Mayaguez

Crisis in Command

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

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

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

The Trigger

SS Mayaguez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to Koh Tang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except — they weren’t.

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:


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

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

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

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

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

Operation Ranch Hand

Whoever fights monsters must see to it

that the process does not become a monster. —Nietzsche

Background

The Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

Approaching Indochina

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

Chemical Warfare

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ranch Hand

Ta Cu Mountain, Vietnam

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

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

Model USN Swift Boat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fidelity, Honor, Valor

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fight

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

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

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

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

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

Movement to Contact

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

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

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

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

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

Contact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Tribute

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

U. S. Special Forces

Special Forces Insignia

 You can place everything civilians know about the military into a thimble.  It isn’t entirely their fault, of course.  So, it comes as no surprise that civilians are likely to ask such questions as, What is the difference between a Green Beret and an Army Ranger?  Or they might ask, Who’s the best, the Green Berets, Rangers, or Marines?

The answers to such deeply insightful questions will always depend upon who’s been asked.  How would one expect a soldier or sailor to answer?  A Marine, for example, might offer the questioner a contemptible stare and then just walk off without answering.  Marines do have a sense of humor, but it has its limits.  One of the best-ever answers originates with a former Green Beret sergeant major by the name of David Kirschbaum:

You tell the Marines to take a hill and they’ll frown, mutter, and bitch about it, but they’ll eventually salute, organize a platoon, and they’ll head straight for that hill.  They’ll fight and kill whoever gets in their way of taking that hill, and even if there is only one PFC left in the bunch, he’ll seize that hill and organize himself for keeping it.

If you tell the Rangers to take a hill, they’ll salute and then go plan for a few days, write a lot of operation orders, develop patrol plans, argue about the scheme of maneuver, and finally decide who ought to be in charge.  And then in the execution of taking that hill, they’ll find the absolutely worst terrain available for their route of march, which will preferably include swamps overrun with poisonous snakes and steep cliffs protected by predatory birds, and they’ll wait for the worst weather imaginable, but they’ll finally go through the swamps and climb the cliffs, and they won’t feel right unless they’ve lost half their force due to exhaustion or snake bite.  But if there’s even one Ranger remaining, he’ll take the hill.

If you tell the Special Forces to take that hill, the first thing they’ll do is ask you why.  So, you have to explain why.  And then they’ll offer a disrespectful stare which is called silent contempt, and then they’ll just go away.  In a few days, they might take that hill.  Or they might take another hill that they liked better because the evidence was so blatantly obvious that their hill was the better choice that you can never argue with them about it.  Or they might pull some sort of a deal and persuade the Marines to do it.  Or, after a few days you might find them at the club completely ignoring the order to take the hill.  And if challenged about their failure to take the hill, they’ll soon convince you that the order was a stupid idea and in not taking the hill, they very likely saved you from a court-martial —for which you are in their debt.”

Most people know the Special Forces soldier by his headgear: the Green Beret.  They probably do not know that the US Army Special Forces traces its roots in unconventional warfare to the Alamo Scouts of the Sixth US Army in the Pacific during World War II, the Philippine Guerrillas [Note 1], the First Special Service Force [Note 2], and several operational groups within the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  Note: the OSS was not a US Army command, but a large number of officers and enlisted men were assigned to the OSS and later used their experience in forming the US Army Special Forces.  During the Korean War, men like Colonel Wendell Fertig and Lieutenant Colonel Russell W. Volckmann (former Philippine Scouts) used their wartime experiences to formulate the doctrine of unconventional warfare that became the foundation of the Special Forces.

In February 1950, the US government recognized a quasi-independent Vietnam within the French Union.  The US was considering granting aid to the French forces opposing the communist insurgency of Ho Chi Minh.  The US agreed to provide military and economic aid, and with this decision, American involvement in Indochina had begun.

In 1951, Major General Robert A. McClure selected Colonel Aaron Bank (formerly of the OSS) to serve as Operations Branch Chief of the Special Operations Division, Psychological Warfare Staff at Fort Brag, North Carolina.  Within a year, the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was formed under Colonel Bank at the Psychological Warfare School (later designated the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center).  In 1953, the 10th SFG was split, with the 10th deploying to Germany, and the remaining men forming the 77th Special Force Group, which in May 1960 was re-designated as the 7th Special Forces Group.

On 7 May 1954, the French were overwhelmingly defeated by the Viet Minh (Communist supported Viet Nam Independence League) at Dien Bien Phu.  Under the Geneva Armistice Agreement, Vietnam was divided into North Vietnam and South Vietnam.  Between 1950-54, US officials had an opportunity to observe the struggle of France with the Vietnamese insurgency and become familiar with the political and military situation … but one has to wonder, what did these officials do with all that familiarization?

In July 1954, the US Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam (USMAAGV) numbered 342 officers and men.  Three months later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower promised direct aid to the provisional government of South Vietnam, which at the time was led by Premier Ngo Dinh Diem.  Between 1954-56, Viet Minh cadres were busy forming action committees to spread communist propaganda and organize South Vietnamese citizens to oppose their own government [Note 3].  In 1955, both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union announced that they would provide direct aid to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (also, DRV or North Vietnam).  In August 1955, Premier Diem rejected for the third time Hanoi’s demand for a general election throughout both North Vietnam and South Vietnam to settle the matter of unification.  In October 1955, Diem proclaimed the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), which became the official government of South Vietnam.

On 24 June 1957, the 1st Special Forces Group was activated on Okinawa; within a year, a team from this unit trained fifty-eight soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) at a commando training center located at Nha Trang.  These trainees would later become the nucleus for the first Vietnamese Special Forces units.

In 1959-60, communist insurgents (known as Vietnamese Communists (also, VC) grew in number and began terrorizing innocent civilians.  Clashes between government forces and VC units increased from around 180 in January 1960 to nearly 550 in September.  Thirty Special Forces instructors were sent from Fort Bragg to Vietnam in May to set up an ARVN training program.

On 21 September 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced a program to provide additional military and economic aid to the RVN.  On that same day, the 5th Special Forces Group was activated at Fort Bragg.  It was at this point in 1961 that President Kennedy took an interest in special forces operations and he became the patron of the Special Forces program within the Army.

Up until 1961, the RVN and US mission in Saigon focused their attention on developing regular ground forces, which for the most part had excluded ethnic and religious minority groups.  Late in that year, the US initiated several programs that would broaden the counterinsurgency effort by developing paramilitary forces within these minority groups.  The development of these groups became a primary mission of Special Forces teams in Vietnam.  It was a difficult mission; one that required an understanding of Vietnamese culture, the culture of minority groups (i.e., Montagnards), and a great deal of patience.

In 1961, the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas undertook an examination of the responsibility of the US Army in the cold war and the so-called “wars of liberation” as practiced by communists around the world.  One focus that evolved from this examination was doctrine needed to counter subversive insurgencies, particularly in RVN.  When asked to identify units and numbers of forces needed and best prepared to deal with counterinsurgency operations, the Army selected as its vanguard unit the Special Forces, which at the time numbered around 2,000 troops.

Throughout the Vietnam War, the US Army Special Forces excelled in every aspect of unconventional warfare.  As with the other American armed forces in Vietnam, however, the deck was stacked against them from the start [Note 4].  At the conclusion of the war, after Democrats in Congress reneged on America’s deal with Vietnam in the post Vietnamization phase, many veteran special forces soldiers left active service in disgust.  We won all the battles, but the politicians back home handed a victory to the North Vietnamese from the jaws of their resounding defeat.  The utter shame of American history was not the men who stepped up to serve during the Vietnam War, it was the Congress of the United States who not only turned its back on our South Vietnamese ally, but on the men and women who served in Vietnam as well.

The Green Berets do not refer to themselves as such.  They either refer to themselves as “Special Forces” or SF.  Sometimes they are known as “Sneaky Pete,” and “Snake Eaters.”  They do know how to eat snakes, but I have it pretty good authority that it’s not a preferred or regular diet (although it’s probably better tasting than the current government faire of Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s) (also, Meals rejected by Ethiopians).  

The John Wayne film, The Green Berets, wasn’t really about the Special Forces soldier; it was more of a composite picture of soldiers one might find in the Special Forces.  According to the retired special forces soldiers I know, the SFG of the 1960s is a far cry from the modern organization.

In the early days, the SF soldier was an individual we might call a natural woodsman.  They were men to volunteered for duty with Special Forces because they preferred being in the boonies to being in garrison and having to take part in weekly parades, repetitious routines, and the chicken shit associated with regular army life.  There was some formal training, of course, and it is true that these fellows had a knack for learning foreign languages, but most of the men received on-the-job training (OJT) in special forces operations teams.  One former Green Beret described it as working hard when it was time to work and playing hard when it was time to play.  Perhaps too much drinking and chasing skirts while on liberty, but these men were, indeed, the quiet professionals who never lost their focus on their mission.

The primary element of a Special Forces company is an operational detachment, commonly referred to as an A Team.  It consists of 12 soldiers: 2 officers, and ten sergeants.  All members of the A Team are Special Forces qualified and cross trained in different skills.  The team is almost unlimited in its ability to operate in hostile or “denied” areas, able to infiltrate and exfiltrate by air, land, or sea.  It can operate for indefinite periods of time in remote locations without any outside help or support—self-sustaining, independent teams who regularly train, advise, and assist US and allied forces and agencies and capable of performing a myriad of special operations.  Every member of the A Team is lethal.

Besides the A Team commander (a captain), the second in command is a Chief Warrant Officer.  The captain is responsible for ensuring and maintaining the operational readiness of the team; he may also command or advise an indigenous combat force up to battalion size units.  His executive officer (second in command) serves as the tactical and technical expert.  He is multi-lingual, supervises plans and operations, and is capable of recruiting, organizing, training, and supervising indigenous combat forces up to the battalion level.

The A Team Sergeant is a Master Sergeant, the senior enlisted man, responsible for overseeing all Team operations, supervising subordinate enlisted men, and the person who runs the show on a daily basis.  Because of his interaction with the team enlisted men, he is sometimes referred to as the Den Daddy.  He is capable of stepping up to second in command should the need arise, or assuming command should the team commander and XO become incapacitated.

The Operations Sergeant is a Sergeant First Class (E-7) who coordinates the team’s intelligence, including field interrogations.  He is capable of training, advising, or leading indigenous combat forces up to a company size unit.

The team has two (2) weapons sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  These are the weapons experts who are capable of employing every small arm and crew served weapon in the world.  They are responsible for training other team members in the use of a wide range of weapons.  As tactical mission leaders, they are capable of employing conventional and unconventional tactics and techniques.  They are responsible for the tactical security of the A Team.

The team has two (2) engineer sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class, and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  These men are experts in demolitions.  They are lethal with a capital L.  They are the builders and destroyers of structures and serve as key players in civic action missions.

There are two (2) medical sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class, and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  The SF medic employs the latest in field medical technology and limited surgical procedures, capable of managing any battlefield trauma injury, supervising preventative medicine, and as such is an integral part of civic action programs.  Upon completion of the SF training, they are certified “paramedical” personnel, which includes advance trauma life support, limited surgery and dentistry, and even veterinarian procedures.

There are two (2) communications sergeants.  One of these is usually a sergeant first class, and he is assisted by a staff sergeant.  These are the Comm Guys, or sometimes referred to as “Sparks.”  They are the lifeline of the team, able to establish and maintain sophisticated communications via FM, multi-channel, and satellite devices.  Theirs is unquestionably the heaviest rucksack on the team.

In addition to their primary responsibilities, team members are often assigned other duties.  The best scrounger very often acts as the supply sergeant.  A scrounger is someone who can steal from other units without getting caught.  One member with peculiar culinary skills might serve as the team cook.  

In the 1960s, before the Special Forces were recognized as a branch of the army, they were regarded as “unassigned.”  Another word for this was “bastard.”  In joining the special forces, a solder became part of a bastard unit.  The veteran soldiers preferred being bastards because it meant that they were generally ignored by the geniuses in Washington whose tactical skill set was operating a pencil sharpener.  Today, the conventional army has taken over the special forces … which means that pencil pushers now dictate to the field soldier how he must go about his business.  If you ask a veteran SF soldier, he’ll probably tell you that today’s SF is little different from the regular conventional army … but they do get to wear service insignia.

One of my favorites:

Staff Sergeant Schwartz had volunteered for the Special Forces.  His request was approved contingent on successfully passing a psychological examination.  On the date of his interview, Schwartz entered the medical officer’s office, removed his hat, and took a seat.  The doctor, who had been reviewing Schwartz’s medical record, looked up and observed a frog sitting on Schwartz’s head.  Having interviewed several Special Forces candidates that day, the doctor was unfazed.  He asked Schwartz, “So, what’s your problem?”  The frog answered, saying, “I don’t know, doc.  It started off as a wart on my ass.”

Endnotes:

[1] After the invasion of the Philippines by the Japanese in 1941, there were sixty American military and civilian commanders of forces throughout the Philippines who evaded capture or escaped Japanese imprisonment on the archipelago’s several islands.  With the help and assistance of the Filipino people, the Philippine Scouts formed resistance groups, which were eventually recognized by the American military and eventually supported and supplied by the USN submarine service.

[2] The First Special Service Force, also known as the Devil’s Brigade, was an elite American-Canadian commando unit in World War II under the command of the Fifth US Army, organized in 1942 under Colonel Robert T. Frederick, who commanded the brigade until 1944.

[3] At this time, the average Vietnamese citizen was not overly patriotic.  Occurrences outside of their immediate family, or outside their village of domicile, was of no great concern to them.

[4] For a discussion about the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, see (1) Viet Nam: The Beginning; (2) Viet Nam: The Marines Head North; (3) The Laotian Problem; (4) Counterinsurgency and Pacification, and (5) The War Begins in Earnest.  The reader may also be interested in From King to Joker: How administration policies moved America from greatness to mediocrity.

Meade River

20 November — 9 December 1968

Background

Twenty miles south of Da Nang, Vietnam, west of Highway 1, is a 36-square-mile area of flatland.  Numerous waterways and man made canals criss cross this area and these are separated by thick tufts of five-foot high elephant grass.  In 1968 it was an area ideal for concealing two battalions of enemy infantry, which at the time included the 1st Battalion, 36th Regiment of regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) R-20 Battalion.  The area was extremely dangerous to US and Republic of Vietnam (RVN) forces; firefights and ambuscades were frighteningly common.  The Marines called this area Dodge City

OPERATION MEADE RIVER was planned as part of the RVN’s Le Loi (Accelerated Pacification) Campaign [Note 1] — a series of operations designed to search for and destroy enemy forces.  On the morning of 20 November 1968, seven Marine battalions moved overland and by helicopter to establish a cordon around Dodge City.  While moving into initial staging areas, even before the sweeps began, Marines lost one KIA, suffered 25 WIA, and lost two helicopters.  It was not a good omen.  The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines (2/7) jumped off at midday.  Their mission was to sweep from the western side of the cordon toward the rail lines.  At around 1630, Company G (Golf 2/7) encountered an NVA bunker complex in an area the Marines nicknamed The Horseshoe.  Enemy fire from these bunkers was intense and the Marines withdrew with six additional KIA.

On 21 November, Delta 1/1 and Lima 3/26 resumed the assault on The Horseshoe.  Heavy enemy fire stalled the advance.  The enemy had decided they weren’t leaving without a fight and the Marines were equally determined to give them one.  The Marines resumed their assault on 22 November.  Enemy machine gun fire devastated Echo 2/7 at close range as it began to cross a small stream; Marine losses were 7 KIA and 23 WIA.  It took the company ten minutes to disengage.  Concurrently, Delta 1/1 began its sweep from the North but they too were hit by intensive enemy fire with loses of 2 KIA and 17 wounded.

On 23 November, 3/26 moved from the Southwest toward the Horseshoe and joined up with 2/7.  Hotel 2/7 overran several enemy positions and was able to recover the remains of six Marines lost on 20 November.  Early on 24 November, Marines directed air and artillery against the Horseshoe; 2/7 reinforced by Kilo 3/26 renewed its attack.  Again, strong enemy fire halted the Marine advance.

Before jumping off on 25 November, 2/7 directed artillery fire into suspected enemy positions before continuing the attack.  There was no enemy resistance because the enemy had withdrawn during the night.  Over the next four days, the Marines continued to exert pressure on the enemy within the cordon.  It was grueling work for the Marines as they advanced through thick grass that concealed enemy defensive positions.  Meanwhile, 3/5 initiated an assault along Route 4 which necessitated the destruction of several bunker complexes.  As they approached a section called “The Hook,” the battalion encountered stiff enemy resistance.  The battalion lost 2 KIA and 28 wounded before pulling back to allow for air and artillery fire.

3/5 reinitiated offensive operations on 2 December but made no progress.  After additional air and artillery bombardments, 3/26 joined 3/5’s advance on 3 December and the Marines succeeded in penetrating the enemy’s intricate defensive positions during the next day.  After air dropping napalm on the enemy’s defenses on 5 December, Marines overran the bunker complex and discovered the remains of 87 enemy dead.

On 6 December, Echo 2/26 encountered a stubborn NVA bunker complex just south of the La Tho River.  Hotel 2/5 and Alpha 1/7 attacked the complex on the morning of 7 December but were quickly pinned down and suffered heavy casualties.  As forward observers called in for additional air and artillery support, the grunts withdrew to set up night defensive positions.  At around 1130 on 8 December, 3/26 supported by several armored personnel carriers from the ARVN 2nd Troop, 4th ARVN Cavalry aggressively attacked the complex finding 79 enemy dead from the previous day’s engagement.  For a time, Hotel 2/5 was pinned down by a final line of bunkers spewing hot lead through the Marine’s line of advance, but the equally stubborn Marines used explosives to destroy the bunkers one at a time, which killed an additional 39 NVA/VC defenders.

The highly pissed-off Marines of Alpha 1/7 viciously assaulted a series of 12 bunkers killing 47 NVA.  As the Marines pushed through the foliage to the bank of the river, they engaged another enemy unit attempting to escape into river killing an additional twenty NVA/VC.  Alpha gave up six of their men KIA.

On the night of 8 December, Lima 3/26 engaged an NVA unit, killing fifteen enemy with the loss of 5 Marines.  At sundown, India 3/26’s lead platoon found itself cut off from the rest of the company by intense enemy fire.  Staff Sergeant Karl G. Taylor, serving as the Company Gunnery Sergeant, led a rescue team to recover and evacuate the platoon’s more seriously wounded Marines.  After Taylor’s Marines had moved several wounded to safety, he returned with four volunteers to reach another group of wounded Marines who were laying exposed to enemy fire.  Finding the position too strong, Taylor instructed his volunteers to move back to the company line, and then arming himself with a grenade launcher, charged across the rice paddy while firing 40-mm grenades into the enemy position.  Although wounded several times, Taylor silenced the weapon.

Medal of Honor Citation Summary 

Navy Medal of Honor

While serving as Company Gunnery Sergeant on the night of 8 December 1968, Taylor was informed that the platoon commander of the lead platoon had been mortally wounded and that the platoon was pinned down by intense enemy machine gun fire.  Staff Sergeant Taylor with another Marine in support, crawled forward to the beleaguered unit through a hail of hostile fire, shouted encouragement and instructions to the men, directing them to covered positions.

With his companion, Taylor repeatedly maneuvered across an open area to rescue those Marines who were too seriously wounded to move themselves.  Upon learning that there were additional seriously wounded men lying in open area, exposed to the fire of an enemy machine gun position, Staff Sergeant Taylor led four Marines across the fire-swept terrain in an attempt to rescue the cut off Marines.  When Taylor’s advance was halted by devastating enemy fire, Taylor directed his Marines to return to the company command post.  He then took his grenade launcher and, in full view of the enemy, charged across the open rice paddy toward the enemy machine gun position, firing his weapon as he ran.

Although wounded several times, he succeeded in reaching the machine gun bunker and destroying it.  By this time, Staff Sergeant Taylor was mortally wounded, but his actions saved the lives of the isolated Marines.  By his indomitable courage, inspiring leadership, and selfless dedication, Staff Sergeant Karl G. Taylor upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.  

Richard M. Nixon

President of the United States

Who was Staff Sergeant Karl Taylor? 

He was born on 14 July 1939 in Laurel, Maryland.  After leaving high school, Karl worked for a construction company as a scraper operator.  On 15 January 1959, twenty-year old Karl and his brother Walter enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps at the recruiting station in Baltimore.  After recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, Karl completed combat training with the 1st Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Geiger [Note 2], North Carolina.  Taylor’s first tour of duty was as a rifleman with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.  After promotion to corporal, which made him eligible for duty as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor, Karl applied for and was accepted to attend DI School at Parris Island.  He served as a drill instructor until 1963.

In 1964, Taylor joined the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa where he was assigned to Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines.  Taylor served his first combat tour when the division was sent to Vietnam in 1965.  Upon rotation back to the United States, Taylor served as a sergeant-instructor at Company A, Officer’s Candidate School, Quantico, Virginia.  He was promoted to staff sergeant on 1 September 1966.

SSGT Karl G. Taylor Sr.

In 1968, Taylor returned to Vietnam for his second combat tour of duty.  He was assigned as the Company Gunnery Sergeant, Company I, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines.

Taylor’s remains were returned to his family and he was interred at the Independence Cemetery, Washington County, Pennsylvania.  In addition to receiving the nation’s highest award for conspicuous gallantry, Taylor’s family was awarded his Purple Heart medal.  He was also entitled to wear the Combat Action Ribbon (two awards), the Presidential Unit Citation (two awards) [Note 3], and three awards of the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal.

Operation Meade River Terminated

On the evening of 8 December, the enemy still retained a narrow strip of ground between 3/26 and the Song La Tho.  Another push was ordered to eliminate these communists.  Along with Marine Corps artillery, the USS New Jersey directed its sixteen-inch guns on these remaining positions throughout the night and into the morning.  3/26 launched its final assault at 1100 on 9 December.  Despite the assault of overwhelming field and naval artillery during the night, remaining enemy forces tenaciously resisted the ground attack, but the Marines methodically and thoroughly eliminated the enemy wherever found. 

Operation Meade River officially ended at 1800 on 9 December.  The battle was a major event pitting determined Marines against equally resolved North Vietnamese and Viet Cong defenders.  The operation ended with 1,023 enemy dead, 123 prisoners taken, and an additional 71 VC were captured when discovered hiding among local populations.  Marines also destroyed 360 enemy bunkers and captured 120 tons of rice stores — but the cost was high.  108 Marines lost their lives with 510 wounded in action.  ARVN casualties were 2 KIA and 37 WIA.  Although initially vanquished, the persistent enemy soon began infiltrating snipers and before the end of December, Marines observed that communist forces were again preparing to launch assaults against Da Nang and Hoi An from Dodge City.  By that time, the Marines had turned their attention to another problem area which they called “Arizona Territory.”

Sources:

  1. Hunt, R.  Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam’s Hearts and Minds.  Westview Press, 1995. 
  2. Shulimson, J.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam, 1968: The Defining Year.  Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1997.
  3. White, J. P.  “Civil Affairs in Vietnam.”  Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D. C.

Endnotes:

[1]  Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) was a pacification program created on 9 May 1967 that included military and civilian components of the US and RVN.  The objective of CORDS was to gain support for the government of RVN from its rural populations influenced or controlled by insurgent communist forces (VC) and regular NVA.  One of CORDS successes was the integration of civilian and military efforts to combat the communist insurgency.

[2]  Named in honor of General Roy S. Geiger, USMC — one of the Corps’ first naval aviators and the only Marine to command a U. S. Army during World War II.

[3]  Although a combat decoration awarded to every Marine in the unit cited, the Presidential Unit Citation is roughly equivalent to the Navy Cross Medal in precedence of other unit awards.  

Reflections on Christmas

Vietnam 001It was 1966 in Chu Lai.  Assigned to the 7th Motor Transport Battalion, we’d just come in from a four-day run.  It was quiet and we were taking turns cleaning our weapons.  One of the guys suddenly stopped what he was doing, sitting there with a dumb-ass look on his face.  He said, “Hey, Christmas was two days ago.”

We all stopped what we were doing, and I remember that we all just looked at him for a long moment; nobody said a word.

And then we went back to cleaning our weapons.

Chuck McCarroll
Corporal, U. S. Marine Corps

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.”