ “colorful” characters of the past was Major Louis Cukela.  Cukela was born in the kingdom of Dalmatia on 1 May 1888 (modern-day Croatia).  A “mustang,” Cukela rose in ranks from Private to Major over a career spanning 29 years.  Three things made this officer a colorful character: his broken accent, short temper, and unquestioned courage and valor in combat.   

Louis Cukela received his primary education in Dalmatia with further schooling at the Merchant Academy and Royal Gymnasium.  In 1913, he migrated to the United States with his brother, both young men deciding to settle in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  There may not have been many job opportunities in Minneapolis in the early part of the 20th century, which could explain why Cukela decided to join the U.S. Army in 1914.  Corporal Cukela accepted his discharge from the army in 1916.

Seven months later, before the United States officially entered Europe’s Great War, Louis Cukela enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.  Officially, the United States entered the war on 6 April 1917.  In late May, President Wilson directed the Secretary of the Navy to issue orders detaching a Marine regiment for service with the U.S. Army in France.  The regiment would be known as the 5th Regiment of U.S. Marines.  And, as a demonstration of the combat readiness of these Marines, the regiment sailed for France sixteen days later.[1]

Cukela served in the 66th rifle company in the Norfolk, Virginia area.  As the Marines reformed for service with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), Marine rifle companies formed as part of infantry battalions within regiments.  The 15th rifle company (Pensacola) joined the 49th, 66th, and 67th companies to create the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.  The 1stBn embarked aboard the U.S.S. DeKalb, arriving at St. Nazaire on 26 June.

Initially, the Army assigned these Marines to the U.S. First Infantry Division.  Many of these Marines had combat experience, but not as part of a land army.  This necessitated that the marines undergo training to familiarize them with land operations. This training involved instruction by French infantry officers and N.C.O.s in offensive and defensive operations, trench warfare, grenade throwing, bayonet fighting, and infantry-artillery coordination. Until this training could be accomplished, the Marines performed communications duties (as messengers) and certain other logistical duties.

In September 1917, the 5th Marines was assigned to serve under the U.S. Second Infantry Division.  In October, the regiment became part of the 4th Brigade of Marines (one of two infantry brigades in the 2nd Division).  Despite the regiment’s pre-combat training, General Pershing had no confidence that the 5th Marines were ready for service in the line.  In March 1918, the Marine Brigade relocated to the relatively quiet area of Toulon.  To acquaint Marines with combat service opposing German troops, the regiments rotated battalions into the trenches for a set period of time.  When the Marines were not standing watch, they were kept busy improving or repairing their trenches.

On 19 – 20 March, during a battalion relief operation, the enemy launched a raid in force.  The extraordinary effort of the 49th Company, 3rd Battalion, sent the enemy reeling back to their own trenches.  At this time, the German high command began paying closer attention to those American Marines.  On 30 May, the A.E.F. assigned the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division to the French Sixth Army, after which the Marine Brigade received the mission of stemming a German thrust toward Paris.  Retreating units and civilian refugees clogged up the lines of communication, requiring the Marines to disembark from their motorized vehicles and proceed toward  Meaux.[2]

Gunnery Sergeant (later Second Lieutenant) Cukela fought in every engagement in which his regiment participated. That’s what Marines do — but it was just as well they were focusing their attention on the Germans because, according to Major General James G. Harbord, commanding the U.S. Second Infantry Division, the French high command was a disaster.  No one knew anything — and didn’t seem to care.

On 2 June, the battalions of the 5th Marines occupied reserve and line duty north of the Marne River and west of Chateau-Thierry.  Harbord struggled to organize the lines of the French XXI Corps and cover the withdrawal of French infantry/artillery units.  Harbord finally accomplished this by mid-day on 4 June 1918.  That afternoon, 2/5 repulsed two German assaults against the withdrawing French and convinced the Germans to withdraw into defensive positions.

The French Sixth Army ordered the XXI Corps to straighten its lines; XXI Corps assigned the mission to the 2nd Infantry Division, and Harbord handed it off to the Marine Brigade.  Second Battalion, 5th Marines successfully mounted the first attack and straightened out the allied lines.  For the second attack, General Harbord sent the Marines into Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood).  The fight set a single American infantry division against five German divisions.  By the end of the battle on 23 June 1918, the 5th Marines had suffered 2,000 killed and wounded — but the struggle also set into motion a massive German withdrawal that continued until the Armistice.

Tiffany Cross
Medal of Honor

On 18 July 1918 at Soissons, the 66th Company operated in the Forêt de Retz some 50 miles northeast of Paris, near Villiers-Cotterets, when a German strong point held up the company’s advance.  Alone, of his own volition, Cukela crawled beyond the company’s lines toward the German defenses.  Despite the enemy’s bullets zipping just above his head, he captured an enemy machine gun by bayoneting its three-man crew.  Then, using German grenades, Cukela demolished the remaining part of the enemy’s strong point.  He silenced the Germans, captured four prisoners, and captured two undamaged machine guns.  For this action, the United States awarded Gunnery Sergeant Cukela two medals of honor — one from the U.S. Army and another from the U.S. Navy. [3]

In addition to his two medals of honor, Cukela also received three Silver Star medals and several French National/Military awards: Legion of Honor (Chevalier), Military Medal, and three Croix de Guerre.

Cukela may have been entitled to two purple heart medals, as well, for wounds received while engaged with the enemy.  He did not receive these awards because, believing his wounds minor, he never reported to sick bay for treatment.

On 1 November 1919, First Lieutenant Cukela joined the 1st Marine Brigade in Haiti.  Soon after arriving and being made aware of the mission of garrisoning Marines in Haitian towns, Cukela took aside one promising young second lieutenant and observed it was a waste of time.  Instead, the Marines should pursue the Cacos into the mountains and be done with them.  It was a logical proposal, and the young lieutenant — Lewis B. Puller — never forgot Cukela’s advice.

While serving in the Caribbean, Cukela’s brigade commander charged him with executing three Haitian detainees.  A medical officer examined Cukela and reported him as highly agitated and smelling of alcohol.  Reputation-wise, Cukela was thought to have a propensity for executing Cacos.  Cukela was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the “word,” having gotten out, prompted the Commandant to reassign him to the Dominican Republic.

His battlefield appointment to Second Lieutenant took place on 26 September 1918, and a regular commission was conferred on 31 March 1919.  He advanced to First Lieutenant on 17 July 1919 and Captain on 15 September 1921. 

In 1955, Warner Brothers cartoonist and story writer Warren Foster (1904 – 1971) developed a tale he titled Sahara Hare.  It was a continuation of the epic contest between Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam (who appears in the tale as Riff Raff Sam).  Bugs pops up in the desert, thinking he’s arrived at Miami Beach.  Meanwhile, while riding on a camel, Sam suddenly comes upon Bugs’ tracks and exclaims, “Great horney toads!  A trespasser is getting footy prints all over my desert.”  Sam orders the camel to slow down and loudly says, “Whoa camel, whoa!  Whoa!”  Ignored by the camel, Sam whacks him on the head and tells the half conscience camel, “When I say Whoa, I means WHOA!”

Funny stuff, if you enjoy Warner Brothers Cartoons — but it makes you wonder if Warren Foster ever served in the Marines and knew or ran across one of the great Cukela stories. Captain Cukela was no Cossack; he had little interest in equestrian pursuits and rode like a sack of rice. Assigned to attend the Army Infantry Officers School at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army emphasized infantry tactics but also demanded that its officer students demonstrate mastery of the horse. One day, his mount took off at a gallop toward Alabama, and nothing Captain Cukela did could persuade the horse from the gallop.  He ordered “Stop Horse” on several occasions — to no avail.  Finally, Captain Cukela balled up his fist and whacked the horse as hard as he could on its forehead, and the animal sank to its knees.  Dismounting, Captain Cukela admonished the horse, “I am Cukela — you are the horse.  I tell you, stop — you stop.  You not stop, damn you, I break your head.”    

On 30 June 1940, the date of his retirement, Cukela was promoted to Major — but he was recalled to active duty a month later in anticipation of war with Japan. 

During World War II, Major Cukela served as a supply officer at Norfolk, Virginia, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  He was returned to the retired list on 17 May 1946 — achieving 32 years of active military service.

After Major Cukela suffered a stroke in 1955, he lay dying at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.  One afternoon, a prominent Lieutenant General visited his bedside.  Cukela, even in his weakened state, had no trouble recognizing Chesty Puller — but kept referring to him as “Lieutenant.” Cukela observed to Puller that he was dying.  General Puller answer, “That’s all right, old man.  You’re going to Valhalla — where all Marines go. 

Louis Cukela, aged 67 years, passed away on 19 March 1956.

Cukela made the famous quote, shown at the beginning of this post, after receiving a garbled and incomprehensible field message.  According to author and biographer Colonel Merrill Bartlett, USMC (Retired) Cukela’s strange comments caught on quickly in the A.E.F. — even to General Pershing, himself. 

Sources:

  1. Who’s Who in Marine Corps History.  History Division, HQMC
  2. Yingling, J. M.  A Brief History of the 5th Marines.  Washington, D.C., 1963, 1968.

Endnotes:

[1] The rapid organization, equipping, and embarkation of the regiment was the product of considerable forethought by senior Marine Corps planners. 

[2] The weather was hot, the roads dusty, and the Marines were over-burdened by carrying their supplies and equipment on their backs.  Morale was not improved with the dejected and terrorized looks appearing on the faces of French soldiers moving away from the battle site.  It was at this time when Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 2nd Battalion told a French colonel that the Marines would not retreat — “We just got here.”

[3] Following World War I, the U.S. Navy decided to recognize two kinds of heroism.  One involving extraordinary courage in the face of the enemy, and the other recognition for non-combat service.  The ribbon pattern on the medal awarded for non-combat reflected an up-side-down star.  The new pattern medal was designed by the Tiffany Company (1919), reflecting actual combat.  It was known as the Tiffany Cross Medal of Honor but due to its similarity with the German Cross, the medal was unpopular, and several awardees requested a newer design once issued in 1942. 


Continental Marines

JOURNAL OF THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS
(Philadelphia) Friday, November 10, 1775

Resolved, That two Battalions of marines be raised, consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors, and other officers as usual in other regiments; and that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken, that no persons be appointed to office, or enlisted into said Battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea when required; that they be enlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war between Great Britain and the colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress: that they be distinguished by the names of the first and second battalions of American Marines, and that they be considered as part of the number which the continental Army before Boston is ordered to consist of.

Ordered: That a copy of the above be transmitted to the General.

The General

George Washington was an army man — with considerable experience gained in militia service beginning in 1752. Through his older brother Lawrence, serving as Virginia’s Adjutant General, George received an appointment as major and commander of one of the colony’s four military districts. It was a time when the British and French competed for control of the Ohio Valley. In those days, the Virginia colony extended all the way to present-day southern Ohio.

In 1753, Virginia governor Dinwiddie appointed Washington as his special envoy and sent him into the French territories to demand that French forces withdraw from British territory, and to forge an alliance with the Iroquois nation.  Major Washington completed his mission in record time: 77 days.

In 1754, Gov. Dinwiddie promoted Washington to lieutenant colonel and assigned him to serve as the executive officer (deputy commander) of the Virginia Regiment.  Dinwiddie ordered the regiment to confront the French at the fork of the Ohio River.  Washington set off in compliance with those orders, leading around 150 men.  Washington’s information was that the French had around 1,000 troops involved in the construction of Fort Duquesne.  Typically, Washington’s information was wrong.  The French had around 50 men.  We remember this engagement as the Battle of Jumonville.  It was the event that started the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

A year later, Lieutenant Colonel Washington served as a volunteer militia aide to Major General Edward Braddock, commander of a British expedition sent to deal with the French and their Indian allies.  The confrontation became known as the Battle of the Monongahela, the Battle of Braddock’s Field, and the Battle of the Wilderness.  It was a disaster for the British; but General Braddock wasn’t too pleased, either.

The Captain

Samuel Nicholas was born in Philadelphia in 1744.  He was the youngest of three children of Anthony and Mary Nicholas.  Mary died in 1750; Anthony was a blacksmith with a drinking problem.  He died the next year when Samuel was seven years old.  The children were turned over to their uncle, Attwood Shute, who was then serving as the mayor of Philadelphia.  In 1752, Shute enrolled Samuel in the Academy and College of Philadelphia.

There is not much known about Captain Nicholas between his graduation from school in 1759 and his appointment in 1775.  We suspect that he was an educated gentleman of good reputation — otherwise, he would not have received a commission for service as an officer of Marines.

The Marine Battalions

The Congress formed a naval committee in mid-October 1775.  The naval committee would have the responsibility for managing naval assets, including purchasing ships, appointing officers, directing recruitment, purchasing stores, and issuing orders for naval operations.

A marine committee replaced the naval committee in December 1775.  This committee consisted of one member from each of the thirteen colonies.  It took over responsibility for directing the naval affairs of the Continental Congress.

The naval committee intended that General Washington form two battalions of marines from his existing army.  The marines became necessary when the naval committee developed a plan for an assault on Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Halifax was the primary supply point for Britain’s North American forces.  Only one battalion formed from the Congressional resolution, rather than two.  The battalion allowed for five companies of 300 men.

Congress suspended its plan for the American assault when the Americans learned that the British had landed several infantry regiments and 3,000 Hessian mercenaries.  Canceling the operation gave General Washington some breathing room.  He was struggling to recruit and train men for his land army; he had no interest in drawing forces away from his land regiments to build a force of marines for the navy.  The general preferred that if recruitment must be done for marines, he suggested that this activity take place in New York or in Philadelphia.

That duty, of course, fell upon Captain Samuel Nicholas.

One will note that during the colonial period, America’s soldiers were farmers with some affiliation with a local militia.  They knew about fighting Indians and farming, but they knew far less about fighting in a land army.  And less about fighting from ships.  General Washington’s first priority was recruitment, and his second was training.

Captain Nicholas faced the same challenges, except that his task was to train young men as soldiers of the sea.  His recruits had to be able seamen who were deadly riflemen, who could deliver deadly fire from the riggings from the mainsails.  Sure footing 30 to 50 feet in the air, on a pitching ship, armed with a muzzle-loading musket demanded a certain kind of man.  But what soldiers of the sea knew about fighting on land was next to nil.

As Nicholas’ recruits began to form, he and his deputy, Lieutenant Matthew Parke, stood off to the side resplendent in their green coats,  off-white waistcoats, breeches, and facings.  The sergeant brought the men to order, no doubt snarling at them and using colorful words.  Neither the sergeant nor his recruits were in uniform.  They were dressed as they might have first appeared at the recruitment office.  The sergeant, no doubt a veteran of previous wars with the British Army, may have dressed in native attire, a sword hanging from his waist, a powder horn, and a musket.  Behind these privates was the ship Alfred, Commodore Esek Hopkins, commanding.  There was a mission for the Marines — it would involve the Marine’s First Amphibious Raid.

The fight at Sea

On 6 April 1776, the ship’s voyage northward following the raid on New Providence was in every way routine — which meant that the crew was kept busy with their shipboard duties.  An hour into midnight, the ship’s watch observed two unidentified sails southeast of Alfred’s position.  The officer of the deck ordered beat to quarters, and all hands mustered for action.  One of those ships was a monster, HMS Glasgow, rigged with twenty guns accompanied by her tender.  Captain Nichols deployed his Marines with his able executive officer, 1stLt Matthew Parke, at his side.  Also standing to was 2ndLt John Fitzpatrick, whose station was the quarterdeck. 

HMS Cabot veered off under the weight of Glasgow’s cannon — Hopkins brought Alfred to action.  In one of the first exchanges, Lieutenant Fitzpatrick fell by the weight of a musket ball, killing him instantly.  Of this officer, Nicholas later wrote, “In him I have lost a worthy officer, sincere friend, and companion, that was beloved by all the ship’s company.”

In this engagement, a lucky shot from Glasgow carried off Alfred’s wheel block, making the ship unmanageable.  Hopkins’s other ships joined the fight, sending Glasgow off to Newport, her stern guns firing until out of range.

Joining Washington

At the end of December 1776, General Washington was greatly encouraged by his successful assault against the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey.  On 30 December, Washington crossed the Delaware and re-occupied the city.  At the time, British General Charles Cornwallis commanded a large infantry force at Princeton.  He at once responded by marching toward Trenton.  After an indecisive skirmish at Assanpink Creek, Washington withdrew a short distance eastward to establish his bivouac.

Full of confidence, General Cornwallis made camp believing he had caught the elusive  American.  His plan was to assault Washington at dawn the next day.  General Washington, however, had other ideas.  Once night had fallen, Washington assembled his force and, leaving guards to keep the fires burning throughout the night, set out through rough country to Princeton Road.

At sunrise, the British 17th and 35th Regiments just outside Princeton, setting out to reinforce Cornwallis, spotted an American army rapidly moving toward the city.  Quickly ordering up the 40th Regiment, British Colonel Charles Mawhood opened fire with his field cannon and ordered the 17th forward with fixed bayonets.  Mawhood’s charge hurled the Americans under General Hugh Mercer back in disorder.  Pennsylvania troops under General John Cadwalader, and Marines under Captain Samuel Nicholas, quickly took over the fight.  As the Marines weighed into the line, the Pennsylvanians were repulsed.  Washington, seeing the disorder, rushed to the line, personally reformed the Virginians and Pennsylvanians, and then appealing to the soldier’s patriotic fervor, led these men to extend their line within 30 yards of the 40th and ordered, “Fire!”

The American volley and a British response shrouded the field in thick gun smoke.  As the pall slowly lifted, the Red Coats saw that they had suffered the worst of it and broke their ranks in retreat.  Washington ordered his men to pursue them.  Nichols Marines needed no such encouragement.

Every Climb and Place

… Happy Birthday, Marines!

One of the greatest gifts bestowed on the American people during their formative period was the wisdom of the nation’s founding members to create, establish, and maintain a small but elite corps of individuals so imbued with patriotism and devotion that they willingly gave up their lives in the service to their country — and to one another.  They called themselves Marines.  In 1775, they were called Continental Marines.  They have never relinquished their sense of duty, or their honor since their creation on that blustery early November day 247 years ago.

The Marine Corps Hymn is both a chronicle of the story of American Marines and an ongoing pledge to the purpose of the U.S. Marine Corps — to which all Marines subscribe.

Although we do not know the name of the individual who penned the words to the Hymn, the words are much easier to trace (historically) than the music, which many scholars seem willing to attribute to the French composer,  Jacques Offenbach.  Offenbach’s opera was called Geneviève de Brabant.  Geneviève’s story is believed to rest on the events surrounding Marine de Brabant, the wife of Louis II, Duke of Bavaria and Count Palatine de Rhine.  Marie was suspected of infidelity and subsequently tried by her husband, found guilty, and beheaded (18 January 1256).  When the verdict was shown in error, religious officials required Louis to atone, which did very little for Marie, by then long dead.  The change in the name from Marie to Geneviève may relate to the so-called cult of Geneviève, patroness of Paris, France.

The opera was first performed in 1859 (or thereabouts).  But there are those who claim that Offenbach’s tune originated from a Spanish folk song long before 1859.  This too is interesting because Spanish classical music was already in decline by the beginning of the 18th century, replaced in many instances by post-renaissance Italian classical constructs in the 19th and 20th centuries.  If we address this question-mark, then we must also understand that symphonic music was never important to Spaniards, who preferred solo instrumental (guitar and piano) and vocal operas by local (regional) composers and then to this, we must add the fact that musically, there are twelve distinctive Spanish cultural regions.  Questions of music aside, the words to this song are exclusive “American Marine” — we simply do not know who. 

Continental Marines ceased to exist when the U.S. Congress decided that a standing naval and military force was no longer needed in the newly created United States of America — following the war with Great Britain in 1783, of course.  But within ten years, it became apparent to President Washington that the United States could not defend its sovereignty at home or abroad without a naval presence on the high seas, or a land army at home to address Indian unrest.  See also: At Tripoli.[1]

It was in response to intolerable insults to the United States by various leaders of the Turkish Empire and the barbary states that America’s first three presidents instituted somewhat hesitant and mostly inadequate policies directed at the Barbary States.  At Tripoli (Part I) describes the background and naval campaign implemented to address Islamist blackguards and wastrels.  In recognition of the extraordinary courage and patriotism of Captain William Eaton and First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, the Marine Corps Hymn recalls … “to the shores of Tripoli.”

Mexican-American War

During the Mexican-American War (1846-48), American Marines served alongside the U.S. Army under General Winfield Scott.  Following the battle of Mexico City, known as the Battle of Chapultepec, American forces captured the Chapultepec Castile, also known as the Halls of Montezuma.  It was this victory, in 1847, that effectively ended the war with Mexico.

In 1942, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, serving as 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps, authorized a change to the fourth line of the first stanza of the Marine Corps Hymn to include a reference to Marine Corps aviation.  The line, originally written “On the land as on the sea,” was changed to “In the air, on land, and sea.”[2]

The Battle Colors of the United States Marine Corps

The official Battle Colors of the U.S. Marine Corps are maintained at Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C., the oldest organization in the Marine Corps.  A duplicate battle color is retained in the office of the Commandant of the Marine Corps.  What distinguishes the Battle Colors of the United States Marine Corps from all other Marine Corps battle colors is that they contain the battle streamers of every battle fought by Marines since 1775.  The flags found in regular Marine Corps units, maintained in the office of battalion commanders and above (air squadrons, regiments, aviation groups, infantry divisions, air wings, and fleet Marine Force headquarters organizations, is that they contain battle streamers only of the battles those units participated in.  For example, a battalion that did not participate in World War I would not have any battle streamers associated with World War I.

The Battle Colors of the U.S. Marine Corps contain fifty-five battle streamers; they represent U.S. and foreign decorations and awards for combat service, expeditions, and campaigns since the American Revolution.  During the Marine Corps’ first 150 years, Marines in the field carried a variety of flags.  It was not until 18 April 1925 that Marine Corps Order Number 4 designated gold and scarlet as the official colors of the U.S. Marine Corps.  These colors, however, were not reflected in the official Marine Corps flag until 18 January 1939 when a new design incorporating the new colors was approved.  This design was essentially that of today’s Marine Corps standard and was the result of a two-year study concerning the design of a standard Marine Corps flag, and the units to which such a flag should be issued.

The 55 colored streamers which adorn the Battle Color represent the history and accomplishments of the Marine Corps. The newest streamers to be added to the Battle Color are the Afghanistan, Iraq, and Inherent Resolve Campaign Streamers.

The Importance of Symbols

The Marine Corps is one of the nation’s smallest services, its size dependent upon missions assigned to it.  So, when we look back into its history, we won’t see vast numbers of Marines killed or wounded in battle.  But to provide some context, I want to offer some overall numbers reflecting the size of the Corps at various times along with the numbers of casualties (killed and wounded) in several conflicts.[3]

Historic PeriodOverall StrengthBattle casualties KIA/WIA
  American Revolution2,13149/70
  Quasi-war with France52506/11
  Barbary Wars35904/10
  War of 181264848/66
  Creek & Seminole War47208/01
  Mexican-American War1,75111/47
  Civil War (Union)3,860148/131
  Spanish-American War3,80607/21
  Samoan War3,14200/02
  Boxer Rebellion (China)5,86509/17
  Nicaragua (1912)9,69605/16
  Mexican Intervention (1914)10,38605/13
  Dominican Rep (1916-1920)17,16517/50
  Haiti (1915-1934)16,36110/26
  Nicaragua (1926-1933)16,06847/66
  World War I (1917-1918)52,8192,461/9,520
  World War II (1941-1945)475,60419,733/68,207
  Korean War (1950-1953)249,2194,267/23,744
  Dominican Rep (1965)190,21309/25
  Vietnam War195,95113,091/88,594
  Lebanon Intervention (1984)196,214240/151
  Persian Gulf (1988)197,35002/00
  Panama (1989)196,95602/03
  Persian Gulf War (1991)194,04024/92
  Somalia (1994)174,15802/15
  Afghan War (2001-2015)183,197378/4,955
  Iraq War (2003-2016)183,420853/8642

As with all the other military services, every Marine killed, wounded, and maimed in the service to their country signifies yet another mother/father, brother/sister, or wife/child with a broken heart.  War always affects more than those wearing a military uniform.  Those who elect to remain home where it is safe and comfortable during times of crisis never seem to understand this reality.  There are some Americans who do not even care.  It wasn’t always that way in America — but welcome to 2022.  But these symbols, our hymn, and the battle colors of the U.S. Marine Corps serve as important reminders of who we are and what we represent — and our commitment to God, Country, and each other. So … Here’s health to you and to our Corps — which we are proud to serve.

Happy Birthday, Marines!

Endnotes:

[1] Note that the opening line of the Marine Corps Hymn is, “From the Halls of Montezuma, To the Shores of Tripoli…” Whoever wrote the hymn has these events out of sequence, but I’ve tried it the other way around and it simply doesn’t work — so we will have to acknowledge some poetic license and I vote we keep the hymn the way it is now.

[2] The United States did not declare war during World War II until the Japanese first attacked the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941.  In 1940, however, the U.S. sent a regiment of 1,000 Marines to Iceland to help prevent an invasion by Nazi Germany.  This event inspired another unofficial stanza to the Marine Corps Hymn.  It was: “Again in nineteen forty-one, we sailed a north’ard course, and found beneath the sun the Viking and the Norse.  The Iceland girls were slim and fair, and fair the Icelandic scenes, and the Army found in landing there, the United States Marines.”

[3] Source of data: United States Marine Corps University.


Gurkha

Introduction

The Gurkha (also Gorkhas) are soldiers native to the Indian sub-continent residing in Nepal and some areas of Northeast India.  As a combatant, they are a tremendous force.  They are small in stature, but the reader will not discover a body of men possessing more tenacity and esprit de corps or less regard for their safety.  It is such that these small men appear as giants on the battlefield — or, if not that, their ferocity is enough to cause the blood of their enemies to run cold, drop their weapons, and run like hell.  The Gurkha signal to attack has caused heart attacks in twenty-year-old men.

Most military historians rate Gurkhas among the finest combat soldiers in the world.  They believe that the only way to defeat a Gurkha combat is by killing every man in his unit and then shooting them again just to make sure.

Some Background

John Watts and George White were two very enterprising Englishmen who, sometime between 1598-1600, came up with the idea of forming a joint-stock company that would focus on trade with India.  The company came into being on 31st December 1600 as the East India Company (EIC) — but over many years had several names.  Eventually, people began calling it the John Company.  In 1712, Dr. John Arbuthnot created a satirical character named John Bull, which became a national personification of the United Kingdom, generally, and England in particular.

But in 1600, no one imagined that EIC would acquire vast tracts of the Indian subcontinent.  By 1740, the English competed with the French and Spanish for supremacy inside the Indian Ocean area.  The competition was keen — there was no prize for second place.  To gain (and retain) trade advantages, EIC relied heavily on the British Army to pacify the Indian population and the Royal Navy to protect trade routes and valuable cargoes.

Since it was economically impractical to permanently assign English regiments to India, EIC created its own army — one composed of native riflemen led by British officers and NCOs. EIC used this army to subdue uncooperative Indian states and principalities and to protect its economic interests. By 1800, the East India Company employed over 200,000 native soldiers, making it twice as large as the British Army.

In the early years, company management was both efficient and economical — but over time, incompetence, mismanagement, and other circumstances far beyond the company’s control (such as widespread famine in India) led the nearly bankrupt company to request financial aid from the British Parliament.  After much debate, the government reasoned that such a commitment would benefit the nation’s long-term interests and approved EIC’s request — but not without having something to say about the company’s management.  Parliamentary regulation and oversight of EIC began in 1773.  In 1784, Parliament seized control of all Indian political policies through The India Act.

The John Company ceased to exist in 1858 when the Parliament forced it to cede all of its territories and holdings in India to the British Crown, which included massive parts of the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and mid-Eastern Gulf colonies.  Before incorporation, however, the EIC managed to recruit Nepalese to serve the company as part of its private army.  They became known as Gurkhas.  It was a relationship that began after the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-1816).

The Gurkha War

The Malla Dynasty was the ruling dynasty of the Kathmandu Valley (1201 – 1779) and one of the most sophisticated urban civilizations in the Himalayan foothills and a key destination in the India-Tibet trade route. 

In 1766, when the Gurkha King invaded Kathmandu (which at the time belonged to the Malla Confederacy), the Malla appealed to the EIC for help and armaments.  The company responded by sending an ill-equipped, poorly trained force of 2,500 men under a very young Captain, George Kinloch.  By any measure, the expedition was an unmitigated disaster.  Out of his depth as a military commander, Captain Kinloch had the additional misfortune of a malaria pandemic in the ranks.  The Gurkhas quickly overpowered Kinloch’s demoralized troops, and since dead men did not need British-manufactured firearms, the Gurkhas collected the weapons and put them to good use against their other enemies.

Gurkha aggression toward Tibet over long-standing trade eventually involved Imperial Chinese troops between 1789-1792.  It was then that the Gurkha (by then calling themselves Nepalese), in recognizing a common interest in territorial expansion, appealed to the British Governor-General for his assistance against the Chinese.  Governor-General Lord Warren Hastings had no desire to engage Imperial China, but he was never averse to exploiting regional commercial opportunities.[1]  Moreover, the company was at the center of a cash-flow problem — an issue that Hastings could resolve by selling rare wools to English markets.  Tibet was the only place on earth where Kashmir existed, and the only way to obtain it was through the mountain passes in Nepal — and this was only possible through the strategy of “political safety,” or territorial control and military pacification.

The Anglo-Gurkha War (1812-1816) involved two separate British military campaigns with seven major engagements and an extraordinary expenditure of money.  Despite Nepal’s initial interest in involving the British in their dispute with China, which was not forthcoming, certain elements of the Gurkha hierarchy distrusted the British (with good reason), particularly after the British gained control of a neighboring principality.  This event prompted the Nepalese to annex buffer territories of their own, which they were fully prepared to defend.  In preparing for war with the British, the Nepalese suffered no illusions about the stakes of such a confrontation.  One tribal chieftain advised his Nepalese lord, “They will not rest without establishing their own power and will unite with the hill rajas, whom we have dispossessed.  We have hitherto hunted deer; if we engage in this war, we must prepare to fight tigers.”

The Anglo-Gurkha war ended with the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816.  It required Nepal to relinquish all buffer territories west and east of its formal border and accept a permanent British representative in Kathmandu.  Initially, the Nepalese objected to the treaty until General David Ochterlony offered the Nepalese a deal they could not refuse, which was that they could either agree to the treaty or Ochterlony would destroy them.[2]  It was thus that Nepal became a British-protected state.

Incorporating the Gurkhas

General Ochterlony and political agent William Fraser (1784-1835) were the first to recognize the potential of Gurkha soldiers in British service.  During the war, Ochterlony employed Gurkha defectors as irregular forces.  He and Fraser were impressed with these fighters and had no qualms about their devotion to the British cause.  Fraser proposed that Ochterlony form the Gurkhas into a battalion under a British officer and key noncommissioned officers.  This battalion later became the 1st King George’s Own Gurkha Rifles.  About 5,000 Nepalese men entered British service after 1815, most of whom were Himalayans from three ethnic groups: Kumaonis, Garhwalis, and Gorkhalis — all of which quickly assimilated into a unique Gurkha identity.

Over time, the Gurkhas became the backbone of the British Army, forming ten regiments of two battalions each.  The British called them the Brigade of Gurkhas or, more simply, The Gurkha Rifles.  Between 1857-1918, the British employed Gurkha units to address conflicts in Burma, Afghanistan, the Indian frontiers, Malta, Cyprus, Malaya, China, and Tibet — with the Gurkhas serving with great distinction in each of them.

Eventually, the British raised twenty Gurkha battalions and formed them into ten regiments.  During the First World War, the number of Gurkha battalions increased to 33, totaling approximately 100,000 men.  Of these, 20,000 were either killed or wounded.  More than 2,000 Gurkhas received combat decorations for their exceptional courage and gallantry.[3]  So steady were these men that they were among the first to arrive during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign — and they were the last to withdraw.

The Gurkha fought in the Third Afghan War (1919) and numerous campaigns in the Northwest regions, notably in Waziristan. At the end of the world war, the British returned its Gurkha regiments to India, keeping them away from the internal strife of urban areas and placing them instead on the Indian frontier, where fiercely independent tribesmen were a constant source of unrest. The mission of the Gurkha along the frontier was more on the order of a constabulary: keeping the peace by confronting lawlessness among the Pathan tribes.

In 1939, there were ten Gurkha regiments (twenty pre-war battalions).  After the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, the Nepalese government offered to increase the number of Gurkha battalions to 35.  Eventually, that number rose to 43 battalions, adding two battalions to each regiment and a fifth battalion to the 1st, 2nd, and 9th Gurkha Rifles (also, 1 GR, 2 GR, and 9 GR).  To accomplish this expansion, Gurkha training battalions increased to five.  The Nepalese raised two additional battalions for peace-keeping duty in India.  In total, a quarter-million Nepalese men served in 40 Gurkha battalions, 8 Nepalese Army battalions, as well as in parachute, training, garrison, and logistical units against German/Italian forces in Syria, North Africa, Italy, and Greece, and Japanese forces in Burma, northeast India, and Singapore.  Of all Imperial combat forces, Gurkhas earned 2,734 medals for bravery at the cost of 32,000 casualties in all theaters.

The pattern of Gurkha military ranks followed those of the Indian Army.  Three levels included privates, noncommissioned officers, and commissioned officers.  Commissioned officers within the Gurkha regiments held Viceroy’s commissions (while British officers held King’s or Queen’s commissions).  Thus, any Gurkha holding a Viceroy’s commission (VCO) was subordinate to any British officer, regardless of rank.[4]  After Indian Independence in 1947, Gurkha officers reassigned to the British Army received King’s or Queen’s Gurkha Commissions (also known as KGO or QGO).  The Crown abolished KGO/QGO in 2007.  One notable difference between Gurkha officers and British officers is that no Gurkha can achieve a direct commission; Gurkha officers may only receive commissions through the enlisted ranks — they are all “mustangs.”

Today, Gurkhas serve in two separate armies: British and Indian.  There is one Gurkha Regiment in the British Army and 12 battalions (6 regiments) in the Indian Army.

Ferocity in Combat

The Indian Rebellion of 1857

The problem of rebellion began as early as 1772 when Lord Hastings started to recruit for the British East India Company.[5]  Because many Bengalis opposed the BEIC in combat, Hastings avoided them during his recruitment efforts.  He instead recruited higher castes, such as the Rajput and Bhumihar, from outlying regions.[6]  Ostensibly, the Madras and Bombay armies’ recruits were caste-neutral, but high-cast men were avoided below the surface. These caste-centered recruiting limitations continued through 1855.

The domination of higher castes in the Bengal army was one of the problems that led to the rebellion.  For example, to avoid being polluted by the unclean lower caste, high-caste soldiers in the Bengal army dined separately — a situation that works against the concept of military teamwork.  Hindu culture consumed the Bengal army, and higher-caste men were accorded privileges not extended to those of the lower-caste Bengali or the other company armies.  For example, the company exempted Bengal soldiers from any service that took them beyond marching distance from their homes.  The exemption excused Bengali soldiers from overseas service.

The final spark of discontent within the armies involved the ammunition used in the Enfield 1853 rifle/musket.  The weapons fired mini-balls, and because the bore was smaller in diameter (tighter) than earlier muskets, pre-greased paper cartridges were needed to facilitate ramming the ball down the bore.  In loading the weapon, sepoys (Indian soldiers serving in the British Army) had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder.  Rumors began circulating that the grease on these cartridges came from beef.  Biting into beef grease would be offensive to devout Hindus, and if the lubricant came from pork lard, another rumor, biting into the cartridge would offend Muslims.[7]  Added to these rumors was the claim that British/Company officers intended to convert Hindus and Muslims to Christianity.  To quell the first rumor, Colonel Richard Birch ordered the manufacture of greaseless cartridges; the sepoys could grease the cartridges themselves using whatever substance they preferred.  Colonel Birch’s common sense solution only caused many simple-minded soldiers to conclude that the rumors were true.

Unhappiness among civilians was more complicated.  Three groups of rebels were feudal nobility, rural landlords, and peasants.  The nobility was unhappy because they had lost titles and domains under company regulations that denied adopted children as legal heirs.  Landlords had lost their lands to peasant farmers due to company land reforms.  At the outset of the rebellion, landlords quickly re-occupied lost lands — without much complaint from the peasants, who oddly enough also joined the rebellion.  There was also the issue of forced indebtedness.  When peasant landowners could not pay their taxes, they borrowed money from loan sharks at high-interest rates.  Peasants lost their land to these money lenders when they could not repay borrowed money.

In the spring and summer of 1857, Indian soldiers refused to obey the orders of company officers, and native officers declined to arrest or discipline them.  Initially, it was more a matter of silent contempt than open mutiny.  However, when all but five 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry soldiers refused to accept cartridges, their British commander, Lieutenant Colonel George Carmichael-Smyth, ordered courts-martial.  Most of these men received sentences of ten years imprisonment with hard labor.  Before marching the convicted men to jail, Smythe ordered them publicly stripped of their uniforms and shackled.

The opening of the rebellion occurred the next morning when rebels attacked and ransacked officers’ quarters.  Several British officers were killed, along with four civilian men, eight women, and eight children.  Crowds in the bazaar rebelled by attacking off-duty soldiers, beating to death fifty Indian civilians who served British officers, and attacked the post-jail, releasing the recently court-martialed soldiers.  News of this uprising fostered other rebellions across India at Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, and Lucknow.

Not everyone opposed the British East India Company, and neither were the Gurkhas alone in suppressing the mutiny.  Sikh princes supported the British, along with the princes of Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, Kashmir, and Rajputana.[8]  But the mutiny was unexpected and spread rapidly.  When the British began to deploy Gurkha forces, rebels panicked — as well as they should have.

The Gurkhas could not understand such disloyalty, and it angered them.  The last thing any reasonable person wants is an angry Gurkha standing before him.  The Gurkhas were unrelentingly ruthless toward the rebellious.  In one instance, a single Gurkha soldier chased down a dozen or more Wahhabi extremists; when the Gurkha was done with them, the Muslims lay dismantled in the gutter.

But the Gurkhas did not escape the 18-month-long insurrection unscathed.  They suffered terrible casualties.  The difference was, and what set them apart, is that no Gurkha, no matter how badly wounded, would leave his post.  Not even when offered safe conduct for medical attention would they leave the side of their battling comrades.  All other “loyal” units paled in comparison to the Gurkhas.  No one had the “jolly recklessness” of the Gurkha private.

The rebels of Lucknow paled when they learned that the Gurkhas would oppose them.  The fighting lasted for several months, but even from the first day, the rebels knew they were dead men walking.  Again — as always — the Gurkha was both relentless and unmerciful.

The Malayan Emergency

Gurkha battalions operated continuously throughout the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).  During this time, the Gurkha soldier proved again, as he had done in Burma, that the Gurkhas are superb jungle fighters.  The Gurkhas were among 40,000 regular British Commonwealth troops participating in the Malayan Emergency.  250,000 Malayan Home Guard troops augmented these men.

The Malayan Emergency was part of the post-World War II nationalist movements.  These were conflicts initiated by communist insurgents against pre-war colonial powers.  The initiating event in June 1948 was the murder of three Europeans during a communist assault on rubber plantations and the colonial government’s subsequent declaration of an emergency.

As in French Indochina, many of Malaya’s fighters were previously engaged as anti-Japanese nationalists, men trained and supplied by the British government during World War II.  Most communist rebels were ethnic Malayan or Chinese poorly treated by British colonial administrators over several decades.  The insurgents, when organized, began a series of assaults against British colonial police, military installations, tin mines, rubber plantations, and terrorist acts upon small, isolated villages.  At such time as the British had had enough of the murder and mayhem created by communist rebels, they sent in commonwealth forces, including the Gurkhas, to end it.

Organized as the 48th Gurkha Brigade (later, the 17th Gurkha Division), the British sent fighters from all four (then) existing Gurkha regiments (2nd, 6th, 7th, and 10th) and expanded (modernized) Gurkha fighting units by creating such combat support forces as engineers, signals, and transportation regiments. 

The Gurkha’s arrival in Malaya was a seminal event because it marked the beginning of the end of the communist insurgency there.  Unlike the US military in their later engagement in Vietnam, Gurkhas did not waste valuable time or effort trying to win the hearts and minds of the Malayan people.  They weren’t there for that … they were there to locate communists and kill them.  It was a mission-centered enterprise.  If there were going to be a contest for the hearts and minds of civilians, it would have to be won by the government’s civil administration.  Throughout their involvement in Malaya, the Gurkhas had few interactions with the civilian population.  At no time were Gurkhas deployed to protect villages.  They were after the “killer gangs” who behaved less as nationalist patriots than the armed thugs of jungle warlords.[9]

For the Gurkhas, jungle time was slow time.  Long-range patrols typically lasted two or three weeks (a few exceeded 100 days).  Soldiers carried a pack weighing around 90 pounds; it was all he needed for the duration of the patrol.  The Gurkhas dumped these heavy packs in a cache, mounting patrols in light order to sneak and peek.  The basic patrol unit often consisted of three men but sometimes involved as many as twelve.  The largest reconnaissance in force involved company-sized teams.

There was never any micro-management from a higher authority.  Unit commanders simply told their patrol leaders to “get on with it,” which gave these seasoned fighters maximum leeway in deciding how to proceed.  One of the favored Gurkha tactics was the ambuscade; some of these lasted from ten days to two weeks.  Such operations demand an unparalleled degree of self-discipline because an ambush is only successful when there are no unnecessary movements to reveal the ambusher’s position.  In truth, most ambushes yielded nothing at all.  Gurkhas killed most insurgents through chance encounters while patrolling.

Gurkhas relentlessly pursued their enemy for as long as it took until they rounded up or killed the communists.  Psychologically, such tenacity and commitment destroyed the communist’s self-confidence.  He could run, but he could not hide from the Gurkha combat patrol.  This was part of the strategy adopted by the British forces … keep the communists on the run.  Some of these forays lasted for twenty or more days, the limiting factor being the amount of ammunition carried by each soldier (sixty rounds).

What the Gurkhas accomplished in twelve years was extraordinary within the context of the overall strategy.  There was only limited use of artillery, and although the British employed light observation aircraft to support ground movements, there were no overwhelming air bombardment campaigns.  What fighting the Gurkha did, they did with their standard issue firearm, kukri knives, and their fighting spirit.  At the end of the day, Gurkha units didn’t need B-52s, artillery, or tanks.  They were in Malaya for one essential purpose: locate the enemy and kill him — and the way to do that most effectively was to terrorize the terrorists.  This is how the Gurkha won the Malayan Emergency.

Conclusion

Presently, the Gurkha contingent of the British Army includes the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd battalions of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, the King’s Gurkha Signals (five squadrons), King’s Gurkha Engineers (two squadrons), the 10th King’s Own Gurkha Logistics Regiment, the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas, the Gurkha Company, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, a company at the Infantry Battle School, and one company at the Land Warfare Center.

In 1945, Rifleman Lachhiman Gurung was stationed in a trench with only two other men when over 200 Japanese soldiers opened fire. Gurung’s comrades were severely wounded in the opening fusillade.  As hand grenades fell on the Gurkhas, Gurung tried to throw each one back one after another.  He was successful with the first two, but the third exploded in his right hand. His fingers were blown off, and his face, body, and right arm and leg were severely wounded.  As the Japanese stormed the trench, Gurung used his left hand to wield his rifle, defeating 31 enemies and preventing the Japanese from advancing. Gurung survived his wounds and was awarded the Victoria Cross.

In 1949, the British selected former Gurkha soldiers for service in the Gurkha Contingent of the Singapore Police Force, which replaced the Sikh unit that existed before Japan’s occupation of Singapore.  These police are well-trained and highly disciplined.  They mainly perform as riot police and as an emergency reaction force.  In Brunei, a Gurkha Reserve Unit serves as a special guard and elite shock force of around 500 men.

In 2008, Taliban insurgents ambushed a squad of Gurkhas, hitting Private Yubraj Rai.  Captain Gajendera Angdembe and Riflemen Dhan Gurung and Manju Gurung carried Rai across 325 yards of open ground under heavy fire.  The Gurkha leave no soldier behind – ever.  In 2010, Acting Sergeant Dipprasad Pun single-handedly fought off thirty Taliban soldiers.  It took him an hour, but all the enemy lay dead in the end.  Pun received the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross.

The highest and most prestigious decoration in the British honors system is the Victoria Cross.  The qualification for this decoration is exceptionally valorous conduct “in the presence of the enemy,” with posthumous awards authorized when appropriate.  At one time, all member states of the British Empire participated in the British honors system, but since the beginning of the British Commonwealth of Nations, many such countries have devised their own honors system.  The Australians, for example, created The Victoria Cross for Australia —which looks similar to the British Victoria Cross.

So far, British authorities have awarded 1,358 Victoria Crosses to 1,355 men.  The greatest number of Victoria Crosses awarded for valorous conduct on a single day was 24 for individual actions on 16 November 1857 at Lucknow and Narnoul.  The most medals awarded in a single conflict was 658 during World War I.  There are five living holders of the VC: one RAF (World War II), three British Army (Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, Iraq War, and Afghanistan War), and one Australian Army (Vietnam War).  Of the total awarded, 26 went to men serving with Gurkha regiments, 13 of whom were native Nepalese enlisted men.  Britain’s second highest award “for acts of the greatest heroism or the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger, not in the presence of the enemy” is the George Cross.  Gurkha enlisted men have earned two such medals.

Sources:

  1. Barber, N.  War of the Running Dogs.  London: Collins Press, 1971.
  2. Barthorp, M.  Afghan Wars, and the North-West Frontier, 1839-1947.  Cassell Publishing, 2002.
  3. Chauhan, S. V.  The Way of Sacrifice: The Rajput.  University of Toronto, 1996.
  4. Cross, J. P. and Buddhiman Gurung.  Gurkhas at War: Eyewitness Accounts from World War II to Iraq.  Greenhill Books, 2002.
  5. Masters, J.  Bugles and a Tiger: Autobiography of the life and times of a British officer serving with the Gurkha Regiment in India in the run-up to World War II.  Handley, 1956.
  6. Parker, J.  The Gurkhas: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Feared Soldiers.  Headline Books, 2005.
  7. Thompson, R.  Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam.  London, Praeger Publishing, 1966.

Endnotes:

[1] Warren Hastings (1732-1818) served as governor of Bengal, head of the Supreme Council of Bengal, and along with Robert Clive, was responsible for the foundation of the British Empire in India.  Hastings achieved this by siding with one ethnic group against another and then conquering both — which eventually expanded British influence over the entire subcontinent.

[2] Major General Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825) was a Massachusetts-born EIC officer who eventually served as Ambassador in Residence in Delhi, India.

[3] The number of combat decorations issued to Gurkhas is significant because traditionally, the British military is niggardly in awarding them. 

[4] A VCO lieutenant colonel was subordinate to a KCO second lieutenant. 

[5] The company recruited on behalf of three separate “presidential armies”: Bombay, Madras, and Bengal.

[6] A social stratification characterized by heredity, occupation, ritual status, and customary social interactions and exclusions based on such cultural notions as purity and pollution.  Although not confined to India, most people think of India when they think of caste systems.  Dating back 3,000 years, the caste system divides Hindus into four main categories, and this is determined by what they were in their past life.  These beliefs persist to the present day because they are deeply rooted in the Hindu religion. 

[7] More recently, it was claimed that American PsyOps programs floated rumors among Muslims that American soldiers dipped their small-arms ammunition in pork fat before loading their magazines — thus guaranteeing that the shot Muslim would go to hell.

[8] Sikhism is a hybrid between Hindu and Islamic belief systems.

[9] Malayan communists based their strategy on the fanciful assumption that communist victory in China would in some way presage Mao Zedong’s liberation of the much-maligned Chinese ethnics in Southeast Asia.  When the communists understood that a communist China gobbling up huge chunks of Southeast Asia was little more than madcap fantasy, the morale of Malayan killer gangs and jungle fighters collapsed.  This stands in stark contrast to the Vietnam War, where the communists were ethnic Vietnamese whose singular purpose was the reunification of the nation under a communist flag.


The First to Die

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 Showa War Crimes

Background

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.[1]

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.[2]  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

1st Marine Division

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.

The Goettge Patrol

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.[3]

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.

Conclusion

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.

Sources:

  1. Bergerud, E. M.  Touched with Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific.  Penguin Books, 1997.
  2. Manchester, W.  Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific.  Little/Brown, 1980.
  3. Tregaskis, R.  Guadalcanal Diary.  Landmark Books, 1943; Modern Library, 2000.
  4. Wukovits, J.  The Ill-Fated Goettge Patrol Incident in the Early Days of Guadalcanal.  Warfare History Network (online), 2016.

Endnotes:

[1] 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.

[2] Feigning injury or surrender to lure an enemy and then attacking or ambushing them.

[3] 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.’”


No Greater Love …

James Anderson, Jr.

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.[1]

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.[2]  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[3] 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.[4]

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

Conclusion

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.

Endnotes:

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Killed in action.

[4] James Anderson was the first black Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War.


Operation Allen Brook

Background

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, [1] 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.

Robert M. Casey Branch Clinic

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).[2]

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.

PFC R. C. Burke, USMC

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.[3]

The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, replaced 3/7, and the Commanding Officer 3/27 assumed operational control of ALLEN BROOK on 18 May 1968.[4]  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.

Sources:

  1. Kelley, M.  Where We Were in Vietnam.  Hellgate Press, 2002.
  2. Shulimson, J.  U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1968: The defining Year.  HQMC Washington, D.C., 1997.

Endnotes:

[1] Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. Mueller, Commanding.

[2] Information provided to me by Master Sergeant George Loar, Jr., USMC (Retired).

[3] 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.

[4] 3/27 was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Tullis J. Woodham, Jr.


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.