Digging Graves

Background

Kǒng Fūzǐ, otherwise known in the western world as Confucius (551-479 BC), was a paragon of Chinese philosophers and sages and, perhaps, one of the most influential individuals in all human history.  His teachings emphasized personal morality, justice, kindness, and sincerity — but his school of thought was only one of a hundred philosophical and legalistic academies during China’s Qin dynasty.  He once warned, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Charlie Wilson

Operation Cyclone was the brainchild of Texas Congressman Charles Nesbit Wilson (also known as Charlie Wilson).[1]  It was the codename for a Central Intelligence Agency program to arm and finance the Afghan mujahideen (1979-1989) during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.  It was one of the most protracted and most expensive covert CIA operations ever undertaken.

Wilson’s idea was to funnel black money through the CIA to financially support radical Islamists who more or less worked under the control of Pakistani military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988).  We don’t know how much of this money Zia diverted to his atomic weapons project, but it may have been substantial.  Between 1980-1986, the CIA sent between $20-40 million to Afghanistan annually; in 1987, this amount increased to $640 million annually.  CIA funding continued after the Soviet Union departed Afghanistan in 1989 to support the Afghan Civil War (1989-1992).  Before Zia’s death, he successfully wooed both the United States and China into a ménage à trois — which was “just fine” with Charlie Wilson, a Democrat, who leaned in that direction anyway.

The CIA’s arms deal included the state-of-the-art Stinger surface-to-air shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapon that cost around $38,000 each.  We sent thousands of these to Afghanistan to help the Islamists rid themselves of the Soviet MI-24 (Hind) helicopter.  Once CIA operatives instructed the Islamists how to employ these weapons, no Russian helicopter was safe.  How many of these Stinger missiles remained in Afghanistan after the CIA withdrew its support is unknown.  Still, at some point, the supplies diminished — driving Islamists to employ a much cheaper and easier to obtain weapon: the Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG).

The RPG fires a shaped charge explosive warhead.  There are various warheads, but the most common is the high explosive (HE) round and high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) round.  Either of these is devastating to helicopters.

As it turned out, the Americans instructing mujahideen on fighting a sophisticated enemy combat force did an extraordinary job.  Radical Islamists later turned these skills toward the Americans once the United States decided to replace the Russian invaders in 2003.  Americans in Afghanistan have been digging graves ever since.

Extortion One Seven

CH-47D by LCPL D. NICHOLS/USMC

Members of the U. S. Navy’s Seal Team Six assaulted a Pakistani compound on 2 May 2011, killing the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.  It was a CIA-led operation with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) codenamed Operation Neptune Spear.  Operating alongside the Navy’s special warfare group was an element of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) (Night Stalkers).  This operation ended a nearly ten-year search for bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attack upon the United States.

One month earlier, the US Tenth Mountain Division turned control of Combat Outpost Tangi over to Afghan government forces.  It was an interesting “turnover” since the Afghan Defense Force (ADF) never actually occupied the base, so Taliban forces took the initiative to seize it for their use.  There could be a connection here, but I hesitate to judge.  In any event, US forces continued to operate in the Tangi area.  By 2011, the number of Taliban in Tangi was significant.  On 8 June, Taliban ground forces engaged a US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter from five or six different locations with 14 separate RPG attacks forcing the overwhelmed helicopter to abandon its mission.

At about this same time, US intelligence determined that senior Taliban leader Qari Tahir might have operated from within the Tangi Valley.  Thus, the International Security Force (ISF) command group ordered American/Coalition forces working within Wardak Province to locate Tahir and capture or kill him.

Beginning around 22:30 hours (local time) on 5 August, a platoon of 47 Army Rangers departed their forward operating base in Logar Province aboard two CH-47D aircraft.  After a thirty-minute flight, the two helicopters landed near a compound believed to be the location of Tahir.  After disembarking the Rangers, the helicopters departed the area.  It was a high-risk operation.  Two AH-64 Apache gunships and an AC-130 gunship remained on station to provide intelligence, surveillance, and aerial reconnaissance of the area.  Seventeen SEALS served as a reserve force.

As the Rangers approached the designated compound, ISR aircraft observed numerous individuals leaving the compound, but the Rangers did not engage these people.  Apache aircraft did engage a different group of around eight insurgents, reporting six of these insurgents killed in action.  Meanwhile, ISR assets continued to observe the disengaged group, estimating between 9-11 fighters.  The on-site commander believed that these individuals might include Tahir.  At 0100, the task force commander directed the SEALS to engage these suspected insurgents.  The Aviation Brigade Commander took nearly an hour to approve a new landing zone for the SEAL infiltration.  At 02:00, the task force commander decided to increase the size of the SEAL Team from 17 to 33 warriors and then, to reduce transportation time, command authority loaded SEAL reinforcements into a single CH-47D; another aircraft served as a decoy that would land at a separate landing site.

While this part of the operation was unfolding, the Taliban force split into two sections.  At around 02:15, one team of three insurgents went to a stand of trees; the other group entered a building located 1.2 miles from the original compound.  Since the Apache helicopters were involved in tracking these two groups of insurgents, they could not offer security or fire support to either of the two in-bound CH-47Ds.

Six minutes out, the decoy CH-47D split off and returned to base.  The remaining helicopter, callsign Extortion One Seven, proceeded to the earlier landing zone.  One minute out, Extortion One Seven descended to an altitude of 100 feet and reduced its airspeed to around 58 knots.  A third group of Taliban previously undetected by the Americans fired 2-3 RPGs from a two-story building.  The second round fired struck Extortion One Seven’s aft rotor assembly.  Within five seconds, the CH-47D crashed and exploded, killing everyone on board.  It took the Apache aircraft another thirty seconds to report the 47’s destruction.

The official determination in the after-action report was “wrong place/wrong time.”  Such things do happen in war.  People die.  Suddenly.  But former Navy JAG Officer, Lieutenant Commander Don Brown,[2] disagrees.  He claims the US military intentionally concealed what happened to Extortion One Seven, much in the way the Army lied about the circumstances of Patrick Tillman’s death in 2004.

After reviewing all the evidence available to him (unclassified material), Brown concluded that military command sacrificed the SEAL Team through gross negligence during mission planning and covering up what happened.  As Brown understood the facts, seven ADF personnel slipped aboard Extortion One Seven without authority (a significant security breach), men who had no role in the operation.  Moreover, the rules of engagement (ROE) precluded pre-landing suppression fire within the CH-47D’s designated landing zone.  Brown argued that a pre-landing suppression fire would have saved Extortion One Seven from destruction.

On the issue of the seven ADF personnel, Brown contends that the remains of these men were flown to the United States and cremated, as reported in the Washington Times, leading Brown to conclude, “Something went terribly wrong inside that helicopter, and whatever went wrong was most likely beyond the pilot’s control.”  Brown also raises the question about a so-called helicopter black box, which the Army contends does not exist in that model aircraft.  But Commander Brown was adamant, asking why the Brigade commander sent Rangers back to the crash site looking for something that doesn’t exist.

Brown additionally claimed that the AC-130 gunship circling above the LZ spotted suspected Taliban insurgents moving on the ground toward Extortion One Seven’s designated landing site and requested permission to engage those insurgents.  According to Brown’s investigation, the task force commander denied the gunship permission to engage.  US Air Force Captain Joni Marquez, assigned to the AC-130 gunship at the time as firing officer, confirmed Brown’s assertions, and agreed with his conclusion that denying the gunship permission to engage sealed the fate of the CH-47D.

Conclusion

The cost in American lives from the US teaching a potential enemy how to kill our sons and daughters has been too high.  It is incomprehensible that any official of the US government would plant the seeds for a lethal future conflict for no other reason than to engage in an illicit relationship with a socialite.  Worse, Wilson soon had the full cooperation of the White House, CIA, and House of Representatives.

How many graves have we dug so far in the war on terror — graves that a US Congressman helped to dig?

Sources:

  1. Bergen, P.  Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden.  Crown Publishing, 2012.
  2. Bowden, M.  The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden.  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012.
  3. Carter, S.  “Retired Air Force Captain says Pentagon covered up the real cause of deadly chopper crash.”  On-air broadcast, 18 April 2017.
  4. Herring, J. K.  Diplomacy and Diamonds: My Wars from the Ballroom to the Battlefield.  Center Street Publications, 2011.

Footnotes:

[1] Wilson’s motivation for starting the so-called Charlie Wilson War was his infatuation with Joanne Herring, a quite-wealthy anti-Communist crusader.  Herring, appalled by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, employed her feminine wiles in convincing Wilson to take up her cause of revenge against the Soviet Union.  Joanne Herring is also believed to have had an intimate relationship with Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq while serving as “Honorary Consul” at the Pakistani Consulate in Houston, Texas.  Osama bin-Laden may have been the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, but it may have been Joanne Herring who started it.  Treason, anyone?  Anyone?

[2] Brown served as legal counsel to Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance, who was charged and convicted for war crimes.  Brown’s subsequent book Travesty of Justice: The Shocking Persecution of Lt. Clint Lorance was a major factor in Lorance’s pardon by President Donald J. Trump in 2019. 


The War Crimes that Weren’t

We’ve been looking for the enemy for several days now, and we’ve finally found them.  We’re surrounded.  That simplifies our problem of getting to these people and killing them.”  —Colonel Lewis B. Puller, Commanding Officer, 1st Marine Regiment, November 1950.

Colonel Puller’s comment was motivational to the Marines of the 1st Marine Division in the Korean War, suggesting to the American press of his day that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.  Now, however, seventy years later, the American people no longer know who the enemy is — and this is probably because there are too many candidates to choose from.

The oath of office and enlistment reads:

  • For officers

“I, _________ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.  So help me God.”

  • For enlistees

“I, __________ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  So help me God.”

One will note that these obligations specifically stipulate “all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Who are the enemies of the United States?  Is it, for example —

  • The politician who is so invested, financially and professionally, in the war industries that s/he has never seen a war that they didn’t absolutely love?
  • The politician that sends young Americans to war, and then ties their hands so that they cannot fight it, cannot win it, or cannot survive it?
  • The politician that sends young Americans into a combat zone, and later labels them as war criminals — and through such labeling, utterly destroy them as American servicemen.
  • Fearful and incompetent senior officers who will not make a momentous combat decision without first consulting with a lawyer?
  • The journalist or media manager who collaborates with the enemy?

An aside: is there any substantial difference between the politician who sends young Americans to war, and the Islamic goombah who wraps teenagers in bomb vests and sends them out to do the most harm?  The difference between the two, or so it seems to me, is that the Islamacist proudly admits to his behavior, while the self-perpetuating American politician wraps his baloney in the American flag and national interests.

We frequently hear presidents and members of congress lecturing to us about our national interests, but they never seem to get around to explain, in detail, what those national interests are.  What, for example, were the United States’ interests in invading Afghanistan or Iraq — and why is our military still in Afghanistan twenty years after the attacks on 9/11?  One further question: if sending our young men and women to the Middle East to engage in lethal combat was or continues to be in our national interests, then why does our government prosecute our combat troops for doing what they are trained to do?

During the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, the Associated Press reported that US Marines bombed a mosque, killing forty (40) innocent “civilians” gathered for prayer.  From the AP’s initial report, the story took off like gang-busters.  False reporting was so intense that it caused senior military commanders to order the Marines out of Fallujah.

A few questions:

  1. If the battle for Fallujah was a critical objective to begin with, then why would “bad press” force senior military officials to back out?
  2. Note that the formal definition of “civilian” is someone who is not a member of the armed forces or a law enforcement organization.  By what justification, then, do we regard any Moslem a civilian who picks up an AK-47 or RPG with lethal intent?  Two principles of warfare come into play.  First, humanitarian law governing the use of force in an armed conflict requires belligerents to distinguish between combatants and civilians.  Since Moslems with AK-47s are combatants, they cannot also be civilians.  Another important principle of warfare is proportionality.  In the legal use of force, belligerents must minimize the harm caused to civilians and civilian property consistent with the advantages of military objectives.  Non-uniformed combatants who use civilian property as firing points or defensive structures become legitimate military targets.

The fight unfolded on video taken by an unmanned aerial vehicle.  The UAV followed a Marine infantry company as it engaged armed enemy (civilians) in the city streets.  The Marines were in a tough spot because the “civilian” insurgents were laying down accurate fire from the minaret of the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarai mosque.  During the fight, “civilian” insurgents moved in and out of the mosque, either to bolster their defenses or resupply the insurgents with ammunition.  What made this a critical situation was that the stymied Marines could not keep pace with other advancing elements of the assault force, and this in turn exposed the flanks of the advancing elements to enemy fire.

The battle raged for two hours (all recorded on video).  Meanwhile, five Marines were wounded and evacuated.  Rules of engagement precluded the use of heavy machine guns but small arms fire wasn’t getting the job done.  The company commander radioed back to his higher headquarters asking for assistance.  The battalion commander couldn’t decide about “next steps” until first consulting with a team of lawyers.  While the legal meeting was going on, the enemy continued to inflict casualties on the Marines.  Eventually, higher authority authorized the use of a hellfire missile to take out the minaret.  The aircraft launched missile missed the target and slammed into the ground with no effect on the enemy.  The company commander then requested an airstrike.  Another meeting took place.  Two 500-pound bombs opened a wall in the mosque and the Marines were able to advance and secure the mosque.

The UAV camera captured the explosion.  While opening one wall, the building remained intact.  There were no bodies … live or otherwise … near the point of detonation.  There were no casualties inside or around the mosque.  In fact, when the Marines entered the mosque, all they found was spent casings from rounds fired.

But that didn’t stop the news assault on the Marines.  Associated Press reporter Abdul-Qader Saadi, provided an “eyewitness account” of the incident.  He reported, “A U.S. helicopter fired three missiles at a mosque compound in the city of Fallujah on Wednesday, killing about 40 people as American forces batted Sunni insurgents, witnesses said.  Cars ferried bodies from the scene, although there was no immediate confirmation of casualties.  The strike came as worshippers gathered for afternoon prayers, witnesses said.”

Saadi’s story was entirely fictitious.  Nothing even remotely similar to this story happened, but that didn’t stop the press from repeating it across multiple outlets, including BBC, and Agence France-Presse.  Then AP modified their story to include a statement by an unnamed Marine official who “confirmed” the alleged 40 dead worshippers.  This too was a lie.  No Marine officer confirmed anything of the sort.

What did happen was captured on video.  The video, however, having been taken as part of a classified system, could not be released to the press — but a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Tony Perry, witnessed the event as an “embed.”  Reporter Gwen Ifill interviewed Perry and the conversation follows:

            Ifill: We did hear today about an attack on a mosque that killed anywhere from 40 to 60 people.  Were you with that unit and can you describe what happened?

            Perry:  Yeah, I’m with that unit right now.  The first reports are a little misleading.  What happened here … there are several mosques that have been used by the insurgents as places to either gather or strategize or even fire at Marines.  One particular mosque had about 30 to 40 insurgents in it.  They had snipers.  They wounded five Marines.  There were ambulances that drove up and the Marines let them come in to take the insurgent wounded away.  But instead, people with RPGs jumped out of the ambulances and started fighting with the Marines.  Ultimately, what the Marines did is call in airpower.  A helicopter dropped a Hellfire missile and then an F-16 dropped a laser-guided bomb on the outside of the mosque, put a huge crater outside the mosque.  There’s sort of a plaza outside the mosque.  And suddenly, the firing inside stopped.  But when the Marines examined the mosque and went in and went door to door in the mosque and floor to floor, they found no bodies, nor did they find the kind of blood and guts one would presume if people had died.  Now one or two things must have happened: either the people died inside and were carried off somehow — and there is a tradition of the insurgents carting off their dead very quickly; or, two, frankly, they escaped before the bomb was dropped.  We cannot confirm that anybody actually died in that mosque.  The Marines were quite willing to kill everybody in the mosque because they were insurgents.  They had been firing at people, at Marines.  And as the lieutenant colonel who ordered the strikes said, this was no longer a house of worship; this was a military target.”

There appears no major difference in the way the western press handled this fictional story from the way Al Jazeera handled in a few days later, adding to the story, of course: “The bomb hit the minaret of the mosque and ploughed a hole through the building shattering windows and leaving the mosque badly damaged.”

What appears missing here, as the battalion commander observed, is common sense.  If Moslem insurgents intend to use mosques as defensive positions to fire at Marines, a reasonable person should expect to have the entire building blown to hell and everyone inside the building killed.  That’s the way wars are fought.

Going back in time a few generations, collaborating with the enemy was (and should remain) a capital offense.  So too was providing aid and comfort to the enemy.  If the media decides to hire an enemy non-combatant (Saadi) to do their reporting, then media managers and editors should anticipate biased reporting.  The issue then becomes an exercise in logic.  If the effect of reporting fabricated stories provides aid or comfort to the enemy, if false reporting benefits the enemy, then the media is an enemy collaborator.

The net effect of this fraudulent reporting, given its impact on lily-livered commanding generals is that it caused the flag rank officers to abandon the operation — and this in turn produced a win for the enemy.  In the long term, a second battle would become necessary, and even more people would die or suffer life-changing disabilities.  Where was the honor in that?

The Battle of Fallujah was not the first or last instance when the press manufactured stories about American and Coalition forces.  The entire spectacle of the Haditha Affair, which morphed into the most expensive court-martial in American history, produced no convictions for murder, mayhem, illegal assault, or war crimes — and yet, because of this fraudulent reporting, the lives of several good and decent men were outrageously and unforgivably changed.  No one associated with the media was ever held to account for their scandalous behavior, which in my view, classifies these people as “enemies foreign and domestic.”

Sources:

  1. Connable, A. B.  Ideas as Weapons: Influence and Perception in Modern Warfare.  Washington: Headquarters Marine Corps, (2009)
  2. Department of Defense Law of War Manual, 2016. (A 1,236 page document).
  3. Witt, J. F. Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History. Free Press (2012)

Union I

Background

During the Second Indochina War (known to the west as the Vietnam War), the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) consisted of four tactical zones.  The northern-most of these was the First Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ), which included South Vietnam’s five northern provinces: from north to south, Quảng Trị, Thừa Thiên, Quảng Nam, Quảng Tín, and Quảng Ngãi.  The responsibility for combat operations within these provinces was assigned to the Third Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF)[1], involving about 14,000 square miles.  The Commanding General, III MAF, answered to the Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV).

Efforts to create a stabilizing security force in South Vietnam had begun in the mid-1950s.  The only way to describe these efforts — and their effects — is that they were an unmitigated disaster.  The most significant security force in 1955 was the Civil Guard, a paramilitary organization administered by South Vietnam’s interior ministry but controlled by the country’s 38 province chiefs.  The civil guard was a 55,000 man force serving in static defense positions.  Lacking mobility and modern communications, the civil guard’s small company and platoon sized units had no way to respond to Viet Cong attacks.  But even if they were capable of challenging the VC, most provincial chiefs had no interest in doing so.

In 1960, the South Vietnamese military force was no more capable of performing combat operations than it was in 1955. Built mainly on the remnants of French-trained colonial forces, the South Vietnamese army, navy, and air force numbered 150,000; the army (known as ARVN) numbered 138,000.  On paper, the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) looked formidable.  It wasn’t.  The military chain of command was convoluted. The quality of its officer corps ranged from excellent to horrible.  The efficiency and loyalty of ARVN units was dependent on the personality of its senior-most commander.  Few ARVN units were interested in sharing information with other units.  Vietnamese commanders were inflexible, prideful, and arrogant; they would spare no effort making themselves look good at someone else’s expense.

The Vietnamese high command treated the ARVN much in the same way as the civil guard — relegating them to static positions where the enemy always knew where they were.  This worked out well enough for senior commanders since few of them were willing to put their necks on the line confronting Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army units.

Despite significant funding from the United States for military training in1963, most combat training in Vietnam was a paper chase.  Vietnamese troops themselves were poorly paid, poorly educated, unmotivated, and inexperienced.  Some were capable of extraordinary acts of courage, but not many.  In the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963, which took place over several days, 300 Viet Cong irregulars fought 1,200 South Vietnamese Army troops to a standstill.  Once the VC had had their way with the ARVN, they melted away into the dense jungle.

Nui Loc Son

Que Son Valley

In mid-1966, American intelligence learned that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 2nd Infantry Division had begun infiltrating the Que Son Valley.  The densely populated valley was a central agricultural area that sat astride the boundaries of Quảng Nam and Quảng Tin provinces in the I CTZ.  Both US and NVA military commanders recognized that available food sources and the rugged terrain made the Que Son Basin a crucial military objective.  To control the valley was to dominate the entire I CTZ.

In January 1967, the 3rd and 21st NVA Regiments began operations within the Que Son Valley.  Joining them a short time later was the 3rd VC regiment from Quảng Ngãi Province.  The NVA intended to seize Que Son, which meant destroying isolated ARVN units, who at the time were occupying static defensive positions.  COMUSMACV directed the CG III MAF to replace all ARVN units with American forces.  III MAF’s challenge in carrying out his directive was the constant demand for combat troops elsewhere in I CTZ.  The Marines could simply not afford to send battalions or regiments into the Que Son region.  Yet, it was at the same time evident that ARVN units lacked the strength or effectiveness to carry out their defensive burden alone.  To bolster Marine forces, USMACV assigned US Army units to the southern I CTZ, which released the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv) for operations within the Que Son Valley area.

Operation Union I

Operation Union I was the initiating campaign for what evolved into a bitter contest for control of the Que Son Basin.  In mid-January 1967, Fox Company 2/1 relieved the ARVN unit at Nui Loc Son and began operations under its parent command’s operational authority, the 1st Marine Regiment, commanded by Colonel Emil J. Radic.  By placing a Marine company on this small hill mass, III MAF hoped to achieve three goals: (1) deny VC/NVA access to this rice-producing area, (2) initiate a much-needed civic action effort, and (3) force the NVA into open battle.  The Marines of Fox 2/1 were the bait.

Under the command of Captain Gene A. Deegan, Fox Company was reinforced by an 81mm Mortar section, a 106mm Recoilless Rifle section, and a 4.2-inch Mortar Battery from the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines (artillery) (1/11).  Deegan soon began engaging small enemy units attempting to cross the valley floor.  Fox Company also undertook limited civic action projects, which generated a mutually beneficial relationship with local citizens and aided in collecting critical intelligence concerning VC/NVA operations.

The NVA found Fox Company’s aggressive behavior irksome.  Previously, NVA and VC units operated in the Que Son Basin with impunity but irritating the communists was why Marine HQ sent Fox Company to Nui Loc Son to begin with.  The 2nd NVA Division took the bait.

By mid-April, Captain Deegan informed his battalion commander that he believed enemy forces operating near Nui Loc Son involved two regiments in strength.  Colonel Radic decided to initiate a vertical assault against the enemy. Radic’s plan called for Fox Company to initiate contact from its observation post while elements of the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 1st Marines (1/1) (3/1) would make a heliborne assault into the operational area; another battalion would serve in reserve.  Additionally, elements of the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines would move by helicopter to Que Son village to provide artillery support to the operation.  Colonel Radic would control the operation from Nui Loc Son.  The CG 1stMarDiv approved Radic’s plan but delayed its execution until another operation had reached its final objective.

At 0700 on 21 April, Captain Deegan led his company out of Nui Loc Son.  The company experienced several minor encounters with small groups of enemy soldiers en route to the village of Binh Son, three miles to the northeast.  At 0930, Fox Company encountered heavy enemy small arms fire, pulled back into a tree line, and set up a  hasty defense.  From that location, Deegan called for artillery fire and airstrikes on the enemy’s positions.  At 1100, Deegan moved his 2nd and 3rd platoons against the village while the 1st platoon provided covering fire.  Initially, Deegan’s assault elements encountered little resistance, but as they approached the village, the intensity of enemy fire increased to such a degree that Deegan could no longer maneuver the assault platoons.  The 1st platoon, having attempted a flanking maneuver, was also halted.

Lieutenant Colonel Hillmer F. DeAtley, commanding 3/1, led his command group and India and Mike companies into the fight some 1,500 meters from Fox Company’s position.  Eventually, 3/1 fought its way to Deegan’s location.  Despite his several wounds, Captain Deegan continued to direct his company’s action until Colonel DeAtley relieved him of his command and ordered his evacuation.

Lieutenant Colonel Dean E. Esslinger, commanding 3/5, arrived from Chu Lai at around 1600 and linked up with DeAtley’s flank.  Lieutenant Colonel Van D. Bell’s 1/1 arrived from Da Nang after dark.  After reforming his Battalion adjacent to Colonel Radic’s command post, Bell led his Marines into the battle, which was already shaping up into a hell of a fight.  At the conclusion of the first day, Fox 2/1 and India & Mike 3/1 had borne the brunt of the fighting.  At dawn on the morning of the second day, 1/1, 3/1, and 2/5 had joined the battle.

Punishing Marine fire and aggressive maneuvering finally began to dislodge the enemy from their positions, forcing them northward into a blocking force of three ARVN ranger battalions.  In its withdrawal, the NVA suffered significant casualties from artillery fire and airstrikes. Bell and Esslinger continued their attack, pursuing the enemy east and north of Nui Loc Son, but there were only intermittent contacts with the retreating enemy.

On 25 April, Colonel Kenneth J. Houghton’s 5th Marines (-) arrived from Chu Lai and moved into the Que Son Valley.  Responsibility for Union I passed to Colonel Houghton, and by the end of next day, all of Colonel Radic’s 1st Marines had returned to Da Nang — leaving Fox Company under a new commander to man the outpost at Nui Loc Son.

3/5 began a thorough search of the mountains south and west of the basin; enemy contact was generally light until the evening of the 27th when a Marine triggered an anti-personnel mine that set off several explosions.  One Marine died; 43 received wounds, and of those, 35 required medical evacuation.  On the 28th, Esslinger’s 3/5 was joined by Lieutenant Colonel Peter A. Wickwire’s 1/3, which was part of the Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force Alpha[2].  Both battalions began a sweep within their respective tactical zones.  Despite intelligence reports indicating a significant enemy presence, contact with enemy forces was sporadic and light.

Kenneth J. Houghton

Colonel Houghton was an experienced combat commander.  On 1 May, he directed 1/5, under Lieutenant Colonel Peter L. Hilgartner, into the mountains eight miles east of Hiep Duc. 1/5’s sweep initially encountered light resistance, but as the Battalion moved westward, the frequency and intensity of enemy engagements increased.  On 5 May, Delta Company 1/5 stumbled upon an enemy storage site containing weapons, ammunition, military uniforms, surgical kits, and other military gear.  Both 1/5 and 3/5 continued sweeping north; 1/3 began sweeping northwest of the Que Son village.  All three battalions were experiencing only sporadic enemy contacts — the enemy withdrew away from the Marines.

On 10 May, the Marines ran into a more significant enemy force.  Charlie 1/5 was moving up the slope of Hill 110 some 4,000 meters north of Que Son when the company came under heavy fire from a battalion-sized unit entrenched along the edge of Nui Nong Ham.  The Marines took Hill 110, but when they set into a hasty defense on the hill’s summit, they began taking heavy fire from a cane field below and inside caves along Nui Nong Ham’s lower slopes.  Captain Russell J. Caswell, commanding Charlie Company, called for assistance.

The nearest units were Bravo and Charlie companies 1/3.  They responded to relieve Caswell, but heavy NVA resistance stopped their advance.  Operational control of Bravo & Charlie shifted to Hilgartner’s 1/5.  Calls for artillery fire were ineffective because the Marines and the NVA forces were too close.  Bravo & Charlie companies soon called for reinforcements.  One platoon from Alpha Company 1/3 arrived by air to support them, but enemy fires were so intense that Hilgartner’s air officer waived off subsequent landings.

Alpha Company 1/5, commanded by Captain Gerald L. McKay, situated 2,000 meters to the east, moved to support Wickwire’s companies and came under heavy enemy fire.  Captain McKay was determined to push through.  Just as he positioned his company for an assault, an air support controller mistakenly marked the company’s position for an airstrike.  Marine F-4’s strafed the company — killing five Marines and wounded 24.  The combination of the enemy and friendly fire halted McKay’s advance.

By 15:00, Colonel Hilgartner’s command group (with Delta Company 1/5), was positioned on the slope of Nui Nong Ham from which they could lend fire support to Delta 1/3. Hilgartner’s Marines began lobbing mortars into the enemy’s positions.  Soon after, helicopters landed Esslinger’s Mike Company 3/5 at Hilgartner’s position and joined Captain Caswell’s Charlie Company.  The two companies quickly consolidated their position and began delivering fire into NVA positions.  With this support, Bravo & Charlie Company 1/3 aggressed the NVA positions in the cane field and on Nui Nong Ham’s northern slope.  By nightfall, the Marines had driven off the NVA force, leaving behind 116 dead communists; the cost to the Marines was 33 killed and 135 wounded (including those killed and injured from friendly fire).

On 12 May, Colonel Wickwire’s 1/3 was withdrawn and replaced by Colonel Bell’s 1/1.  On the 12th and 13th, 1/1, 1/5, and 3/5 remained in perpetual contact with enemy forces.  Esslinger assaulted an enemy battalion 3 miles east of Que Son in the evening of 13 May.  After making maximum use of artillery and airstrikes, Esslinger’s Marines ruthlessly attacked the NVA; artillery and aircraft support then shifted to block an NVA withdrawal.  On the other end of the Marine assault, 122 dead communists littered the battle site.

On 13-14 May, the Marines continually employed artillery and air power to strike enemy positions.  In the late afternoon of 14 May, Delta Company 1/1 discovered 68 enemy dead — all killed by either fragmentation or concussion.

The last battle of Union I took place on 15 May when Alpha 1/5 and Mike 3/5 discovered another bunker complex.  After preparatory fires and a coordinated assault, the Marines found 22 dead enemies within the bunker complex.  Operation Union I ended the next day.  Within these 27 days, the Marines had killed 865 enemy troops, of which 465 were NVA regulars of the 2nd NVA Division.  The number of communists killed was impressive, but Colonel Houghton believed that the most significant damage inflicted on the enemy was the psychological impact on the Que Son Valley population.  Houghton thought that the VC’s hold over local villages and hamlets was broken.

If Colonel Houghton was right about that — the enemy didn’t seem to realize it. The story of the fight for the Que Son Valley continues next week.

Sources:

  1. Steward, R. W.  Deepening Involvement: 1945-1965. Washington: Center for Military History, 2012.
  2. Telfer, G. L. et al. U. S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1974.

Endnotes:

[1] The official name of this Marine Corps organization is III Marine Expeditionary Force.  It was temporarily changed to III Marine Amphibious Force in 1965 because the South Vietnamese government expressed a psychological objection to use of the word “expeditionary.” 

[2] The SLF(A) code name for this operation was Beaver Cage.


Operation Ranch Hand

Whoever fights monsters must see to it

that the process does not become a monster. —Nietzsche

Background

The Players

We cannot begin to demonstrate an understanding of history’s great tragedies until we appreciate and acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the men who shaped them.  Occasionally, high officials’ statements and behaviors reveal who they were, how they reasoned, and how they arrived at decisions that affected tens of thousands of other human beings.  Of course, people are complex animals, and we are all flawed in some ways.  Knowing that people are flawed should give those of us living in democracies something to think about before choosing our national leaders.

As one example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a man who had no qualms about developing atomic weapons or approving chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, but he was consistently an anti-colonialist and sympathetic to popular independence/nationalist movements. Roosevelt’s compassion, coupled with his moralism, limited his interest in colonialism to work performed by missionaries in far distant places unknown to most Americans.  It was Roosevelt’s anti-colonial sentiments that brought him to loggerheads with other leaders of the allied powers — notably Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.

Mr. Roosevelt believed colonialism opened the door to secret diplomacy, which led to bloody conflicts.  These deeply held beliefs created tensions between Roosevelt, Churchill, and de Gaulle.  Both Churchill and de Gaulle intended to re-engage their pre-World War II colonial interests — including those in Southeast Asia and North Africa.

But Roosevelt, the pragmatist, also kept his focus on winning the war against Germany and Japan. To achieve that primary objective, he curbed his anti-colonial sentiments throughout most of the war — with some exceptions.  Roosevelt, for example, did not hesitate to signal his belief that the people of Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) were much better off without French meddling in their internal affairs.  After World War II, Roosevelt intended to “push” France toward an agreement placing its Southeast Asian colonies into an international trusteeship — a first step, Roosevelt believed — toward achieving Indochinese independence.

Unfortunately, Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office on 12 April 1945 — before the end of the Second World War.  Whatever his intentions toward Southeast Asia, it was left unfulfilled.  Upon Roosevelt’s death, Harry S. Truman ascended to the presidency, and Truman was an entirely different man.  Truman did not share Roosevelt’s anti-colonialist sentiments; he was more concerned about maintaining good relations with the United Kingdom and France. As a result, America’s world war allies had little trouble retaining their colonial holdings once the war was over.  When nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh announced Viet Nam’s independence in 1945, Truman ignored him — preferring instead to back De Gaulle.

In fact, Truman developed no distinct policy toward Indochina until around 1947 and only then because of the re-emergence of the Soviet Union and its totalitarian power over most of Eastern Europe and not until Winston Churchill forewarned of a clash between communism and capitalism — his now-famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946[1].  Always “slow on the up-take,” or if not that, then his preoccupation with post-war US domestic policy, the Iron Curtain speech, and George Kennan’s “Long Telegram”[2] nudged Truman’s attention toward the Soviet Union, Europe, and the domino theory of global communism.

Approaching Indochina

The Truman Doctrine led US foreign policy toward two interrelated goals — the first being an ambitious (American taxpayer-funded) program designed to rebuild a massively destroyed Europe as a democratic, capitalist dominated, pro-US collection of nations and a global defense against Soviet-style communism.  The first of these attentions went to Greece and Turkey but soon extended into East and Southeast Asia, as well.  The connection between events in Europe and far-distant Indochina was the re-established colonial empires of Great Britain and France, precisely the clash between French colonialism and the Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, which began in 1945[3].

Chemical Warfare

In 1943, the outcome of the Pacific war was inevitable: Japan would lose.  What remained uncertain was how many allied troops would perish if it became necessary to invade the Japanese home islands.  Encouraged, perhaps, by Italy’s campaign against Abyssinia in 1939, the US Army contracted with the University of Illinois (Urbana/Champaign) and a botanist/bioethicist named Arthur Galston to study the effects of chemical compounds (notably, dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T)) on cereal grains (including rice) and broadleaf crops.

What Galston discovered was that certain chemicals could be used to defoliate vegetation.  It was from this discovery that the question arose — how best to disperse such chemicals?

Since the beginning of powered flight, highly placed civilian and military officials have debated aeronautics’ utility in conflict.  During the First World War, French, British, and American forces employed airpower to counter enemy aircraft, perform intelligence gathering functions, attack enemy observation balloons, and drop bombs on enemy troop and artillery concentrations.  In the Second World War, the allied powers refrained from using chemical and biological weapons — perhaps out of fear that the enemy would reciprocate its use — and (mostly) confined its lethal air assault to enemy industrial and transportation centers.  There were two exceptions, however.  Fire-bombing destroyed Dresden, Germany[4], Tokyo, Japan[5] — and the civilians who lived in those cities.  It was a travesty surpassed only by the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan[6], in early August 1945 — the point being that aerial delivery of weapons or other means of mass destruction was not a new phenomenon among the world’s first nations.

In early 1945, the US Army tested various chemical mixtures at the Bushnell Army Airfield in Florida.  These tests were so successful that the US began planning to use defoliants against Japan — should it become necessary to invade the home islands.  The people working on the application of chemical warfare did not know about the Manhattan Project.  Because of the use of two atomic bombs in Japan, the allied invasion of the home islands was unnecessary — and neither was the use of herbicides.

Nevertheless, Great Britain and the United States continued their evaluations of defoliants’ use in the years following World War II.  The Americans tested well over 1,100 chemical compounds in various field tests, and the British conducted similar tests in India and Australia.  The first western nation to deploy chemical defoliants in conflict was the United Kingdom during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

By the mid-1950s, events unfolding in Southeast Asia were already leading the United States toward an unmitigated disaster in foreign policy and economic expenditures.  In 1961, given the “success” of the use of defoliants on the Malaysian Peninsula, American and Vietnamese officials began to consider their service in Vietnam, as well.

Ranch Hand

Ta Cu Mountain, Vietnam

Even before President Lyndon Johnson escalated the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, war planners realized that the region’s dense foliage would challenge those involved in ground and air campaigns.  This factor led to Operation Ranch Hand — a U. S. Air Force effort between 1961-1971 to reduce jungle vegetation and deny food sources to North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong insurgents by spraying the dense forests with an estimated 20-million gallons of various herbicides.  The Air Force concoction, code-named Agent Orange, contained the deadly chemical dioxin, later proven to cause cancer, congenital disabilities, rashes, and severe psychological and neurological problems among those exposed to it and their offspring.

Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt accepted an appointment to the US Naval Academy in 1939.  Upon graduation, he was commissioned an Ensign on 10 June 1942.  Upon selection to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), Zumwalt assumed overall command of Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla Seven in 1965.  As Rear Admiral (Upper Half), Zumwalt became Commander, US Naval Forces (Vietnam) and Chief, U. S. Naval Advisory Group within the USMACV.  In 1968, he was promoted to Vice Admiral and served as the principal navy advisor to US Army General Creighton Abrams, serving as Commander, MACV.

Model USN Swift Boat

Zumwalt’s command was part of the “brown water” navy, which in his advisory capacity, controlled the Navy’s swift boats that patrolled the coasts, harbors, and river systems of South Vietnam.  Among his subordinate boat commanders was his son, Elmo Russell Zumwalt III (and John F. Kerry).  The brown water navy also included Task Force 115 (Coastal Surveillance Force), Task Force 116 (River Patrol Force), and Task Force 117 (Joint Army-Navy Mobile Riverine Force).

In 1968, the United States had been fully engaged in the Vietnam War for three years.  No one wants to fight a never-ending war, not the people who have to fight in it, not the people back home who suffer the loss of loved ones, and not the politicians whose popularity and careers are diminished by unhappy citizens.  American war planners wanted to turn the war over to Vietnamese military officials to decide their fate vis-à-vis the conflict with North Vietnam.  This task of turning the war over to the Vietnamese government was called Vietnamization, first implemented by President Richard M. Nixon.  Nixon, who previously served as Eisenhower’s vice president, wanted the United States out of the Vietnam conflict — but with honor.

To achieve Vietnamization, the “press was on” to move Vietnamese military forces as quickly as possible to the point where they could take over the war, allowing the United States to withdraw their forces.  President Nixon didn’t want to hear any excuses about how or why USMACV could not achieve it.

Admiral Zumwalt related the story of how he attended a briefing with General Abrams in 1968 when the discussion emerged about how soon the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) might assume control of the air war over South Vietnam.  A senior US Air Force officer opined that the VNAF might be ready as early as 1976.  Abrahams threw a fit … Vietnamization was taking too long, and the Air Force didn’t seem to understand that MACV didn’t have eight more years to fool around with the project.  When it was Zumwalt’s turn to speak, he laid out his plan for increasing the pace of Vietnamization among the riverine forces.  This moment was when the Admiral made his fateful decision to increase defoliation along South Vietnam’s inland waterways.  Zumwalt later said that he specifically checked with the Air Force about possible harmful effects of Agent Orange on US personnel; he said, “We were told there were none.”

But in 1988, Dr. James Clary, a USAF researcher associated with Operation Ranch Hand, wrote to Senator Tom Daschle, stating, “When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential damage [to humans] due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide.  However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us was overly concerned.  We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”

Admiral Zumwalt’s son was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1983; in 1985, doctors also discovered stage three Hodgkins (another form of lymphoma).  Elmo R. Zumwalt III died in 1988, 42-years old.  His son, Elmo R. Zumwalt IV, suffers from congenital dysfunction that confuses his physical senses.  In 1985, Admiral Zumwalt told the press, “I do not have any guilt feelings because I was convinced then, and I am convinced now, that the use of Agent Orange saved literally hundreds and maybe thousands of lives.”

The Admiral could not have been more wrong as to the effects of Agent Orange and “saving lives.” The consequences of using dioxin to defoliate Vietnam’s dense jungle ended up killing up to 40,000 American servicemen[7], causing untold sickness and suffering to their offspring and killing as many as four million Vietnamese civilians.  Agent Orange killed his son — and the effect of this incomprehensible decision continues to manifest itself in 2021.  Admiral Zumwalt passed away in 2000 from mesothelioma.  He was 79 years old – he outlived his son by twelve years.

Sources:

  1. Associated Press (Online).  “Elmo Zumwalt, Son of Admiral, Dies at Age 42.”  13 August 1988.
  2. Clark, C. S. and Levy, A.  Sprectre Orange.  The Guardian.com.  2003.
  3. Mach, J. T.  Before Vietnam: Understanding the Initial Stages of US Involvement in Southeast Asia, 1945-1949.  Centennial Library: Cedarville University, 2018.
  4. Stellman, J. M. and Stellman, S. D., Christian, R., Weber, T., and Tomasallo, C.  The Extent and Patterns of Usage of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam.  School of Public Health, Columbia University, 2002.
  5. Veterans and Agent Orange.  National Academies, Institute of Medicine, Committee to Review Health Effects in Vietnam Veterans of Exposure to Herbicides, 2012.
  6. Vietnam Express (online). Due Hoang, Hoang Phuong, Dien Luong.  Out of Sight/Out of Mind: Vietnam’s Forgotten Agent Orange Victims, 2017.
  7. Zumwalt, E. Jr., and Zumwalt, E. III.  Agent Orange and the Anguish of an American Family.  New York: New York Times Magazine, 1986.

Endnotes:

[1] On 5 March 1946, then former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill condemned the Soviet Union’s policies in Europe, declaring that “… an iron curtain has descended across the [European] continent.”  It was the opening volley of the Cold War.

[2] George F. Kennan (1904-2005) was one of the US’ foreign policy wise men.  He was a historian and diplomat who advocated a containment policy toward the Soviet Union and helped Truman formulate the so-called Truman Doctrine.

[3] British forces entered Indochina in rather substantial numbers to accept the surrender of Imperial Japanese forces at the end of World War II.  Free French forces re-entered Vietnam soon after and observing the growing discord between French legionnaires and Vietnamese nationalists, and with no desire to be caught between the two, the British forces soon withdrew.  British colonial forces concentrated on their interests in Malaya (which also became a hotbed for communist inspired nationalism), Singapore, and Hong Kong.

[4] Raids conducted by my than 1,400 allied aircraft between 13-15 February 1945, resulting in 25,000 civilian deaths.

[5] Part of Operation Meeting House conducted on 9-10 March 1945 is the single most destructive bombing raid in human history.  It destroyed 16 square miles of central Tokyo and killed about 100,000 people.

[6] Death toll, a quarter of a million people.

[7] Even though these service men and women died from circumstances of their combat service, none of their names appear on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, DC.

U. S. Special Forces

Special Forces Insignia

 You can place everything civilians know about the military into a thimble.  It isn’t entirely their fault, of course.  So, it comes as no surprise that civilians are likely to ask such questions as, What is the difference between a Green Beret and an Army Ranger?  Or they might ask, Who’s the best, the Green Berets, Rangers, or Marines?

The answers to such deeply insightful questions will always depend upon who’s been asked.  How would one expect a soldier or sailor to answer?  A Marine, for example, might offer the questioner a contemptible stare and then just walk off without answering.  Marines do have a sense of humor, but it has its limits.  One of the best-ever answers originates with a former Green Beret sergeant major by the name of David Kirschbaum:

You tell the Marines to take a hill and they’ll frown, mutter, and bitch about it, but they’ll eventually salute, organize a platoon, and they’ll head straight for that hill.  They’ll fight and kill whoever gets in their way of taking that hill, and even if there is only one PFC left in the bunch, he’ll seize that hill and organize himself for keeping it.

If you tell the Rangers to take a hill, they’ll salute and then go plan for a few days, write a lot of operation orders, develop patrol plans, argue about the scheme of maneuver, and finally decide who ought to be in charge.  And then in the execution of taking that hill, they’ll find the absolutely worst terrain available for their route of march, which will preferably include swamps overrun with poisonous snakes and steep cliffs protected by predatory birds, and they’ll wait for the worst weather imaginable, but they’ll finally go through the swamps and climb the cliffs, and they won’t feel right unless they’ve lost half their force due to exhaustion or snake bite.  But if there’s even one Ranger remaining, he’ll take the hill.

If you tell the Special Forces to take that hill, the first thing they’ll do is ask you why.  So, you have to explain why.  And then they’ll offer a disrespectful stare which is called silent contempt, and then they’ll just go away.  In a few days, they might take that hill.  Or they might take another hill that they liked better because the evidence was so blatantly obvious that their hill was the better choice that you can never argue with them about it.  Or they might pull some sort of a deal and persuade the Marines to do it.  Or, after a few days you might find them at the club completely ignoring the order to take the hill.  And if challenged about their failure to take the hill, they’ll soon convince you that the order was a stupid idea and in not taking the hill, they very likely saved you from a court-martial —for which you are in their debt.”

Most people know the Special Forces soldier by his headgear: the Green Beret.  They probably do not know that the US Army Special Forces traces its roots in unconventional warfare to the Alamo Scouts of the Sixth US Army in the Pacific during World War II, the Philippine Guerrillas [Note 1], the First Special Service Force [Note 2], and several operational groups within the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  Note: the OSS was not a US Army command, but a large number of officers and enlisted men were assigned to the OSS and later used their experience in forming the US Army Special Forces.  During the Korean War, men like Colonel Wendell Fertig and Lieutenant Colonel Russell W. Volckmann (former Philippine Scouts) used their wartime experiences to formulate the doctrine of unconventional warfare that became the foundation of the Special Forces.

In February 1950, the US government recognized a quasi-independent Vietnam within the French Union.  The US was considering granting aid to the French forces opposing the communist insurgency of Ho Chi Minh.  The US agreed to provide military and economic aid, and with this decision, American involvement in Indochina had begun.

In 1951, Major General Robert A. McClure selected Colonel Aaron Bank (formerly of the OSS) to serve as Operations Branch Chief of the Special Operations Division, Psychological Warfare Staff at Fort Brag, North Carolina.  Within a year, the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was formed under Colonel Bank at the Psychological Warfare School (later designated the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center).  In 1953, the 10th SFG was split, with the 10th deploying to Germany, and the remaining men forming the 77th Special Force Group, which in May 1960 was re-designated as the 7th Special Forces Group.

On 7 May 1954, the French were overwhelmingly defeated by the Viet Minh (Communist supported Viet Nam Independence League) at Dien Bien Phu.  Under the Geneva Armistice Agreement, Vietnam was divided into North Vietnam and South Vietnam.  Between 1950-54, US officials had an opportunity to observe the struggle of France with the Vietnamese insurgency and become familiar with the political and military situation … but one has to wonder, what did these officials do with all that familiarization?

In July 1954, the US Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam (USMAAGV) numbered 342 officers and men.  Three months later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower promised direct aid to the provisional government of South Vietnam, which at the time was led by Premier Ngo Dinh Diem.  Between 1954-56, Viet Minh cadres were busy forming action committees to spread communist propaganda and organize South Vietnamese citizens to oppose their own government [Note 3].  In 1955, both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union announced that they would provide direct aid to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (also, DRV or North Vietnam).  In August 1955, Premier Diem rejected for the third time Hanoi’s demand for a general election throughout both North Vietnam and South Vietnam to settle the matter of unification.  In October 1955, Diem proclaimed the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), which became the official government of South Vietnam.

On 24 June 1957, the 1st Special Forces Group was activated on Okinawa; within a year, a team from this unit trained fifty-eight soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) at a commando training center located at Nha Trang.  These trainees would later become the nucleus for the first Vietnamese Special Forces units.

In 1959-60, communist insurgents (known as Vietnamese Communists (also, VC) grew in number and began terrorizing innocent civilians.  Clashes between government forces and VC units increased from around 180 in January 1960 to nearly 550 in September.  Thirty Special Forces instructors were sent from Fort Bragg to Vietnam in May to set up an ARVN training program.

On 21 September 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced a program to provide additional military and economic aid to the RVN.  On that same day, the 5th Special Forces Group was activated at Fort Bragg.  It was at this point in 1961 that President Kennedy took an interest in special forces operations and he became the patron of the Special Forces program within the Army.

Up until 1961, the RVN and US mission in Saigon focused their attention on developing regular ground forces, which for the most part had excluded ethnic and religious minority groups.  Late in that year, the US initiated several programs that would broaden the counterinsurgency effort by developing paramilitary forces within these minority groups.  The development of these groups became a primary mission of Special Forces teams in Vietnam.  It was a difficult mission; one that required an understanding of Vietnamese culture, the culture of minority groups (i.e., Montagnards), and a great deal of patience.

In 1961, the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas undertook an examination of the responsibility of the US Army in the cold war and the so-called “wars of liberation” as practiced by communists around the world.  One focus that evolved from this examination was doctrine needed to counter subversive insurgencies, particularly in RVN.  When asked to identify units and numbers of forces needed and best prepared to deal with counterinsurgency operations, the Army selected as its vanguard unit the Special Forces, which at the time numbered around 2,000 troops.

Throughout the Vietnam War, the US Army Special Forces excelled in every aspect of unconventional warfare.  As with the other American armed forces in Vietnam, however, the deck was stacked against them from the start [Note 4].  At the conclusion of the war, after Democrats in Congress reneged on America’s deal with Vietnam in the post Vietnamization phase, many veteran special forces soldiers left active service in disgust.  We won all the battles, but the politicians back home handed a victory to the North Vietnamese from the jaws of their resounding defeat.  The utter shame of American history was not the men who stepped up to serve during the Vietnam War, it was the Congress of the United States who not only turned its back on our South Vietnamese ally, but on the men and women who served in Vietnam as well.

The Green Berets do not refer to themselves as such.  They either refer to themselves as “Special Forces” or SF.  Sometimes they are known as “Sneaky Pete,” and “Snake Eaters.”  They do know how to eat snakes, but I have it pretty good authority that it’s not a preferred or regular diet (although it’s probably better tasting than the current government faire of Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s) (also, Meals rejected by Ethiopians).  

The John Wayne film, The Green Berets, wasn’t really about the Special Forces soldier; it was more of a composite picture of soldiers one might find in the Special Forces.  According to the retired special forces soldiers I know, the SFG of the 1960s is a far cry from the modern organization.

In the early days, the SF soldier was an individual we might call a natural woodsman.  They were men to volunteered for duty with Special Forces because they preferred being in the boonies to being in garrison and having to take part in weekly parades, repetitious routines, and the chicken shit associated with regular army life.  There was some formal training, of course, and it is true that these fellows had a knack for learning foreign languages, but most of the men received on-the-job training (OJT) in special forces operations teams.  One former Green Beret described it as working hard when it was time to work and playing hard when it was time to play.  Perhaps too much drinking and chasing skirts while on liberty, but these men were, indeed, the quiet professionals who never lost their focus on their mission.

The primary element of a Special Forces company is an operational detachment, commonly referred to as an A Team.  It consists of 12 soldiers: 2 officers, and ten sergeants.  All members of the A Team are Special Forces qualified and cross trained in different skills.  The team is almost unlimited in its ability to operate in hostile or “denied” areas, able to infiltrate and exfiltrate by air, land, or sea.  It can operate for indefinite periods of time in remote locations without any outside help or support—self-sustaining, independent teams who regularly train, advise, and assist US and allied forces and agencies and capable of performing a myriad of special operations.  Every member of the A Team is lethal.

Besides the A Team commander (a captain), the second in command is a Chief Warrant Officer.  The captain is responsible for ensuring and maintaining the operational readiness of the team; he may also command or advise an indigenous combat force up to battalion size units.  His executive officer (second in command) serves as the tactical and technical expert.  He is multi-lingual, supervises plans and operations, and is capable of recruiting, organizing, training, and supervising indigenous combat forces up to the battalion level.

The A Team Sergeant is a Master Sergeant, the senior enlisted man, responsible for overseeing all Team operations, supervising subordinate enlisted men, and the person who runs the show on a daily basis.  Because of his interaction with the team enlisted men, he is sometimes referred to as the Den Daddy.  He is capable of stepping up to second in command should the need arise, or assuming command should the team commander and XO become incapacitated.

The Operations Sergeant is a Sergeant First Class (E-7) who coordinates the team’s intelligence, including field interrogations.  He is capable of training, advising, or leading indigenous combat forces up to a company size unit.

The team has two (2) weapons sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  These are the weapons experts who are capable of employing every small arm and crew served weapon in the world.  They are responsible for training other team members in the use of a wide range of weapons.  As tactical mission leaders, they are capable of employing conventional and unconventional tactics and techniques.  They are responsible for the tactical security of the A Team.

The team has two (2) engineer sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class, and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  These men are experts in demolitions.  They are lethal with a capital L.  They are the builders and destroyers of structures and serve as key players in civic action missions.

There are two (2) medical sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class, and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  The SF medic employs the latest in field medical technology and limited surgical procedures, capable of managing any battlefield trauma injury, supervising preventative medicine, and as such is an integral part of civic action programs.  Upon completion of the SF training, they are certified “paramedical” personnel, which includes advance trauma life support, limited surgery and dentistry, and even veterinarian procedures.

There are two (2) communications sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class, and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  These are the Comm Guys, or sometimes referred to as “Sparks.”  They are the lifeline of the team, able to establish and maintain sophisticated communications via FM, multi-channel, and satellite devices.  Theirs is unquestionably the heaviest rucksack on the team.

In addition to their primary responsibilities, team members are often assigned other duties.  The best scrounger very often acts as the supply sergeant.  A scrounger is someone who can steal from other units without getting caught.  One member with peculiar culinary skills might serve as the team cook.  

In the 1960s, before the Special Forces were recognized as a branch of the army, they were regarded as “unassigned.”  Another word for this was “bastard.”  In joining the special forces, a solder became part of a bastard unit.  The veteran soldiers preferred being bastards because it meant that they were generally ignored by the geniuses in Washington whose tactical skill set was operating a pencil sharpener.  Today, the conventional army has taken over the special forces … which means that pencil pushers now dictate to the field soldier how he must go about his business.  If you ask a veteran SF soldier, he’ll probably tell you that today’s SF is little different from the regular conventional army … but they do get to wear service insignia.

One of my favorites:

Staff Sergeant Schwartz had volunteered for the Special Forces.  His request was approved contingent on successfully passing a psychological examination.  On the date of his interview, Schwartz entered the medical officer’s office, removed his hat, and took a seat.  The doctor, who had been reviewing Schwartz’s medical record, looked up and observed a frog sitting on Schwartz’s head.  Having interviewed several Special Forces candidates that day, the doctor was unfazed.  He asked Schwartz, “So, what’s your problem?”  The frog answered, saying, “I don’t know, doc.  It started off as a wart on my ass.”

Endnotes:

[1] After the invasion of the Philippines by the Japanese in 1941, there were sixty American military and civilian commanders of forces throughout the Philippines who evaded capture or escaped Japanese imprisonment on the archipelago’s several islands.  With the help and assistance of the Filipino people, the Philippine Scouts formed resistance groups, which were eventually recognized by the American military and eventually supported and supplied by the USN submarine service.

[2] The First Special Service Force, also known as the Devil’s Brigade, was an elite American-Canadian commando unit in World War II under the command of the Fifth US Army, organized in 1942 under Colonel Robert T. Frederick, who commanded the brigade until 1944.

[3] At this time, the average Vietnamese citizen was not overly patriotic.  Occurrences outside of their immediate family, or outside their village of domicile, was of no great concern to them.

[4] For a discussion about the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, see (1) Viet Nam: The Beginning; (2) Viet Nam: The Marines Head North; (3) The Laotian Problem; (4) Counterinsurgency and Pacification, and (5) The War Begins in Earnest.  The reader may also be interested in From King to Joker: How administration policies moved America from greatness to mediocrity.

Meade River

20 November — 9 December 1968

Background

Twenty miles south of Da Nang, Vietnam, west of Highway 1, is a 36-square-mile area of flatland.  Numerous waterways and man made canals criss cross this area and these are separated by thick tufts of five-foot high elephant grass.  In 1968 it was an area ideal for concealing two battalions of enemy infantry, which at the time included the 1st Battalion, 36th Regiment of regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) R-20 Battalion.  The area was extremely dangerous to US and Republic of Vietnam (RVN) forces; firefights and ambuscades were frighteningly common.  The Marines called this area Dodge City

OPERATION MEADE RIVER was planned as part of the RVN’s Le Loi (Accelerated Pacification) Campaign [Note 1] — a series of operations designed to search for and destroy enemy forces.  On the morning of 20 November 1968, seven Marine battalions moved overland and by helicopter to establish a cordon around Dodge City.  While moving into initial staging areas, even before the sweeps began, Marines lost one KIA, suffered 25 WIA, and lost two helicopters.  It was not a good omen.  The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines (2/7) jumped off at midday.  Their mission was to sweep from the western side of the cordon toward the rail lines.  At around 1630, Company G (Golf 2/7) encountered an NVA bunker complex in an area the Marines nicknamed The Horseshoe.  Enemy fire from these bunkers was intense and the Marines withdrew with six additional KIA.

On 21 November, Delta 1/1 and Lima 3/26 resumed the assault on The Horseshoe.  Heavy enemy fire stalled the advance.  The enemy had decided they weren’t leaving without a fight and the Marines were equally determined to give them one.  The Marines resumed their assault on 22 November.  Enemy machine gun fire devastated Echo 2/7 at close range as it began to cross a small stream; Marine losses were 7 KIA and 23 WIA.  It took the company ten minutes to disengage.  Concurrently, Delta 1/1 began its sweep from the North but they too were hit by intensive enemy fire with loses of 2 KIA and 17 wounded.

On 23 November, 3/26 moved from the Southwest toward the Horseshoe and joined up with 2/7.  Hotel 2/7 overran several enemy positions and was able to recover the remains of six Marines lost on 20 November.  Early on 24 November, Marines directed air and artillery against the Horseshoe; 2/7 reinforced by Kilo 3/26 renewed its attack.  Again, strong enemy fire halted the Marine advance.

Before jumping off on 25 November, 2/7 directed artillery fire into suspected enemy positions before continuing the attack.  There was no enemy resistance because the enemy had withdrawn during the night.  Over the next four days, the Marines continued to exert pressure on the enemy within the cordon.  It was grueling work for the Marines as they advanced through thick grass that concealed enemy defensive positions.  Meanwhile, 3/5 initiated an assault along Route 4 which necessitated the destruction of several bunker complexes.  As they approached a section called “The Hook,” the battalion encountered stiff enemy resistance.  The battalion lost 2 KIA and 28 wounded before pulling back to allow for air and artillery fire.

3/5 reinitiated offensive operations on 2 December but made no progress.  After additional air and artillery bombardments, 3/26 joined 3/5’s advance on 3 December and the Marines succeeded in penetrating the enemy’s intricate defensive positions during the next day.  After air dropping napalm on the enemy’s defenses on 5 December, Marines overran the bunker complex and discovered the remains of 87 enemy dead.

On 6 December, Echo 2/26 encountered a stubborn NVA bunker complex just south of the La Tho River.  Hotel 2/5 and Alpha 1/7 attacked the complex on the morning of 7 December but were quickly pinned down and suffered heavy casualties.  As forward observers called in for additional air and artillery support, the grunts withdrew to set up night defensive positions.  At around 1130 on 8 December, 3/26 supported by several armored personnel carriers from the ARVN 2nd Troop, 4th ARVN Cavalry aggressively attacked the complex finding 79 enemy dead from the previous day’s engagement.  For a time, Hotel 2/5 was pinned down by a final line of bunkers spewing hot lead through the Marine’s line of advance, but the equally stubborn Marines used explosives to destroy the bunkers one at a time, which killed an additional 39 NVA/VC defenders.

The highly pissed-off Marines of Alpha 1/7 viciously assaulted a series of 12 bunkers killing 47 NVA.  As the Marines pushed through the foliage to the bank of the river, they engaged another enemy unit attempting to escape into river killing an additional twenty NVA/VC.  Alpha gave up six of their men KIA.

On the night of 8 December, Lima 3/26 engaged an NVA unit, killing fifteen enemy with the loss of 5 Marines.  At sundown, India 3/26’s lead platoon found itself cut off from the rest of the company by intense enemy fire.  Staff Sergeant Karl G. Taylor, serving as the Company Gunnery Sergeant, led a rescue team to recover and evacuate the platoon’s more seriously wounded Marines.  After Taylor’s Marines had moved several wounded to safety, he returned with four volunteers to reach another group of wounded Marines who were laying exposed to enemy fire.  Finding the position too strong, Taylor instructed his volunteers to move back to the company line, and then arming himself with a grenade launcher, charged across the rice paddy while firing 40-mm grenades into the enemy position.  Although wounded several times, Taylor silenced the weapon.

Medal of Honor Citation Summary 

Navy Medal of Honor

While serving as Company Gunnery Sergeant on the night of 8 December 1968, Taylor was informed that the platoon commander of the lead platoon had been mortally wounded and that the platoon was pinned down by intense enemy machine gun fire.  Staff Sergeant Taylor with another Marine in support, crawled forward to the beleaguered unit through a hail of hostile fire, shouted encouragement and instructions to the men, directing them to covered positions.

With his companion, Taylor repeatedly maneuvered across an open area to rescue those Marines who were too seriously wounded to move themselves.  Upon learning that there were additional seriously wounded men lying in open area, exposed to the fire of an enemy machine gun position, Staff Sergeant Taylor led four Marines across the fire-swept terrain in an attempt to rescue the cut off Marines.  When Taylor’s advance was halted by devastating enemy fire, Taylor directed his Marines to return to the company command post.  He then took his grenade launcher and, in full view of the enemy, charged across the open rice paddy toward the enemy machine gun position, firing his weapon as he ran.

Although wounded several times, he succeeded in reaching the machine gun bunker and destroying it.  By this time, Staff Sergeant Taylor was mortally wounded, but his actions saved the lives of the isolated Marines.  By his indomitable courage, inspiring leadership, and selfless dedication, Staff Sergeant Karl G. Taylor upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.  

Richard M. Nixon

President of the United States

Who was Staff Sergeant Karl Taylor? 

He was born on 14 July 1939 in Laurel, Maryland.  After leaving high school, Karl worked for a construction company as a scraper operator.  On 15 January 1959, twenty-year old Karl and his brother Walter enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps at the recruiting station in Baltimore.  After recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, Karl completed combat training with the 1st Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Geiger [Note 2], North Carolina.  Taylor’s first tour of duty was as a rifleman with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.  After promotion to corporal, which made him eligible for duty as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor, Karl applied for and was accepted to attend DI School at Parris Island.  He served as a drill instructor until 1963.

In 1964, Taylor joined the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa where he was assigned to Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines.  Taylor served his first combat tour when the division was sent to Vietnam in 1965.  Upon rotation back to the United States, Taylor served as a sergeant-instructor at Company A, Officer’s Candidate School, Quantico, Virginia.  He was promoted to staff sergeant on 1 September 1966.

SSGT Karl G. Taylor Sr.

In 1968, Taylor returned to Vietnam for his second combat tour of duty.  He was assigned as the Company Gunnery Sergeant, Company I, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines.

Taylor’s remains were returned to his family and he was interred at the Independence Cemetery, Washington County, Pennsylvania.  In addition to receiving the nation’s highest award for conspicuous gallantry, Taylor’s family was awarded his Purple Heart medal.  He was also entitled to wear the Combat Action Ribbon (two awards), the Presidential Unit Citation (two awards) [Note 3], and three awards of the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal.

Operation Meade River Terminated

On the evening of 8 December, the enemy still retained a narrow strip of ground between 3/26 and the Song La Tho.  Another push was ordered to eliminate these communists.  Along with Marine Corps artillery, the USS New Jersey directed its sixteen-inch guns on these remaining positions throughout the night and into the morning.  3/26 launched its final assault at 1100 on 9 December.  Despite the assault of overwhelming field and naval artillery during the night, remaining enemy forces tenaciously resisted the ground attack, but the Marines methodically and thoroughly eliminated the enemy wherever found. 

Operation Meade River officially ended at 1800 on 9 December.  The battle was a major event pitting determined Marines against equally resolved North Vietnamese and Viet Cong defenders.  The operation ended with 1,023 enemy dead, 123 prisoners taken, and an additional 71 VC were captured when discovered hiding among local populations.  Marines also destroyed 360 enemy bunkers and captured 120 tons of rice stores — but the cost was high.  108 Marines lost their lives with 510 wounded in action.  ARVN casualties were 2 KIA and 37 WIA.  Although initially vanquished, the persistent enemy soon began infiltrating snipers and before the end of December, Marines observed that communist forces were again preparing to launch assaults against Da Nang and Hoi An from Dodge City.  By that time, the Marines had turned their attention to another problem area which they called “Arizona Territory.”

Sources:

  1. Hunt, R.  Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds.  Westview Press, 1995. 
  2. Shulimson, J.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam, 1968: The Defining Year.  Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1997.
  3. White, J. P.  “Civil Affairs in Vietnam.”  Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D. C.

Endnotes:

[1]  Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) was a pacification program created on 9 May 1967 that included military and civilian components of the US and RVN.  The objective of CORDS was to gain support for the government of RVN from its rural populations influenced or controlled by insurgent communist forces (VC) and regular NVA.  One of CORDS successes was the integration of civilian and military efforts to combat the communist insurgency.

[2]  Named in honor of General Roy S. Geiger, USMC — one of the Corps’ first naval aviators and the only Marine to command a U. S. Army during World War II.

[3]  Although a combat decoration awarded to every Marine in the unit cited, the Presidential Unit Citation is roughly equivalent to the Navy Cross Medal in precedence of other unit awards.  

The War Begins in Earnest

Some background

Shortly after the Geneva Convention of 1954, CIA director Allen Dulles sent Colonel Edward Lansdale to initiate a series of clandestine operations against North Vietnam.  Lansdale initiated several operations, code named Nautilus, which included South Vietnam manned commando raids and the insertion of CIA recruited spies.  In 1963, the CIA and US Department of Defense jointly agreed that these covert operations should transfer to the DoD.  In January 1964, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG)[1] assumed responsibility for all covert operations in Vietnam[2].

USMACV-SOG-001Once MAC-SOG took control of covert operations in North Vietnam, the Pentagon issued Operation Plan (OPLAN) 34-63, which entailed a continuation of commando raids[3] and the expansion of electronic surveillance through US Navy ships and patrol boats based out of Da Nang.  OPLAN 34-A expanded covert operations with more ambitious missions to offshore assaults on coastal installations.  When US intelligence officers realized that some of their raiders had been turned by the North Vietnamese, US covert operations shifted more toward psychological operations, which involved spreading anti-Communist propaganda and deception.  The effectiveness of these clandestine measures remains questionable, but there was no doubt that both the USSR and China were actively supplying the Viet Cong (VC) with weapons and munitions, or that North Vietnam was funneling men and material into South Vietnam through Laos.

With US Navy ships collecting intelligence off the coast of North Vietnam, it was only a matter of time before the North Vietnamese challenged these encroachments, which were mostly converted minesweepers.  Occasionally, but always between midnight and 0300, North Vietnamese gunboats would approach these ships at high speed and then peel off and return to their island base of operations at a location above the 30th parallel.  North Vietnamese gunboats were threatening, but they never actually attacked the unarmed minesweepers.  Because the minesweepers were defenseless, the Navy decided to replace them with destroyers to continue electronic surveillance.  These were referred to as desoto patrols.  By sending out patrol boats to challenge US navy ships (which were always conducted beyond the internationally recognized 3-mile limit), US intelligence officers were able to collect useful information about North Vietnamese (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) (DRV) military and naval capabilities.  In time, the DRV replaced their gunboats with larger vessels and torpedo equipped frigates.

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963, the American presidency passed to Lyndon B. Johnson.  Johnson retained most of Kennedy’s cabinet and advisors —men who had helped craft and manage the Kennedy administration’s policies toward Southeast Asia.  Prior to his vice presidency, Johnson had been a long-serving member of the US Senate and the House of Representatives from Texas —but despite those bona fides, Johnson was uncertain about his own foreign policy credentials and this forced him to rely on Kennedy’s cabinet … men such as Robert S. McNamara[4], Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy.

Ngo Dinh Diem 001
President Ngo Dinh Diem

President Kennedy (like his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower), was reluctant to involve the United States in another Asian war.  Neither of these men were hesitant to offer military assistance, in terms of advisors and material support, but neither could see how direct involvement would benefit either South Vietnam or US interests in Indochina.  Kennedy had, with some success, negotiated recognition of the Kingdom of Laos as a neutral state, but this agreement was almost immediately ignored by the DRV, who had previously used Laos to infiltrate men and material into South Vietnam —and continued to do so.  In signing the accord, Kennedy was naïve.  Neither did the President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem (or the US Ambassador to South Vietnam), believe that the Geneva Accord was a good idea.  Diem believed that the United States was more concerned about its own interests in Southeast Asia than it was about the security of South Vietnam —and of course, he was right.

Diem had long resented America’s heavy hand in its internal affairs.  For all of his short comings (at least, according to western standards), Diem was an intelligent man who was confronted by a plethora of domestic issues, not the least of which were well-entrenched urban gangsters, rural warlords, Buddhist activists opposing a Catholic head of state, and a determined Communist insurgency.  American diplomats did not seem to appreciate either Diem’s stress level or the fact that he was culturally Vietnamese.  His attitudes toward curtailing dissent were not so far removed from those of his North Vietnamese counterpart, Ho Chi Minh.  Diem was harsh in his suppression of dissidents and Kennedy, believing that Diem’s punitive policies were counterproductive to stabilizing South Vietnam’s (RVN) government, pushed back.  President Diem deeply resented this interference.  The US and RVN were at an impasse —and something had to give.

On 1-2 November 1963, President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother (and chief advisor) Ngo Dinh Nhu were assassinated, an operation ostensibly planned and carried out by Diem’s senior military officers.  Almost no one believed that these incompetent generals could have pulled off such an intricate operation without the help of the American CIA.  If South Vietnam was unstable under Diem, his assassination made things worse.  Ho Chi Minh, while stymied by the American-backed event, couldn’t have been more pleased.

Prelude to War

President Johnson soon learned that earlier assurances by McNamara and Bundy that the RVN was making progress against the communist insurgency were ill-founded.  Secretary of State Dean Rusk warned Johnson that in fact, South Vietnam was in a deep spiral.  McNamara and senior DoD officials rejected Rusk’s arguments, but as it turned out, Rusk was right and South Vietnam was in dire straits.  Viet Cong attacks, performed at will, were increasing in frequency and lethality.

In late January 1964, South Vietnamese General Nguyen Khanh overthrew the ruling junta of Duong Van Minh (also known as Big Minh).  It was the second coup d’état in three months.  Amazingly, Johnson, who was not pleased with RVN’s progress in countering the communist insurgency, found encouragement in the coup and sought to bolster the Khanh regime.  In March 1964, Johnson sent McNamara to undertake a fact-finding mission in South Vietnam.  His report pointed to an easily discernible deterioration of popular morale and an acceleration of communist insurgencies.  McNamara advised Johnson to send more US military and economic support.

By this time, President Johnson was convinced that South Vietnam was about to fall into the hands of the communists.  He was determined not to become the first US president to lose the fight against communist aggression[5].  The emerging war in Vietnam became Johnson’s primary focus.  Ultimately, Johnson decided on a series of increasingly aggressive political strategies.

But 1964 was an election year in the United States.  When US Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge resigned his post and announced that he was running for the presidency, Johnson replaced him with retired US Army General Maxwell Taylor, formerly the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  On Taylor’s recommendation, Johnson also replaced General Paul D. Harkins as head of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (USMACV), with General William C. Westmoreland[6].  In making these changes, Johnson’s signal seemed clear enough: he was leaning toward a military solution to the conflict in Vietnam, rather than a diplomatic resolution.

President Johnson was also challenged for the presidency by Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona.  Johnson was many things (a decent human being not being one of them), but he was a master politician.  With two very substantial challengers, Johnson increased his popularity[7] by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (passed into law on 2 July), but he also understood this alone would not be enough to take America to another Asian war.  Johnson would require the support of Congress to increase US involvement in South Vietnam.  In order to achieve congressional support, Johnson would need to demonstrate that North Vietnam was a bona fide threat to the peace and security of the Southeast Asian Mainland.

On 1 August 1964, South Vietnamese commandos raided a North Vietnamese radio transmitter located on an offshore island.  The very next morning, 2 August, the destroyer USS Maddox (DD 731) while cruising in international waters 28 miles off the coast of North Vietnam, engaged three North Vietnamese Navy (NVN) P-4 Motor Torpedo Boats[8] of Torpedo Squadron 135.  The Commander, Destroyer Division, 7th Fleet, Captain John J. Herrick, was aboard Maddox and exercised command authority over the Desoto mission.  Herrick ordered Commander Herbert Ogier, the ship’s captain, to have gun crews fire on the torpedo boats if they came within 10,000 yards of Maddox.  When the boats encroached upon the Maddox, Ogier ordered three rounds to warn off the NVN craft.

The NVN commanders were brothers, Van Bot, commanding T-333, Van Tu, commanding T-336, and Van Gian commanding T-339.  The attack commenced in numerical order with T-333 spearheading the attack.  The maximum effective range of their torpedoes was 1,000 yards (9/10ths of a mile).  Maddox’ gun range was 18,000 yards.  T-333 pressed home its assault astern Maddox with the two additional boats in trace.  Then, T-333 attempted to run abeam of Maddox for a side shot.  T-336 and T-339 fired first, but Maddox’ five-inch gun fire threatened the torpedo boats.  Both fired their torpedoes prematurely, all four missing their target.  T-333 fired its torpedoes, also without effect, but then fired at Maddox with its 14.5-mm (.57 caliber) deck gun.  The American destroyer received a single hit.  Altering course, crewmen observed torpedoes passing Maddox on her starboard side.

Within short order, four F-8 Crusaders from USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) arrived overhead and promptly attacked the NVN torpedo boats, forcing them to withdraw.  Several NVN crewmen were wounded, four were killed, and all three boats were seriously damaged.  There were no US casualties.  One of the four aircraft sustained damage to its left wing, but all birds returned to Ticonderoga.

On 3 August, USS Turner Joy (DD-951) was ordered to accompany USS Maddox for another Desoto mission.  On 4 August, Turner Joy’s radar picked up a number of blips believed to be approaching small, high-speed surface craft, but at an extreme range.  As a precaution, the two destroyers called upon Ticonderoga to furnish air support.  After nightfall, radar signatures suggested the convergence of patrol boats from the west and south.  Turner Joy reported that she sighted one or two torpedo wakes, ramped up her speed and began evasion maneuvers.  Turner Joy then began firing in the direction of the unidentified surface vessels.  Over the next two and a half hours, Turner Joy fired 220 five-inch shells; aircraft from Ticonderoga likewise fired on “suspected” torpedo boats.

This second attack on 4 August never actually happened[9], but together with the incident on 2 August, President Johnson claimed “unprovoked attacks” upon the sovereignty of the United States.  On 5 August, Johnson ordered bombing raids on North Vietnamese military targets.  Referred to in history as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Johnson asked for and received Congressional approval to escalate US involvement in the Vietnam War.

In North Vietnam, General Vo Nguyen Giap made a disturbing accusation.  Lyndon Johnson, he said, constructed the Desoto patrols in order to provoke North Vietnam into a response, so that Johnson could use such a response as an excuse for escalating the conflict in South Vietnam.  Giap’s allegation is probably true[10].  According to Ray McGovern, a retired CIA analyst (1963-90), the CIA, “not to mention President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy all knew full well that the evidence of an armed attack on 4 August 1964, the so-called ‘second’ Tonkin Gulf incident, was highly dubious.  During the summer of 1964, President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff[11] seemed keen on widening the war in Vietnam.  They stepped up sabotage and hit and run attacks on the coast of North Vietnam.”

James Bamford, author of the book Body of Secrets, who spent three years in the US Navy as an intelligence analyst, agrees with McGovern.  The primary purpose of the Maddox “was to act as a seagoing provocateur —to poke its sharp gray bow and the American flag as close to the belly of North Vietnam as possible, in effect shoving its five-inch cannons up the nose of the communist navy.  The Maddox’ mission was made even more provocative by being present at times that coincided with commando raids, creating the impression that Maddox was directing those missions.”  Accordingly, the DRV had every reason to believe that USS Maddox was involved in the commando raids.

Here’s what we know …

In the early afternoon of 4 August (Washington time), Captain John Herrick reported to the Commander in Chief, Pacific that “freak weather effects” on Turner Joy’s radar had made North Vietnamese attacks questionable.  He was clear in his statement: “No North Vietnamese patrol boats had actually been sighted.”  Herrick urged a full reevaluation of these events before any further action was taken.  It was too late.  President Johnson had already made his televised announcement.

Secretary McNamara later testified that he had read Herrick’s message after his return to the Pentagon in the afternoon of 4 August, but that he did not immediately contact the president to tell him that the premise of his justification for retaliatory air strikes was at that time, highly questionable.  Scholars now argue that had Johnson received accurate information, had he been informed of the Herrick message, he “might have demanded more complete information before proceeding with broadening the war.”  Personally, given what I know of Lyndon Johnson, I doubt it.

LBJ-001
Lyndon Baines Johnson

Johnson was up for reelection.  He informed congress that the USS Maddox was not involved in providing intelligence for raids into North Vietnam.  He stated clearly that North Vietnamese attacks were “unprovoked.”  This was a lie and he knew at the time that it was a lie.  As a result of this testimony, the US Congress passed a Joint Resolution granting Johnson authority to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without the benefit of a declaration of war. Johnson was empowered to “take all necessary steps, including the use of armed forces, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.”

Lyndon Johnson’s election as President of the United States in his own right allowed the administration to move forward with a more aggressive policy in Southeast Asia.  Mere days before the election, Communist guerrillas attacked the US air base at Bien Hoa killing four Americans, wounding scores, and destroying twenty-five aircraft.  Johnson decided (politically) not to respond to this attack so close to a national election, but on election day, he created an interagency task force to review US-Vietnam policy.  Chairing this task force was William Bundy (a former CIA analyst), the brother of McGeorge Bundy (serving as chief of the State Department’s Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs).

At the time of the election of 1964, owing to the political instability of South Vietnam, the US Military Assistance Command (USMACV) under General William Westmoreland, had grown to more than 20,000 men.  Of the over 800 Marines in Vietnam, most were assigned to the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ) (Also, I Corps), which consisted of the five northern-most provinces of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).  Sixty USMC advisors were assigned to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in I Corps.  Aviators assigned to Shufly at Da Nang were reinforced by a Marine rifle company for airfield security.  Additional Marines were assigned to the US Embassy in Saigon and the MACV staff.

In Washington, the government examined the possibility of sending US combat troops to RVN for the defense of critical US installations.  General Maxwell Taylor, serving as US Ambassador to the RVN, warned the administration against over-emphasizing static security and recommended that aggressive ARVN field operations was the best strategy for stabilizing the country.  Taylor was right in his assessment.

The possible employment of US forces was of special concern to the Marine Corps.  In 1964, the most combat-ready Marines in the Far East were those of the 3rd Marine Division, located on Okinawa, and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing at Iwakuni, Japan.  Both commands, under III Marine Amphibious Force, were task organized to support various contingency plans for Southeast Asia.

9THMAB-001Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the US Pacific Command activated the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (9thMAB)[12]under the command of the 3rdMarDiv Assistant Division Commander, Brigadier General Raymond G. Davis[13].  The ground combat element included the 9th Marine Regiment (9th Marines) and three battalion landing teams[14] (BLTs) and a Provisional Marine Air Group (ProvMAG) consisting of fixed wing and helicopter squadrons.  For the first several months, 9thMAB was a pre-positioned (mostly on paper) organization with a small headquarters at Subic Bay, Philippines.  Brigadier General John P. Coursey relieved General Davis in October.

On 22 January 1965, Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch[15] assumed command of the 9thMAB, which now consisted of two BLTs (1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9) and 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines (3/9)), both of which had been serving afloat with the Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force since the beginning of the year.  At this time, the Marine brigade was the US combat force most readily available for deployment to RVN.

Meanwhile, in Washington, President Johnson’s working group gave him three options: (1) Continue with the current approach (funding and limited military support); (2) Escalate the war and strike North Vietnam; (3) Pursue a strategy of graduated response.  After weeks of discussions, Johnson endorsed the third option and directed the task force to “flesh out” its implementation.

The Bundy Plan envisioned a series of measures of gradually increasing intensity[16].  (1) An escalation of military involvement and the presence of US military personnel would bolster national morale.  (2) Attack Viet Cong forces operating in South Vietnam.  (3) Pressure Hanoi into ending its support of the Communist insurgency.  The first phase of this plan was Operation Barrel Roll[17].

Johnson’s task force reflected his management style.  He would have none of Kennedy’s lengthy debates with policy staffers.  By tasking subordinates to develop broad planning initiatives, on an interagency basis, and frequently at levels far below that of senior white house officials, Johnson only considered recommendations that had already gained consensus before bringing them to his top aides.  President Johnson would only make key decisions in the presence of a limited number of his closest advisors.  Almost more than anything else, Johnson feared “leaks to the press.”

The problem, however, was that Johnson’s managerial style was frequently overwhelmed by events happening on the ground.  No amount of tinkering would allow his administration to escape the reality of the Vietnam War: unabated political instability in South Vietnam and Communist successes in the field (being fought, of course, in South Vietnam rather than in North Vietnam).  There were two problems with Johnson’s penchant for running the war from the white house: (1) With limited military experience, Lyndon Johnson was out of his depth[18], and (2) his meddling in the prosecution of the war seriously undercut the tactical prerogatives of his senior-most military officers.

The deterioration of South Vietnam’s political structure (and his apparent lack of confidence in his field commanders) led Johnson to take on an even larger role in handing the war.  In February 1965, Johnson dispatched his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, to assess the need for an expanded bombing campaign, which William Bundy’s interagency task force had anticipated a few months earlier.  At the time of Bundy’s visit, nine Americans were killed when VC elements raided Camp Holloway[19] and Pleiku.  This event provided the justification for expanding US military involvement —which of course, Bundy’s task force was already considering.  Another VC assault at Qui Nhon resulted in the death of 23 Americans with another 21 wounded.  Within days, Johnson approved a sustained bombing campaign[20] of North Vietnam that would last for the rest of his presidency.

The attacks on Pleiku and Qui Nhon underscored the vulnerability of bases that US planes would be using in the bombing campaign.  Accordingly, Johnson authorized the deployment of two Marine battalions to Da Nang in March 1965.  It was a decision that caused Johnson great anxiety because he realized the likely impact of sending Marines into a combat environment and its impact in the minds of the American people.

Meanwhile, the bombing campaign did not appear affect Hanoi or the Vietcong in any significant way.  By mid-March, Johnson was considering additional proposals for expanding the American combat presence in RVN.  By 1 April, he decided to increase the Marine Corps footprint in RVN by two additional battalions and changed their mission from static defense of airfields to one of “active defense.”  Realizing that four battalions of Marines would not be a sufficient force to stamp out the VC insurgency, he directed planners to expand the US military in Vietnam to 82,000 men.

Assessment

According to a 2005 article in The New York Times, Robert J. Hanyok, a historian for the National Security Agency, after reviewing all available information, concluded that the NSA distorted intelligence reports passed to policy makers regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident on 4 August 1964.  Hanyok said that “NSA staff deliberately skewed evidence to make it appear as if the attack had occurred.”  According to Hanyok, the incident began at the Phu Bai Combat Base where intelligence analysts mistakenly believed that the destroyers would soon be attacked.  This concern would have been communicated back to the NSA, along with evidence supporting such a conclusion, but the fact was that the evidence did not support their conclusion.  As the evening progressed, signals intelligence did not support a North Vietnam ambush, but NSA analysts were so convinced of an attack, they ignored 90% of the data that did not support their conclusion.  This, too, was excluded from information provided to the President.

Why?

John Hanyok explained, “As much as anything else, it was an awareness that Johnson would brook no uncertainty that could undermine his position.  Faced with this attitude, CIA analyst Ray Cline recalled, “We knew it was bum dope that we were getting from the 7th Fleet but we were told to only give facts with no elaboration on the nature of the evidence.  Everyone knew how volatile Johnson was; he did not like to deal with uncertainties.”  In other words, government bureaucrats wanted to avoid a presidential tantrum directed at them.

None of the foregoing supposes that war in Vietnam could have been avoided, particularly given the United States government’s previous twenty-years of involvement in Indochinese affairs.  Truman’s concerns about a domino effect of global communism were justified by the behavior of Communist states before and after World War II.  By the end of the Korean War, Americans were war weary.  Eisenhower wisely determined that the American people, the US economy, could not sustain another foreign conflict in 1954.  He also had hopes that limited engagement would provide the government of South Vietnam the time it needed to stabilize and solve its own problems.  Both Truman and Eisenhower underestimated the lengths to which Ho Chi Minh was willing to go in unifying Vietnam under the Communist flag —but neither man really knew the Vietnamese, their history or their culture.  John Kennedy’s idealism and naïveté worked against the long-term interests of the United States in Southeast Asia; his acquiescence in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem made things worse.

Lyndon Johnson may be my least favorite character in history.  He was a self-serving gangster, a liar, and lacked the kind of leadership the American people must have in time of war.  Johnson’s war-time decisions traumatized the American people for a full generation —and I never actually touched upon the disaster that resulted from Johnson’s “great society” experiment with socialism.  The American people are still paying for that.

Along with the good they might do, men elected to the presidency have to accept the bad as well.  Presidents are mortal, after all.  The men they select to advise them, in many cases, have much to do with their successes or failures.  Truman’s confidence in Dean Acheson is one example, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s reliance on McNamara is another.

Richard Nixon was a deeply flawed man and did himself no honor in the matter of the Watergate Affair, but he did have an adequate measure of Ho Chi Minh and Pham Van Dong.  Today, we do not give Nixon enough credit for disentangling the United States from a war that could not be won.  But we must also acknowledge that the American people themselves contributed to the evolving disaster of Vietnam.  They, after all, voted in elections that chose such men as Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson; they in turn made bad choices in important cabinet positions.

The costs of the Vietnam War were high.  58,318 Americans died in the Vietnam War; 153,303 received combat wounds; 2,971 of those required hospitalization; 1,587 Americans remain listed as missing in action.  778 Americans were taken as prisoners of war, of those 116 died in captivity.  This should lead a rational person to the conclusion that if the United States is going to involve itself in war, given its costs, then we damn sure need to win it.  The American fighting man won every battle in Vietnam, but politicians in Washington handed the enemy a strategic victory.  Surely the American voter can do better than this …

“Critical analysis,” said Clausewitz, “is the application of theoretical truths to actual events.”  … theoretical truths of the principles of war to the actual events of the Vietnam War to produce an explanation for our failure there.  If we are to profit by our mistakes, we must understand that it was a violation of these truths, not evil or wicked leaders, that was the cause of our undoing.  As David Halberstam pointed out in The Best and the Brightest, one of the saddest aspects of the war is that it was waged by well-meaning and intelligent men doing what they thought best.  The tendency to find devils, however, is still with us.” —Harry G. Summers, Colonel, Infantry, U. S. Army (Retired)

Sources:

  1. Beisner, R.L. Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War.  New York: OUP USA, 2006
  2. Beisner, R. L. Patterns of Peril: Dean Acheson Joins the Cold Warriors, 1945-46.  Diplomatic History, Vol 20, 1996
  3. Berman, L. Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam.  New York/London: Norton & Company, 1989
  4. Courtois, S. and Nicolas Werth, Andrzej Paczkowski (et. al.). The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression.  Harvard University Press, 1997.
  5. Freedman, R. Vietnam: A History of the War. Holiday House, 2016.
  6. Hastings, M. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75.  Canada: HarperCollins, 2018.
  7. Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History.  New York: Viking/The Penguin Group, 1983
  8. Lacouture, J. Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography.  Random House, 1968
  9. McNamara, R. S. and Brian Van De Mark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.  Vintage Books, 1995.
  10. Summers, Jr., H. G. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War.  Presidio/Random House, 1982
  11. Whitlow, R. H. S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964.  History & Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1977

Endnotes:

[1] MAC-SOG was a cover name for a multi-service unconventional warfare task force under the direct control of the Pentagon.

[2] The US OSS and CIA knew early on that Ho Chi Minh was a thoroughly nasty man who should be opposed by freedom-loving democracies at every turn.  As outlined in The Black Book of Communism, Ho Chi Minh directed the Viet Minh in the conduct of a ruthless assassination campaign to remove all potential political opponents.  The campaign began around 1944 (although some argue as early as 1941).  Victims included Bui Quang Chieu, leader of the Constitutional Party and Ngo Dinh Khoi, brother of Diem, who headed the Party for Independence in North Vietnam.  Again, with reference to The Black Book, Ho Chi Minh and his successors orchestrated the murder of more than 1 million people between 1941 and 1980.

[3] Commando type insertions involved Vietnamese personnel so that the US could deny involvement.  Most were unsuccessful with the commandos frequently being captured and executed.

[4] If there is one man who is most culpable for America’s failed strategy in the Vietnam War, it is McNamara.

[5] Johnson wasn’t was interested in winning the fight as he was in not losing it.

[6] General Westmoreland was a proficient general, but two factors worked against him.  First, he was political, which is the bane of most senior (three and four star) officers.  Second, he didn’t have the courage to tell Johnson that he didn’t need the president’s help in running the war.

[7] Owing to President Kennedy’s assassination, American voters remained sympathetic toward Johnson.  Lyndon Johnson won the 1964 election with 303 electoral votes to Richard Nixon’s 219.

[8] The P-4 was a 66-foot-long aluminum hulled boat armed with two torpedoes each mounted with a 550-pound TNT warhead.  The P-4 was capable of exceeding 40 knots per hour.

[9] Rear Admiral James Stockdale, a veteran of World War II, a naval aviator and prisoner of war in North Vietnam, and a recipient of the Medal of Honor, testified that the second incident, reported on 4 August, never happened.  Stockdale said, “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there.  There was nothing but black water and American firepower.”

[10] One should ask, What would be the US response to foreign attacks upon coastal military installations inside the territory of the United States?

[11] U. S. Army General Earle Wheeler served as Chairman of the JCS from 3 July 1964 to 2 July 1970.  From 1961-64, he served as Chief of Staff of the United States Army.  Wheeler was regarded by some senior officers as a “yes man,” and exactly what President Johnson was looking for in a JCS chairman —General Curtis LeMay being one of them.

[12] The designation “Amphibious” in task organizations was later changed to “Expeditionary.”  In 1965, the usage was 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade.

[13] Holder of the Medal of Honor.

[14] The BLT is the basic Marine unit in an amphibious or vertical assault.  It is a task organized infantry battalion reinforced with necessary combat support and combat service support elements (artillery, motor transport, tanks, amphibian tractors, engineers, communications, shore party, reconnaissance, and medical teams).

[15] A veteran of several amphibious campaigns in World War II.

[16] Which makes it apparent that no one in the Johnson Administration knew anything about Vietnam, its history, its people, or their culture.  It is equally apparent that few senior military officers were equipped to fight the war in Vietnam, that most accepted the erroneous notion that the United States could defeat North Vietnam through an air campaign, and no one understood the value of defeating an enemy on his own territory.

[17] A USAF and Naval Air campaign designed to disrupt North Vietnam’s logistical corridor, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail from 1964 to 1973.

[18] While serving in the US House of Representatives, Johnson received a direct commission to lieutenant commander in the US Navy Reserve.  He was called to active duty after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and initially assigned to inspect shipyard facilities in Texas and on the West Coast.  Johnson, a trusted ally of Franklin Roosevelt, was later send by Roosevelt to obtain information of conditions in the Southwest Pacific Area.  While serving as an observer aboard a B-26 during a schedule air strike on New Guinea, the aircraft developed mechanical problems and was returned to its base of operations.  According to Johnson, however, his aircraft received battle damage and was forced back to base before reaching its objective.  Flight records reflect that the aircraft never came under enemy fire.  Nevertheless, General MacArthur awarded Johnson the silver star medal for “gallantry in action.”  He was the only member of the flight crew to receive an award.  Returning to Washington, Johnson gave MacArthur’s command a good report.

[19] Named in honor of Warrant Officer Charles E. Holloway, the first Army aviator assigned to the 81st Transportation Company killed in action.

[20] Operation Rolling Thunder.

Counterinsurgency and Pacification

Lessons learned from the Vietnam War

US Special Forces 001Early in US history, American military leaders relied on French and German advisors to help prepare the Continental Army for the American Revolution.  Since then, select members of the US Army have served as military advisors for more than a hundred years, beginning in the early 1900s.  During and after World War II, US military advisors have trained and advised the armed forces of Cambodia, Laos, Nationalist China, South Korea, South Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, and more recently, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  Whenever one thinks about US military advisors, they may envision someone wearing a green beret, and they’d be right.  The green beret is the headgear of the US Army Special Forces.  The basic mission assigned to the Green Berets is to train and lead unconventional or clandestine guerilla forces, but this mission has been expanded to include the training of conventional forces.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, US military advisors were assigned to Military Assistance Advisory Groups (MAAGs).  More recently, advisors are referred to as Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) or Military Transition Teams (MTTs).  ETTs and MTTs are composed primarily of US Marines, Army Special Forces, Navy Seals, and members of the Army national guard serving in the combat arms.  Members of the Air Force, Navy, and Army Reserve serve as advisors in matters and functions of combat service support.

Marines, by the way, have been “military advisors” for a very long time[1].  After the turn of the twentieth century, US Marines were dispatched to the so-called banana republics to protect American interests and restore order out of the chaos caused by rebels and/or bandits (although they were often one and the same)[2].  The process of restoring order frequently caused Marines to establish or reform constabularies, train constables, lead them, and monitor their development.  This was an advisory as well as a counterinsurgency role.  Marine Corps officers and NCOs were frequently assigned away from their regular units to serve in the Haitian gendarmerie, Dominican constabulary, and Nicaraguan national guard.

Background and overview

During the Vietnam War, US civilian and military advisors supported the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) in its endeavor to pacify urban and rural areas.  The concept of pacification evolved from counterinsurgency doctrine in the 1950s, which included a wide array of civil and military programs: martial training and readiness, economic development, land reform, and democratization.  None of these efforts could succeed without security forces (and their military advisors) to protect the people by seeking out and destroying communist terrorists.  In the RVN, there were three essential objectives of US/RVN counterinsurgency/pacification: (1) Prevent North Vietnam from conquering South Vietnam; (2) Countering the communist insurgency, and (3) preparing the South Vietnamese to survive on their own merits (Vietnamization programs).  Military and civilian advisors were key to each of these objectives, but none of these were easy to achieve for a wide range of reasons.  Among these difficulties were a lack of coordination between various US efforts, confusion about what pacification was trying to accomplish, an absolutely corrupt Vietnamese government, and a highly dysfunctional military high command.  This is a summary of a rather voluminous history.

First —the Marines

VMC PatchWhen the French colonial army[3] departed Indochina, they left behind a fledgling military force, which included a small riverine navy, and an assortment of army commandos who served as naval infantry.  Together, they constituted the river assault units, which some scholars claim was the only true French contribution to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).  In replacing the French, the United States established a robust effort to aid the RVN against the communist bloc-supported People’s Republic of Vietnam (PRV).

In 1954, the Vietnamese Joint-General Staff re-designated these army commando units as Marine Infantry of the Navy of the Republic of Vietnam (NRVN).  Organized into two landing battalions, they were again renamed in 1956 as the Vietnamese Marine Corps of the Navy (VMC).  Four years later, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) (North Vietnam) and the RVN were locked into a deadly conflict that became known as the Second Indochina War, which lasted from 1960-1975[4].  This war employed the full spectrum of armed violence, from individual terrorist acts and assassination and small unit guerilla actions to extensive land, air, and sea engagements.

There was no shortage of “the enemy.” There was the National Liberation Front (NLF) (also, Vietnamese Communists referred to as VC) and regulars of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) (also called People’s Army of Vietnam, PAVN).  The NLF mostly consisted of North Vietnamese communist agents, sent into the RVN between 1954-1956 to destabilize the government through insurgency.  It was also a civil conflict that involved international actors: The Democratic People’s Republic of China (Communist China), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the Kingdom of Laos among them.

In 1961, the VMC was assigned to South Vietnam’s national reserve, used almost exclusively against political dissidents and urban and rural warlords.  In 1962, the JGS formed the VMC into a 5,000-man brigade.  In 1960, 1963, and 1964, the VMC involved itself in several coup d’état.

Several steps were necessary to transform these ARVN-trained men into Marines, chief among them was the authority to do so by the JGS.  Next, it was necessary to establish a boot camp unique to the Vietnamese Marines Corps.  Marines were given their own distinctive emblem that set them apart from the other branches of the South Vietnamese military.  Additionally, officers and enlisted men with promise were sent to Quantico, Virginia for advanced training.  By 1965, the VMC consisted of more than 6,500 men.  The brigade was organized into a headquarters element, two task force headquarters, five infantry battalions, an artillery battalion, and several smaller units of engineers, transportation, military police, field medical, and reconnaissance.  Marine headquarters was located in Saigon; its commandant also served as the brigade commander and answered to the JGS.  No longer attached to the Vietnamese Navy, VMC units were based at somewhat austere encampments at Song Than, Thu Duc, and Vung Tau.

Another VMC battalion was formed in 1966, but the Marines still lacked field armor, aircraft, and logistics support.  Within two years a VMC infantry division was formed from two brigades.  Two years after that, the VMC had three brigades (9 infantry battalions and 3 artillery battalions).  By the time American forces were withdrawn in 1975, the VMC had organized four brigades.  These were, in every sense, combat Marines.  During the Easter Offensive of 1972, Vietnamese Marines lost 2,455 killed in action (KIA) and another 7,840 wounded in action (WIA).

Second —VMC Advisors

Crossed Rifles (M1)The first U. S. Marine Corps advisory section was established in 1955.  It consisted of a lieutenant colonel and two captains as senior advisors and assistants attached to the Navy Section, Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam (MAAGV).  In 1961, the advisory effort was expanded to include battalion level infantry and artillery advisors, then consisting of eight officers and sixteen enlisted men.

In May 1964, the Marine advisory unit was transferred to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and became the Marine Advisory Unit (MAU), Naval Advisory Group, MACV.  An increase in manning was approved for 20 officers and 11 enlisted men.  In January 1965, the strength of the MAU was 25 officers, 2 enlisted Marines, and a Navy Corpsman.  The Senior Marine was now a colonel, in keeping with the rank of the VMC Commandant.

The mission assigned to the US Marines was ever-evolving.  Its principal effort remained at providing tactical advice and assistance, but the staff and logistical advisors played an important role as well.  In the 14 months between January 1968 and March 1969, the MAU was expanded to 49 officers/10 enlisted men.  In addition to a small administrative section, there were also advisors for principal staff officers, communications, and medical advisory elements.  Field advisors now existed at the brigade and battalion levels.

A drawdown of manpower began in 1972 because it was believed, at the time, that the VMC battalions no longer needed advisors.  The Easter Offensive of 1972 changed that thinking, however.  The advisory unit fully deployed its advisors to support the VMC division in the field.  Additional support was rendered by the 1st Air-Naval Gunfire Company (1stANGLICO), 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron of the U. S. Air Force, and the Army’s 14th Company, 1st Signal Brigade.  This team effort resulted in a victory for the VMC at Quang Tri City.

Subsequently, US Marine advisors performed as liaison officers to VMC battalions on an as-needed basis to coordinate supporting arms (artillery and air support).  By the time the US Marines were withdrawn from RVN, the VMC infantry division was self-sufficient.

Third—the other Marine Advisors

In 1935, US Marines began putting together a doctrinal publication they titled simply Small Wars Manual, published in 1940 as NAVMC 2890/Fleet Marine Force Publication 12-15.  The Marine Corps is well known for its professional reading program, and so, when the Marine Corps was deployed to the RVN, they brought with them the knowledge acquired during pacification programs in Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.  During these earlier operations, the Marines would first pacify the region of operations by locating and killing bandits and revolutionaries.  They would then establish and implement programs to administer local areas and train citizens to take over all such responsibilities.

CAP 001The first undertaking of the Combined Action Program (CAP) originated in the summer of 1965.  LtCol William W. Taylor, commanding 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, had an assigned tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) that included six villages and an airfield within an area of ten square miles.  3/4 was over-extended.  It was more “area” than the battalion could control.  From this situation came the suggestion from the Battalion Executive Officer, Major Zimmerman, that the Marines incorporate local militias into the battalion’s operations.  The idea was passed up the chain of command to LtGen Lewis Walt (Commanding III MAF), and LtGen Victor H. Krulak (Commanding FMFPac), both of whom had fought in the banana wars, who recognized the potential long-term value of such a plan.  Both Walt and Krulak agreed to the proposal.

Four rifle squads were integrated with local popular forces (PFs); assigned Marines were volunteers[5], each of whom were screened to determine their suitability for independent duty, and then assigned to local villages.  The rifle squad, when combined with PFs, would be able to protect the village from low-level VC threats.  It was a workable plan because the poorly trained PFs could learn from the Marines, and the Marines would gain information and understanding about the local population and surrounding terrain.  When the Marines weren’t training PFs, they engaged in local self-help programs and distributed CARE[6] packages, tools, and hygienic supplies.  The squad’s Navy Corpsman became the village “Doc.”  The arrangement produced a win-win situation.

The CAP went through expected developmental problems, of course.  Not every Marine commander supported the program; giving up trained combatants to engage with local populations.  The loss of personnel was painful to the battalions who were tasked to provide them.  The program became “official” in the summer of 1967; a local (inadequate 10 day) school was established near Da Nang.  CAP was one of the US Marine Corps’ signature contributions to the Vietnam War.  By 1969, the CAP involved 102 platoons, 19 companies, and 4 (supervisory) Combined Action Groups.  By the end of 1970, CAP units operated throughout the five provinces of I Corps.  See also: Combined Action Platoon (CAP) Vietnam (in six parts) by LtCol William C. Curtis, USMC (Retired).

Fourth —Everyone Else

As previously stated, the advisory effort in RVN involved far more than tactical advice and training.  There were also civilian advisors[7], for the most part working under a structure known as CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support).  CORDS was a unique hybrid civil-military structure directly under COMUSMACV.  General Westmoreland’s deputy for CORDS was a civilian by the name of Robert W. Komer[8].  Each Corps Tactical Zone commander, a Lieutenant General, was assigned a deputy for CORDS[9].  Below the Corps were provinces.  In Vietnam, a province might equate to a US State, below the province, districts (similar to counties), and below districts were villages.  A province chief was likely a senior ARVN officer (colonel), assisted by both a US military advisor and a civilian CORDS advisor.  A similar arrangement existed within districts, headed by lieutenant colonels or majors, with advisors.  District chiefs took on the responsibility of coordinating and supervising the combined action platoons.

Civilian advisors at the corps, province, and district levels coordinated among the various agencies working to pacify the RVN.  These included the activities of the United States Agency for International Development and the Central Intelligence Agency.  Because these functions were in many cases overlapping, close coordination was necessary between military and civilian advisors.

Given all this effort, most of it stellar by any measure, then why did the Republic of Vietnam fall to the communists of North Vietnam?  Earlier, I identified three essential objectives of counterinsurgency and pacification.  I also listed four hindrances to achieving the objectives.  What follows is my opinion, most likely useful to no one, except that it might provide a learning moment about our present military ventures, or even those in the future.

Conclusion

The United States overcame the challenge of interagency unity of effort.  The pacification/counterinsurgency/advisory efforts mostly overcame the confusion concerning a rather vague notion of winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.  But the United States failed to address the pervasive government corruption, and the US was unable to sort out the dysfunctional chain of command[10].  These last two alone were enough to derail every US effort to help the RVN to save itself.  The United States was unable to prevent a North Vietnamese invasion or its conquest of the RVN.  Part of this is explained by the fact that Republican President Richard M. Nixon made promises to the South Vietnamese that Democrats in Congress refused to honor.  Some might, therefore, argue that the fall of Saigon came as a result of insufficient American aid.  Let’s take a look at that …

The United States was either on the periphery or deeply involved in two Indochina wars.  In the second war, the American people gave up over 58,000 dead.  More than 153,000 were wounded.  Some of our boys are still listed as missing in action.  North Vietnam gave up 1.1 million killed in action; South Vietnam lost 250,000 combatants.  Both countries lost more than two million civilians (each).  Vietnam is the most heavily bombed country in the world’s long history.  More than 6.1 million tons of bombs were dropped compared to 2.1 million tons in World War II.  US planes dropped more than 20 million gallons of herbicides to defoliate Vietnam’s dense jungle; 5 million acres of forested land was destroyed and a half-million acres of farmland.

The Vietnam War cost the American people $168 billion.  In today’s money, that’s about $1 trillion.  US military operations cost $111 billion; another $29 billion provided non-military aid to the South Vietnamese.  These costs continue.  Compensation and benefits for Vietnam Veterans and their families continue to cost $22 billion annually.  Since 1970, post-war benefits paid to veterans and their families amount to $270 billion[11].

Following the Korean War, the United States entered into a period of economic recession.  In 1964, Congress passed a tax cut.  The next year, war costs along with President Johnson’s war on poverty created what is now referred to as the “Great Inflation.”  The top marginal tax rate[12] in that year fell from 91% to 70% which boosted economic growth sufficiently to reduce the level of US deficit spending.  Also, in 1965, Johnson signed Medicare into law, which helped create a heavier reliance on hospital care —resulting in substantial increases in healthcare costs.

The Vietnam War also accelerated the mechanization of the US agricultural industry.  In 1970, a quarter of the US population lived on farms or in rural communities.  Of those, 2.2 million men were called to the Vietnam Era service.  Farms compensated for this decrease in labor by purchasing larger machines and concentrating on fewer crops.  In the next year, the controversy over the conscription of 18-year old men who could not vote led to two additional changes in America: a voting age lowered to 18 years, and the beginning of an all-volunteer military force.

Finally, as a result of the Vietnam War, Americans began to distrust the federal government.  Americans learned that President Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was the underlying reason in 1965 for sending in Marines and the commencement of a massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam.  Americans also learned that the government conducted unauthorized wiretaps on Americans, and it has only gotten worse with NSA data mining, secret FISA courts, and fake news and dossiers.

Most Americans work hard for their living.  Most of us simply want to care for our families, improve our lot in life, and in terms of our obligations to America, we want to do the right thing.  We expect (and should expect) no less of our governments (federal, state, or local).  Our federal government’s decisions, particularly in matters of sending our young men to war, must be moral decisions.  Lying about the need for war is not moral behavior, or of surveilling our citizens, or collecting electronic metadata, or wasting taxes in areas of the world that do not warrant our generosity.  It all comes down to one thing: voting responsibly —because the people we choose to lead us have the power to send our youngsters into harm’s way.  We do need warriors in America; we do not need to waste them.

Sources:

  1. Klyman, R. A. The Combined Action Platoons: The U. S. Marine’s Other War in Vietnam.  Praeger, 1986.
  2. Melson, C. D., and W. J. Renfrow. Marine Advisors with the Vietnamese Marine Corps.  Quantico: History Division, Marine Corps University, 2009
  3. Sheehan, N. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.  New York: Random House, 1988
  4. Stoli, R.H. S. Marine Corps Civic Action Efforts in Vietnam, March 1965-66.  Washington: Headquarters Marine Corps, 1968
  5. West, B. The Village.  New York: Pocket Books, 1972

Endnotes:

[1] Military advising may come somewhat naturally to Marines since it has always been the senior’s responsibility to teach, train, advise, monitor, and correct the junior.  It is a cycle repeated now for going on 245 years.

[2] It remains popular among academics to criticize the so-called Banana Wars and the Marines who were sent into these Central and South American countries.  Criticism of US foreign policy may very well be warranted, but it now seems necessary to remind people that US Marines do not formulate American policy, they implement it.  Moreover, were it not for these banana wars, Marine officers and senior enlisted men would not have been as prepared for World War II, during which time they distinguished themselves by their knowledge, experience, courage, and calmness during times of utter chaos.

[3] Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient

[4] A clasp on the Vietnamese Campaign Medal reflects these dates.

[5] This information is part of the official record, but some Marines were “volunteered.”

[6] Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, an international humanitarian agency.

[7] Some of these civilians were former or retired military personnel or employees of the CIA.

[8] Dubbed “Blowtorch Bob” by US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge because of his brusque management style.  Under Komer, the Phoenix Program intended to identify and destroy VC operatives through counterterrorism, infiltration, assassination, capture, and often torture.  Komer, later replaced by William Colby (later, Director of the CIA), was said to have been responsible for 26,000 deaths and neutralization of over 81,000 VC.  Claims have been made that the Phoenix Program scraped up innocent civilians along with the VC, and whether or not this is true, the program was successful in suppressing VC political and insurgency activity.

[9] One of these advisors was John P. Vann, a retired Army officer.  In 1967, Vann was asked by Walt Rostow, one of President Johnson’s advocates for more troops, whether America would be over the worst of the war within six months.  Vann replied, “Oh hell no, Mr. Rostow.  I’m a born optimist.  I think we can hold out longer than that.”  For more on John Paul Vann, see also A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan.

[10] I returned to Vietnam in 2012.  Eight years ago, corruption was alive and well, and the political structure was as bad as it always was.  It has probably been this way for the past two-thousand years and gives us no hope for Vietnam as a future regional ally.

[11] 2.5 million US servicemen were exposed to Agent Orange, increasing veteran’s probability of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and birth defects.

[12] The rate at which tax is incurred on an additional dollar of income.  In the United States, the federal marginal tax rate for an individual will increase as income rises.  It is also referred to as a progressive tax scheme.  Democrats have never seen a tax they don’t adore.

Hold High the Torch, Part III

The 4th Marines: From Harry Truman’s War to the Street Without Joy

EGA BlackAmong the effects of Harry S. Truman’s presidential incompetence came the Korean War —and along with that, the re-activation of the 4th Marine Regiment.  The war began in late June 1950.  A stalemate in the war two years later resulted in the re-activation of the 3rd Marine Division and within that organization on 2 September 1952, the 4th Marines —Colonel Robert O. Bowen, commanding.  The regiment’s initial units included Headquarters & Service Company (H&SCo), Anti-Tank Company, 4.2-inch Mortar Company, and the 1st Battalion (1/4).  Within a short time, the regiment added 2/4 and 3/4.  A fourth battalion came on line in January 1953 but was deactivated within a period of seven months.

After reactivation, the 4th Marines began a series of pre-combat deployment training; spooling up to speed would take another six months.  The 3rd Marine Division was alerted to its far-east deployment shortly before the Korean Armistice.  Despite cessation of fighting, the 3rdMarDiv relocated from Camp Pendleton, California to Japan.  The regiment’s new home was Nara, on the island of Honshu.  Arriving too late to participate in the Korean War, the 4th Marines became a garrison force whose responsibilities included the defense of southern Honshu and its readiness [1] for rapid deployment to potential hot-spots in the Far East.  In January 1954, 3/4 was assigned to task of escorting former Chinese Communist soldiers who wanted to go to Taiwan (rather than be repatriated to mainland China) from Inchon, South Korea [2].

Eighteen-months later, the 4th Marines (and supporting units) was relocated to Hawaii where the regiment became the principal ground combat element (GCE) of the 1st Provisional Marine MAGTF at Kaneohe Bay. Once established in Hawaii, the regiment began an intensive program of coordinated training with the air combat element (ACE), which at the time was Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-13.  The MAGTF was redesignated as the 1st Marine Brigade on 1 May 1956.  The advent of combat helicopters led the regiment into vertical envelopment training. The 4th Marines was the first GCE to live and train with a co-located ACE.  As a Pacific area force in readiness, the 1st Marine Brigade (1stMarBde) engaged in rigorous training.  Maneuver areas included the California coast, Taiwan, and the Philippine Islands.  In March 1961, BLT 1/4 was diverted from its original destination (California) to the Far East when a communist insurgency threatened Laos.  The battalion was never sent into Laos, however.

Ngo Dinh Diem 001
Ngo Dinh Diem, 1960 Photo from Public Domain

The President of South Vietnam between 1954 and 1963 was Ngo Dinh Diem, and man whom the United States government decided to support because he was well-educated, smooth in his presentation, a true patriot to his country’s cause, and also because he shared the same religion with the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.  A devout Roman Catholic, Diem was staunchly anti-Communist, a nationalist, and socially conservative.  He also shared the same long-term goals with his enemy in the north: Ho Chi Minh. Both Ngo and Ho wanted to unify Vietnam under their own flag.

Between 1954-1957, South Vietnam experienced a large-scale resistance to Ngo’s policies from the areas outlying the national capital, Saigon.  Dissidents included the thugs in minor cities who fancied themselves as war lords, and Buddhist monks who seemed to keep South Vietnamese peasants in a constant state of instability. Ngo responded rather harshly, as he suspected that the culprits behind these destabilizing demonstrations were North Vietnamese insurgents.  His assumption was mostly correct; when the country was politically divided in 1954, about 90,000 hard-core communists remained in the South and Ho’s government encouraged these to engage in low-level insurgencies.

Upon Kennedy’s election to the presidency in 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned him against becoming entangled in the Indochinese conflict.  In 1961, the United States had around 50,000 troops based in South Korea.  Kennedy faced a four-pronged crisis in the early days of his administration: Bay of Pigs fiasco, construction of the Berlin Wall, the Pathet Lao movement in Laos, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).  The onslaught of communist schemes to disrupt the world balance of power led Kennedy to conclude that the United States and its free-world allies could not sustain another “failure” confronting global communism. This particular insecurity helped to drive Kennedy’s space program.  Kennedy was thus determined to “draw a line in the sand” to prevent another communist victory in Vietnam [3].

Kennedy’s policy toward Vietnam initially mirrored that of President Eisenhower, who saw no benefit to the United States by committing large-scale military forces to solve the Vietnam problem.  Given the poor state of South Vietnam’s military, however, Kennedy did continue Eisenhower’s program to provide US Army Special Forces to help train the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) across a wide range of areas: ground combat, air combat, and logistical resupply.  Kennedy advisors tried to convince the president to send US troops to Vietnam “disguised as flood relief workers [4].”  Others tried to convince Kennedy that sending troops to Vietnam in large numbers would be a tragic mistake.  By late 1963, Kennedy had increased the number of military advisors serving in Vietnam from 900 (Eisenhower) to 16,000.  On 2 November 1963, as the US government officials pretended not to know what was going on, President Ngo and his brother was assassinated and the man ultimately responsible for this was John F. Kennedy.  Twenty days later, Kennedy himself was assassinated and power shifted to Lyndon Baines Johnson.  Johnson wanted an escalation of the war and lied to the American people to achieve it. North Vietnamese patrol boats did not launch assaults against the USS Maddox (DD 731) on 2 August 1964; the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that precipitated War in Vietnam never happened.

Discounting a rather large number of special operations troops serving as advisors to the South Vietnamese government, the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa was the first ground combat force committed to the Vietnam War.  The 4th Marines received their warning order almost immediately after the decision was made to commit the Marines.  Forward elements of the 3rdMarDiv began landing at Da Nang on 8 March 1965; the 4th Marines started arriving from Hawaii (via Okinawa) in mid-April 1965, the first battalion to arrive being BLT 3/4, which deployed to the ancient Imperial City of Hue.  Regimental HQ, 1/4 and 2/4 disembarked at Chu Lai on 7 May 1965.  All 3rdMarDiv units came under the operational control of the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).

In Vietnam, the nature of the war changed the organization of Marine units.  Since the conflict in Vietnam was often fought at or below the battalion level, one or more battalions of a regiment were frequently fighting under the operational control of another regiment.  As an example, a regiment exercising operational control of two or more battalions belonging to another regiment could enlarge its operations to that of a brigade.  In the summer of 1965, the 4th Marine Regiment exercised operational control over its own first and second battalions, but also 3/3 and 3/12 and their supporting elements.  The 3rd Marines, meanwhile, had operational control over 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines.

Combat for the 4th Marines in Vietnam arrived on 19 April when 3/4 (assigned Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) of Hue City and Phu Bai) defenses were probed by communist forces.  Two days later, 1/4 and 2/4 (assigned responsibility for Chu Lai) also experienced light probing attacks.  Vigorous patrolling operations were implemented almost immediately. Such activities were variously called security patrols and “search and clear” operations.  They were later expanded to include security operations for other than military installations, and these in turn expanded to a full measure search for the enemy so that he could be destroyed (search and destroy operations).

Combat in Vietnam was limited by its weather, terrain, and the nature of an elusive enemy.  Marines (indeed, all ground forces) were beset with guerrilla warfare tactics, including anti-personnel mines, booby traps, and ambushes combined with the placement of punji-sticks (sharpened sticks dipped in human excrement) —all designed to hamper the progress of Marine operations.   Before the arrival of helicopters, Marines sought out the enemy on foot, and their aggressive operations kept the enemy off balance within the 4th Marines TAOR.

Op STARLITE 001The first major engagement was the regimental sized Operation Starlite —a combined amphibious and vertical assault against enemy fortified positions on the Van Tuong Peninsula, 15 miles south of the Chu Lai air base.  2nd Battalion, 4th Marines was air-lifted into the jump-off point on 18 August 1965 and began a drive to the sea to block off any escape route.  Within nine days, the 1st Viet Cong Regiment was decisively defeated.  The operation prevented the VC from attacking the Chu Lai air base.

In addition to engaging the enemy in small-unit actions, the 4th Marines participated in several major operations in Vietnam, some of these conducted in phases over extended periods of time.  They were Starlite, Hastings (1966), Prairie (1966-67), Deckhouse VI/Desoto (16 Feb-3 Mar 1967), Prairie IV (April-May 1967), Hickory (April-May 1967), Kingfisher (July-October 1967), and Kentucky (November 1967-February 1969).  Elements of the 4th Marines also participated in Operation Jay, Lancaster II, Scotland II, Napoleon/Saline, the Battle of Dai Do (also, Dong Ha).  Most of these combat operations involved several organizations (as previously discussed), including 2/1, 3/3, 1/4, 2/4, 3/4, 2/9, 2/12, and various units of the ARVN and RVNMD [5].

The Dong Ha Combat Base (also known as Camp Spillman) was a joint Marine Corps-US Army multi-purpose base along Route 9 in northwest of Quang Tri in central Vietnam.  The base was first used by 3/4 in late April 1966.  In late May 2/4 was deployed to Dong Ha to support Operation Reno, which was designed to render support to the ARVN forces assigned to this region.  The only US casualties during RENO involved a USAF team of six radar technicians who were ambushed and killed on 5 June 1966.  The Commanding Officer of 2/4 (LtCol P. X. Kelly [6]) offered to provide security for the radar team before it departed from Dong Ha, but this offer was refused.

Beginning in mid-July, Dong Ha also served as a Marine Corps helicopter base of operations for flight detachments of HMM-163 (December 1966-January 1967), HMM-164 (July 1966-March 1967), HMM-263(August 1966-April 1967), HMM-265 (April-June 1967), HMM-361 (June-November 1967), HMM-363 (April-June 1967, August-November 1967), and VMO-2 (July 1966-November 1967).  Dong Ha also served as an advance logistics base.  Army and Marine Corps artillery units used Dong Ha as a fire support base, and in October 1966, Dong Ha became the forward headquarters of the 3rdMarDiv; several operations (listed above) were initiated from the Dong Ha Combat Base. During 1968, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) made repeated attacks against Dong Ha, on one occasion destroying its ammunition depot.  In each attack, NVA forces experienced heavy casualties.

There were many accomplishments of the 4th Marines in Vietnam, a few of which were exceptional examples of Marines thinking outside the box.  Notwithstanding the regiment’s role in finding and killing the enemy, there was another war: the effort to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. The 4th Marines undertook civic action programs almost from the start of their arrival in Vietnam.  In May 1965, the regiment distributed nearly 1,000 pounds of clothing to the villagers at Chu Lai—clothing that had been collected by the dependents of these Marines in Hawaii and sent directly to the regiment. Marines also pitched in with “self-help” projects in Chu Lai and Hue City designed to improve the living conditions of the villagers: digging wells, road-grading, clearing home sites.  The Golden Fleece program aided villagers in the harvesting of rice, protecting them from harassment by the Viet Cong, and protecting the crop from confiscation by local VC thugs.

Operation County Fair was a program that originated within the 4th Marines (with the blessings of the Commanding General, FMF Pacific, LtGen Victor H. Krulak).  Its purpose was to pacify select villages known to harbor elements of the Viet Cong.  3rd Battalion, 4th Marines initiated a Combined Action Company, and from this concept evolved the Combined Action Platoons.  In the summer of 1965, the 1st ARVN Division assigned a number of Vietnamese Popular Forces (PFs) units in the Phu Bai area to operate under the auspices of 3/4.  Integrating Marine rifle squads with PFs initially fell under the leadership and direction of First Lieutenant Paul R. Ek (then known as Joint Action Company). The concept was one way of reestablishing government control over rural villages while freeing the people from the terror and intimidation of local VC elements.  See also: Vietnam Counterinsurgency and Combined Action Platoon (in six parts).

9thMAB 001One an example of the Navy-Marine Corps ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome all obstacles were operations conducted by Amphibious Ready Group (Task Force 76.5) and Special Landing Force (Task Force 79.5) (ARG/SLF). It was a powerful and versatile formation capable of striking along the length of the South Vietnam Littoral and inland.  Initially, the ARG consisted of three to four ships, including an amphibious assault ship (LPH), and dock landing ship (LSD), an attack transport ship (APA) or amphibious transport dock (LPD), and a tank landing ship (LST).  The SLF was composed of a medium helicopter squadron (HMM), a Battalion Landing Team (reinforced with artillery, armor, engineer, and other support units as required).  The SLF came ashore either as part of an amphibious assault (sea-land) or by vertical assault (air), or both.  While at sea, Marines of the SLF came under the administrative control of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade; when gearing up for a landing, they came under the operational control of the senior Marine commander in the area of their operations.

Operation Deckhouse VI/Beacon Hill was the first major operation of 1967 for the 4th Marines.  1st Battalion, 4th Marines (1/4) had been temporarily assigned to Okinawa for rest and refit.  BLT 1/4 was directed to make an amphibious landing near Sa Huyn in the southern portion of I Corps.  The battalion stormed ashore in search of Viet Cong forces on 16 February.  Nine days later, the Marines reembarked aboard ARG shipping and within a few days made another amphibious assault 200-miles farther north, landing near Gio Linh.  After a combined operation lasting 22 days, Marines had located and killed 334 Viet Cong.  The battalion’s casualties were 29 killed, 230 wounded.

3:4 - 001 1967
BLT 3/4 clearing NVA bunkers. DoD Photo.

The northern I Corps region continued to be the scene of heavy fighting throughout the year.  All three 4th Marines’ battalions were deployed against NVA and VC main line units.  Delta Company 1/4  was hit hard at Con Tien on 8 May; following a mortar assault of some 250-rounds, two enemy battalions assaulted the Marine Company.  In spite of these overwhelming numbers, the Delta Company Marines repulsed the NVA/VC attack, and although suffering 49 killed and over 100 wounded, the Marines killed 210 communists and captured ten.  Four days later, the battalion commander was himself wounded three times in successive enemy assaults.  In each instance, the Marines soundly defeated the NVA/VC units.  CG III MAF concluded that the NVA and VC main line units were using the DMZ as a staging area for attacks against US forces.

General Cushman ordered Operation Hickory:  Six infantry battalions with artillery support assaulted the NVA 324B Division within the DMZ.  Marine units included 3/4, 2/3, 1/9, 2/9, 3/9, 2/26, and 1/12.  On the morning of 18 May 2/26 and 2/9 began an advance from Con Thien to press the NVA while 3/4 landed by helicopter on the Ben Hai river as a blocking force.  Five Marine battalions assaulted a complex of heavily fortified bunkers within the so-called demilitarized zone.  At the conclusion of Hickory, 362 additional enemy had been killed with 30 taken as POWs; Marine losses were 142 KIA and 896 WIA.  A separate operation in the area involving the 1st ARVN Division killed another 340 NVA/VC with 22 of their own killed and 122-wounded.  Combined, Operations Lam Son 54, Hickory, Belt Tight, and Beau Charger ended with the removal of the entire civilian populations.  From that point on, the DMZ and northern I Corps became a free fire zone.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon announced that the US effort in the Vietnam War would be reduced.  It was time to turn this effort over to the Republic of Vietnam armed forces.  The 9th Marines departed Vietnam in August; the 3rd Marine Division began its stand down in September.  The 4th Marines was ordered to Okinawa, 1/4 departing the combat zone on 22 October. All 3rdMarDiv units were out of Vietnam by November 1969.

The 4th Marine Regiment has a long and proud history of service to the United States of America and her people. Whatever mission assigned, the Marines of the 4th Regiment have distinguished themselves time and again through courage, devotion to one another, and unparalleled sacrifice in the completion of their mission.  Today, the 4th Marine Regiment remains part of the 3rd Marine Division and while its battalions continue to rotate in and out of global hotspots, the regimental headquarters is anchored at Camp Schwab, Okinawa.

Sources:

  1. Organization of the United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Reference Publication (MCRP) 5-12D. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 2015.
  2. Santelli, J. S. A Brief History of the Fourth Marines.  Washington: U. S. Marine Corps Historical Division, 1970

[1] Readiness infers continual combat training.  During this period of time, the 4th Marines participated in training exercises in Japan, on Okinawa, and on the island of Iwo Jima.

[2] Even peacetime and training duty is hazardous in the military.  During 3/4’s deployment to Inchon, a landing craft capsized in Inchon Harbor resulting in the death of 27 Marines and two Navy Corpsmen.

[3] Kennedy told James Reston of the NYT, “Now we have a problem making our power credible; Vietnam looks like the place.”

[4] Another hair-brained scheme devised by General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow.

[5] Republic of Vietnam Marine Division  (SưĐoàn Thy Quân Lc Chiến) (1953-1975).

[6] Paul X. Kelly served as the 28th Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1 July 1983 to 30 June 1987.

Hold High the Torch, Part II

The Continuing story of the 4th Marines

EGA BlackThe size and scope of Operation Iceberg —the Battle for Okinawa, given the island’s size and terrain, was massive.  Iceberg included the Tenth US Army’s XXIV Corps (four infantry divisions) and the III Marine Amphibious Corps (1st, 2nd, and 6th Marine Divisions), the Fifth US Fleet (Task Force 58, 57, and the Joint Expeditionary Force), involving a combined force of 541,000 personnel (250,000 of which were combat troops).  Tenth Army was uniquely organized in the sense that it had its own tactical air force (joint Army-Marine Corps aviation).

The Tenth Army faced 96,000 Japanese and Okinawan belligerents.  Between 14,000 to 20,000 Americans died on Okinawa; between 38,000 to 55,000 Americans received serious wounds.  Japanese losses were between 77,000 to 110,000 killed with 7,000 captured alive.  Approximately half of the entire civilian population living on Okinawa were killed out of an estimated island-wide population of 300,000.

Iceberg was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War.  The 82-day battle had but one purpose: seize the Kadena air base for Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands.  The Japanese put up one hell of a fight in their defense of Okinawa but in doing so, they sealed their own fate: the ferocity of the Japanese Imperial Army convinced Washington politicians that dropping its new secret weapon (an atomic bomb) was far better than trying to take the Japanese home islands by force of arms —and costing the Americans an (estimated) additional one-million casualties.

The landing force demanded a massive armada of ships.  The Navy would have their hands full with Kamikaze aircraft from mainland Japan. The 6th Marine Division’s mission was to capture Yontan airfield in the center part of the Island.  The first assault wave came ashore at 0837, and the 4th Marines (less its 2nd Battalion, held in reserve) was among the first units to hit the beach.  What shocked the Marines was that they encountered no resistance from Japanese defenders.  Accordingly, the American advance was rapid; significant territorial gains were achieved on that first day.  In the absence of Japanese resistance, 2/4 came ashore at noon and rejoined the regiment. Yontan was taken ahead of schedule and then, according to the game plan, the 6thMarDiv turned north.  Marine progress continued unimpeded until 7 April when the Marines encountered Japanese defenders on the Motobu Peninsula.

The defense of this peninsula included several Japanese obstacles along the Marine’s likely avenues of approach. Terrain favored the Japanese. Mount Yaetake formed the core of the Japanese defense.  The mission of pacifying Mount Yaetake was assigned to the 4th Marines, reinforced by 3/29.  The 22nd Marines and the balance of the 29th Marines moved to seal off the peninsula.  There is no sense in having to fight the same enemy twice.

The 4th Marines attack commenced on 0830 on 14 April.  2/4 and 3/29 made the preliminary assault on a 700-foot ridge.  The Marine advance was bitterly contested until 16 April; it was a classic search and destroy mission but the Japanese weren’t going quietly. On 16 April BLT 3/4 was brought into the line.  Marines from Company A and Company C boldly charged through the enemy’s heavy barrage of mortar and machine gun fires to seize the crest by mid-afternoon.  Once the Marines secured and consolidated their positions, the mission continued to eliminate pockets of resistance. Combined, the two-company assault resulted in the loss of 50 Marines killed and wounded.

The 6thMarDiv pushed on and the peninsula was pacified on 20 April.  Organized resistance in northern Okinawa ended on 21 April 1945.  Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., commanding the division, declared his sector secure and available for further operations.  In the southern sector of the Island, all American progress came to a halt at the Shuri Line [1].

General Buckner ordered III Amphibious Corps (Lieutenant General Roy Geiger, commanding) to redeploy his Marines to the left of XXIV Corps; the US 27th Division replaced the 6thMarDiv in its mopping up operations.  Shepherd’s Marines were in place by 6th May.  Buckner ordered another advance and the 6thMarDiv was tasked with capturing the city of Naha.  4th Marines began their engagement on 19 May after relieving the 29th Marines, who by this time were fought-out.  It was a brutal form of war —up close and personal: Marines had to dislodge the Japanese in hand to hand combat.  By the time the 4th Marines reached Naha, they were ready to come off the line and were replaced by the 29th Marines.

Okinawa 1945
4th Marines assault on Naha, Okinawa. DoD picture from the public domain.

On 4 June, the 4th Marines assaulted the Oroku Peninsula, the location of the Naha airfield. It was an amphibious assault involving BLTs 1/4  and 2/4 under a blanket of naval gunfire and field artillery support.  BLT 3/4  came ashore a few hours later as the reserve force.  That afternoon, the 29th Marines came ashore and lined up next to the 4th regiment.  It was a slug-fest with a well-entrenched enemy; the battle lasted for nearly two weeks. Torrential rains and thick mud hampered the progress of Marines —mud and slime not even tracked vehicles could penetrate.  On 12 June, the outcome of the battle became self-evident.  The Japanese continued fighting, of course, but their back was to the water and there was no possibility of escape.  By this time, the Marines weren’t keen on taking prisoners. The 22nd Marines closed the back door by moving into a blocking position at the base of the peninsula.  The Japanese had but two choices: surrender or die. Most opted for the second option. General Shepherd informed III Amphibious Corps on 13 June that the peninsula belonged to the American Marines.

Following this battle, 6thMarDiv proceeded south to link up with the 1stMarDiv in the final engagement of the battle.  4th Marines returned to the front on 19 June and commenced their advance on the next morning.  The Marines encountered some resistance, but not much —the Japanese were fought out, too.  All organized resistance ended on 21 June 1945.  The 4th regiment’s casualties in the Battle of Okinawa exceeded 3,000 killed and wounded.  With Okinawa in American hands, the 4th Marines headed back to Guam for rest, retraining, and refit.  Everyone was thinking of the planned assault on the Japanese home islands; no one was happy about such a prospect.

US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place in early August.  I’m not sure most Marines knew what an atomic bomb was back then, but even among those who might have had an inkling I doubt whether many were remorseful.  Planners began to consider final preparations for occupation. With Japanese acceptance of the terms of surrender on 14 August, Task Force Alpha began to organize for seizure of key Japanese positions, including the naval base at Yokosuka in Tokyo Bay. The main element of Task Force Alpha was the 4th Marine Regiment.  The decision to assign the 4th Marines to this duty was a symbolic gesture to avenge the capture of the “old” 4th Marines on Corregidor.

The US 4th Marine regiment was the first American combat unit to land on the Japanese mainland.

As the Marines transitioned from transport ships to landing craft at 0430 on 30 August, they no doubt expected treachery from their war time foe.  No matter —the Marines were prepared for any eventuality.  First ashore was BLT 2/4, which landed at Cape Futtsu.  The Marines were the first foreign invasion force ever to set foot on Japanese soil.  Upon landing, the Marines quickly neutralized shore batteries by rendering them inoperable. After accepting the surrender of the Japanese garrison, BLT 2/4 reembarked to serve as a reserve force for the main landing at Yokosuka.  BLTs 1/4 and 3/4 landed at around 0900; 3/4 seized the naval base, and 1/4 took over the airfield.  Demilitarization of all Japanese installations was initiated as a priority; it would be better not to have loaded weapons in the hand of a recently conquered army.  For all of that, all landings were unopposed.  Japanese officials cooperated with the Marines to the best of their ability.

Task Force Alpha was disbanded on 21 September 1945 and all 6thMarDiv units were withdrawn from Japan —except one.  The Fourth Marines were placed under the operational control of the Eighth Army and the regiment was assigned to maintain the defense of the Yokosuka naval base.  This included providing interior guard and the disarming Japanese (who appeared in droves to surrender their weapons).  This duty continued until November.  President Truman had ordered rapid demobilization of the US Armed Forces. Operational control of the 4th Marines passed from Eighth Army to Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific on 20 November. At the end of the month, BLT 1/4 was ordered to proceed to Camp Pendleton, California, where it was deactivated on 29 December 1945.  The regiment’s remaining elements (except for the regimental headquarters and BLT 3/4) departed Japan on 1 January 1946.  These units were deactivated at Camp Pendleton on 20 January.  BLT 2/4 was deactivated on 31 January 1946.  BLT 3/4, still in Japan, was deactivated at Yokosuka and these Marines formed the core of a newly created 2nd Separate Guard Battalion.  They would remain in Japan to guard the naval base.

4th Marines return to China, 1945. DoD Photo from Public domain.

Headquarters 4th Marines departed Japan on 6 January for Tsingtao, China.  After four years, The China Marines had returned from whence they came.  In China, 4th Marines headquarters was re-attached to the 6th Marine Division, but the regiment really only existed on paper until 8 March 1946.  On that date, all three battalions and weapons company were reactivated in China, a matter of shifting personnel from the 22nd and 29th Marines, which were deactivated.

Occupation duty in China presented an uneasy situation for everyone concerned.  Truman wanted a smaller military, and he wanted it now, even as Marines confronted an aggressive Communist Chinese Army in North China.  The 6th Marine Division was deactivated  on 31 March.  All remaining Marine Corps units in China were re-organized as the 3rd Marine Brigade. The core element of the 3rd Brigade was the 4th Marine Regiment.  Initially, 4th Marines was the only Marine Corps regiment to retain its World War II combat organization of three battalions.  Then, on 10 June 1946, the 3rd Marine Brigade was also deactivated; operational control of the 4th Marines was transferred to the 1stMarDiv.

Truman’s reductions kept the Marine Corps in a constant state of flux.  In the second half of 1946, the 4th Marines (less its 3rd Battalion) was ordered back to the United States.  BLT 3/4 was placed under the operational control of the Commander, Naval Port Facilities, Tsingtao.  Meanwhile, the regiment’s arrival at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina on 1 October was the first time the 4th Marines had set foot inside the United States in twenty years.  As most of its veterans were discharged or reassigned, the regiment was once more reduced to a paper tiger.  In May 1947, the 1st Battalion was reactivated.  BLT 3/4, which was still in China was deactivated.  In November 1947, 4th Marines lost its traditional structure and became a four-company size organization: Headquarters Company, Company A, Company B, and Company C.  This significantly reduced structure remained in place for the next two years.  Even so, these rifle companies participated in a number of post-War exercises in the Caribbean.

In September 1948, what was left of the 4th Marines was again sent overseas aboard vessels of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea.  Cold War antagonism between the Soviet Union and United States threatened to erupt into a full-scale war.  By this time, President Truman may have realized that downsizing the US Department of Defense [2] while at the same time challenging the power of the Soviet Union wasn’t a very good idea.  Suddenly realizing the ominous consequences of a Soviet-dominated Europe, Truman began sending military and economic aid to nations menaced by Communist aggression.  Truman also decided to maintain a US presence in the Mediterranean to help ease the pressure on such countries as Greece and Turkey.  In furtherance of this policy, the Marine Corps maintained a battalion landing team (BLT) as part of the Mediterranean fleet.  The 4th Marines was re-activated from this BLT beginning in September 1948 and lasting until January 1949.  America’s “show of force” included a landing at Haifa, Palestine in October.  This detachment was ordered to proceed to Jerusalem to perform temporary guard duty at the American Consulate.

A few months after returning to the United States, the 4th Marines deployed to Puerto Rico for training exercises.  The regiment was once again deactivated on 17 October 1949.  Less than one year later, the military weakness of the United States along with other Truman administration blunders encouraged the North Koreans to invade the Republic of South Korea.

Next week: From Harry Truman’s War to the Streets Without Joy

Sources:

  1. Organization of the United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Reference Publication (MCRP) 5-12D. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 2015.
  2. Santelli, J. S. A Brief History of the Fourth Marines.  Washington: U. S. Marine Corps Historical Division, 1970

Endnotes:

[1] The Shuri-Naha-Yanabaru Line was a defensible series of positions held by the Japanese Imperial Army. It was so formidable, in fact, that during the contest, Marine Corps Commandant suggested that Tenth Army commander General Simon B. Buckner consider using the 2ndMarDiv in an amphibious assault on the southern coast of Okinawa, thereby outflanking the Japanese defenses.  Buckner rejected the proposal, which left only one strategy: frontal assault.

[2] The Department of Defense was created through the National Security Act of 1947, a major restructuring of the US military and intelligence agencies.  This act merged the War Department (renamed as Department of the Army) and Navy Department into the National Military Establishment, headed by the Secretary of Defense.  It also created the Department of the Air Force and United States Air Force and established the United States Marine Corps as a separate service under the Department of the Navy.