India Three Four in Panama

Some Background

In the eighty or so years following independence from Spain, Panama was a province of Gran Colombia, a free association begun in 1821.  From that point onward, the people living in Panama made several dozen attempts to withdraw from their Colombian alliance, including the so-called Thousand Days War (1899-1902).  For the Panamanians, it was a struggle for land rights more than an issue of sovereignty.  Observing these machinations and with a growing interest in constructing a canal across the Isthmus, the United States under President Theodore Roosevelt began to engineer the separation of Panama from Colombia.

In November 1903, Panama declared its independence from Colombia.  To constrain Colombia from sending naval and ground forces to Panama, the United States re-introduced a Marine Corps presence in Panama under future commandant, Major John A. Lejeune.  Of course, this was not the Marines’ first deployment to Panama.  In 1856, Marines went to Panama to guarantee the security of American fortune hunters while en route to California via the Isthmus.

Given Roosevelt’s interest in constructing a canal, Major Lejeune realized that a Marine presence in Panama would continue.  So, with that foresight, Lejeune established a permanent barracks there in 1904.  Between 1904 and 1911, the principal mission of the Marine Corps was to safeguard the canal while under construction (and its workers/executive managers).  Marines established a permanent barracks at the US Navy’s submarine base at Coco Solo in 1923 — known simply as Marine Barracks (MB), Panama.  From that year forward, the size of the barracks expanded and contracted according to the needs of the Navy. 

In February 1945, the MB had 36 officers, three warrant officers, and 1,571 enlisted men at its peak strength.  The Marines also experienced several “re-designations” and relocations.  In 1943, Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC)  consolidated all Marines serving in Panama under the Marine Barracks, Fifteenth Naval District, Rodman, Canal Zone.  In 1987, HQMC renamed the barracks as Marine Corps Security Force Company (MCSFC), Panama.

Responsibility for the Canal Zone (CZ) security fell to the U. S. Army under the Commanding General, U. S. Army South (CG USASouth), headquartered in San Antonio, Texas.  USASouth became a subordinate command of the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), headquartered in Miami, Florida, as one of eleven unified combatant commands.  The mission assigned to the Marine Security Forces was in providing security for U. S. Navy installations in Panama.

Panama — US Relations

The agreement between Panama and the United States vis-à-vis the canal was that the United States would lease a twelve-mile swath of land across the Isthmus for 100 years, construct the channel, and control it as sovereign US territory during the period of the lease.  Over time, with technological advances in ship sizes, the canal proved no longer adequate for the largest naval and maritime vessels.  Within this period, relations between the US and Panama were not always amiable.  Marine battalion landing teams infrequently went to Panama as a show of force and a demonstration that the United States intended to exercise its control over canal zone operations, particularly during periods of political and civil unrest.[1]

By agreement between Panama and the US in 1977, complete control of the Panama Canal would shift to the Panamanians in 2000.  In 1981, however, General Omar Torrijos, then serving as “Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution,” the man who negotiated this treaty, died in a plane crash — which opened the door for General Manuel Antonio Noriega to succeed him as a revolutionary leader and de facto head of state in Panama.  During Noriega’s tenure, five men served as puppet heads of state to give Noriega’s dictatorship international credibility.

General Noriega consolidated his power in Panama by seizing control of the armed forces, renaming them as Panamanian Defense Forces.  By 1988, Noriega controlled the national police, the army and paramilitary organizations, the air forces, and the small naval force — in total (on paper), around 15,000 men.  In terms of combat troops, Noriega could field roughly 3,500 men organized as two light battalions in each of Panama’s thirteen military zones, ten independent companies, a cavalry squadron, and a handful of “special operations” forces.  Noriega’s air force consisted of 50 aircraft, and his navy operated twelve small vessels.  He also controlled 14 battalions of civilian laborers, the so-called Dignity Battalions, which consisted of unemployed workers shepherded by low-ranking officers and NCOs.

Manuel Noriega was a caudillo in the finest tradition of post-Spanish petty dictators.  He was arrogant, corrupt, dangerous, and stupid.  His arrogance led him to misjudge the United States’ continuing interest in the Canal Zone (CZ).  While the United States turned a blind eye to Noriega’s involvement in narcotics, Noriega’s time was fast running out.  In January 1988, two federal grand juries in Florida indicted Noriega on racketeering and drug trafficking charges.  Subsequently, puppet-President Eric Arturo Delvalle attempted to depose Noriega, but Noriega engineered Delvalle’s dismissal.  Civil disorder one more returned to Panama, with threats made to the lives and safety of American personnel and military installations.

The Culture War

As relations between the US and Panama deteriorated, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) issued a warning order to various military commands ordinarily responsible for the security of the canal zone.  Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, began updating their contingency plans for Panama.  With only one MCSFC in Panama, a platoon from the Marine Corps Security Force Battalion (at Norfolk, Virginia), known as a Fleet Anti-terrorist Security Team (FAST), was quickly dispatched to reinforce the Marines of MCSFC Panama. 

Of course, the FAST platoon was an inadequate measure, but the National Military Command Authority (NMCA) or JCS had yet to decide what to do about Noriega.  With so few men to provide security to naval installations, Major E. A. Keith, CO MCSFC Panama, had to prioritize his security concerns.  With the concurrence of the Commander, US Naval Forces (South), Keith identified the fuel storage facility, known as the Arraijan Tank Farm (ATF), as his first security concern. 

The ATF is located within two square kilometers of rolling grassland, surrounded by dense jungle,[2] which provided excellent avenues of approach should Noriega’s PDF attempt to seize the ATF or threaten the adjacent Howard Air Force Base.[3]  Major Keith did not have a sufficient number of men to maintain a formal defense perimeter around the ATF, so his only recourse was to employ irregular area security patrols.

Patrol leaders almost immediately reported the presence of PDF forces dressed in black field uniforms using night vision goggles (NVGs) and evidence of recently prepared foxholes in the jungle areas surrounding the ATF.  When Marines reported this intelligence up the chain of command, US Army South dismissed it out-of-hand, claiming that US troops prepared the fighting holes during recent training exercises.  US Army South also emphatically denied that Noriega’s PDF had any NGVs.  Subsequently, however, Navy intelligence officers learned that the Army had not conducted any training exercises adjacent to the ATF for several years; moreover, that the Army had (in fact) transferred NGVs to the PDF.

Despite the Army’s lack of interest in further reinforcing the MCSFC, the navy requested that the Marine Corps ready a combat brigade for possible deployment to the Canal Zone.  Accordingly, the 6th Marine Brigade (6thMEB) was issued a warning order.  In developing his operation plan, the Brigade Commander suggested an “all or nothing” approach.  Either the Brigade deployed as a fully functional combat brigade (two battalion landing teams, two combat aircraft squadrons) or not at all.

Even as the JCS fretted about a proper response to deteriorating conditions in Panama, 6thMEB received a “stand up” order on 31 March 1988.  While this was going on, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic (CG FMFLant) ordered an advance combat element to proceed to Panama to reinforce the MCSFC.  The Marines viewed this advanced element as a nucleus for a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) around which a brigade might later form, although one without any air support.

Why was there no aviation support for the Marines?  Given the amount of Army and Air Force assets stationed at Howard Air Force Base, COMUSSOUTHCOM did not see a need for additional Marine Corps combat aircraft.  SOUTHCOM didn’t see a need for any Marines at all, but at that stage, the employment of Marines wasn’t up to SOUTHCOM if their mission was to reinforce security for naval installations.

The unit assigned as the brigade’s advance element was Company I, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines (India 3/4), under the command of Captain Joseph P. Valore.  Upon arrival in Panama on 6 April, Valore reported to Rear Admiral Jerry G. Gnecknow, Commander, Naval Forces, Southern Command.  Colonel William J. Conley, who served as brigade chief of staff, accompanied Captain Valore to Panama.  As part of the advance team, Conley’s mission was to arrange logistical support for the brigade, should it actually deploy.  Admiral Gnecknow assigned Colonel Conley as Senior Marine Officer, Naval Forces, Panama, when the brigade’s deployment did not appear likely.

The selection of India 3/4 (Reinforced) to serve as the brigade’s advance element was that the brigade earmarked its parent battalion as one of the brigade’s battalion landing teams and because the company, who at the time was the 2nd Marine Divisions air alert/rapid response team, had completed extensive pre-deployment training.  The 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines reinforced India Company with an 81mm mortar section, a Sensor Control and Management Platoon (SCAMP), a counterintelligence team, and a squad of combat engineers.  Colonel Conley assigned responsibility for securing the ATF  to Captain Valore, who embraced Major Keith’s aggressive patrolling strategy.  Suddenly, on 9 April, operational control of India Company passed from Admiral Gnecknow to the Commander, Joint Task Force (JTF), Panama — who also served as Commander, U. S. Army South.

At the time of his deployment, Captain Valore felt obligated to address two issues affecting his company’s performance in Panama.  The first was a standing policy decision that precluded armed Marines from chambering a round in their weapons until fired upon, and the second involved rules of engagement.  Captain Valore correctly believed that sending Marines into harm’s way with unchambered weapons was foolish; indeed, it is.  He raised this issue with Colonel Conley, who agreed with Valore and authorized the Marines to patrol with chambered weapons.  As to the rules of engagement, Conley allowed Valore’s Marines to “return fire if fired upon.”

What made these two issues “hot button” topics was the 1983 Beirut bombing incident.  Because of the restricted weapons policy, Marine sentries were unable to stop the bomb-laden truck that drove through the security perimeter and kill 241 American servicemen.  As to the rules of engagement, no one fired on the Marines standing guard that day — the terrorist simply drove through the perimeter at a high rate of speed.  Thus, Conley’s cautionary instruction, to “return fire if fired upon,” was woefully inadequate.  There are occasions when initiating hostile action is unquestionably appropriate.

But COMJTFPANAMA/COMUSARMYSOUTH had a different perspective.  He did not want Marines firing on Panamanians.  The mission, he argued, was to safeguard American interests in Panama, not make the deteriorating political condition worse.  In his view, the Marines — by their very presence — were making matters worse by their aggressive behavior.  At this point, one may wonder, what would be the purpose of arming military personnel to guard US installations if the men charged with executing that mission weren’t taking their responsibilities seriously?

This particular kerfuffle leads one to consider the cultural differences between the U. S. Army and the United States Marines.  There is a unique and very distinctive Marine Corps culture that sets the Marines apart from every other branch of service.  First, Marines never lose sight of their primary mission: winning battles.  Locating, closing with, and destroying the enemy is at the forefront of every Marine Corps mission.  It is the only reason Marines exist.  Second, a bended knee and/or erring on the side of caution in a kinder-gentler world is not a Marine Corps tradition.  Marines are warriors — it is their ethos.  There is something very different going on inside the heads of (too many) senior army officers.

So, while senior Army officers berated the Marines for doing what they’re best at, senior Marine Corps officers remained adamant: they would not employ a lethal combat company and then tie its hands by ridiculously simple-minded restrictions. 

Moreover, in 1988, a bolstered Marine presence in Panama resulted from the PDF’s aggressiveness, not the cause of it.  It may be true that army personnel in Panama were serving a fantasy tour, accompanied by their families, enjoying an exotic and leisurely lifestyle, but that wasn’t what India Company was doing in Panama.  India Company arrived in Panama in combat mode.

A test of each of the preceding presumptions transpired during the night of 10-11 April.  Soon after the arrival of India Company, unknown intruders began probing Marine positions at the ATF.  Early in the morning of 11 April, a Marine patrol operating in the northeast sector contacted an unknown number of intruders.  The patrol leader, Corporal Ricardo Villahermosa, determined to apprehend these unknown trespassers.  To accomplish that, Villahermosa split his force, intending to envelop them.  The jungle was pitch black, and the only sound was an occasional snap of vegetation, which suggested human movement.  A short time later, a flare accidentally “popped,” emulating the sound of the discharge of a weapon, and then ignited.  Marines from the split force opened fire, and Corporal Villahermosa was mortally wounded.  It was a frightful accident — but one that prompted a renewal of the ‘weapons ready’ debate.

Major General Bernard Loeffke,[4] U. S. Army, CG USASouth, also serving as JTF commander, critically challenged the Marines at a meeting on 12 April.  Major Alfred F. Clarkson, the operations officer of the MEB’s advance element, rigorously defended the “weapons ready” policy, informing General Loeffke in no uncertain terms that the Marine chain of command would not deny the use of weapons to their troops.  Doing otherwise, he said, was morally indefensible.  Colonel Conley concurred and made certain that Loeffke’s concerns did not impede Marine combat operations.

Shortly after nightfall on 12 April, remote battlefield sensors alerted Valore’s Marines that approximately 40 unknown persons were approaching the ATF perimeter.  SCAMP Marines confirmed the presence of these unknown persons, and a USAF AC-130 gunship provided the third verification.  Captain Valore immediately consolidated his force in the center of the ATF.  Soon after that, Marines received and returned fire into the line of tracers aimed at them from this unknown force.

To the west of the company, a SCAMP detachment reported another probe.  The detachment NCOIC, Sergeant Michael A. Cooper, requested illumination, revealing well-armed hostiles were moving toward his position.  Captain Valore approved Cooper’s request for a mortar fire mission, and sixteen HE rounds were dropped on the approaching hostile force.  Valore also authorized Cooper to return fire.  As Cooper engaged the hostiles, an additional force assaulted Valore’s company.  The Marines returned fire with an M19 chain gun that spits out 220 rounds of 40mm grenades, and the enemy withdrew.

At around 2200, General Loeffke arrived at Valore’s position in civilian attire, demanding to know what had transpired.  After Captain Valore briefed Loeffke, the general ordered him to cease fire and not re-engage unless first fired upon.  Loeffke also ordered the Marines to remain in place and allow the intruders to withdraw from the area.  Loeffke assured Valore that he had contacted the PDF command structure, who assured him that there were no Panamanian forces in the area.

In compliance with Loeffke’s order, Valore moved the SCAMP detachment back from the perimeter.  Through the use of NVGs, Valore witnessed several intruders administering first aid and evacuating casualties from the jungle.  Marines from the MCSFC, who had established a roadblock on the Pan American highway and observed the PDFs evacuation of dead and wounded, confirmed Captain Valore’s after-action report.

In the aftermath of this incident, Valore and his Marines were set upon by a bevy of Naval Investigative Service (NIS) and Army Intelligence Service (AIS) agents.  The repetitious questioning lasted several days.  Additionally, Loeffke ordered Valore and his Marines to submit to urinalysis testing — all of which were negative.

More than anything else, Major General Loeffke and his JTF Staff wanted to discredit Captain Valore, India Company Marines, and the U. S. Marine Corps.  Loeffke publicly stated that the Marines had fired at ghosts and shadows.  General Noriega and the anti-American Panamanian press exploited this opportunity and began planting stories about drug abuse among the Marines.  For their part, the Marine hierarchy closed ranks around Captain Valore and his Marines.  Colonel Conley rejected Loeffke’s and Noriega’s nonsense and may have even confided some concern about Loeffke’s loyalty to his superiors.

Undeterred, Loeffke replaced India 3/4 at the ATF with an Army battalion[5].  On 14 April 1988, Army sentries guarding the ammunition supply point came under fire from an unknown size of PDF forces.  The same night, an Army patrol of the 7th Special Forces Group operating west of Howard AFB came under fire.  It, therefore, became apparent to everyone (except General Loeffke) that the Marines did not imagine the PDF assault at the ATF.  In retrospect, the Marines developed the appropriate response to PDF aggression, and Loeffke’s general incompetence as a field commander countermanded it.[6]

Over the next several months, the PDF continued to initiate aggressive actions against US forces in Panama, but nothing on the scale of the firefight in April 1988, which suggested that Captain Valore’s response had the desired effect on PDF activities.  Between April and December 1988, the US decided on diplomatic maneuvers rather than military. 

This period of calm allowed the Marines to undergo additional jungle training and exercise command and control systems, particularly between the Army and Marines.  COMUSSOUTHCOM formally appointed Colonel Conley as commander overall Marine forces in Panama and Army units temporarily attached to the Marines for training.  Under Conley’s direction, Marine intelligence assets began to revise contingency plans based on needed updates to the “enemy situation” in Panama.

In mid-May 1988, India 3/4 went back on the line for another two weeks.  In addition to regular patrolling (day and night), the Marines improved their hardened observation and listening posts surrounding the tank farm and ammo depot and rehearsed rapid reaction operations.  Operations Purple Storm and Purple Blitz were joint-service exercises designed to improve command and control procedures between Marine and Army units and combat casualty evacuations.  Army and Air Force dog teams joined the Marines during their security patrols.  Army specialists installed a loudspeaker system designed to inform intruders that they were on US government property.  Air Force C-130 gunships flew nightly missions in support of the Marines.

Lima Company 3/4 relieved India 3/4 in June 1988.

Sources:

  1. Crandall, R.  Gunboat Democracy: US interventions in the Dominican Republic, Granada, and Panama.  Rowman & Littlefield Publications, 2006.
  2. Donnelly, T.  Operation Just Cause: The storming of Panama.  Lexington Books, 1991.
  3. Reynolds, N. E.  Just Cause: Marine Operations in Panama 1988-1990.  History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1996.
  4. Yates, L. A.  The US Military Intervention in Panama: Origins, Planning, and Crisis Management, June 1987-December 1989.  Army Center of Military History, 2008.

Endnotes:

[1] On 9 January 1964, grievances between native Panamanians and the “Zonians” (Americans living within the US-controlled Canal Zone) boiled over into a series of anti-American riots that resulted in an evacuation of the US Embassy in Panama City, assaults on US citizens — including the lynching of several US Army personnel — widespread looting and substantial damage to US-owned property.  The United States responded to this unrest by dispatching the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (BLT 2/8) to Panama to protect American lives and property.  At the time, I had the privilege of serving as a rifleman in Company E (Captain William R. Wildpret, commanding).  Echo Company was assigned responsibility for the security of the naval base at Coco Solo.

[2] The density of the jungle limited Marine patrols to about 500 yards over two hours.

[3] At this time, security for Howard Air Force Base was not a Marine Corps responsibility.

[4] USMA graduate in 1957, Loeffke has a degree in engineering, an MA in Russian language and Soviet Era studies, and a PhD in international relations.  He is a combat decorated officer, served as the Army Attaché with the US Embassy in Moscow, served on the White House staff, served as the Defense Attaché with the US Embassy in China, befriended Chinese general Xu Xin, is fluent in Chinese, and is a self-professed expert on Sino-American affairs.  After leaving the Army in 1992, Loeffke earned a medical degree and served as a physician in Bosnia, Haiti, Kenya, Iraq, Niger, and Darfur.  According to Loeffke, China is not the United States’ enemy.  While instructing at the USMA, Loeffke urged his students to increase their understanding of the Chinese and Russians as they are just like us.

[5] It normally takes an army regiment to replace a Marine rifle company.

[6] Documents uncovered after the December 1989 invasion of Panama confirmed the PDF assault on the Marines at the ATF.  Analysts subsequently concluded that the ATF was not the focus of the PDF, but rather the Marines themselves, as perpetrated by Noriega’s 7th Rifle Company, also known as Macho de Monte, one of Noriega’s few elite units, possibly reinforced by a few members of the Special Anti-terrorist Security Unit, and that they were likely augmented by several Cuban military advisors.


Mayaguez

Crisis in Command

One could refer to this incident as the last episode of the Vietnam War, but doing so would only present half the picture.  Cambodia was also involved — and Laos — and China, and the Soviet Union.  We could probably call it a Southeast Asian War or the Third Indochina War.  But no matter what one chooses to call it, by mid-May 1975, the American people were gut-wrenchingly tired of Southeast Asia.

In over 25 years of direct or indirect combat operations, the American people gave up 58,000 of their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers.  Seventy-five thousand Americans sustained severe wounds; of those, more than 23,000 were permanently disabled, including five thousand who lost limbs and over a thousand multiple amputees.

Beyond this, the United States government squandered the nation’s wealth — with untold billions spent shoring up French Imperialism, bribing Vietnamese officials, bombing North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In the final analysis, the United States of America walked away from the entire episode with nothing to show for its mind-numbing costs.  Not one presidential administration, from Harry S. Truman to Gerald Ford, had any intention of winning that war.

The Trigger

SS Mayaguez

In the middle of May 1975, just weeks after the fall of Saigon, the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Reds) “coast guard” seized a United States flagged ship named SS Mayaguez.  Following Phnom Penh’s fall on 17 April, the communists moved to control Cambodia, including its offshore islands.  Khmer Rouge and (north) Vietnamese forces clashed over territory claimed by both countries.  Operating in defense of Cambodian territory, the Khmer navy/coast guard instituted coastal patrolling to prevent Vietnamese incursions — and because of their belief that the CIA used merchant shipping to conduct intelligence-gathering operations along coastal areas.[1]

Within this tense environment, the Khmer navy captured seven Thai fishing boats on 2 May and charged them with territorial violations.  They also pursued a South Korean freighter on 4 May.  On 7 May, the Khmer navy seized a Panamanian-flagged ship near the island of Poulo Wai and questioned its crew for more than 36 hours.  Five days later, the Khmer navy fired on a Swedish vessel in the same area.  On that same day, the Khmer Rouge dispatched a company-sized unit to occupy Poulo Wai.  None of the merchant ships operating off the coast of Cambodia knew about this transfer.

Cambodia asserted its sovereignty twelve nautical miles outward from the shoreline of its mainland and all claimed islands — and had done so since 1969.[2]  In 1975, Poulo Wai Island was a potential site for oil exploration, explaining Cambodia’s sensitivity to foreign trespass.  The US had no interest in Poulo Wai other than suppressing what it believed to be a base for Cambodian pirates’ operations. 

On 12 May, the US container ship SS Mayaguez (owned by Sea-Land, Inc.[3]) transited near Poulo Wai en route from Hong Kong to Sattahip, Thailand.  At 1418, a Khmer navy swift boat approached Mayaguez and fired a shot across her bow.  Seven Khmer Rouge seamen boarded Mayaguez and ordered the captain to proceed to Poulo Wai.  The ship transmitted a mayday, which was picked up by an Australian vessel.  Mayaguez was carrying 107 cargo containers, 77 of which were US government and military cargo — including material from the United States Embassy in Saigon.

SS Mayaguez’ SOS call prompted notification to the US Embassy Jakarta, which transmitted the information to the National Military Command Center in Washington.  The National Security staff notified President Ford of the incident the next morning (Washington time).  Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger urged Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger to direct the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command, Admiral Noel Gayler, to launch a reconnaissance aircraft to locate Mayaguez — but even before any analysis of photographs, Kissinger and Deputy National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft had already decided that the crisis deserved a decisive response.  In the wake of the United States’ recent withdrawal from Cambodia and Vietnam, both Kissinger and Scowcroft believed that the US’s reputation was at stake.[4]  Presidential advisors also wanted to avoid another USS Pueblo incident.[5]  President Ford directed Kissinger to petition China for its help in releasing the Mayaguez.

President Ford and Kissinger drafted a press release to the American public stating that the seizure of a US-flagged ship was an act of piracy.  Technically, it was no such thing.  Meanwhile, Secretary Schlesinger ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to locate the ship and undertake measures to prevent its movement to the Cambodian mainland.  Kissinger sent a terse note to the Chinese Liaison Office in Washington demanding the “immediate release” of the ship and its crew.  The Chinese liaison office refused to accept the message, however — apparently, the Chinese were not in the mood for accepting demands from a country recently defeated by a nation of rice farmers.

In compliance with Schlesinger’s instructions, the Pacific command launched aerial reconnaissance missions from the Philippines and Thailand and diverted the USS Coral Sea from its course en route to Australia.  Pacific Command also dispatched a guided-missile destroyer with escort toward Mayaguez’s last known location.  Admiral Gayler also issued a warning order to the III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), placing them on standby.  III MEF passed the mission through the 3rd Marine Division to the 9th Marine Regiment on Okinawa and to the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines (1/4) at Subic Bay, Philippine Islands.  As a rapid reaction company from 1/4 assembled at Cubi Point Naval Air Station for possible airlift to Thailand, a Battalion Landing Team (BLT) from the 9th Marines began its pre-deployment procedures on Okinawa.

On 13 May, an Orion aircraft identified a significant radar return near Poulo Wai and dropped flares on the suspected location of Mayaguez.  Young Khmer Rouge sailors, believing that they were under attack, opened fire.  Both photo-reconnaissance aircraft, already low on fuel, withdrew.  Replacement aircraft also received gunfire from Khmer ground forces.

Within a few hours after seizing the ship, the Khmer navy officials ordered the master of the Mayaguez, Captain Miller, to get underway.  He was instructed to follow a swift boat toward the Northeast.  Orion aircraft continued to track the ship’s movement.  Admiral Gayler ordered the Commanding General, 7th US Air Force, Lieutenant General John J. Burns, USAF, to assume operational control over US military recovery efforts.  Burns marshaled rotary-wing aircraft for a possible air assault mission.

A flight of two F-111’s marked the ship’s position, which was then nearing Koh Tang Island.  Soon after, F-4 Phantoms arrived and began firing into the water ahead of Mayaguez, indicating to Captain Miller that he was to halt.  It was then that the Khmer naval commander ordered the ship’s crew into two fishing boats for transfer to Koh Tang Island.

Meanwhile, the Navy’s flotilla — Coral Sea, Holt, and Wilson — signaled that they would not arrive on station until 15 May.  None of these ships carried a Marine landing force.  USS Hancock (CVA-19), with a small contingent of Marines, would not arrive until 16 May, and USS Okinawa (LPH-3), with a BLT, would not arrive until 18 May.

On Okinawa, III MAF assigned the Special Landing Force (Task Force 79.9) to recover Mayaguez.  Company D, 1/4 was designated as the unit that would actually take Mayaguez, but General Burns wanted a more significant force.  Ultimately, the 3rdMarDiv assigned BLT 2/9 as its air assault force.  The battalion flew to Thailand on the morning of 14 May.  Only a few of the 1,100 officers and NCOs of 2/9 had any combat experience.

Seventh US Air Force earmarked nineteen of its helicopters to participate in the air assault.  Nine of these were HH-53C (Jolly Green) aircraft, and ten were CH-53s.  The HH-bird was capable of aerial refueling; the CH-53 was not.  Meanwhile, General Burns developed a plan to re-take Mayaguez with an assault force from the 56th Security Police Squadron.  He intended to drop 75 SPS volunteers on the containers aboard the ship on 14 May.

En route to Cambodia’s Southeast coastal region, one of the CH-53s (call sign Knife 13) crashed, killing all on board (18 police and five crewmen).  President Ford subsequently canceled General Burns’ plan because, beyond the loss of one aircraft and 23 men, these large helicopters were too heavy to land on shipping containers.  Instead, President Ford decided to await the arrival of the Navy and Marines.  However, President Ford ordered Burns to stop any Cambodian boats moving between Koh Tang and the mainland.

Early on 14 May, at Koh Tang, the Khmer navy loaded the Mayaguez crew onto a fishing vessel and, with an escort of two swift boats, headed toward the mainland at Kampong Som.  Air Force F-4s, A-7s, and an AC-130 gunship sunk one fast boat and convinced another to turn back.  Orbiting pilots reported the presence of 30 to 40 Caucasians on the fishing boat.  One senior pilot opined that he might be able to shoot the rudder off the fishing boat to stop its progress.

By this time, communicators had established a link between the White House situation room, the Pacific Command in Hawaii, and General Burns’ headquarters at Nakhon Phanom.  General Burns relayed the pilot’s idea for shooting off the fishing boat’s rudder to the White House, which NSC staffers immediately denied.  Ford decided that if anything, the Air Force should only drop tear gas onto the fishing boat but gave the go-ahead to sink all patrol boats.

Acting JCS Chairman, U. S. Air Force General David C. Jones, provided the NSC staff with a range of military options.  One major complication for the rescue operation was that no one knew for certain the Mayaguez crewmen’s location.  There was a long list of things the forward area commander didn’t know.

The NSC decided to proceed with a Marine assault to retake Mayaguez with a simultaneous attack by Air Force and Navy assets on Koh Tang and against Khmer naval vessels.

The Air Force’s tear gas assault did not affect the fishing boat, and it proceeded to Kampong Som.  Upon arrival, the ranking Khmer area commander wisely refused to allow the boat to dock; he anticipated a massive retaliatory attack by American aircraft.  The redirected fishing boat proceeded to Koh Rang Sanloem undetected by orbiting aircraft.

Marines from Delta Company 1/4 arrived in Thailand during the early-morning hours of 14 May; insofar as the American high command knew, the Cambodians detained crew members at Kampong Som, so higher authority canceled the planned assault on Mayaguez.  Delta Company Marines did what they always do … they waited for someone higher on the totem pole to make up their minds.  Meanwhile, Marines from BLT 2/9 began arriving at U-Tapao, Thailand.

That afternoon, President Ford ordered General Burns to proceed with a simultaneous assault on Koh Tang and Mayaguez; the assault would begin at sunrise on 15 May.  Since the Americans had no information about Koh Tang, the 2/9 Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Randall W. Austin, and his operations officer boarded a Beechcraft U-21 to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the island.

The problem with Colonel Austin’s aerial reconnaissance was that he could not get close enough to the island to see anything worthwhile without compromising the upcoming assault.  All Colonel Austin could tell about Koh Tang for sure was that heavy jungle foliage covered the island and that there were only three (potential) landing zones for an air assault.  He found two of these on the northern section of the island, which he designated East Beach and West Beach, and another beach located center of the island’s eastern shore.  The center beach was too narrow for vertical assault operations.

From photographs taken by reconnaissance flights, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimated an enemy footprint of between 150-200 Khmer Rouge with heavy weapons.  Colonel Austin never received this information; he proceeded with his planning on the generally held assumption that only a small number of Khmer navy irregulars were on the island.

Austin planned a two-company air assault, assigning the mission to Company E and Company G (Echo and Golf) 2/9.  They would fly to Koh Tang aboard three USAF CH-53s and three USAF HH-53Cs to seize and hold Koh Tang.  Two additional helicopters would make a diversionary thrust toward West Beach; the main assault would occur at East Beach.  From that East Beach, Austin planned to proceed to a small compound believed to be the location of Mayaguez’s crewmen.  Flight time from U-Tapao to Koh Tang was two hours.

Fifty-seven Marines from Delta Company 1/4, including a detachment of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians, a team of volunteers from the Military Sealift Command, and a Cambodian linguist, were transferred by helicopter to USS Holt, from which they would re-take Mayaguez.

Acting JCS Chairman Jones briefed President Ford and the NSC Staff on the operation plan.  Jones wanted to incorporate B-52s from Guam in bombing Kampong Som and the Ream Naval Base, but the president believed the B-52s were “excessive” and limited aerial bombing to carrier-based aircraft.  With that modification, President Ford approved the operation and gave the go-ahead.

None of the Mayaguez crewmen were at Koh Tang.  Moreover, island defenses included around 150 Khmer defenders.  These troops had not been placed on Koh Tang to counter an American assault but rather to prevent a Vietnamese takeover of the island.  The island’s commander had set up two heavy machine gun emplacements on East Beach with interlocking fires and well-developed defensive positions every twenty or so meters behind a sand berm.  The commander also set up one heavy machine gun at West Beach and armed those defenders with RPGs, 75-mm recoilless rifles, and mortars.

Meanwhile, the senior Khmer commander at Rong Sang Lem interviewed Captain Miller.  Miller was asked to contact the American military and persuade them to call off their anticipated attack; the Cambodian did not want an engagement with the Americans.  Miller told this commander that if he could return to the ship, restart her engines, it may be possible to contact his company in Bangkok, and they, in turn, could communicate with the US military.  The Cambodian military commander decided to return Captain Miller and nine of his crew to the ship the following day.

The operation to retake Mayaguez occurred the next morning, beginning at about 0600.  Delta Company Marines successfully conducted one of the few hostile ship-to-ship boarding operations since the American Civil War; the ship was secure within an hour.

On to Koh Tang

At about the same time, eight USAF helicopters approached the Koh Tang landing zones.  At West Beach, the first helicopter section (two aircraft) to arrive received heavy machine gunfire.  The aircraft with call-sign Knife 21 safely offloaded its Marines, but enemy fire destroyed one of its engines.  After disembarking the Marines, Knife 21 struggled into the air only to ditch two miles offshore.  Inbound Knife 22 also received damage while in-flight, forcing it to withdraw with Marines still on board — including the Gulf Company commander.

Thirty minutes later, CH-53s approached East Beach and encountered intense automatic weapons and RPG fire.  Knife 31 was hit by two RPGs, causing it to crash in a ball of fire fifty meters offshore.  The aircraft’s co-pilot, five Marines, and two Navy corpsmen were killed in the crash; another Marine drowned while swimming away from the wreck. Three additional Marines were killed by Khmer automatic weapons while trying to reach the shoreline.  Ten surviving Marines and three USAF crewmen were forced to swim for two hours before being rescued from the sea.  Among the surviving Marines was the battalion’s forward air controller, who used a USAF survival radio to call in A-7 strikes against the enemy position — doing so until the radio’s batteries failed.

An RPG hit Knife 23, which blew off the aircraft’s tail section, causing it to crash land on East Beach.  Twenty Marines and five aircraft crewmen safely exited the aircraft and set up a hasty defensive perimeter.  Knife 23’s co-pilot used his survival radio to direct airstrikes.  This group remained cut off for twelve hours.

Knife 32, inbound to East Beach, was hit by an RPG and aborted its landing.  After dumping his fuel, the pilot proceeded to rescue three of Knife 21’s crewmen.  The remaining inbound helicopters were diverted from East Beach to West Beach and landed their Marines; an AC-130 gunship, call-sign Specter, was called in to suppress Cambodian defensive fires.  Knife 32, Jolly 41, and Jolly 42 eventually landed 81 Marines on West Beach.  Gulf Company’s executive officer assumed command; Jolly 43 landed 29 Marines a half-mile further southwest.

By 0700, 109 Marines and five USAF crewmen were on Koh Tang, but in three isolated beach areas, each in close contact with Khmer Rouge defenders.  Marines on the northern end of West Beach attempted to link up with Colonel Austin’s command element but were beaten back by overwhelming enemy fire.  Lance Corporal Ashton Loney lost his life in this attempt.  Although isolated, the Marines could employ their 81-mm mortars for fire support, and communicators set up a makeshift radio net for directing air support operations.

An effort to extract the Marines on East Beach failed when Jolly 13 received severe damage in the attempt; with fuel lines ruptured, the aircraft flew to Rayong, Thailand.  Of the eight birds assaulting Koh Tang, enemy fire destroyed three and damaged five birds sufficiently to remove them from further operations.  Because only three helicopters of the assault force remained operational, two aircraft initially assigned to sea and rescue operations, Knife 51 and Knife 52, became part of the airlift element.  These five birds picked up the second wave of the Marine assault force and headed back toward Koh Tang.  Enemy fire damaged the fuel lines of Knife 52, which had to abort its landing; Knife 41 and Jolly 43 likewise aborted their landings and remained in a holding pattern offshore.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s press minister announced that the crew of Mayaguez would be released and went further to explain why the ship had been “detained” in the first place.  The White House then engaged the Cambodian government in a war of press releases.  President Ford immediately took credit for the release of Mayaguez crew members when their release had nothing to do with Ford.  Meanwhile, the president ordered airstrikes to continue until the successful withdrawal of the assault force.

Acting JCS Chairman Jones determined that since the Mayaguez’s crew had been returned to US control, there was no reason to reinforce the Marines at Koh Tang.  The JCS notified all American forces to “ceasefire” and withdraw.  General Burns ordered the return of Austin’s second wave, but Austin convinced him that reinforcements were needed to prevent the Khmer Rouge from overrunning the Marine positions.  Austin ordered an additional one hundred additional Marines ashore.  At that point, there were 225 Americans on Koh Tang, 205 Marines on West Beach, and 20 Marines and five airmen at East Beach.

By 1400, enemy fire at West Beach had diminished substantially; the Khmer defenders’ main force had moved back from the shoreline with a minimal force remaining to keep pressure on the Marines.  Colonel Austin contacted the airborne command post for permission to push across the northern end of the Island to link up with the isolated Marines at East Beach.  He was advised to hold until another helicopter extraction attempt was made.  Jolly 11 and Jolly 43 made their attempt at 1415 but were repulsed by heavy fire.  Jolly 43 was forced to land aboard the Coral Sea.  Jolly 43’s pilot reported that he had received fire from one of the swift boats partially sunk the previous day. A-7’s soon arrived to destroy the boat.

At 1610, a USAF OV-10, call-sign Nail 68, arrived to take over air support functions above Koh Tang.  The arrival of Nail 68 was the first time the Marines had dedicated overhead fire support direction.  At 1700, the Khmer Rouge commander moved his men back to a previously established ammo dump.  Thus, resupplied with ammunition, the Khmer Rouge could re-engage the Marines.  At 1815, Jolly 11, though sustaining battle damage, was able to extract the Marines and airmen from East Beach.  Once the bird was clear, a C-130 dropped a daisy-cutter 15,000-pound bomb on the area of East Beach.  The bomb’s massive shockwave extended over the Marines at West Beach.  Colonel Austin directed that no more such bombs be employed, as they endangered his Marines.

In the darkness of the night, Knife 51, Jolly 43 (hastily repaired), Jolly 44 (brought online from a repair facility at Nakhom Phanom) began extracting the Marines from West Beach.  Knife 51 extracted forty-one Marines and flew them to the Coral Sea.  Jolly 43 extracted fifty-four Marines.  As Jolly 44 picked up forty-four Marines, the 66 remaining Marines came under intensive Khmer fire and were in danger of being overrun. 

The flight time to Coral Sea was around thirty minutes; to shorten the extraction time, First Lieutenant Robert Blough, USAF, delivered his Marines to USS Holt, which in a moonless night was a difficult maneuver.  Once the Marines had been offloaded, Blough returned to Koh Tang and picked up an additional thirty-four Marines.  Lieutenant Blough, whose aircraft began experiencing mechanical issues, flew the Marines to Coral Sea.

At 2000, Knife 51 landed and began loading Marines in the dark.  The only light available came from the muzzle flashes of enemy weapons.  Captain Davis and Gunnery Sergeant McNemar began combing the beach, looking for stragglers.  USAF Technical Sergeant Wayne Fisk stood on the ramp of his aircraft as two additional Marines appeared from the brush.  Fisk asked Davis if all his Marines were accounted for; Davis replied in the affirmative.  Nevertheless, Fisk combed the beach one last time, looking for stragglers and finding none, Knife 51 launched for the Coral Sea.

Because of the intensive enemy fire and no way to communicate with the Khmer defenders, the bodies of Marines and airmen killed in action were left where they fell, including LCpl Loney at West Beach.

As the Air Force birds pulled Marines off the beach, the Marine’s defensive perimeter was contracted to facilitate force protection.  Lance Corporal John S. Standfast, the squad leader of the third squad, third platoon, Echo Company, provided cover for Gulf Company during its withdrawal; Standfast directed the pullback of his own men.  As his men contracted, he and platoon guide Sergeant Anderson continually checked to account for all hands.  Before boarding his extraction helicopter, the Echo Company commander, Captain Mike Stahl, informed Captain Davis from Gulf Company that all his men were inside the perimeter.  Captain Stahl did not realize that three Marines of one of his machine gun teams had set up a firing position behind a rocky outcrop beyond the perimeter’s right flank.

As Knife 51 lifted off, Marines began insisting that some of the men were missing.  Knife 51’s pilot, First Lieutenant Brims, radioed the FAC that he believed there were still Marines on the island.  Captain Davis assured the FAC that all Marines were off-island.  Two hours later, Captain Stahl discovered three of his Marines were missing: Lance Corporal Joe Hargrove, Private First Class Gary Hall, and Private Danny Marshall — the machine gun team — were missing.  Sergeant Anderson was the last to see these Marines alive when he ordered them back to the shrinking perimeter.

At 2020, USAF Staff Sergeant Robert Veilie at the airborne command post received a radio transmission from an unidentified American asking when the next helicopter was coming to pick them up.  Veilie authenticated the transmission and radioed to advise Holt that Marines were still on the island.  Holt instructed Veilie to pass the instruct the Marines to swim out to sea where they could be rescued.  The Marines declined because only one of the three Marines could swim.  Veilie advised the caller to take cover since airstrikes were scheduled at their likely position.  After acknowledging Veilie’s instructions, whomever Veilie talked to went off the air, and no more was heard from him.

Aboard Coral Sea, the Commander, Task Force 73, Rear Admiral Robert P. Coogan, met with Colonel Austin, Commander Coulter, who had just arrived from Subic Bay with a 14-man Seal Team, Captain Davis, and Gunnery Sergeant McNemar to discuss possible courses of action.  Admiral Coogan suggested that Coulter take the Wilson’s gig ashore at first light with a white flag to see if he could recover the remains of those killed in action and any possible stragglers.  Coulter was cool to the idea; he preferred taking his men ashore for a nighttime reconnaissance.  Coogan refused this notion; his orders from COMSEVENTHFLT were to cease hostilities — and he had no confirmation that these “missing” men were still alive.  Despite Wilson’s efforts to spot Marines between East Beach and West Beach, which included cruising offshore and loudspeaker announcements in English and Cambodian, there was no indication that the three Marines were still alive.  Moreover, Coogan was certain more lives would be lost during any forced rescue attempt.

On 16 May, Hargrove, Hall, and Marshall were declared “missing in action.” On 21 July 1976, all three Marines were reported Killed in Action, bodies not recovered.

Except — they weren’t.

In 1999, the Khmer Rouge commander at Koh Tang Island approached the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting, who advertised that they were looking for additional information about Koh Tang’s event.  The man’s name was Em Son.  According to his memory, on the morning of 16 May, he ordered his men to search the West Beach for any remaining Americans.  Around a hundred meters into the search, one of the Khmer defenders was hit by M-16 fire.  The Cambodians fired mortars into the area and captured a wounded Marine.  Em Son’s description of the man matched that of Joseph Hargrove.  The Cambodians continued their search and located an abandoned M60 machine gun and other various equipment.  A few minutes later, the Khmer discovered the body of a black Marine, believed to be LCpl Loney.  They buried Loney and took their wounded prisoner to Em Son.  When the wounded Khmer soldier died, Em Son ordered Hargrove executed.

Em Son also testified that about a week later, he and his men noticed that their food stores were being disturbed.  On searching, they discovered boot prints in the soil.  They set up a night ambush and, on the third night of their vigil, they captured two Americans.  Em Son’s descriptions matched those of Gary Hall and Danny Marshall.  On instructions from Kampong Som, the two Americans were taken to the mainland and transferred to the Ti Near Pagoda, where they were stripped to their underwear and shackled.  A week later, on orders from Phnom Penh, each prisoner was beaten to death with, he said, a B-40 rocket launcher. Hall’s body was buried in a shallow grave near the beach; Marshall’s body was dumped into a nearby cove.

The next of kin of all three of these abandoned Marines received the Purple Heart Medal.  They weren’t the only casualties.  In total, forty-one Americans were killed in the rescue of Mayaguez — one more American serviceman killed than the whole crew saved in the operation.  These casualty numbers reflect the 23 SPS and aircrewmen who died in the helicopter crash, the 18 killed assaulting Koh Tang Island (which includes Hargrove, Hall, and Marshall), and eighty personnel wounded or injured during the operation. 

Sources:

  1.  Caro, R. A.  The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent. New York: Random House, 1991.
  2. Lamb, C. J.  The Mayaguez Crisis, Mission Command, and Civil-Military Relations.  Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, 2018.
  3. Rumsfeld, D.  When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency. New York: Free Press, 2018.
  4. Shafer, J. “The Honest Graft of Lady Bird Johnson: How she and Lyndon came by their millions.” Slate Magazine, 16 July 2007.

Endnotes:


[1] I have no evidence suggesting that this claim had any merit.  I will only observe that if it was true, it was very poor headwork inside the CIA and shipping company boardrooms if they agreed to conduct it.

[2] Cambodia had long claimed a twelve-mile territorial limit of adjacent seas.  Its national policy toward seizing, detaining, questioning maritime crews had been in effect since 1969.  Most countries since 1982 claim a twelve-mile territorial limit.  But in 1975, the United States (and many other countries) only recognized a three-mile territorial limit.

[3] A major shareholder in Land-Sea/Maersk was none other than the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson.  According to Robert A. Caro, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of President Johnson (The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent), Johnson used his political power and influence to build her fortune beginning in 1943.  “Johnson had worked at politics for years to achieve power; now he was working at politics to make money.”  According to award winning journalist Jack Shafer, “Under Texas law, Lyndon Johnson owned half of her profits.”  The truth of Johnson’s Indochina War may thus be revealed to us; he, as a sitting president, profited from the war through his wife ownership of stock in a company that became the primary shipper logistics and war materials to the Republic of Vietnam.

[4] America’s reputation was already a shamble since Harry S. Truman’s gross incompetence involved us in the easily avoided Korean War (which, as of this date, technically still continues) and laid the foundation for similar events in Indochina eleven years later.

[5] USS Pueblo (AGER-2), initially constructed for the US Army as a freight and supply ship during World War II, was transferred to the US Navy in April 1966 as a light cargo ship.  Her subsequent designation as an environmental research vessel was a cover for her real purpose, signals intelligence (known informally as a “Spy Ship”).  In early 1968, USS Pueblo engaged in surveilling Soviet naval activity off the Japanese coast and gathered electronic intelligence from North Korea.  Claiming that Pueblo was illegally operating in North Korean waters (North Korea at the time claimed 50 nautical miles of sovereign territory), North Korean gunboats fired upon Pueblo (killing one crewman), seized the ship, interned the crew as prisoners of war, mistreated the crew, tortured the ship’s commander, and demanded a written apology by the US government as a condition of releasing the crew.  The United States signed the admission, and the North Koreans released the crew in late 1968 but retained possession of the ship and all of its highly classified material (hardware and software).

Operation Ranch Hand

Whoever fights monsters must see to it

that the process does not become a monster. —Nietzsche

Background

The Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

Approaching Indochina

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

Chemical Warfare

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ranch Hand

Ta Cu Mountain, Vietnam

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

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

Model USN Swift Boat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Last Full Measure

I don’t do book or movie reviews because I’m not qualified.  Occasionally, however, I do offer summaries, not so much of the book or film, but of events that I find interesting, touching, or otherwise significant.  One of these is the story of U. S. Air Force Staff Sergeant William H. Pitsenbarger (1944-1966).  It truly is an extraordinary story and I enthusiastically recommend the 2019 film The Last Full Measure.

Pitsenbarger grew up in a small town just outside Dayton, Ohio.  While still in high school, Bill Pitsenbarger contacted a local Army recruiter about enlisting with an option for Special Forces (Green Beret) training.  When he spoke to his parents about his interests, they refused to give their permission.  Upon graduation from high school, Bill Pitsenbarger joined the Air Force on the delayed entry program.

Pitsenbarger 001At the completion of basic training at San Antonio, Texas, Pitsenbarger volunteered for pararescue training[1].  In 1963, this included Army parachute school, survival, evasion, resistance, and escape training, and air crash rescue and firefighting.  Bill Pitsenbarger’s first assignment after his initial training was Hamilton AFB, California.  While assigned to Hamilton AFB, Pitsenbarger performed a period of temporary additional duty in the Republic of Vietnam.  At the conclusion of this temporary assignment, Pitsenbarger volunteered to return to Vietnam for a regular tour of duty where he reported for duty with Detachment 6, 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base just outside Saigon (now, Ho Chi Minh City).  Detachment 6 included five aircrews that flew three Kaman HH-43F “Huskie” Helicopters commanded by Major Maurice Kessler, USAF.

The 2nd Battalion, 16th US Infantry arrived at Vung Tau, South Vietnam, on 10 October 1965 attached to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One).  Initially, 2/16 encamped at Ben Cat, north of Saigon.  The division wasted no time getting this newly arrived brigade adapted to the combat environment.  Operations Bushmaster and Bloodhound involved aggressive patrolling adjacent to Highway 13 and the Michelin Rubber Plantation, followed by Operation Mastiff (February 1966) and Abilene (March-April 1966).

Operation Abilene was a search and destroy mission targeting the 274th and 275th Viet Cong Regiments of the 5th Division.  Abilene employed two brigades of the US 1st Infantry Division with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and 161st Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery assigned in support.  Initially, the Viet Cong avoided battle and contact with the communists was sporadic.

Major General William e. DePuy[2], as commander of the Big Red One, devised a plan to lure the VC into attacking his force.  He assigned Company C, 2/16 to act as the bait.  Once the VC attacked Company C, DePuy planned to rush in additional rifle companies to surround and destroy the Viet Cong force.  At the time, the strength of Company C was 134 soldiers; it was only marginally effective as a US rifle company.

On 11 April 1966, as Charlie Company moved through the Courtenay Rubber Plantation, its understrength platoons encountered sporadic fire from communist snipers who attempted to kill the Americans one at a time.  This intermittent fire allowed VC forces to maneuver around the outnumbered Americans.  By 1400, it became apparent that VC officers were systematically directing their men to encircle the Americans.  The communists had taken DePuy’s bait, but through “piss poor” planning, thick jungle prevented the 2nd Battalion’s other companies from surrounding the VC or reinforcing Charlie Company.  Worse, friendly artillery fire further decimated the few men now surrounded by a superior enemy force.

Desperate fighting continued through the night; the soldiers of Charlie Company threw everything they had at the Viet Cong, including tear gas grenades.  While established in a tight perimeter with mutually supporting crew-served weapons fire, the enemy was still able to breach the company’s lines —in the process of exfiltration, slitting the throats of soldiers wounded and awaiting medical evacuation.  After five hours of brutal combat, what remained of Company C formed a tight perimeter protected only by supporting artillery, delivered at the rate of five rounds per minute.

Kaman HH-43 001
USAF HH-43 Huskie

It was in this setting that the Joint Rescue Center dispatched two HH-43 Huskie helicopters to extract wounded soldiers of C/2/16INF near Cam My, 35 miles east of Saigon.  Upon reaching the extraction site, the helicopter crew lowered Senior Airman Bill Pitsenbarger, USAF to the ground to prepare wounded soldiers for evacuation.  It was then that Pitsenbarger learned that the company medic was one of the wounded, that his wounds were enough to warrant aeromedical evacuation, and that he needed to remain on the ground to provide medical support to the men of Charlie Company.  Pitsenbarger continued to provide life-saving treatment to the wounded and load them aboard returning helicopters.

The Air Force crew wanted Pitsenbarger back aboard the aircraft, but he elected to remain with the beleaguered company.  Enemy small-arms fire struck one of the helicopters and its engine began to lose power.  Pitsenbarger waived the helicopter off and continued administering to the wounded soldiers.  The intensity of the enemy fire precluded further evacuations.  For the next several hours, Pitsenbarger tended the wounded, hacking splints out of jungle vines, building improvised stretchers out of saplings, and when the infantry troops began running out of ammunition, Pitsenbarger gathered it from the dead and distributed it to those remaining alive.

With the arrival of darkness, Bill Pitsenbarger borrowed a rifle from a fallen soldier and joined with members of Charlie Company in forming a night perimeter.  During the night, enemy fire took the life of Bill Pitsenbarger.  The next morning, reinforcements arrived at the battle site to discover the young Airman’s body on the perimeter, his rifle in one hand, his medical kit in the other.

While serving in Vietnam, Senior Airman Bill Pitsenbarger completed 250 pararescue missions.  His selfless courage under fire at Xa Cam My prompted his command to recommend him for the Medal of Honor.  Instead, the Air Force posthumously awarded Pitsenbarger the Air Force Cross (AFC).  Not everyone agreed with this decision.  For the next 34 years, Air Force squadron mates and surviving members of Charlie Company worked tirelessly to have his AFC upgraded to the Medal of Honor.  They accomplished their mission on 8 December 2000 when the Secretary of the Air Force presented his surviving and still-grieving parents with their son’s much deserved Medal of Honor and a posthumous promotion to Staff Sergeant (E-5).

Medal of Honor Citation:

USAF Medal of Honor 001
USAF Medal of Honor

Airman First Class Pitsenbarger distinguished himself by extreme valor on April 11, 1966 near Cam My, Republic of Vietnam, while assigned as a Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron.  On that date, Airman Pitsenbarger was aboard a rescue helicopter responding to a call for evacuation of casualties incurred in an on-going firefight between elements of the United States Army’s 1st Infantry Division and a sizable enemy force approximately 35 miles east of Saigon.  With complete disregard for personal safety, Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a hoist more than one hundred feet through the jungle, to the ground.  On the ground, he organized and coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, prepared casualties for evacuation, and insured that the recovery operation continued in a smooth and orderly fashion.  Through his personal efforts, the evacuation of the wounded was greatly expedited.  As each of the nine casualties evacuated that day were recovered, Pitsenbarger refused evacuation in order to get one more wounded soldier to safety.  After several pick-ups, one of the two rescue helicopters involved in the evacuation was struck by heavy enemy ground fire and was forced to leave the scene for an emergency landing.  Airman Pitsenbarger stayed behind, on the ground, to perform medical duties.  Shortly thereafter, the area came under sniper and mortar fire.  During a subsequent attempt to evacuate the site, American forces came under heavy assault by a large Viet Cong force.  When the enemy launched the assault, the evacuation was called off and Airman Pitsenbarger took up arms with the besieged infantrymen.  He courageously resisted the enemy, braving intense gunfire to gather and distribute vital ammunition to American defenders.  As the battle raged on, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to care for the wounded, pull them out of the line of fire, and return fire whenever he could, during which time, he was wounded three times.  Despite his wounds, he valiantly fought on, simultaneously treating as many wounded as possible.  In the vicious fighting which followed, the American forces suffered 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached, and airman Pitsenbarger was finally fatally wounded.  Airman Pitsenbarger exposed himself to almost certain death by staying on the ground and perished while saving the lives of wounded infantrymen.  His bravery and determination exemplify the highest professional standards and traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Air Force.

Staff Sergeant Pitsenbarger’s combat awards include the Medal of Honor[3], Airman’s Medal, two Purple Heart medals, Air Medal, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross.

See also: A Jolly Green Miracle.

A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors.

–John F. Kennedy.

Sources:

  1. Tilford, E. Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia, 1961-75, Office of USAF History, 1980 (PDF)
  2. Deeter, J. William H. Pitsenbarger: A Hero of Piqua and America.  This local life, Troy Ohio, undated

Endnotes:

[1] Pararescue training began in 1946 in the U. S. Army Air Corps.  The mission of ARS was saving the lives of airmen downed as a result of disasters, accidents, crash landings at locations beyond their assigned air base.  The far-flung nature of Army/Air Force operations created a demand for a larger pararescue service, which was separate and distinct from local base rescue units.  Pararescue teams include a physician, and four medics additionally trained in field medicine, rescue operations, parachute training, and basic infantry tactics.  The Vietnam war was a pivotal conflict for USAF PRTs; the demand for qualified pararescue men was high and the program significantly expanded.  The use of helicopters enlarged  areas of operations and demanded a shift in tactics.  The USAF created “rescue packages,” some of which involved forward air controllers, escort helicopters and A-1 “Sandys,” airborne rescue coordination flights and heavy helicopters commonly referred to as Jolly Green Giant (HH-3 and HH-53).

[2] A highly decorated infantry officer with service in World War II, the Korean War on detached duty with the Central Intelligence Agency, as an attaché in Hungary, Chief of Staff Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and from March 1966, as Commanding General, 1st US Infantry Division.

[3] Although the Air Force upgraded Pitsenbarger’s Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor, he was the first USAF enlisted man ever to receive the Air Force Cross.  In total, only four USAF enlisted men have received the Medal of Honor.