Blackie Cahill’s Fight

Some Background

At dawn on 25 June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) unleashed massive artillery fire into the Republic of (South) Korea (ROK).  On the heels of the barrage, the NKPA invaded the ROK with a force of 135,000 troops organized into eight infantry divisions, 24 artillery regiments, 120 Soviet T-34 tanks, five constabulary brigades, and 180 Soviet aircraft.

Understandably, the South Korean people were terrified, illustrated by a massive surge of refugees heading south from Seoul to safer locations.  However, they wouldn’t find any haven because the NKPA seized the ROK capital in two days and then continued their attack south.  The communists intended to seize the entire Korean peninsula.  Thousands of refugees preceded the NKPA forces — their legs moving as fast as possible to escape the slaughter.  The people were terrified, and by mid-July 1950, the United States and South Korean governments had done nothing to allay those fears.

The U. S. Army occupation forces stationed in Japan did what they could to stop the invasion, but they were young soldiers, untrained, inexperienced, inadequately equipped, poorly led, and sent to confront the NKPA in insufficient strength to stop the onslaught.  Throughout July, US Army forces experienced one defeat after another.  In time, victory over the Americans is what the NKPA commanders came to expect.

Every day, thousands of refugees streamed into the southeastern city of Pusan, seeking protection.  For the most part, the South Korean refugees were simple people.  They didn’t understand any of the reasons for this sudden war.  What they did know was that their lives were in jeopardy.  They had witnessed the NKPA’s ruthlessness; they had seen American Army slaughtered and overwhelmed.  The fear among the refugees was palpable.  One American journalist noted that in Pusan, one could almost smell the fear in the people — their panic worsening with each passing day.

But then, beginning in the late afternoon of 2 August 1950, a remarkable and easily observable transition began taking shape. American ships began arriving in the port city of Pusan.  The word went out.  These ships were carrying United States Marines.  People started crowding around the docks; they wanted to know more.  Unloading operations began as soon as the ships tied up along a pier.

Early the next morning, Marines began to form upon the pier.  They were dressed in combat uniforms, were well-armed, and carried field packs on their backs.  There were close to 5,000 men when assembled—a color guard formed in front of the Brigade.  A large crowd of Korean civilians stood back and observed the goings-on.  The Koreans no doubt wondered if these soldiers would save them; they may have noted that if any of these American Marines were fearful, it didn’t show in their demeanor or expressions.  Word quickly spread throughout the city.  There was still hope.

Although the average age of these young men was only 19½ years, they exuded discipline, confidence, and determination.  There was nothing timid about these youngsters; they understood their mission: find the enemy and kill him.[1]  It didn’t take long for NKPA commanders to realize that the tide was turning against them.

While company and platoon officers and NCOs mustered Marines on the pier, their Commanding General, Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, concluded his meeting with his subordinate commanders and senior staff.  Colonel (select) Raymond L. Murray commanded the 5th Marine Regiment.  Lieutenant Colonel George Newton commanded 1st Battalion; Lieutenant Colonel Harold Roise commanded 2nd Battalion, and Lieutenant Colonel Robert Taplett[2] commanded 3rd Battalion.  Craig issued his “commander’s guidance” (See also: The Fire Brigade), concluding with this strict admonition:

The Pusan perimeter is like a weakened dike; the Army intends to use us to plug the holes as they open.  We’re a brigade —a fire brigade.  It will be costly fighting against a numerically superior enemy.  Marines have never lost a battle; this Brigade will not be the first to establish such a precedent.  Prepare to move.”

Within an hour, the Marines of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade were en route toward a small town named Chang-won, the designated assembly area for the Eighth US Army reserve.

The Tactical Situation

The Battle of Osan was the first significant US engagement inf the Korean War.  Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, ordered Task Force Smith (1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment (reinforced)) (1/21 INF) to set up a blocking position against an overwhelming NKPA force on 5 July.  It was an unreasonable assignment and failed to slow the NKPA assault for more than a couple of hours.  Task Force Smith suffered 180 dead, wounded, scattered, and/or captured.  NKPA soldiers bound some of the American prisoners with their hands behind their backs and then executed them.

As elements of the 24th Infantry Division (24 ID) arrived in Korea from Japan, the NKPA continued to press south, pushing American and South Korean forces back at Pyeongtaek, Cho-nan, and Chochiwon.  At the Battle of Taejon, 24 ID suffered 3,602 dead and wounded.  Nearly 3,000 U.S. soldiers were taken, prisoner.  The NKPA continued their attack.

By the time the Marines arrived on 2 August Eighth Army’s position was unsustainable.  US/ROK forces occupied a tiny section of the Pusan Perimeter’s southeast corner.  General Walton H. Walker, commanding the Eighth Army, had traded space for time.  All that remained in US hands was a small sector 90 miles long and 60 miles wide.  General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), ordered soldiers in by the thousands.  Not only did Walker need fighting units, but he also needed replacements for the dead and wounded.  The first to arrive included the 1st Cavalry Division (1 CAV), 2nd Infantry Division (2 ID), and 25th Infantry Division (25 ID).

Walker faced two critical challenges.  First, because replacements were arriving in piecemeal fashion, General Walker could only plug them into units positioned at critical junctions.  They could not attack the enemy; they could only hold these key positions — and even that was dicey.  The second problem was that Walker’s reinforcements, while fresh from stateside or territorial commands, were still only minimally trained.  Most of these men had no previous combat experience.  Walker worried because if the Eighth Army lost the Pusan Perimeter, there would be no way to land further replacements or supplies — and no way to withdraw any survivors.

The Battle for Hill 342[3]

General Walker designated the 25th ID as Task Force Kean, after the division commander, Major General William B. Kean.  Walker assigned Craig’s Brigade to reinforce Task Force Kean.  Kean’s subordinate units included the 24 INF, 27 INF, 35 INF, and the 5th Regimental Combat Team (5 RCT).

On 6th August, Colonel Murray led his 5th Marines toward Chindong-ni.  General Kean intended to replace the 27 INF with the 5th Marines.  Lieutenant Colonel Taplett’s 3/5 (reinforced) moved toward Changwon to replace 2/27 INF on the line two miles outside Chindong-ni, where the road to Mason takes a sharp northward turn into the village of Tosan.[4]

Taplett effected the relief of 2/27 INF within two hours, establishing his command post (CP) on the first step of Hill 255 co-located with Weapons Company, 3/5.[5]  Temporarily under the operational control of HQ 27 INF, Taplett answered to Colonel John H. Michaelis, the army regiment’s commander.  Taplett’s mission was to provide a blocking force; he needed a tight defensive line to do that.

Lieutenant Colonel Taplett ordered Captain Fegan to set in his Company H (How Company) above his CP to have a good field of observation of enemy movements.  Taplett directed First Lieutenant Robert D. Bohn, commanding Company G (George Company), to set in two rifle platoons on Hill 99, situated west of Hill 255, and one platoon on a small knoll at the base of Hill 255.

Lieutenant Bohn directed the 1st Platoon to take the knoll position.  Commanding 1st Platoon was Second Lieutenant John J. H. Cahill, USMC.[6]  Cahill’s platoon was reinforced by a 75mm recoilless rifle platoon.[7]

The six platoons of George and How companies shared a tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) extending some 3,000 yards. Taplett’s only reserve force consisted of the headquarters element.[8]  Shortly after midnight on 7th August, Colonel Michaelis ordered Taplett to dispatch a rifle platoon to reinforce Baker Company, 1/27 INF atop Hill 342.  Taplett contacted Colonel Murray (CO, 5th Marines) to argue that he could ill-afford lose one-sixth of his infantry force.  Murray explained that General Dean had ordered Hill 342 held at all costs, and Taplett must provide the platoon.

Taplett assigned the mission to First Lieutenant Bohn; Bohn tasked Blackie Cahill.

Hill 342 was a massive molar-shaped structure rising steeply from the MSR west of Chindong-ni, extending northward 2,000 yards to another hill mass that was nearly 2,000 feet in elevation.  Elements of the NKPA 6th Infantry Division occupied the second hill mass.  The terrain was steep, the footing unsure, and the hillside inundated with shrub vegetation.  Before leaving 3/5’s perimeter, Taplett ordered Cahill reinforced with a machinegun squad and a radio operator.  None of Cahill’s men had more than a couple of hours of rest before embarking on this relief mission.

There was one minor glitch: Cahill reached Colonel Michaelis’ CP near a bridge south of Hill 99 at around 03:00.  Michaelis being absent, the regimental operations officer directed Cahill to proceed 700 yards further down the MSR and reported to the CO 2nd Battalion, 5 RCT (2/5 RCT), whose CP was located just north of the MSR at the tip of Hill 342’s eastern-most base. The Army operations officer informed Cahill that he wasn’t reinforcing Company B; he was replacing it.  27 INF needed this rifle company as part of General Kean’s reserve force.  5 RCT could not relieve Company B because 5 RCT was scheduled to begin an offensive within a few hours.

2ndLt Cahill no doubt wondered how a rifle platoon could realistically replace an infantry company, but Cahill was a combat veteran, and he made no bones about it.  After a quick briefing by an operations officer at 2/5 RCT’s CP, a guide led Cahill and his platoon northward, skirting the western base of Hill 352.  A few hundred yards along, the army guide discovered that he had lost his way in the darkness.  A few enemy artillery shells landed nearby, but there were no casualties.  When Cahill’s column reached the end of the valley, rifle fire erupted, wounding two Marines.  The army guide advised Cahill that he should not begin his climb until dawn because of the slippery footing and the nervous condition of Baker Company’s soldiers.  At 0500, Cahill’s Marines had marched 3 miles from Hill 99.

At dawn, Cahill realized that the earlier rifle fire had come from soldiers of 2/5 RCT, spooked by the Marine’s movements in the pitch-black early morning hours.  Cahill took the lead in the climb.  At first, the Marines made good progress, but the heat soon became a war-stopper.  The temperature was around 112 degrees.  Cahill’s Marines began gasping for air, sweating profusely, and stumbling on the steep, slippery pathways.  For every five steps upward, they slipped back three.  Water discipline collapsed, and canteens soon emptied.  It wasn’t long before Cahill’s Marines began collapsing from heat exhaustion, and some of these young men lost consciousness — they were on the verge of having a heat stroke.  Cahill’s platoon became a ragged file, but as Cahill’s NCOs urged the men forward, Cahill increased his pace and proceeded to the crest of the hill.

Cahill finally reached Hill 342’s summit at around 08:30, where he met the Army company commander.  The captain began briefing Cahill on his company’s defensive positions.  Baker Company, he explained, had been under continuous enemy fire within their triangle-shaped perimeter.  All three of the Company’s platoons were shattered.  Just as Cahill’s platoon began straggling into the army perimeter, NKPA forces opened fire from well-concealed positions from an adjacent hill.  Cahill’s NCOs quickly set the Marines into firing positions.  So far, Cahill had lost one man killed, six others wounded.  Considering both combat and heat casualties, Cahill’s 52-man platoon at the base of Hill 342 had only 37 effectives at its summit.  NKPA intensive fire had a demoralizing effect on the soldiers, and it was all the unit’s officers could do to keep them in their defensive positions.  In a brilliant move, Cahill suggested to the Army commander that he set Marines into positions among the soldiers.  Cahill understood service rivalry; knowing that the soldiers and Marines were eyeing one another, service pride kicked in, and the troops on the line, both Army and Marine, settled down to the business at hand.  Cahill lost two additional Marines to enemy fire as his NCOs were setting them into position.

Improvise — Adapt — Overcome

At noon, several companies of NKPA troops assaulted the summit of Hill 342 supported by intense machine gunfire.  Despite the onslaught, Marines and soldiers delivered well-aimed return fire.  However, the situation was desperate, and Baker Company was ordered by 5 RCT to remain in-place until a larger force of Marines could relieve them.  2ndLt Cahill used his radio to call in Army artillery support to silence enemy mortars.  As the artillery unit registered its fires, Cahill looked for and spotted an enemy, forward observer.  Yet, despite the artillery battery’s accurate barrage, NKPA mortars continued to rain down on the soldiers and Marines.  Then, with water and ammunition becoming in short supply, Cahill radioed in for an airdrop.  Within a short time, a USAF R4D flew over Hill 342 and dropped badly needed ammunition and water —  the resupply landed amid the enemy positions.

Cahill was back on the radio in short order.  1stMarBde handed the resupply mission to Marine Observation Squadron (VMO)-6, whose OY-2 aircraft dropped ammunition and water inside the Baker Company perimeter.  But, as the water cans hit the earth, most exploded, and the Marines and soldiers had to make do with only a few mouthfuls of water each.  Cahill’s Sergeant Macy volunteered to lead a patrol in search of water.  With permission granted, Macy and a few volunteers descended the southeastern slope under enemy fire, lugging 5-gallon cans along with them.  Meanwhile, the NKPA was working to surround and cut off Hill 342

While Cahill was making his way toward Hill 342, the rest of Taplett’s 3/5 (set in along the base of Hill 255) came under enemy mortar fire beginning at around 02:30 on 7 August.   Taplett was anxious about the situation with Cahill, but there was nothing he could do about it until sun up.

At around 02:00, Lieutenant Colonel Roise’s 2/5 began moving by truck to its terminus at the base of Hill 255.  NKPA delivered devastating mortar fire.  Roise was fortunate to lose only one Marine killed and eleven wounded — including Captain George E. Kittredge, the CO of Easy Company, 2/5.  Once 2/5 arrived in the vicinity of Hill 255, operational control of 2/5 and 3/5 reverted to Colonel Murray.  Murray ordered Roise to occupy Hill 99.  After repositioning 1/5, George Company 3/5 rejoined Taplett’s main body.

General Keane planned for 5 RCT to begin its assault at 0500, but the advance was stopped cold in the first hour.  The NKPA were not particularly impressed with Kean’s assault; they launched an attack of their own.  Cahill’s fight on Hill 342 constrained the entire 2nd Battalion, 5 RCT, in its attempt to hold open the Chinju Road.  Attaching Cahill’s platoon to Baker Company — and leaving the army company in place — was helping to do that, but the 5 RCT’s second battalion was temporarily lost to the regiment.

General Keane was desperate.  He ordered Murray to provide a battalion to relieve 2/5 RCT, and the mission assigned to 1/5.  Colonel Roise’s mission was to relieve the army battalion and clear the area of enemy forces.  Keane then ordered Craig to assume command of all forward units in the Chindong-ni area.[9]

When 2/5 reached the base of Hill 342, Colonel Roise ordered Dog Company to ascend the north fork toward Hill 342’s eastern spur and seize both the spur and the great hill.  First Lieutenant William E. Sweeney, newly appointed commander of Easy Company, was ordered to pass behind Sangnyong-ni and seize the western spur.  It was a wide dispersal of a light battalion, but Murray needed Roise to protect the valley between the two spurs and this was the only way he could do it.  The CO of D Company was Captain John Finn.  As the company ascended Hill 342, the Marines, having spent a sleepless night, began to experience the effects of rapidly increasing heat.  Thirty minutes into the climb, Finn’s Marines encountered rifle and machine gun fire.  Roise’s Operations Officer, Major Morgan J. McNeely, had previously told Finn that he would encounter no organized enemy resistance.  The constant chatter of Chinese-made burp guns proved McNeely wrong.

Finn called together his platoon commanders, assigning each a route to ascend Hill 342.   2nd Platoon, under Second Lieutenant Wallace J. Reid, was ordered to push through Taepyong-ni and begin his climb at its juncture with the spur.  Second Lieutenant Edward T. Emmelman would lead his 3rd Platoon to the top of the spur from the left.  Second Lieutenant Arthur A. Oakley, commanding 1st Platoon, would hold the right flank and ascend the southern slope of Hill 342.  Enemy opposition was scattered, but before Dog Company reached the crest of the spur, five Marines had received gunshot wounds.  As with Cahill’s Marines, Captain Finn’s men were suffering the effects of heat exhaustion in the triple-digit heat.

Captain Finn ordered his executive officer (XO), First Lieutenant Robert T. Hannifin, to establish the company headquarters and mortar section on the high ground directly above Taepyong-ni.  At dusk, Dog Company was still several hundred yards from the summit of Hill 342.  Finn radioed Roise for permission to rest his men for the night.  While Finn was communicating with Roise, 2ndLt Oakley climbed to the summit and contacted Cahill and the Baker Company commander — both of whom accompanied Oakley to Finn’s position.  The Army CO advised Finn to remain in place until early the next morning and Roise agreed.

During the early morning hours of 8 August, NKPA troops covertly approached the perimeter of Hill 342.  At first light, the enemy assaulted the crest of the hill.  The fight turned into a gruesome hand-to-hand struggle.  Soldiers and Marines repelled the attack, but not without taking serious casualties.  One Marine died from gunshot and bayonet wounds.  Captain Finn’s three platoons assaulted the hill, brushing aside enemy resistance and joining what was left of Baker Company and Cahill’s platoon.  While effecting the relief, NKPA rifle and automatic weapons punished the perimeter with intensive fire.

Once Dog Company was in possession of the summit perimeter, Baker Company and Cahill’s Marines descended the hill.  Cahill had lost one-third of his men.  Captain Finn fared no better.  NKPA fire killed several of his men while setting in their defenses, including 2ndLt Oakley and 2ndLt. Reid.  2ndLt Emmelman received a serious head wound.  As Captain Finn moved forward to recover Reid’s body, he too was struck in the shoulder and head.

First Lieutenant Hannifin, assigned to direct the company headquarters and mortar platoon, moved forward to join the rest of Company D at the summit.  Just below the summit, he encountered the First Sergeant, who was helping to evacuate Captain Finn.  Hannifin learned that he was now the CO of Dog Company.  He was also the only officer remaining alive in the company.  In the absence of officers commanding platoons, the NCOs stepped up.

1stLt Hannifin reached the summit of Hill 342 with just enough time to organize the defenses and set in his mortars before the NKPA initiated a second attack.  The Marines beat back the assault, killing dozens of the attackers, but the company had lost and additional six killed and 25 wounded.  While speaking with Roise on the field radio, Hannifin collapsed due to heat exhaustion.  Master Sergeant Harold Reeves assumed command of Dog Company.  Second Lieutenant Leroy K. Wirth, a forward observer from 1/11 assumed responsibility for all supporting arms, including aircraft from MAG-33 circling overhead.  Both Reeves and Wirth exposed themselves to enemy fire by ranging forward to call in airstrikes and reassess their tactical situation.

Easy Company 2/5 moved forward along the western spur of Hill 342 and dug in.  Colonel Roise dispatched Captain Andrew M. Zimmer, who was serving as 2/5’s assistant operations officer, to take command of Dog Company.  NKPA forces continued to harass Zimmer’s Marines at the summit, but because the enemy had taken a massive number of casualties in the fight, they gave the Marines of Dog Company a wide birth.

Major Walter Gall, commanding Weapons Company 2/5, dispatched a combat patrol to eliminate NKPA machine guns in Tokkong-ni.  Unable to dislodge the communists, the patrol returned to Gall and briefed him on the enemy situation.  With this information, 1stLt Ira T. Carr unleashed his 81mm mortar section and all enemy activity in Tokkong-ni ended.

On the afternoon of 9 August, an Army unit relieved Dog Company at the summit and 2/24 INF relieved Roise’s 2/5 of its responsibility for Hill 342.  Documents later retrieved from enemy dead revealed that the NKPA forces engaged with soldiers and Marines at the summit were members of the 13th and 15th Regiments of the NKPA 6th Infantry Division.  Cahill reported a conservative estimate of 150 dead communists in the hill fight, in total around 400 enemy KIA, but the actual number is unknown.  What is known is that between 500 to 600 communist troops challenged the Marines and soldiers to the right to possess Hill 342 — and lost.

For his effort atop Hill 342, then Second Lieutenant Blackie Cahill received the Silver Star medal and a Purple Heart.  The courageous Marine officer would later receive three additional Purple Heart medals and the Bronze Star.

Sources:

  1. Appleman, R. E.  South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu.  Washington: Department of the Army, 1998.
  2. Catchpole, B.  The Korean War.  London: Robinson Publishing, 2001.
  3. Geer, A.  The New Breed: The Story of the U.S. Marines in Korea. New York: Harper & Bros., 1952.
  4. Hastings, M.  The Korean War.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
  5. Varhola, M. J.  Fire and Ice: The Korean War, 1950-1953.  Mason City: Da Capo Press, 2000.

Endnotes:

[1] Sixty-five percent of the Brigade’s officers and NCOs were combat veterans from World War II.

[2] Bob Taplett (1918-2004) served with distinction as a Marine officer for twenty years, serving in World War II and the Korean War.  He was awarded the Navy Cross and two awards of the Silver Star medal in recognition of his courage under fire.  Retiring in 1960, Taplett authored an autobiography titled Darkhorse Six, which was published in 2003.

[3] Hill 342 stood 342 meters above sea level (1,122 feet), a substantial climb in full combat gear in 112° temperatures.

[4] General Kean’s plan was to withdraw 27 INF to serve in division reserve, replacing it with 5th Marines.  The Army’s 5 RCT would serve on the Marine’s right flank.

[5] The 5th Marines, hastily formed for combat duty at Camp Pendleton, departed California on 7 July.  The regiment was understrength.  Typically, a Marine infantry battalion consists of an H&S Company, Weapons Company, and three rifle companies.  This is the standard configuration for a maneuver unit.  In July 1950, Murray’s battalions consisted of an H&S Company, Weapons Company, and two rifle companies.  These personnel shortages were the result of President Truman’s scheme to gut the U.S. military following World War II.

[6] Second Lieutenant John J. H. (“Blackie”) Cahill (1924-2005) served in the U. S. Marine Corps (1939-1974).  There is not much that we know about Cahill, beyond the fact that he likely served aboard ship during the New Guinea campaign, later participated in the island campaigns of the Gilbert Islands, at Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa as an enlisted Marine.  He may have left active service at the end of World War II to attend college.  In 1950, Cahill was a 2nd Lieutenant with Company G, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines during the battle for Pusan.  He later served with the 5th Marines at the Chosin Reservoir.  He later served three tours of duty in Vietnam, notably at the Battle of Khe Sanh when he commanded 1st Battalion, 9th Marines.  Cahill’s twin brother Vincent also served in World War II in the Army Air Corps.  Colonel Vincent S. Cahill retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1976.

[7] The 75mm Recoilless Rifle was a tripod-mounted weapon weighing 114.5 pounds.  It fired HE, HEAT, and WP rounds, had a range of 7,000 yards, and was effective against T-34 tanks within 400 yards.  A RR platoon consisted of four rifles/14 Marines.

[8] Every Marine, regardless of MOS, is a qualified infantry rifleman.

[9] General Craig was underwhelmed with 5 RCT’s performance; there was, in his opinion, no good reason for the army regiment’s lack of advance — except that the forward area was confused.  In the one-lane dirt roads, military traffic had jammed the MSR and none of the US forces could advance or withdraw.  Craig realized that the slowness of the 5 RCT’s advance had opened the door to the NKPA, which had launched its own attack. 


Operation Buffalo

July 1967

Some Background

As summarized in McNamara’s Folly, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara threw a costly wrench into the contest for control of the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ).  His inane plan not only escalated the material costs of fighting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), but it also dramatically increased the number of Marines, soldiers, and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops who were killed and wounded while building it.[1]

Not a single Marine commander favored the so-called McNamara Line in I CTZ.  Shaking his head in disgust, one Marine officer said, “With these bastards, you’d have to build the [wall] all the way to India and it would take the entire Marine Corps and half the Army to guard it — and even then, they’d probably burrow under it.”  Even the Commandant of the Marine Corps, in his testimony before Congress, rigorously opposed the McNamara Line.

The Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) assigned overall operational responsibility for I CTZ to the Third Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).  In land area, I CTZ involved roughly 18,000 square miles.   III MAF included the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv), 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), 3rd Force Logistics Command (3rdFLC), Provisional Corps, Vietnam, 1st Cavalry Division, 101st Airborne Division, Americal Division, Sub Unit 1, First Radio Battalion, 29th Civil Affairs Company, 7th Psychological Operations Battalion, and several ARVN and Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC) commands.

The McNamara Line placed US Forces in I CTZ in a dangerous position because in order to construct the barrier, III MAF had to divert Marines away from their combat assignments to build it.  With the 1stMarDiv operating near Chu Lai, in Quang Nam Province (65 miles south of Da Nang), responsibility for northern I Corps (abutting the demilitarized zone (DMZ)) fell to the 3rdMarDiv.  Despite the fact that the 3rdMarDiv was the largest Marine division ever formed in the history of the Marine Corps, it still didn’t have the men it needed to defend northern I Corps.

The task of building the McNamara Line fell upon Navy and Marine Corps combat engineers; Marine infantrymen provided much of the manual labor, and 3rdMarDiv regiments and separate battalions had to provide protection to those who labored in its construction.  Beside the already complicated matter of building the line, COMUSMACV wanted to project completed “yesterday.”

NVA commanders watched the construction activities with keen interest, no doubt asking themselves how the NVA could use the McNamara disruption to their advantage.  At the beginning of July 1967, the NVA had 35,000 troops assembled just north of the DMZ.  Their intention was to swarm across the Marine outpost at Con Thien, overwhelm US forces operating in Leatherneck Square,[2] and invade en mass all of Quang Tri Province.

Con Thien (The Hill of Angels) was important to the Marines because the location was situated high enough in elevation to provide an excellent observation post over one of the primary NVA routes into South Vietnam.  Moreover, anyone standing atop the 160-meter hill at Con Thien looking southeast could observe the entire forward logistics base at Dong Ha.

Operation Buffalo

The NVA (supported by heavy artillery and mortar fire) made two thrusts at Con Thien.   The first (and largest) of these attacks specifically targeted the Marine position at Hill 160.  Operation Buffalo commenced on 2 July.  Lieutenant Colonel Richard J. “Spike” Schening deployed his 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9) in and around Con Thien.  Alpha Company and Bravo Company operated north-northeast of a strong point along Route 561, Delta Company and H&S Company occupied the battalion’s perimeter, and Charlie Company was detached to provide security for HQ 9th Marines at Dong Ha.

According to the 9th Marine’s commander, Colonel George E. Jerue, “The TAOR assigned to the 9th Marines was so large that the regiment did not have the option of conducting security patrols on a regular basis.  The NVA, realizing these limitations, would withdraw from the area until after a patrol had completed its mission, and then re-infiltrate the area just cleared.”  It was for this reason that Alpha and Bravo companies were sent to control Route 561.

On the morning of 2 July, Captain Sterling K. Coates led his Bravo Company into its heaviest engagement of the Vietnam War.  Bravo Company and Captain Albert C. Slater’s Alpha Company moved abreast in a northward direction along Route 561.  Both companies stepped off at 08:00.  Alpha Company was on the right.  Route 561 was a ten-foot-wide cart path bordered by waist-high hedgerows.  Unknown to either Coates or Slater, two NVA infantry battalions were waiting for them behind well-prepared fighting positions.  The next few hours would transform the Hill of Angels into a meat grinder.

Within an hour, 2nd Platoon (2ndPlt) Bravo Company achieved its first objective, a small crossroad some 1,200 meters north of the trace.  Enemy snipers began taking 3rdPlt and the company command element under fire as soon as they reached the crossroad.  As Captain Coates shifted the 3rdPlt to suppress the enemy fire, the NVA intensified its delivery.  Coates halted the 3rdPlt’s advance and directed 2ndPlt to shift right in an attempt to outflank the enemy’s position.  At the same time, Captain Coates ordered 1stPlt to move forward for rear area security and/or reinforcement if required.  NVA fire halted 2ndPlt’s advance.  Within a few moments, Bravo Company began receiving heavy small arms fire from the front and both flanks.  With the Marines halted and assuming a defense, the NVA began to deliver artillery and mortar fire.

Alpha Company Marines tripped two booby traps, injuring several Marines.  The company advance was halted while Captain Slater called for a medevac.  Once the wounded Marines had been evacuated, Slater moved forward in an attempt to link up with Coates but was prevented from doing so by heavy enemy fire.

Bravo Company casualties were mounting by the second — its position rapidly deteriorating as the NVA successfully cut 3rdPlt and the command element from 2ndPlt.  With the Marines under heavy fire, enemy soldiers armed with flame weapons ignited the hedgerows on both sides of the road.  2ndPlt launched an assault to help 3rdPlt, but enemy artillery and mortar fire increased.  With a grass fire threatening to overwhelm them, Marines withdrew only to enter into a killing zone of NVA machine guns.

Enemy artillery killed Captain Coates, his radio operator, two platoon commanders, and the company artillery forward observer.  The Forward Air Controller, Captain Warren O. Keneipp, assumed command of Bravo Company, but without a radio operator, Captain Keneipp lost contact with 2ndPlt and had no control over subsequent events (please see comment below).  The company executive officer (XO) (2nd in command) was with 2ndPlt; his radio was the only source of comms with the battalion command post (CP), but cut off from the rest of the company, the XO was in no position to influence the action.

Staff Sergeant Leon R. Burns commanded 1stPlt.  He led the platoon forward to reinforce 2ndPlt and 3rdPlt, but enemy assaults hindered his advance.  Burns called in air strikes and specifically asked for napalm.  The strike delivered the much-needed munitions within twenty meters of the 1stPlt’s position.  After the airstrike, the enemy assault faltered, which allowed Burns to move forward and incorporate what remained of the 2ndPlt.  After placing his Marines into a hasty defense, the company’s Navy Corpsmen began treating their wounded Marines.

Upon learning that Alpha and Bravo companies had run into a hornet’s nest, and the Bravo Company commander had been killed, Colonel Schening dispatched Captain Henry J. Radcliffe (the Battalion Operations Officer) to take command of Bravo Company.  Radcliffe led forward an additional rifle platoon from Delta Company and four tanks.  First Lieutenant Gatlin J. Howell (the Battalion Intelligence Officer) accompanied Radcliffe because his familiarity with the terrain surrounding Con Thien.

Radcliffe’s arrival at the point of contact was timely because his relief platoon foiled an NVA attempt to encircle Bravo Company.  As the tanks and helicopter gunships dispersed the NVA, Delta Company moved forward with its two remaining rifle platoons.  Radcliffe directed the Delta Company commander to secure a landing zone.  Within minutes, Charlie Company began to arrive by helicopter from Dong Ha.

With additional support from Charlie and Delta companies, Radcliffe continued his assault.  When Captain Radcliffe made contact with Staff Sergeant Burns, he asked, “Where is the rest of Bravo Company?”  Burns answered, “Sir, you’re looking at all that’s left of Bravo Company.”

With Burns supervising the evacuation of wounded and dead Marines, Radcliffe continued forward to Bravo Company’s furthest advance.  At that point, Radcliffe established defensive positions and began attending to the 3rdPlt’s dead and wounded.  Lieutenant Howell, who had previously commanded 3rdPlt, quickly searched for Marines and helped move them back to the corpsman for triage.  At that moment, the enemy re-initiated artillery fire and the company’s withdrawal was made more difficult when two of the supporting tanks triggered landmines.

Radcliffe shepherded the casualties into the landing zone for medevac.  While waiting for the airlift, NVA dropped mortars into the LZ, inflicting even more casualties on the medical corpsmen and litter bearers.  By this time, the fog of war had completely descended upon 1/9’s forward elements.  With officers and senior NCOs killed and wounded, corporals took charge.  The NVA’s artillery assault on the landing zone precluded additional helicopter support, so ambulatory Marines began carrying their wounded brothers back to Con Thien.

Throughout the battle, Marine and naval gunfire engaged the enemy in a furious duel.  During that day, Schening’s CP received over 700 enemy artillery rounds.  Marine aircraft flew 28 sorties, dropping 90 tons of munitions on the well-fortified enemy positions.

Meanwhile, Captain Slater’s Alpha Company remained heavily engaged.  The number of Marine casualties brought the company to a standstill, prompting Slater to order his 3rdPlt to establish a hasty landing zone defense in the company rear area.  After the first flight of evac helicopters departed the zone, NVA hit the 3rdPlt with mortar fire and a ground assault.  Slater moved his 2ndPlt and command group to reinforce the 3rdPlt.  The NVA moved to within 50 meters of the company line before Marine fire broke the attack, but owing to the number of their casualties, Alpha Company was relegated to a defensive position until the NVA force withdrew later that evening.

As Colonel Schening moved his CP forward, he sent his XO, Major Darrell C. Danielson, ahead with additional reinforcements and transport to help evacuate the casualties.  When Danielson contacted the fifty remaining Marines, he organized a medical evaluation and called for medevacs.  Several Marines were bleeding out, everyone appeared to be in a state of shock.  Despite on-going enemy artillery and mortar fire, Danielson managed to extricate Alpha and Bravo companies back to Con Thien.

Colonel Schening reported his situation to the Colonel Jerue, the regimental commander: situation critical.  Jerue ordered Major Willard J. Woodring, commanding 3/9, to reinforce Schening[3].  Upon arrival, Schening directed Woodring to assume operational control of Alpha and Charlie companies (1/9).  Major Woodring directed a five-company assault on the enemy flanks while what remained of Bravo and the LZ security platoon from Delta company withdrew into Con Thien.  Woodring’s aggressive assault caused the NVA units to withdraw.  Later in the day, Staff Sergeant Burns[4] reported only 27 combat effectives remained in Bravo Company.  In total, 1/9 had lost 84 killed in action, 190 wounded, and 9 missing.  Of enemy casualties, no precise number exists.[5]

Enemy contact continued for the next three days.  At 09:00 on 3 July, an Air Force aerial observer reported several hundred NVA soldiers advancing on Marine positions north of Con Thien.  Echo Battery 3/12 dropped a massive number of rounds on the NVA position killing an estimated 75 communists.  To the east, Major Woodring called in artillery strikes for twelve hours in preparation for an assault scheduled for 4 July.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter A. Wickwire’s BLT 1/3 (Special Landing Force Alpha) reinforced the 9th Marines and tied in with Woodring’s right flank.[6]  Colonel George E. Jerue, commanding the 9th Marines, planned his assault to push the NVA out of the Long Son area, some 4,000 meters north of Con Thien.  Woodring began his assault at around 0630, encountering heavy resistance from well-concealed enemy positions southwest of Bravo Company’s engagement on 2 July.  A prolonged battle involving tanks, artillery, and close air support ensued for most of the day.  At 18:30, when Woodring halted his advance, 3/9 had lost 15 dead and 33 wounded.  Wickwire’s 1/3 had lost 11 wounded in the same action.

BLT 2/3 (SLF Bravo) under Major Wendell O. Beard’s BLT 2/3 effected an air assault at Cam Lo, joining Operation Buffalo at mid-afternoon on 4 July.[7]  This battalion moved west and then northward toward the western edge of the battle area toward Con Thien.

At daylight on 5 July, NVA artillery began firing on Marine units located northeast of Con Thien but kept its ground units away from the Marines as they advanced.  Meanwhile, search and recovery teams had begun the grim task of retrieving Bravo Company’s dead.

On 6 July, all battalions continued moving north.  Beard’s 2/3 ran into an enemy force supported by mortars less than two miles south of Con Thien.  Within an hour, 2/3 killed 35 NVA, while suffering 5 killed and 25 wounded.  Major Woodring and Colonel Wickwire advanced their battalions under intermittent artillery fire.  At around 09:00, Woodring decided to send a reinforced rifle company 1,500 meters to the north-northwest to cover his left flank.  Captain Slater’s Alpha Company, which now included the survivors of Charlie Company and a detachment from 3rd Recon Battalion, moved into position without enemy resistance and established a strong combat outpost.

Slater’s movement went unnoticed, but that wasn’t the case with the main elements of Woodring’s and Wickwire’s battalions.  Both units encountered heavy artillery fire.  By 16:00, neither of the battalions could go any further.  Wickwire had lost a tank but due to concentrated enemy artillery fire, was forced to pull back without recovering it.  Captain Burrell H. Landes, commanding Bravo Company 1/3, received a report from an aerial observer that 400 or more NVA were heading directly to confront Woodring and Wickwire.  A short time later, accurate NVA artillery fire began blasting the Marines.  As Woodring and Wickwire prepared to meet the approaching NVA under the enemy’s artillery assault, Captain Slater’s recon patrol reported that the approaching NVA was heading directly into Alpha Company’s position.

The NVA force was unaware of Slater’s blocking position until they were within 500 feet, at which time Slater’s Marines engaged the NVA.  Since the NVA didn’t know where the Marine’s fire was coming from, they scattered in every direction, some of them running directly into the Marine line.  Once the enemy had figured out where Slater’s Marines were positioned, they organized an assault.  The Marine lines held, however.  At one point, NVA troops began lobbing grenades into the Marine position.  Lance Corporal James L. Stuckey began picking the grenades up and tossing them back.  Stucky lost his right hand on the third toss when the grenade exploded as it left his hand.[8]  Stuckey remained with his fireteam throughout the night without any medical assistance.

While the Alpha Company fight was underway, elements of the 90th NVA Regiments attacked Woodring’s and Wickwire’s Marine with blocks of TNT.  Marines called in air support, artillery, and naval gunfire.  By 21:30, the Marines had repelled the enemy assault and caused the NVA regiment to withdraw.  At around 22:00, Woodring radioed Slater to return to the battalion perimeter at first light.

Alpha Company mustered before daylight on 7 July.  As the sun began to light the sky, Slater’s Marines discovered 154 dead NVA just beyond the Marine perimeter.  About an hour later, after Slater had returned to Woodring’s lines, the NVA unleashed a terrible barrage on Slater’s old position.  In front of Woodring and Wickwire’s battalion lay an additional 800 dead communists.  Later that morning, however, an NVA artillery shell found its way to 1/9’s command bunker, killing eleven Marines, including First Lieutenant Gatlin J. Howell,[9] who had gone to the aid of Bravo Company on 2 July.  Lieutenant Colonel Schening was wounded in the same incident.[10]

Operation Buffalo ended on 14 July.  Marines reported enemy losses at 1,290 dead, two captured.  Total Marine losses were 159 killed, 345 wounded.  The NVA attack at Con Thien was relatively short in duration but particularly vicious and the communists paid a heavy price.  Since the enemy dead were so horribly chewed up from air, artillery, and naval gunfire, the Marines were forced into counting the NVA solder’s water canteens for a sense of enemy dead.

Sources:

  1. Telfer, G. L. and Lane Rogers.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese, 1967.  Washington: Headquarters U. S. Marine Corps, 1984.
  2. Bowman, J. S.  The Vietnam War: Day by Day.  New York: Mallard Books, 1989.
  3. Nolan, K. W.  Operation Buffalo: USMC Fight for the DMZ.  Dell Publishing, 1992.

Endnotes:

[1] In this context, Robert McNamara was a war criminal.

[2] Located south of the DMZ, Leatherneck Square was a TAOR extending six miles (east-west) by nine miles (north-south); it’s corners were measured from Con Thien (northwest) to Firebase Gio Linh (northeast), and from Dong Ha to Cam Lo on its southern axis (an area of more than 54 square miles).  Between March 1967 to February 1969, 1,500 Marines and Navy Corpsmen were killed in this area, with an additional 9,265 wounded in action. 

[3] Awarded Silver Star Medal for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action between 2 July – 9 July 1967.  Colonel Woodring passed away in 2003.

[4] Awarded Navy Cross for this action.

[5] After 14 July, estimates of enemy KIA ranged from 525 to 1,200.

[6] Colonel Wickwire was awarded the Silver Star Medal for conspicuous gallantry for service on 6 July 1967.

[7] Retired Lieutenant Colonel Wendell Otis “Moose” Beard, a former NFL football player with the Washington Redskins, served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam Wars.  He was the recipient of the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart Medal.  He passed away in 1980. 

[8] Awarded Navy Cross Medal.

[9] First Lieutenant Howell was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on 2 July 1967.

[10] Colonel Schening was also wounded at Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and during the Korean War.  This was his fourth Purple Heart Medal.  He was awarded the Silver Star Medal for service during the Korean War while serving as XO, Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.  Colonel Schening passed away in 1996.


Special Landing force

America’s flashing sword

Background

Late in October 1914, two Ottoman warships (operating under the command of German officers) conducted a raid in the Black Sea.  They bombarded the Ukrainian port of Odessa and sank several ships.  Two days later, the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany against Russia.  Before the end of the year, the central powers had badly mauled British and French forces on the Western Front and effectively cut off overland trade routes by blockading the entrance to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles and cutting Russia off from resupply.

Winston Churchill, 1914

Although the idea to attack the Ottoman Empire originally came from French Minister Aristide Briand, the United Kingdom defeated the motion because the British hoped to convince the Turks to join the Allied effort.  Later, however, First Sea Lord Winston Churchill (who was then 41-years old) proposed a naval campaign to attack the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli, a peninsula located in the southern portion of  East Thrace, east of the Aegean Sea and west of the Dardanelles.  Churchill’s plan intended to threaten Constantinople, protect the Suez Canal, and open up a warm-water supply route through the Black Sea.

All good plans fall apart sooner or later.  In this case, the First Sea Lord didn’t know much about military operations beyond the small unit level and virtually nothing about naval warfare.  Consequently, the intelligence used to formulate the Gallipoli campaign was flawed.  After eight months of fighting, each side lost a quarter of a million men.  It was a resounding defeat for the Entente Powers, Turkey gained international prestige, and Churchill nearly lost his political career.  However, the operation did help propel the Turks toward their war of independence eight years later and prompted Australia and New Zealand to reconsider their relationship with the British Empire.

Following the First World War, the Gallipoli campaign led many military theorists to conclude that amphibious warfare was folly.  These experts decided that given the weapons of modern warfare, there was no way that a seaborne organization could force its way ashore and defeat a well-entrenched enemy.  It was not a belief shared by intellectuals in the United States Navy and Marine Corps, who began a protracted study of amphibious warfare capability in the 1920s.  They became convinced that successful amphibious operations were possible and set about discovering how to do it.

Between 1921 and 1939, Navy-Marine Corps war planners created the capabilities necessary for success in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.  Through innovative thinking, trial, and error, the work accomplished by Navy and Marine Corps officers allowed the allied powers to project military power across vast oceans, wrest the continent of Europe away from the Axis powers, and seize Pacific bases on the long road to Japan.  Not only did the Navy-Marine Corps develop Amphibious Warfare Doctrine, but they also taught it to the armies of the United States and Great Britain for use in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the invasion of the Atlantic.

Since then, the Navy and Marine Corps have continually evaluated and improved US amphibious doctrine.  Today, naval operations include pre-positioned logistics ships, carrier-borne close air support of amphibious forces, and vertical lift assault capabilities.  These competencies are what makes the Navy-Marine Corps team relevant to America’s national defense — even despite the ridiculous assertion of General of the Army Omar Bradley, who while serving as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1949 said, “I predict that large scale amphibious operations will never occur again.”  He could not have been more wrong.  General Bradley was apparently unaware of the observation by Karl von Clausewitz in 1832: “A swift and vigorous transition to attack — the flashing sword of vengeance — is the most brilliant point of the defense.”  Modern naval warfare capability is America’s flashing sword.  The only question is whether political leaders have the will to employ it in the nation’s defense.

Organizational Overview

The Navy and Marine Corps meet the challenges of a wide range of contingencies through task force organization.  All naval task forces are mission-centered, which is to say that both the Navy and Marine Corps organize their combat units for one or more specific missions.  All Marine Corps combat units are capable of becoming part of an air-ground task force, referred to as MAGTF, which consists of a ground combat element (GCE), air combat element (ACE), and a combat logistics element (CLE).

MAGTFs are organized under a single commander and structured to accomplish one or more specific missions.  According to official Marine Corps doctrine, “A Marine air-ground task force with separate air-ground headquarters is normally formed for combat operations and training exercises in which substantial combat forces of both Marine aviation and Marine ground units are part of the task organization of participating Marine forces.”

The basic organization of a MAGTF is the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) — generally organized as follows:

  • The MEU command element (CE) includes a colonel (commanding officer) supported by a regular staff: S-1 (Manpower), S-2 (Intelligence), S-3 (Operations/Training), S-4 (Logistics), S-6 (Communications), naval gunfire liaison, and other special staff personnel.  The MEU CE includes about 200 Marines and sailors.
  • The GCE is a reinforced infantry battalion called a battalion landing team (BLT), commanded by a lieutenant colonel.  A BLT is a reinforced battalion consisting of three rifle companies, a weapons company, and a headquarters and service company.  Depending on the MEU’s mission, reinforcements may include an artillery battery, armored vehicle platoons, reconnaissance platoons, attached U. S. Navy field corpsmen, and a detachment of combat engineers.  All members of the BLT are trained to conduct seaborne operations in several landing craft variants and tiltrotor vertical assault operations.  A BLT will contain between 950-1,200 Marines.
  • The ACE is usually a composite air squadron (reinforced) commanded by a lieutenant colonel.  The ACE includes a medium tiltrotor squadron augmented by detachments of heavy, light, and attack helicopters, one detachment of amphibious flight deck capable jet aircraft, and a Marine air control group detachment with tactical air, traffic control, direct air support, and anti-aircraft defense assets.  The ACE also includes headquarters, communications, and logistical support personnel.  The number of personnel in a typical MEU ACE is around 600 troops.
  • The CLE is Combat Logistics Battalion.  A major or lieutenant colonel commands the CLB, responsible for providing service support, intermediate maintenance, intermediate supply, transportation, explosive ordnance technology, utilities, and bulk fuel.  The CLB consists of approximately 400-500 Marines.

The size of a MAGTF may expand if its mission increases in scope.  A more extensive operation may demand a larger MAGTF organization, such as a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB).  The MEB consists of a regimental combat team (RCT), a composite Marine Aircraft Group, and a Combat Logistics Regiment.  The officer commanding an MEB is usually a brigadier general.  The MEB can function as part of a joint task force, as the lead element of a Marine Expeditionary Force, or alone.

Any mission that exceeds the capability of a brigade will involve a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF).  A MEF commander is usually a lieutenant general who exercises operational authority over a reinforced Marine infantry division, reinforced Marine aircraft wing, and a Combat Logistics Group.

Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force

The Navy’s Amphibious Ready Group consists of an amphibious task force (ATF) and an amphibious landing force called Special Landing Force (SLF).  The ARG/SLF  was first established in 1960.  The SLF deployed to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) as part of the first deployment of American ground forces.  The 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (BLT 2/9) served as the SLF to support the Marine expeditionary landing at Da Nang in March 1965.  In mid-April, III MAF temporarily dissolved the SLF because its amphibious assets were required to support the 3rd Marine Amphibious Brigade (3rdMAB) landing at Chu Lai.

Subsequently, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) and the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (CG FMFPac) outlined the advantages of maintaining an amphibious capability in support of the Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) — a dedicated force for conducting amphibious raids, assaults, and floating reserve.

President Lyndon Johnson’s formal commitment of US military forces to RVN in March 1965 presented General William C. Westmoreland (COMUSMACV) with a dilemma.  As a military assistance/advisory commander, Westmoreland lacked sufficient ground combat forces to meet threats imposed by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces operating in the central highlands.  Without adequate ground troops, General Westmoreland had no way of defending US military installations, particularly those in the area of Qui Nhon, where the threat of VC hostilities was most imminent.  US Army units and allied forces from South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand would not arrive in RVN until June.  Westmoreland didn’t like it, but he had no choice but to turn to the Marines for security.  Accordingly, the National Military Command Center (NMCC) directed the Commanding General, Third Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), to provide air/ground security operations until the arrival of the Army’s ground combat forces.

III MEF[1] headquarters was located in Okinawa.  Its ground combat subordinate was the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), also located in Okinawa.  3rdMarDiv routinely provided two BLTs to the Commander, US Seventh Fleet (COMSEVENTHFLT), to satisfy the landing force requirement for two special landing forces (designated SLF(A) and SLF(B)).  Tasked to provide Marines to support COMUSMACV, III MAF requested the support of COMSEVENTHFLT), who promptly made the ARG/SLF available to Westmoreland.

Action in the Central Highlands

Qui Nhon was a densely populated agricultural region located along the coastal plain southwest of Da Nang.[2]  Population density and agricultural production were the magnets that attracted VC[3] and NVA forces in the area.  Within three days of the NMCC’s tasking, the Special Landing Force conducted combat operations in the central highlands.

Operations in and around Qui Nhơn could not have been better timed.  The Marine’s surprise assault threw the VC force structure into confusion and delayed their hostilities along the coastal plain, but the landing also helped facilitate the gathering of local intelligence and allowed the Marines to test hypotheses for the pacification of local civilians.  The actual operation was uneventful, but it did demonstrate the flexibility and responsiveness of the ARG and the SLF to achieve limited objectives within a more extensive operation. 

In mid-August 1965, Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) intelligence officers communicated their belief that the 1st VC Regiment was preparing to attack the Marines at Chu Lai in Quảng Tri Province.  The basis for this assessment was an early July VC assault that overran ARVN units stationed at Ba Gia.  Accordingly, III MAF developed a plan to launch a preemptive assault against the enemy regiment, then located on the Van Tuong Peninsula, ten miles south of Chu Lai.  Its precursor was Operation Thunderbolt, conducted adjacent to the Trà Bồng River, a two-day area security/information collection mission jointly assigned to the 4th Marines and 51st ARVN Regiment.

The Marine assault against the 1st VC Regiment, designated Operation Starlight, occurred between 18-24 August 1965.  It was the first major offensive campaign conducted by the US military in South Vietnam.  Colonel Oscar Peatross commanded the RLT.  His subordinate commanders and their battalions included Lieutenant Colonel Joseph R. Fisher, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines (2/4), Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Muir, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines (3/3), and Lieutenant Colonel Charles H. Bodley, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines (3/7), which operated as the SLF reserve force.

The combined arms assault of three battalions of Marines on the 1,500-man 1st VC Regiment, located in and around the village of Van Tuong, was overwhelmingly effective; the Marines reduced the communist regiment to half of its effective strength.

Meanwhile, in late July, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), approved Operations Dagger Thrust and Harvest Moon.  Dagger Thrust was a series of amphibious raids on suspected enemy concentrations along the coastal regions of South Vietnam.  Of the five raids, only two produced significant contact with communist forces, but three uncovered notable stores of arms and munitions.  The raids were so effective that the enemy never knew when the Marines would come — only that they eventually would come, and the result of their visitations would not be pleasant.  As a consequence, some VC soldiers began floating their resumes for a new line of work.

In December 1965, Operation Harvest Moon was a reaction to the 1st VC Regiment’s attack on the Regional Force garrison at Hiệp Đức near the entrance to the Quế Son Valley.  Initially serving as a reserve force, heavy fighting prompted the operational commander to commit the SLF, quickly turning the tide against the Viet Cong regiment.  The staggering losses imposed on VC forces by the Marines caused General Võ Nguyên Giáp to increase the NVA’s footprint in South Vietnam, and this redirection of the American’s attention would enable new VC cadres to infiltrate population centers.  Apparently, Giáp assumed that the U. S. Marine Corps was a one-trick pony.  He was wrong.

By 1969, the ARG/SLF had conducted sixty-two amphibious landings against VC/NVA elements operating inside the Republic of Vietnam.  The SLFs made significant contributions to MACV’s operational mobility and flexibility by offering a timely striking power.

Among the significant benefits of the two SLFs were their flexibility, the element of surprise from “over-the-horizon” assaults, and their on-shore maneuverability.  Once ashore, operational control of the SLF passed from the ARG Commander to the senior ground combat commander.  Another plus was the SLF’s self-sustaining character, which stood in contrast to regular force ground units that relied on static functional organizations for airlift, logistics/resupply, fire support, and medical triage capabilities.

In the early 1990s, the Navy-Marine Corps planners began a re-examination of the ARG/SLF concept and developed an innovation they termed Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG).[4]  Currently, there are nine ESGs, ten Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs), and several Surface Warfare Action Groups (SWAGs).  ESGs allow the Navy to provide highly mobile/self-sustaining naval forces for missions in all parts of the world.  The ESG incorporates the capabilities of CSGs, SWAGs, ARGs, and MEUs to enhance the capabilities of combat commanders within six geographical regions.

Currently, there are seven Marine Expeditionary Units — three under the I Marine Expeditionary Force (US West Coast), three operating under the II Marine Expeditionary Force (US East Coast), and one operating under the III Marine Expeditionary Unit (Japan).

No one in the Navy and Marine Corps wants to go to war, but they know how to go to war.  They are America’s flashing sword.  Quite frankly, only an idiot would like to see these forces come knocking on their door, but we will need the Navy-Marine Corps combat team until the world has finally rid itself of idiots.

Sources:

  1. Bean, C.  The Story of ANZAC from 4 May 1915 to the Evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula.  Canberra: Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, 1921 (11 editions).
  2. Broadbent, H.  Gallipoli: The Fatal Shore.  Camberwell: Viking Press, 2005.
  3. Cassar, G. H.  Kitchener’s War: British Strategy from 1914-1916.  Lincoln: Potomac Books, 2004.
  4. Halpern, P. G.  A Naval History of World War I.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
  5. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History (Fourth Edition).  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] Temporarily changed to III MAF because the government of RVN objected to the word “expeditionary.”

[2] My reference to places in Vietnam, used in past tense, speaks to events in locations that then existed.  Since the end of the Vietnam War, the government of Vietnam has renamed many of the hamlets, villages, and districts of the former South Vietnamese republic.  Qui Nhơn is now known as Quy Nhơn.

[3] Short name for the National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam, an armed communist revolutionary organization that operated in South Vietnam and Cambodia.  The VC organized both regular and guerrilla forces to combat the South Vietnamese and United States military forces.

[4] ESGs are part of the Navy’s Expeditionary Task Force concept.


Union II

There was a time when American liberalism was identified with anti-Communism.  That time ended with the Vietnam War, because in starting that war, the Democratic Party delivered American liberalism into the arms of global communism.

—Observation

Introduction

During the Vietnam War, the III Marine Amphibious Force[1] had overall tactical responsibility for the I Corps Tactical Zone (also, I Corps and I CTZ).  I Corps was one of four separate military operating zones and the northern-most in the region of the former Republic of Vietnam (also, South Vietnam and RVN).

In land area, the size of I Corps involved around 1,800 square miles.  Its vast size is further complicated by terrain dominated by hills and the Annamite Mountains, steep slopes, sharp crests, deep narrow valleys, and dense broadleaf forests.  Most o the peaks range from 4,000 to 8,000 feet high.  The narrow coastal plain is compartmented by rocky headlands and belts of large sand dunes.  Prior to 1975, I Corps was the official border with North Vietnam—the two warring nations separated by the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

The I CTZ encompassed five political regions or provinces: Quang Tri, Thira Thien-Hue, Quang Nam, Quang Tin, and Quang Ngai.  Major cities or population centers included Khe Sanh, Dong Ha, Quang Tri City, Da Nang, How An, Tam Ky, Chu Lai, and Quang Ngai City.

Tactical units subordinate to III MEF included the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Marine Division, the US Americal Division, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, US 35th Tactical Wing, and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 1st Division, 2nd Division, and 51st (Independent) Regiment.

Operation Union II was a search and destroy mission within the Que Son Valley between 26 May — 5 June 1967.  The operational commander for Union II was Colonel Kenneth J. Houghton[2].  Que Son was in the southern part of South Vietnam’s I Corps.  Populous and “rice rich,” the valley was one of the keys to controlling South Vietnam’s five northern provinces.  The densely vegetated area was occupied by two regiments of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 2nd Division.  Que Son was also strategically important to the theater commander, (then) General Westmoreland, Commander U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (also, COMUSMACV).

During Operation Union (21 April—16 May 1967) 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1) engaged the 21st NVA Regiment near the Marine outpost on Loc Son Mountain.  Operation Union II focused on the destruction of the 21st Regiment.  Colonel Houghton’s 5th Marines coordinated offensive operations with the ARVN 6th Regiment and 1st Ranger Group.

Operation Union II called for two rifle companies (A & D) of 1/5 and Company F 2/5 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hilgartner, to establish a blocking position in the western portion of the valley.  Lieutenant Colonel Esslinger’s 3/5 would make a helicopter (vertical) assault into the southern portion of the valley and sweep northeast.  2/5 would serve as Houghton’s reserve.  Meanwhile, three ARVN battalions would attack southwest from Thang Bing, and two additional ARVN battalions would attack northwest from Tam Ky.

Union II kicked off as planned on 26 May.  1/5 took up its position and 3/5 (three rifle companies, a weapons company, and the battalion headquarters element) flew in to Landing Zone (LZ) Eagle, 3 miles east of Loc Son.  The first two waves of helicopters received light enemy small arms fire.  By the time the rest of 3/5 arrived, however, the battalion was under heavy weapons and mortar fire.  Lima and Mike companies launched an attack to relieve the pressure on the LZ and discovered a well-entrenched NVA force, which turned out to be elements of the 3rd NVA Regiment.  India Company, supported by Marine artillery, enveloped the enemy’s flank.  The assault was expensive for both sides, with 118 NVA dead and 38 Marine KIA/82 WIA.  Marine and ARVN forces swept the area for the next three days, but the NVA force had withdrawn.  ARVN commanders withdrew having concluded that their enemy had been routed.

Colonel Houghton, on the other hand, was not convinced that the NVA had been routed.  Relying on numerous intelligence reports, Houghton directed the regiment continue with the plan for Union II (less ARVN forces).  On the morning of 2 June, 3/5 swept toward the village of Vinh Huy.  Operating adjacent to 3/5, the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1)  encountered an estimated 200 NVA troops about one mile east of the engagement site on 26 May.  3/1 engaged and overran the defending NVA.  Meanwhile, while pushing forward to relieve the pressure on 3/5,  1/5[3] ran into a NVA ambush while crossing a 3,000 yard-wide rice paddy.  On battalion point, the well-concealed NVA caught Fox Company in a murderous crossfire with mounting casualties due to enemy mortar fires.  1/5 established a hasty defense posture.

Captain James A. Graham, commanding Fox Company, immediately set about consolidating his Marines, and calling for artillery and air support.  Hardest hit in the enemy assault was 2nd Platoon, which was pinned down by two enemy machine gun positions.  Forming his headquarters unit into an assault force, Captain Graham boldly led an attack against NVA positions.  The effect of Graham’s attack was that it diverted the enemy’s attention away from 2nd Platoon.

While Graham attacked the NVA, platoon NCOs began evacuating wounded Marines back toward positions of relative safety.  Determined to silence the NVA’s second machine gun, Graham’s small assault force withstood concentrated enemy fire and accounted for fifteen enemy dead, but Captain Graham suffered two bullet wounds and the assault force was inadequate to dislodging the enemy.

Running low on ammunition, and with one man critically wounded, Captain Graham ordered his men to withdraw back to the company perimeter.  Realizing that he could not survive in the forward position, Graham nevertheless elected to remain in place with his one critically wounded Marine, who could not be moved.  Shortly after his men withdrew, an NVA force of twenty-five men attacked Graham who resisted for as long as he had ammunition and gave up his life for the wounded Marine, whom he would not abandon.  In recognition of his exceptional courage while under fire, his indomitable fighting spirit, and his intrepidity while relieving his second platoon from danger, Captain Graham received a posthumous award of the nation’s highest recognition for gallantry in combat, the Medal of Honor.

At around 14:00, Colonel Houghton called for reinforcement from the Division’s rapid-reaction force[4].  Jackson’s force arrived by helicopter at 19:00 in total darkness.  Delta and Echo Companies (1/7) were inserted northeast of the fortified enemy position and quickly moved south to engage the NVA’s left flank.  Both companies encountered stiff enemy resistance; Delta Company suffered many casualties.  Owing to the darkness, Division operations denied Delta Company’s request for Medevac helicopters.  At that moment, a Marine CH-53 helicopter that had just inserted Echo 2/5 heard the call for assistance and  responded to the call for help[5].

With the arrival of E 2/5, NVA forces began to disengage and withdraw southwest; it was a costly decision because they ran right into elements of 3/5 and Marine artillery.  Despite being wounded himself, Houghton remained in the field to supervise re-consolidation of his regiment.  The next morning, Houghton directed another sweep of the area, during which the Marines uncovered the remains of 701 dead NVA soldiers and 23 injured NVA who were medically treated and taken as prisoners of war.  Operation Union II Marine casualties included 71 killed in action with 139 wounded.  This action rendered the 2nd NVA Division combat-ineffective for several months.

Operation Union II was significant for another, albeit unrelated reason.  It was during this operation that Marines began communicating with their parents and  loved-ones back home that their M-16 rifles were malfunctioning with such regularity that Marines were being killed because of jammed weapons at critical moments during battle.  In a random inspection of rifles by the III MAF staff, weapons experts and armors reported that a large number of rifles had pitted and eroded chambers.  Marine headquarters then suspended issuance of the M-16s in December 1967 because of the 9,844 rifles inspected, experts found 67% of the rifles required immediate replacement.

Sources:

  1.  Telfer, G. L. And Lane Rogers (et.al.).  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese.  Washington: Headquarters U. S. Marine Corps, 1984.
  2. Carland, J. M.  Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide, May 1965-Oct 1966.  Washington: Center of Military History, 2000.

Endnotes:

[1] The Marine Corps has since renamed its largest task force organizations “Expeditionary Forces.”  Today, III MAF is known as III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF).

[2] Colonel (later, Major General) Houghton (1920-2006) was commissioned in September 1942 and  served during World War II and participated in the Battles of Tarawa and Saipan.  During the Korean War, he participated with the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade at Pusan and the 1st Marine Division at the landing at Inchon.  He served in I Corps RVN during the Vietnam War commanding the 5th Marine Regiment.  He was awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, three Legion of Merits, two Bronze Star medals, and three Purple Heart medals.

[3] Fox Company 2/5 reinforced the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.

[4] Known as the Bald Eagle Reaction Force, a battalion-sized reserve then composed of Echo Company, 2/5, Delta Company, 1/7, and Echo Company, 2/7 (under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Mallett C. Jackson, Jr., whose primary assignment was Commanding Officer, 2/5).

[5] When the CH-53 returned to Da Nang, it had received 57 hits from small arms fire and mortar fragments.


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.

Fidelity, Honor, Valor

Captain George W. Sachtleben, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines

Introduction

In January 1969, responsibility for combat operations in the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ) (Also, I Corps), which included the five northern-most provinces of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) rested with the Commanding General, III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), who was then Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman, Jr.   Cushman commanded 81,000 Marine and Army combat troops situated throughout the Quang Tri, Thua Thien, Quang Nam, Quang Tin, and Quang Ngai.

(a) Major General Charles J. Quilter commanded 15,500 Marines of the First Marine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), which included 500 fixed and rotary wing aircraft at Chu Lai, Da Nang, Phu Bai, and Quang Tri.

(b) Major General Ormond R. Simpson commanded the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv) just outside Da Nang, a force of 24,000 ground-combat Marines primarily assigned to Quang Nam Province.

(c) Major General Raymond G. Davis commanded the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), 21,000 ground-combat Marines from Dong Ha, whose primary responsibility was Quang Tri Province.

(d) An additional 10,000 Marines provided combat logistics support to the MAW and two infantry divisions under Brigadier General James A. Feely, Jr., at Da Nang.

(e) An additional 1,900 Marines served in the Combined Action Program under Colonel Edward F. Danowitz — tasked with providing local area security to local villages and hamlets.

(f) In addition to these Marines, III MAF controlled combat operations involving a force of 50,000 U. S. Army troops involving elements of the 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized), Colonel James M. Gibson, Commanding, the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) under Major General Melvin Zais, both Army units serving under the US XXIV Corps, Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell, U. S. Army, based at Phu Bai.  

(g) An additional 23,800 soldiers of Major General Charles M. Getty’s 23rd Infantry (Americal) Division operated in Quang Tin and Quang Ngai Provinces.

(h) General Cushman also exercised operational control over the United States Army Advisory Group (USAAG), who advised and assisted RVN military units operating in the I CTZ.

Enemy forces operating in RVN’s I CTZ included 123 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalions and 18 Viet Cong (irregular) (VC) battalions involving 90,000 troops.  There were additionally around 23,500 guerrillas and 16,000 political and quasi-military cadres and another 30,000 North Vietnamese regulars operating in Laos but within striking distance of the I CTZ.  These forces were controlled by five separate headquarters elements.

In January 1969, the communist forces were still reeling from their massive defeat during the Tet 68 campaign [Note 1]; it forced NVA and VC commands to reconsider their strategy for I CTZ.  Rather than attempting to defeat the American and RVN forces through massive assault, they adopted the policy of prolonging the conflict through small unit hit and run tactics, sapper attacks, harassment, terrorism, and sabotage.  Their focus became severing lines of communications, attacking rear area support bases, storage facilities, and defeating RVN’s pacification efforts.  Driving these strategies and tactics was the differences in terrain from II CTZ to the northwestern areas of I CTZ.  NVA regular units concentrated their forces in the uninhabited jungle-covered mountainous areas, close to border sanctuaries.

The Fight

In the Marine Corps mindset, defense is a temporary tactic used to dig in for the night, or rest, regroup, and resupply their combat forces before continuing the attack.  Locating the enemy, viciously attacking him, and destroying him is how wars are won.  But this wasn’t the national policy of the United States.  The mission in Vietnam was to defend South Vietnam — which gave up initiative to the enemy.  Marine and Army commanders hated this with a passion, but those were their orders.  But Major General Raymond G. Davis, commanding the 3rdMarDiv wasn’t about to sit around waiting for the enemy to attack him.  Soon after assuming command of his division, he ordered his regimental commanders to go find the enemy, and kill him.  General Cushman completely agreed with Davis’ thinking — as did Lieutenant General Herman Nickerson, Jr., when he replaced Cushman as CG III MAF on 26 March 1969.

General Davis’ idea of mobile operations depended on the helicopter, of course, but Ray Davis was no one trick pony.  He also sought to exploit intelligence gathered by small sized reconnaissance patrols, which were continuously employed throughout the 3rdMarDiv TAOR, which supplemented electronic and other human intelligence sources.  The recon patrols were called StingRay operations, who mission was to find, fix, and destroy the enemy with all available supporting arms.  StingRay operations were augmented by even smaller “snoop and poop” patrols, known as Key Hole forays.  Their mission was to “observe,” not engage.

On 9 April, Colonel Edward F. Danowitz [Note 2] relieved Colonel Robert H. Barrow as Commanding Officer, 9th Marines.  Danowitz was determined to continue the aggressive operations planned and executed by Colonel Barrow under General Davis’ policy of finding the enemy and killing him.

Despite the success of the 9th  Marines in Operation Dewey Canyon and the 3rd Marines in the Vietnam Salient, intelligence reports indicated that several regimental size enemy units were again infiltrating into the northern area of their Base Area 611, south of the salient, specifically elements of the 6th and 9th NVA regiments, the 675th Artillery Regiment, and various support elements.  Air reconnaissance indicated as well that the NVA were repairing Route 922 and that significant numbers of enemy were returning to the A Shau Valley and eastward into Base Area 101, which was located astride the Quang Tri/Thua Thien political boundary.

To counter these enemy infiltrations, elements of the 3rdMarDiv and 101st Airborne were ordered to execute Operation Apache Snow in the northern A Shau Valley and southern Da Krong River Valley, cut the enemy supply and infiltration routes at the Laotian border, locate and destroy enemy forces, base camps, and supply caches.  Operating under Lieutenant General Stilwell, XXIV commander, 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9 and 2/9) were assigned the task of occupying the southern Da Krong and blocking enemy escape routes into Laos along Route 922.

Movement to Contact

The 2/9 Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel George C. Fox.  Apache Snow began on 10 May when Lieutenant Colonel Thomas J. Culkin’s 1/9 leap-frogged over 2/9 and assaulted Fire Support Base Erskine, which overlooked the upper Da Krong and Route 922.  For the Marines, the timing was perfect because the enemy units had yet to reconstitute infantry regiments following their defeat in Dewey Canyon.  Culkin’s aggressive patrolling resulted in several skirmishes with enemy forces in transit, but each time the enemy refused the Marine’s invitation to dance. Fox’s 2/9, located 5 miles north, patrolled FSB Razor and LZ Dallas in an area north-northeast of Erskine.  They too encountered numerous small sized enemy units, who were also quick to fade into the jungle.

While the Da Krong remained relatively quiet, the same could not be said for the A Shau Valley, where four US Army battalions and an ARVN battalion encountered a well-defended hut and bunker complex on Hill 937 and commenced operations to clear it of elements of the 9th and 29th NVA regiments.  The battle lasted a week, concluding on 20 May 1969 with 500 enemy dead on the; Army casualties were 44 killed, 297 wounded.  Soldiers from the 187th renamed this hill complex “Hamburger Hill.”  Subsequently, surviving elements of the NVA regiments withdrew into Laos and avoided further contact with US and ARVN forces operating in the A Shau Valley.

The 3rdMarDiv continued to maneuver its battalions in western Quang Tri, which reduced the enemy’s threat.  During June, the 9th Marines initiated two simultaneous operations, named Cameron Falls and Utah Mesa, which targeted the 304th NVA Division attempting to establish a presence south of Route 9.  Evidence from reconnaissance missions indicated that elements of the NVA division had infiltrated into the lower Da Krong Valley, and were moving east and north  along Route 616 and the river.  A series of rocket attacks on combat base Vandegrift signaled the start of planned NVA pressure on allied positions by the 57th NVA Regiment.  Colonel Danowitz’s Marines were assigned the mission of searching for and destroying enemy forces within an area bordered in the North by Song Quang Tri, in the South by the Da Krong River, on the East by FSB Shepherd, and on the West by FSB Henderson.  This area was considered critical to the security of Vandegrift and the Ba Long Valley, which led to the population centers of Quang Tri and Dong Ha.

Cameron Falls began on 29 May.  2/9 moved unopposed toward FSB Whisman, which the battalion occupied; 3/9 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Oral R. Swigart, Jr., occupied FSB Shepherd.  At Whisman, 2/9 Marines began to shore up their defensives with obstacles, fighting holes, claymore mines, and trip flares.  At 0215 on 1 June, a small enemy force began probing 2/9’s defenses and ran up against a listening post manned by Golf Company.  Two Marines were killed, but he FSB was alerted.  Aggressive reaction by Golf 2/9 resulted in 19 enemy killed with two taken prisoner.

From information provided by the prisoners, Colonel Fox learned that the 57th NVA Regiment’s command post (CP) was located to the southwest of Whisman.  The 2/9 commander issued a warning order to Fox and Golf companies to prepare for a sweep of the suspected location of the enemy CP; additional intelligence indicated that a large enemy force was moving northeast toward Hill 824.  Danowitz redirected the attack toward Hill 824 with two companies from 2/9 in a sweep northeast along the Da Krong River, and two companies of 3/9 advancing east from FSB Shepherd.  Swigart reported the terrain and vegetation exceedingly difficult — the twelve foot high elephant grass restricted air movement, making the advance exceedingly hot.  As elements of 2/9 and 3/9 converged on Hill 824, both battalion commanders reported that the enemy force was deployed around the hill in considerable strength.

Contact

On 5 June, Hotel Company 2/9 encountered a well-fortified NVA battalion on the southern bank of the Da Krong.  The initial engagement was a fight that lasted 12 hours.  The best description of this fight comes from the Silver Star award citation issued to Captain George W. Sachtleben, of Chicago, Illinois:

The President of the United States takes pleasure in awarding the Silver Star to Captain George W. Sachtleben, United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action  while serving as Commanding Officer, Company H, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam.

On the afternoon of 5 June 1969, during operation Cameron Falls, two platoons of Company H advanced on a trail along the Da Krong River eight miles southwest of the Vandegrift Combat Base when they initiated contact with a company-sized North Vietnamese Army force occupying well camouflaged positions on a cliff overlooking the trail.  Due to their location, the Marines were extremely vulnerable to the heavy volume of enemy rocket-propelled grenade, small arms, and automatic weapons fire, but continued to fight from a narrow ledge with their backs against the river.

Despite suffering serious wounds sustained during the initial moments of the fire-fight, Captain Sachtleben skillfully deployed his forces to counter the hostile attacks, directed the accurate delivery of supporting arms fire, and organized the movement of casualties to a relatively safe area.

Throughout the fight, he completely disregarded his own safety as he boldly moved about the hazardous area shouting instructions and encouragement to his men.  After establishing an initial perimeter, he directed a limited assault which secured a toe-hold on a portion of one cliff looming over his position.

Throughout the night and the following morning, he directed both offensive and defensive actions which thwarted or repulsed repeated North Vietnamese Army attacks.  Although aware that the enemy was reinforcing and faced by the fact that his company was running dangerously low on ammunition, that his key officers and noncommissioned officers were wounded, and that his men were nearing exhaustion, Captain Sachtleben fearlessly deployed his men, directed their fire, and fought with such tenacity that the North Vietnamese force broke contact late in the afternoon of the second day and retreated away from the Marines.

Captain Sachtleben’s’ dynamic leadership and valiant actions inspired all who observed him and were instrumental in his company accounting for 54 enemy killed as his company decisively defeated the North Vietnamese Army force.  By his courage, bold initiative, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of great personal danger, Captain Sachtleben upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service. 

A subsequent sweep of the area revealed a dozen more enemy remains, enemy bunkers, caves, and senior officer’s living quarters.

Final Tribute

The United States Marine Corps paid tribute to Captain Sachtleben at Arlington National Cemetery, shown below:

Sources:

  1. Sergeant Stanley R. Richard, United States Marine Corps.
  2. Smith, C. R.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: High Mobility and Standdown, 1969.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1988.

Endnotes:

[1] The number of enemy battalions went from around 94 in mid-1968 to around 23 in early 1969.

[2] Born in Chicago and raised in New Jersey, Edward Danowitz entered the Marine Corps in 1942 and served in World War II, Korea, the Dominican Republic, and in Vietnam.  He retired in 1972.  After his military service, he joined the faculty at Rollins College where he taught the Russian and Spanish languages.  He passed away in 2013 at the age of 92 years.

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.  

Soldiers of Fortune

Soldiers of Fortune are men who have no political interest in the outcome of armed conflict but participate in it as hired infantry in exchange for lucrative payments.  Most of these men received training while serving in European and American military forces. The reasons men fight as mercenaries are probably as varied as those for joining a regular military organization. Still, no matter their circumstances, they’ve probably concluded that the pay is worth the risks. One risk, but not the only one, is that mercenaries have no legal protection. If their operations fail, hired soldiers are subject to arrest, trial, and capital punishment —which is one motivation for winning their battles.

Major “Mad Mike” Hoare

One such man was Thomas Michael Hoare (1919-2020), a British mercenary leader and adventurer in Africa and Seychelles, who passed away in February. Hoare’s parents were Irish expatriates working in Calcutta when “Mike” was born. His father sent him to Margate College[1] in England for his education when he was 8-years old.  Believing that his son was best suited for training in accountancy, Mike’s father did not allow him to attend Sandhurst; Mike instead joined the British territorial guard, an integrated reserve organization.

At the commencement of hostilities in World War II, military authorities assigned Mike to London’s Irish Rifles. He later joined the 2nd Reconnaissance Regiment of the Royal Armored Corps, received a commission to Second Lieutenant, and served in Burma and India.  By 1945, Hoare was serving as a Major. After the war, he married Elizabeth Stott, with whom he had three children. Short in stature, most people regarded Hoare as a “charming fellow,” whose dress and appearance was always “dapper.”

After the war, Mike re-enrolled in an accountancy program to complete his training, and he was qualified and certified in 1948. When Hoare realized how bored he was with his sedate lifestyle in London, he relocated his family to Natal Province, South Africa.  There, while working in accountancy, he organized safari operations as a part-time interest.  It was then that he began to quietly advertise his availability to work as a soldier for hire.  Always athletically active, Hoare kept in shape by marathon walking and long-range motorcycle races (Cairo to Cape Town).

By the early 1960s, Hoare realized that he wanted to return to a soldier’s life.  Between 1961-65, Major Mike Hoare led two mercenary expeditions into the Congo.  His first mercenary action occurred in 1961 in Katanga, a province attempting to break away from the newly created Republic of the Congo.  His mercenary unit called itself “Four Commando.” By this time, Elizabeth had had her fill with her husband’s adventurous life, and they divorced.  Hoare later married Phyllis Sims, an airline stewardess, with whom he had two additional children.

The Congo

In 1964, Congolese Prime Minister Moise Tshombe (his employer in Katanga) re-hired Major Hoare to lead a unit called Five Commando, Armée Nationale Congolaise (also, 5 Commando ANC), comprised of around 300 men of mixed nationality, to help put down a revolt known in history as the Simba Rebellion[2].  A former British officer named Alistair Wicks[3] served as Hoare’s second-in-command. Tshombe brought in mercenaries because he distrusted his military commander, General Joseph-Désiré Motobu, who had already led two coup d’états against Tshombe and refused to commit the Congolese Army against the Simba.

Once hired, Hoare recruited his commando force by running ads in South African newspapers, asking for physically fit white men experienced in the combat arms.  While in control of 5 Commando, the press began referring to Hoare as “Mad Mike,” painting him as a wild man. “Wild” was not an accurate description of Mike Hoare.  He was competent, resourceful, and thorough in planning mercenary operations.  Hoare was also a strict disciplinarian who demanded that his men shave, wear close-cropped hair, dress smartly, and attend church services weekly.  5 Commando was an all-white combat unit, its men representing South Africa, Rhodesia, Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom —all of whom previously served during the Second World War.

Mad Mike repudiated claims that 5 Commando was a mercenary unit.  He instead argued that his men were volunteers who resisted a communist takeover in the Congo.  In 1963 dollars, Hoare’s men earned $1,100/monthly.  Mike fought the sobriquet Soldier of Fortune; he claimed the money was never an issue with either himself or his men.  It may have been true for Mike Hoare, but such a claim did not describe his men, who frequently looted and misappropriated United Nations property in the Congo.

Reflecting pride in his Irish heritage, Hoare adopted a flying goose as his unit’s symbol.  He called his men Wild Geese, after the Irishmen who fought for the Stuarts in exile during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Mike Hoare had an excellent reputation as a combat commander.  He was calm and courageous under fire, always leading his men from the front to inspire them.  As a disciplinarian, Hoare once pistol-whipped one of his men who attempted to organize a mutiny.

Initially, the officers of the Simba force included tribal leaders who were, in turn, guided by military advisors from Eastern Bloc nations seeking to establish a communist regime in the Congo.  Ultimately, the Simba’s leadership devolved to the military advisors because tribal leadership was inept.  At first, Simba rebels successfully captured much of eastern Congo and, in doing so, quickly proclaimed the People’s Republic of Stanleyville —perhaps thinking the war was almost over.  However, poor Simba organization, lack of cohesion, and competing tribal interests defeated these initial successes.

Hoare capitalized on these failings.  His use of available air support, his application of diversionary tactics, and his innovative use of reverse marches enabled him to deceive and confuse Simba rebel commanders; he was never where they thought he might be. Hoare was also known to hijack boats on the Congo River and use them for making lightning-fast water-borne raids to rescue hostages.  Hoare was also ruthless in combat.  Having no time for prisoners, he never took any.

Later in the rebellion, Hoare worked in concert with Belgian paratroopers, Cuban exile pilots, and CIA-hired paramilitary forces who attempted to save 1,600 European civilians and missionaries in Stanleyville. Of the Simba treatment of their captives, Hoare reported, “The mayor of Stanleyville, Sylvere Bonekwe, was a great and respected man, whom the Simba forced to stand naked in front of a frenzied crowd while one of them cut out his liver.”

In another Congolese operation, labeled Dragon Rouge, Hoare saved another 2,000 European lives when he rescued them from Simba savages.  Before the rescue, the Simba tormented their captives to the point where these wretched people no longer resembled human beings.  Hoare remarked, “Taking Stanleyville was the greatest achievement of the Wild Geese.  There is only so much 300 men can do, but there we were, part of a very big push, and clearing the rebels out was a major victory.  As a result of this one incident, Hoare became a hero in the western press.  Hoare didn’t see himself as a hero, however —but he was thoroughly disgusted by the savagery of the Simba rebels and gave them no quarter in combat.

In 1964, Tshombe promoted Hoare to Lieutenant Colonel and added another battalion to Hoare’s force.  Hoare commanded 5 Commando through November 1965.  Reflecting his anti-Communist attitude, Hoare said, “I had wanted nothing so much as to have 5 Commando known as an integral part of the ANC, a 5 Commando destined to strike a blow to rid the Congo of the greatest cancer the world has ever known —the creeping, insidious disease of communism.”

After returning to South Africa, Hoare told the press that “killing communists is like killing vermin, killing African nationalists is as if one is killing an animal.  My men and I have killed between 5,000-10,000 Congo rebels in the 20 months that I have spent in the Congo. But that’s not enough. There are 20 million Congolese, you know, and I assume that about half of them at one time or another were rebels whilst I was down here.” One of the Simba advisors was an Argentine-Cuban officer named Che Guevara, a murdering swine of such low character and regard for human life that he wantonly murdered hundreds if not thousands of people.  Hoare was proud of the fact that he was the first man to have defeated Guevara.

The exploits of Hoare and 5 Commando in the Congo have been much celebrated and have contributed to veneration of the mercenary lifestyle.  Many of Hoare’s exploits appeared in Soldier of Fortune Magazine and pulp novels. Fictional writers and filmmakers modeled their heroes after Colonel Hoare.  One fictional film account of the Wild Geese in 1978 starred Richard Burton, Roger Moore, and Richard Harris, with Burton playing the Mike Hoare character’s role.

Seychelles

The Republic of Seychelles is an archipelagic island country in the Indian Ocean that consists of 115 islands.  In 1978, Seychellois exiles living in South Africa approached South African officials to discuss the prospect of launching a coup d’état against usurper-President France-Albert René.  René promoted himself to president from prime minister while the duly elected President James Mancham was out of the country.  The United States viewed a coup d’état favorably because of the distrust certain Washington officials had of René and the proximity of Seychelles to the American base at Diego Garcia.

With a clear signal of U.S. backing, friends of Mancham contacted Colonel Hoare to see if he would be willing to lead an operation to Seychelles to reclaim Mancham’s presidency. Of course, Hoare was willing, so he raised a force of around 55 men from former South African special forces, former Rhodesian troopers, and ex-Congo mercenaries.  For Hoare’s plan to work, he disguised his men as rugby players and named them Ye Ancient Order of Froth Blowers.  He hid automatic weapons at the bottom of their luggage, which was then possible because South African rugby players often acquired toys and returned them to South Africa to distribute among several orphanages.

However, while going through the customs line at the Seychelles airport, one of Hoare’s men erroneously entered the “Something to Declare” line.  Once in that line, customs officials insisted on searching his bag, discovered concealed weapons, and sounded an alarm.

Another of Hoare’s men then pulled out a rifle, quickly assembled it, and shot the customs office before he could escape. Despite this setback and no other option available to him, Hoare continued the operation, and fighting broke out inside the airport.  In the middle of this melee, an Indian jetliner was slightly damaged upon landing when it collided with trucks on the runway.  Realizing that the Indian flight passengers were in danger of finding themselves in a crossfire, whether they remained aboard the aircraft or not, Hoare quickly negotiated a ceasefire with Seychellois officials.  Once these passengers safely deplaned, Hoare and his men boarded the Indian plane, hijacked it, and flew back to South Africa.

Upon returning to South Africa, the South African government charged Hoare and his men with kidnapping (the aircrew). Since kidnapping carries no minimum sentence in South Africa —and because it appeared as if Hoare and his men might “walk,” international powers pressured South Africa to recharge Hoar with aircraft hijacking, a more severe offense.  A South African court convicted Hoare and 42 of his 43 men. The one-man found not guilty was an American ex-soldier, a former Vietnam War veteran wounded at the airport and placed on the aircraft while in a sedated condition.

Colonel Hoare received a sentence of ten years imprisonment for his part in the Seychelles Affair.  The South African government quietly released Hoare’s mercenaries after serving only three months in jail.  Hoare, on the other hand, remained in confinement.  After serving 33 months in prison, South Africa’s president granted Hoare a Christmas Day pardon.

In total, Mike Hoare authored eight books about his life as a mercenary. He passed away from natural causes on 2 February 2020.

About Modern Mercenaries

Mercenaries continue their work in the world’s cesspools, but no longer as “Soldiers of Fortune.” Today they’re called Corporate Warriors.  These modern men are no longer the hard-drinking quick-fisted dogs of war of years past.  They wear designer clothes, use the finest after-shave, and rather than operating from their home offices, they rent spacious glass and chrome-plated offices.  Corporate executives are well-read and experienced former combat officers, astute businessmen, and politically connected players in the field of regional conflict.  They maintain good relations with the political movers-and-shakers of their own and other countries.  They refer to combat units as “security groups.” They also no longer confine themselves to coup d’états; today, they focus their attention on mining security, engineering, transportation, finance, and of course, area and personal security for highly placed politicians.  These well-connected modern corporations no longer need to smuggle arms and munitions —FedEx delivers them to corporate warehouses.

Who hires these kinds of firms?  The much-celebrated Kofi Anan discussed hiring corporate warriors while serving as UN Under-Secretary for peacekeeping operations.  For one thing, hiring a private security group is more cost-effective than maintaining a regular military defense force.  There is even talk of replacing traditional police departments with corporate law enforcers.

A Personal note

I have known one mercenary. While serving as Adjutant, Marine Aircraft Group 46 (1979-81), one reservist served as an airfield operations officer in one of the group’s subordinate drill units.  I will refer to him as Major Charles Claire (not his real name).

Claire had an average build, lean, but had a pallid face with no evidence of over-exposure to the sun.  His deep blue eyes complimented his dark blond hair.  A somewhat melancholy man, Claire spoke effectively but always in a quiet tone.  He had immense pride in his military accomplishments and his uniformed appearance.  Whether authorized by Marine Corps uniform regulations, he always displayed his French parachute wings. Occasionally he would join me for lunch at a local restaurant during scheduled training weekends, and, knowing that I found his adventure interesting, recounted several of his more exciting tales.  He often spoke of operational planning (mostly how combat operations never seemed to go as planned), logistical challenges (resupply, caring for the wounded), and glitches involving rapid extraction at the operation’s conclusion.

When Claire left active duty following a Vietnam combat tour in 1967, he knew that he enjoyed the risks associated with combat service but found Marine Corps culture too restrictive.  While maintaining his reserve commission, he went to France, where he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion for five years. It was after this when Charles began hiring himself out at a mercenary.  Whether he ever served with Hoare, I cannot say; it never came up in our conversations.  When he wasn’t fighting, he worked as a freelance writer.

“You can’t argue with the pay,” he told me, “but now I question whether the pay was worth it.”  Claire’s problem was that he was dying —something he kept concealed from the Marine Corps hierarchy.  In Angola, he said, he contracted intestinal parasites.  Returning to the United States, he consulted with medical specialists who told him that he had a significant infestation.  It was so profound, the doctors told him that an operation would probably kill him. Claire’s only recourse was to deal with it until the parasites killed him.  His announcement seemed consistent with his lunch fare, which always consisted of mashed potatoes and a glass of water: no meat, no salad, no dessert.

Claire’s stories were enough to convince me that a mercenary life is not something a normally-wired person would pursue—but then, I never considered Claire normal.  He had a heck of a life, just not a very long one.  It might have been better were he shot to death than to die slowly.  I last saw him in 1981.

Sources:

  1. Burke, K.  Revolutionaries for the Right: Anticommunist Internationalism and Paramilitary Warfare in the Cold War.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
  2. Dadrian, E.  Mercenaries in Africa: From Soldiers of Fortune to Corporate Warriors.org online, 2004.
  3. Hoare, C.  Mad Mike Hoare: The Legend. Partners in Publishing, 2018.
  4. Mockler, A.  The New Mercenaries.New York, Bantam Books, 1985.
  5. Venter, A. J.  War Dog: Fighting Other People’s Wars: The Modern Mercenary in Combat. New Delhi: Lance Publications, 2006.

Endnotes:

[1] William Leach-Lewis established Margate College in 1873 as a secondary institution and preparatory school for boys. Lewis gave his life while in service as Mayor of Margate in 1906. Margate College High School advertised that “Boys are prepared for Oxford and Cambridge local examinations, for the College of Preceptors, also for the Army and their universities.  Today, a shopping center stands at the site of the original campus.

[2] The Simba Rebellion (1963-65) (also, Orientale Revolt) took place within the larger context of the Congo Crisis (several simultaneous rebellions) and the Cold War. The rebellion leaders were the followers of the deceased Patrice Lumumba, ousted and killed in 1960.

[3] Alistair Wicks served in the RAF during World War II.  After the war, while studying law at Oxford, Wicks migrated to Rhodesia.  Hoare recruited Wicks to serve as his second-in-command of 4 Commando.  When Wicks wasn’t engaged in mercenary work, he was employed by Rhodesian Air Services.  He resigned from mercenary in 1967 following four-months imprisonment in Biafra.