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.

Death Rattlers

VMFA 323 Patch 001Somewhere between the first and fifth of August 1943, three young lieutenants, naval aviators all, swooped down upon a somewhat large rattlesnake resting in the area adjacent to the Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina, captured it, and took it with them to their newly commissioned squadron ready room.  The well-fed snake measured about seven feet in length.  Few people understand why lieutenants do anything.  Observing the antics of a lieutenant, most people roll their eyes and think to themselves, “But for the grace of God …”

In this case, however, the lieutenants were on a mission.  It was to find a nickname for their recently commissioned aircraft squadron.  With all squadron pilots assembled, it was unanimously agreed that Marine Fighting Squadron 323 (VMF-323) would be henceforth known as the Death Rattlers.  Its patch and nickname continue to exist today, as of this writing, for 77-years.  In 1943, VMF-323 was assigned to Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-32, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW).  The squadron’s first commanding officer was Major George C. Axtell, Jr[1].

VMF-323 began combat training almost immediately after its activation.  This squadron, as well as others being formulated, were desperately needed in the Pacific.  In September 1943, VMF-323 was transferred to one of the Air Station’s outlying fields, a Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Facility at Oak Grove.  Its first aircraft was the Vought F4U-1 Corsair[2].  In 1943, VMF-323 was one of eight Marine Corps Corsair squadrons.

F4U Corsair USMC 002In January 1944, VMF-323 was transferred to El Centro, California and reassigned to Marine Base Defense Aircraft Group (MBDAG)-43.  In California, squadron pilots worked to master instrument flying, gunnery, bomber escort, overland navigation, dogfighting, section flight tactics, field carrier landings, and strafing.  Field carrier landing training was a prelude to actual carrier landing qualification training.  When this training period was concluded, VMF-323 moved to Camp Pendleton, California. For Major Axtell, training new officers was a never-ending task since no sooner had he molded his pilots into skilled aviators, they would be transferred to another squadron and Axtell would have to begin the task of bringing along a newer pilot.  Axtell, a qualified instrument pilot before taking command of the squadron, insisted that all of his pilots develop that skill set.  Axtell believed that instrument flying would build self-confidence in his pilots and prepare them for future battles—which proved prescient.

VMF-323’s first casualty occurred on 17 March 1944 when Second Lieutenant Robert M. Bartlett, Jr., crashed his aircraft two miles south of the airbase while on a routine night familiarization flight.  In April, VMF-323 took part in two large-scale joint service air interception exercises.  On 25 May Second Lieutenant John A. Freshour and his passenger, Lieutenant Commander James J. Bunner, USN were killed when their Douglas SBD (Dauntless) crashed into a power line near Camp Pendleton’s airfield.  That month, Axtell focused his pilots on the art and science of dive-bombing and forcing his pilots to avail themselves of an intelligence reading room and a classified material library.  Major Axtell, young as he was, was a task-maker because in addition to learning, practicing, and becoming proficient in aviation skills, he also demanded that his pilots attend aircraft recognition classes and lectures on a host of technical topics —including the geography of Palau’s Islands, Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, and other island areas these pilots could be assigned to.  A third pilot was lost when Second Lieutenant Glen B. Smith crashed at sea on a routine training flight.

On 7 September 1944, 30 pilots, 3 ground officers, 90 enlisted men, 24 aircraft, and repair parts boarded the USS Breton (CVE-23) as the squadron’s advanced element.  Its rear echelon of 20 officers, 167 enlisted men remained behind for further training.  VMF-323 would be assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.  Ten days later, the squadron catapulted the squadron to its destination at Emirau.  During takeoff, Second Lieutenant Gerald E. Baker crashed into the sea and was killed.  Upon arrival at Emirau, Axtell reported to the Commanding General, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing for duty.  For the next 30 days, VMF-323 conducted local flight training within a fifty-mile radius of the field.  Training included gunnery, dive-bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 24 October, Commander Task Group 59.6 ordered VMF-323 (Forward) to Espiritu Santo, a rear area supply base in the New Hebrides Islands.  On the same day, the Commanding General, FMFPac (Air) placed VMF-323 under his administrative control.

By 31 October, VMF-323 (Fwd) was fully located at Espiritu Santo and busily involved in setting up the squadron for air operations.  Between 9-28 November, the squadron participated in another round of familiarization flights, gun proficiency, bombing, and squadron tactics.  On 29 November, the squadron’s rear echelon arrived and rejoined the squadron.  MAG-33 attached the squadron on the same day.  Ordnance experts from MAG-33 began installing airborne rocket launchers almost immediately, necessitating additional training by squadron pilots and ground crews.  It was complicated; pilots needed to learn about glide angle, range, proper lead, rock effectiveness, safety, and the characteristics of various rockets.  Added to the already busy training routine was close air support of ground troops.  Unbeknownst to the squadron’s officers, they were being prepared for battle on the island of Okinawa.  As the pilots were practicing air combat maneuvers, the enlisted men were spending more time on the rifle range: Every Marine is a Rifleman.  Expected to develop proficiency with their sidearm, pilots went to the range, as well.  Finally, the squadron’s ground defense crews practiced with anti-aircraft machine guns.  There would be no gravel crunchers to provide security for VMF-323.

On 23 February, MAG-33 issued classified orders to the Commanding Officer, VMF-323: they would fly their 32 Corsairs to Okinawa in echelons.  Combat operations began on 10 April from Kadena airfield.  Weather conditions made Flying conditions poor.  When the dawn combat air patrol (CAP) launched at 0515 hours on their first day, First Lieutenant James L. Brown failed to join the flight.  Initially listed as missing in action, he was later declared killed in action.  On the next day, the airfield came under attack, but there was no damage or casualties.  The Death Rattlers’ first combat kill came that very morning, 11 April.  First Lieutenant Vernon E. Ball was readying for takeoff when a Japanese bomb hit the runway in front of his aircraft.  Ball calmly steered his aircraft around the bomb crater and took off.  Once airborne, Ball observed fellow squadron mate Al Wells shoot down the Japanese bomber responsible for cratering the runway.

On the afternoon of 12 April, a fourteen aircraft CAP noted the approach of Japanese aircraft from the north.  The Death Rattlers split into three divisions.  Six aircraft were diverted northwest from Ie Shima, flight leader Major Arthur L. Turner with Second Lieutenant Obie Stover as his wingman.  The second section was led by First Lieutenant Dellwyn L. Davis, with Second Lieutenant Robert J. Woods as his wingman.  The third section was led by First Lieutenant Charlie Spangler, with Second Lieutenant Dewey Durnford as his wingman.

The Marines were flying at 15,000 feet, 71-miles northwest of Ie Shima when they spotted a multi-engine Japanese bomber about eight miles distant and at an altitude of around 11,000 feet.  According to the Squadron’s official account:

Spangler and Durnford peeled off, followed by Davis and Woods.  Spangler closed from five o’clock and opened fire at 800 feet.  First, he knocked out the tail gunner and the top of the rudder, and then flamed the port engine.  Durnford was closing from seven o’clock, whereupon the Betty[3] turned on him, apparently trying to give the side blister gunner a shot.  Durnford opened fire at 200 feet, directing his fire at the cockpit.  Davis flamed the starboard engine from 100 feet and the Betty spiraled down in flames, exploding when it hit the water.

Meanwhile, a second six-plane element was directed to the Motobu Peninsula.  Captain Felix S. Cecot was flight leader with Second Lieutenant Leon A. Reynolds as his wing.  Captain Joe McPhail led the second section with Second Lieutenant Warren W. Bestwick.  Second Lieutenant Glenn Thacker flew with Second Lieutenant Everett L. Yager.  The enemy approached at about 18,000 feet.  The Marines climbed to 23,000 to gain an overhead advantage.  McPhail reported— 

I spotted some F4Us chasing Zekes[4]; I called out their position and rolled over.  Bestwick was on my wing.  On the way down, four Zekes appeared right under us at about 19,000 feet, flying almost abreast in two-plane sections.  I started firing at the rear plane on the right, at about 400 yards, above and behind.  My first burst was off, and the Zeke saw the tracers.  He made a couple of small turns, and then I started getting hits.  Pieces started coming off around the cockpit, and then he blew up.  The other three scattered.  I then pushed over and came home alone, being unable to find my wingman.

Berwick’s report stated …

Captain McPhail shot at the rear plane on the right.  His Zeke crossed under the rest of their formation and exploded in flames.  I picked the second plane of the first section and fired a long burst and saw it explode.  By that time, the first plane of the second section had broken off to the right and down, so I continued my run and fired a 20-degree deflection shot from behind.  This plane also exploded.  While looking for Captain McPhail, I saw my first Zeke spiraling down smoking, but I didn’t see my second Zeke after firing on him.

Lieutenant Thacker had followed Bestwick on the original pass going after the fourth Zeke in the formation.  He made an attack run on the Zeke and his guns knocked pieces from the fuselage, causing it to smoke.  The Zeke, however, rolled, pulled up tightly, and escaped.  Thacker claimed a probable kill as a result of his action.

At the same time, Captain Cecot dove from 23,000 feet to 5,000 to fire at a Jack[5].  The Jack rolled, Cecot fired at his belly and saw it smoking.  He was unable to observe further damage.  He too claimed a probable kill.

The remaining section, composed of lieutenants John Ruhsam and Robert Wade, were returning to Kadena because Wade’s landing gear could not be retracted.  Just south of Motobu, a Zeke dove out of the sun and made a pass at Wade’s plane.  Wade lowered his flaps and made a tight run.  The Zeke shot past, rolled, and dove to the deck.  Wade followed him down and was almost in firing position when Ruhsam opened fire with a 30-degree deflection shot and the Zeke burst into flames and crashed.

During this flight, all squadron pilots involved encountered Japanese aircraft for the first time.

VMF-323 flew a variety of close air support and bombing missions over the next few days, the seventh and last mission of 22 April was a record-breaker.  The last mission was an eight aircraft formation led by Major George C. Axtell, the squadron commander.  The flight departed Kadena at 1500 hours and did not return until around 1915.  During this flight, VMF-323 downed a record 24 (and three-quarters) enemy aircraft.  The squadron’s records reflect that the action was fast and furious.

Major Jefferson D. Dorah, Jr., squadron executive officer, burned five planes and exploded a sixth, all within twenty minutes.  Major George B. Axtell shot down five planes within fifteen minutes.  Twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Jeremiah J. O’Keefe also shot down five planes, one of which tried to ram him after it caught fire.

FA-18 Hornet 001Flying combat aircraft is a dangerous vocation.  This was true in 1945, it is more so now as our young men fly high-performance aircraft with exceptionally complicated technology.  Every moment of a training or combat flight is a teaching moment.  Bad things can happen to machines, and it is the human pilot that must respond to each “sudden” and sometimes catastrophic failure.  In April 1945, VMF-323 pilots learned about fire discipline.  Some used up their ammunition too quickly, wastefully, which at the moment the last round was fired, rendered that bird as combat ineffective.  Other pilots dropped their external fuel tanks too soon, which threatened their ability to return safely to base.  They learned from their mistakes, of course … or they died because of them.

VMFA-323 is the home squadron of my good (and long-time) friend Pablo, who occasionally comments here.  Pablo has been an aviator for more than 50 years.  That is … fifty years of accident-free flying.  He is a certified instructor pilot, a certified glider pilot, and certified to teach glider flying.  He is also a much-sought-after aviation safety instructor/lecturer.  He will attest to the risks associated with aviation and most likely agree that these innate risks, when combined with high anxiety combat maneuvering, makes military flying the most challenging vocation anyone could ever ask for.  It should not surprise anyone that there are aircraft mishaps, and that good young men and women die in them.  Given the operational tempo of our military air wings, what is surprising is that there are not more mishaps.

As Brigadier General Chuck Yeager (USAF) once said, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.”

Sources:

  1. Chapin, J. C. Fire Brigade: U. S. Marines in the Pusan Perimeter.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 2000.
  2. Pitzl, G. R. A History of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323.  Washington: USMC Historical Center, 1987.
  3. Sherrod, R.  History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.

Endnotes:

[1] Lieutenant General George B. Axtell (1920-2011) was a World War II flying ace, recipient of the Navy Cross, and the youngest commanding officer of a Marine fighter squadron.  General Axtell served through three wars and retired from active service in 1974.  In addition to command of VMF-323, he also commanded VMF-452, VMF-312, Marine Carrier Air Group-16, Marine Air Control Group 1, Marine Aircraft Group 12, Force Logistics Command, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, and the Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic.  In addition to the Navy Cross, he was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, three awards of the Legion of Merit with combat valor device, two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and seven awards of the Air Medal.

[2] The Corsair was developed by the Chance Vought Aircraft Company, designed and operated as a carrier-based aircraft and entered service in the Navy-Marine Corps in 1942. It quickly became one of the most capable fighter-bombers in the US arsenal and, according to Japanese pilots, the most formidable American fighter in World War II.  The Corsair saw service in both World War II and the Korean War.  It was retired from active service in 1953.

[3] Betty was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine land-based bomber.

[4] Zeke was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

[5] Jack was the name Allied aviators gave to the Mitsubishi J2M Raiden (lightning bolt), a Japanese Navy aircraft

The War Begins in Earnest

Some background

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

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

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

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

Ngo Dinh Diem 001
President Ngo Dinh Diem

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

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

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

Prelude to War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we know …

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

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

LBJ-001
Lyndon Baines Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessment

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[13] Holder of the Medal of Honor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] Operation Rolling Thunder.

Counterinsurgency and Pacification

Lessons learned from the Vietnam War

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

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

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

Background and overview

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

First —the Marines

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second —VMC Advisors

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

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

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

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

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

Third—the other Marine Advisors

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

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

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

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

Fourth —Everyone Else

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

[3] Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Laotian Problem

Laos 001No one foresaw any geo-political problems from the small backward and completely landlocked Kingdom of Laos in 1945.  It was a land inhabited for the most part by hill tribes who were generally peaceful and quite happy with their lifestyle.  But there developed a rivalry between somewhat obscure princes that evolved into a serious international crisis and ultimately, an East vs. West military confrontation.  A minor feud, generally meaningless to the rest of the world, was altered by North Vietnam’s policy of extending its control over the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and its use of Laos as a steppingstone to achieve undetected infiltration into South Vietnam.  Behind the scenes was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) who had begun supplying military aid to the Pathet Lao —the army of the leftist Prince Souphanauvong.  To counter these Communist-inspired activities, the United States had extended its military assistance effort to the anti-Communist Prince Boun Oum.  As this minor struggle continued (from around mid-1950), Prince Souvanna Phouma, who had previously proclaimed neutrality, sided with the Pathet Lao.  It was thus that the tiny Kingdom of Laos became a pawn on the chessboard of international politics.

US military assistance in Laos did very little to slow the escalation of Pathet Lao activities.  In early 1960, the Pathet Lao joined forces with the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to seize control of the eastern portion of the country’s long, southward panhandle.  In 1961, aided again by NVA, the Pathet Lao opened an offensive on the Plain of Jars in central Laos.  Boun Oum’s forces proved unable to contain this Communist push into the Laotian central region.  By March 1961, the situation had become critical enough for President John F. Kennedy to alert the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), Admiral Harry D. Felt[1], for a possible military deployment to Laos.

Admiral Felt selected Major General Donald M. Weller[2], then serving as Commanding General, 3rd Marine Division, to additionally serve as Commander, Task Force 116.  Weller’s command primarily consisted of US Marine ground and air forces, augmented by selected (mission essential) units of the US Army and US Air Force.  As Weller organized his task force, President Kennedy successfully arranged a cease-fire in Laos.  The crisis cooled further when fourteen governments agreed to reconvene the Geneva Conference to consider neutralization of the Laotian kingdom.  Kennedy called off the alert and General Weller’s task force was deactivated.

Negotiations in Geneva proved to be long and tedious and the ceasefire was at best tenuous; sporadic fire fights continued to erupt in various areas, usually localized, but over time growing in their frequency.  In the opening weeks of 1962, widespread heavy fighting broke out again, precipitating a more intense crisis.  US observers agreed that by May 1962 the situation reached a critical point.  Pathet Lao and NVA forces routed a major element of anti-Communist Laotian forces at Nam Tha, a town located along the Mekong River in northwestern Laos.  As a result, General Phoumi Nosavanled his army in a general withdrawal into northern Thailand.  In doing so, Phoumi risked widening the conflict into Thailand.

Afterward in control of the east bank of the Mekong, the Pathet Lao were poised for a drive into Thailand, which at the time was a member in good standing of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).  Additionally, General Phoumi’s defeat threatened the US negotiating position at the on-going Geneva accords.  Accordingly, Kennedy ordered the re-activation of Task Force 116.  This time Admiral Felt selected Marine Major General John Condon[3] to serve as its commander.  A Marine battalion landing team (BLT) joined the US 7th Fleet amphibious ready group as its special landing force.  Combat elements of TF 116 promptly sailed into the Gulf of Siam.  The US demonstration had two purposes: (1) send an important signal to Pathet Lao and NVA forces that the United States would not countenance an invasion into Thailand, and (2) assure the government of Thailand that the United States was committed to its defense.

After President Kennedy authorized a deployment of US military forces to Thailand, US Army Lieutenant General John L. Richardson assumed command of TF 116 with orders to execute military operations in Laos.  Richardson’s orders were clear: exercise his command in a way that left no doubt as to American intentions to defend Thailand.  He would accomplish this by positioning his force in a manner that would allow them to respond to any armed Communist threat to Thailand.  At the same time, General Harkins (COMUSMACV) was ordered to also assume command of USMACTHAI and to exercise supervisory authority over TF 116.

A-4 Skyhawk 001One element of TF-116 already in Thailand was 1st Brigade, US 27th Infantry Division.  US war plans called for an additional Marine Expeditionary Brigade.  The Brigade would consist of a regimental landing team (RLT) (three BLTs), an attack squadron, a helicopter squadron, and various other supporting units of varying size.  Marine air assets would operate out of the air base at Udorn, Thailand, which also served as the country’s provisional capital some 350 miles northeast of Bangkok.  Udorn hosted a 7,000-foot runway suitable for high performance aircraft and aviation support units.  The first attack squadron to arrive in Thailand was VMA 332, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Harvey M. Patton, who’s 20 A-4 Skyhawks arrived at around noon on 18 May 1962.

Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Adams, commanding BLT 3/9[4] and Lieutenant Colonel Fred A. Steele, commanding HMM-261, both units forming a key element of the Special Landing Force, disembarked from ships of the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) at Bangkok.  Aviation support detachments began arriving at Udorn from Okinawa.  To coordinate all aviation units and responsibilities, a provisional Marine Air Group was formed under Colonel Ross S. Mickey.  On 19 May, Brigadier General Ormond B. Simpson[5], commanding the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (3rdMEB) (formerly, Assistant Division Commander, 3rdMarDiv) arrived at Udorn.  As the brigade commander, Simpson would command all USMC air and ground elements deployed to Thailand.  Simpson additionally carried the designation Naval Component Commander, which gave him responsibility for all Navy and Marine forces operating under JTF-116.

Elsewhere, US forces increased with additional USAF tactical fighter bombers, refueler aircraft, and two air transport squadrons.  The US 27th Infantry was reinforced by Hawaii-based units and a logistics support command was activated near Bangkok.  Major General Weller joined the staff of JTF-116 as LtGen Richardson’s chief of staff.

With the numbers of American forces sharply increasing, General Simpson implemented a civic action program with the people of Thailand.  Civil action programs were performed by Marines when they were not involved in field or weapons training programs.  Officers introduced local citizens to the English language while Marine engineers and Navy Seabees helped to repair buildings.  Navy medical and dental personnel attended to physical ailments and injuries.

In Laos, Communist forces cautiously observed an ever-enlarging US military footprint in Thailand.  The Pathet Lao and NVA halted their advance toward the Thai border.

JTF-116 headquarters was set up at Korat.  General Weller established a rear-element in Bangkok and concentrated on coordinating the activities of the JTF with the Joint US Military Assistance/Advisory Group (JUSMAAG), Commander, US Military Assistance Command, Thailand (COMUSMACThai), and the US representatives of SEATO.  At this time, Colonel Croizat, formerly the first Marine Corps advisor to the Vietnamese Marine Corps, served as senior US military representative to the SEATO planning staff in Bangkok.  Weller and Croizat were familiar with the JTF structure, its capabilities, and its functions.

Portions of the Marine Corps contingency operation plan for Laos were later incorporated into operational planning for service in the Republic of Vietnam.  One key provision of the plan was its emphasis on command relationships, an important aspect of Marine Corps and Air Force tactical support operations.  In Laos, the CG 3rdMEB exercised operational control over all Marine tactical aircraft, an integral part of the air-ground team, which the Marines had nurtured since the mid-World War II period.

In Laos, training and acclimatization for combat operations began almost immediately at Udorn and Nong Ta Kai.  While aviators became accustomed to working in the joint-tactical environment, ground pounders familiarized themselves with the terrain, working alongside Thai army units.  Coordinated air-ground maneuvers publicized the presence of the Marines.  Throughout this period of area familiarization, the Marines confined themselves to areas approved by the government of Thailand so as to minimize their contact or interference with local populations.

Once Pathet Lao and NVA commanders realized that the United States was seriously committed to Thailand, their offensive operations in northwest Laos came to a screeching halt.  By late June 1962, US officials reported progress in negotiations in Geneva and Vientiane.  President Kennedy, in a show of good faith, ordered major combat elements of JTF-116 to withdraw from Thailand.  A month later, quarreling factions in Laos agreed to participate in a coalition government headed by Prince Souvanna Phouma and form a neutralist state.  Within this protocol, agreed to and signed by the United States, Soviet Union, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Burma, Great Britain, France, Canada, India, China, Thailand, Poland, the Kingdom of Laos, and Cambodia, all foreign troops were prohibited from entering or operating within the borders of Laos[6].  By 31 July 1962, all Marine Corps combat forces were withdrawn from Thailand/Laos, the 3rdMEB was deactivated, and the first deployment of the Marine Air-Ground task force to Southeast Asia came to an end.

The Laos Problem illustrated the value of the U. S. Marine Corps (a) as a force capable of supporting American foreign policy objectives on short notice, (b) its ability to partner with Navy, Army, Air Force units, and the militaries of foreign allies, (c) its ability to operate at will within remote areas, and (d) its ability to establish culture-sensitive civil action programs.  The lessons learned by the Marines in Thailand/Laos would be taken off the shelf in another war in the not-too-distant future.

Pathet Lao 001
Pathet Lao (still alive)

Diplomatically, Kennedy’s solution to the Laotian problem was a failure on many levels —not least of which were the convictions of both South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem and U. S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Frederick Nolting, that a neutral Laos would only serve the interests of North Vietnam.  Both Diem and Nolting knew that Prince Phouma was weak and untrustworthy.  Diem’s solution was hardly realistic, however: he wanted to partition Laos into a pro-communist/pro-capitalist country.  President Kennedy wanted a diplomatic solution to the Laotian problem —sooner rather than later— and that’s what he got.  Despite the agreement on Laos, which North Vietnam almost immediately violated, Laos did become the primary infiltration route of North Vietnamese men and materials into the Republic of (South) Vietnam.  Equally significant, perhaps, was the fact that Ho Chi Minh had taken an adequate measure of John F. Kennedy and the man who would succeed him: Lyndon B. Johnson.

(Next week: Marine Advisors in Vietnam)

Sources:

  1. Castle, T. At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U. S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-1975.  Columbia University Press, 1993.
  2. Conboy, K. J. War in Laos, 1954-1975.  Squadron/Signal Publications, 1994.
  3. Freedman, R. Vietnam: A History of the War. Holiday House, 2016.
  4. Hastings, M. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75.  Canada: HarperCollins, 2018.
  5. Hitchcock, W. The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World of the 1950s.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018
  6. Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History.  New York: Viking/The Penguin Group, 1983
  7. Sturkey, M.F. Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam.  South Carolina: Heritage Press International, 1996
  8. Whitlow, R. H. S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964.  History & Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1977

Endnotes:

[1] Admiral Felt (1902-92) was a naval aviator who led US carrier strikes during World War II.  He served as CINCPAC from 1958-64.  Felt, was an unremarkable graduate of the US Naval Academy.  He spent five years at sea before applying for flight training.  Felt went on to become one of the more accomplished Navy aviators in its entire history.

[2] Weller, an artillerist, became the Marine Corps’ foremost expert on naval gunfire support and authored several books on the topic.  During World War II, Weller served under (then) Brigadier General Holland M. Smith, commanding the 1st Marine Brigade, as his artillery and naval gunfire support coordinator.  Weller retired from active duty in 1963 while serving as Deputy Commander, Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific.

[3] Commanding General, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.

[4] A battalion landing team is an infantry battalion reinforced by additional units sufficient to enable the team to accomplish its assigned mission.  In this case, 3/9 was reinforced by an artillery battery, a tank platoon, an amphibious tractor platoon, a pioneer platoon, a motor transport platoon, an anti-tank platoon, and air and naval gunfire liaison teams.

[5] General Simpson (1915-1998) later commanded the 1stMarDiv during the Vietnam War.

[6] See also, final paragraph.  Had the North Vietnamese adhered to their agreement, they would not have established the logistics corridor through the eastern length of Laos that became known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.  Without it, the War in Vietnam might well have had a different outcome.

Viet Nam: The Marines Head North

Đà Nẵng[1], Vietnam was first established in the year 192 AD as part of the ancient kingdom of Champa.  The capital of Champa was a city named Indrapura (present-day Dong Duong, in Quang Nam Province).  In the last half of the tenth century, the kings of Champa came into conflict with the Đại Việt, a people living near modern-day Hanoi.   It was a conflict that lasted for over a hundred years and ended in territorial gains for the Dai Viet during the Ly Dynasty.  The expansion of the Dai Viet continued for several centuries.  By the end of the fifteenth century, Champa had all but ceased to exist.

The first European to appear at Da Nang was the Portuguese explorer António de Faria in 1535.  Afterward, Portuguese ships regularly visited the city hoping to establish trade with its citizens.  Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, French and Spanish traders and missionaries made landfall at Hoi An, south of Da Nang.  The first known American to visit the city was John White on the brig[2] Franklin of Salem, Massachusetts.  American ships soon after made regular visits, but because the area was poor in resources, trade agreements with local officials simply wasn’t possible because the Emperor Minh Mang prohibited foreign vessels from making landfall at any location other than present-day port city of Haiphong.

French Flag 001French vessels bombarded Da Nang in 1847 and again in 1858 to punish the people for their abuse of Catholic missionaries.  Under orders from Napoleon III, the French landed infantry as part of their Cochinchina Campaign.  French gains in Vietnam were only temporary, however, as a large Vietnamese army forced a French retreat in 1860[3].  By the end of 1862, however, French forces were able to capture and retain the southern stronghold of Saigon.  Several southern provinces were ceded to the French by the Treaty of Saigon[4] (1862).  Over the next twenty years, the French were able to strengthen their hold on Vietnam, culminating in the establishment of the Union de l’Indochine Française in October 1887.  Two years later, Da Nang became one of Indochina’s five most important cities (along with Hanoi, Saigon-Cholon, Haiphong, and Hué.

On 30 July 1962, Colonel Julius W. Ireland replaced Colonel Carey as the operation shufly task force commander.  Ireland had served briefly in Vietnam in 1954 while commanding VMA-324 and delivered 25 F4U Corsair fighter-bombers to the French, who at the time were in desperate need of attack aircraft.  Soon after Ireland’s arrival, additional personnel changes took place: Ralph R. Davis replaced Lieutenant Colonel William W. Eldridge as CO MABS-16 Sub-unit, and Lieutenant Colonel Alton W. McCully replaced Harry C. Dees as executive officer of the task unit.

HMM-163, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Rathbun replaced HMM-362, participating in its first combat mission on 1 August.  HMM-163, known as the Ridge Runners[5], maintained a brisk operations schedule throughout the summer.  HMM-163 suffered its first aircraft damage on 18 August.

HMM-163 001The mission, which involved 14 helicopters led by Rathbun, arrived at a pre-arranged pickup point to rendezvous with an ARVN infantry unit.  Upon their arrival, the Marines discovered that the ARVN unit was nowhere to be seen.  One crewman reported seeing ARVN troops about a half mile away from the pickup point.  Rathbun and his wingman then spotted white smoke at that approximate location and took off to investigate the area.  While making a low pass, Rathbun’s bird was hit several times by small arms fire.  The rudder control cable was severed, which punctured the main rotor transmission.  Oil loss forced Rathbun to land on a nearby road.  On site repairs enabled the Marines to return the aircraft to a more secure area.

What happened was that as Rathbun’s flight set down at the pre-arranged pickup point, ARVN forces commenced to engage a VC force of unknown strength about a half mile from the rendezvous point; a VNAF[6] forward air controller (FAC) in an observation aircraft dropped smoke to mark the VC position for an air strike.  Rather than dropping white smoke, the FAC should have dropped red.  HMM-163 learned valuable lessons from this incident, including (a) the advisability of last-minute radio coordination with ground units before landing aircraft to support them, (b) that helicopters were not suitable for low level reconnaissance, and (c) pre-arranged smoke signals lend themselves to enemy deception.  In Vietnam, there was no such thing as keeping secrets.

HMM-163 operations continued throughout August.  Thinking outside the box, helicopter mechanics proposed modifying the H-34D by mounting M-60 machine guns inside the cargo hatch.  A flexible machine gun mount made sure that the weapons would not obstruct the hatch during loading and unloading men and material.  The addition of side-mounted automatic weapons allowed the crew chief to protect the helicopter during crucial landings and take offs.  Of course, by regulation, door gunners were restricted from using their weapons until first fired upon and then only at clearly identified enemy targets.  This rule of engagement (ROE) applied equally to US ground advisors.

In early September, General Harkins directed Colonel Ireland to begin planning for the relocation of his helicopter force, northward to Da Nang.  The shift to I CTZ (also, I Corps) was part of a unit realignment; HMM-163 would switch places with the Army’s 93rd Helicopter Company.  The movement took place in stages beginning on 4 September.  But even after the squadron began the process of relocation, HMM-163 continued flying missions in support of the III CTZ commander.  On 5 September, three helicopters were hit by enemy small arms fire.  All aircraft returned safely to Soc Trang, but Corporal Billy S. Watson, a crew chief, became the first Marine wounded during the Vietnam War.

When the U. S. Marines arrived in Da Nang in September 1962, the city still retained many of the characteristics of an old French colonial city.  The airfield was a French construct following World War II.  It was modern and large enough to support VNAF, U. S. Air Force, Marines, and commercial aircraft —even though the field was literally surrounded by the city.  Thus, Da Nang became the new base for operation shufly and in terms of its facilities, it was an improvement over Soc Trang.  One of Colonel Ireland’s biggest worries was adequate security for his Marines and their aircraft.  Initially, Ireland detailed a guard force from among the enlisted men of the flying squadron and MABS-16.  Guard posts were set up around the flight line, maintenance hangar and communications center, but this arrangement was far from ideal.  It necessitated that Marines with full time jobs take on the additional task of area security.  Tired mechanics are lousy mechanics.  Ireland requested the assignment of a permanent security force so that his operating force could concentrate on their assigned mission, but his request was not immediately approved.

At the time HMM-163 arrived in Da Nang, the I CTZ included South Vietnam’s five northern-most provinces, from the DMZ to Quang Ngai.  All of these were coastal provinces, and with the exception of Quang Ngai, extended inland from the seacoast to the Laotian border, distances that ranged from 30 to 70 air miles.  I Corps occupied the central portion of the region formerly known an Annam; it extended 225 miles south of the DMZ.  The climate pattern of I Corps was almost the opposite of that experienced by Marines at Soc Trang.  The dry season dominates the summer months, and monsoons govern the winter months.  Monsoons are a weather phenomenon that influence large climate regions and reverses its direction seasonally. Generally, it is a strong wind from the southwest that brings heavy rainfall.  In I Corps, monsoons bring heavy rains and dense fog, generally beginning around October and ending in March.

The terrain of I Corps ranges from a flat coastal plain to towering mountains, which protrude several miles west of the flat coastal plain.  Most of the populated areas of I Corps are located along streams and rivers that empty into the Gulf of Tonkin.  In 1962, two and a half million people lived in I Corps; their social patterns and economies were dictated by geography and climate and had existed for thousands of years.

Colonel Ireland’s aviators were tasked with supporting ARVN units in I Corps, which included the 1st and 2nd ARVN divisions.  The 1st ARVN Division was stationed at Huế, the old Imperial City; the 2nd ARVN Division was headquartered at Da Nang.  ARVN units operating in I Corps were occasionally augmented by the 25th ARVN Division from Kontum to achieve specific operational objectives.

Enemy forces within I Corps included four VC battalions, four separate infantry companies, and three district level (independent) platoons.  Altogether, communist forces numbered around 5,000 men.  Additionally, a not-so-veiled threat of an invasion across the DMZ from North Vietnam was always present.  Across the Laotian border were the Ho Chi Minh trails from which men and material were funneled from the North into South Vietnam.

Nationally, the government’s military strategy was to pacify and control heavily populated areas, but in I Corps, dense forests and valleys demanded a more aggressive policy.  This meant more airlift missions for HMM-163.  The problem for Marine aviators was rough terrain and foul weather for at least half of the year.

Vietnamese ground commanders in I Corps, who had learned the value of helicopter support, lost no time requesting assistance from the Marines.  HMM-163 flew its first mission from Da Nang on 18 September.  Rough terrain and the fact that enemy units easily controlled all landing zones in I Corps prompted the Marines to again modify their tactics.  For example, the Marines withheld landing operations until after VNAF bombers had softened likely enemy positions around landing zones.  Marines additionally relied on coordinated pre-arranged artillery and air strikes to neutralize enemy troops in the area of operations.

USMC H-34 DAnother issue facing the Marines was refueling their gas-guzzling H-34D’s[7].  To solve this problem, HMM-163 lifted a 10,000-gallon fuel bladder into Quang Ngai, 65 miles south of Da Nang to serve as a permanent refueling point.  Additional bladders were later positioned in Hué and Tam Ky.

On 19 September, the Marines helped evacuate a threatened government outpost from the mountains directly west of Da Nang, including an odd assortment of troops, their families, and personal belongings (livestock) to the relative safety of the coastal plain.  This type of mission became routine for the Marines, which indicated a substantial increase in VC activity in I Corps, particularly after North Vietnam stepped up its support of VC units.  While lifting elements of the 2nd ARVN Division, HMM-163 suffered its first battle damage near Tam Ky on 26 September.  The Marines had become a favorite target of VC units.  In one incident two ARVN soldiers were killed and Lance Corporal James I. Mansfield became the second Marine to receive combat wounds in Vietnam.  Between 26 September and 4 October, five H-34’s received battle damage from enemy small arms fire.

On 6 October, five Marines and two sailors were killed when their Search and Air Rescue (SAR) helicopter crashed in the jungle fifteen miles west of Tam Ky.  The crash resulted from a catastrophic mechanical failure.  First Lieutenant William T. Sinnott, the pilot and only survivor, was successfully airlifted to medical facilities at Da Nang.

In airlifting ARVN troops, there was one aspect of such operations that became a source of irritation to the Marines.  It was that ARVN troops were improperly prepared for airlift.  Getting the ARVN troops loaded onto the aircraft more closely resembled a Chinese fire drill than an orderly military operation.  The ensuing gaggle produced a waste of time and an increase of danger to the Marines and their birds.  HMM-163 solved this problem by assigning a senior noncommissioned officer to act as loadmaster.  Equipped with a radio, the loadmaster would arrive at the assembly area in advance of the main flight and supervise loading operations.

Monsoons arrived in I Corps in early November.  Flight operations were restricted by heavy fog and low clouds in the mountain areas, forcing the Marines to concentrate their efforts along the coastal regions.  Rathbun began sending his OE-1 to obtain current weather and climate conditions before allowing his aircraft to lift off.  At best, it was a partial fix to the problem because monsoon rains moved quickly in from the South China Sea, and these heavy rains always disrupted flight operations.

Operation Shufly in I Corps was the beginnings of what would be come a long-time association of Marines with RVN’s rugged highlands.  The officers and Marines of HMM-163 learned important lessons from their experiences and shared these with their brothers throughout the helicopter community.  By the end of 1962, U. S. Marines had established an enviable record of service to the Republic of Vietnam and earned an exceptional reputation for their courage, innovation, and generosity toward their Vietnamese counterparts.

(Next week: The Laotian Problem)

Sources:

  1. Castle, T. At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U. S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-1975.  Columbia University Press, 1993.
  2. Conboy, K. J. War in Laos, 1954-1975.  Squadron/Signal Publications, 1994.
  3. Freedman, R. Vietnam: A History of the War. Holiday House, 2016.
  4. Hastings, M. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75.  Canada: HarperCollins, 2018.
  5. Hitchcock, W. The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World of the 1950s.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018
  6. Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History.  New York: Viking/The Penguin Group, 1983
  7. Sturkey, M.F. Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam.  South Carolina: Heritage Press International, 1996
  8. Whitlow, R. H. S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964.  History & Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1977

 Endnotes:

[1] Its usage appears here in the written language of Vietnam.  I will dispense with using this style further.

[2] A brig is a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts.

[3] A well-practiced French maneuver since 1812.

[4] Saigon has had many names.  As far as we know, its earliest name was Bai gaur in the 11th century.  After falling to the Khmer, it was named Prey Nokor (forest city).  Vietnamese moving south occupied the area and eventually displaced the Khmer and the city was named Gia Dinh, but later named Saigon (Cotton Stick) in the 18th century.

[5] So-named for their participation in rescue and relief operations after a typhoon had devastated the mountainous region of Hagman, Japan.

[6] Vietnamese Air Force

[7] With a max takeoff weight of 14,000 pounds, the H-34 had a range of 182 miles.  Fuel bladders were very necessary for these aircraft.

Viet Nam: The Beginning

Our Marine Corps drill instructor marched us into a classroom at Parris Island, South Carolina and ordered us to sit down and remain quiet.  We were used to following orders, so we did what we were told.  We weren’t the only recruit platoon in the room.  When the room was full of buzz-headed Marine hopefuls, a first lieutenant took center stage and introduced himself.  This was a long time ago.  I’m guessing the time frame would have been around May 1963.  I cannot now recall this officer’s name, but I can still see him standing in front of us.  He was short in stature, had short cut blondish colored hair, and spoke with a resonate voice.  Over the period of about one hour, he presented a slide show of events in a far-off place —an emerging conflict, he said.  We needed to know about this place because we might be called upon to serve there.  He told us the name of this place was Viet Nam.  No one in my platoon had ever heard of Vietnam.

IndochinaBut the lieutenant was right: we ended up there.  How did that happen?

Prior to 1954, the expanse of the Southeast Asia Mainland was in the hands of the French —and, at least technically, had been from about the mid-1800s.  They controlled this place for so long, in fact, that it became known as French Indochina, which included the northern two-thirds of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

After Germany’s invasion of France at the beginning of World War II, the French government went into exile.  To replace it, French President Albert Lebrun appointed Marshal Philippe Petain[1] to form a new government as its prime minister.  While Paris remained the nominal capital of France, Petain moved his government to the city of Vichy, hence the name Vichy France.  The Vichy government signed a peace accord with the Axis powers, making France a collaborative ally of Germany, Italy, and Japan.  Under this arrangement, the Vichy government continued to supervise the civil administration of France and its colonial empire, including French Indochina.

In late September 1940, the Empire of Japan joined Germany and Italy through the Tripartite Pact, which provided for mutual support and assistance should any of the signatories find themselves at war with any other nation.  Initially, when Japanese forces invaded Indochina on 22 September, the French colonial government resisted.  It was a war that lasted all of four days.  Then, after recognizing the Vichy French colonial administration as an ally, Japan was “permitted” to occupy portions of present-day north Vietnam[2].  Under this arrangement, the French colonial government continued to exercise authority over civil functions in Tonkin and Annam, but the Japanese soon implemented the golden rule in Indochina, which was that whoever had the guns made the rules.  Japan continued to occupy Indochina as a guest of the French through March 1945 when Japan’s mask of congeniality was removed.  Without so much as a “by your leave,” Japanese soldiers arrested all French colonial officials and seized control of all their functions.

At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, allied leaders made the decision to divide Indochina in half —at the 16th parallel— in order to allow Chiang Kai-shek to receive the Japanese surrender in the North, while British Lord Louis Mountbatten would receive the Japanese surrender in the South.  The allies agreed that France was the “rightful owner” of French Indochina but given the weakened state of France at the time, a British-Indian force would take on the role of helping France re-establish its control over their former colony.

Within three months the Empire of Japan unconditionally surrendered to the Allied powers and pursuant to the previously agreed-to allied protocols, the Chinese Nationalist military moved into Tonkin and northern Annam to accept the surrender of Japanese forces.  Elements of the British army arrived from India to accept the surrender of Japanese operating south of the 16th parallel, which included the southern portion of Annam and all of Cochinchina.  Surprising to the British, a detachment of 150 men from the French Expeditionary Corps[3] arrived in Saigon to “assist” the British in their task —the oddity being that France was not slated to participate in the surrender of Japanese forces[4].

The end of World War II did nothing to settle the struggle for control of French Indochina.  Rather, it was the beginning of a new conflict.  The French intended to restore their former colonial presence in Indochina.  To achieve this, the French rushed legionnaires to Tonkin and Annam before the end of 1945.  In early 1946, France secured an agreement with Chinese Nationalists to relinquish their control of towns and cities north of the 16th parallel.  At this stage, it might have appeared that the French plan of action was coming to fruition but there remained one problem: Vietnamese nationalism.

Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh

The leader of this nationalist movement was a rather nondescript fellow who called himself Ho Chi Minh[5].  Minh was a devout communist who had managed to transform a weak political movement into a powerful guerrilla organization known as the Vit Nam độc lp đồng minh (shortened to Viet Minh).  The man responsible for organizing and training the Viet Minh was a young history teacher from Annam named Vo Nguyen Giap[6].

American officials in 1945 knew of Ho Chi Minh and his organization.  In the latter days of World War II, the American OSS had provided the Viet Minh with military supplies in exchange for their assistance in rescuing downed Allied airmen and helping them avoid Japanese capture.  The Viet Minh, however, performed only limited services to allied forces while reaping the reward of guns and ammunition —which they added to their growing arsenal of French, Japanese, and British armaments.  In 1944-45, it was not in the long-term interests of Ho Chi Minh to risk limited manpower fighting the Japanese.  There was a bigger fish to fry.

Even before the arrival of Chinese Nationalists in late 1945, Viet Minh forces managed to seize control of Hanoi (the capital of Tonkin) and, after doing so, proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).  Part of what made this possible was the Viet Minh’s elimination by lethal means of all potential political opponents.  Having made their pronouncement, the Viet Minh shifted its focus away from surrendering Japanese and toward contesting the reemergence of French colonialism.

Overwhelmed by Viet Minh activity, French officials agreed to open negotiations with the communists and by early 1946, France agreed to recognize the DRV as a free state within the French Union.  In return, Ho Chi Minh announced his willingness to welcome the French Army to relieve Chinese Nationalist forces.  French forces[7] thus began a reoccupation of Tonkin and northern Annam.  By late summer 1946, the French military controlled every major strategic position from the Chinese border to the Ca Mau Peninsula, the southern tip of Cochinchina.

French and Viet Minh officials ceased being friends in December 1946 after negotiations failed to reach a final agreement about political control of Tonkin and Annam.  Open warfare soon followed with Ho withdrawing the bulk of his military forces into the mountainous regions of China and Laos but leaving guerrilla forces scattered throughout the Red River delta region.  The French sent for reinforcements from Africa and Europe to bolster their forces, while the Viet Minh drew their strength from a growing nationalist sentiment.  By the late 1940s, Ho’s communist movement was in full swing and the First Indochina War spread into Annam and Cochinchina.  In 1949, Ho Chi Minh’s staunchest supporter, Mao Zedong, won the Chinese Civil War, seizing control of mainland China.

In 1950, Communist Korean forces invaded the Republic of South Korea —events that added a new dimension to the struggle for French Indochina.  In the view of American officials, China, North Korea, and Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh threatened the peace and security of the entire Southeast Asia Mainland.  In response, President Harry S. Truman promised US military aid to French Indochina[8].  Ostensibly, Truman made this decision out of concern that Ho Chi Minh would begin cooperating with Mao Zedong in the takeover of the entire Southeast Asia Mainland.  The US congress added $4-billion dollars to Truman’s military assistance budget, all but roughly $300 million was earmarked for French efforts in Vietnam.

Eisenhower 001
President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight Eisenhower wrested the presidency away from Truman in the 1952 elections.  The relationship between Truman and Eisenhower was never cordial, so the transition from one president to another was strained.  Eisenhower believed that Truman had made a mess of US foreign policy.  Eisenhower’s plan was to balance the federal budget, end the war in Korea, and continue Truman’s policy of reliance on nuclear deterrence to keep the peace elsewhere.  When the French approached Eisenhower in early 1953, asking for continued financial assistance in the First Indochina War, they argued that Ho Chi Minh was receiving massive amounts of aid from the Chinese Communists.  Without committing the United States, Eisenhower sent Lieutenant General John O’Daniel to Vietnam to study and assess the French effort.  Eisenhower’s chief of staff, retired General Matthew Ridgeway, dissuaded the president from any notion of military intervention in Vietnam —arguing that the cost of an Indochinese war would be too high.

Eisenhower followed Ridgeway’s advice.  He instead counteroffered the French teams of US military advisors, financial, and material support.  The French wanted more, of course, and to this Eisenhower offered a further conditional agreement: the US might become involved in Indochina, but only with congressional approval and allied (UN) participation.  Eisenhower knew at the time that this would never happen.  After the resounding defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu, Eisenhower refused to intervene.  Instead, Eisenhower spearheaded the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), an alliance with the UK, France, New Zealand, and Australia, in defense of Vietnam against communist aggression.

When China and France agreed to reconvene peace talks at Geneva, Eisenhower agreed to US participation, but only as an observer.  France and China (representing the interests of Vietnamese nationalists) agreed to a partition of Vietnam, which Eisenhower rejected as foolhardy.  Nevertheless, he offered US military assistance to the government of South Vietnam (the Republic of Vietnam (also, RVN)), and supported the Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem[9].  What Eisenhower was hoping for was the introduction of political stability in South Vietnam while at the same time creating a bulwark of nations opposed to communist expansion throughout the rest of the Indochinese peninsula.  One key to this undertaking was a Truman creation: the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (USMAAG).  Eisenhower tasked this organization with organizing, advising, training, and supplying the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

Lieutenant General John M. O’Daniel assumed command of the USMAAG in the spring of 1954.  His bona fides for this appointment were his work in building the South Korean Army during the Korean War.  In Vietnam, he and his 350-man staff would be starting from scratch: beyond French forces and auxiliaries, South Vietnam had no appreciable defense establishment.  Its initial complication was a US agreement with the French to phase out their participation in RVN, which cost the United States both time and money.  A combined Franco-American training command was activated in February 1955.  The kicker to this agreement was a provision that the USMAAG would have to shape the ARVN into a cohesive defense force prior to the complete withdrawal of French forces.

Croizat VJ 001
LtCol V. J. Croizat USMC

The first Marine Corps officer tasked with advisory/assistance on the MAAG staff was Lieutenant Colonel Victor J. Croizat[10], who was fluent in French and had earned a laudable reputation while attending the French war college in 1949.  His first assignment was as head of the commission on refugees, but he later headed the USMAAG detachment at Haiphong.  Upon his return to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Croizat was tasked to create a small Vietnamese Marine Corps (VMC), which became necessary after the birth of the Vietnamese Navy.  To accomplish this new military organization, it was also necessary to transfer existing ARVN units of various types to the new VMC.  These were mostly small organizations with practical experience operating along Vietnam’s coastal plain and river estuaries.  The VMC would experience “growing pains” over the next several years.

South Vietnamese political stability appeared to be on the horizon in 1958, but this was challenged by an ever-increasing insurgency directed behind the scenes by North Vietnamese officials and a large number of Viet Minh operatives who had remained in South Vietnam after the Geneva Cease Fire.  President Diem focused on neutralizing this threat through pacification operations in communist areas; he achieved only mixed results, however —made worse when he abruptly discontinued these operations before they had a chance to achieve the desired effect.  Then, to make matters worse, President Diem sought to eliminate Viet Minh sympathizers from positions of leadership at the local level, and in that process, extend his own control over rural populations.  His scheme was to replace locally elected officials with government-appointed village chiefs.

Diem’s decision made one wonder if he was really a Vietnamese since this decision was counter to every cultural tradition over the previous two-thousand years.  And, it made Diem very unpopular among his people.  His popularity suffered further after he implemented an anti-communist denunciation campaign, intending to discredit former associates of the Viet Minh but the campaign ended up being little more than a witch hunt.  It was thus that President Diem alienated many Vietnamese who might otherwise have supported his central regime.  Perhaps even worse, Diem’s programs sent Viet Minh operatives underground.  From beneath the shadows, the communists gradually increased their support from rural populations who saw the Diem government as a threat to time-honored traditions, not to mention to their personal safety.  By the late 1950s, the Viet Minh were labeled as Vit Cng (Vietnamese Communists); this organization resurrected a program used earlier in Tonkin; the assassination of government officials, village chiefs, rural police officers, district officials, schoolteachers, and pro-western citizens.

South Vietnam’s armed forces were a puzzle.  President Diem didn’t trust his senior officers, with good reason.  Many of his senior officers were self-serving and corrupt.  Most were only marginally competent to command large numbers of men.  Many were unwilling to put their own lives in jeopardy for their country.  Some were on the payroll of the Việt Cộng.  Still, Diem needed his army to counter any conventional attack across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), a fear that prevented him from employing his troops against a growing Việt Cộng (VC) rural insurgency. Despite the fact that 700 officials were murdered by the VC between July 1957 and July 1958, Diem continued to believe that the VC problem was one for local police and village defense forces.

John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States in 1960.  His foreign policy was dominated by American confrontations with the Soviet Union and numerous proxy challenges in the early stages of the Cold War.  As a senator, Kennedy advocated greater US involvement in Vietnam, but he was cautioned by Eisenhower to walk carefully through that minefield.  In 1961, Kennedy changed US policy from supporting a free Laos to supporting a “neutral” Laos.  Vietnam, he argued, was America’s tripwire for communism’s spread through Southeast Asia, not Laos.  In May 1961, Kennedy sent Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to assure President Diem that the US stood ready to aid him in funding and organizing a fighting force capable of resisting communist aggression.  Under Kennedy, the United States became South Vietnam’s rich uncle.  Throughout his short presidency, Kenney continued policies that provided political, economic, and military support to the Diem regime.

In late 1961, the VC became a dominant presence in South Vietnam, even to the extent of seizing the provincial capital of Phuoc Vinh, 30 miles northeast of Saigon.  Kennedy responded by increasing the numbers of US military advisors to around 11,000 men[11], but he remained reluctant to commit regular combat troops[12].  Still, the progressive erosion of government strength and steady growth of the VC prompted Kennedy to dispatch, as a special envoy, retired General Maxwell D. Taylor to Vietnam to assess the political situation in Vietnam[13].  One of Taylor’s recommendation was to add military helicopters to the arsenal of US military advisors.  The arrival of American helicopters signaled the beginning of a more dynamic phase of US involvement in South Vietnam.

The decision to employ Marine Corps aviation units to Vietnam’s combat zones originated in the immediate aftermath of General Maxwell’s report to President Kennedy.  In January 1962, the JCS directed the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, to prepare for increased operations in South Vietnam, specifically, helicopter units “should it become necessary” to augment US Army aviation units already operating in-country[14].  CINCPAC not only agreed with the JCS on aviation asset deployments, but he also recommended an additional Army aviation company, an aviation support unit, and a field medical group.  Army aviation units assigned to Fort Ord were notified of their impending deployment.  General Timmes[15], at the time Chief of the MAAG, made a counter-proposal: why not augment Army aviation with Marine Corps helicopter units?  General Timmes wanted nine (9) Marine helicopters and their crews.

USMC H-34 DWhat General Timmes eventually received was a Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM-362) (24-H34D aircraft), Reinforced by three single-engine OE-1 observation aircraft, one R4D transport craft, an additional 50 maintenance personnel, a sub-unit of Marine Air Base Squadron (MABS-16), (including navy medical/dental/chaplain support), a Tactical Airfield Fuel Dispensing System (TAFDS), and a Marine Airfield Traffic Control Unit (MATCI).  Designated as (code word) SHUFLY, the Marines were assigned to the airstrip at Soc Trang, South Vietnam.

Lieutenant Colonel Archie Clapp, Commanding Officer, HMM-362, ordered the commencement of combat operations on Easter Sunday, 22 April 1962 —one week after the unit’s arrival in Vietnam.  Its first mission was to support/assist the US Army’s 57th Helicopter Company in OPERATION LOCKJAW.  American aviation assets would support the ARVN 7th Infantry Division (headquartered at My Tho), 53 miles northeast of Soc Trang.  Unlike Army aircraft, the Marine helicopters were unarmed; the only weapons aboard Marine aircraft were individual sidearms and two M3A1 submachine guns[16].  On the same day, the Marines were fragged to extract a US Army advisor from Vinh Long.  HMM-362 airlifted a VMC company to a threatened government outpost at Ca Mau the next day; it’s 57-man ARVN garrison was extracted on the same day.

HMM 362 PatchHMM-362 suffered its first combat damage on 24 April.  Sixteen birds supported the 21st ARVN Division in OPERATION NIGHTINGALE, conducted near Can Tho.  After delivering 591 ARVN troops into eight landing zones, a vicious small-arms fight broke out and one of the helicopters was forced down with a ruptured oil line.  Clapp ordered in a maintenance team to repair the aircraft; a platoon of ARVN troops provided security while the repairs were underway[17].  The bird was airborne again within two hours.  In this operation, ARVN inflicted 70 KIA on VC forces.

Given their experiences in the first few weeks of the deployment, the Marines began experimenting with new tactics.  These were incorporated into their “lessons learned,” important experiences later shared with other Marine Corps helicopter pilots.  HMM-362’s most significant operation came on 9 May.  Twenty-three helicopters and two OE-1s launched from Ca Mau for an assault on Cai Ngai, a VC controlled village 21 miles south.  The squadron began landing at six sites.  Only five minutes earlier, Vietnamese air force (VNAF) fighter bombers had bombed suspected VC positions.  Firing broke out even before the ARVN troops could disembark.  Eight Marine helicopters were hit; one of these made a hard landing a few miles away but was repaired and returned to Soc Trang.  So, what did the Marines learn?  Airstrikes conducted just prior to a helicopter landing had the effect of disclosing the location of landing zones to the enemy.  In this instance, the VC had been able to reach the landing zone between the VNAF bombing and the Marine landings.  In future operations, HMM-362 dispensed with any help from the Vietnamese Air Force.

(Next week: The Marines Head North).

Sources:

  1. Castle, T. At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U. S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-1975.  Columbia University Press, 1993.
  2. Conboy, K. J. War in Laos, 1954-1975.  Squadron/Signal Publications, 1994.
  3. Freedman, R. Vietnam: A History of the War. Holiday House, 2016.
  4. Hastings, M. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75.  Canada: HarperCollins, 2018.
  5. Hitchcock, W. The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World of the 1950s.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018
  6. Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History.  New York: Viking/The Penguin Group, 1983
  7. Sturkey, M.F. Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam.  South Carolina: Heritage Press International, 1996
  8. Whitlow, R. H. S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964.  History & Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1977

Endnotes:

[1] Henri Philippe Pétain served with distinction in World War I but became a collaborator with Nazi Germany 1940-44.  Following World War II, Pétain was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.  In view of his previous service to France, however, and his age, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison. Pétain died in 1951 of natural causes.  At the time of his death, Pétain was 95 years old.

[2] Japan’s purpose of invading Indochina was to prevent the importation of war materials into Yunnan, China through Haiphong and Hanoi.

[3] The French Far East Expeditionary Corps (CEFEO) was a colonial expeditionary force of the French Union Army formed in Indochina in 1945 in the latter days of World War II.  The Corps was largely manned by voluntary light infantry from colonial or territorial forces —mostly from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Madagascar.  The French Foreign Legion, in contrast, was made up of mainly European volunteers.  In 1953, these were augmented by French UN volunteers returning from service in the Korean War.

[4] A French ploy to reassert itself in Indochina.  According to long-serving US Ambassador W. Averell Harriman, the seeds of US policy toward Indochina in 1945 was a secret agreement between Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin that “it would be best if the French did not return there.”  Moreover, Stalin was unhappy that the Truman stood by while France used money from the Marshall Plan to support its military operations in Vietnam.

[5] Ho Chi Minh was known by several other names, as well.

[6] An important note about the Vietnamese naming convention.  Personal names are usually three syllables long (but sometimes two or four syllables).  The first syllable is the family name.  Because certain family names are common, such as Nguyen, they cannot be used to distinguish individuals.  Accordingly, an individual named Ngo Dinh Diem is always referred to as Diem.  Two syllable names, however, such as Le Duan, are never shortened.  This person is always referred to as Le Duan.  A name containing four syllables, such as Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, is always referred to as Minh Khai.  The second syllable in four-syllable conventions and the middle syllable in three-syllable conventions often reveals the individual’s sex.  The name Nguyen Van Giap is male, while Nguyen Thi Nam is female.  The surname of children always follows the father and women do not take their husband’s names upon marriage.

[7] The numbers of French Foreign Legionnaires swelled due to the incorporation of World War II veterans unable to find employment in post-war France.

[8] It was never the intent of former president Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow the French to reclaim their colonial empire.  Truman was a different sort of fellow who, as previously noted, decided to bankroll the French as a stopgap to the expansion of communism on the Southeast Asia Mainland.  This might have proved a useful strategy had it involved anyone in the world other than the French.

[9] Diem was a major opponent of Ho Chi Minh.  Formerly an aide to Emperor Bao Dai, American diplomats seriously misread Diem.  He was a Catholic, but that was as far as he would ever get to having a “western” mind.  Diem and Ho Chi Minh shared the same passion: to unify Vietnam —albeit under their own ruthless style of leadership.

[10] Born on 27 February 1919, the son of Italian-French parents, Croizat moved with his family to the United States in 1940.  He was commissioned in the U. S. Marine Corps after graduating from Syracuse University and was assigned to the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion at New River, North Carolina in December 1941.  During the Pacific War, he participated in USMC operations at Guadalcanal.  Later, as a battalion commander, he led Marines in the assault of Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima.  His French language ability resulted in his assignment as an observer, advisor, and later, as a diplomat.  Croizat authored the book, “Across the Reef: The Amphibious Tracked Vehicle at War,” Croizat passed away on 8 May 2010 at the age of 91.

[11] In 1962, US Marine Corps activities in Vietnam dramatically increased.  From only three Marine advisors in January 1962, and a standard complement of Embassy Marines, the end of the year found Marines functioning at the MAAG, MACV, Army communications facilities in the central highlands, and at every location where Vietnamese Marine Corps units were assigned.

[12] It wasn’t until after Kennedy’s assassination, under President Lyndon Johnson that the United States committed combat troops to Vietnam.

[13] Vietnamese officials were perplexed by so many special envoys “assessing” the situation, particularly since these men knew nothing about Vietnam, its culture, or its history.  Yet, owing to the massive amount of money flowing into Vietnam from the United States, they managed to suffer through the indignity.

[14] There were three US Army aviation companies operating in South Vietnam at that time.

[15] Major General Charles J. Timmes served first as deputy chief, USMAAG and then later as Chief, USMAAG (1961-64).  After his retirement, Timmes joined the CIA and was returned to the RVN to serve alongside Frank Snepp as a liaison officer with various elements of ARVN forces.  Snepp is the former chief analyst of North Vietnamese strategy for the CIA in Saigon during the war.  For five out of eight years, Snepp worked as an interrogator, agent debriefer, an analyst at the US Embassy in Saigon.  His book “Decent Interval” reveals the general ineptitude of the CIA and foreign service in Vietnam.  He is currently a news producer at a local TV station in Southern California.

[16] The Marine Corps replaced the M3A1 “grease gun” with AR-15 rifles during the summer, but the Marines of HMM-362 quickly discarded these in favor of M-14 (7.62mm) rifles.

[17] Given the nature of Vietnamese army units at the time, the Marines worked furiously to repair the aircraft and “get the hell out of Dodge.”