Marine Corps Artillery — Part 4

Post-Korea and Beyond

Post-Korea Reorganization

For U.S. Marines, the Korean Peninsula wasn’t the only dance hall. No sooner had HQMC directed the transfer of three battalions of the 10th Marines to the 11th Marines, than the rebuilding of the 10th Marines with new recruitments and artillery training began.  In the mid-1950s, the 10th Marines played a pivotal role in the Lebanon Emergency, fleet training exercises, and deployments supporting NATO exercises in Norway, Greece, Crete, Gibraltar, the Caribbean, and West Indies. The Cold War was in full swing.

Between 1955 and 1965, Marine Corps artillery battalions trained with new weapons and maintained their readiness for combat.  No one in the Marine Corps wanted to return to the bad old days of the Truman administration.  Should the plague of war revisit the United States, the Marine Corps intended to meet every challenge by maintaining a high state of combat readiness.  Artillery Battalions trained to support infantry regiments and, as part of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, firing batteries frequently deploy with battalion landing teams (BLTs).  In 1957, new tables of organization increased the size of artillery battalions by adding a 4.2-inch mortar battery.  A new mortar was introduced in 1960, called the “howtar.”  The new M30 4.2-inch mortar was a rifled, muzzle-loading, high-angle weapon used for long-range indirect fire support.  In addition to other “innovations,” cannon-cockers participated in (helicopter-borne) vertical assault training, which given the weight of artillery pieces, was not as simple as it sounds.  The howtar, while still in service, is (to my knowledge) no longer part of the USMC weapons inventory.

Back to East Asia

In the early 1960s, the Cold War showed signs of easing.  The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963) seemed to foreshadow a period of détente after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The hope for world peace fell apart with incidents in Asia, Africa, and Latin America — of which the war in Vietnam was an extraordinary event.  From 1954 to 1975, nearly half a million Marines fought in the jungles of Vietnam (See also: Viet Nam: The Beginning).

In 1962, all Marine ground units began counterinsurgency training, which was mostly exercises designed to improve small unit combat patrols and area security operations.  In June, the 11th Marines went through another re-organization.  The 1st and 4th 155-mm Howitzer Batteries, Force Troops, FMF became the 4th Battalion, 11th Marines.  Marine Corps Base, Twenty-nine Palms became the permanent home of the 4th Battalion because its weapons demanded more area for live-firing exercises.

In late July 1964, the US Seventh Fleet assigned the destroyer, USS Maddox, to perform a signals intelligence mission off the coast of North Vietnam.  On Sunday, 2 August, the ship was allegedly approached by three North Vietnamese Navy (NVN) motor patrol boats.  The official story of this incident is that after giving the NVN a warning to remain clear of the ship, the patrol boats launched an assault on Maddox.  Nothing like that actually happened, but it was enough to give President Lyndon Baines Johnson a war in Indochina.[1]

Following this incident, Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Commander, US Pacific Fleet, activated the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9thMEB).[2]  Brigadier General Raymond G. Davis, who was at the time serving as Assistant Division Commander, 3rd Marine Division, was named to command the Brigade.[3]

9thMEB formed around the 9th Marine Regiment (9thMar), including the regimental headquarters (HQ) element and three battalion landing teams (BLTs) —in total, around 6,000 combat-ready Marines.  When the Maddox incident faded away, the US Pacific Fleet ordered the 9thMEB to establish its command post at Subic Bay, Philippine Islands, with its BLTs strategically distributed to Subic Bay, Okinawa, and “afloat” at sea as part of the Special Landing Force (SLF), Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), US Seventh Fleet.

Between 28 December 1964 — 2 January 1965, North Vietnamese Army (NVA)/Viet Cong (VC) forces overwhelmingly defeated a South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) battalion and its US military advisors at Binh Gia.  It was a clear demonstration to the Americans that the ARVN could not defend the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).[4]

Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch assumed command of 9thMEB on 22 January 1965. At that point, President Johnson ordered the Marines into Da Nang — their specific mission was to secure the airfield against enemy Viet Cong (VC) intrusions. In late February, VC forces assaulted the US base at Pleiku, killing 9 Americans, wounding 128 others, and damaging or destroying 25 military aircraft. Karch led the 9thMAB ashore on 7 March 1965.  In addition to BLTs 2/9 and 3/9, 9thMEB also absorbed Marine Aircraft Group 16 (MAG-16), which was already conducting “non-combat” ARVN support missions at Da Nang (See also: Vietnam, the Marines Head North).

Fox Battery, 2/12, attached to BLT 3/9, was the first Marine Corps artillery unit to serve in the Vietnam War.  The arrival of additional artillery units prompted the formation of a Brigade Artillery Group, which included Alpha Battery, 1/12, Bravo Battery, 1/12, and Fox Battery, 2/12.  These firing batteries employed 105-mm howitzers and 4.2-inch mortars.  The arrival of Lima Battery, 4/12, added a 155-mm howitzer battery and an 8-inch howitzer platoon.[5]  As the number of Marine infantry units increased in Vietnam, so did the number of artillery units.  The I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ) was further divided into Tactical Areas of Responsibilities (TAORs) and assigned to the 3rd Marine Division (from Okinawa) and 1st Marine Division (from Camp Pendleton, California).

In the summer of 1965, most of the 11thMar departed Camp Pendleton and moved to Camp Hansen, Okinawa.  Within mere days of their arrival, 3/11 and Mike Battery, 4/11 proceeded to RVN.  Assigned to Chu Lai to support the 7th Marines, elements of both regiments went immediately into Operation Starlight.  During August, 1/11 moved to Okinawa.  Alpha Battery went ashore in Vietnam with the Special Landing Force (SLF) in December.  HQ 11th Marines arrived in Chu Lai in February 1966, joined by 2/11 from Camp Pendleton.  The battalions of the 11thMar supported infantry regiments, as follows: 1/11 supported the 1stMar; 2/11 supported the 5thMar, and 3/11 supported the 7thMar.  4/11 served in general support of the 1st Marine Division.

The I CTZ was the northernmost section of South Vietnam.  It consisted of five political provinces situated within approximately 18,500 square miles of dense jungle foliage.  The area of I CTZ was by far larger than any two infantry divisions could defend or control, so the Marine Corps developed a tactical plan that assigned its six available infantry regiments to smaller-sized TAORs.  These TAORs were still too large, but it was all the Marines could do under the rules of engagement dictated to them by the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (USMACV).  The relative isolation of combat units created a dangerous situation.  Marine artillerists were no exception

Although two artillery regiments operated in Vietnam, they were not equal in size or mission.  By 1967, the 12th Marine Regiment was the largest artillery regiment in Marine Corps history — task organized to support a larger number of infantry units within a much larger TAOR.  All artillery units were assigned to support infantry units throughout the I CTZ; tactical commanders placed these artillery units where they were most effective — fire support bases (FSBs) at strategic locations.

Although originally conceived as a temporary tactical arrangement, several FSBs became long-term (semi-permanent) operating bases.  They were quite literally blasted into existence from heavily forested hilltops.  For as much as possible, the FSB system provided mutually supporting fires, but this was not always possible.  The size of FSBs varied according to the size of the units assigned.  Typically, an FSB hosted a single firing battery (six 105mm or 155mm howitzers), a platoon of engineers, field medical and communications detachments, helicopter landing pads, a tactical operations center, and an infantry unit for area security.  Larger FSBs might include two firing batteries and a BLT.[6]

Beyond their traditional tasks, Marine artillerists were often required to provide for their own defense against enemy probes and outright assaults.  FSBs were also the target of enemy mortar and artillery fires.  When infantry units were unavailable, which was frequently the case in Vietnam, artillerists defended themselves by manning the perimeter, establishing outposts, and conducting combat/security patrols.  VC units foolish enough to assault an FSB may very well have spent their last moments on earth contemplating that extremely poor decision.  The only thing the NVA/VC ever accomplished by shooting at an American Marine was piss him off. Every Marine is a rifleman.

In 1968, the VC launched a major assault on all US installations in Vietnam.  It was called the Tet Offensive because it took place during the Vietnamese new year (Tet).  The tactical goal was to kill or injure as many US military and RVN personnel as possible — playing to the sentiments of the anti-war audience back in the United States and discrediting the US and ARVN forces in the eyes of the Vietnamese population.  Marine artillery played a crucial role in defeating attackers from multiple regions within I CTZ, but the offensive also changed the part of Marine artillery after 1968.  Before Tet-68, supporting fires were routine, on-call, and a somewhat minor factor during USMC ground operations.  After Tet-68, artillery took on a more significant fire support role.  1968 was also a year of innovation as Marine artillery units incorporated the Army’s Field Artillery Digital Computer Center (FADAC) (which had been around since 1961) and the new Army/Navy Portable Radio Communications (25).[7]

In addition to providing tactical fire direction and support to Marine Corps infantry units, USMC artillerists also provided fire support to US Army and ARVN units operating in the I CTZ.  Following the communist’s failed Tet-68 offensive, the Commanding General, 3rd Marine Division (Major General Raymond G. Davis) initiated an offensive campaign to diminish or destroy NVA/VC units operating within I CTZ and demilitarized zones (DMZ).  Marine artillery units joined with Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force attack aircraft, B-52 bombers, and naval gunfire from the U.S. Seventh Fleet to destroy enemy sanctuaries and artillery positions within the DMZ and Laos.  These overwhelming bombardments allowed infantry units to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses, reduce the size of their forces, destroy enemy defensive fortifications, and disrupt their logistics efforts.  What transpired within I CTZ was an impressive demonstration of inter-service cooperation that gave US forces the upper hand in RVN’s northern provinces.

Conclusion

Marines continue to learn essential lessons from their many past battles and conflicts.  For example, the Small Wars Manual, 1941, is still used by Marines as a resource for certain types of operations.  The expression Every Marine is a Rifleman is as true today as it was in 1775 — Marine artillerists are no exception.  During Operation Enduring Freedom, Golf Battery, BLT 1/6 performed several essential combat functions, which in addition to fire support missions, included humanitarian assistance, convoy security, area security for Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ripley, UN Team security, prisoner security, and its transition into a provisional rifle company.[8]  Given the diverse range of military occupational specialties involved, making that transition was a challenge for Battery officers and NCOs.

Marines representing a wide range of occupational specialties within a firing battery, from cannon-cockers and lanyard snappers to FDC operations specialists, motor transport drivers and mechanics, cooks, and communicators molded themselves into cohesive fire teams, rifle squads, platoons, and ultimately, a responsive and highly lethal infantry company.  The effort and result were the embodiment of task force organization.  Golf Battery formed three fully functional infantry platoons (two rifle and one weapons platoon), each containing the requisite number of radio operators and a medical corpsman.  The effort was fruitful because the individual Marine, adequately led and motivated, is innovative, adaptable, and resourceful in overcoming any challenge.

Sources:

  1. Brown, R. J.  A Brief History of the 14th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1990
  2. Buckner, D. N.  A Brief History of the 10th Marines.  Washington: US Marine Corps History Division, 1981
  3. Butler, M. D.  Evolution of Marine Artillery: A History of Versatility and Relevance.  Quantico: Command and Staff College, 2012.
  4. Emmet, R.  A Brief History of the 11th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1968
  5. Kummer, D. W.  U. S. Marines in Afghanistan, 2001-2009.  Quantico: U.S. Marine Corps History Division, 2014.
  6. Russ, M.  Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.  Penguin Books, 1999.
  7. Shulimson, J., and C. M. Johnson.  US Marines in Vietnam: The Landing and the Buildup, 1965.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1978.
  8. Smith, C. R.  A Brief History of the 12th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1972.
  9. Strobridge, T. R.  History of the 9th Marines.  Quantico: Gray Research Center, 1961, 1967.

Endnotes:

[1] On 7 July 1964, the US Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized President Johnson to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate against North Vietnam’s aggression and promote peace and security in Southeast Asia.

[2] The 9thMEB was later deactivated and its units absorbed into the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).  In March 1966, the brigade was re-activated as the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (9thMAB) reflecting its primary special landing force mission under the US Seventh Fleet.

[3] General Davis (1915-2003) served on active duty in the US  Marine Corps from 1938 to 1972 with combat service in World War II, Korea, and the Vietnam War.  Davis was awarded the Medal of Honor while serving as CO 1/7 during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.  He was also awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, the Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart Medal.  General Davis’ last assignment was Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[4] RVN had been in political turmoil since November 1963 when President John Kennedy authorized the CIA to orchestrate the removal of Ngo Dinh Diem as President of South Vietnam.  Diem and his brother were assassinated on 2 November; Kennedy himself was assassinated on 22 November 1963.

[5] The 8-inch howitzer is a 203-mm gun with a range of 20.2 miles; the 155-mm howitzer has a range of 15.3 miles.

[6] Fire Support Base Cunningham at one time hosted five artillery batteries (2 105-mm, 2 155-mm, 1 4.2-inch mortar).

[7] Also, AN/PRC-25 (Prick 25) was a lightweight, synthesized VHF solid-state radio offering 2 watts of power, 920 channels in two bands with a battery life of about 60 hours.  The term “lightweight” was relative.  The radio added 25-pounds to the radioman’s usual combat load.  The PRC-25 was a significant improvement over the PRC-10.  It has since been replaced by the PRC-77.

[8] The official US designation for the War on Terror (7 Oct 2001-28 Dec 2014).


Marine Corps Artillery — Part 3

Post-World War II and Korea

Lessons Learned

Artillery equipment and technology may be an art form, but its application is pure science.  Training Marine Corps cannon-cockers for service in World War II included lessons learned from every engagement in which the Marine Corps participated from the beginning of the First World War.  Colonel Georg Bruchmüller of the Imperial Germany Army, an artillerist, pioneered what became known as accurately predicted fire.  Predicted fire is a technique for employing “fire for effect” artillery without alerting the enemy with ranging fire.  Catching the enemy off guard is an essential aspect of combat.  To facilitate this, the U.S. Army Field Artillery School developed the concept of fire direction control during the 1930s, which the Marine Corps incorporated within all artillery regiments as they came online in the early 1940s.  However, the proximity of artillery targets to friendly forces was of particular concern to the Marines, operating as they did on relatively small islands.  There is nothing simple about providing accurate and on-time artillery support to front-line forces; the performance of Marine artillery units during World War II was exceptional.

Period Note

In early May 1945, following the defeat of Nazi Germany (but before the collapse of Imperial Japan), President Truman ordered a general demobilization of the armed forces.  It would take time to demobilize twelve-million men and women.  Military leaders always anticipated demobilization following the “second war to end all wars.”  While men were still fighting and dying in the Pacific War, those who participated in the European theater and were not required for occupation duty prepared to return home to their loved ones.  The plan for general demobilization was code-named Operation Magic Carpet.  Demobilization fell under the authority of the War Shipping Administration and involved hundreds of ships.

Men and women of all the Armed Forces were, in time, released from their service obligation and sent on their way.  Many of these people, aided by the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (1944) (also called the GI Bill), went back to academic and trade schools.  Between 1945 and 1946, America’s war veterans returned home to restart their lives — they married, started families, built homes, and settled down.

But to suggest that life was a bowl of cherries in 1946 would be a gross over-simplification of that time because the transition to peacetime America was difficult.  War costs were tremendous.  President Truman believed he should transfer funds earmarked for the armed forces to social programs.  He and others in his cabinet were concerned that if the government did not pursue frugal policies, the United States might once more enter into an economic depression.

Having been asked to suspend wage increases during the war, the ink was still wet on the surrender documents when labor unions began organizing walk-outs in the steel and coal industries.  Labor strikes destabilized U.S. industries when manufacturing plants underwent a massive re-tooling for peacetime production.  Americans experienced housing shortages, limited availability of consumer goods, an inflated economy, and farmers refused to sell their yield at “cost.”

Still, even in recognizing the administration’s challenges, President Truman’s response was inept and short-sighted.  Our average citizens, the men, and women who the government imposed rationing upon for four years, deeply resented the high cost of consumer goods.  This condition only grew worse when Truman accelerated the removal of mandatory depression-era restrictions on goods and services.[1]  Increased demand for goods drove prices beyond what most Americans could afford to pay.  When national rail services threatened to strike, Truman seized the railroads and forced the hand of labor unions —which went on strike anyway.

But for Some, the War Continued

In the immediate aftermath of Japan’s unconditional surrender, the 1stMarDiv embarked by ship for service in China.  The 11th Marines, assigned to Tientsin at the old French arsenal, performed occupation duty, which involved the disarmament and repatriation of Japanese forces.  Officially, our Marines took no part in the power struggle between Chinese Nationalists and Communists.  What did happen is that the Marines had to defend themselves against unwarranted attacks by Chinese Communist guerrillas.   By the fall of 1945, China was, once more, in an all-out civil war. 

The task assigned to Marines was more humanitarian than military.  By preventing communists from seizing land routes and rail systems, and by guarding coal shipments and coal fields, Marines attempted to prevent millions of Chinese peasants from freezing to death during the upcoming winter months.  But suffering peasants was precisely what the Chinese Communists wanted to achieve, and Marines standing in the way became “targets of opportunity.”

Truman’s rapid demobilization placed these China Marines in greater danger.  As the Truman administration ordered units deactivated, manpower levels dropped, and unit staffing fell below acceptable “combat readiness” postures.  Some replacements were sent to China, but they were primarily youngsters just out of boot camp with no clear idea of what was going on in China.  Losses in personnel forced local commanders to consolidate their remaining assets.  Eventually, the concern was that these forward-deployed Marines might not be able to defend themselves.

In September 1946, for example, the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines (3/11) vacated Tientsin and joined the 7th Marines at Pei Tai-Ho.  Within 30 days, most Marine guards along railways and roadways withdrew, turning their duties over to the Nationalist Chinese Army.  Some of us may recall how Truman’s China policy turned out.[2]

In preparation for the 1948 elections, Truman made it clear that he identified himself as a “New Deal” Democrat; he wanted a national health insurance program, demanded that Congress hand him social services programs, sought repeal of the Taft-Harley Act, and lobbied for the creation of the United Nations — for which the United States would pay the largest share.[3]

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditure on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services.  There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.”

—Sir John “Jack” Slessor, Air Marshal, Royal Air Force

Harry Truman ignored this and other good advice when he decided that the United States could no longer afford a combat-ready military force, given all his earmarks for social programs.  Truman ordered a drastic reduction to all US military services through his Secretary of Defense.[4]

By late 1949/early 1950, Truman and Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson gutted the military services despite multiple warning bells in Korea.  Johnson gave the Chief of Naval Operations a warning that the days of the United States Navy were numbered.  He told the CNO that the United States no longer needed a naval establishment — the United States had an air force.  In early January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, during a speech at the National Press Club, outlined America’s global defensive sphere —omitting South Korea and Formosa.  The Soviet Union, Communist China, and Communist North Korea were very interested in what Mr. Acheson did not say.

In June 1950, budget cuts reduced the entire Marine Corps FMF from a wartime strength of 300,000 Marines to less than 28,000 men.  Most artillery regiments were reduced to an understaffed regimental headquarters and a single battalion with less than 300 men.  After digesting Acheson’s January speech for six months, North Korea (backed by the Soviet Union), invaded South Korea three hours before dawn on 25 June 1950.

New War, Old Place

In March 1949, President Truman ordered Johnson to decrease further DoD expenditures.  Truman, Johnson, and Truman-crony Stuart Symington (newly appointed Secretary of the Air Force) believed that the United States’ monopoly on nuclear weapons would act as an effective deterrent to communist aggression.  There was no better demonstration of Truman’s delusion than when North Korea invaded South Korea.

North Korea’s invasion threw the entire southern peninsula into chaos.  U.S. Army advisors, American civilian officials, South Korean politicians, and nearly everyone who could walk, run, or ride, made a beeline toward the southern city of Pusan.  President Truman authorized General MacArthur, serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) (whose headquarters was in Tokyo), to employ elements of the Eighth U.S. Army to Korea to stop the NKPA advance.  The problem was that the U. S. Army’s occupation force in Japan was not ready for another war.  Truman’s defense cuts had reduced military manpower levels, impaired training, and interrupted the maintenance of combat equipment (including radios, motorized vehicles, tracked vehicles, artillery pieces, and aircraft) to such an extent that not one of the U.S. Armed Forces was ready for the Korean emergency.

The military’s unpreparedness for war was only one of several consequences of Truman’s malfeasance.  U.S. forces in Europe and Asia, whose primary interest was indulging the mysteries of Asian and German culture, were dangerously exposed to Soviet aggression.  Had the Soviet Union decided to launch a major assault on Europe, they would have slaughtered U.S. military forces.  Military personnel had become lazy and apathetic to their mission.  Mid-level and senior NCOs enriched themselves in black market activities, senior officers played golf and attended sycophantic soirees, and junior officers —the wise ones— stayed out of the way.  But when it came time for the Eighth U.S. Army to “mount out” for combat service in Korea, no one was ready for combat — a fact that contributed to the worst military defeat in American military history — all of it made possible by President Harry S. Truman.

In July 1950, General MacArthur requested a Marine Corps regimental combat team to assist in the defense of the Pusan Perimeter.  What MacArthur received, instead, was a Marine Corps combat brigade. HQMC assigned this task to the Commanding General, 1stMarDiv, at Camp Pendleton, California.

The challenge was that to form a combat brigade, HQMC had to reduce manning within every other organization inside the United States and order them to proceed (without delay) to Camp Pendleton.  It wasn’t simply an issue of fleshing out the division’s single infantry regiment, the 5th Marines.  A combat brigade includes several combat/combat support arms: communications, motor transport, field medical, shore party, combat engineer, ordnance, tanks, artillery, supply, combat services, reconnaissance, amphibian tractors, amphibian trucks, and military police.  The brigade would also include an aviation air group formed around Provisional Marine Air Group (MAG)-33, three air squadrons, an observation squadron, and a maintenance/ordnance squadron.

Marine supporting establishments cut their staff to about a third, releasing Marines for combat service from coast-to-coast.  HQMC called reservists to active duty — some of these youngsters had yet to attend recruit training.  All these things were necessary because, in addition to forming a combat brigade, the JCS ordered the Commandant to reconstitute a full infantry division before the end of August 1950.

Within a few weeks, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade formed around Brigadier General Edward A. Craig and his assistant (and the air component commander), Brigadier General Thomas J. Cushman.[5]  Lieutenant Colonel (Colonel Select) Raymond L. Murray commanded the 5th Marines, including three understrength infantry battalions: 1/5, 2/5, and 3/5.

HQMC re-designated the three artillery battalions of the 10th Marines (at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina) as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions, 11th Marine Regiment, and immediately transported them to Camp Pendleton.  The Korean situation was so dire that the newly appointed Commanding General, 1stMarDiv, Major General Oliver P. Smith, began loading combat units and equipment aboard ships even before the division fully formed.  Again, owing to Truman’s budgetary cuts, the re-formation of the 1stMarDiv consumed the total financial resources of the entire Marine Corps for that fiscal year.

One of the more famous engagements of the 11th Marine Regiment during the Korean War came on 7 December 1950 during the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir.  Machine-gun fire from a Chinese infantry battalion halted the progress of Marines along the main supply route.  Gulf and Hotel Batteries of 2/11 moved forward.  In broad daylight and at extremely close range, the cannon-cockers leveled their 105-mm howitzers and fired salvo after salvo into the Chinese communist positions.  With no time to stabilize the guns by digging them in, Marines braced themselves against the howitzers to keep them from moving.  When the shooting ended, there were 500 dead Chinese, and the enemy battalion had no further capacity to wage war.  One Marine officer who witnessed the fight later mused, “Has field artillery ever had a grander hour?”

In a series of bloody operations throughout the war, the men of the 11th Marines supported the 1st Marines, 5th Marines, 7th Marines, and the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division.  On more than one occasion, accurate artillery fire devastated Chinese communist forces, made more critical given that poor weather conditions frequently inhibited airstrikes in the battle area.

Despite North Korea’s agreement to open peace talks in June 1951, the brutality of the Korean War continued until 27 July 1953.  North Korea frequently used temporary truces and negotiating sessions to regroup its forces for renewed attacks.  At these dangerous times, the 11th Marines provided lethal artillery coverage over areas already wrested from communist control, provided on-call fire support to platoon and squad-size combat patrols, and fired propaganda leaflets into enemy-held territories.  The regiment returned to Camp Pendleton in March and April 1955.

(Continued Next Week)

Sources:

  1. Brown, R. J.  A Brief History of the 14th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1990
  2. Buckner, D. N.  A Brief History of the 10th Marines.  Washington: US Marine Corps History Division, 1981
  3. Butler, M. D.  Evolution of Marine Artillery: A History of Versatility and Relevance.  Quantico: Command and Staff College, 2012.
  4. Emmet, R.  A Brief History of the 11th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1968
  5. Kummer, D. W.  U. S. Marines in Afghanistan, 2001-2009.  Quantico: U.S. Marine Corps History Division, 2014.
  6. Russ, M.  Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.  Penguin Books, 1999.
  7. Shulimson, J., and C. M. Johnson.  U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Landing and the Buildup, 1965.  Washington: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1978.
  8. Smith, C. R.  A Brief History of the 12th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1972.
  9. Strobridge, T. R.  History of the 9th Marines.  Quantico: Gray Research Center, 1961, 1967.

Endnotes:

[1] The situation was much worse in Great Britain.  Not only were their major cities destroyed by German bombing, but war rationing also lasted through 1954 — including the availability of coal for heating. 

[2] This might be a good time to mention that all the U.S. arms and equipment FDR provided to Mao Ze-dong, to use against the Japanese, but wasn’t, was turned against U.S. Marines on occupation duty in China.  Providing potential enemies with lethal weapons to use against American troops is ludicrous on its face, but this practice continues even now.

[3] Restricted the activities and power of labor unions, enacted in 1947 over the veto of President Truman.

[4] President Truman had no appreciation for the contributions of the US Marine Corps to the overall national defense; he did not think the nation needed a Corps of Marines, much less afford to retain the Corps, because the US already had a land army (of which he was a member during World War I).  He never accepted the fact that the Marine Corps, as a combat force, provided unique strategic skills and in fact, Truman initiated several efforts to dissolve the Marines prior to the National Security Act of 1947, which ultimately protected the Marine Corps from political efforts to disband it.

[5] See also: Edward A. Craig — Marine.


No Excuses — Fight or Die

Introduction

Archaeologists and historians will say that maritime history dates back “thousands” of years, citing evidence of sea trade between ancient civilizations and the discovery of pre-historic boats, such as dugout canoes developed somewhat independently by various stone age populations.  Of course, fashioning out a handmade canoe and using it to cross a river may not exactly qualify as “maritime.”  Nor should we conclude that Austronesian explorers qualified as a naval force, per se, but it was a start.

Egyptians had well-developed trade routes over the Red Sea to Arabia.  Navigation was known to the Sumerians between 4,000-3,000 B.C., and it was the search for trade routes that led the world into the Age of Exploration and Discovery.

Minoan traders from Crete were active in the Mediterranean by 2,000 B.C., and the Phoenicians (ancient Lebanese) became a somewhat substantial maritime culture from around 2,500 to 64 B.C.  What the ancient Syrians, Greeks, and Romans knew of sailing vessels, they learned from the Phoenicians.  At least, that’s what we believe.

Ancient Rome

The Romans were an agricultural/land-based culture.  There is evidence of a “warship” that carried a Roman ambassador to Delphi in 394 BC, but history’s first mention of a Roman navy didn’t occur until 311 B.C.  In that year, citizens of Rome elected two men to serve as “naval officers,” charging them with creating and maintaining a fleet of ships.  They were called Duumviri Navales (literally, “two men for dealing with naval matters).  Each officer controlled twenty ships.  There is some confusion, however, whether these officers exercised command over Roman ships or those of Roman allies. The ships were very likely triremes — a type of galley with three banks of oars (one man per oar).

Because Rome was a land-based culture, its primary defense and expansionist element was its land army.  Maritime trade did become an important element of the Roman economy, but this trade involved privately owned ships who assumed the risk of losses at sea due to storms and pirates rather than “Roman flagged” vessels.  When Rome did incorporate naval warships, they always served in a support role and as part of the Roman Army.  Any career soldier today will tell you that’s the way it should be — but then this would be the same kind of soldier who thought it would be a good idea to use camels in the U.S. Cavalry.

Artist’s rendition of a Roman Galley

Ships capable of survival at sea were always an expensive proposition, and comparatively speaking, there were never large numbers of people standing in line to go to sea.  Men of the ancient world were always fearful of the sea (as they should be even now).  To avoid the expense of building and maintaining ships, a Roman legate generally called upon Greeks to provide ships and crews whenever necessary to impose blockades.

It wasn’t until the Romans set their sights on Sicily in 265 BC that they realized that their land-based army needed the support of a fleet of ships to maintain a flow of supplies and communicate with the Roman Senate.  This realization prompted the senate to approve the construction of 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes in 261 B.C.[1] [2]  Note also that quinqueremes were referred to as “the fives” because the rowers were arranged in groups of five. The Romans arranged their ships’ company as centuries (100 men per ship).  Contrary to Hollywood films, Roman crews, particularly the rowers, were seldom slaves.  Roman crewmen were free-born citizens or provincials who signed on as rowers, artisans, riggers, or Marinus (Marines).

To the Marines (naval infantry) fell the task of defending their ship or assaulting an enemy vessel.  This was accomplished by archers, followed by boarders armed with the Roman gladii (short sword).  Thus, the primary tactical objective at sea was to board and seize enemy ships.  What a fantastic experience that must have been.  Boarding activities remained prevalent long after the advent of sailing ships, gunpowder, and massive cannon.

Naval Forces in the Middle Ages

Beginning sometime after 1300 rowed A.D. galleys were replaced by sailing ships armed with broadside-mounted cannons. It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this innovation because combining the striking power of massed artillery with shipboard Marines firing from the topsail rigging was an enormous leap forward in naval warfare.  Equally significant, naval power became the means by which Europeans created and maintained their overseas empires.

However, early in the Elizabethan era, ships were thought of as little more than transport vehicles for troops. The goal then was to corral an enemy ship, storm it, and capture it.  There was no value to sinking an enemy ship.[3]  A sea captain could sell a captured ship, its cargo, and occasionally, he could ransom passengers and crew or sell them into slavery.[4]

Beginning in medieval times, the design of ships emphasized resistance to boarders.  A ship’s aft and forecastle, for example, closely resembled towering fortresses bristling with archery and gun slits.  Necessity being the mother of invention, maritime tactics evolved further when it became apparent that defeating the enemy would require “other means.”

The Royal Navy’s Articles of War

What the United States Navy knew about operations at sea it learned from the British Royal Navy, and if we are to understand how the Royal Navy became the world’s most formidable sea power, then we must look to the British Navy’s Articles of War.  The Articles of War governed how men in uniform conducted themselves under almost every set of circumstances, including during combat.

To begin with, a British navy commander’s defeat at sea was never acceptable to either the sovereign, the admiralty, or to the Parliament.  The commanding officer of a British warship must engage the enemy and defeat him, or he must die in the attempt — even if the British ship was “outclassed.”  The standard applied to naval warfare in the 1700s and 1800s was that a British naval commander entrusted with the control of a warship should defeat an enemy ship twice as large as his own.  Fighting the vessel was the British commander’s first critical mission; winning the fight was the second.

Article XII, Articles of War, 1749: 

Every person in the Fleet, who through cowardice, negligence, or disaffection, shall in time of action withdraw or keep, or not come into the fight or engagement, or shall not to do his utmost to take or destroy every ship which it shall be his duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of His Majesty’s Ships, or those of his allies, which it shall be his duty to assist and relieve, every such person so offending, and being convicted thereof the sentence of a court-martial, shall suffer death.”

Before 1749, British naval officers had demonstrated a tendency to refuse to engage the enemy if there was any possibility that the British ship would be lost.  This behavior was, perhaps, caused in part by common sense and the fact that naval courts refused to inflict severe punishments on such officers.  The Articles of War of 1661 allowed that losses at sea could result from the ill fortunes of nature, but Article XII ruled out all such excuses. 

Nor was there, after 1749, a great deal of “special trust and confidence” in the fidelity and ability of British naval commanders.  We know this because it was the duty of the ship’s First Lieutenant to maintain a log of his captain’s actions — he was the ship’s watchdog.  If the First Lieutenant had formed a too-personal relationship with his captain, other lieutenants were encouraged to watch and record the actions of the First Lieutenant.  The ship’s master also maintained a journal.[5]  The Royal Navy’s intent was clear: there would be no lying or “fudging” journals in His or Her Majesty’s navy.[6]

Nothing was more motivational, however than case law.

The island of Minorca had been a British possession since 1708, captured during the War of Spanish Succession.  In 1748, government cost-cutting measures reduced the Royal Navy to three ships of the line in the Mediterranean Sea.  As the British sought to expand their territory in North America in 1754, hostilities broke out between the British and French (and their Indian allies), quickly spreading to British and French allies in Europe.

In 1755, France began the process of constructing twelve new warships.  British diplomats warned the Home Office that France would soon be in a position to attack Minorca.  Lord High Admiral George Anson, out of his concern of a possible French invasion of England, recalled the Mediterranean squadron and assigned them to patrol duties along England’s long coastline.  The Royal Navy could not afford to lose three ships of the line.

On 11 March 1756, the British Admiralty ordered Admiral John Byng to raise a fleet of ten ships, proceed to Toulon to protect the British garrison at Port Mahon.  However, only six ships were present in Portsmouth, and all of them were in a state of disrepair (not ready for sea).  Moreover, none of those ships were fully manned.  Admiral Byng, realizing that there was no money to repair the vessels or construct four additional ships and because no one in England was willing to enlist in the Royal Navy, struggled to find a solution to the problem.  There were no solutions.  Admiral Byng promptly protested his orders.  What the Admiralty demanded of him was impossible to achieve.

The Admiralty eventually provided funds for ship repairs and instructed Byng to carry out his orders.  When shipwrights informed Byng that repairs would take longer than expected, the Admiralty ordered Byng to outfit channel ships and proceed to Port Mahon in advance of his somewhat diminished fleet.[7]

On 6 April, still short of men, the British army loaned the navy Colonel Robert Bertie’s fusilier regiment, enabling Admiral Byng to set sail from Portsmouth.[8]  While Byng was en route to Toulon, a fleet of French naval vessels escorted 1,000 tartanes and other transports carrying 15,000 French troops to the far western side of Minorca.[9]

Upon his arrival at Gibraltar, Admiral Byng reported to the senior officer, Lieutenant General Thomas Fowke.  In their meeting, Byng presented Fowke with a letter from the British Home Office instructing him to provide Admiral Byng with such troops as he may require toward completing his mission.

When Byng realized that the French had landed a large force of soldiers at Minorca, he requested a regiment of Royal Marines to bolster his forces.  General Fowke refused.  His refusal may have had some justification if, for example, providing the Marines would have reduced Fowke’s ability to defend the British garrison as Gibraltar.  In any case, Admiral Byng’s problem was further complicated because the ship repair facility at Gibraltar was inadequate to the task of repairing his ships.  Frustrated, Byng dispatched a terse note to the Admiralty explaining his situation and then, despite his dire circumstances, sailed toward Minorca to assess the situation first hand.

The Battle of Minorca was fought on 20 May 1756.  Byng had gained the weather gauge[10] and ordered a lasking maneuver[11] but his lead ship, HMS Defiance, rather than steering directly toward the enemy’s front, took a course parallel to that of the French fleet — with HMS Portland, Buckingham, and Lancaster, following in trace.  The delay in getting his ships back into the proper formation allowed the French to make the rest of the battle a running fight.

After a battle of around four hours in duration, the French successfully withdrew from Minorca with 38 dead seamen and 168 wounded.  Admiral Byng suffered extensive damage to one ship and the loss of 43 sailors killed and 173 wounded.  Still, Byng took up station near Minorca for four days.  After holding a council of war with his captains, Admiral Byng decided to return to Gibraltar for repairs, arriving on 19 June.

Before Byng could return to sea, a ship arrived from England with dispatches.  The Admiralty relieved Byng of his command, the Home Office relieved General Fowke of his command, and both men were ordered back to England to face court-martial charges. 

Upon arrival in England, authorities took Byng and Fowke into custody; both men received courts-martial.  The Home Office charged General Fowke with disobeying an order to support Byng with troops.[12]  The Admiralty charged Byng with violating Article XII, failing to do his duty against the enemy.

Admiral Byng’s court-martial resulted in an acquittal on the charge of cowardice, but he was found guilty of failing to exercise command of his fleet and failing to engage the enemy.  He was sentenced to death by firing squad.

Admiral of the Fleet John Forbes, Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, was the officer who defeated the French at the Battle of Toulon in 1744.  It fell upon Forbes to sign Byng’s death warrant.  Forbes refused to sign the warrant because he believed Byng’s sentence was excessive and illegal.  King George II refused to grant clemency to Byng and further declined to approve Prime Minister William Pitt’s recommendation for commutation.  Thus, on 14 March 1757, Admiral Byng was escorted to the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch and shot dead by a squad of Royal Marines.

Article XII established the standard for command responsibility, but Byng’s court-martial set the legal precedent: a commanding officer is responsible for the actions of his subordinates.  If a junior officer runs the ship aground, the captain is responsible.  If a ship’s commander fails to maneuver his vessel properly, his senior officer is responsible.  If a captain fails to fight his ship, his admiral is responsible.

The American Navy

The power of Congress to regulate the Army and Navy was first established during the Second Continental Congress, which on 30 June 1775, legislated 69 Articles of War to govern the conduct of the Continental Army (which, at the time, also included the Navy).  The Articles of War, 1775, were not identical to the Articles of War promulgated by Great Britain but quite similar.  Congress retained this power in the U.S. Constitution, promulgated within Article I, section 8, stating, “It shall be the power of the Congress to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.”

On 10 April 1806, Congress enacted 101 Articles of War.  These were not significantly revised until 1912 and remained in effect until 31 May 1951, when Congress developed and implemented the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

Notably, Article 52 of the Articles of War (1806) stated:

 “Any officer or soldier, who shall misbehave himself before the enemy, run away, or shamefully abandon any fort, post, or guard, which he or they may be commanded to defend, or speak words inducing others to do the like, or shall cast away his arms and ammunition, or who shall quit his post or colours [sic] to plunder and pillage, every such offender, being duly convicted thereof, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as shall be ordered by the sentence of a general court-martial.”

About navy fighting formations

There were only a few fighting formations of a naval fleet under sail.  Responsibility for selecting which formation (or variation) employed during a sea battle fell to the fleet admiral (or commodore): line ahead,[13] line abreast, and line of bearing.  The admiral also determined sailing order — first ship in line, second, and so forth.  In establishing his combat formation, the fleet admiral would attempt to gain the weather gauge and signal his intent to subordinate commanders through signal flags.

The line ahead formation did not allow for concentration of fire because, for naval guns to be effective on a rolling platform, combatants had to close to 300 — 500 yards of the enemy.  The most devastating assault came from raking fire, initiated either from the bow or stern where cannon shot would do the most damage by traveling the length of the enemy ship.

Admiral Horatio Nelson was the first British officer to break the line in 1797 and again in 1805.  His instruction to his captains was, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of his enemy.”  Breaking the enemy’s line disrupted the enemy’s cohesion and made it possible to overwhelm individual ships and seize them.  Again, the primary aim of the battle formation was to board and capture the enemy’s ships.

Boarding Operations

Boarding Operations may be the world’s oldest example of naval warfare.  The boarding of an enemy vessel, or a friendly one to capture it from pirates and other low vermin, is an example of up close and personal extremism — which more or less defines all close combat.  To achieve cross-ship boarding, the offending vessel needed to sail alongside the enemy vessel and direct an assault onto the enemy vessel.  The individuals performing this operation were sailors and Marines who were (and are) trained for such missions.  In the days of sail, sailors performed the task when the attacking ship was too small for a detachment of Marines.

Armed with swords, cutlasses, pistols, muskets, boarding axes, pikes, and grenades, the boarding party attacked the enemy crew, beginning with the helmsman and officer of the watch, or the ship’s captain if present on the bridge, all gun crews, and any other crewman left alive.  Again, the purpose of boarding operations was to seize the ship, which was always the intent of privateers and pirates — even today.

Captain John Paul Jones conducted a classic example of boarding operations during the American Revolution.  Jones’ Marines assaulted HMS Serapis from the sinking USS Bonhomme Richard in 1779.  Captain Jones’s boarding operation is exemplary because it was the only known fight during the Age of Sail when a ship’s captain captured an enemy ship while losing his own.  In 1813, the British returned the compliment by boarding and seizing USS Chesapeake from HMS Shannon.

Boarding enemy ships was also the purpose of the “cutting out” operations during the Age of Sail.  To “cut out” is to seize and carry off an enemy vessel while at anchor in a harbor or at sea.  The operation would typically target a small warship (a brig, sloop, or a two-masted ship of fewer than 20 guns).  Cutting out operations avoided larger ships because of the crew size (300 or so men).

A cutting-out party would generally include sailors and Marines who began the assault in the dark of night.  For an example of a cutting-out operation, see also At the Heart of the Corps and the capture of the Sandwich during the Quasi-War with France.

Boarding operations are rare in modern times.  U. S. Marines conducted their last boarding operation during the Mayaguez Incident in 1975, which involved a vertical assault from helicopters. Current operations may also involve small submarines and inflatable boats.  The U.S. Coast Guard routinely incorporates boarding operations as part of its maritime drug interdiction operations.

A Final Note

While the Uniform Code of Military Justice is a massive improvement over the articles of war, severe penalties are still prescribed for certain crimes.  The Manual for Courts-martial, Article 99 (Misbehavior Before the Enemy) includes, as offenses: (a) running away from a fight, (b) shamefully abandoning, surrendering, or delivering up any command, unit, place, or military property, which it is a duty to defend, (c) through disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct, endanger the safety of any command, unit, place, or military property, (d) casting away arms (weapons) or ammunition, (e) displaying cowardly conduct, (f) quitting one’s place of duty to plunder or pillage, (g) causing false alarms, (h) willfully failing to do one’s utmost to encounter, engage, capture, or destroy enemy troops, combatants, vessels, aircraft, or any other thing, which it is a serviceman’s duty to do, and/or (i) failing to afford all practicable relief and assistance to troops, combatants, vessels, or aircraft of the armed forces of the United States or their allies when engaged in battle.  Any person found guilty of these offenses shall face a maximum punishment of death.

Sources

  1. Abbot, W. J.  The Naval History of the United States.  Collier Press, 1896.
  2. Bradford, J. C.  Quarterdeck and Bridge: Two centuries of American Naval Leaders.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1955.
  3. McKee, C.  A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U. S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794-1815.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991
  4. Rak, M. J., Captain, USN.  The Quasi-War and the Origins of the Modern Navy and Marine Corps.  Newport: U.S. Naval War College, 2020
  5. The Library of Congress, Military Legal Resources, online.
  6. Warming, R.  An Introduction to Hand-to-Hand Combat at Sea: General Characteristics and Shipborne Tactics from 1210 BCE to 1600 CE.  Academia College, 2019.
  7. Winthorpe, W.  Military Law and Precedents.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1920.
  8. United States Constitution, Article I, section 8.

Endnotes:

[1] The quinquereme was the more common Hellenistic-era warship, and the heaviest at that particular time.  The Romans seized a Carthaginian ship, took it back to Rome, reverse-engineered it, and used it as a blueprint for Roman-made ships.  The quinquereme had three to five banks of oars.  The trireme had only three banks of oars but was much lighter and faster. 

[2] Roman commanders of these ships were “Magistrates,” who knew nothing of sailing ships, but they were supported by lower-ranking officers who were seasoned sailors (most likely Greek seamen). 

[3] Sinking ships as a naval strategy didn’t evolve until the mid-1800s when nations began building ironclad ships.

[4] In time, a ship’s captain would share the prize money with his crew as a reward for their victory at sea.

[5] The term “ship’s captain” is the traditional title of the person who serves in overall command of a ship.  The naval rank of that person could be Lieutenant, Commander, or Captain — but no matter what his rank, he is called “Captain.”  A ship’s master is the person who runs the ship (rather than commanding it).  He is the most experienced seaman, and what he doesn’t know about running a ship isn’t worth knowing.    

[6] One could understand this mindset in the British Army, where aristocrats bought and sold commissions.  Under those conditions, there was never a guarantee that a colonel knew what the hell he was doing.  The Royal Navy never sold commissions.  All navy officers were promoted on merit.

[7] Channel ships (or Packet Ships) were medium-sized vessels designed to carry mail, passengers, and cargo.  They were not suitable for sea battles with regular ships of the line. 

[8] A fusil is a flintlock musket; a fusilier is someone who shoots a fusil.  Also, musketeer or in modern parlance, a rifleman.

[9] A tartane was a small coastal trader/fishing vessel.

[10] Position of advantage in sea battles.

[11] A maneuver in which all ships turn into the enemy at once.

[12] King George II dismissed Fowke from the Army.  King George III later reinstated him.

[13] Line-ahead battle formation (also, Ship of the line warfare) was a columnar formation developed in the mid-17th Century whereby each ship followed in the wake of the ship ahead at regular intervals.  This formation maximized the firing power of the broadside and allowed for rapid “melee formation” or, if necessary, disengagement.  Note that a ship of the line was of the largest (most formidable) fighting ship used in the line of battle (formation). 


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.


Leadership, Moral Courage, and Duty

Recently, a number of bloggers and pundits have brought into question certain decisions and actions of our senior military leaders.  Bloggers are by now famous for basing their opinions on something other than a complete understanding of how the military works, which is further complicated because some commenters offer their views without knowing all the facts.

For example, while it is true that the President is the Commander-in-Chief of our Armed Forces, the President does not become involved in every situation that challenges our joint/unified commanders.  A drone attack against suspected Taliban targets would not have warranted presidential involvement, but it may take the president’s authorization to bomb targets in Syria.  There are different protocols for a wide range of situations.

Additionally, political biases too often drive a pundit’s opinions.  It is a situation begging for intellectual dishonesty, and it does nothing to enhance the average citizen’s understanding of events in far-off lands.  If we criticize our senior military leaders, we must base our reproach on what transpires rather than what we think might have happened.

Still, there remains a question about the politicization of our Armed Forces, particularly among our flag officers (generals and admirals, one through four-star officers).  Are they knuckling under to the inexperienced (and often, incredibly flawed) dictates of civilian leadership to achieve promotion and plum assignments?   There is some justification for this concern, particularly in the argument that senior officers have acquiesced to demands for social engineering as a priority over the prime directive, which is the combat readiness of our armed forces and their operational efficiency.

There is nothing I can write that would be an improvement over the speech delivered by Douglas MacArthur at the U. S. Military Academy on 12 May 1962.  General MacArthur’s wise counsel follows sixty-one years of active service.  He had been retired only eleven years when he gave his address.  In my view, MacArthur’s remarks offer a clear view of what our senior-most military officers ought to be, how they should govern themselves while wearing the uniform of an active-duty officer, and how they should behave once retired.  But it is also my view that General MacArthur spoke to all military leaders, from the most junior non-commissioned officer to the highest-ranking commissioned officer.  Thus, the following words apply as much to leaders today as they did on the day of General MacArthur’s retirement.

General of the Army Douglas A. MacArthur

Sylvanus Thayer Award Acceptance Speech

12 May 1962

____________

General Westmoreland, General Grove, distinguished guests, and gentlemen of the Corps!

As I was leaving the hotel this morning, a doorman asked me, “Where are you bound for, General?” And when I replied, “West Point,” he remarked, “Beautiful place. Have you ever been there before?”

No human being could fail to be deeply moved by such a tribute as this [Thayer Award].  Coming from a profession I have served so long, and a people I have loved so well, it fills me with an emotion I cannot express.  But this award is not intended primarily to honor a personality, but to symbolize a great moral code — the code of conduct and chivalry of those who guard this beloved land of culture and ancient descent.  That is the animation of this medallion.  For all eyes and for all time, it is an expression of the ethics of the American soldier.  That I should be integrated in this way with so noble an ideal arouses a sense of pride and yet of humility which will be with me always.

Duty, Honor, Country

Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be.  They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.

Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean.

The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase.  Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.

But these are some of the things they do: They build your basic character.  They mold you for your future roles as the custodians of the nation’s defense.  They make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid.  They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success; not to substitute words for actions, not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of difficulty and challenge; to learn to stand up in the storm but to have compassion on those who fall; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; to reach into the future yet never neglect the past; to be serious yet never to take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.

They give you a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a freshness of the deep springs of life, a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of an appetite for adventure over the love of ease.  They create in your heart the sense of wonder, the unfailing hope of what is next, and the joy and inspiration of life.  They teach you in this way to be an officer and a gentleman.

And what sort of soldiers are those you are to lead?  Are they reliable?  Are they brave?  Are they capable of victory?  Their story is known to all of you.  It is the story of the American man-at-arms.  My estimate of him was formed on the battlefield many, many years ago, and has never changed.  I regarded him then as I regard him now — as one of the world’s noblest figures, not only as one of the finest military characters but also as one of the most stainless.  His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen.  In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give.

He needs no eulogy from me or from any other man.  He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast.  But when I think of his patience under adversity, of his courage under fire, and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words.  He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism.  He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom.  He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements.  In 20 campaigns, on a hundred battlefields, around a thousand campfires, I have witnessed that enduring fortitude, that patriotic self-abnegation, and that invincible determination which have carved his statue in the hearts of his people.  From one end of the world to the other he has drained deep the chalice of courage.

As I listened to those [old] songs, in memory’s eye I could see those staggering columns of the First World War, bending under soggy packs, on many a weary march from dripping dusk to drizzling dawn, slogging ankle-deep through the mire of shell-shocked roads, to form grimly for the attack, blue-lipped, covered with sludge and mud, chilled by the wind and rain, driving home to their objective, and for many, to the judgment seat of God.

I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death.  They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips the hope that we would go on to victory. Always, for them: Duty, Honor, Country; always their blood and sweat and tears, as we sought the way and the light and the truth.

And 20 years after, on the other side of the globe, again the filth of murky foxholes, the stench of ghostly trenches, the slime of dripping dugouts; those boiling suns of relentless heat, those torrential rains of devastating storms; the loneliness and utter desolation of jungle trails; the bitterness of long separation from those they loved and cherished; the deadly pestilence of tropical disease; the horror of stricken areas of war; their resolute and determined defense, their swift and sure attack, their indomitable purpose, their complete and decisive victory — always victory.  Always through the bloody haze of their last reverberating shot, the vision of gaunt, ghastly men reverently following your password: Duty, Honor, Country.

The code which those words perpetuate embraces the highest moral laws and will stand the test of any ethics or philosophies ever promulgated for the uplift of mankind.  Its requirements are for the things that are right, and its restraints are for the things that are wrong.

The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training — sacrifice.

In battle and in the face of danger and death, he discloses those divine attributes which his Maker gave when he created man in his own image.  No physical courage and no brute instinct can take the place of the Divine help which alone can sustain him.

However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind.

You now face a new world — a world of change.  The thrust into outer space of the satellite, spheres, and missiles mark the beginning of another epoch in the long story of mankind. In the five or more billions of years, the scientists tell us it has taken to form the earth, in the three or more billion years of development of the human race, there has never been a more abrupt or staggering evolution.  We deal now not with things of this world alone, but with the illimitable distances and as yet unfathomed mysteries of the universe.  We are reaching out for a new and boundless frontier.

We speak in strange terms: of harnessing the cosmic energy; of making winds and tides work for us; of creating unheard synthetic materials to supplement or even replace our old standard basics; to purify seawater for our drink; of mining ocean floors for new fields of wealth and food; of disease preventatives to expand life into the hundreds of years; of controlling the weather for a more equitable distribution of heat and cold, of rain and shine; of space ships to the moon; of the primary target in war, no longer limited to the armed forces of an enemy, but instead to include his civil populations; of ultimate conflict between a united human race and the sinister forces of some other planetary galaxy; of such dreams and fantasies as to make life the most exciting of all time.

And through all this welter of change and development, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable: it is to win our wars.

Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication.  All other public purposes, all other public projects, all other public needs, great or small, will find others for their accomplishment.  But you are the ones who are trained to fight.  Yours is the profession of arms, the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory; that if you lose, the nation will be destroyed; that the very obsession of your public service must be: Duty, Honor, Country.

Others will debate the controversial issues, national and international, which divide men’s minds; but serene, calm, aloof, you stand as the Nation’s war guardian, as its lifeguard from the raging tides of international conflict, as its gladiator in the arena of battle.  For a century and a half, you have defended, guarded, and protected its hallowed traditions of liberty and freedom, of right and justice.

Let civilian voices argue the merits or demerits of our processes of government; whether our strength is being sapped by deficit financing, indulged in too long, by federal paternalism grown too mighty, by power groups grown too arrogant, by politics grown too corrupt, by crime grown too rampant, by morals grown too low, by taxes grown too high, by extremists grown too violent; whether our personal liberties are as thorough and complete as they should be.  These great national problems are not for your professional participation or military solution.  Your guidepost stands out like a ten-fold beacon in the night: Duty, Honor, Country.

You are the leaven that binds together the entire fabric of our national system of defense.  From your ranks come the great captains who hold the nation’s destiny in their hands the moment the war tocsin sounds.  The Long Gray Line has never failed us.  Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country.

This does not mean that you are warmongers.

On the contrary, the soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

The shadows are lengthening for me.  The twilight is here.  My days of old have vanished, tone and tint.  They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were.  Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday.  I listen vainly, but with thirsty ears, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll.  In my dreams, I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield.

But in the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point.  Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.

Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.

I bid you farewell.

____________

These words, so eloquently delivered, must serve as our guide in determining the worthiness of our military leaders.  Duty, Honor, Country.  Even though we all recognize that civilian leadership must control the military, there is no obligation for any soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine to obey an illegal order or directive or any inherently inept order that could lead to a battlefield disaster.  No individual can fulfill his duty who does not have unshakeable integrity.  As officers and NCOs, our integrity demands that we place the good of our nation and those entrusted into our care ahead of personal comfort or advancement.  As General MacArthur said in 1951, our integrity will lead us to perform our duty as God gives us the light to see that duty.

There are consequences to performing one’s duty, of course.  One’s superiors may not agree with a leader’s decision — censure is always possible. Still, if we have relied upon our best judgment deciding, that is all anyone can ask of another.  Every leader must prepare to refuse an order, especially an illegal directive, particularly a foolish order.  “No, sir, I will not execute that order.  Here is my resignation.” If we do not have principled senior officers or our flag officers lack the moral courage to resist political pressure opposing a “proper” decision, then there is something substantially wrong with the process we employ in choosing our senior-most officers.  Every American military leader must realize that a bended knee is not one of our time-honored traditions.

Blackie Cahill’s Fight

Some Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tactical Situation

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

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

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

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

The Battle for Hill 342[3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improvise — Adapt — Overcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Operation Buffalo

July 1967

Some Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Operation Buffalo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

[4] Awarded Navy Cross for this action.

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

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

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

[8] Awarded Navy Cross Medal.

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

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


Special Landing force

America’s flashing sword

Background

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

Winston Churchill, 1914

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

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

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

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

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

Organizational Overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force

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

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

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

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

Action in the Central Highlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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


Fidelity, Honor, Valor

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fight

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

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

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

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

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

Movement to Contact

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

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

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

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

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

Contact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Tribute

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

245th Anniversary of the U. S. Marine Corps

10 November 1775 — 10 November 2020

Who are these people who claim the title, U.S. Marine?

They are men and women who come from every part of the United States of America.  They are all high school graduates with many having college credits or degrees.  Many left their homes as teenagers seeking adventure; with an average age of 25-years, Marines are the youngest overall of all the uniformed services.  They are patriots—men and women who love their country enough to be willing to place themselves in harm’s way defending the American way of life.  When they left home, they left all the comforts of home to discover the unknown.

At recruit training or officer’s candidate school, they learned the basics of what it takes to become a Marine.  They learned that in the Marine Corps, learning is a lifetime endeavor.  Upon graduating from Bootcamp or OCS, every Marine receives his or her first Marine Corps Emblem, signifying that they have passed the test for becoming a United States Marine.  They then proceed to infantry training because every Marine is a rifleman.

There are dozens of occupational fields in the Marine Corps, many of these are highly technical areas that demand further training.  After their initial period of training, Marines are scattered to the four winds and the corners of the earth.  In the process of becoming a United States Marine, they discovered a new family —one composed of men and women who believe as they do, whose values and devotions equal their own.  They inherited a unique tradition of devotion to duty that exceeds those of any other service organization; it has been passed to them by every previous generation dating back to 1775.  In time, they will pass this tradition on to those who follow them.  Part of this tradition demands that they keep faith with their God, their Country, and their Corps.  In the Marines, no one cares what color skin you have; they only care about the content of your character.  There is no place in the Marine Corps for people of low character.

Marines seldom get enough sleep, yet their energy levels remain high.  They take great pride in their uniforms and work constantly to present the best possible military appearance.  No one ever wants to become a “raggedy assed Marine.”  They are professionals who work hard to develop, maintain, and enhance their unique skills.  They are scholars who constantly read about the art and science of warfare.  The more they learn, the more they want to know.

Marines are also known to play hard.  Some smoke and drink too much, but they are absolutely devoted to maintaining their personal and professional integrity, their honor, their commitment.  They are courageous in the face of great danger.  They do not behave bravely on the battlefield for the Corps; they do it for each other, but this is what makes the Marine Corps unique.  Tragically, Marines sometimes lose a brother or sister; when this happens, they honor them publicly and mourn them privately.

We don’t pay Marines enough money, but most never joined for money —they joined to serve.  All they ask in return for their many sacrifices is the gratitude of the American people, and the respect they have earned and deserve.  Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter most: letters from back home matter because there are occasions when Marines aren’t sure they’ll ever see home again.

Young Marines grow up fast, because serving as a leader is a weighty responsibility.  Most Marine corporals have more responsibility than do most corporate executives.  They learn to make hard decisions; they learn how to live with the consequences of those decisions.  Yet, in some other ways, Marines never grow up at all … almost every Marine has a wicked sense of humor.

Marines fight for freedom; that is, the freedom of people whom they’ve never met.  Some Marines experience the crucible of war and must learn how to deal with its physical and psychological effects.  No matter whether Marines served in combat or not, every Marine stands the chance of going into a war zone; Marines are known to volunteer for combat service.  Every Marine knows that tough training pays off.  They sweat in tough training, so they won’t have to bleed in combat.  All Marines give something of themselves in the service of their country —some Marines give all.

Never ask a Marine what it’s like to serve in combat —it is an experience that defies explanation.

Marines love their time-honored rites and ceremonies, for these are the things that strengthen their bond with fellow Marines.  When the going gets tough, it is this bond that nurtures them.  The future may be uncertain, but one thing is constant: a Marine can always count on a fellow-Marine.  It’s what Marines do.  Together, Marines learn how to deal with victory and tragedy.

At the end of their Marine Corps adventures, some Marines go back home and take up their lives where they left off … but none of these men and women are ever the same as when they left for boot camp because being a Marine is a lifelong endeavor.  There are no ex-Marines.

One-third of all Marines remain in the Corps because they have fallen in love with the uniqueness of the Marine Corps lifestyle.  They crave the challenges of adventurous service.  Some Marines remain in the Marines because the Corps has become their home.

You should know that Marines are great story-tellers.  Most of these stories contain embellishments; the more often they are told, the greater the embellishments become.  Eventually, their stories become legend —and in some cases, myth.  Elite forces tell such tales.  Some are hilarious, some are true, and some are both.  No matter what the tale, Marines always speak highly of their Corps.

The title Marine is earned the hard way and remains effective throughout a Marine’s lifetime.  It has no monetary value, but it is a priceless gift.  When Marines meet one another, in uniform or civilian attire, there is also the exchange of a nod, or perhaps a tight smile.  There is but one exception to the Marine for Life Rule: it is that no one can remain part of the Marine family who dishonors themselves or our Corps.

To those who are serving as Marines presently, to those who have gone before, I thank you for your sacrifices.  Remember the good times, and if you haven’t done so, I urge you to seek your peace for the unhappy moments.  Stand tall, always, because future generations will one day stand upon your shoulders.

I know this because I am a United States Marine.