Gurkha

Introduction

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

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

Some Background

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

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

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

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

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

The Gurkha War

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

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

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

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

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

Incorporating the Gurkhas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferocity in Combat

The Indian Rebellion of 1857

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Malayan Emergency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The First to Die

Is it appropriate to argue and jockey for position in announcing the name of the first serviceman to die in Vietnam?  This controversy has been going on now for far too long, but families continue to rush forward to have their relative named as the first to die in America’s most unpopular war.  The problem is some confusion about what it is we’re talking about.  Do we mean to recognize the first serviceman killed in the Vietnam War?  Or do we mean the first serviceman killed in Vietnam?  Or do we mean the name of the first serviceman killed while engaged in combat?

Does it even matter?

Lieutenant Colonel Albert P. Dewey, U.S. Army, was killed by Viet Minh insurgents on 26 September 1945. 

Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbons, Jr., was killed in Saigon, South Vietnam on 8 June 1956 — shot and killed by a fellow airman during off-duty hours.

Captain Harry Griffith, U.S. Army (Special Forces) was killed at Nha Trang, South Vietnam on 21 October 1957, the result of a training accident.

Major Dale R. Buis and Master Sergeant Chester C. Ovnand of the U.S. Army, were both killed at Bien Hoa Air Base when the officer’s mess was attacked by Viet Cong sappers on 8 July 1959.

Specialist Fourth Class James T. Davis, U.S. Army was killed in a Viet Cong ambush on 22 December 1961.

Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., was born in Stoneham, Massachusetts on 21 June 1920.  During World War II, Fitzgibbon served with the U.S. Navy, but after his discharge, he opted to join the newly created U.S. Air Force.  In the Air Force, Fitzgibbon was promoted to Technical Sergeant (E-6).  At the time of his demise, he was assigned to duty with the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) while attached to Detachment One, 1173rd Foreign Mission Squadron.  Fitzgibbon was involved in the training of Vietnamese Air Force Personnel.

The official date for the beginning of the Vietnam War, 1 January 1961, was officially announced by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson who, at the same time identified Specialist Davis as the first American serviceman killed in that war.

Believing that she had discovered a grievous error, the sister of Fitzgibbons, Ms. Alice Fitzgibbon Rose Del Rossi promptly notified the Department of Defense of its error, bringing to their attention her brother’s death in 1956.  Ah, but the Vice President had already spoken and Johnson was not a man who liked anyone to correct him about anything.  Ms. Del Rossi then petitioned her congressman who asked the DoD to reconsider the beginning of the Vietnam War.  Until then, hardly anyone even knew about Technical Sergeant Fitzgibbons.

After a high-level review by the Defense Department, the start date of the Vietnam War was changed to 1 November 1955, which was the creation date of the U.S. Military Advisory Assistance Group, Vietnam (MAAGV).  This date change resulted in the proposition that (at least chronologically), Sergeant Fitzgibbons was the first American serviceman to die in the Vietnam War — and his name was added to the Vietnam Wall. Fitzgibbons, however, was not the first combat death in Vietnam, nor even the first to die in wartime Vietnam.  Colonel Dewey owns that plank.

The story of the Fitzgibbon family in Vietnam isn’t over.  Lance Corporal Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, U.S. Marine Corps (1944 – 1965) was killed while serving in Vietnam on 7 September.  Father and son are interred next to each other at the Blue Hill Cemetery in Braintree, Massachusetts.

And The Last …

Corporal Charles McMahon from Woburn, Massachusetts, and Lance Corporal Darwin Lee Judge from Marshalltown, Iowa, were both serving with the Marine Corps Security Guard, U.S. Embassy, Republic of Vietnam (Saigon) on 29 April 1975 (the day the Vietnam government collapsed) when they were killed by a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) rocket attack on the embassy.  At the time of McMahon’s death, he had served in Vietnam for less than thirty days; he was 21 years old.  Lance Corporal Judge had served in Vietnam for less than 60 days; he was only 19 years old.

The remains of these two Marines were transferred to the Saigon Adventist Hospital near Ton Son Nhut Air Base, pursuant to the procedures outlined by the State Department, but with the collapse of the South Vietnamese government and the rapid evacuation of the U.S. Embassy, their bodies were left behind during the withdrawal.

It was a year before their bodies could be returned to the United States, and only then because of the intervention of Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA). Corporal Judge was buried with full military honors in his hometown, however, no one from the American news media covered the burial ceremony.  I have no information about the burial ceremony of Charles McMahon. The Vietnam War was never very popular and it was probably too much trouble to report these sad events in the press.

McMahon and Judge were the last U.S. Servicemen to die in Vietnam; they were not the last young men to die in the Vietnam War.  The term “Vietnam War” includes the U.S. involvement in the so-called Mayaguez Incident, which resulted in another 18 Americans killed in the line of duty (and forsaken by their countrymen).  See also: Mayaguez: Crisis in Command.    

Australia and the Vietnam War

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vietnam War

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

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

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

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

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

Australian Military Advisors

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

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

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

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

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

Australia’s Increased Commitment: 1965-1970

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vietnamization

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Remembrance

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

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

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Bay of Pigs

Background

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

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

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

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

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

Vietnam was not the place.

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

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

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

Nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiasco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Rogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debrief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scoundrels

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

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

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

Political Fallout

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Marine Fighting Spirit

Introduction

Valor, audacity, and fortitude are words used to describe America’s Armed Forces.  The histories of the military services are replete with examples of individual and organizational esprit de corps.  What these men and organizations do in combat mirrors their mission and training; how well they do it reflects the quality of their leaders and the unit’s fighting spirit — their willingness to improvise, adapt and overcome — their ability to sustain serious injury and keep on fighting.

America’s Marines have been at this now for going on 250 years.  The history book of the U.S. Marines is awash with examples of courage under fire, refusal to quit, and victory without fanfare.  We don’t know very much about the kind of training the Continental Marines experienced in preparing them for war with Great Britain in 1775, but we do know that despite the small size of the Corps back then, that handful of Marines distinguished themselves and laid the foundation for what a United States Marine Corps should one day become.

They were American Marines.  Their successes in battle far outnumbered their failures, and while they may have been forced to withdraw from the field of battle, they never quit the fight.  Within two weeks of mustering on the stern of the Continental Navy’s flagship USS Alfred, these early Marines were en route to their first battle — which occurred at New Providence, Nassau, on 3 March 1776.  It wasn’t the bloodiest of battles, but they did their part in helping the navy accomplish its mission.  That’s what Marines do.

The British overwhelmed the Marines at Bladensburg during the War of 1812, but by that time, every other American military unit had already left the field of battle.  The American Marines acquitted themselves so well that the British honored them by sparing the Marine Barracks in Washington (then the headquarters of the United States Marine Corps) from destruction.  The Marine Barracks was the ONLY government building spared — and this explains why Marine Barracks, Washington, is the oldest structure inside the nation’s capital.

Outside this blog’s small number of readers, few Americans today know the Marine Corps’ battle history.  As naval infantry, American Marines protected their country’s interests from the coast of North Africa, throughout the Caribbean, in the Falkland Islands, Sumatra, West Africa, and in the Seminole Wars.  During the Mexican War, Marines seized enemy seaports along the Gulf and the Pacific Ocean.  A battalion of Marines fought under General Winfield Scott at Pueblo and carried the fight all the Halls of Montezuma.” During the American Civil War, Union Marines fought on land and sea.

The farther Marines get from one battle, the closer they get to their next.

The Cold War

At the conclusion of World War II, President Harry S. Truman wasted no time demobilizing the armed forces.  He was intent on making a smooth transition from a wartime economy to one that fulfilled the needs of a nation at peace.  Veterans were returning home from four long years of horror; they needed jobs, and Truman believed that it was the government’s duty to do what it could to help create those jobs.  It was also a time of restructuring of the Armed Forces.  The War Department was disbanded; in its place, a Department of Defense incorporated the service secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  But, in achieving these goals, Truman placed the military services on the chopping block.  Every service experienced sharp cuts in manpower and equipment.  Suddenly, there was no money to repair airplanes, tanks, or radios.  There was no money for annual rifle requalification, no training exercises, and hardly any money to feed, clothe, and see to the medical needs of active duty troops.

During this time, the Marine Corps had but one advantage over the other services.  They all “gave up” one-third of the wartime strength, of course, but while combat veterans in the Army, Navy, and Air Force dwindled to about twenty percent of their total force, the Marine Corps retained half of their combat officers and noncommissioned officers — the men who had led the way through the Pacific, and somehow miraculously survived.

Boiling Korea

When the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) invaded South Korea in the early morning hours of 25 June 1950, they did so in overwhelming numbers.  It was a mechanized/combined arms force involving thirteen infantry divisions, an armored division of well-trained, superbly equipped troops, and a full aviation division to back them up.  Various sources tell us that the number of invading troops was between 90,000 —150,000 men.  An additional 30,000 North Korean soldiers were held “in reserve.”

General Douglas MacArthur, serving as Supreme Allied Commander, Far East, was headquartered in Tokyo, Japan.  Within this United Nations (U.N.) The command consisted of several subordinate commanders, including Commander, U. S. Seventh Fleet, Commander, U.S. Eighth Army, and Commander, U.S. Fifth Air Force.

Commanding the Eighth Army was Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, U. S. Army.  His subordinate commands included the U.S. 24th Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division, and the U.S. 25th Infantry Division — all of which were stationed in Japan as part of the post-war Allied occupation force.  At the end of June 1950, because of Truman’s cuts to the military services, not one of the Army’s occupation divisions was prepared for a national emergency.[1]  In the Republic of Korea, the South Korean (ROK) armed forces numbered less than 70,000 men.  The one thing the South Koreans shared with the U.S. Eighth Army was that the men were poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly led.

Eventually, all U.N. ground forces were organized under the U.S. Eighth Army.  By the time General Walker was able to organize an armed response, the NKPA had already overrun 90% of the South Korean peninsula.  The only terrain in possession of U.N. forces was a 140-mile perimeter around the port city of Pusan (southeast South Korea).  Throughout July and August, General Walker’s forces suffered one defeat after another.  Casualties were mounting, and the morale of these “U.N.” forces was at an all-time low.  Within thirty days, the U.S. Army suffered 6,000 casualties.  The losses borne by the ROK Army were massive.[2]

General MacArthur asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for a Marine regiment to help stem the tide of the invading NKPA.  To clarify: General of the Army Douglas MacArthur wanted a regiment of Marines to stem the tide of 150,000 communist troops — when the NPKA had already mauled two Army infantry divisions in 30 days.  What MacArthur received, instead, was a Marine combat brigade — which became the lead element of a re-constituted 1st Marine Division.

A Marine expeditionary brigade is an awesome organization because it incorporates ground, air, and service support elements designed to make the brigade a self-sustaining combat powerhouse.  The 1st (Provisional) Marine Brigade (1stMarBde) began forming at Camp Pendleton, California, on 7 July, its core element was the 5th Marine Regiment (with reinforcing elements: artillery, tanks, engineers, communications) and Marine Aircraft Group 33 (three fixed-wing squadrons and a helicopter squadron).

What made the 1stMarBde extraordinary was the circumstances under which it was formed.  Truman’s cuts were so devastating to the Marine Corps (owing to its already small size) that on 25 June 1950, there was but one infantry regiment at Camp Pendleton — in reduced strength.  The regiment had three battalions (and a headquarters element), but each was short one rifle company; each rifle company was short one rifle platoon.  These reductions simply meant that the Marines would have to fight harder.

The brigade pulled into Pusan Harbor on 2 August; what the Marines discovered was that they were outnumbered and out-gunned by a formidable enemy.  US Marine combat commands during the Korean War operated within the Eighth Army.  General Walker decided to use these Marines as a stop-gap force.  Whenever the NKPA mauled and routed an American Army unit, Walker sent Marines to re-capture the Army’s forfeited positions.  Were it not for this handful of Marines, the Pusan Perimeter would have collapsed, and the NKPA would have succeeded in pushing the tip of America’s spear into the sea.

As previously mentioned, the Marine Brigade was dangerously understrength — but what the Marines brought to the table was exceptional officer and NCO leadership, combat experience, and an unparalleled fighting spirit.  When the NKPA met the US Marines for the first time, they quickly realized that they had foolishly underestimated the lethality of the Marine Corps Air/Ground Team. 

The Fire Brigade began combat operations almost immediately inside the Pusan Perimeter.  The North Korean Army may have had their way with our poorly trained army, but the Marines would have none of it.  US Marines introduced many NKPA soldiers to their worst (and last) day.

Overall command of the brigade fell to Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, USMC.  His assistant was Brigadier General Thomas J. Cushman, who commanded Marine Aircraft Group-33.[3]  Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray (selected for promotion to colonel) served as Commanding Officer, 5th Marines.[4]  Below Murray, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (also, 1/5) was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George R. Newton;[5] Lieutenant Colonel Harold S. Roise led 2/5,[6] and 3/5 was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert D. Taplett.[7]  The skill and determination of these field commanders and the fighting spirit of their men won every battle.  When the Marines of the fire brigade went to Korea, they went with the finest combat commanders available, with combat-tested Noncommissioned Officers and a body of men who exhibited the highest qualities of the United States Marines.

First Encounter

General Walker assigned the brigade to the U.S. 25th Infantry Division (U.S. 25TH) on 6 August; Craig’s orders were to move forward and reinforce thinly spread elements of the Army’s 5th Regimental Combat Team (5 RCT) and the 27th Infantry Regiment (27 INF).  The 5 RCT tried to organize an assault against NKPA forces on 7 August; 27 INF was moving to the rear to serve as 8th Army Reserve.  To facilitate early relief of the 27th, Taplett’s 3/5 accelerated its departure from Changwon and arrived at Chindong-ni less than two hours later.  Serving with 3/5 were elements of 1st Battalion, 11th Marines (1/11) (artillery), and a platoon of engineers.  Murray ordered Taplett to relieve 2/27 INF on Hill 255.

Colonel Taplett was aware of increased enemy activity within his assigned tactical area of responsibility (TAOR).  With only two rifle companies available, Taplett established his area defense with wise use of attached units.  Slowly, additional units began to arrive from the Brigade, including Captain Kenneth J. Houghton’s Reconnaissance Company and a mortar platoon.  Because of the location of the units, Taplett fell under the operational control of Colonel John H. Michaelis, commanding 27 INF.

After reporting to Michaelis, Taplett did his due diligence by pre-registering artillery and mortar on the northern approaches to Chindong-ni and set his battalion in for the night.  Shortly before midnight, a heavy enemy assault on Hill 342 mauled the U.S. Army company defending it.  Michaelis ordered Taplett to send a reinforced platoon to relieve the beleaguered company.  Initially, with only six rifle platoons, Taplett begged off.  Rather than ordering Taplett to execute his last order, Colonel Michaelis deferred the matter (tattled) to Major General William B. Kean, commanding U.S. 25th.[8]

Hill 342 (342 meters above sea level) (1,100 feet) abutted another hill formation that exceeded 600 meters.  The NKPA wanted possession of the hill to facilitate cutting off the U.N.’s main supply route (MSR).  Taplett assigned this mission to Golf Company (1stLt Robert D. Bohn, Commanding), who detailed the mission to Second Lieutenant John H. Cahill, commanding the 1st Platoon.[9]

Bohn reinforced Cahill’s platoon with a radio operator and a machine gun squad.  Moving westward along the MSR, Cahill reached Michaelis’ command post (C.P.) within an hour.  Michaelis’ operations officer instructed Cahill to proceed 700 yards further down the MSR, where a guide would meet him and lead him to the 2/5th RCT for further instructions.

Lieutenant Cahill met his guide without difficulty, but apparently, the guide had become disoriented in the darkness.  After some delay, Cahill’s platoon reached the base of Hill 342.  Two shots rang out; two Marines fell wounded.  The Army guide advised Cahill to withhold his climb to the summit until daybreak.  Shortly after first light, Cahill discovered that U.S. soldiers had shot his men — nervous young men who were unaware that friendly units were moving through their security area.

Cahill and his Marines began their ascent at daybreak.  Shale rock made footing treacherous on the steep hill; the Marines struggled in full combat gear.  The sun burned down upon the Marines, and because they had not yet learned how to conserve their water ration, they soon found themselves approaching heat exhaustion.  Despite the heat, Cahill and his NCOs kept the Marines moving.  Two-thirds of the way to the top, enemy small-arms and machine gun fire added to their misery.  Nearing the top, Cahill instructed his NCOs to keep the Marines moving while he increased his pace; he needed to liaise with the army company commander.  Cahill ignored the enemy fire and proceeded to the top of the hill.

By the time the Marines struggled into the Army perimeter, they’d been climbing for more than three hours (342 meters = 1,122 feet).  Enemy machine gun fire killed one Marine and wounded six others (including Cahill’s platoon sergeant and his platoon guide).[10]  Eight additional men became heat casualties.  Of the 52 Marines that began the climb, only 37 remained combat effective.

Cahill and his remaining NCOs set their Marines in among the Army’s already established defensive perimeter — a wise move because service pride enjoined each man to maintain a high standard of military conduct.  The enemy killed two more Marines as their sergeant set them into defensive positions.  At noon, the fight atop Hill 342 became a siege.

As North Korean soldiers moved slowly to encircle the Americans, defending soldiers and Marines conducted themselves with determination, good discipline, and accurate defensive fire.  Since there was no infantry/artillery coordination in the Army, Cahill used his radio net to obtain artillery support from the 11th Marines to suppress enemy mortar fire.

If enemy small arms and mortar fire wasn’t enough, soldiers and Marines atop Hill 342 began running out of water and ammunition.  Cahill radioed 3/5 requesting air resupply.  When USAF R4Ds delivered the much-needed water and munitions, they dropped them behind enemy lines.  A second airdrop delivered by MAG-33’s VMO-6 was more successful, but not by much.  When the water cans came into contact with mother earth, they exploded.  Marines and soldiers nevertheless retained their precarious positions — but it wasn’t as if they had much choice in the matter.  The Americans had no way out.

Back on Hill 255

Throughout the early morning of 7 August, Colonel Taplett’s front around Chindong-ni became the focus of enemy shelling, ending at around 0400.  Cahill’s first reports to Taplett’s headquarters caused some anxiety.  Taplett concluded that the operation was quickly turning into a goat rope.  At around 0200, LtCol Roise’s 2/5 departed Changwon in a convoy that was too long and too slow.[11]

Roise reached Chindong-ni at around 0500 and entered a schoolyard at the base of Taplett’s hill.  The schoolyard became a bottleneck of vehicles, and the North Koreans used this opportunity to inflict injury and confusion with a steady barrage of mortar fire.  Roise’s battalion suffered one man killed and eleven more wounded; the accuracy of enemy fire kept the Marines undercover.  Murray’s headquarters element, following Roise’s unit, was held up on the road far outside Chindong-ni; had the enemy known this, the 5th Marines CP would have been a sitting duck.

Colonel Murray regained operational control of his battalions once he arrived at Hill 255.  Considering the enemy situation on Hill 342 and hostile activity north of the village, Murray ordered 2/5 to occupy and defend the expanse of Hill 255 above Taplett’s Company H and directed Newton’s 1/5 to occupy Hill 99.  This decision relieved Taplett’s Company G to support 3/5’s lower perimeter on Hill 255.  General Craig’s arrival at 0700 was heralded by renewed enemy shelling.

Craig’s advance hinged on 5 RCT’s success at the Tosan junction.  General Craig arranged for land lines to the Army regiment.  News from the front was not good.  5 RCT jumped off at 0630 — but not for long.  The NKPA 6th Division sat waiting just forward of the regiment’s line of departure. 

The situation atop Hill 342 kept the 5 RCT’s second battalion occupied with a fight for the Chinju Road.  The battalion progressed, but the roadway was choked with men, equipment, and refugees.  Shortly after 0700, Kean ordered Craig to provide a battalion for the relief of an Army unit at Yaban-san.  This would free 5 RCT to make a strike at the road junction two miles further west.  Murray ordered Roise to relieve the men atop Hill 342 and seize the rest of the problematic hill formation.

At 1120 Kean ordered Craig to assume control of all troops in the area of Chindong-ni until further notice.  Craig went forward to conduct personal reconnaissance, ascertaining that enemy resistance was relatively light but with few friendly gains because of the scattered and confused nature of the fighting.  The MSR between Sangnyoung-ni at the base of Hill 342 and the Tosan junction was still jumbled up, and well-placed enemy snipers confused the situation even more.

When Roise’s battalion reached the road junction where Cahill had met his Army guide the night before, he ordered Captain John Finn, Jr., commanding Company D, to ascend the North fork, which traced the eastern spur of Hill 342 and seize the entire hill.  Roise ordered First Lieutenant William E. Sweeney, commanding Company E, to pass behind Sangnyoung-ni and capture the western spur.  Roise took a chance with this maneuver because his battalion was dangerously understrength.

A determined enemy wasn’t the Brigade’s only problem.  The Marines had been constantly on the move since 3 August; they were reaching an exhaustive state — made worse by high daytime temperatures.

Enemy fire began pouring in on Finn’s Marines; Captain Finn ordered his men to take cover in the rice fields bordering the roadway.  He had no valuable intelligence about the enemy’s battle plan, but he instructed his platoon commander to ignore the enemy fire coming from the direction of Tokkong-ni and focus on their advance on Hill 342.  Finn ordered Lieutenant Wallace to lead his Platoon through Taepyong-ni and climb the spur at its junction; Lieutenant Emmelman’s 3rd platoon would take the hill on the left of the spur; Lieutenant Oakley’s 1st platoon would hold the company’s right flank and climb the southern slope of Hill 342.  Finn’s Executive Officer (XO), First Lieutenant Hannifin, would establish the company C.P. and set up 60-mm mortars on the hill overlooking Taepyong-ni.

Captain Finn led his men forward over the same route taken by Lieutenant Cahill twelve hours earlier.  Terrain prevented him from hearing or observing the exertions of his men.  A few hundred yards from the summit, Finn radioed Roise to advise that his men were exhausted from their climb.  While Finn’s assault had scattered the enemy, the company lost five Marines injured by enemy wife, and twelve men had collapsed from heat exhaustion.  As Finn rested his men, Lieutenant Oakley climbed to the summit, met with Army and Marine commanders, and led them to Finn’s position.  The Army commander advised Finn to hold his men in place, rest them, and continue their climb in the morning  Roise approved the delay by radio.

Lieutenant Sweeney’s ascent was no easier.  Company E received sporadic enemy fire, but it was mostly ineffective.  The real enemy was the heat.  Sweeney rested his Marines at dusk; he had advanced midway to the summit of Hill 342.

Dawn Attack

During the hours of darkness, NKPA forces inched their way around the summit of Hill 342.  Just before dawn, the NKPA greeted defending soldiers and Marines with short bursts of automatic weapons and rifle fire.  The defenders returned fire and hurled grenades down the steep slope, but a small enemy force came close enough to mount an attack on the Northeast section of the defensive triangle.  After fierce hand-to-hand fighting at the point of contact, the American defenders forced an enemy withdrawal.  One of Cahill’s men died from bayonet and gunshot wounds; several other defenders received serious injuries.  Brushing aside light enemy resistance, Company D moved up to the summit.  Just as Company D entered the perimeter, the NKPA unleashed withering fire from positions that ringed the defensive area.

Finn set his company into the perimeter and ordered the Army and Marine units to withdraw.  Lieutenant Cahill had lost six killed and 12 wounded — a third of his original contingent of men, but the two beleaguered units managed to frustrate the NKPA’s effort to establish an observation post on Hill 342.

Company D fared no better in consolidating its control of the hill.  Captain Finn lost Second Lieutenants Oakley and Reid.  Lieutenant Emmelman received a serious head wound while directing machine gun fires, and Captain Finn was himself wounded in the head and shoulder.  As Navy corpsmen evacuated Finn and Emmelman, Lieutenant Hannifin, on the way up with mortars, learned that he was now the Company D commander.  Reaching the summit, Hannifin never had time to organize his defensive positions before the NKPA initiated a second assault.  Concentrated fire from the Marines pushed the communists back, but Company D had suffered six killed in action and 25 wounded men.

Enemy fire slackened off around mid-day.  While speaking with Roise on the battalion radio net, Hannifin collapsed from heat exhaustion.  Master Sergeant Harold Reeves assumed command of the company; Second Lieutenant Leroy K. Wirth, an artillery forward observer, assumed command of the company’s mortar section.  Reeves and Wirth continuously ranged forward of the company perimeter to call in air and artillery strikes.  Company D remained steady, and the NKPA lost interest in trying to dislodge them.  Captain Andrew M. Zimmer was dispatched from the regimental staff to assume command of Company D.

Company E relocated to a position 100 yards along the western spur and dug in.  NKPA harassment continued, but there was no more hard fighting on the crest of the hill.  Major Walter Gall, commanding Roise’s Weapons Company, dispatched a small patrol to see if they could dislodge enemy machine guns inside Tokkong-ni.  After a brief slug match, the enemy remained in control of the village.  After Gall’s patrol withdrew from Tokkong-ni, First Lieutenant Ira T. Carr unleashed his 81-mm mortars on the village, which brought enemy resistance to an end.

After 8 August, NKPA forces gave the Marines a wide birth.  Company D was withdrawn from Hill 342 on the afternoon of 9 August, replaced by a battalion of the 24 INF.  Members of the brigade who had no World War II experience could now claim they were combat veterans.  The Americans learned from enemy documents later captured that the soldiers defending Hill 342 had held off elements of two North Korean regiments of the 6th NKPA Division.

Lieutenant Cahill later offered a conservative estimate of 150 enemy dead on the slopes of Hill 342.  Colonel Roise estimated an additional 400 enemy KIA after its fight.  The North Koreans learned from the Marines in the Pusan perimeter that there was a new sheriff in town.  Marines would continue killing North Koreans in large numbers for the next several weeks.

Sources:

  1. Chapin, J. C.  Fire Brigade: U. S. Marines in the Pusan Perimeter.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 2002.
  2. Geer, A.  The New Breed.  New York: Harper Brothers, 1952.
  3. Daugherty, L. J.  Train Wreckers and Ghost Killers: Allied Marines in the Korean War.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 2003.
  4. Montross, L. And Canzona, N. A. U. S. Marine Corps Operations in Korea, 1950-53 (Vol.  I): The Pusan Perimeter.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1954.

Endnotes:

[1] See also, From King to Joker.

[2] Battles are not won purely on the size of opposing armies; they are won by the skill of their commanders and the fighting spirit (and capacity) of their men.  None of these conditions existed within the US/UN armed forces on 25 June 1950.

[3] Lieutenant General Thomas J. Cushman (1895-1972 ) was the recipient of two Legions of Merit medals and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.

[4] Major General Murray (1913-2004) was a highly decorated officer, having won two Navy Cross medals, four Silver Star Medals, a Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Purple Heart Medal.  Murray commanded 2/6, 3rd Marines, 5th Marines, 1st Infantry Training Regiment, and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC.  He fought at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Inchon, Seoul, the Chosin Reservoir, and the Vietnam War.

[5] Colonel Newton (1915-2003 ) was a graduate of the USNA, class of 1938, retiring in 1962.  While serving with the US Marine Legation Guard in Peking China, he was captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner of war (1941-1945).  He was awarded the Silver Star medal for conspicuous gallantry on 23 September 1950 and the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious service while commanding the 1stBn 5thMar  7 July – 12 September 1950.

[6] Colonel Roise (1916-91) was the recipient of two Navy Cross medals in the Korean War.  He served on active duty from 1939 until 1965 with combat service at Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, Pusan, Inchon, Seoul, and the Chosin Reservoir.

[7] Taplett was awarded the Navy Cross medal for his gallant service at the Chosin Reservoir.

[8] MajGen Kean assumed command of the US 25th Infantry Division in 1948.  The failure of his division to perform in combat rests directly with him.

[9] Bohn retired from active duty as a Major General in 1974.  Bohn was awarded two Silver Star medals, two Legions of Merit, two Purple Hearts, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal.

[10] The platoon guide is responsible for the resupply of ammunition, rations, and water.  He processes casualties, manages prisoners, and assumes the duties of the platoon sergeant when necessary.

[11] South Korean “roads” were unpaved, single-lane affairs that winded around the base of hills.  Driving at night was treacherous because vehicles drove in total darkness.  Added to the congestion of military vehicles was a steady stream of civilians trying to get out of the way of two conflicting armies.  Hidden among those civilian refugees were North Korean sappers.  “Goat Rope” was an adequate description of the activities on 7 August 1950.


The Very Next Day

(Continued from last week)

Introduction

The Tet Offensive of 1968 was a general uprising and major escalation of the Vietnam War.  It was one of the largest campaigns launched by the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) targeting the Republic of Vietnam Army (ARVN) and the United States military forces.

Communist forces launched the Tet Offensive prematurely in the early morning hours of 31 January.  It was a well-coordinated, country-wide assault involving more than 80,000 communist troops.  They attacked more than 100 towns and cities, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of six autonomous cities, 72 of 245 district headquarters, and the capital in Saigon.

Communist leaders in the North Vietnam capital of Hanoi decided to launch the offensive in the belief that it would trigger a popular uprising leading to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government.  Although the initial attacks stunned the allies, causing them a temporary loss of control over several cities, American and South Vietnamese forces quickly regrouped beat back the attacks, and inflicted heavy casualties on NVA/VC forces.  A popular uprising never occurred — but there were plenty of pissed-off people in Saigon, and they weren’t all Americans.

Background

Vietnamese culture is one of the oldest in the world.  Some argue, the oldest.  Beyond keeping academics out of local bars, it may not matter.  China and Vietnam have clashed for thousands of years — and in some matters, do so now.  China hosts 26 dialects of the Chinese language; there are more than 100 languages spoken in Vietnam, involving five linguistic families.  It is an interesting history — if one has an interest in anthropology.  Most Americans who went to Vietnam had no interest at all in Vietnamese history however one labels it.

As bad as this sounds, most Americans returned to their homes thinking that if you’ve seen one Vietnamese, you’ve seen them all.  To the American soldier or Marine, they all looked alike.  To the American ear, they all spoke the same incomprehensible gibberish and lordy — their music!

There was also an issue involving trust.  The Vietnamese people wouldn’t look an American full in the face.  They always looked off to the side; it made the Americans think they were up to something.  As God knows, some of them were up to something — and sometimes, it didn’t work out well for either the Americans or the Vietnamese.

Equally, the average Vietnamese wanted nothing at all to do with the disrespectful and lecherous barbarians from across the sea.  Not the white boys, or those others — they were all rude and insensitive to Vietnamese traditions.  The Vietnamese people would just as soon all the foreigners went home … and take their loud music and life-ending weapons with them.  In time, the Americans would return to their homes; the Vietnamese were already home — and most had no interest in being saved.

Enemies

Nguyễn Văn Lém had two names.  One was his real name, according to the social registry of South Vietnam; his other name was Bảy Lốp.  He was a captain in the Viet Cong working covertly inside the capital city of Saigon, Republic of Vietnam.  Sometime during the early morning hours of 31 January 1968, the start of the Tet Offensive of 1968, Captain Lém and his assassination team entered the home of Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Tuan of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and murdered him, his wife, his 80-year old mother, and six of his seven children.  While shot twice, nine-year-old Nguyen Tu Huan survived the attack.

The circumstances of Captain Lém’s capture, and his arrest, is unknown to me.  What is known is that Lém was delivered under guard with his hands bound behind him, to South Vietnamese brigadier general Nguyen Ngoc Loan.

Loan was born in 1930 to a middle-class family in the old Imperial City of Huế — one of eleven children.  He studied to become a pharmacist before joining the Vietnamese National Army in 1951.  He became a friend and confidante of a classmate named Nguyễn Cao Kỳ.[1]  After pilot training, Loan transferred to the Vietnamese National Air Force (VNAF), serving as an attack pilot until 1965.  At that time, then Prime Minister Kỳ appointed Loan to direct the Military Security Service and the Central Intelligence Organization — and, as an additional duty, Commanding General of the Republic of Vietnam National Police.  General Loan was particularly useful to Vice President Kỳ in that capacity.

Nguyen Van Loan

Loan (pictured right) was a staunch patriot and a South Vietnamese nationalist.  He refused to grant American servicemen extraterritorial privileges, denied the U.S. high command the right to arrest Vietnamese civilians, and insisted that American civilians (journalists, contractors, etc.) were subject to South Vietnamese jurisprudence.  It was this uncompromising position that caused U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to opine that Loan should be gotten rid of — which is not how Vice President Ky saw it.  Loan also publicly criticized the CIA’s Phoenix Program.  History now shows that General Loan was right, and the American CIA was wrong.

General Loan’s operatives arrested two Viet Cong operatives in August 1967.  The two men had been engaged in sending peace initiatives to the U.S. government behind the back of the South Vietnam government.  Loan, having discovered and publicized these double-dealings angered American diplomats but in the eyes of the South Vietnamese government, Nguyen Ngoc Loan was a hero.  When Loan was promoted to Brigadier General, American officials complained, publicly — prompting Loan to submit his resignation to the South Vietnamese President.  President Thieu refused to accept Loan’s resignation.[2] 

It was 1 February 1968 and General Loan was not having a good day.  Teams of Viet Cong assassins and sappers roamed the streets of Saigon.  No one inside this sprawling city was safe.  Worse, Loan’s policemen seemed unenthusiastic about doing their duty.  Forty-five days before, Saigon, the capital city, had been placed under the exclusive control of the South Vietnamese Army.  There was much confusion between civil and military authority and competing interests made the entire city a shamble.  The ARVN reaction to the Tet Offensive was at best haphazard and if the truth were known, not even ARVN commanders knew whether they could trust their troops.  It was a very confusing day for everyone, even the Viet Cong.  And, as I indicated a moment ago, General Loan was not in a very good mood.  So, when Captain Lém was delivered to General Loan, General Loan unholstered his .38 revolver and shot Lém in the head.

Photo by Eddie Adams, 1968

This event ended the scurrilous life of Lém the assassin, but it might have been better had General Loan realized that Lém’s execution was being recorded on film by American news photographer Eddie Adams.  Adams was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News in 1969 — and General Loan’s reputation was sullied for the balance of his life.  The American press, you see, had only reported the most sensational part of the story — Lém’s execution.  No one paid any attention to the fact that Lém had murdered an entire family in cold blood.  The American press has never cared about “getting it right.”  Rolling the presses is the only important thing.

The rest of the story

Captain Lém tried to murder Colonel Tuan’s entire family, but he left one member of the family alive.  Wounded twice by gunshot, but still alive.  The 9-year-old boy was Nguyen Tu Huan, who although seriously wounded, stayed by his mother’s side to comfort her as she bled to death.  After dark, Huan escaped the house and was taken in and raised by his uncle, a colonel in the Vietnamese Air Force.

In 1975, Huan was 16 years of age and the Republic of Vietnam collapsed under the weight of its own ineptitude and the incompetence of the United States government.  His aunt and uncle sought refuge in the United States (along with thousands of others) to escape communism.  Transported through Guam, Navy and Marine Corps personnel took care of Nguyen and his adopted family — and it was this devotion of American sailors and Marines that inspired Huan to join the U.S. Navy.

In 1981, Nguyen Tu Huan graduated from Oklahoma State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering; in 1993, he received a commission in the Navy as a Reserve Engineering Duty Officer.  He also holds advanced degrees in electrical engineering from Southern Methodist University, Engineering from Perdue University, and Information Technology from Carnegie Mellon University.

Rear Admiral Huan T. Nguyen, USN

Huan’s naval service has included a wide range of assignments from testing officer and Officer-in-Charge, Navy Ship Repair Facility Detachment 113 at Yokosuka, Japan, Executive Officer, and Chief Engineer for Radio Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Warfare, Composite Squadron One, Director, Military Programs, Naval Sea Systems Command, Enlisted Personnel Engineering Duty Manager.

In 2019, the young boy who watched his mother die because of a murdering assassin in Saigon, in 1968, became the highest-ranking Vietnamese-American officer in the American Armed Forces.  He is now Rear Admiral Huan T. Nguyen, United States Navy — but of course, you didn’t hear about this by the American press corps.  You only heard about how General Loan violated the civil rights of a murdering scumbag.  In reality, General Loan was a hero, and so too is Admiral Nguyen.

Endnotes:

[1] Vice President of South Vietnam, 1967-1971.

[2] Loan was later promoted to major general.  At the fall of South Vietnam, Loan made his way to the United States and settled in the Washington suburb of Burke, Virginia.  When Democratic Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman demanded that Loan be deported from the United States as a war criminal, President Jimmy Carter intervened, and Loan was allowed to remain in the United States.  General Loan passed away from cancer in 1998.


Battleground Saigon — 1968

Background

The Tet Offensive of 1968 was a general uprising and major escalation of the Vietnam War.  It was one of the largest campaigns launched by the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) targeting the Republic of Vietnam Army (ARVN) and the United States military forces.

Communist forces launched the Tet Offensive prematurely in the early morning hours of 31 January.  It was a well-coordinated, country-wide assault involving more than 80,000 communist troops.  They attacked more than 100 towns and cities, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of six autonomous cities, 72 of 245 district headquarters, and the capital in Saigon.

Communist leaders in the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi decided to launch the offensive in the belief that it would trigger a popular uprising leading to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government.  Although the initial attacks stunned the allies, causing them a temporary loss of control over several cities, American and South Vietnamese forces quickly regrouped beat back the attacks, and inflicted heavy casualties on NVA/VC forces.  A popular uprising never occurred.

Earlier, on 15 December 1967, U.S. forces communicated their confidence in the South Vietnamese military forces by turning over to them the authority and responsibility for defending the capital city.  From that day forward, U.S. forces present in Saigon would only be responsible for defending themselves and their facilities within the confines of the capital city.

On the night of 30 January 1968, four South Vietnamese police (Cảnh Sát) posts provided an outer line of defense for the United States Embassy.  Two military policemen from the 716th Military Police Battalion, 18th Military Police Brigade, guarded the vehicle entrance on Mac Dinh Chi Street.  Two U.S. Marines of the Embassy’s Marine Security Guard stood post inside the Chancery Building: Sergeant Ronald W. Harper and Corporal George B. Zachuranic.  Another Marine stood post on the roof of the Chancery Building; his name was Sergeant Rudy A. Soto.

The Fight

Shortly after midnight on 31 January, Viet Cong (VC) sappers from the C-10 Sapper Battalion gathered at a VC safehouse in the rear of a car repair facility at 59 Phan Thanh Gian Street to receive their weapons and receive their final briefing before their planned assault.  Two of these men were employed by the U.S. Department of State.  Their orders were to seize the embassy grounds, break into the chancery building, and seize hostages.  The sappers were told that hundreds of anti-war and anti-government university students would converge on the embassy and stage a sit-down strike — thereby aiding the sappers in maintaining control of the Embassy.

Sappers approached the embassy in a truck with its lights off.  Cảnh Sát sighted the vehicle, but rather than acting they took cover.  As the vehicle off Mac Dinh Chi onto Thong Nhut the occupants opened fire on the military policemen guarding the vehicle gate.  U.S. Army Specialist-4 Charles L. Daniel and Private First Class William E. Sebast returned fire, closed, and locked the steel gate, and radioed that they were under attack.  Hearing the gunfire, Sergeant Ron Harper, who was at the rear of the Embassy, ran back through the rear door of the Chancery, across the lobby, past Corporal Zahuranic (who was in the process of calling for reinforcements), pulled a Vietnamese night watchman into the Embassy, and then closed and bolted the heavy teak doors to the Chancery.

The VC blew a hole in the perimeter wall at 0247 and gained access to the embassy compound.  Daniel and Sebast killed the first two VC through the breach.  Daniel radioed to his command that the VC were breaching the perimeter.  While on the radio, a VC armed with an automatic rifle emerged from the rear parking lot and killed Daniel and Sebast.  A second man carrying a rifle came around the building and the two men later determined to be the two employees of the State Department, joined the other VC on the front lawn.

On the Chancery roof, Sergeant Soto observed the VC coming through the wall and attempted to fire on them with his 12-gauge shotgun.  The weapon jammed.  He then emptied his .38 caliber revolver, but the fire was inaccurate from that distance.  Inside the Embassy grounds, the VC opened fire on the Chancery Building with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).  Several RPGs penetrated the walls of the Chancery, wounding George Zahuranic and destroying two radios in the guard post.  Soto tried unsuccessfully to contact the lobby guard post and assumed that the Marines were dead or otherwise incapacitated.[1]

The Commanding Officer of the 716th MP Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Gordon D. Rowe, received the distress call from the Embassy and dispatched several jeep patrols to investigate what was happening.  The first two vehicles took routes that passed through to the south of the rear vehicle gate, arriving at the base of an unfinished high-rise building — where the attacking VC had decided to shelter during the assault.  The VC destroyed these vehicles, killing two MPs and wounding three.  A third jeep reached the Embassy’s pedestrian gate without incident but was unaware of the situation.  VC gunners cut down Army Sergeant Johnnie B. Thomas and Specialist Owen E. Mebust as they exited their vehicle to investigate.

In addition to the three Marine Security Guards, there were two Vietnamese and six American civilians inside the Chancery building at the time of the assault.  The Americans armed themselves with .38 revolvers, Beretta pistols, and available M-12 shotguns — and then waited for the VC to enter the building.

Outside, the VC were unsure of their next move because MPs Daniel and Sebast had shot and killed the leaders of both sapper teams.  Together, the sapper teams had more than forty pounds of C-4 explosives and could have blown their way into the Chancery, had they thought of it.  Instead, they took up positions in or near the circular planters on the Embassy grounds and returned fire at the growing numbers of Americans shooting at them.

Major Robert J. O’Brien, USMC

Five blocks away from the U.S. Embassy, at “Marine House,” Captain Robert J. O’Brien received word of the attack from Corporal Dennis L. Ryan at around 0250.[2]  O’Brien mustered off-duty security guards, Sergeant Richard G. Frattarelli, Sergeant Patullo, Sergeant Raymond E. Reed, and Corporal Timothy P. Inemer, and headed for the Embassy.  Arriving at the Embassy, Captain O’Brien and his men immediately engaged the VC inside the compound but were driven to seek cover by the superior firepower of the enemy.  At around 0300, two civilian security officers (Mr. Crampsey and Mr. Furey) reinforced the Marine reaction force.  Attempts to shoot off the locks of the gates were unsuccessful in the darkness.

Meanwhile, according to Captain O’Brien’s after-action report, his reaction force and the two civilian security officers began receiving fire from the Cảnh Sát station 200 yards further distant from the Embassy.[3]  Cảnh Sát targeting U.S. Marines put the OIC out of communication with Marine House for about three and one-half hours until around 0630.

About 0300, Army MPs stopped O’Brien and Staff Sergeant Banks and their small team at the corner of Hai Ba Trung Street and Thong Nhut Boulevard near the Norodom Compound Gate.  O’Brien and Banks decided to split their force leaving one group at Norodom.  O’Brien led one group along the Embassy wall toward the main front entrance.  Enemy automatic weapons and RPGs drove them back toward Norodom Compound.  Remaining outside the compound, SSgt Banks integrated the Marines into existing firing positions.  He placed some of his men on the Consular section roof from where they could bring fire to bear on the Viet Cong inside the Embassy grounds.

About 0350, a group of about six or seven MPs arrived at Norodom and joined in the firefight with the Marine Security Guard.  At about this time, some of the Marine Security Guard had worked their way behind the Consular Buildings and found the rear gate by the maintenance shacks open.  Both Marine Security Guards and MPs tried to get into the Embassy Compound through this gate but were prevented from doing so by enemy automatic weapons and RPG fire from inside the Embassy compound.

The Norodom gate is where Sgt Jimerson was hit by enemy fire while trying to get through the gate.  The Viet Cong had this entrance covered from positions behind parked cars in the Embassy parking lot.  Sgt Jimerson was quickly evacuated to the 17th Field Hospital.  While this action was taking place other Marine Security Guards and MPs were exchanging fire with Viet Cong from the Norodom roof.

At around 0400, the VC fired several rockets at the Norodom roof, which injured Corporal Ryan, who was also evacuated to the hospital.  Corporal James C. Marshall, Corporal Wilson, and two Army MPs remained on the roof and continued to fire at the VC.  Marshall was hit with shrapnel from an RPG explosion but remained in place and continued to engage the enemy until killed by automatic weapons fire.

Sergeant Scheupfer, who remained at ground level, received a shrapnel wound to his hand.  O’Brien and Crampsey climbed onto the rooftops of buildings along the rear wall of the Embassy Compound facing the Mission Coordinator’s House.  From that position, O’Brien and Crampsey brought two or three VC under fire.  Meanwhile, an aide to Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker contacted the head of the Saigon Police and demanded reinforcements.  The officer commanding the first precinct (nearest the Embassy) blatantly refused to move his men in the darkness of the early morning.[4]

SSgt Banks notified GySgt Allen Morrison at the Marine House of the difficulty he was having in trying to gain entrance to the embassy.  Morrison advised Banks to hold in place until daylight when reinforcements and resupplies could be moved up.  This was a sound tactical decision.  By this time, Banks had learned from Harper that no Viet Cong had gotten inside the building, but Corporal Zahuranic was wounded.  Additional MPs began to arrive at the time and began taking up positions in the vacant lot across the street from the Embassy.

At 0420, General William Westmoreland, Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV), ordered the 716th MP Battalion to clear the embassy as their first priority.  Colonel Rowe, lacking armored vehicles or helicopters, moved reinforcements by truck and jeep to cordon off the Embassy.  The tactical situation was confused and hampered by darkness and lack of communications between allied forces (Marines inside and outside of the Embassy, Marines with supporting Army MPs, Americans with Vietnamese police).  In any event, it was easier to locate a herd of unicorns than it was any presence of Cảnh Sát around or near the U.S. Embassy over the next 18 hours.

At 0500, a helicopter carrying troops from the 101st Airborne Division attempted a landing on the roof of the Embassy, but enemy fire drove it off.  An hour later, another helicopter landed on the roof of the Embassy, picked up Corporal Zahuranic, and dropped off three cases of M-16 ammunition.  Since the Marines didn’t have M-16s, the resupply was a wasted effort.

At dawn, MPs were able to shoot the locks off the Embassy gate on Thong Nhut Boulevard and ram open the gates with a motor vehicle.  Once the gate was open, Army MPs and Marine Security Guard reinforcements charged into the Embassy compound.  The second team of MPs stormed the rear parking area.  Within a few moments, all remaining VC were either killed or dying from gunshot wounds.  At about this time, a helicopter carrying troops from the 101st Airborne landed on the roof and began the task of clearing the building.

After the U.S. Embassy buildings and grounds were declared secure, General Westmoreland and his security detail arrived by car to inspect the grounds.  Ambassador Bunker directed that the Embassy reopen for business at mid-day.

(Continued next week)

Endnotes:

[1] Marine Security Guards were armed with either .38 caliber revolvers, 9mm pistols, or M-12 semi-automatic shotguns.  Handguns (or side arms) are not accurate beyond 20 yards and shotguns are “close-in” weapons.  While the Marines did return VC fire, their weapons were not suitable for a sustained firefight with men armed with AK-47 automatic rifles.

[2] Lieutenant Colonel Robert Joseph O’Brien (1931 – 2020) served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.  He passed away on 23 January 2020, 52 years after the battle of the U.S. Embassy.  He was survived by his wife Joanne and three grown children.   

[3] O’Brien’s report may have been edited to avoid any allegation that Vietnamese police were in acting in accordance with Viet Cong sappers — but if two Embassy employees were involved with the sappers, it is not inconceivable that the police were also aiding the enemy.  

[4] Out of a contingent of 300 National Policemen in Saigon, only 25 reported for duty during the Tet Offensive.





Conspicuously Gallant

Introduction

One of the things the American armed forces do for our society, a seldom advertised benefit to military service, is that young people with nowhere else to turn may find themselves, that they may find themselves a home, a family, kindred spirits who together, look after one another.  The military offers a place where one is fed and clothed, where they receive quality medical care, where they find a place to lay their head at night — and a lot more.  Education and skill training is part of the package.  Learning teamwork, self-discipline, and esprit de corps.  Marvelous transformations take place inside the military.  People change from being nobody’s to somebody’s — and, for most military veterans, it is a transformation that lasts them the rest of their lives.  Not everyone, of course, but most.  To most such young Americans, the military becomes a doorway, a step up, a directional device to the rest of their lives.

Stepping Up

Joseph Vittori

Joseph Vittori was one such individual.  Born in 1929 in Beverly, Massachusetts (a suburb of Boston), Joe’s father was a small farmer.  Farming is hard work, necessary of course, but quite often thankless work — and we know nothing of Joe’s father.  Not even his name.  We don’t know if he was a good father or abusive, pleasant, angry, sober, or sotted.  We only know that Joe graduated from high school in 1946 and soon after joined the U.S. Marine Corps on a 3-year enlistment.

Joe Vittori attended recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, graduating in December 1946.  This was a time when the government proceeded to demobilize the armed forces.  Marine infantry divisions were being placed into cadre status and the Marines reverted to their security duties at naval posts and stations and aboard ship’s detachments.  Joe’s assignments involved that very thing: Joe served security duty at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Marine Detachment, U.S.S. Portsmouth, and the Philadelphia Navy Yard.  He joined the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune in January 1949 serving there until his discharge in October.

A Crisis Develops

Life was tough in 1949, owing to a significant economic recession in 1948.  In this period, unemployment approached 8%, the U.S. GDP fell nearly 2%, the cost of living index fell five points, and department store sales fell 22%.  Nevertheless, Joe Vittori took his discharge and returned to Beverly, working as a plasterer and bricklayer.  The work put money in his pocket, but it wasn’t the same as serving as a U.S. Marine.

On 25 June 1950, North Korean armed forces invaded South Korea, touching off the Korean War.  The incident prompted many young men, in circumstances similar to those of Joe Vittori, to reenlist in the Armed Forces.  Joe rejoined the Marine Corps Reserve in September 1950.  At this time, the Marine Corps was struggling to rebuild a combat-effective infantry division.  The Marines immediately ordered Joe to active duty and sent him to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for pre-deployment combat training.  Within a few months, Joe Vittori joined the 1st Marine Regiment in Korea, assigned to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion.

On 9 June 1951, while fighting with his company near Yang-Gu, Vittori received wounds from enemy fire (earning his first Purple Heart Medal).  Treated at the battalion aid station, Vittori was assigned to police duties while recovering from his wounds.  Within a few weeks, along with promoting Joe Vittori to Corporal, his battalion commander approved the young man’s request to return to his line company.

Battles of the Punchbowl

Battles of the Punchbowl

While battles raged across the entire Korean Peninsula, United Nations (UN) and North Korean (NK) officials attempted to negotiate an equitable settlement to the conflict.  When these efforts fell apart in August 1951, the UN Command decided to launch a limited offensive to restructure defensive lines opposing Chinese Communist (CHICOM) forces.  The effort, designed to deny the enemy key vantage points from which they could easily target key U.N. positions, resulted in the Battle of Bloody Ridge (August-September 1951) (west of the Punchbowl) and the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge (September-October 1951) (northwest of the Punchbowl).  See above map.

In late August, the 8th U.S. Army Commander, General James Van Fleet, ordered the 1st Marine Division to maneuver its three regiments around Inje-Gun to support the United Nations offensive by distracting CHICOM and North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) forces from the Battle of Bloody Ridge.  The Marines’ orders were to attack Yoke Ridge and advance to a new defensive line (called the Hays Line) marked by the southern edge of the Soyang River to the north of the Punchbowl.

Phase I

At 0600 on 31 August, the 7th Marines, consisting of its three organic battalions and reinforced by an additional two battalions of the 1st Regiment of Republic of Korea Marines (ROK Marines) launched an assault from Hill 793 up the eastern edge of the Punchbowl toward Yoke Ridge (west) and Tonpyong (east).  Despite poor weather, marked by torrential rains, the Marines resolutely reached their initial objectives and assaulted NKPA positions.

On 1 September the ROK Marines moved along Yoke Ridge, while the 7th Marines moved north, both assault groups clearing out NKPA bunkers with grenades and flamethrowers. The NKPA launched several small-scale counterattacks against the advancing Marines, but these were broken up by the combined arms of US and ROK ground forces. 

On the night of 1-2 September, the NKPA launched a night attack against the ROK Marines on Hill 924, driving them out of their positions, causing the loss of 21 ROK Marines killed and 84 wounded, but the NKPA had given up 291 KIA and 231 wounded.  After sunrise on 2 September, ROK Marines employed heavy artillery in recapturing Hill 924, consolidated their position, and then began moving against their next objective, Hill 1026.  After defeating several NKPA assaults, 3/7 advanced toward Hill 602, seizing that objective by 2:30 p.m. (1430).  The NKPA launched several company-size counterattacks on Hill 602, all defeated — but not without heavy losses on both sides: USMC losses were 75 killed, 349 wounded; communists gave up 450 KIA, 609 wounded, and 15 captured.

At 4 a.m. on 3 September, ROK Marines renewed their attack on Hill 1026, while 2/7 Marines assumed the defense of Hill 924.  As ROK Marines advanced, they encountered a large NKPA force advancing towards Hill 924, attacked them, and by midday, seized Hill 1026.  A short time later, the Korean Marines began their advance toward  Hills 1055 and 930.  When that mission was accomplished, UN forces had secured Yoke Ridge.  Meanwhile, to the west of the Punchbowl, the ROK 35th Infantry advanced unopposed to Hill 450, about 1.5 miles southwest of Hill 1026.

Phase II

Between 4–10 September, the 1st Marine Division and 1st ROK Marines consolidated their positions on Yoke Ridge, established the UN’s Hays Line, and built up ammunition and supplies for the second phase of the attack on Kan mu-bong Ridge.  The ridge was essential to defend the Hays Line and allow the U.S. X Corps to assault the NKPA’s main line of resistance (MLR).  A lull in fighting permitted the NKPA to reinforce their positions on Hill 673, opposite Hill 602.  Both sides engaged in active patrolling, and casualties on both sides were substantial.

The 7th Marines received orders to launch an attack no later than 3 a.m., on 11 September from the Hays Line through a narrow valley, across a tributary of the Soyang River, and then uphill towards Hills 680 and 673 with Hill 749 as a tertiary objective.  The 1st Tank Battalion provided direct fire support to the advancing Marines, while the 11th Marines provided indirect artillery support.  3/7 had the task of capturing Hill 680.  Despite extensive artillery and tank support, the NKPA put up stiff resistance to the Marines, preventing them from reaching the top of the hill before nightfall.  1/7, tasked with capturing Hill 673, also encountered strong opposition, stopping them short of their objective.

Over the night of 11-12 September, Marines from 2/7 moved to the rear of Hill 673, effectively cutting off any chance of escape by NKPA forces on the hill.  By 2 p.m., 1/7 had taken Hill 673, suffering 16 KIA and 35 WIA, killing 33 North Korean communists.[1]  During the night of 12 September, the elements of the 1st Marine Regiment relieved 1/7 and 3/7 on Hill 673.  2/1 relieved 2/7 on Hill 749 on the following day.

On 13 September, 2/1 Marines moved against Hill 749 to relieve 2/7.[2]  Hill 749 proved to be a heavily defended fortress of bunkers, covered trenches, tunnels, and part of the NKPA’s MLR.  2/1 Marines seized the summit just after noon but were soon driven back — finally gaining control of the summit by 3 p.m., but it would be nearly 9 p.m. before they could relieve 2/7 on the reverse slope. 

An abundance of enemy mines and a lack of supporting artillery delayed the 3rd Battalion’s advance toward Hill 751.  Sunset forced the Marines to dig in on the slopes of Hill 751.  In these fixed positions, the Marines endured enemy mortar fire and ten NKPA probing attacks during the night.

On 14 September, the two Marine battalions continued their assaults from the previous day.  2/1 cleared NKPA bunkers in a wooded area to the north of Hill 749 before advancing along the ridgeline towards Hill 812.  By 3:30 p.m., the attack had bogged down in the face of enemy frontal and flanking fire.  During this assault, Private First Class Edward Gomez smothered an NKPA grenade with his body, saving the lives of the rest of his machine gun team.[3]

3/1, supported by accurate airstrikes, seized most of Hill 751 by dusk and had dug in when the NKPA counterattacked at around 10:50 p.m.  Marine losses for the day included 39 killed in action and 463 wounded.  Communist losses were 460 KIA and 405 WIA.

In the early morning of 15 September 3/1, fought off a 100–150 man NKPA counterattack, killing 18 enemies and wounding 50 more.  Marines defeated another communist counterattack at around 3:00 p.m., with tanks subsequently destroying ten bunkers in front of Hill 751.  The Marines of 3/1 were held in place while the Marines of 2/1 were ordered to clear Hill 749.  A bloody slugfest evolved due to delayed artillery, limited air support, and a tenacious NKPA defensive network.  2/1 Marines, held in place by a stout communist defense, withdrew to their previous positions at nightfall.  The battalion gave up 70 wounded Marines.

On 16 September, Fox Company continued its assault on Hill 749.  A vicious enemy counterattack drove back the forward-most platoon, inflicting heavy casualties and causing the Marines to withdraw.  Corporal  Vittori organized an impromptu counterattack with two other Marines.  These three Marines, led by Corporal Vittori, immediately attacked the enemy in hand-to-hand combat to give the withdrawing Marines time to consolidate their new defensive positions.  When the enemy onslaught jeopardized a Marine machine gun position, Vittori rushed forward 100 yards fighting single-handedly to prevent the enemy from seizing the machine gun.  Leaping from one side of the position to another, Corporal Vittori maintained withering automatic rifle fire, expending over 1,000 rounds in the space of 3 hours.  He made numerous resupply runs through enemy fire to replenish ammunition.  When a machine gunner fell, Vittori rushed to take over his gun and kept the enemy from breaching the company’s lines.  Corporal Vittori kept up his stout defense until killed by enemy rifle fire.  On the following morning, Fox Company Marines discovered more than two hundred enemies lying dead in front of Joe Vitorri’s position.

Medal of Honor Citation

Medal of Honor

The President of the United States, in the name of The Congress, takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR posthumously to:

CORPORAL JOSEPH VITTORI
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS RESERVE

for service as set forth in the following CITATION:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an Automatic Rifleman in Company F, Second Battalion, First Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced) in actions against enemy aggressor forces in Korea on 15 and 16 September 1951. With a forward platoon suffering heavy casualties and forced to withdraw under a vicious enemy counterattack as his company assaulted strong hostile forces entrenched on Hill 749, Corporal Vittori boldly rushed through the withdrawing troops with two other volunteers from his reserve platoon and plunged directly into the midst of the enemy.  Overwhelming them in a fierce hand-to-hand struggle, he enabled his company to consolidate its positions to meet further imminent onslaughts.  Quick to respond to an urgent call for a rifleman to defend a heavy machine gun positioned on the extreme point of the northern flank and virtually isolated from the remainder of the unit when the enemy again struck in force during the night, he assumed the position under the devastating barrage and, fighting a singlehanded battle, leaped from one flank to the other, covering each foxhole in turn as casualties continued to mount, manning a machine gun when the gunner was struck down and making repeated trips through the heaviest shellfire to replenish ammunition. With the situation becoming extremely critical, reinforcing units to the rear pinned down under the blistering attack and foxholes left practically void by dead and wounded for a distance of 100 yards, Corporal Vittori continued his valiant stand, refusing to give ground as the enemy penetrated to within feet of his position, simulating strength in the line and denying the foe physical occupation of the ground. Mortally wounded by enemy machine-gun and rifle bullets while persisting in his magnificent defense of the sector where approximately 200 enemy dead were found the following morning, Corporal Vittori, by his fortitude, stouthearted courage, and great personal valor, had kept the point position intact despite the tremendous odds and undoubtedly prevented the entire battalion position from collapsing.  His extraordinary heroism throughout the furious night-long battle reflects the highest credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service.  He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Corporal Vittori’s remains were laid to rest at St. Mary’s Cemetery, Beverly, Massachusetts.  Upon his death, Corporal Vittori was 22-years old.

Semper Fidelis

Endnotes:

[1] From this engagement, Sergeant Frederick Mausert was awarded the Medal of Honor.

[2] 13 September saw the first operational use of Marine helicopters in combat near Cheondo-Ri, conducting 28 resupply and aeromedical evacuation flights near Hill 793.

[3] Gomez was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for this act of selflessness.


By Presidential Decree — Part II

America in 1940

Following the Meiji Restoration in Japan and a devastating economic recession, people began migrating from the Japanese Islands because they needed jobs.  Between 1869 and 1924, some 200,000 Japanese arrived in the Hawaiian Islands.  An additional 180,000 migrated to the US mainland and the majority of those settled on the West Coast.  Many of these people started small businesses and farms.  Most arrived on the mainland before 1908.  In that year, the United States banned the immigration of unskilled workers.  A loophole in the law allowed the wives of men living in the United States to join their husbands — from this, the practice of women marrying by proxy and immigrating to the US, which resulted in a significant increase in the number of picture brides.

The increase of Japanese living in California resulted in steady resistance by European-Americans living on the West Coast.  It was purely and simply racialism, as evidenced by the Asiatic Exclusion League, California Joint Immigration Committee, and Native Sons of the Golden West — all organized in response to the so-called “yellow peril.”  These groups quite effectively influenced politicians to restrict Japanese immigrants’ property and citizenship rights in a manner similar to anti-Chinese migration.  The Immigration Act of 1924 restricted the Japanese in the same way as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

One effect of the 1924 ban is that it produced unusually well-defined generational groups within the Japanese-American community.  The Issei, for example, were exclusively those who immigrated before the ban, some of whom elected to return to Japan.  Because the United States placed a moratorium on Japanese immigration.  Within Japanese-American communities, they were called Nisei.  They were distinct from the Issei cohort — generally 15-20 years older than their wives.

Nisei were English speakers; Issei were generally not.  Because the 1924 law prohibited Japanese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens, the Issei became dependent upon their children whenever they rented or purchased property. By 1940, most Nisei had married and started their own families.  Despite these handicaps, Japanese-Americans made significant contributions to California agriculture (and in other Western states), but overt racism forced them into establishing unique communities.  The communities were, in turn, divided into Japanese prefecture groups.  They also created Buddhist women’s associations, set up businesses to provide loans and financial assistance, and started Japanese language schools.

The rise of fascism in Japan in the 1930s prompted the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) to begin monitoring and surveilling Japanese-American communities in Hawaii.  In 1936, under the direction of Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the ONI began compiling “suspect lists” of Japanese-Americans — citizens of the United States whom Roosevelt intended to place in “concentration” camps in the event of war with Imperial Japan.

The FBI began working with ONI in 1939.  FDR commissioned a Detroit businessman named Curtis Munson to coordinate these efforts.  In 1941, Munson informed the President that the so-called Japanese-American problem was “non-existent.”  He reported “an extraordinary” degree of loyalty to the United States within Japanese-American communities.  ONI Director Kenneth Ringle made a similar report to the President in 1942.

Still, six weeks after Japan’s “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor, Army Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt openly questioned the loyalty of Japanese-Americans and proclaimed, “A Jap’s a Jap.”  The State of California vigorously joined DeWitt in questioning Japanese-American loyalty by claiming that persons of Japanese ancestry were “totally unassimilable.”

FDR’s Executive Order 9066 (signed on 19 February 1942) authorized military commanders to designate military exclusion zones at their discretion.  DeWitt did precisely that on 2 March 1942, ordering all Japanese-Americans living within those zones to depart immediately.  Within a few weeks, however, DeWitt reversed himself.  After that, he prohibited Japanese-Americans from leaving these exclusion zones, imposed curfews, and placed restrictions on their freedom of movement.

Only one civilian official protested this treatment: Colorado governor Ralph Lawrence Carr.[1]  Meanwhile, DeWitt issued more than a hundred exclusion orders over the next five months.  By August 1942, federal officials moved American citizens of Japanese ancestry to far distant/remote locations.[2]

Toward the end of the war, the relocation centers began to close.  Of more than 70,000 Japanese-American internees, only three (3) challenged the constitutionality of Roosevelt’s order.  

America Today

Threats to American Constitutional guarantees and liberties continue today.  If the reader believes these historical examples were severe, some today argue that it’s getting even worse.  Certain political groups, activists, and other morons demand restrictions on freedoms of speech, association, and pamphleteering.  Political militants aside, there is no more significant threat to individual liberty than that imposed by the United States government, which conspires to undermine the rights and privileges of American citizenship.

The government’s intrusion into our private lives, as demonstrated by the so-called Patriot Act, the creation of secret courts, the policy of intercepting, reading, and storing data obtained from electronic media, and the government dictate that we (a free people) remain under arrest in our quarters — threatens our American Republic.  The preceding “case histories” serve as warnings to us about presidents and their henchmen who not only think they have extraordinary power over us — they do.

The Supreme Court may safeguard the Constitution, but it does nothing to safeguard the rights of citizens who became victims of the government’s unconstitutional overreach.  It did nothing to free those who sat in isolated cells while remaining uncharged, unindicted, and untried by a jury of their peers.  The high court did not prevent Woodrow Wilson from targeting Americans for expressing their dissenting opinions, and it did nothing to protect Japanese-Americans from President Roosevelt’s Gestapo.

We know what the federal government is capable of doing.  With this knowledge, every American must view politicians, bureaucrats, and government policy with deep suspicion.  No government is trustworthy.  After all, the government reintroduced blacks to the slavery of low expectation and government subsidy; in the same way, the government destroyed the American Indians.  It remains up to people who value their liberty to refuse to relinquish their human rights, their rights as citizens.  No one in the government will protect us.  Preserving our freedom is OUR duty.

Sources:

  1. Connell, T.  America’s Japanese Hostages: The US Plan for a Japanese Free Hemisphere.  Praeger-Greenwood, 2002.
  2. McGinty, B.  The Body of John Merryman: Abraham Lincoln and the Suspension of Habeas Corpus.  Harvard University Press, 2011.
  3. Hall, K. L. (Ed.)  The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States.  Oxford University, 1992.
  4. Lewis, W.  Without Fear or Favor: A Biography of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney.  Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
  5. Robinson, G.  By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans.  Harvard University Press, 2009.

Notes:

[1] Carr also lost his bid for reelection because of his stance.

[2] Tule Lake, California, Minidoka, Idaho, Manzanar, California, Topaz, Utah, Jerome, Arkansas, Heart Mountain, Wyoming, Poston, Arizona, Granada, Colorado, and Rohwer, Arkansas.

My thanks to Mr. Koji KANEMOTO for his much-valued assistance and participation in the research, preparation, and editing of this post.


By Presidential Decree — Part I

America in 1860

No one can say that Abraham Lincoln didn’t have a full plate during the American Civil War and filling up that plate began even before he assumed office.  No one should have to endure that kind of stress — tensions that lasted for four long years — but it was Lincoln himself who signed up for that slog-fest.  In 1861, the nation’s capital lay in the center of southeastern slave territories.  Although Maryland didn’t secede from the Union, Southern sympathies were widespread in that state.  Maryland’s possible secession was one of many factors Lincoln had to consider in defining his domestic agenda.

John Merryman (1824-1881) was the father of eleven children, a farmer in Cockeysville, Maryland, and a president of the Board of County Commissioners of Baltimore County.  Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Merryman also served as Third Lieutenant of Baltimore County Troops.  In 1861, he served as First Lieutenant in the Baltimore County Horse Guards.  On Friday, 19 April 1861, anti-war Democrats (calling themselves Copperheads) joined with other Southern sympathizers to oppose certain Massachusetts and Pennsylvania militia members.  They were mobilizing in Baltimore as a defense force for the city of Washington.  Hostilities erupted when the Copperheads attempted to prevent the aforementioned Yankee militia from moving to Washington.

On 20 April, Maryland’s governor Thomas H. Hicks (a pro-slave/anti-secession Democrat) and Baltimore mayor George W. Brown dispatched Maryland State Militia to disable the railroad tracks and bridges leading out of Baltimore.  Hicks later denied issuing any such order.  In any case, one of the low-level Maryland militia leaders was none other than John Merryman.

On 27 April, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus.  This Latin phrase means, “We command that you must produce the body at court.”  The writ prohibits unlawful detention or imprisonment and compels “government authority” to produce a prisoner to the court so that the accused can appear before a jurist.  It is a mechanism for ensuring the right of an accused to have his day in court.

In suspending the writ, Lincoln’s purpose was to give military authorities power to arrest, detain, and silence dissenters and rebels.  Was Lincoln’s act lawful?  According to experts in Constitutional law — yes.  A president may suspend the Constitution when rebellion or invasion occurs, and public safety requires it.  

On 25 May, Union military forces arrested Mr. Merryman for his role in destroying railroad tracks and bridges and escorted him to a cell at Fort McHenry.  Merryman remained there for several months.  If it were up to President Lincoln, Merryman would stay in that cell to this very day.  Some would argue that the federal government violated Mr. Merryman’s constitutional rights.  Through his lawyer, Merryman petitioned the court for a writ of habeas corpus.  The petition was presented to, of all people, the Chief Justice of the United States, Roger B. Taney — a native of Maryland and the federal circuit court judge for Maryland.

We know from history that Lincoln’s election to the presidency led several states to secede from the Union.  We also know that the first hostile act of the Civil War occurred in Baltimore, which means that the bombardment of Fort Sumter was not the initiating action of the Civil War — so we should stop saying that.

Roger B. Taney was an anti-Lincoln jurist who saw it as his duty to remain seated on the high court rather than resigning his appointment to serve the Confederacy.  As with Governor Hicks (and many others of his day), Taney was a pro-slavery anti-secessionist.  As a jurist, he believed that states had a Constitutional right to secede from the Union.  As a man, he detested Lincoln, believing that he was responsible for destroying the Union.  From his position on the high court, Taney would challenge Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, arguing that only Congress could do that.  And he loathed Lincoln’s interference with civil liberties.

Through non-acquiescence (where one branch of the government refuses to acknowledge the authority of another branch of government), Lincoln ignored Taney’s ruling.  Lincoln nevertheless addressed the issue in a message to Congress in July 1861.  In his letter, Lincoln cited Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution (previously mentioned).

Eventually, Lincoln doubled down on suspending habeas corpus by extending it on a much larger scale, which some would argue violated the rights of citizens throughout the war.  Eventually, Lincoln’s policy softened somewhat in Maryland, but only out of concern that Maryland might also secede from the Union.  After the Merryman arrest, however, Lincoln channeled such actions through Congress.  It was a workable arrangement because, in 1863, Congress passed the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act.

Chief Justice Taney passed away in 1864, aged 87 years.  He served as Chief Justice of the United States for 28 years, 198 days — the second-longest tenure of any chief justice and the oldest ever serving Chief Justice in United States’ history.

Ultimately, John Merryman was turned over to civilian authorities and allowed to post bail.  The government finally dropped its treason charges against Merryman in 1867; he was never brought to trial.  Six years later, in a case unrelated to Merryman’s, the high court ruled that civilians were not subject to military courts even in times of war.  As it turned out, the Merryman case was not the last time the federal government suspended American civil rights.

America in 1916

Americans saw no reason to involve themselves in Europe’s “great war” of 1914.  Few people knew where the Austro-Hungarian Empire was, much less who was in charge of it, so the assassination of the heir to the throne was a non-event.  Nor did many Americans care about the wartime alliances.  The whole affair, in the mind of most Americans, was none of our business.  President Woodrow Wilson, a progressive Democrat, proclaimed United States’ neutrality — a view widely supported by the American people — including many immigrants from the belligerent countries.

Yet, despite Wilson’s claim of neutrality, American capitalists were quick to take advantage of war-related opportunities.  Europeans needed food, materials, and American-made munitions.  Not only were American companies happy to sell these goods to the Europeans, but American banks were also happy to loan money to the Europeans so that they could purchase those goods.  This financial involvement gave the United States a stake in the winner of the Great War.  The trick for the Americans was to find a way to safely send American-made goods to the allied powers — through seas patrolled by German submarines.

When RMS Lusitania was laid down in 1904, the British government decided to subsidize its construction costs, provided that the Cunard Line agreed to allow Lusitania to serve as an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC) should Great Britain need her in time of war or other national emergencies.  The British government placed Lusitania on its list of AMCs in 1914, but Lusitania’s exorbitant operating costs caused the government to reverse that decision.  Whether the British ever got around to informing the Germans of this decision is unknown.

For their part, Imperial Germany gave due notice and warning to anyone booking passage on Lusitania: since a state of war existed between Germany and Great Britain, all Allied vessels were targets of the German Imperial Navy.  From Germany’s point of view, knowing full well that Lusitania’s holds contained U. S. manufactured war materials intended to aid the Allied powers, Lusitania became a legitimate target.  After all, Britain’s decision to allow passengers on a de facto AMC vessel wasn’t Germany’s problem — and besides — the United States’ claim of neutrality was laughable.[1]

It was no surprise to anyone in the hierarchy of either government when a German submarine torpedoed Lusitania on 7 May 1915.  Twelve hundred people lost their lives, including 128 Americans.  By this time, anti-German war propaganda was in full swing.  Stories of German military atrocities targeting civilians appeared regularly in the American press, such as the Rape of Belgium, which claimed that the German army was responsible for the death or injury to 46,000 innocents.  Even though President Wilson maintained his non-intervention policy, anti-German passions increased throughout the United States.

Meanwhile, the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921) was in full swing.  Mexican bandits attacked, murdered, and looted American homesteaders living along the US/Mexican border with increasing regularity.  In 1916, Wilson dispatched US troops to the southern border and ordered General “Black Jack” Pershing into Mexico to capture or kill Pancho Villa.  Anticipating conflict on two fronts, President Wilson asked for and gained congressional authority to increase the size of the U. S. Army, National Guard, and U. S. Navy.

American voters reelected Wilson to a second term in November 1916.  By this time, the anti-German passions led some Americans to join the French Army, French Foreign Legion, and French Air Service.

After the German Imperial government announced its intent to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, President Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Germany.  Germany responded by targeting American merchant ships in the North Atlantic.

In January 1917, British codebreakers intercepted an encrypted German telegram addressed to the German Ambassador to Mexico.  The telegram instructed the Ambassador to propose an alliance between Germany and Mexico against the United States.  In essence, should the United States join the allied war effort, Germany suggested a pact with Mexico with military assistance regaining the territory lost to the United States during the Mexican-American War (1848): Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.  History recalls this communique as the Zimmerman Telegram.

British diplomats handed the Zimmerman Telegram to Wilson on 24 February, and Wilson released it to the American press on 1 March.  The effect of publishing this information was, as anticipated, wide-scale public outrage toward both Germany and Mexico (even though Mexico never officially acknowledged the proffered alliance).  The United States declared war on Germany on 4 April 1917.

After declaring war, Wilson focused almost exclusively on his foreign policy agenda — leaving domestic affairs to his “war cabinet.”  The cabinet’s chief concern was the expansion of the military, food distribution, fuel rationing, and consumer conservation.  Within three years, America’s annual budget exploded from around $1 billion in 1916 to nearly $20 billion in 1920.  Congress raised taxes through the War Revenue Act of 1917 and the Revenue Act of 1918, increasing the top tax rate to 77% and expanding the number of citizens subject to personal income taxes.

Wilson’s tax scheme was unsettling from several points of view.  Because tax increases were by themselves insufficient, the federal government began issuing low-interest war bonds.  To encourage investment, Congress made the interest paid on these bonds tax-free.  One consequence of this policy was that it encouraged citizens to borrow money for the purchase of bonds.  This, in turn, produced two additional effects: an increase in inflation and (by 1929) the Stock Market crash.[2]

Not everyone was pleased with Wilson’s decision to enter World War I.  Without realizing their country’s economic involvement with European nations at war, many Americans demanded that the United States maintain its neutrality.  Other groups opposed the military draft (the first of its kind in the world).  Other opposition groups included pacifists, anarchists, socialists, labor union workers, Christians, anti-militarists, the so-called “Old Right,” and women’s peace groups.  Among the socialists were Irish, German, and Russian immigrants whose “loyalty” to the United States Wilson always questioned. While young Americans were fighting and dying for the American way, Wilson, fearing that dissidents would undermine his war effort, signed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918.[3]  Both acts criminalized disloyal, profane, scurrilous, and abusive language toward the United States government, the military, or any speech or language intended to incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of conscription.  They were among the most egregious of the government’s violations of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  The Supreme Court upheld several convictions based on “limitations of free speech in a time of war.”  See also Schenck v. United States and Note 4.[4]

(Continued next week)

Sources:

  1. Connell, T.  America’s Japanese Hostages: The US Plan for a Japanese Free Hemisphere.  Praeger-Greenwood, 2002.
  2. McGinty, B.  The Body of John Merryman: Abraham Lincoln and the Suspension of Habeas Corpus.  Harvard University Press, 2011.
  3. Hall, K. L. (Ed.)  The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States.  Oxford University, 1992.
  4. Lewis, W.  Without Fear or Favor: A Biography of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney.  Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
  5. Robinson, G. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Endnotes:

[1] The sinking of the Lusitania underscored Germany’s success in espionage, and America’s failure in counter-espionage.

[2] Wall Street investors were making large profits from their arrangement with the Allied Powers — even after federal taxes, but they would make a lot more money by investing in post-war reconstruction.  This would become part of the post-war boom that was so profitable, people borrowed money to invest in the stock market.  When the Stock Market crashed in 1929, due to the over-valuation of stocks, people not only lost their investments, they also became indebted with no way to repay their personal loans.  It was a behavior that caused investors to throw themselves off buildings.

[3] Later, partially in reaction against the Bolshevik Revolution and the rising tide of socialism in Europe, a more general anti-immigrant sentiment gripped America.  For example, through the Palmer Raids of the 1920s, the Department of Justice rounded up thousands of foreigners who were alleged communists, anarchists, labor reformers, or otherwise menaces to society. Many were forcibly deported.

[4] The years surrounding America’s involvement in World War I were a watershed for how the United States treated foreigners within its borders during wartime. Immigrants had flooded the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, almost a third of Americans were either first or second-generation immigrants. Those born in Germany and even American-born citizens of German descent fell under suspicion of being disloyal.

My thanks to Mr. Koji KANEMOTO for his much-valued assistance and participation in the research, preparation, and editing of this post.