The Gun Maker

There are many positive things to say about the American Republic —along with a few deserved criticisms.  One of my criticisms is that we Americans seem never to learn important lessons from history —so we are continually forced to relearn them.  This relearning process is too often painful for our nation —for its complex society.  Maybe one day we’ll smarten up, but I’m not holding my breath.

Speaking of lessons unlearned, given their experience with the British Army the founding fathers were distrustful of standing armies.  I find this odd because the British Army’s presence within the thirteen colonies prevented hostile attacks against British settlements.  Years later, at the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812, observing how the American militia cut and run when confronted with a well-trained British Army, President James Madison remarked, “I could never have believed so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day.”

Our reliance on state or federal militia to defend our homeland was one of those unlearned lessons.  War is not for amateurs.  Federalized state militias during the American Civil War were not much of an improvement over the Revolutionary War minute men.  History shows us, too, that finding enough resources to fight a war against Spain in Cuba was very close to becoming an unmitigated disaster.  There was only one combat force ready for war in 1898; the U. S. Marine Corps was able to field a single (reinforced) battalion —one that was engaged with the enemy before the Army figured out which of its senior officers was in charge.  Who knows how many horses drowned because the Army couldn’t figure out how to unload them from transport ships and get them to shore.

The United States was still unprepared for combat service at the beginning of the First World War.  Politicians —those geniuses in Washington— had little interest in creating and maintaining a standing armed force.  Worse, our military leaders were incompetent and complacent, and as a result of this, the US military lacked modern weapons.  When Congress declared war against Imperial Germany, the American army was forced to rely on weapons provided by Great Britain and France.  It wasn’t that the United States had no weapons, only that our arsenal was a mishmash of firearms requiring an assortment of munitions that were both inadequate and inefficient for the demands of general war.  In particular, the United States arsenal included ten different revolvers of varying calibers, 12 rifles of foreign and domestic manufacture, and six variants of automatic weapons/machine guns.

Some Background

The Puckle Gun

The world’s first rapid-fire weapon was the brainchild of James Puckle (1667-1724), a British inventor, a lawyer, and a writer, who in 1718 invented a multi-shot gun mounted on a wheeled stand capable of firing nine rounds per minute.  The Puckle Gun consisted of six flintlock barrels, operated manually by a crew.  The barrel was roughly three feet long with a bore measuring 1.25 inches (32mm).  The weapon was hand loaded with powder and shot while detached from its base.  To my knowledge, this device was never used in combat.

Today, we classify machine guns as either light, medium, or heavy weapons.  The light machine gun (with bipod for stability) is usually operated by a single soldier.  It has a box-like magazine and is chambered for small caliber, intermediate power ammunition.  Medium machine guns are general purpose weapons that are belt-fed, mounted on bi-or tripods, and fired using full power ammunition.  The term “heavy machine gun” may refer to water-cooled, belt-fed weapons, operated by a machine gun team, and mounted on a tripod (classified as heavy due to its weight), or machine guns chambered for high-powered ammunition.  Heavy machine gun ammunition is of larger caliber than that used by light and medium guns, usually .50 caliber or 12.7mm.

Gatling Gun

One example of America’s use of rapid-fire weapons was the weapon designed by Richard J. Gatling in 1861, which seems to follow the Puckle design.  Called the Gatling Gun, it was the forerunner of the modern machine gun (and of modern electric motor-driven rotary guns and cannons).  It saw only occasional use during the American Civil War, and only sporadic use through 1911.  It was not an easily transportable weapon.

Wide use of rapid-fire (machine) guns changed the tactics and strategies of warfare.  Magazine or belt fed ammunition gave opposing armies substantial increases in fire power.  No longer could soldiers advance in a frontal assault without incurring massive casualties, which then led to trench warfare.  Machine guns would never have been possible without advances in ammunition —a shift away from muzzle loading single-shot weapons to cartridges that contain the round, propellant, and means of ignition.

The first recoil-operated rapid-fire weapon was the creation of Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884, a British-American inventor.  The Maxim gun was used by the British in several colonial wars between 1886-1914.  Maxim’s work led to research and development by Hotchkiss[1], Lewis, Browning, Rasmussen[2], Mauser, and others.

First World War 

The only machine guns available to the United States at the beginning of World War I were the Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié, the Chauchat M1915, M1918 (pronounced Show-sha), which was a light machine gun made in France, Belgium, and Poland, the Colt-Vickers (called the potato digger) was a British water-cooled .303 caliber gun, the Hotchkiss 1914, and the Lewis gun[3].  While the Lewis gun was designed in the United States in 1911, no one in the Army’s Ordnance Department was much interested in it, which caused inventor Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis to seek license for its production in the United Kingdom in 1914.

Some of these machine guns were more dependable than others; they are, after all, only machines.  But one consequence of faulty weapons was the needless combat-related deaths of many young men, whose weapons failed to work at critical moments.  Whenever combat troops lose confidence in their weapons, they become less aggressive in combat; they lose their determination to win —they lose battles.

America’s War Department in 1914 was inept.  Not only were the Army’s senior leader’s incompetent, the entire organization was ill-prepared to carry out the will of Congress.  Of course, the Congress might have taken note of these conditions before declaring war on Germany in 1917, but it didn’t.  Before America could go to war, it was necessary to increase the size of the Army through conscription, complete re-armament was necessary, and massive amounts of spending was required to satisfy the needs of general war.  Until that could happen, until war technology could be developed, the American soldier and Marine would have to make do with French and British armaments.

In 1917, John Browning personally delivered to the War Department two types of automatic weapons, complete with plans and detailed manufacturing specifications.  One of these weapons was a water-cooled machine gun; the other a shoulder fired automatic rifle known then as the Browning Machine Rifle (BMR).  Both weapons were chambered for the US standard 30.06 cartridge.  After an initial demonstration of the weapons capabilities with the US Army Ordnance Department, a second public demonstration was scheduled in south Washington DC, at a place called Congress Heights.

On 27 February 1917, the Army staged a live-fire demonstration that so impressed senior military officers, members of Congress, and the press, that Browning was immediately awarded a contract for the production of the BMR and was favored with the Army’s willingness to conduct additional tests on the Browning machine gun.

In May 1917, the US Army Ordnance Department began this additional testing of the machine gun at the Springfield Armory.  At the conclusion of these tests, the Army recommended immediate adoption of Browning’s weapon.  To avoid confusing the two Browning automatic weapons, the rifle became known as the M1917 Rifle, Caliber .30, Automatic, Browning.  Over time, the weapon was referred to as simply the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR.

What was needed then was a company capable of producing the weapons in the quantities needed to arm a field army —which is to say, three infantry corps, each consisting of three infantry divisions, each of those having three regiments, and each regiment consisting of three infantry battalions.  It would be a massive undertaking.  Since the Colt Firearms Company was already under contract to produce the Vickers machine gun for the British Army, Winchester Repeating Arms Company was designated the project’s primary manufacturer.  Winchester, after providing invaluable service to Browning and the Army in refining the final design to the BAR, re-tooled its factory for mass production.  One example of Winchester’s contribution was the redesign of the ejection port, which was changed to expel casings to the left rather than straight up.

The BAR began arriving in France in July 1918; the first to receive them was the US 79th Infantry Division.  The weapon first went into combat against German troops in mid-September.  The weapon had a devastating impact on the Germans —so much so that France and Great Britain ordered more than 20,000 BARs.

B. A. R.

The Marines, always considered the red-headed stepchildren of the U. S. Armed Forces, now serving alongside US Army infantry units, were never slated to receive these new weapons.  Undaunted, Marines of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment developed a bartering system with co-located units of the 36th Infantry Division.  The Marines traded their Chauchats to the soldiers in exchange for the new BAR.  Given what I know of the average Marine’s ability to scavenge needed or desired resources, I have no doubt that the Marines were able to convince the doggies that one day, the soldiers would be able to retain the French guns as war souvenirs[4], whereas the BARs would have to be surrendered after the war.  Unhappily for the Marines, senior Army officers learned of this arrangement and the Marines were ordered to surrender the BARs and take back their Chauchats.

The BAR was retained in continual use by the US Armed Forces (less the Air Force, of course) from 1918 to the mid-1970s.  The BAR’s service history includes World War I, Spanish Civil War, World War II, Second Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War[5], Indonesian Revolution, Korean War, Palestinian Civil War, First Indochina War, Algerian War, and in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Cyprus, and the Thai-Laotian Border War.

The Man

The BMG and BAR were not Browning’s only accomplishments.

John Moses Browning was born into a Mormon family on 23 January 1855.  His father, Jonathan, was among literally thousands of Mormon pioneers that made their exodus from Illinois to Utah.  The elder Browning established a gun shop in Ogden in1852.  As a Mormon in good standing, Jonathan had three wives and fathered 22 children.

John Browning began working in his father’s gun shop at around the age of seven where he learned basic engineering and manufacturing principles, and where his father encouraged him to experiment with new concepts.  He developed his first rifle in 1878 and soon after founded the company that would become the Browning Arms Company.  In partnership with Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Browning developed rifles and shotguns, from the falling block single shot 1885 to the Winchester Model 1886, Model 1895, the Model 1897 pump shotgun, and Remington Model 8.  He also developed cartridges that were superior to other firearm company designs.

John Moses Browning

Browning Arms Company is responsible for the M1899/1900 .32 ACP pistol, M1900 .38 ACP, M1902 .38 ACP, M1903 Pocket Hammer .38 ACP, M1903 9mm Browning Long, M1903 Pocket Hammerless .32 ACP, M1906/08 Vest Pocket .25 ACP, M1908 Pocket Hammerless .380 ACP, the US M1911A1 .45 ACP, Browning Hi-Power 9mm Parabellum, the Colt Woodsman .22 long rifle, and BDA handguns in .38 and .45 ACP.  He developed ten variants of shotgun, eleven rifles, six machine guns, and was awarded 128 patents. 

The Legacy

What it takes to win battles is reliable weapons expertly employed against the enemy.  John Browning gave us expertly designed, quality manufactured weapons to win battles.

We no longer rely on state militias to fight our wars, but we have taken a turn toward including more reserve organizations in our poorly chosen fights.  The US also has, today, a robust weapons development program to give our Armed Forces a battlefield advantage.  Despite past failures in providing our frontline troops quality weapons, the US Marines have always succeeded against our enemies with the weapons at their disposal.  Occasionally, even entrenching tools were used with telling effect against the enemy.

If American Marines have learned anything at all about warfare since 1775, it is that success in battle depends on never taking a knife to a gunfight.

Sources:

  1. Borth, C. Masters of Mass Production.  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945.
  2. Browning, J. and Curt Gentry. John M. Browning: American Gunmaker.  New York: Doubleday, 1964.
  3. Gilman, D. C., and H. T. Peck (et.al.), eds. New International Encyclopedia.  New York: Dodd-Mead.
  4. Miller, D. The History of Browning Firearms.  Globe-Pequot, 2008.
  5. Willbanks, J. H.  Machine guns: An Illustrated History of their Impact.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Endnotes:

[1] Benjamin B. Hotchkiss (1826-1885) was an American who, after the American Civil War, with the US government little interested in funding new weapons, moved to France and set up a munitions factory he named Hotchkiss et Cie.

[2] Julius A. Rasmussen and Theodor Schouboe designed a machine gun that was adopted by the Danish Minister of War, whose name was Colonel Wilhelm Herman Oluf Madsen.  They called it the Madsen Machine Gun.

[3] The invention of Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis in 1911 that was based on the initial work of Samuel Maclean.  The US Army’s ordnance department was not interested in the Lewis Gun because of differences between the Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier General William Crozier and Colonel Lewis.

[4] Larceny has been a Marine Corps tradition since the 1890s.  During World War II, Marines were known to steal hospital sheets from adjacent Navy hospitals, make “captured Japanese flags” out of them, and sell them to sailors and soldiers as war souvenirs.  During the Vietnam War, anything belonging to the Army or Navy that was not tied down and guarded 24-hours a day was liable to end up on a Marine Corps compound.  In 1976, three Marines were court-martialed for stealing two (2) Army 6×6 trucks, attempting to conceal the thefts by repainting the trucks and assigning them fraudulent vehicle ID numbers.  In 1976, our Marines were still driving trucks from the Korean and Vietnam War periods.  Despite overwhelming evidence that these three Marines were guilty as hell, a court-martial board consisting of five Marine officers and a Navy lieutenant, acquitted them.  Apparently, no one sitting as a member of the court thought it was wrong to steal from the Army.

[5] Franklin Roosevelt’s “lend-lease” program provided thousands of US made weapons to the Communist Chinese Army during World War II.  The Communists under Mao Zedong hid these weapons away until after Japan’s defeat, and then used them to good advantage against the Chinese Nationalists.  Some of these weapons were used against American soldiers and Marines during the brief “occupation” of China following World War II.  The United States  government continues to arm potential enemies of the United States, which in my view is a criminal act.

No Guts, No Glory

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.

Our flag’s unfurled to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in ev’ry clime and place
Where we could take a gun;
In the snow of far-off Northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes;
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines.

Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve;
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.

Well, it’s all true, of course, but what most people do not understand is that before there can be victory in battle, there must be the development of doctrine and consistent training that develops a sense of unit and individual esprit-de-corps.  Winning battles is what the Marines do, but victory on the field of battle is no coincidence.  The superlative battle history of the Marine Corps is a result of years of developing doctrine, a process of scholarly discussions about how things should work, and the finding out what does work, and then implementing vigorous training, and constant rehearsal so that such things work consistently well.

This was not always the case, however.  Between 1775-1890, Marine Corps service was a somewhat narrow band of tasks and missions.  In the early days, the Corps’ primary mission was service aboard ship —and the Marines were quite useful to the captains of Continental/United States Navy vessels … it was simply that their missions were limited in scope.  This was true during the Civil War, as well, when the mission of ship’s detachments were finite.

In the 1890s, the Navy began its transition from sail to steam propulsion engines.  While having begun its experimentation with steam engines as early as 1816, US Navy vessels continued to hoist sail until the 1880s.  The official transition came with the commissioning of the battleships USS Maine and USS Texas and with this transition, the mission of shipboard Marine Detachments began to change, as well.  Over time, not every ship’s captain saw a need for a Marine Detachment aboard his ship.  There were only so many capital ships, only so many ships’ detachments, and so many billets for non-shipboard Marines.  Marine leaders realized that without a distinctive mission, without unique expertise, then the Corps would, in time, become passé.  The question became one of maintaining relevance at a time of rapid doctrinal and technological changes.

One of the Marine Corps’ scholarly leaders at the time was Robert Watkinson Huntington who, by 1890, had served in the Marine Corps for just under 30 years.  In that many years, Huntington learned how to do things —to get things done.  Huntington was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1897.  Then in command of the Marine Barracks, New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn, Huntington received orders from the Commandant of the Marine Corps to immediately raise a battalion of Marines for possible service against Spain in Cuba.  It was no easy task to raise a battalion of combat-ready Marines at a time when there was no other battalion-sized unit in the Marine Corps.

LtCol Huntington’s Battalion, Cuba

To accomplish this task, Headquarters Marine Corps had to redirect four company’s worth of Marines from headquarters type units, recruiting stations, training commands, ships detachments, and Marine Barracks organizations up and down the Atlantic coast.  As Huntington started the process of raising this battalion, named the First Marine Battalion (Reinforced), Marine quartermasters began organizing the shipment of combat equipment and tropical weight uniforms to Key West, Florida.  While senior Army commanders were still haggling about seniority and raising an expeditionary force, Colonel Huntington was already in Cuba leading his Marines ashore.  It was this tireless effort and the success of the First Marine Battalion that provided the Marine Corps with its uniqueness: an amphibious force capable of projecting naval power ashore.

At one time, the world’s naval and military philosophers uniformly believed that successful large-scale amphibious operation was an impossibility—and with good reason.  While amphibious warfare has been conducted since ancient times, Napoleon’s failures to control the English Channel and invade England, the Crimean War, and the disaster of Gallipoli were frequently cited as classic examples of its failure as a strategy.

The performance of the First Marine Battalion (Reinforced) in Cuba initiated a love affair between the American people and their Marines.  Emotionally manipulated by the yellow press, the American people believed that the Spanish had blown up the battleship USS Maine.  They needed American heroes; the Marine Corps gave them a few.  The exceptional performance of the U. S. Marines in World War I reinforced this feeling.  After World War I, thoughtful, studious Marine officers began working with their Navy counterparts in the development of airpower and amphibious capability — Charles G. McCawley, Charles Heywood, George Elliott, William Biddle, George Barnett, John A. Lejeune, Alfred Cunningham, Roy Geiger, Robert Huntington, Dion Williams, and Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis among them.

BrigGen Dion Williams

How does one mount a successful operation against a hostile shore without adequate information about the landing site, hydrographics, enemy displacements, the size of a hostile force?  Answer: it can’t be done successfully.  The officer who pioneered the concept of amphibious reconnaissance forces was (then) Major Dion Williams, USMC  (1869-1952).  While attending the Naval War College (1905-1907), Williams wrote a paper entitled Naval Reconnaissance, Instructions for the Reconnaissance of Bays, Harbors, and Adjacent Country.  This work became the first official US doctrine concerning amphibious reconnaissance.  Williams focused his attention on the creation and employment of specialized forces in the conduct of pre-assault reconnaissance; most of Williams’ concepts were later incorporated into the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations (1934).

By any definition, Brigadier General Williams was a well-rounded career officer who, before his retirement in 1935, served as Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  His contributions to the Marine Corps Reconnaissance mission continues to this day.

Marine Corps reconnaissance battalions had their beginnings in 1942-43, an idea sparked during the Guadalcanal Campaign.  The Commanding General, 1st Marine Division, Major General Alexander A. Vandergrift, approved a recommendation submitted by Colonel William J. Whaling[1] to form a scout-sniper company.  Whaling’s proposal was for a special operations/special missions company trained in long-range patrolling and as snipers.  Centralized training for its personnel was judged to be critical because, while combat patrolling was (and continues to be) governed by lessons learned in combat, the skill sets, and processes of gathering intelligence through long-range patrolling was viewed differently by the 1stMarDiv and 2ndMarDiv.  What the Amphibious Corps commander wanted was consistency in roles, missions, and command relationships.  The task then became one of standardization, or how to deploy limited reconnaissance assets and clarification of command relationships.

If the scout-snipers operated in general support of the Division, scouting missions would likely originate with the Division Operations Officer (G-3) in cooperation with the Division Intelligence Officer (G-2).  Information gathered would be returned to the G-3/G-2 and this intelligence would be used in the planning of subsequent offensive operations.

If scout-sniper assets operated in a direct support role, elements of the scout-sniper company would be temporarily assigned to the Division’s subordinate commands (regiments), who deployed a platoon or squads within the regimental tactical area of responsibility  (TAOR).  In these instances, the regimental S-3/S-2 would likely coordinate the activities of the temporarily attached scout-sniper element with higher headquarters.  Any intelligence gathered would of course be shared with the Division G-3/G-2.

The Scout-Sniper mission, which followed their training, involved long-range scouting, patrolling, escape and evasion techniques, land/maritime navigation, knife fighting, close-quarter combat, demolitions, combat swimming, underwater (scuba) training, hydrographic survey, amphibious reconnaissance, and rubber boat training.  Scout-sniper officers also attended the Navy’s Amphibious Scout School, which emphasized ambushes, and amphibious raids.

When the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (9thMAB) went ashore at Da Nang on 8 March 1965, reconnaissance assets were attached to battalion landing teams (BLTs) to provide direct support to the BLT commander.  For example, Company A[2], 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion (Alpha 3rd Recon) was attached to Battalion Landing Team (BLT), 3/9.  Additional reconnaissance platoons subsequently arrived as attachments to BLTs (3/4, 1/3, 2/3).  It was a matter of task organizing reconnaissance assets and attaching them to combat commands where they could do the most good.

Once in country, four recon platoons were reformed as Delta Company under Captain Patrick G. Collins.  Delta 3rd Recon operated in direct support of the brigade until 7 May 1965, when Lieutenant Colonel Don H. Blanchard led the 3rd Recon Battalion ashore at Chu Lai with the 3rd Marine Amphibious Brigade (3rdMAB).  Within a few days, Blanchard was ordered to move his battalion, (with Alpha and Charlie Companies) to Da Nang.  Delta Company joined the battalion at Da Nang, while Bravo Company remained at Chu Lai.  Under the concept of mission directed task organization, the 3rd Recon Battalion became an administrative headquarters element that provided reconnaissance assets to infantry battalions on an as-needed basis.

Lieutenant Colonel Roy R. Van Cleve assumed command of 3rd Recon Battalion on 1 September.  Twenty days later, Van Cleve realigned his battalion in compliance with the III MAF general support directive.  Headquarters, Alpha, Charlie, and Delta companies were to operate from Da Nang, while one platoon from Charlie Company would serve at Hue/Phu Bai; a newly designated Recon Group Alpha (consisting of Bravo Company, 3rd Recon Battalion, and Charlie Company, 1st Recon Battalion) would focus on operations from Chu Lai.

Because the infantry battalions at Hue, Phu Bai, Da Nang, and Chu Lai were assigned to static defense missions[3], Colonel Van Cleve wondered, “Reconnaissance of what?”  Van Cleve’s Marines were not performing reconnaissance missions; they were performing security patrols.  Rules of engagement within the TAOR limited patrols to the parent unit’s own front yard.  Geography dictates scheme of maneuver … so when defensive locations afforded Marines with good observation, there was less demand for a reconnaissance patrol.  Hue/Phu Bai reduced their recon contingent to one platoon.

Reconnaissance Areas of Responsibility (RAOR) were defined according to base camp assignment.  At Da Nang, the ROAR extended 4 to 10 kilometers forward of the Da Nang perimeter.  At Chu Lai, recon teams supported two regiments (4th Marines and 7th Marines); each regimental commander determined his own ROAR[4].  The range of reconnaissance missions was limited by the range of radio equipment, the life of batteries[5], and surrounding terrain.  The field radio PRC-25 replaced the older PRC-47 and PRC-10, neither of which was suitable for deep patrolling.  Added to the foregoing, Marine commanders had legitimate concerns about the size of reconnaissance patrols.  While true the Marines were operating from fixed bases, there had to be a balance in the size of the patrol.  It had to be small enough to be effective, and large enough to fight its way out of an enemy entrapment.

Conflict in Vietnam wasn’t a rehash of the Korean War and all Marine combat units in Vietnam underwent doctrinal tests, particularly since MACV insisted on a static defense strategy.  For reconnaissance Marines, 1965 was a year of adjustment.  The 3rd Marine Division had its 3rd Recon Battalion, and the 1st Marine Division had the 1st Recon Company; both organizations experienced great difficulty responding to the demands of supporting three (growing) TAORs: Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Hue/Phu Bai.  3rdReconBn and 1stReconCo were dissimilar in their mission-centered organization.  The mission of 3rdRecon was to support its parent infantry division (and subordinate commands); 1stReconCo, on the other hand, was a force level unit whose mission was to conduct pre-assault and distant post-assault reconnaissance in support of an amphibious or vertical assault force.

Between 23-27 February 1965, Marines of the 1stReconCo partnered up with the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) and conducted underwater reconnaissance of RED Beach 1 and 2 (Da Nang) in preparation for the amphibious landing of BLT 3/9.  This was exactly how reconnaissance was envisioned by (then) Major Dion Williams, as already discussed.  Similar missions were completed at Hue and Phu Bai, including underwater river reconnaissance of the Perfume River and at Chu Lai.  This was extremely dangerous work.  On 27 March, Corporal Lowell Merrill was one of five Marines/Sailors caught in a VC crossfire while surveying near the Tra Bong River.  Three of these men died from their wounds, including Corporal Merrill[6].   1stReconCo Marines also performed as a quick reaction force to protect downed helicopters—efforts which were directed by the III MAF G-2, but none of the missions taken on by 1stReconCo were easy, made more difficult by supply problems.  To help solve these issues, the III MAF commander transferred elements of the company to the operational control of the 3rdReconBn.

The earliest reconnaissance patrols in Vietnam were comparatively large, ranging from 12-22 Marines; a few were company-sized patrols, but there was no safety in numbers.  On 12 July, an 18-man patrol from Alpha Company was operating near Dai Loc, about 18 kilometers southwest of Da Nang when it tangled with a company of Viet Cong.  The patrol was led by 27-year-old First Lieutenant Frank S. Reasoner, USMC, a native of Spokane, Washington.  He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1955 and having completed the Naval Airman’s course in 1956 was designated an Airborne Radioman.  After promotion to Corporal, Reasoner attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School.  He received an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy in 1958, graduating in 1962 with his subsequent assignment to the 3rdReconBn.  He assumed command of Alpha Company on 20 June 1965.

First Lieutenant Reasoner’s patrol had affected a deep penetration of heavily controlled enemy (communist) territory when it came under heavy fire from an estimated VC force of 100 men.  Reasoner, on point with five other Marines at the point of enemy contact, immediately deployed his Marines for an assault.  Shouting encouragement and tactical instructions to his men while still isolated from the main body of the patrol, Reasoner organized a base of fire while under intense enemy machine gunfire.  Repeatedly exposing himself to the enemy’s devastating attack, Lieutenant Reasoner skillfully provided covering fire to effect the evacuation of wounded Marines.  Despite killing several of the enemy and silencing their machine gun, Marine casualties continued to mount.  When Reasoner’s radio operator was hit, the lieutenant moved to his side and began to treat his wounds while moving him rearward toward a position of greater safety.  When the Marine was hit again, Reasoner courageously went to his aid a second time, running through grazing enemy fire.  It was then that Lieutenant Reasoner fell mortally wounded.  Acting with unreserved gallantry and devotion to his men, First Lieutenant Frank S. Reasoner gave his life to the service of his country.

Lieutenant Reasoner was the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor (posthumously) during the Vietnam War.  Before his family received this award, the Commanding Officer 3rdReconBn dedicated the battalion’s base camp to his memory.  “Greater love hath no man than this: the lay down his life for a friend.” —John 15:13.  The U. S. Navy further honored Frank Reasoner by naming FF-1063, a Knox-class frigate, after him.

First Lieutenant Frank S. Reasoner was but one of the thousands of young Marines and Navy Corpsmen who gave their last full measure of devotion to their country.  Not every hero gave up his life in Vietnam; some lived on … carrying with them to the end of their days the painful memories of the horrors of war, the loss of friends.

Sergeant Jimmie L. Howard, from Burlington, Iowa, was a student at the University of Iowa when he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps on 12 July 1950.  During the Korean War, Howard was awarded the Silver Star Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, and two Purple Hearts while serving with the 1st Marines.  He subsequently served as a squad leader with the 1st Amphibious Reconnaissance Company (later redesignated as 1stReconCo).  Promoted to Staff Sergeant[7] (E-5)  in 1956, Howard served in several assignments, which included duty as a military policeman, a platoon sergeant in 2/9, Guard NCO, and as a Counterguerrilla Warfare instructor.  In April 1966, was assigned as a platoon sergeant with 1stReconCo.

During the evening of 13 June 1966, Staff Sergeant (E-6) Howard led a patrol of 15 Marines and two Navy Corpsmen into a drop zone behind enemy lines atop Hill 488.  His mission was to observe enemy troop movements and interdict these by calling in for air and artillery strikes.  Aware of the presence of the Marines, a well-trained North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalion engaged Howard’s patrol with automatic weapons and overwhelming rifle fire.  Ignoring the unrelenting fury of hostile fire, Howard repeatedly exposed himself to mortal danger while directing the operation of his small force.  As the enemy fire increased in its intensity, Howard demonstrated calm resolve and exceptional courage by directing the fire of his own men and distributing ammunition to those who needed it.  When his radio operator was wounded and incapacitated, despite being painfully wounded in his legs by an enemy grenade, Howard called in artillery and airstrikes with uncanny accuracy.  By dawn, the next day, Howard’s patrol had suffered five killed in action and all but one Marine wounded.  When rescue helicopters attempted to land on Hill 488, Howard waived them off emphasizing that the hillside was still crawling with enemy troops.  He instead called in for additional airstrikes which he directed perilously close to his own position and delivered concentrated rifle and machine-gun fire on the enemy.  In this way securing a helicopter landing zone, the Howard patrol was soon evacuated.  In recognition of his valiant leadership and courageous fighting spirit, Howard was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

There was never a shortage of guts or glory among Recon Marines in the Vietnam War.

Semper Fidelis …

Sources:

  1. Hildreth, R., and Charles W. Sasser. Hill 488.  New York: Pocket Books,
  2. Shulimson, J., and Charles W. Johnson. Marines in Vietnam, 1965: The Landing and the Buildup.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps , 1978.
  3. Shulimson, J. S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966: An Expanding War.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1982.
  4. Vetter, L. C. Never Without Heroes: Marine Third Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam, 1965-1970.  Random House/Ballantine Publishing, 1996.

Endnotes:

[1] Whaling was a highly decorated career officer whose service began in 1917.  On 7 December 1941, Whaling served as the Executive Officer, Marine Barracks, Hawaii and witnessed the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.  He was subsequently recalled to Washington as a witness to the Roberts Commission.  He was subsequently assigned as Commanding Officer, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines in January 1942 and later assigned as the Executive Officer, 5th Marines Regiment (5thMar).  Whaling was legendary as a combat officer, but his administrative skills were lacking.  It was something he shared with his Commanding Officer, Colonel Leroy P. Hunt.  Colonel Hunt was charismatic, a superior troop commander, but he had no ability to organize or plan complex operations.  Whaling was promoted to colonel on 21 May 1942.  After landing on Guadalcanal, the performance of the 5th Marines was judged lacking by General Vandergrift who not only relieved Colonel Hunt, but also Colonel Whaling.  Hunt was ordered back to the United States; Whaling was retained at Guadalcanal as a division staff officer.  He was later promoted to major general, retiring from active service in 1954.  Whaling was the recipient of the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Air Medal, and two Purple Heart Medals.

[2] Alpha Company was the first division recon asset deployed to Vietnam.

[3] General William C. Westmoreland’s (COMUSMACV) defense strategy for South Vietnam.  Sitting  around waiting for the enemy to take the initiative is not how the Marine Corps operates; a bended knee is not a Marine Corps tradition.

[4] Farming out recon platoons meant that the regimental/battalion commanders had to be trusted to use the skill set of recon Marines.  Too often, regiments/battalions used the recon Marines in contravention to approved doctrine to missions that nothing at all to do with gathering intelligence.

[5] Battery life is less in hot/humid climates.

[6] Camp Merrill was named in Lowell’s honor.

[7] The Marine Corps has undergone several changes in its rank structure, officer and enlisted, since 1775.  In 1958, the proportion of serving noncommissioned officers was 58% of the total USMC enlisted strength, which when compared to the percentage of NCOs in 1941, at 25%, was exceedingly high.  The problem was one of advancing technology and increased demand for technical leaders.  Specialization led to an imbalance of the enlisted rank structure and some confusion about whom was senior to whom.  The Commandant of the Marine Corps ordered a new rank structure in 1958, to take effect in 1959.  A transitional period of dual rank structures initially scheduled to end on 1 January 1965, and to ensure that no Marine lost a rank due to administrative reshuffling, “acting ranks” allowed Marines to retain their titles until promoted into the new rank structure.  The transitional period ended in 1963.

RIVER FIGHTS: Vietnam War

USNFVSome Background

Following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (Indochina) (USMAAG Indochina) became USMAAG (Vietnam) and with this transition, the United States became even more deeply involved in the affairs and prerogatives of the South Vietnamese (Republic of Vietnam) regime.  Wisely, President Eisenhower firmly resisted the urgings of some advisors to send in troops, but he did expand the role of military advisors and in time, all US armed services were represented on the USMAAG (Vietnam) staff.

In 1960, newly elected John F. Kennedy approved the USMAAG’s request for increases in the size of the South Vietnamese Army (also, Army of the Republic of Vietnam or ARVN) and an increase in the number of military and civilian advisors.  As Henry Bohn told us in 1855, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  John Kennedy began excavating a hole our government couldn’t stop digging.

Lay of the Land

The Mekong Delta extends from Saigon (now, Ho Chi Minh City) south and west to the Gulf of Thailand and the border with Cambodia.  Its area extends nearly 29,000 square miles and it is home to an estimated 15 million inhabitants.  In all, the Mekong Delta constitutes about a quarter of the total land area and half the population of the former Republic of Vietnam.  The Delta is a flat alluvial plain created by the Mekong River, a land surface covered by rice paddies, which makes this region one of the world’s most productive rice-growing areas.  It is by far the most important agricultural region in Vietnam.

In terms of overland communication, the Mekong Delta was an unmitigated disaster, as the region is intersected by a complex network of waterways and inundated by heavy rain and seasonal floods.  In 1960, there was but one major hard surface road, which extended from Saigon to Ca Mau. Secondary roads were either poorly surfaced or unattended.  While the land facilitated air combat operations, poor road systems, rice paddies, canals, wide ditches, and rivers complicated ground operations.  In contrast, the waterway system was very sophisticated, and the US MAAG realized early on that if the US intended to pacify the Mekong Delta (also, IV Corps Tactical Zone, or IV CTZ), it would have to consider implementing riverine operations.

Most Vietnamese in this area are concentrated along waterways that constitute the principal transportation routes, on average, around 400 people per square mile.  Typically, Vietnamese homes are surrounded by dense trees, shrubs, and bushes —cultivated for fruit, shade, or decoration.  The vegetation was pleasing to look at, but it also gave protection and concealment to communist insurgents.  When planning for operations in the IV CTZ, US military officers wanted to take the war to the enemy but do so without endangering local inhabitants.  With its population density, it was nearly impossible to move friendly forces without their being observed by unfriendly eyes.  The enemy always seemed to know when Uncle Sam was coming for a visit.

Vietnam’s Delta seacoasts have an extensive network of mangrove swamps.  Vegetation on the coastal mudflats is dense, root structure high, and tangled, which makes access difficult and cross-country movements challenging.  Rice paddies are separated by thickets of trees in varied patterns.  Large cultivated plantations are marked by rows of palm trees, many of which border deep ditches or wide canals.  Operational planners for riverine operations had to factor in water, vegetation, terrain, and the influence of sea tides; it also involved guesswork.  There was no way to accurately predict travel or operational times. 

The Enemy

The Mekong Delta (IV CTZ) was rife with communist insurgents … estimated at around 84,000 men in 1966.  Of those, around 20,000 were trained and well-armed combat troops with about 51,000 part-time guerrillas.  In 1966, there were no North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces operating in IV Corps.  Logistically, Viet Cong forces relied on support from local populations and whatever could be provided from North Vietnam.  Cambodia, bordering IV CTZ, was a haven for supplies moving down from the north.

Friendlies

ARVN forces in IV CTZ were subdivided into three divisional tactical zones: in the north, the 7th ARVN Division at My Thơ, in the center, the 9th ARVN Division at Sa Dec, and in the south, the 21st ARVN Division at Bac Lieu.  In total, around 40,000 men, including five ranger battalions and three armored cavalry squadrons.  Regular forces were augmented by Regional, Popular, and Irregular troops, and the National Police[1].  The conventional wisdom (back then) was that anyone joining Regional or Popular Forces organizations was “just asking for it” (VC assassination).  Unsurprisingly, both groups had high desertion rates, and the thing that made irregular troops so irregular was that one could never find them when they were needed.

Vietnamese naval forces in the 4th Naval Zone evolved from the French Dinassauts and included six river assault groups and eleven coastal groups that formed the so-called Junk Fleet.  Assault groups fell under the IV CTZ Commander; their primary mission was supporting ARVN riverine operations.  Each group could lift an ARVN infantry battalion.  In 1966, these units were used in their primary role about 10% of the time.  The reason for this was that the ARVN battalion commanders preferred airmobile operations; they were more fun and had greater visibility for purposes of promotion.

US Forces

United States Navy advisors entered the Mekong Delta in 1957 to replace the withdrawing French.  By 1966, the military advisory effort infused the entire RVN military structure.  In total, around 2,700 officers and enlisted men representing the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force were assigned to corps, division, and provincial organizations, and the IV CTZ Area Logistics Command.  The USN Advisory Group (RVN) provided advisors to the Vietnamese Navy’s six river assault groups and eleven coastal groups.

In 1965, the U. S. Army’s 13th Combat Aviation Battalion was assigned to the Delta to support ARVN operations; by August of that year, the battalion operated four assault helicopter companies and one air reconnaissance company.  By mid-1966, naval forces included TASK FORCE 115 (also, MARKET TIME) and TASK FORCE 116 (also, GAME WARDEN).  The mission assigned to Market Time was interdiction of coastal areas to prevent resupply of VC forces by sea.  Game Warden was tasked with interdicting enemy lines of communications and assisting ARVN forces in repelling enemy attacks on river outposts of Regional and Popular Forces.  Despite the optimism of the American administration, which predicted a communist free Mekong Delta by mid-1965, about one-third of all communist attacks in South Vietnam in 1966 occurred within the IV CTZ; Viet Cong forces controlled about 25% of the population of the Delta.

To the Vietnamese high command in 1966, the question of whether a province was “pacified” was entirely political.  The American reality was that the South Vietnamese government-controlled, in total, only about four percent of the land in IV CTZ.  ARVN commanders bragged that they controlled these areas but if true, it was only during hours of daylight; the Viet Cong controlled the night.

Riverine warfare is an extension of sea power.  The Navy’s control of the sea enables it to project its strength ashore, including inland waterways, into the heart of the enemy territory.  None of the Navy’s resources operate inside a vacuum; the Navy works as a team.  In this example, blue water ships, amphibious forces, and its aviation arm all supported riverine operations.  It was Vietnam’s communist insurgency within a vast inland waterway that led the Navy to reexamine its previous successes in riverine operations.

A key strategy in confronting and then defeating a guerrilla force is isolation and interdiction.  US strategy in Vietnam involved denying guerrilla forces freedom of movement, access to the general population, the ability to withdraw into remote sanctuaries to regroup, and the ability to resupply.  U. S. Naval forces in Vietnam played a key role in achieving all these objectives.  Coastal surveillance programs formed a tight barrier against the infiltration of personnel, arms, and supplies from the sea.  Taking surveillance one step further, the rigid control of fishing areas diminished the insurgent’s ability to feed himself, and river patrols established protocols for the inspection of junks and sampans, which were the primary method of transporting people and goods over hundreds of miles of inland waterways.

No less important in combatting guerrilla forces is gathering intelligence, which is often a slow, painstaking process.  One must first locate the enemy before he can be eliminated.  Finding the enemy was often facilitated by nurturing relationships with local inhabitants, which was also a key element in riverine operations.

Highly mobile and well-armed riverine forces coordinated their activities with ground and air forces to interdict guerrilla activities.  The Navy’s shallow-draft patrol craft seized the initiative in carrying the fight to enemy sanctuaries far up the rivers and into canals —areas that had not been previously penetrated by French or ARVN ground units.  To achieve these goals, the Navy employed a variety of combat and combat-support organizations, each with unique but well-coordinated missions: River Patrol Force, Mobile Riverine Force, Coastal Surveillance Force, Naval Advisory Group, and strike campaigns dubbed OPERATION SEALORDS[2].

An Imposing Environment

As previously explained, riverine operations assume many shapes because inland waterways form unique challenges.  Vietnam’s inland waterways were at least a bewildering maze of interconnecting systems, so the Navy implemented a wide range of strategies to address them —made more difficult after the NVA began infiltrating South Vietnam in 1968.  At that time, the US Navy began looking for more than increasingly dispirited guerillas; they were looking for hard-core NVA regulars, as well.  The Mekong Delta was a paradise for guerrilla operations, which the NVA demonstrated could be just-as-easily implemented by regular forces.  Thick vegetation along the waterways limits visibility and offers excellent opportunities for ambush; floating vegetation and heavily silted waters concealed mines and other explosive devices.  Command detonated mines often signaled the beginning of hellacious firefights —some of these taking places within 50-75 feet of opposing forces.

There are three distinct regions within the Mekong Delta: Plains of Reeds, northwest of Saigon, which during seasonal floods lies beneath six feet of water, the Lower Mekong, which is a vast rice-growing region and the location of the imposing Ca Mau forest, and the mangrove swamps at the mouth of the Mekong adjacent to the Rung Sat (Forest of Assassins) Special Zone (RSSZ), which includes the main shipping channel to Saigon.  In the mangrove swamps, tides are extreme and vegetation so thick that men on the ground lose sight of each other four feet apart.

OPERATION JACKSTAY

On 26 February 1966, Viet Cong forces ambushed the SS Lorinda, a Panamanian-flagged coastal freighter on the Lòng Tàu River, about 18 miles south of Saigon.  The attack wounded six crewmen and caused the ship to veer off course and run aground.  This was not a trend the Americans could allow to develop.  Accordingly, Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) ordered a punitive raid against insurgents operating within the shipping channel approach to Saigon.

Navy and Marine Corps operational planners put together a blue water force off the coast of Vietnam, the first major U. S. Navy riverine operation in the Rung Sat Special Zone (RSSZ); it marked a major turning point in the unfolding saga of projecting American sea power from the high seas and coastal waterways into the vast waterways of the Mekong Delta.   Before this, the Navy’s participation in the river war was limited to inshore operations conducted by Swift Boats and Coastal Patrol Boats assigned to the Vietnamese Navy and their U. S. Navy advisors.  From this point forward, the Navy became increasingly involved in the river war.  The operation was designated JACKSTAY.

JACKSTAY underscored the versatility made possible by the domination of the wetlands, whether offshore or in-country.  The operation, conducted in two phases, was planned to decimate the Viet Cong in the RSSZ, a 400-square mile area of swamp particularly suited for clandestine operations.  The region of the RSSZ had harbored communist insurgents for well over a generation; it was where the Viet Minh/Cong manufactured weapons, where they treated their wounded, trained recruits, and stocked their supplies from North Vietnam.

1:5 Unit PatchJACKSTAY was a two-phased operation plan[3] that called for an assault on the Long Thanh Peninsula (RSSZ) by the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5) from ships operating off-shore: the USS Princeton, USS Pickaway, USS Alamo, USS Belle Grove, and USS Merrick.  USS Robison, GAME WARDEN swift boats, and MARKET TIME patrol boats provided naval gunfire support.  Air groups from USS Hancock provided helicopter lift and close air support.

The operation kicked off on the morning of 26 March 1966 with preliminary naval bombardments by Robison and aircraft from Hancock.  Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) swimmers, preparatory airstrikes by Seventh Fleet carrier-based aircraft, and naval gunfire all supported the operation. Throughout, amphibious craft and coastal surveillance craft provided surveillance and blocking operations against Viet Cong escape.  The long inland reach of U. S. Navy sea power quickly adapted to operational complexities.

A Marine rifle company landed via surface craft near Dong Hoa on the western end of the peninsula with two additional companies executing a vertical assault at the center and on the eastern end.  The Marines encountered only scattered small arms resistance and soon established 21 four-man listening posts beyond their night perimeter.  During the night, VC attacked one of these posts initiating a firefight that resulted in two Marine KIAs and three enemies dead.  That same night, VC ambushed PCF-31[4] about one mile from Cần Giờ on the Long Thanh Peninsula, seriously injuring one crewman and severely damaging the patrol boat.

On 28 March, Marines made another unopposed surface assault on the Soài Rạp River, this time targeting an enemy logistics area on the Vam Sat River (linked to the headquarters element on the Soài Rạp River) and destroyed a cache of weapons that included over 1,000 grenades.

Higgins BoatFollowing airstrikes from the Hancock and naval gunfire from USS Henry County, USS Washoe County, and Ontos[5] fire from the deck of Henry County on 31 March, an 18-boat convoy entered the Vam Sat River.  Led by two Vietnamese-manned Higgins Boats[6], the convoy included two Vietnamese LCCPs rigged with chain drags and grapnels for minesweeping, and armored LCM-6 (equipped with mortars and automatic weapons), seven LCMs, a rifle company of Marines in two LCVPs, two LCPLs providing additional gunfire support, two LCM-3 salvage boats.  Helicopter gunships provided air cover.  Commander Derwin T. Lamb, USN commanded the convoy from the open deck of an LCPL positioned directly behind the Vietnamese minesweepers.  Captain John D. Westervelt, USN commanded the overall landing operation from an overhead helicopter.

As Lamb’s convoy approached the first bend of the Vam Sat River, Viet Cong command-detonated a crude electrical mine halfway between Lamb’s command LCP and the minesweepers.  An explosion reminiscent of Confederate torpedoes from a hundred years before reverberated across the water.  The craft escaped damage because they wisely hugged the shallows rather than navigating from the center of the channel.  The explosion signaled the commencement of intense small arms fire from the thick foliage on both banks.  Lamb led the convoy through the withering fire while all boats opened with their firepower.  Helicopter gunships strafed and rocketed VC positions about 100-yards inland, preventing the VC from bringing heavier guns to bear.  A mile further downriver, enemy fire became sporadic.

After landing a Marine rifle company in the heart of the dismal mangrove swamp, Lamb moved his convoy back up-river in the same formation to land two additional companies of Marines, who immediately disappeared into the thick underbrush.  When the Marines had completed their mission, LCMs (also, “Mike” boats) churned their way to shore, crashing their way through the overhanging tree limbs and into the dense undergrowth. Lowering the ramps cut an opening through the rotted vegetation, making it easier for the Marines to re-board.

During recovery operations, the convoy again ran into ineffective small arms fire.  The open LCMs, each carrying 60 Marines, may have been vulnerable targets were it not for the work of the gunships overhead and the fact that the VC riflemen were poor shooters.

JACKSTAY concluded on 6 April with the destruction of arms factories, training camps, a headquarters complex, and a makeshift hospital.  Large amounts of rice and other foods were captured, along with 60,000 rounds of ammunition and 300 pounds of gunpowder.  Sixty-three enemies were killed in the combined assaults, while American Marines lost five men killed in action.  Subsequently, Viet Cong activity decreased in this area of the Delta.

The results of JACKSTAY were far more significant than the 53 confirmed Viet Cong dead or the tons of material destroyed or captured.  Its success was laudable, of course, but so too was the projection of naval power into the heart of an enemy sanctuary.  As the Navy’s initial combined riverine operation, JACKSTAY served as a loud knock on the door to an enemy that had had its way in the RSSZ for far too long.  The message was unmistakable: the VC could run, and the enemy could hide, but they would not be able to elude the powerful arm of the United States Navy-Marine Corps team.  Ultimately, after scurrying around like rats, the communists would only die tired.

In the middle of JACKSTAY, on 1 April 1966, Rear Admiral Norvell G. Ward[7], USN assumed duty as Commander, U. S. Navy Forces, Vietnam (COMUSNAVFORV).  The purpose of NAVFORV was to consolidate several U. S. Navy programs under a single component command of the USMACV.  In addition to supervision of the support commands at Saigon and Da Nang, and the Navy Construction (Seabee) battalions, Ward assumed responsibility for missions assigned to the Naval Advisory Group, Coastal Surveillance Forces, and River Patrol Forces.  Mobile Riverine Force (TASK FORCE 117) was added in 1967.

Sources:

  1. Sherwood, J. D.  War in the Shallows: U. S. Navy Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, 1965-1968.  Washington, D. C.: Naval History and Heritage Command, Department of the Navy, 2015.
  2. Marolda, E. J.  Riverine Warfare: The U. S. Navy’s Operations on Inland Waters.  Washington, D. C.: U. S. Navy Historical Center, 2006
  3. Fulton, W. B.  Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington, D. C.: Department of the Army, 1985.
  4. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  5. U. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  6. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants: PT Boats, Subchasers, and the Brownwater Navy, an Illustrated Design History.  1987.
  7. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  8. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] Referred to as “White Mice” owing to their uniforms.

[2] SEALORDS was an acronym for Southeast Asia Lake, Ocean, River, and Delta Strategy.  SEALORDS was a joint operational concept involving US and RVN forces conceived by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt who at the time served as Commander, Naval Forces, Vietnam (COMNAVFORV).  Its intention was to disrupt enemy supply lines within and around the Mekong Delta.  The program was turned over to the Republic of Vietnam Navy (RVNN) in 1971.

[3] Operational planners realized that the insurgent force within the RSSZ was too large for a single battalion operation, so the purpose of JACKSTAY was limited to disrupting Viet Cong operations and a demonstration to the enemy that the US was well aware of their presence and that US/RVN forces could penetrate their sanctuary at will.

[4] PCF-31 (Patrol Craft, Fast) (also, Swift Boat) were 50’ aluminum boats used in patrolling Vietnam’s extensive waterways, part of the so-called Brown Water Navy.

[5] Officially, Allis-Chalmers Rifle, Multiple 106mm Self-propelled M50 light armored tracked anti-tank vehicle with service between 1956-1969

[6] Designed by Andrew Higgins based on watercraft used for operating in swamps and marshes in Louisiana.  Higgins produced nearly 24,000 of these boats, designated Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP), during World War II.  Variants of the Higgins Boats were created and designated for special purposes, such as LCU, LCI, LCA, and LCG.

[7] Admiral Ward was assigned to head the Naval Advisory Group, United States Military Assistance Command (Vietnam) on 31 July 1965.  The Naval Advisory Group was dissolved and renamed U. S. Naval Force, Vietnam on 1 April and Admiral Ward became its first commander.  During his assignment in Vietnam, Ward was instrumental in developing riverine and coastal interdiction strategies.  Admiral Ward served in the submarine service for most of his career beginning in 1931.  He retired from active duty in 1973, choosing not to accept a promotion to Vice Admiral to be with his cancer-stricken wife.  Admiral Ward passed away in 2005.

Slop Chutes and Such

Old EGASome Background

The interesting thing about life in the Marine Corps is that it consists of a series of rites of passage that begin on the day a prospective recruit signs his name to an enlistment contract and lasts until a Marine receives his discharge papers; a continual series of leaving one group or period in his life, and joining another.  These rites of passage pertain to everyone who has ever worn the uniform of a United States Marine, irrespective of rank or position.

No one is called “Marine” until he or she earns that title.  One earns the title by successfully completing “boot camp” or Officer’s Candidate School (OCS).  There are two recruit training regiments (boot camps): Parris Island, South Carolina and San Diego, California.  Officers receive their rendition of recruit training at Quantico, Virginia.

Thus far, I have identified two distinct rites of passage: the migration from “scummy civilian” to recruit or candidate, and from recruit/candidate to United States Marine.  The latter is most significant because any feather merchant can convince a recruiter that he or she has what it takes to become a Marine.  Not everyone measures up.  Separating the wheat from the chaff is what boot camp and OCS is all about. Graduation is a significant event because, having earned the title Marine, it stays with you beyond death —with one important caveat: a Marine must always keep faith with his or her fellow Marines.  A Marine who is separated from the Corps by a less-than-honorable discharge is no longer entitled to be called Marine.  Of those who keep the faith, who serve honorably, there are only two categories: live Marines, and dead Marines.  Earning the title Marine, and keeping it, is a lifetime achievement.

The next rite of passage is the completion of infantry training.  Every Marine, no matter what his or her occupational specialty, is first and foremost, a rifleman.  This is a demand placed on everyone in the Corps, officer or enlisted, Commandant or private.

Marine pilots fly the world’s most sophisticated fighter/bomber aircraft, but they are first trained to serve as infantry unit leaders.  Cooks, bakers, and candlestick makers, pilots, supply officers, or personnel officers … all are trained and ready to pick up a rifle and join the fray whenever called upon to do so.  In my day, infantry training took place in Infantry Training Regiments (ITRs); one on the east coast, and one on the west coast.  Today, these organizations are called Schools of Infantry.  Basic infantry training for officers is conducted at the Officer’s Basic School, Quantico, Virginia.

Upon graduation from infantry training, Marines are normally granted “boot leave.”  This usually consists of a period from fifteen to thirty day leave of absence.  Not everyone wants to go home after initial training, but most do.  When the leave period expires, Marines will either report to their next level or training (such as aircraft maintenance schools, armor school, supply school, etc.) or their first regular duty assignment.  My first assignment was with the 8th Marines, part of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

Life in the Regiment

8th Marines 001The lineage of the Eighth Marine Regiment (8th Marines) begins in 1917.  The regiment was deactivated following World War I, re-activated for service in the Banana Wars (1920-25), and re-activated again for service in World War II.  The regiment has a proud history of combat service, which was carefully explained to me and a few other newly assigned Marines by Sergeant Major Mason, who at the time served as Battalion Sergeant Major, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines.

The 2nd Battalion (also 2/8) —nicknamed America’s Battalion— further assigned me to Company E (Echo Company).  Having reported to the company First Sergeant, who gave me “the word,” I was sent to the 3rd Platoon.  The platoon commander was Second Lieutenant Percy, who assigned me to Corporal Myers’ 3rd Squad.  I ended up in the 3rd fire team.

My fire team leader was Lance Corporal Graham, a 12-year veteran of infantry service.  At one time, Graham was a sergeant.  Apparently, the Navy and Marine Corps frown on enlisted men making threats to the health and safety of their officers.  As I understood the situation, the only reason Graham was still on active duty is because few Marines in the company knew more about platoon tactics than he did.  That and the fact that he’d won the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts during the Korean War.

Lance Corporal Graham was not “friendly” to anyone in the fire team.  He was strictly professional.  He served as our leader, our mentor, and our teacher.  He noted when we were deficient, corrected our mistakes, and assessed our proficiency under a myriad of circumstances and conditions.  He brooked no insult to himself, any member of his fire team, our company, our battalion, our regiment, or our Corps.

2:8 001Getting settled into the company routine was relatively simple.  LCpl Graham assigned me to a rack, a wall locker, and a footlocker.  As a very young private, I only had to do what I was told.  Simple things, actually … in garrison it was essentially reveille at 0530, make up the rack, head call, don the uniform of the day, fall in, march to chow, morning police, company formation, get the word, execute the plan of the day, chow formation at noon, continue the plan of the day, evening formation and chow call, and then company area, on-base, or off-base liberty might be offered.

When we went to the field for training, we usually stepped off after morning chow on Monday mornings at around 0630 and remained in the field until sometime late in the afternoon on Friday.  This meant that the weekends were spent squaring away our gear (clothing, equipment, cleaning our rifles, shining our boots) and getting ready for the following week’s training plan.  Simple.

During my first few weeks, LCpl Graham kept a close eye on me.  He finally decided that I’d do.  Graham was never snarky, or petty.  He was direct.  When he wanted me to do something, he expected me to do it to his satisfaction.  In many ways, he was a continuation of the attention to detail given to young recruits by their drill instructor, without the ranting and raving.  I was fortunate to serve under LCpl Graham.  He taught me worthwhile things —things that have stayed with me all my life: the first duty of a Marine is to do his duty.  A Marine on duty has no friends.  Be honest with yourself, and others;  never be afraid to admit you made a mistake, always do the right thing —because it’s the right thing to do.  Pay attention to detail.  Be confident.  Take pride in self, your fellow Marines, and your unit.  Take care of your fellow Marines and know that they’ll always watch out for you.  Stuff like that.

Approaching my third weekend in the third herd, Graham informed the fire team that we would accompany him to the slop chute on Friday night.  He didn’t ask if we wanted to go, he simply announced that we were going.  LCpl Graham was the essence of a good Marine.  Mimicking the Corps, there was a reason for everything he did.  By the way, slop chute is another name for the Enlisted Men’s Club.  Before we could go over to the slop chute, however, we had to “check out” on liberty.

Now, about “liberty.”  Marines are not entitled to liberty; it is granted.  Liberty simply means that a Marine has been authorized to leave his unit area.  There is “base liberty,” which means that a Marine may leave the company area, but he or she must remain on base.  Off base liberty should be self-explanatory, as with “weekend liberty.”  72-hour liberty is essentially a three-day pass with a limitation on the number of miles one may travel away from the base.  Liberty is controlled by unit commanders; married personnel and senior NCOs were generally granted overnight liberty.  Single men living in the barracks were generally required to return to their company areas at midnight.  We called it Cinderella Liberty, but again, this would likely depend on a Marines rank and what day of the week.  The thing to remember is that Marines are on duty 24-hours a day and unit commanders must be able to muster their men within a few hours.

For the purpose of this story, I will only speak of liberty privileges as they pertained to junior (single) enlisted men.  Marines assigned to 2/8 were required to “sign out” and “sign in” with the company duty noncommissioned officer (Duty NCO).  The Duty NCO would issue a liberty card (allowing that the first sergeant hadn’t pulled it for some reason).  By signing out, Marines informed the Duty NCO in writing where they were going, such as to the base theater, into town, visiting a married Marine in his quarters, etc.

At the appointed time, the fire team reported to the Duty NCO.  We presented our military ID cards and requested on base liberty.  After passing the Duty NCO’s visual inspection of our uniforms and general appearance, we were permitted to “sign out” of the company area.  “Be back by midnight,” he said.  Marines failing to return to the company before midnight were “absent over liberty,” punishable within the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Properly signed out, we hoofed it over to the area slop chute, which was about a mile down the road.  The enlisted men’s club was less a club than it was a large warehouse furnished with wooden picnic tables and benches.  The purpose of the crude furnishings was that they were too heavy to use against Marines from other regiments during a melee, which did occasionally happen.  For all we knew, those wood tables and benches might have been the original furnishings of Tun Tavern[1] in Philadelphia.

Entering the club, a long bar extended along the opposite side of the building where Marines could purchase either a mug of “3.2” beer for fifteen cents, or a pitcher of the same brew for twenty-five cents.  Off to the side was a small galley where one could purchase a cheeseburger and fries.  The place reeked of stale beer and greasy hamburgers.  A jukebox just inside the main entry blared out the music of the day.  Competing with the loud music was the clamor of hundreds of voices as Marines shouted to make themselves heard over the commotion.  Thankfully, this was a time before rap.

There was very little ceremony in the operation of the slop chute.  The bartenders and cooks were off duty Marines working part time to earn extra cash.  No, if a Marine wanted to go to a classy bar, the slop chute wasn’t it.  But, all things considered, the price was right.

The way it worked was that everyone in our small team bought a pitcher of beer.  We took these to a table where there was a little room at one end —not for sitting down but for placing our beer on the table.  No one sat down.  Everyone shared the beer.  The Marine who poured the last glass from the pitcher had to replace it.  It was a Gung Ho thing.  But given how little money we made back then it took a while to pour that last glass of beer.  As a private, my monthly paycheck was $78.00 after taxes, hence the cheap prices for beer.  I seem to recall that a greasy hamburger and fries cost around seventy-five cents.

Lance Corporal Graham offered me a few words of all-encompassing wisdom: I must never go to the slop chute by myself; always take a buddy along, he said.  Better yet, take two.  Strength in numbers, he said.  Always purchase a pitcher of beer; more beer at less cost.

Now about the idea of throwing tables and benches: Marines are very competitive.  Everyone thinks that theirs is the best regiment, battalion, or company in the Marine Corps.  Within the 8th Marines, for example, its three battalions were constantly at odds, as were the infantry companies within the 2nd Battalion.  “E” Company was on the second floor of our barracks, with “F” Company on the first floor.  We hated those bastards from Fox Company because they were always getting us in trouble with our skipper.  Some of these arcane feelings came out at the slop chute[2].

Now, the fact is that there is a correlation between beer consumption and emotional sensitivity.  The more beer one consumes, the more sensitive he or she becomes, particularly in such matters of unit pride and how Marines react to insults offered to their units or uniforms.

On this night, when several Marines shouldered their way into the slop chute wearing pogey ropes, indicating their assignment to the 6th Marines, someone had to say something about it.  The French Fourragère (pogey rope) was awarded to the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments during World War I.  Mostly, the 2nd Marines and 8th Marines were pissed off because they didn’t have one, but that’s beside the point.  After someone made a caustic remark about the pogey rope, satisfaction was demanded and achieved by one fellow from the 6th Marines pushing in the face of whoever made the remark.  It was probably one of those lightweights from the 2nd Marines.

It was exactly this sort of thing that prompted the Marine Corps to furnish the slop chute with picnic tables and benches and why the beer pitchers were made from plastic rather than glass.  And it was exactly this sort of thing that prompted LCpl Graham to insist that no one from his fire team go to the slop chute without a buddy —someone to watch your back.  If there wasn’t a troublemaker from the 2nd Marines or the 6th Marines, there was a loudmouth from the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines (1/8) or 3rd Battalion (3/8), who everyone in the 2nd Battalion (2/8) knew were fairies.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, Echo Company Marines had to put up with those low lives from Fox Company, Golf Company, and the weapons weenies.

One night, the Marines from Echo Company felt honor bound to bring to the attention of those worms from Fox Company, who shared our barracks, the fact that one of their critters had left a filthy swab (not to be confused with a Bosuns Mate) on the ladder well leading to the Echo Company area on the second deck —one that  wasn’t discovered until Captain Wildpret, the Company E commander conducted his weekly post-field day inspection.  The Marines of Echo Company caught hell about that and spent the entire Saturday conducting a massive field day of the entire company area.  Twice in two days was a bit much and now it was up to Echo Company Marines to make things right —and the place to do that, apparently decided impromptu, was the slop chute after everyone had time to get emotionally sensitive.

The way I remember this, is that a few Marines from the 1st Platoon began complaining loudly about Fox Company’s transgressions.  A couple of Marines from Fox Company’s weapons platoon responded in equally aggressive language and deportment.  It might have ended peacefully had Fox Company Marines simply apologized with a promise not to do it again.  But no, that’s not how Fox Company responded.  It was more on the order of a couple of intemperate opinions about our mothers.  It was a good enough fracas to call in the base military police, who promptly closed the Slop Chute.  Of course, no one could remember who threw the first punch, but it was probably one of those losers from Fox Company when a Marine from Echo Company wasn’t looking.  With the closure of the club there was nowhere to go except back to the barracks.  It was getting late anyway.

In those days, there were so many wrongs to right, and so little time.  God forbid that a soldier or deck ape should wander into the slop chute.  No airman in his right mind would even consider patronizing that dark, dank, smelly place —unless he enjoyed mixing it up with swamp critters.

If there was any underlying reason for having a slop chute, besides having a place where Marines could relax and enjoy a good greasy burger, it was probably to contain the violence of combat trained, emotionally sensitive Marines with high testosterone levels and eight or ten pitchers of beer to their credit.

Back in those days, there were such things as “career privates.”  These were men who never seemed to make it past the rank of private first class.  Some of these guys had eight years of service with half of that spent in the brig.  I remember a PFC named Dinotelli, who at one time was a Master Sergeant with 18 years Marine Corps service.  Before being busted down in rank, he used to run the 2/8 mess hall.  He was caught helping himself to food stores to fill his own refrigerator.  Dinotelli mostly drank by himself and everyone left him alone because according to the word, he’d received a Bronze Star in the Korean War from killing a bunch of communists.  Obviously, PFC Dinotelli was no one to mess around with.

GySgt USMCGraham was eventually promoted back to Corporal and took over the 3rd Squad when Corporal Myers was transferred.  In a few more years, Graham would be promoted to Gunnery Sergeant.  He was killed in the Vietnam War.

Endnotes:

[1] Tun Tavern, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the birthplace of the Continental Marines.  It’s true … the Marine Corps was started in a bar.

[2] One exception to this was our Navy Corpsmen.  In those days, Navy corpsmen attached to the Fleet Marine Forces wore modified Marine Corps uniforms.  We loved our corpsmen; no one dared to mess with the “doc.”

 

A Last Full Measure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaman HH-43 001
USAF HH-43 Huskie

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

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

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

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

Medal of Honor Citation:

USAF Medal of Honor 001
USAF Medal of Honor

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

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

See also: A Jolly Green Miracle.

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

–John F. Kennedy.

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

Death Rattlers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berwick’s report stated …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

The War Begins in Earnest

Some background

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

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

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

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

Ngo Dinh Diem 001
President Ngo Dinh Diem

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

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

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

Prelude to War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we know …

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

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

LBJ-001
Lyndon Baines Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessment

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[13] Holder of the Medal of Honor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] Operation Rolling Thunder.

Counterinsurgency and Pacification

Lessons learned from the Vietnam War

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

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

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

Background and overview

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

First —the Marines

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second —VMC Advisors

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

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

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

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

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

Third—the other Marine Advisors

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

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

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

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

Fourth —Everyone Else

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

[3] Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Laotian Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pathet Lao 001
Pathet Lao (still alive)

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

(Next week: Marine Advisors in Vietnam)

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viet Nam: The Marines Head North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Next week: The Laotian Problem)

Sources:

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

 Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Vietnamese Air Force

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