Gurkha

Introduction

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

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

Some Background

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

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

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

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

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

The Gurkha War

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

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

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

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

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

Incorporating the Gurkhas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferocity in Combat

The Indian Rebellion of 1857

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Malayan Emergency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The First to Die

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

Does it even matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And The Last …

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

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

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

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

No Greater Love …

James Anderson, Jr.

Every Marine has his (or her) own reasons for joining the U.S. Marine Corps.  I suspect there are so many reasons that it may be impossible to catalog them all.  Jim Anderson was 19 years old when he signed up from Los Angeles, California.  Whatever his reason, Jim had just completed 18 months of college.  Apparently, his sense of duty to his country was more important than staying in college.

As with most “West Coast” Marines, Jim Anderson attended recruit training (boot camp) at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California.  After graduation, he was promoted to Private First Class, and, as with all West Coast Marines, attended Infantry training at Camp Pendleton, California.[1]

In late 1966, the Marines had been fighting in South Vietnam for going on two years.  In December, James joined the 3rd Marine Division, and he was subsequently assigned to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (Fox 3/3).  In February, the elements of five battalions participated in Operation Prairie II — a continuation of Operation Prairie I. which took place under the overall command of Brigadier General Michael P. Ryan, formerly the Commanding General, 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade.[2]  Ryan supervised the employment of 2/3, 3/3, 3/4, 1/9, and 2/9.

These operations were necessary because during the Tet Holiday, having agreed to a cease-fire, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) used the temporary truce to infiltrate across the DMZ into the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).  On 25 February, Marine artillery initiated the bombardment of NVA units within (and north of) the Demilitarized Zone (called the DMZ).  The NVA responded by bombarding the area of Con Thiên and Firebase Gio Linh.

On the morning of 27 February, a Marine reconnaissance patrol northwest of the Cam Lo Combat Base attempted to ambush a small unit of NVA soldiers.  As it turned out, the NVA unit was larger than the Marines thought, which became apparent when the NVA suddenly attacked the attackers.  The NVA unit was a rifle company of the 812th infantry regiment.  It didn’t take long for the Marines to get on the radio and call for assistance.  When the request came in for support, Lima Company, 3/4 was in the process of conducting a security patrol north of Cam Lo.  Operational authority diverted Lima Company to aid the recon unit.  Nothing seemed to be working out for the Marines that day because beyond being bogged down by thick vegetation, a company of NVA regulars attacked Lima Company, which stalled the effort to save the Recon Marines.

In view of these circumstances, Ryan ordered Golf Company, 2/3 from Camp Carroll to extricate the beleaguered recon patrol.  Golf Company linked up with the recon Marines at around 2340 that night.

At 0630 on 28 February, the NVA hit Lima Company’s position with more than 150 mortar rounds.  The communists followed their artillery bombardment with a major ground attack against three sides of the Lima Company’s perimeter.  Rocket-propelled grenades slammed into both Marine tanks supporting the company but remained in operation.  Within a period of two and a half hours, Lima Company repulsed three separate attacks.  In that time, the company lost four Marines killed and 34 wounded.  Ryan dispatched Marines from Fox Company 3/3 to reinforce Lima 3/4.  Fox Company linked up with Lima Company at around 1030.  Meanwhile, Golf Company 2/3 formed a blocking position on Hill 124.  En route to the blocking position, the Golf Company Marines found themselves engaged by NVA from both sides of their route of march.  The battle lasted well into the afternoon — with Golf Company losing seven killed, and 30 wounded.

At 1430, the 2/3 command element under Lieutenant Colonel Victor Ohanesian[3] moved with Fox Company from Lima Company’s position toward Hill 124.  Jim Anderson’s platoon had the point position.  This movement triggered an NVA ambush, and the Marines were hit with intense small arms and automatic weapons fire.  The platoon reacted quickly, forming a hasty defense, and mounting a stiff resistance.

PFC Anderson found himself bunched together with other members of his squad twenty yards in front of the enemy line.  As the battle intensified, several of Anderson’s squad members received debilitating gunshot wounds.  When an enemy grenade suddenly landed in the midst of the squad near Anderson’s position, Jim Anderson unhesitatingly, and with complete disregard for his own safety, reached out, grasped the grenade, and pulled it under his chest to shield his fellow Marines from shrapnel.  PFC Anderson’s personal heroism saved members of his squad from certain death.  In an instant, Private First Class James Anderson, Jr., gallantly gave up his life for his fellow Marines.[4]

When Operation Prairie II concluded on 18 March 1967, U.S. Marines had suffered 93 killed in action, and 483 wounded.  In this one operation, American forces killed 694 NVA regulars.  The fight continued under Operation Prairie III on 19 March.

Richard Allen Anderson

Richard was born in Washington, D.C. on 16 April 1948 but raised in Houston, Texas, graduating from M. B. Smiley High School in May 1966.  Richard Anderson also attended college before dropping out to join the Marines on 8 April 1968.  After graduating from boot camp in San Diego, California, and infantry training at Camp Pendleton, California, the Marine Corps ordered Richard to Sea School in San Diego.  Promoted to PFC on 1 July 1968, Richard completed his training in October and proceeded to Okinawa, Japan, where the Marine Corps assigned him to the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade and assigned to Company D, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines.

In January 1969, Marine Headquarters assigned Anderson to Company E, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion where he served as a platoon scout and later, as an Assistant Fire Team Leader.  The Marines promoted Anderson to Lance Corporal on 1 June 1969.

In the early morning hours of 24 August 1969, Anderson’s recon team came under heavy automatic weapons fire from a numerically superior and well-concealed NVA ambush.  Although knocked to the ground by the enemy’s initial fire and painfully wounded in both legs, LCpl Anderson rolled into a prone shooting position and began to return fire into the enemy’s ranks.  Moments later, he was wounded for a second time by an enemy soldier who had approached within eight feet of the Marine defensive line. 

Undeterred by his wounds, LCpl Anderson killed the enemy soldier and continued to pour a relentless stream of fire into the enemy.  Observing an enemy hand grenade land between himself and members of his fire team, Anderson immediately rolled over onto the grenade and absorbed the full impact of its deadly explosion.  Through Richard’s indomitable courage and selflessness, he saved his fellow Marines from certain death.  In that instant, Lance Corporal Richard A. Anderson gallantly gave up his life for his fellow Marines.

Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends

Conclusion

James and Richard Anderson, though sharing a last name, were unrelated — except that both were United States Marines.  Both men were in their twenties; both Marines distinguished themselves through virtuous behavior on the field of battle.  Both Marines were posthumously awarded the nation’s highest recognition: the Medal of Honor.  There was but one difference in these young men: their skin color.  Both of these young men gave all they had to give — and did it in order to save the lives of their Marine brothers.

Endnotes:

[1] Traditionally, honor graduates from recruit training receive promotions to Private First Class upon graduation.  It is likely that Anderson was so recognized in his graduating platoon.

[2] Michael P. Ryan, a former enlisted Marine, served at Iceland, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian during World War II.  For service at Tarawa, Ryan was awarded the Navy Cross medal for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service as a company commander and provisional battalion commander on Betio Island.

[3] Killed in action.

[4] James Anderson was the first black Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War.


Operation Allen Brook

Background

The Republic of Vietnam was divided into four corps-sized tactical zones during the Vietnam War.  Generally, a corps consists of three infantry divisions and additional supporting units.  This is not to say that three infantry divisions were always present inside each tactical zones (also known as CTZs), but rather, how war planners in Saigon decided to manage the war in South Vietnam.  The northernmost of these CTZs was the I Corps Tactical Zone (also, I CTZ).

In terms of square miles, I CTZ was a massive area — the size of which necessitated dividing the zone into smaller regions labeled Tactical Areas of Responsibility (TAOR).  The senior American military commander in I CTZ was the Commanding General, III Marine Expeditionary Force.  His command included two Marine Divisions, two Marine Air Wings, a U.S. Army infantry division, several Army aviation companies, and a substantial logistical footprint.  Within each of the “major command” TAORs were smaller TAORs, usually assigned to brigades or regiments and broken down further into battalion TAORs.

Form follows function

This arrangement was complex but necessary because the war itself was problematic.  Not only were there U.S. Army and Marine Corps units fighting in Vietnam, but there were also U.S. Navy and Air Force units — and all of these were operating along with South Vietnamese military units (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force).  What made this even more confusing was that Marine Corps regiments (three battalions each) frequently “loaned” their battalions to other regiments, either as reinforcing organizations or as a replacement for battalions that had suffered significant numbers of casualties (making them ineffective in combat).  So, for example, battalions of the 5th Marines, 7th Marines, and 27th Marines might operate under the control of the Commanding Officer, 7th Marines, or just as easily be assigned to serve under another regiment’s TAOR.  In this story, elements of all three regiments operated together in a single combat operation known as ALLEN BROOK in the spring of 1968.

At the beginning of 1968, both the Marines at Da Nang and the communists operating in Quang Nam Province were preparing to launch offensive operations against one another.  Initially, the enemy confined its activities to guerrilla-styled warfare; information from Marine Corps reconnaissance forces (known as Stingray) seemed to indicate that the communists were re-infiltrating previously held positions in I CTZ.  Of particular concern to the Marines was the repopulation of communist forces in the area of Go Noi Island.  The island was formed by the confluence of the Ky Lam, Thu Bon, Ba Ren, and Chiem Son Rivers, some 25 13 miles south of Da Nang.

Here’s what happened

One might note that U.S. Marines are good at many things, including finding suitable names for God-forsaken places.  Vietnam offered an almost unlimited opportunity for Marines to identify and then name some of the worst places on the earth.  They named one of these places Dodge City.  They called it that because it was an area where gunfights were almost a daily occurrence.

Dodge City was a flat area crisscrossed by numerous canals and small waterways — an area of around 23 square miles located 13 miles south of Da Nang, west of Highway One.  Go Noi Island lay just south of Dodge City.  The island became a stronghold and logistics base for hundreds (if not thousands) of Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars of the R-20, V-25, and T-3 Sapper Battalions and the 36th NVA Regiment.  Communist forces had the overwhelming support of local villagers, so recruiting VC fighters was never a problem.

The terrain of Go Noi Island was relatively flat, but the island’s several hamlets were linked together by thick hedges, well-concealed paths, and barriers to rapid movement.  The net effect of hedges, pathways, and obstructions was a solid defensive network.  U.S. Marines operating within the 7th Marine Regiment were knowledgeable of Go Noi Island, having conducted Operation JASPER SQUARE — with only minimal results.  The Marine Corps standard for any endeavor exceeds “minimal,” which might explain the Commanding General’s overall unhappiness with the 7th Marines’ performance in Go Noi — so the 7th Marines would have to give it another try.

On the morning of 4 May 1968, Company E, Company G 2/7, [1] and a platoon of tanks crossed the Liberty Bridge onto the island. Their main task was to evacuate 220 civilians (mostly women, children, and the elderly) from Dai Loc, the district capital. For the first few days, the Marines experienced only light resistance. Afterward, 2/7 aggressed eastward along the main north-south railroad track, experiencing light but increasing resistance from local VC fighters.

Company A 1/7 relieved Company G 2/7 on 7 May.  Company K 3/7 reinforced Mueller’s battalion on the morning of 8 May.  In those four days, Marines killed 88 communists at the cost of 9 Marines KIA and 57 WIA.  Around 1830 on 9 May, Marines sweeping west of the railroad track came under heavy small arms, machine guns, and mortar fire near the hamlet of Xuan Dai.  The sudden assault resulted in one Marine killed and 11 wounded.

After air and artillery strikes, Marines pushed into the hamlet, killing an additional 80 communists.  A few minutes later, a Marine Corps reconnaissance team (called a Stingray Team) noted the movement of 200 or so enemies moving southwest of Xuan Dai and called additional artillery and air strikes.  The air strike set off a secondary explosion of unknown origin.

Over the next four days, Marines met with only token resistance and encountered no regular NVA units.  This was a bit strange to Marine operations officers because earlier, the Marines discovered evidence of the 155th Battalion of the 2nd NVA Regiment.  Colonel Mueller assumed the NVA battalion was only a temporary infiltration group rather than a regular infantry battalion.

It was at this time that Operation ALLEN BROOK was reoriented to an east-to-west sweep.  On 13 May, General Robertson (Commanding General, 1stMarDiv) directed that India Company 3/27 reinforce Mueller’s battalion (2/7).  Accordingly, Marine helicopters airlifted India Company to an LZ in the Que Son Mountains (north and overlooking Go Noi Island).  On the morning of 14 May, India Company moved to a blocking position near the Ba Ren River, soon joined by additional companies of 2/7.

On 15th May the reinforced 2/7 reversed across the Liberty Bridge as part of a deception campaign, indicating that the Marines were abandoning Go Noi Island.  Then, at 1800, Marine helicopters airlifted Echo Company 2/7 and Colonel Mueller’s command group out of the operational area.  Lieutenant Colonel Roger H. Barnard, commanding 3/7, assumed command of the remaining forces assigned to ALLEN BROOK.

At midnight on 16 May, Barnard’s command group with Alpha Company 1/7, Golf Company 2/7, and India Company 3/27 recrossed the Liberty Bridge and moved in single file under cover of darkness.  At some point in the early morning, Barnard repositioned his companies, two online with one in reserve, and continued moving southward in a search and destroy mission.

At 0900, 3/7 encountered a suspected NVA battalion in the hamlet of Phu Dong, some 4,000 meters west of Xuan Dai.  Barnard’s battalion had disrupted a hornet’s nest of communists.  Both forward companies walked into deadly small arms and machine gun fire.  Barnard attempted to flank the communist defenders, but he didn’t have enough men for that maneuver.  Not even Marine artillery or mortar fire could dislodge the stubborn NVA unit.  Finally, massive air support (50 air strikes) dislodged the communists, and by early evening, Marine rifle companies were able to push the remaining enemy out of Phu Dong.  But that didn’t happen without numerous Marine casualties.

Operating with Golf Company was a nineteen-year-old U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman (Third Class) by the name of Robert Michael Casey from Guttenberg, New Jersey. Doc Casey distinguished himself by exhibiting extraordinary heroism as a field medic.  As Golf Company moved into Phu Dong, they encountered overwhelming defensive fires from an estimated four hundred enemy, imposing a substantial number of casualties on the advancing Marines.

Casey unhesitatingly moved forward through the hail of bullets to render medical assistance to wounded and dying Marines.  Within fifteen minutes, Doc Casey was hit four times by enemy rifle fire. Each time he was struck by enemy bullets, Casey refused to leave his post and continued to render medical assistance to “his Marines.”  But U.S. Marines love their corpsmen; G Company Marines tried to convince Casey to fall back where he could receive medical treatment. Casey steadfastly refused, stating that he had Marines to treat. Casey continued to refuse evacuation until the Company Commander ordered him to withdraw. Casey moved to the rear, as ordered, but at his new location, Doc Casey continued to aid and comfort his wounded comrades.  Then, hearing a Marine calling for help, he crawled to that individual and began administering medical treatment.  It was at that time that Casey received his final wound and died.

Robert M. Casey Branch Clinic

Doc Casey’s unwavering courage, selfless concern for the welfare of his comrades, and steadfast devotion to duty brought great credit upon himself and the United States Navy.  Doc Casey’s next of kin later received the posthumous award of the nation’s second highest combat decoration: the NAVY CROSS.  More recently, the Marine Corps honored Doc Casey further by naming the Navy Branch Medical Clinic at Marine Corps Air Station, Iwakuni, Japan, in his honor (pictured right).[2]

Golf Company had taken on a battalion-sized enemy organization and defeated them. In this fight, the Marines lost 25 dead and 38 wounded — one of whom was Doc Casey.  After seizing the hamlet, the company commander discovered the evacuated headquarters of an NVA regiment and vast quantities of enemy supplies.

The following day, the Marines vacated Phu Dong to continue their sweep toward another hamlet named Le Nam.  India Company 3/27 was the lead element of the column.  Before mid-morning, India Company’s advance element walked into a concealed, well-placed ambush, offering almost no time for the Marines to fall back and reorganize for a coordinated attack.

PFC R. C. Burke, USMC

The NVA positions were solid, preventing the other companies from assisting India Company.  While India Company called for artillery and air strikes, Colonel Barnard put together a two-company air assault. Elements of Kilo Company and Lima Company initiated their attack around 1500, an effort that finally broke through the enemy’s main line of defense at about 1930. 

Marine successes prompted yet another enemy withdrawal.  By the end of the day, the Marines had lost another 39 KIA and 105 WIA. Private First Class Robert C. Burke (pictured above right), assigned to India Company as a machine-gunner, was later posthumously awarded the MEDAL OF HONOR.[3]

The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, replaced 3/7, and the Commanding Officer 3/27 assumed operational control of ALLEN BROOK on 18 May 1968.[4]  At the same time Woodham took control of the operation, Colonel Adolph G. Schwenk, Jr. assumed overall operating authority from the 7th Marines.  At that time, Woodham had only two rifle companies: Kilo and Lima Company.  Company M was assigned security duties at Da Nang, and Company I was still attached to Barnard’s battalion.

Operation ALLEN BROOK continued until 27 May 1968.  It was more or less a series of conventional battles against a well-entrenched, well-armed, and well-trained enemy force of North Vietnamese regulars.  Casualties on both sides had been heavy, with Marine losses of 138 KIA, 686 WIA, and another 283 heat casualties (noting that the battle took place in 110-degree heat).  Enemy losses were estimated to be around 600 killed and wounded.  The deceptive tactics employed by the Marines resulted in defeating the enemy’s plan to launch a major offensive against the Da Nang airfield and surrounding area before the end of May.

Sources:

  1. Kelley, M.  Where We Were in Vietnam.  Hellgate Press, 2002.
  2. Shulimson, J.  U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1968: The defining Year.  HQMC Washington, D.C., 1997.

Endnotes:

[1] Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. Mueller, Commanding.

[2] Information provided to me by Master Sergeant George Loar, Jr., USMC (Retired).

[3] PFC Burke was the youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam  War.  At the time of his courageous action, he was 18 years of age.

[4] 3/27 was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Tullis J. Woodham, Jr.


Australia and the Vietnam War

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vietnam War

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

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

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

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

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

Australian Military Advisors

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

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

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

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

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

Australia’s Increased Commitment: 1965-1970

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vietnamization

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Remembrance

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

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

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Very Next Day

(Continued from last week)

Introduction

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

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

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

Background

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

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

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

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

Enemies

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

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

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

Nguyen Van Loan

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

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

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

Photo by Eddie Adams, 1968

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

The rest of the story

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

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

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

Rear Admiral Huan T. Nguyen, USN

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

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

Endnotes:

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

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


Battleground Saigon — 1968

Background

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

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

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

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

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

The Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Major Robert J. O’Brien, USMC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Continued next week)

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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





The Spook

Edward Geary Lansdale

A son of Michigan, Ed Lansdale was born in 1908 and later raised in Los Angeles, California.  He was one of four sons born to Sarah and Henry Lansdale.  After graduating from high school, he worked his way through the University of California (Los Angeles) by writing articles for newspapers and magazines.  He later began work in advertising in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.

At the start of World War II, Lansdale joined the U. S. Army Air Corps, where he was subsequently classified as an intelligence officer and seconded to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  Lansdale’s OSS assignment eventually took him to the Philippine Islands, but the timing and duration of this assignment are unknown.  During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, U. S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Wendell Fertig led the primary resistance movement — but it may be true that Lansdale and the OSS played a role in MacArthur’s return to Luzon.  After leaving the Philippines in 1948, the Air Force assigned Lansdale as an instructor at the Strategic Intelligence School, Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado.  While serving in this capacity, the Air Force advanced Lansdale to a temporary lieutenant colonel.

In 1950, the President of the Philippine Islands, Elpidio Quirino, personally requested that Lansdale return to the Joint United States/Philippines Military Assistance Group to assist the Philippines in combatting the Communist Hukbalahap (also, Huks).  Lansdale, an early believer in psychological warfare, adopted a tactic used earlier by the Japanese during the Empire’s occupation of the Philippines.  In Philippine folklore, Aswangs are blood-sucking demons; Lansdale’s ploy spread rumors in the Philippines about these Aswangs.  Lansdale managed the capture of one of the communist soldiers and drained the blood from his body, leaving his remains where it could be found near a popular pathway.  This ploy seemed to convince many of the Hukbalahap to leave their operations area.  To what long-term effect this ploy had on most Huks in the Philippines is unknown. 

During Lansdale’s time in the Philippines, he became close friends with Ramon Magsaysay, then the Philippines’ Secretary of National Defense.  Some historians suggest that Lansdale had a hand in Magsaysay’s bid for the presidency, which he achieved on 30 December 1953.  Lansdale is also credited with developing civic actions programs and policies designed to help rehabilitate Huks prisoners of war.

Before leaving his assignment in the Philippine Islands, Lansdale served as a temporary member of General John W. O’Daniel’s mission to Indochina in 1953.[1]  As an advisor to French Indochinese forces (counter-guerrilla warfare), Lansdale’s mission was to suggest successful strategies against the Viet Minh (Vietnamese communist guerrillas) — but of course, the French had been fighting Indochinese nationalists for several decades in advance of World War II, so it not clear what contributions Lansdale might have made to the French effort.[2]  

It was a strange set of circumstances that after the OSS helped organize and arm Indochinese guerrilla forces (beginning in 1943), that the U. S. military would then (initially) assist the French in fighting these same guerillas — and even stranger still that the United States would take over that effort after France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

After leaving the Philippine Islands, Lansdale’s next assignment was as a permanent advisor to the Military Assistance Group (Indochina) from 1954 to 1957, heading the military mission in Saigon, South Vietnam.  In addition to directing the training for the Vietnamese National Army (VNA), he helped organize the Caodaist militias.  He instituted a propaganda campaign to encourage Vietnamese Catholics (most of whom lived in North Vietnam) to move to South Vietnam.[3]

While in Saigon, Lansdale ingratiated himself with emerging leader Ngo Dinh Diem.  It was not very soon afterward that Lansdale moved into the Vietnamese White House upon Diem’s invitation.  This may have resulted from the fact that Lansdale helped to foil the attempted coup d’état of General Nguyen Van Hinh.

In one “egg on his face” episode, Lansdale began working with and mentoring Pham Xuan An, a reporter for Time Magazine.  Mr. An, as it turned out, was a highly valued North Vietnamese spy who, in addition to reporting on events in Vietnam, regularly provided helpful information to the government in Hanoi — information he obtained directly from Edward Lansdale.  In the good news department, Lansdale also mentored and trained CIA operative, John Deutch.  Mr. Deutch was one of the so-called Whiz Kids associated with Robert S. McNamara.  Deutch later became Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and, as it turned out, no one killed more troops during the Vietnam War than Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

From 1957 to 1963, Edward Lansdale served in Washington, D. C. first, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and a member of the President’s advisory committee on military assistance, and later as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations.

In the early 1960s, Lansdale was primarily involved in covert operations designed to topple the government of Cuba, including proposals to assassinate Fidel Castro.  Known as the Cuban Project (also Operation Mongoose), Lansdale’s plan called for an extensive campaign of terrorist attacks against civilians by CIA hired insurgents and CIA covert operations designed to exploit the insurgents’ successes.  The plan received the approval of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and went into effect after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Even today, the U. S. government argues against the notion that the Cuban project (and its methodologies) were extralegal.  We know that along with Operation Mongoose was yet another, darker scheme, dubbed Operation Northwoods.  Northwoods called upon the U. S. military to create a series of incidents involving the loss of American and Cuban exile’s lives through the actions of phony Cuban revolutionaries.  The idea was to sufficiently enrage the American public to demand war against Castro’s Cuba.  Involved with Lansdale was William K. Harvey (CIA), Samuel Halpern (CIA), and Lansdale’s assistant, Daniel Ellsberg (of Pentagon Papers fame).  As bad as President Kennedy’s approval, the mastermind for this project was his brother Robert, the Attorney General of the United States.

Major General Lansdale retired from the U. S. Air Force on 1 November 1963.  Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated on 2 November 1963.  President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963.  According to retired U. S. Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, a former subordinate of Lansdale, Edward Lansdale’s fingerprints are all over Kennedy’s assassination.[4]

After he retired from the Air Force, Lansdale returned to Vietnam (1965-68), where he worked in the United States Embassy in a position of ministerial rank — except that no one seems to know what Lansdale’s function was at the Embassy.  Some have suggested he may have been the Dirty Little Tricks Officer.[5]

I leave my readers with the question of whether Colonel Prouty or Dr. Ellsberg have any credibility regarding Lansdale’s or the CIA’s involvement with the Kennedy assassination.  However, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s book titled The Ugly American (1958) may have modeled Colonel Hillandale’s character on Edward Lansdale.  Prouty’s book is no longer in print, but it is available “Online for education purposes at JAG 07146.co.nr.”  The URL co. nr is a “cloaking/masking” protocol.

From my perspective, there is a great danger in organizations that have limited or no oversight by the government (and people) whom they serve.  It is a disaster just waiting to happen (noting that some will argue it already has).  People with peculiar skills will respond to what their bosses tell them is “in the national interests,” and most carry out these assignments without ever questioning the legality or morality of their missions.   

Sources:

  1. Bamford, J.  Body of Secrets.  Doubleday, 2001.
  2. Boot, M.  The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.  Norton & Company, 2018.
  3. Currey, C. B.  Edward Lansdale, the Unquiet American.  Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
  4. Elliston, J.  Psy War on Cuba: The Declassified History of US Anti-Castro Propaganda.  Ocean Press, 1999.
  5. McAlister, J.  “The lost revolution: Edward Lansdale and the American Defeat in Vietnam, 1964-1968, Small Wars and Insurgencies, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] LtGen O’Daniel saw combat service in both world wars and Korea.  Known as an outspoken officer in the same vein as George Patton, Eisenhower nevertheless appointed him to command the Military Assistance Group, Indochina.

[2] Given the sequence of events of World War II, where we find that the entire French army fell to the Germans in only six weeks, the subsequent collaboration with Germany and Japan of the Vichy government, and France’s inglorious return to Indochina in 1946, senior French colonial officials were in no mood to accept the advice of American military officers.  Their only inducement the French had to listen to what American military officers had to say was the monetary and material support offered to them by the U. S. government.

[3] Operation Passage to Freedom changed an important demographic in Vietnam.  Before 1954, most Vietnamese Catholics lived in North Vietnam.  After 1956, Vietnamese Catholics held the popular majority in South Vietnam, 55% of whom were refugees from North Vietnam.  To help facilitate this move, Lansdale air-dropped leaflets into Vietnam showing concentric circles drawn on a map, which suggested that a nuclear strike on North Vietnam may be imminent.

[4] Of course, if that were true, then Lansdale and all his co-conspirators would have to be the best-ever secret keepers in the history of the planet.  In the forward to his second revision of The Secret Team, Prouty claims that the CIA managed to abscond with “at least” 300,000 copies of his book that had been shipped by his publisher to Australia.

[5] Robert S. McNamara got his start as a “dirty trickster” in World War II.  Known as one of the “Whiz Kids,” McNamara moved to the board of Ford Motor Company before being named as JFK’s Secretary of Defense.  His “genius” resulted in significant American and RVN casualties during the Vietnam War.  


The Playboy Club

The entry to the Playboy Club was not what you might suspect. No sophisticated foyer with muted music and a warm greeting by a Bunny that an aerospace engineer would reject due to her high drag profile. Our entry had curious names, like the Bicycle Seat, the Heart, the Parrot’s Beak, or the Light Bulb. Through those doorways, we entered the Ho Chi Minh Trail area in Laos, adjacent to the North-South Vietnamese demilitarized zone.

The names referred to geographical landmarks easily made out from the air, shaped like the title they carried. We flew the TA-4 aircraft; our mission was high speed, low-level visual reconnaissance. In short, we were after intelligence concerning troop movements, truck parks, supply areas, guns—anything to help take the guesswork out of the command estimate of enemy capabilities.

TF-9J Cougar 001We weren’t always called Playboys. In 1966, we used the call sign Condole and did mostly support work: calling in close air support, adjusting artillery, and coordinating naval gunfire. Some referred to us as “Fast FAC,” or fast moving forward air controllers. We used a trusty old two-seater called the TF-9J Cougar, which proved slow and ill designed for mission requirements. The most frequent gripe was the radio: we had to wire an infantry backpack PRC-25 radio to the glare shield in the back seat, remove the flight helmet, and talk over a hand-held mike.

In 1969, the tandem seat TA-4 Skyhawk replaced the Cougar, and with it came the call sign “Playboy.”

We were a rag tag outfit, much like Pappy Boyington’s Black Sheep in World War II. We became an integral part of the Marine Air Group’s Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron (H&MS), which performed the important job of intermediate maintenance for the fighter and attack squadrons within the Group. In that respect, it was NOT rag tag. When it came to flying, the aircrews came from everywhere. Usually they were shuffling paper in a staff section somewhere within the Air Wing. The nucleus was, of course, a handful of pilots assigned to H&MS.

TA-4 001AThe men who joined the Da Nang Playboy Club were volunteers, and carefully screened by the skipper. The crews were selected based on reputation, experience (one previous combat tour), and demonstrated professionalism. Initially composed of only pilots, four Naval Flight Officers (NFOs) were accepted during 1970. Three of the four were FAA rated pilots, and two of the three were eventually able to use their flying skills during the course of the program. Toward the end of the mission, the process of selecting pilots and aircrew was highly discriminating.

Our working area on the trail covered about 2,700 square miles, and we flew between one hundred and 1,500 feet above ground level as fast as that little bucket of bolts would go. It took quite a few flights before pilots and aircrew developed their 400-knot eyeball, but we did engage our targets, and we did collect valuable intelligence. The key to our mission effectiveness was “trail experience.” Aircrew eventually developed the capability of determining whether a group of bushes had moved from one day to the next, or if a clump of vegetation hadn’t been there the day before. Moving bushes usually received a bomb, or two.

And, we learned to respect the enemy. Under constant surveillance and attack, he moved people, supplies, and constructed vast road networks with only basic equipment. And he did this in a systematic and successful way against the most highly industrialized and technologically sophisticated nation in the world. From that experience came the frustrating question, “How can they do that when we’re working so hard to oppose them?” The answer is both simple and complex; it forms the basis of our question of involvement in the first place.

We considered ourselves an unusual group, yet looking back we were only a cross section from any town in the United States. We had a Baptist preacher, and a hard-drinking, cigar chewing poker player. Some of these men became legends in their own time, now forgotten except among their comrades.

In the 19 months of the Playboy operations, we lost only one aircraft. Rick Lewis won the Silver Star by helping his back-seater during a rescue effort, and calling in air strikes against enemy gun emplacements. Don Schwaby, in another incident, had just entered the operations area when a small arms round hit the nose of his aircraft, went through the instrument panel, and continued into his oxygen mask. The slug came to rest between his lips, against his teeth, and never even broke the skin. Not many guys catch bullets that way.

The only death that resulted from the program was a shock to the squadron. After operating for so long in such a high-threat environment, we all had taken several hits. But we all came back. After all, Rick Lewis was a walking example. Lieutenant Colonel George Ward, groomed to take command of the squadron in only a few weeks, was shot through the head while on a mission. The back-seater flew the plane back to the base. A squadron commander shapes the personality of his unit; we all felt his loss. Reacting to his loss, higher authority imposed an altitude restriction on the squadron —no lower than five grand. But that was too high to do the job, so back down into the grass we flew. Later, as I watched the evacuation of Saigon on television, I thought about George Ward.

The Playboy Program ended during September 1970. I returned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point, North Carolina in December of that year. For a long time, I felt that I had been involved in the most exciting, professionally demanding, and personally challenging era of my life. And I was content in the knowledge that, as Patton suggested, if my son asked me what I did in Viet Nam, I would NOT have to tell him, I shoveled shit in Louisiana.

P Chapman July 2013In the years that have passed, several Playboys have tried to hold a reunion. It has never been successful. In the past, our duty assignments spread us so far apart, and since then we have all retired from active service. I’m quite certain our after-action reports gather dust in an obscure file drawer somewhere… As a group, we paid some very special dues to our country, to our Corps, and ourselves. Yet, if my son asks me what is or has been especially exciting to me as a Marine, I’ll have to answer, “The job I did today, and the one I get to do tomorrow.”

Semper Fidelis

Major Paul Webb Chapman, USMC (Retired)

Playboy 37

Operation Buffalo

July 1967

Some Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Operation Buffalo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

[4] Awarded Navy Cross for this action.

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

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

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

[8] Awarded Navy Cross Medal.

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

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