U. S. Marines in Urban Warfare

EGA BlackUrban areas (cities and large towns), are important centers of gravity —points of interest that involve a complex range of human activities.  Throughout history military commanders have acknowledged that urban areas are either places that require protection, or they are centers that demand firm control.  These are mankind’s centers of population, transportation and communications hubs, seats of government, the sources of national wealth, and concentrations of industry.  Over the past three-hundred years, humans living in agrarian areas have migrated to towns and cities in ever-increasing numbers.  In just a few years nearly 85% of the world’s population will reside in urbanized areas —which places these areas squarely in the sights of military establishments seeking either to defend or seize them.  Urban areas are also areas where radical ideas ferment, dissenters cultivate allies, where human diversity leads to ethnic friction, and where disgruntled people receive the most media attention.

In its expeditionary role, the U.S. Marine Corps is trained to fight battles within urbanized terrain.  This was not always the case, but in recent history, Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) of various sizes have been deployed to address conflicts in urban areas: Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Beirut, Granada. The acronym for these operations is MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain).  Important for Marines is the fact that 60% of politically significant urban areas (outside allied or former Warsaw Pact territories) are located within 25-miles of littoral areas; 75% within 150 miles; and 87% within 300 miles. In armed conflict, whoever controls the cities exercises de facto control over a country’s natural resources.

MILLER JBHistory demonstrates that there has been an abundance of guerrilla and terrorist operations in built-up areas: Belfast, Caracas, Iraq, Managua, Santo Domingo, Viet Nam come to mind.  Beyond the fact that the control of urban areas offers certain psychological advantages that can affect the outcome of a large conflict, Marine planners are keenly aware that American embassies and consulates are located where host countries concentrate their centers of political and economic activity.  One mission the Marines share with other naval expeditionary forces is the emergency evacuation of US civilians caught up in urban insurgencies. (Photo: Cpl Blake Miller, USMC, Fallujah.  Credit: Luis Sinco, LA Times (Fair Use asserted)).

Urban areas have dramatically expanded over the past 100 years —often going beyond well-defined boundaries into suburban/countryside areas.  Connecting the inner-cities to peripheral areas has been a parallel expansion of transportation: highways, canals, and rail systems.  Industries and markets have grown up along these connectors and there has been an expansion of secondary roadways connecting outlying farms to urban areas —the effect of which further complicates the operational planning for and execution of military operations.  It widens the military footprint needed to deal with emergencies.

Urban warfare takes place in a unique battlespace —one  that provides aggressor and defender with numerous avenues of approach and defensive fields of fire.  In essence, there are four distinct battle areas: buildings, streets, subterranean networks, and air.  These are often fought simultaneously, which makes the urban warfare effort even more complicated.

The Marine’s first urban warfare experience occurred early in the Korean War.  Since then, with lessons learned through actual combat, the Marine Corps has evolved from knowing next to nothing about urban warfare to becoming America’s preeminent expert.  As a demonstration of this transition, I will offer my readers three examples: The Second Battle of Seoul, Korea (1950), The Battle for Hue City, Viet Nam (1968), and the First and Second Battles of Fallujah, Iraq (2003-4). Stay with me; I think you’ll find these interesting and informative.

Seoul, South Korea

The North Korean Army (NKPA) seized Seoul, South Korea during its invasion in late June 1950. After US Marines made their amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, General Douglas MacArthur assigned them the mission of liberating Seoul from the NKPA force, which by then was an understrength division.  In any normal situation, the NKPA would have the advantage of defending Seoul —but in this case, the NKPA were facing American Marines, the most tenacious combat force in the entire world —true then, equally true today.

KOREAN WAREven so, the advance on Seoul was slow and bloody.  The Marines faced the 78th Independent Infantry Regiment and 25th Infantry Brigade, in all, about 7,000 troops.  Moreover, the NKPA decided to put every effort into obstructing the Marine advance until they could be reinforced by units operating south of Seoul.  MacArthur, as Supreme Allied Commander, assigned responsibility for liberating Seoul (Operation Chromite) to his X Corps commander, Major General Edward Almond—who knew as much about urban warfare as he did about rocket ships to the moon.  In any case, MacArthur wanted a quick liberation of Seoul and Almond, a first-class sycophant, applied continue pressure to Major General Oliver P. Smith, commanding the 1st Marine Division, to “hurry up.”  To his credit, Smith would have none of it. (Photo: Marines attack Seoul, South Korea, 25 Sep 1950; DoD Photo (Fair Use asserted)).

Marines entered the city at 0700 on 25 September, finding it heavily fortified.  Buildings were heavily defended with crew-served weapons and snipers.  On the main highway through the city, the NKPA had erected a series of 8-foot-high barricades, located 200-300 yards apart.  Every one of the city’s intersections contained such an obstacle. Anti-tank and anti-personnel mines laced the approaches to these barricades, supported by anti-tank guns and machine guns.  The Marines had to eliminate these one at a time, which took about one hour for each barricade.  Casualties mounted as the Marines engaged in house-to-house fighting.

General Almond declared the city “secure” on the first day.  Clearing operations continued for five additional days, even though effective enemy resistance collapsed by 28 September.  In the aftermath of the Second Battle of Seoul, Korea, there was no time for the Marines to analyze the campaign —such analyses would have to wait for a later time —but here I will pause to reflect on what it must take to succeed in urban warfare: the esprit de corps of fire teams who must, in the final analysis, win or lose the contest.  Private First Class (PFC) Eugene A. Obregon from Los Angeles, California, was awarded the Medal of Honor for sacrificing himself to enemy machine gun fire to save the life of a wounded Marine on 26 September 1950.

Hue City, Viet Nam

In 1967, the North Vietnamese realized that their war strategy in South Viet Nam wasn’t working out quite the way they had intended.  It was time to try something else.  The government of North Viet Nam wanted a massive offensive, one that would reverse the course of the war.  When defense minister and senior army commander General Vo Nguyen Giap [1] voiced opposition to such an offensive, believing as he did that a major reversal of the war would not be its likely result, the North Vietnamese stripped Giap of his position, gave him a pocket watch, and sent him into retirement.  The politburo then appointed General Nguyen Chi Thanh to direct the offensive.  At the time, Thanh was commander of all Viet Cong forces in South Viet Nam.  When General Thanh unexpectedly died, senior members of the politburo scrambled to reinstate General Giap.

Earlier —in the Spring of 1966— Giap wondered how far the United States would go in defending the regime of South Viet Nam.  To answer this question, he ordered a series of attacks south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) with two objectives in mind.  In the first, he wanted to draw US forces away from densely populated urban and lowland areas to a place where he believed the NVA would have an advantage over them.  Second, Giap wanted to know whether the United States could be provoked into invading North Viet Nam.

Both questions seem ludicrous since luring the US/ARVN military out of villages and cities was the last thing he should have wanted, and unless China was willing to rush to the aid of its communist “little brothers,” tempting the US with invading North Viet Nam was fool-hardy.  In any case, General Giap began a massive buildup of military forces and placing them in the northern regions of South Viet Nam.  Their route of infiltration into South Viet Nam was through Laos [2].  General Giap completed his work at the end of 1967; there were now six infantry divisions massed within the Quang Tri Province.

Leading all US and allied forces in Viet Nam was US Army General William C. Westmoreland, titled Commander, United States Military Assistance Command, Viet Nam (COMUSMACV or MACV [3]).  Westmoreland responded to Giap’s buildup by increasing US/allied forces in Quang Tri —realizing that if one wanted to dance, they had to go into the dance hall. The one thing that Westmoreland could not do was invade either North Viet Nam or Laos [4].  Realizing this, Giap gained confidence in his notion of larger battles inside South Viet Nam. But even this wasn’t working out as he imagined.  Westmoreland was not the same kind of man as French General Heni Navarre.  For one thing, Westmoreland was far more tenacious.  Besides, meeting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) outside populated areas would allow Westmoreland to make greater use of air and artillery fire support assets.

In phases, Giap increased North Viet Nam’s military footprint in the northern provinces of South Viet Nam.  One example of this is the NVA’s siege of the Khe Sanh combat base.  President Lyndon Johnson was concerned that the NVA were attempting another coup de guerre, such as Dien Bien Phu, where General Navarre was thoroughly defeated.  Johnson ordered Khe Sanh held at all cost.  With everyone’s eyes now focused on the events at Khe Sanh, Giap was able to launch a surprise offensive at the beginning of the Tet (lunar new year) celebration.  He did this on 31 January 1968.  It was a massive assault: 84,000 NVA and Viet Cong (VC) soldiers who violated the cease-fire accord and executed simultaneous attacks on 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of the six autonomous cities (including Saigon and Hue), 64 of 242 district capitals, and 50 hamlets.

Giap chose to violate the Tet cease-fire because he knew that many South Vietnamese soldiers would be granted holiday leave.  It was a smart move and one that opened the door for Giap’s early successes.  VC forces even managed to breach the US Embassy enclosure in Saigon.  Within days, however, the offensive faltered as US/ARVN forces were able to defeat the communist onslaught.  Heavy fighting did continue in Kontum, Can Tho, Ben Tre, and Saigon… but the largest of these occurred at the City of Hue [5].  It was the Marine’s longest and bloodiest urban battle up to that time.

In 1968, Hue City was the third-largest city in South Viet Nam.  Its population was around 140,000 souls; about one-third of these lived inside the Citadel, north of the Perfume River which flows through the center of the city. Hue also sat astride Highway-1, a major north-south main supply route (MSR), located about 50 miles south of the DMZ. Hue was the former imperial capital of Viet Nam.  Up to this point, Hue had only occasionally experienced the ravages of war —mortar fire, saboteurs, acts of terrorism— but a large enemy force had never appeared at the city’s gates.  Given the city’s cultural and intellectual importance to the Vietnamese people —as well as its status as the capital of Thua Thien Province— it was only a matter of time.

The people who lived in Hue enjoyed a tradition of civic independence that dated back several hundred years.  Religious monks viewed the war with disdain; few of these religious leaders felt any attachment to the government in Saigon.  What they wanted was national conciliation —a coalition where everyone could get along.

Hue City was divided into two sectors: the Old Imperial City, and the New City.  These two sectors were divided by the Perfume (Hoang) River, which emptied into the South China Sea five miles southwest of the city. On the north bank of the river stood the Citadel, a fortress extending nearly 4-square-miles, shaped like a diamond.  Surrounding the Imperial City were 8-meter high walls that were several meters.  There were eight separate gates, four of which were located along the southeastern side. A winding, shallow canal ran through the Citadel, with two culverts that connected the inner-city canal with those on the outside.

The “New City” was constructed south of the Perfume River; a residential and business center that included government offices, a university, the provincial headquarters, a prison, hospital, and a treasury.  The US Consulate and forward headquarters of the MACV were also located there.

Despite Hue’s importance, there were few ARVN defenders within its limits.  On 30 January 1968, there were fewer than a thousand ARVN troops inside the City.  Part of this was because a large number of troops were on leave to celebrate the Tet holiday with their families.

Hue CitySecurity for Hue was assigned to the First Infantry Division (1st ARVN Division), then commanded by Brigadier General Ngo Quant Truong.  The 1st ARVN was headquartered within the fortified Mang Ca compound in the northeast corner of the Citadel. Over half of Truong’s men were on leave for the holiday when the offensive commenced; General Truong’s subordinate commands were spread out along Highway-1 from north of Hue to the DMZ. The nearest unit of any size was the 3rdARVN Regiment, consisting of three battalions, five miles northwest of Hue.  The only combat unit inside the city was a platoon of 36-men belonging to an elite unit called the Black Panthers, a field reconnaissance and rapid reaction company. Internal security for Hue was the responsibility of the National Police (sometimes derisively referred to as “white mice”).

The nearest US combat base was Phu Bai, six miles south on Highway-1.  Phu Bai was a major U. S. Marine Corps command post and support facility, including the forward headquarters of the 1st Marine Division, designated Task Force X-Ray.  The Commanding General of Task Force X-Ray [6] was Brigadier General Foster C. LaHue, who also served as the Assistant Commander, 1st Marine Division.  Also situated at Phu Bai was the headquarters elements of the 1st Marine Regiment (Stanley S. Hughes, Commanding) and the 5th Marine Regiment (Robert D. Bohn, Commanding).  There were also three battalions of Marines: 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (1/1) (Lt. Col. Marcus J. Gravel, Commanding), 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5) (LtCol Robert P. Whalen, Commanding), and 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (2/5) (LtCol Ernest C. Cheatham, Jr., Commanding).

The attacking NVA force included 8,400 well-trained and equipped soldiers [7].  The majority of these were NVA regulars, reinforced by six VC main force battalions (between 300 and 600 men each).  The field commander of these forces was General Tran Van Quang.  The NVA plan of attack called for a division-sized assault on the Imperial City with other units serving as a blocking force.  True to form, the communists knew all they needed to know about their civilian and military objectives within the city.  VC cadres had also prepared a list of “tyrants” who were to be located and terminated —nearly all of these were South Vietnamese civilian and military officials.  Added to the list were US civilians, clergy, educators, and other foreigners.  The communists also knew all they needed to know about weather conditions.

The NVA plan, termed the General Offensive/General Uprising, was designed to incorporate both conventional and guerilla operations intending to destroy any vestige of the South Viet Nam government or western authority, and if not that, then to discredit their enemies and cause a popular uprising among the people. If all worked out according to plan, western allies would be forced to withdraw its forces from Vietnam.

There were a few senior NVA planners who thought that a popular uprising was highly unlikely; a few more expected that ARVN and US forces would drive the NVA out of the city within a few days —but, of course, such defeatist notions were best left unsaid. Meanwhile, the young, idealistic, and gullible soldiers believed the NVA propaganda and went in to combat convinced of a great victory.  When these same young men departed their training camps, they had no intention of returning.  Many wouldn’t.

The NVA assault commenced at 0340 when a rocket and mortar barrage in the mountains in the west served as a signal for the attack to begin.  The assault was over by daybreak and the communists began gathering up “enemies of the people” and killing them.  NVA and VC soldiers roamed the city at will and began to consolidate their gains. Responding to the attack, General LaHue rushed Marines forward with only scant information about the shape of the battle.  Company G 2/5 was pinned down short of the MACV compound.  They eventually forced their way into the compound, but in that process, the company sustained 10 killed in action (KIA).  After linking up with the handful of US Army advisors, the Marines were ordered across the river and fight their way through to the headquarters compound of 1st ARVN Division.  Overwhelming enemy fire forced the Marines back across the bridge. Company G took additional casualties; weather conditions prohibited the immediate evacuation of the wounded.

Soldiers of the 1st ARVN Division were fully occupied; the Marines engaged south of the river.  ARVN I Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam met with the III MAF commander, Lieutenant General Robert Cushman to devise a strategy for re-taking the city.  They agreed that ARVN forces would concentrate on expelling communists from the Citadel, and Marines would focus their assets in the New City.  By this time, General LaHue fully realized that his Marines were facing a large assault force.  He dispatched Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, CO, 1st Marines, to assume operational control of US forces.

Battle of Hue 1968A brutal building-by-building, room-to-room campaign was launched to eject communist forces. Untrained in urban warfare, the Marines had to work out their tactics and techniques “on the job.”  Their progress was slow, measured, methodical, and costly.  The progress of the Marines was measured in inches … every inch was paid for in blood.

On 5 February, Company H 2/5 took the Thua Thien Province headquarters compound, which had until then served as the NVA’s 4th Regiment command post.  This loss caused the NVA effort south of the river to begin faltering, but hard fighting continued over the next several days.  By 14 February, most of the city south of the river was once more in US hands but rooting out pockets of resistance would take another 12 days.  The NVA/VC continued sending rockets and mortars into Marine positions; snipers continued picking off American Marines. Operations south of the river had cost the Marines 34 dead and 320 WIA.  It had been even more costly for the communists; over 1,000 NVA and VC soldiers lay dead on the streets of the New City.

The battle continued to rage in the Imperial City.  Despite the insertion of ARVN reinforcements, their advance was stalled among the houses, narrow streets, and alley ways on the northwest and southwest wall.  The communists burrowed deeply into the walls and tightly packed buildings; they maintained control of the Imperial Palace.  They seemed to gain in strength with each passing day.  Somehow, NVA forces were regularly receiving reinforcements.

Battle of Hue 1968-002An embarrassed General Truong was finally forced to appeal to the Marines for assistance. On 10 February, General LaHue moved a Marine battalion into the Citadel.  Two days later, elements of 1/5 made their way across the river on landing craft and entered the Citadel through a breach in the northeast wall. Two South Vietnamese Marine Corps battalions moved into the southwest corner, which increased the pressure on communist forces.  In spite of this, the communists held their positions.  American Marines began an advance along the south wall, taking heavy casualties.  The fighting grew even more savage as Marines brought in airstrikes, naval gunfire, and field artillery; the NVA grew more determined to resist the bloody American assault.  On 17 February 1/5 achieved its objective but doing so cost the battalion 47 KIA and 240 WIA. The battle for the Citadel continued.

On 24 February, ARVN soldiers pulled down the communist banner that had been flapping in the breeze for 25 days.  They replaced it with the RVN national ensign.  The battle was declared at an end on 2 March; the longest sustained battle in the Viet Nam war up to that time.  ARVN casualties included 384 KIA, 1,800 WIA, and 30 MIA.  US Marines suffered 147 dead, 857 wounded.  The US Army reported 74 dead and 507 wounded. NVA/VC losses were: 5,000 communists were killed inside Hue City; an additional 3,000 were killed in the surrounding area by elements of the 101st Airborne and 1st US Cavalry.

Forty percent of Hue City was utterly destroyed.  More than one-hundred-thousand Vietnamese civilians were homeless.  Civilian casualties exceeded 5,800 killed or missing.

From these two experiences, the US Marine Corps developed a doctrine for urban warfare: Marine Corps Warfighting Publication (MCWP) 3-53-3.  Today, Marines are trained in the tactics and techniques for urban warfare. This publication was published in 1998; the Marines would rely on these guidelines and procedures when they were dispatched to Fallujah in 2003 (See also: Fish & Chips and Phantom Fury).

Warfare is both lethal and complex.  Today, field commanders not only have to employ their infantry to win, they also have to consider the non-combat impact of such operations, the health and welfare of citizens, maintaining law and order, address media concerns, employ psychological operational teams, control refugees, guard against urban terrorism, and establish “rules of engagement.”  The enemy in the Middle East may not look like much of a threat, but they do pose a clear and present danger to US combat forces.  It is also true that insurgents exasperate US forces because they so easily blend in with innocent populations.  This is the nature of war in the early 21st century.  This is the danger imposed by domestic terrorists. Islamists are not fools; this enemy effectively uses our own rules of engagement to their advantage.  American politicians have never quite figured this out.

Endnotes:

[1] General Giap defeated the Imperial French after eight years of brutal warfare following the end of World War II.

[2] The reason behind America’s bombing of Laos and Cambodia, referred to by the liberal media as America’s Secret War.

[3] Major component commands included: US Army, Vietnam; I Field Force, Vietnam; II Field Force, Vietnam; XXIV Corps; III Marine Amphibious Force; Naval Forces, Vietnam; US Seventh Air Force; Fifth Special Forces Group; Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support; Studies and Observations Group; Field Advisory Element.

[4] The United States did deploy covert and special forces into Laos at a later time.

[5] Pronounced as “Way.”

[6] Task Force X-Ray went operational on 13 January 1968.

[7] In January 1968, everyone knew something was off-kilter. Tet was approaching.  The people were uneasy.  The cancellation of the Tet Truce and enemy attacks at Da Nang and elsewhere in southern I Corps dampened the normally festive spirit in Viet Nam.  The first indication of trouble came shortly after midnight on January 30-31 —a five-pronged assault on all five of the provincial capitals in II Corps, and the city of Da Nang in I Corps.  VC attacks began with mortar and rocket fire, followed by large-scale ground assaults by NVA regulars.  These were not well-coordinated attacks, however, and by dawn on 31 January, most of the communists in outlying areas had been driven back from their objectives.

 

Leading from the Front

EGA BlackThe post-World War II period was no easy time for the American people.  At the conclusion of the war, Americans were exhausted. They needed a normal economy; they needed peace; they wanted to get on with their lives.  President Harry Truman, in seeking cost-cutting measures, ordered a one-third reduction of the Armed Forces.  Between 1945-50, Washington, D. C. was a busy place.  War veterans were expeditiously discharged, the War Department became the Department of Defense, the Navy Department was rolled into DoD, the US Army Air Force became the United States Air Force, and the missions and structures of all services were meticulously re-examined. In terms of the naval establishment, about one-third of the Navy’s ships were placed into mothballs; in the Marines, infantry battalions gave up one rifle company  —Marine Corps wide, this amounted to a full combat regiment.

There was more going on inside the Truman administration, however.  In 1949, Secretary of State Dean Acheson produced a study titled United States Relations with China with Special Reference to the Period 1944-1949.  The short title of this document was the China White Paper.  It took Acheson 1,000 pages to explain how America’s intervention in China was doomed to failure.  China’s premier, Mao Zedong was overjoyed to hear of this.  Then, on 12thJanuary 1950, Acheson addressed the National Press Club; in his discussion of the all-important defense perimeter, Mr. Acheson somehow failed to include the Korean Peninsula and Formosa as being places that the United States was committed to defend.  Upon learning of this, North Korea’s premier Kim Il-sung called Moscow and requested a meeting with Joseph Stalin.

Thus, when North Korea launched their attack on South Korea on 25th June 1950, no one in America was prepared to defend our South Korean ally.  There had been no money for combat training, insufficient munitions for live-fire training, not enough fuel for military aircraft, and no replacement parts for military vehicles.  It was a situation that affected every military command, no matter where it was situated.

In Japan, the US military maintained its occupation forces throughout the main islands.  It was good duty: there was no training, only limited flying, and only rudimentary vehicle maintenance.  There were plenty of personnel inspections, though, and lots of liberty for the troops. Senior military officers played golf, company officers learned how to keep out of sight, and unsupervised NCOs engaged in black market activities.  As for the troops, they were content with drinking Japanese beer and chasing skirts (or, if you prefer, kimonos).

As with the Marines, Army units were understrength.  Unlike the Marines, the Army’s rolling stock was inoperable and senior divisional staff were either incompetent or lazy in the execution of their duties.  Quite suddenly, the US was once more at war and the ill-trained occupation forces were rushed into a North Korean Army meat-grinder in South Korea.

In South Korea, American military units were also understrength.  Units located in and around Seoul were mostly administrative, communications, or military police units. Eighth US Army, headquarters in Taegu, included three infantry divisions: 24th, 25th and 1st Cavalry.  All of these units were lacking in men, equipment, and combat experience. Most of the troops were conscripts. Junior officers were a puzzle. Senior officers were hoping to bide their time until retirement.  The Army of the Republic of Korea (ROKA) had a force of about 58,000 men when the North Koreans launched their invasion.  ROKA was ineffective in stopping the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) for several reasons.  These soldiers were armed but had no infantry training; their officers lacked leadership, and every time the ROKA confronted the NKPA, they were soundly defeated.

When the NKPA invaded South Korea, American military units and personnel stationed in Seoul  hightailed it south to avoid capture.  Elements of the 24th Division, fed piecemeal into South Korea, were chewed up almost as soon as they arrived.  No US Army unit was prepared to confront the 80,000-man NKPA invading force, which included ten mechanized infantry divisions.  In mid-July, NKPA forces mauled and routed the 24th Division at the Battle of Hadong, which rendered the 29th Infantry Regiment incapable of further combat service.  NKPA forces also pushed back the 19th Infantry Regiment, which opened up a clear path to Pusan in southern South Korea.

At Camp Pendleton, California, the 1st Marine Division received a warning order.  A regimental combat team was quickly organized around the Fifth Marine Regiment (5th Marines): three understrength battalions under Lieutenant Colonel (Colonel select) Ray Murray.  Marine Aircraft Group 33 was attached as the air element, forming the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Edward Craig.  Craig’s deputy was Brigadier General Thomas H. Cushman, who also headed the reinforced air group.

As the brigade made sail on 14 July 1950, the balance of the 1st Marine Division was rapidly reorganizing: Marines were ordered to immediately report from the 2nd Marine Division, various Marine Corps bases and stations. Recruitment staffs were reduced. Reserve units were activated and dispatched to Camp Pendleton.  Many reserve units included men who had yet to attend recruit training.  The Seventh Marine Regiment (7th Marines) was reactivated.  Marines from all across the United States streamed in to find their slot in either the 1st Marines or 7th Marines.

The Brigade (with its full complement of equipment) arrived in South Korea on 2 August 1950.  Before the end of the day, General Craig led his infantry to establish the 8th US Army reserve at Changwon, 40 miles northwest of Pusan. On 6th August, the 5th Marines were attached to Major General William B. Kean’s 25th Infantry Division and moved an additional 13 miles southwest to Chindong-ni.  On that very night, Company G, 3/5 was rushed forward to defend Hill 342.  The Marines lost 11 men that night but inflicted 30-times that number of enemies killed.  The NKPA suddenly realized that there was a new sheriff in town.

Eighth Army units began to attack but were frequently overrun by counter-attacking NKPA forces.  Whenever this happened, the Marines were sent in to repel the NKPA, seal the gap in the lines, and restore American control over that sector.  This happened so frequently that Marine grunts developed a sense of contempt for the Army.  This attitude wasn’t entirely fair, but completely understandable.  The Marines began calling themselves “the Fire Brigade.”  The fact was that two-thirds of Marine officers and mid-to-senior NCOs in the 5th Marines had served during World War II.  They knew how to fight —they knew how to win battles.

They added to that experience between 15 August and 15 September; the 5h Marines were engaged in bloody combat almost from their first week in South Korea.  Commanding the 1st Marine Division, Major General Oliver P. Smith [1] arrived in theater at the end of August and began planning for an amphibious invasion of Inchon.  It was an audacious plan because of erratic tidal conditions in Inchon.  The Marines would have only so many hours to force their landing, and it would have to be carried out in increments —which meant that the lead units would be without reinforcements for between 12-20 hours.  General Craig’s Brigade was folded back into the 1st Marine Division.  BLT 3/5 under Lieutenant Colonel Bob Taplett spearheaded the Division assault.

After the 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division knocked in the door to Inchon, Eighth Army tasked the Marines with clearing operations inside Seoul.  Urban warfare at its worst.  No sooner had this mission been accomplished, MacArthur placed the 1st Marine Division and the 7th Infantry Division under Major General Edward Almond, US Army, commanding X Corps.  The Marines landed at Wonson on the east coast of the Korean Peninsula on 26 October 1950; 7th Infantry Division landed at Iwon in early November.  Smith’s orders were to establish a base of operations at Hungnam.  For an account of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, click here.

As with many young men of his day, Stanley J. Wawrzyniak dropped out of school to pursue adventure in the US military.  He initially joined the U. S. Navy with service as a hospital corpsman.  As it turned out, the Navy wasn’t Wawrzyniak’s cup of tea, and so he accepted discharge at the end of his enlistment and joined the Marines.  He was serving with the 5th Marines on 25 June 1950. He was one of 2,300 Marines sent to square away the South Korean peninsula.  Since few people could pronounce his Polish last name, everyone just called him “Ski.”

The Silver Star Medal

Silver Star 001On 28 May 1951, while serving with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, Staff Sergeant Wawrzyniak’s platoon assaulted a well-defended Chinese communist position.  Without regard for his own personal welfare, while under heavy enemy fire, Wawrzyniak moved forward shouting words of encouragement to his men as they advanced against the hail of enemy mortar and small-arms fire to gain the enemy position.  Although painfully wounded in the assault, Sergeant Wawrzyniak refused first-aid in order that he might remain to supervise the treatment and evacuation of other wounded Marines.  The initiative and aggressiveness displayed by Sergeant Wawrzyniak reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service. 

The Navy Cross [2]

Navy Cross 001On 19 September 1951, Staff Sergeant Wawrzyniak, while serving as Company Gunnery Sergeant, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, led an assault in his company’s final push against a heavily fortified and strongly defended enemy hill-top position.  During the assault, Sergeant Wawrzyniak courageously exposed himself to enemy small-arms and grenade fire while moving and maneuvering his force and marking enemy positions and targets.  As the squad neared the crest of the hill, Wawrzyniak observed an enemy position that threatened the squad’s entire left flank.  Wawrzyniak single-handedly charged the emplacement, killed all of its occupants, and although painfully wounded, he immediately rejoined the attack. Seizing an automatic rifle from a fallen comrade when his own ammunition was exhausted, he aggressively aided the squad in overrunning the enemy position, directed the pursuit of the fleeing enemy, and consolidated the ground position.  By his daring initiative, gallant determination, and steadfast devotion to duty in the face of hostile opposition, Staff Sergeant Wawrzyniak served to inspire all who observed him, contributing materially to the successes achieved by his company, thereby upholding the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

The Navy Cross (Second Award) [3]

Gold Star 001On 16 April 1952, while serving with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, an outnumbering enemy force launched an assault upon an outpost position.  The outpost commander and his immediate squad were cut off from friendly lines by intensive hostile fire.  Technical Sergeant Wawrzyniak unhesitatingly assumed command of the remaining Marines and promptly organized an effective defense against fanatical attackers.  With the position completely encircled and subjected to extremely heavy enemy machine-gun, recoilless rifle, mortar, and small-arms fire, Wawrzyniak repeatedly braved the hail of blistering fire to reach the outpost, boldly led the men back into the defensive perimeter, replenished their supply of ammunition, and encouraged them while directing fire against close-in enemy assaults. Although painfully wounded, Wawrzyniak refused medical treatment for himself and aided medical personnel in treating and dressing the wounds of his Marines.  By his outstanding courage, inspiring leadership, and valiant devotion in the face of overwhelming odds, Technical Sergeant Wawrzyniak upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

After the Korean War, Master Sergeant Ski was recommended for a commission as a Marine Corps officer.  In subsequent years, his reputation as a combat Marine followed him from post to station.  He somehow managed to add to his colorful legend with each successive assignment.

In 1960, Ski attended training at the Marine Corps Cold Weather Training Center.  While practicing a glacier rescue technique, he was accidently dropped by his belayer into a crevasse.  The fall caused serious internal injuries.  The only route out of the crevasse required a descent of 2,000 feet and traversing some 3-miles over extremely rough terrain.  Refusing to be carried out, Ski walked the entire way carrying his own rucksack.  During rest stops, Ski urinated blood.  When he later learned that his belayer was being blamed for the injury, Ski defended him, stating, “It wasn’t his fault; it was my fault for not making sure he was ready.”

Some months later, Ski was assigned as a student at the Escape, Evasion, and Survival Training Course.  Ski was assigned to lead an evasion team … which promptly disappeared and was unobserved by any instructor for four days. Ski’s team finished in first place for this training exercise, but then … Ski was used to finishing in first place. In his mid-30’s, he finished first at the Army’s Airborne and Ranger schools.  He didn’t brag about his accomplishments; he simply believed that an older, more experienced Marine ought to have finished first.

One of the duties of an adjutant is to communicate the orders of the commanding officer at assembled formations.  In one instance, Ski was ordered to read a letter of censure aloud at morning formation so that a Marine could be properly chastised for breaking the rules.  The problem was that the words used in the construction of this letter were a bit more than most of the assembled Marines could understand.  Realizing this, Ski shoved the letter into the hand of the Marine being chastised, telling him: “Here—you take this damn thing, read it, and don’t screw up again.”

As Ski was promoted through the ranks, it became a bit obvious to others that his career might be limited.  He was serving as a field grade officer, without a college education.  He also a bit profane; he spoke in a way that one might expect from a company gunnery sergeant, but not from a field-grade officer.  This was never a problem among his enlisted Marines but was a handicap when among senior officers, who regularly complained about Ski’s colorful language.

Typically, general officers like to be pampered —perhaps thinking that having made it all the way to flag rank, they’re somehow entitled to having everyone of lesser grade kiss their ass.  Ski didn’t kiss ass.  How he ever wound up being assigned as the Protocol officer at Marine Corps Base, Camp Butler, Okinawa confused almost everyone who knew him.  It was during this assignment that Ski managed to offend a visiting senior officer.

It was during the Viet Nam War and at that time, Okinawa camps served as staging and transit facilities for combat replacements.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Ski’s boss wasn’t too pleased when this VIP expressed his displeasure over something Ski had (or had not) done.  The Commanding General called Ski in to his office for one of his “get closer to Jesus” moments.  The General pointedly told Ski that if he ever screwed up another senior officer visit, he’d find himself in Viet Nam.  Major Ski could hardly wait for the next general officer visit.

The Bronze Star Medal

Bronze Star 001In Vietnam, Ski was assigned to serve as Executive Officer, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.  During this assignment, Ski was awarded two Bronze Star medals and his fourth Purple Heart.  Ski was always “at the front.”  Why? Because that’s where leaders are supposed to be.  Even as a battalion XO, he would somehow manage to involve himself in such things as security patrols [4].  Ski would never re-enter friendly lines until he was certain that every Marine on patrol had been accounted for.  At the conclusion of one of these missions, an NCO told him, “Sir … you’ve got more balls than brains.”

I served under in Wawrzyniak in 1972-73. He commanded Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, which at the time was located on Okinawa.  In this assignment, Ski wore three hats: Battalion Commander, Division Headquarters Commandant, and Area Commander for Camp Courtney, Okinawa.  I was one of the 1,700 Marines assigned to Wawrzyniak’s battalion, at the time a staff sergeant.  In addition to my regular duties, he assigned me as a platoon commander in the 3rd Marine Division honor guard, which also supported the co-located Headquarters of the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).  Colonel Wawrzyniak always provided feedback after an honor guard detail.  It was either “Good fucking job, Marine,” or “Ya fucked up, didn’t ya?  Get your shit together.”

At this time, III MAF was commanded by Lieutenant General Louis Metzger [5] (who was known by some as Loveable Lou). General Metzger was a no-nonsense general officer under whom I had previously served when he commanded the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade.

Metzger 001A World War II Era Marine, (then) Brigadier General Metzger demanded perfection from his officers.  His demeanor was gentlemanly, but direct.  He spoke with a baritone voice.  He never spoke at anyone, but rather engaged them in conversation.  Of course, throughout the conversation, he also engaged you with his eyes.  You knew that he was listening carefully to what you had to say —and he knew when someone didn’t know what they were talking about.  Whenever General Metzger asked a question, he expected a frank, honest, and well-thought-out response.  If one happened not to know the answer, all you had to do was say so and then go find out what he wanted to know.  If someone tried to bluff his way through a conversation with Lou Metzger, he’d eat you alive.  He always asked challenging questions —not to embarrass anyone, but because he expected a person of some position to know the answers to such questions..

During the Viet Nam War, 9th MAB had several important missions beyond providing the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) with battalion landing teams.  One of these was the continual review of contingency operational plans —necessary at a time when the world situation was in a state of continual flux.  The General also had a photographic memory and the ability to speed read, comprehend, and analyze complex battle plans.  In this process of review, General Metzger wasn’t particularly pleasant whenever a staff officer knew less about these plans than he did —hence the label “Lovable Lou.”  Beyond his directness and his no-nonsense approach to serious matters, Metzger was an exceptional general officer.  One always knew where you stood with him.

Wawrzyniak 001A few years later as a lieutenant general in command of III MAF, Metzger was the senior-most officer of the “general mess,” the dining facility [6] for all officers serving in the 3rd Marine Division Headquarters and III MAF at or above the rank of colonel.  The General Mess included three general officers and around 15 or so colonels.  The only lieutenant colonel permitted to dine in the general mess was the Headquarters Commandant, who was also responsible for managing it.  One night at dinner, a somewhat grumpier than usual General Metzger had taken but a few bites of his salad when he threw his fork down on the table, looked down toward the end of the table where sat LtCol Wawrzyniak and said, “Damn it, Ski … why can’t we ever have fresh vegetables?”

Ski’s reply stunned everyone into silence.  “General, there aren’t any fucking fresh vegetables … so if you don’t like the fucking vegetables, then don’t eat the fucking vegetables.”  No one spoke to General Metzger in such a crude and insubordinate manner.  After what seemed like a very long pause Metzger said, “Okay, Ski … no need to get testy.”

Two very fine Marine Corps officers … both of whom it was my privilege to serve; two legendary Marines now long deceased.  These are the kinds of Marines who most effectively lead Marines to win battles. I think of Metzger and Wawrzyniak often, which in my own mind means that they live still.  How grand it would be to “return” to an earlier time and serve alongside them once more.

Few senior officers today are capable of filling either of these men’s combat boots —which is disturbing to me because our Marines deserve the best leaders— and these were two of the very best in their own unique style of leadership.  What Major Anthony J. Milavic once said about Ski is absolutely true: “Ski was a leader of Marines who knew each of us; communicated to each of us; and, each of us knew that he cared about us.  If he sometimes cursed at us, that was okay because he was always with us: at physical training, climbing a mountain, falling off a cliff, or in a combat zone —always  at the front— he was always with us.

Ski and Metzger are still with us … well, they’re with me anyway.  Memories.

Endnotes:

[1] See Also: Scholar-Warrior.

[2] United States’ second highest award for courage under fire in time of war.

[3] Ski was initially recommended for award of the Medal of Honor for this action.

[4] Security patrols are dispatched from a unit location when the unit is stationary or during a halt in movement to search the local area, detect the presence of enemy forces near the main body, and engage and destroy the enemy within the capability of the patrol.  It is standard to send out such patrols when operating in close terrain where there are limitations of observation and concentrated fires.

[5] Awarded two Navy Cross medals for exceptional courage under fire during World War II; Legion of Merit; two awards of the Bronze Star Medal.

[6] Military officers pay for their meals and other consumables at the end of each month.  Mess bills cost senior officers more than junior officers.

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 Bravest Marine …

EGA BlackWhen the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Chew-fen Lee was a high school student who answered to the name Kurt. He had voluntarily associated himself with the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). In 1944, the 18-year old engineering student joined the United States Marine Corps. Standing barely 5’6” tall, weighing only 130 pounds, Lee made sure he measured up to the high standards for U. S. Marines by working harder than everyone else; he transformed himself into a wiry, muscular leatherneck. After graduating from boot camp, the Marine Corps assigned Lee to Japanese Language School. After graduating from the school, the Marine Corps retained him as a language instructor. By the end of the war, Lee had earned promotion to sergeant and was accepted to attend officer training school.

Major Chew-fen Lee USMCFrom October 1945 to April 1946, Lee attended The Basic School for newly commissioned Marine Corps officers. Upon graduation, Second Lieutenant Lee became the first non-white officer and the first Asian-American officer in Marine Corps history. At this time, Lieutenant Lee deployed to Guam and China to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war.

At the beginning of the Korean War, First Lieutenant Lee commanded 1st Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment commanded by Colonel Homer Litzenberg at Camp Pendleton, California. In late August 1950, the 7th Marines received a warning order to prepare to move out; Lieutenant Lee decided to set an example for other Chinese Americans to follow. He later recounted, “I wanted to dispel the notion about Chinese being meek and obsequious.” He did not expect to survive the Korean War.

The 7th Marines shipped out on 1 September 1950; while aboard ship, Lieutenant Lee drilled his Marines night and day on the main deck —enduring derision from his contemporary lieutenants. After arriving in Japan, Lee’s superiors attempted to assign him as a staff officer handling translation duties, but Lee insisted he was there to fight communists and he retained command of his platoon.

Navy Cross MedalThe 1st Battalion, 7th Marines landed at Inchon, Korea on 21 September 1950. The 7th Marines joined up with the 1st and 5th Marines in their northward movement, forcing the North Korean army into a retreat. Lieutenant Lee and his Marines endured vicious street fighting in Seoul as part of operations Hook, Reno, and Vegas. Subsequently, the Marines were withdrawn from Soul, re-embarked aboard shipping, and made another amphibious landing at Wonsan, along the eastern coast of the Korean peninsula.

By early November, the communist Chinese decided to augment withdrawing Korean forces. On the night of 2-3 November in the Sudong Gorge, Chinese forces attacked Lee’s unit. Lee kept his men focused by directing them to shoot at the enemy’s muzzle flashes. Lee single-handedly advanced upon the enemy’s front and attacked their positions one at a time to draw fire and reveal their positions. Lee’s men fired at the muzzle flashes and inflicted heavy casualties. This action forced the Chinese to retreat. Lee, shouting to the Chinese in Mandarin, confused them and at this time, he attacked the Chinese with hand grenades and gunfire. This action earned Lieutenant Lee the Navy Cross medal for heroism under fire. The lieutenant suffered gunshot wounds to his left knee and right arm.

Five days later, the hospitalized Lieutenant Lee learned that the Army intended to send him to Japan for recuperation; he and another Marine stole an Army jeep and drove back to his unit on the front at the Chosin Reservoir. Upon arrival, Lee’s battalion commander assigned him command of the 2nd Platoon, Company B. Lee commanded his platoon while his arm was in a sling.

Late on 2 December, Lieutenant Lee was ordered to spearhead a 500-man thrust against the Chinese forces in an effort to relieve a vastly outnumbered Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines at a place called Toktong Pass —a strategic location controlling the main road to the Chosin Reservoir. Lee’s platoon, weighted down with heavy equipment, advanced through -20° temperatures and under limited visibility due to blizzards and darkness. Lee’s battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ray Davis, had no special instructions for Lee—other than to stay off the roads and avoid heavily defended roadblocks.

Silver Star MedalLieutenant Lee placed himself at the point of his platoon and used only his compass to guide the battalion in a single file over treacherous terrain. Suddenly, heavy enemy fire pinned Lee down below a rocky hill. Refusing this delay, Lee directed his men to attack the hill with “marching fire,” a stratagem used by George S. Patton in which troops continue to advance as they apply suppression fires against the enemy. Upon reaching the rocky hill, Lee and his men attacked the Chinese in their foxholes. Lee, with his arm still in a plaster cast, shot two communists on his way to the apex of the hill. When he reached the top of the hill, he saw that the Chinese foxholes were all constructed facing the other way, where the Chinese expected the Marines to attack. The foxholes were all empty, however. Lieutenant Lee’s attack had driven the Chinese into retreat.

Following this success, 1/7 established communications with Fox Company and Lieutenant Lee led Baker Company forward in an attack that forced a path to the beleaguered Fox. During this attack, Lee received another wound in the upper part of his right arm, above his cast. Undeterred, Lee regrouped his company and led them in several more firefights against pockets of enemy resistance. On 8 December, a Chinese machine gun wounded Lee seriously enough to end his Korean War service. Lee received the Silver Star medal for his attack against superior numbers of Chinese regulars. For his wounds, he received two Purple Heart medals.

During the Vietnam War, Major Lee served as the 3rd Marine Division combat intelligence officer; he retired from active duty in 1968. In 2000, then retired General Ray Davis described Kurt Lee as, “… the bravest Marine I ever knew.” One would expect that the Marine Corps would promote Lee above the rank of Major, and many attribute this to his “pugnacious” nature when dealing with superior officers, who continually criticized him for his aggressive “chip on the shoulder” demeanor. Major Lee’s response was truculent. “My chip is a teaching tool to dispel ignorance.”

UPDATE

Major Lee passed away at his home on 3 March 2014.  He was 88 years old.  Semper Fidelis, Major Lee —I have admired your courage and your example to all Marines.

Poppa Fox

I have written on several occasions about the Purple Foxes. It is a Marine Corps helicopter squadron formerly known as HMM-364, now redesignated VMM-364 to reflect transition to the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. The squadron’s first aircraft was the Sikorsky H-34 helicopter, and its first designation was HML-364, which stands for Light Marine Helicopter. The Purple Foxes were deployed several times to South Vietnam, remaining there until 1966 when the squadron was ordered back to MCAS El Toro to transition from the H-34 to the CH-46 Sea Knight. In October 1967, HMM-364 returned to Vietnam and participated in combat operations at Phu Bai and Marble Mountain. Toward the end of the Vietnam War, the Purple Foxes participated in the evacuation of Saigon. During the war, HMM-364 flew 70,000 hours in combat and combat support missions. HMM-364 was decommissioned on March 22, 1971.

The Purple Foxes were reactivated on September 28, 1984. Between then and now, HMM/VMM-364 has participated in numerous non-combat and combat missions, from Desert Shield and Desert Storm to Iraqi Freedom.

Poppa Fox is how the Marines of HMM-364 referred to their commanding officer. In 1969, the squadron commander was Eugene Brady who served in the Marine Corps from 1946 to 1980. While commanding HMM-364, Colonel Brady was awarded the Navy Cross:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to

Lieutenant Colonel Eugene R. Brady, United States Marine Corps

for extraordinary heroism and intrepidity in action while serving as Commanding Officer of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) — 364, Marine Aircraft Group SIXTEEN (MAG-16), First Marine Aircraft Wing, in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam. On 15 May 1969, Lieutenant Colonel Brady launched as Aircraft Commander of a transport helicopter assigned the mission of medically evacuating several seriously wounded Marines from an area northwest of An Hoa in Quang Nam Province. Arriving over the designated location, he was advised by the ground commander that the vastly outnumbered unit was surrounded by the enemy, some as close as thirty meters to the Marines’ positions. Fully aware of the dangers involved, and despite rapidly approaching darkness and deteriorating weather conditions, Lieutenant Colonel Brady elected to complete his mission. As he commenced a high-speed, low-altitude approach to the confined zone, he came under a heavy volume of hostile automatic weapons fire which damaged his aircraft but did not deter him from landing. During the considerable period of time required to embark the casualties, the landing zone was subjected to intense enemy mortar fire, several rounds of which landed perilously close to the transport, rendering additional damage to the helicopter. However, Lieutenant Colonel Brady displayed exceptional composure as he calmly relayed hostile firing positions to fixed-wing aircraft overhead and steadfastly remained in his dangerously exposed position until all the wounded men were safely aboard. Demonstrating superb airmanship, he then executed a series of evasive maneuvers as he lifted from the fire-swept zone, and subsequently delivered the casualties to the nearest medical facility. His heroic and determined actions inspired all who observed him and were instrumental in saving the lives of eight fellow Marines. By his courage, superior aeronautical ability, and unfaltering devotion to duty in the face of grave personal danger, Lieutenant Colonel Brady upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.

When Colonel Brady passed away in 2011, his squadron mates penned the following poem and dedicated it to him. I am reprinting it here with the greatest respect for its authors and the Marines of VMM-364.

Flying West
Dedicated to Colonel Eugene “Papa Fox” Brady

Colonel Eugene R. Brady, USMC (Deceased)
Colonel Eugene R. Brady, USMC (Deceased)

I hope there’s a place, way up in the sky,
Where pilots can go when they have to die –
A place where a guy can go and buy a cold beer,
For a friend and a comrade, whose memory is dear;
A place where no doctor or lawyer can treat,
Nor a management type would ere be caught dead;
Just a quaint little place, kinda dark and full of smoke,
Where they like to sing loud, and love a good joke;
The kind of place where a lady could go,
And feel safe and protected, by the men she would know.

There must be a place where old pilots go,
When their paining is finished, and their airspeed gets low,
Where the whiskey is old, and the women are young,
And the songs about flying and dying are sung,
Where you’d see all the fellows who’d flown west before …
And they’d call out your name as you came through the door;
Who would buy you a drink if your thirst should be bad,
And relate to the others, “He was quite a good lad.”

And then through the mist, you’d spot an old guy.
You had not seen for years, though he taught you to fly.
He’d nod his old head, and grin ear to ear,
And say, “Welcome, my son, I’m pleased that you’re here.”
“For this is the place where true flyers come,
When the journey is over, and the war has been won.
They’ve come here to at last be safe and alone
From the government clerk and the management lone,
Politicians and lawyers, the feds and the noise,
Where the hours are happy, and these good ol’ boys
Can relax with a cool one, and a well-deserved rest,
This is Heaven my son—you’ve passed your last test.”

Hell in a Helmet

Hell in a Helmet
Hell in a Helmet

This is what the Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines call themselves. There is a reason for this; the battalion has participated in some of the most horrific battles in our nation’s history since World War I. Since its initial activation in 1917, 2/9 distinguished itself during the Battle for Guam and Iwo Jima during World War II; in the defense of Khe Sanh in the I Corps region of Vietnam, the ill-fated attempt to rescue the crew of the SS Mayaguez, and Operation Desert Storm. The battalion also played a role in the evacuation of civilians caught between opposing forces in the Chinese Civil War, Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, and various other non-combat operations relating to providing relief to victims of natural disasters.

The second battalion was deactivated on 2 September 1994 to make room for one of three new light armor reconnaissance battalions, reactivated again in 2007 to serve within the 6th Marines as an anti-Terror Battalion, and again deactivated in 2015 as part of President Obama’s post war victory lap.

During the Vietnam War, 2/9 operated under the Third Marine Division. In early July 1965, 2/9 was ordered to Vietnam from its training base on Okinawa and soon after their arrival began rigorous combat operations at Da Nang, Hue, Phu Bai, Dong Ha, Camp Carroll, Cam Lo, Con Thien, Than Cam Son, Quang Tri, Cua Viet, and the Vandergrift Combat Base. Its most vicious engagement was the Battle for Khe Sanh, which was actually a series of engagements that today’s historians call “the hill fights.” The convention for naming hills involves labeling them according to their elevation in meters. Throughout these campaigns, the Marines of 2/9 (and other participating battalions) held firm in spite of an overwhelming enemy force of two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) infantry divisions.

In the early spring of 1967, 2/9 was operating in an area south of the old imperial city of Hue (pronounced way), when the Marines suddenly became aware of a growing enemy presence around the Khe Sanh Combat Base. Intelligence officers believed there were two NVA regiments operating in the area. No one believed this; it had become a standard conclusion each and every time someone found an NVA element. This time, however, the reports and suspicions were true. Company E (Echo 2/9) was sent to Khe Sanh to reinforce the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. The operational areas included Hill 881 North, Hill 881 South, and Hill 861.

Combat Patrol 1967
Combat Patrol 1967

Combat patrol leaders reported considerable radio traffic in Vietnamese; there were NVA all over the place and the 40 Marines on one combat patrol became very nervous. Suddenly, Hill 861 erupted into a bloody crescendo of rifle fire and grenade explosions. The patrol leader called for artillery and close air support. It wasn’t long after that the entire side of Hill 861 was aflame in napalm. Marine medevac helicopters started coming in to evacuate the wounded; the dead would have to wait. Medevac flights were escorted by gunships. One helicopter was bringing in reinforcements from Bravo 1/9, but it was shot out of the air and seen tumbling down the side of the mountain coming to rest 700 meters below. And then just as suddenly, the enemy disappeared —it was as if they all vanished into thin air.

It took the rest of the night to evacuate the wounded; the dead were removed during the next morning. The Marines sent out more patrols, combing the area between 881S and 881N … but there was no sign of NVA. The Marines had lost 19 dead, 59 wounded; NVA contact had rendered Echo Company ineffective.

In early May, Con Thien situated south of the DMZ came under heavy attack; enemy activity in the “Leatherneck Square” area intensified and while clearing Route 561 between Con Thien and Cam Lo, 1/9 made contact with a large NVA force. MACV authorized the Marines to conduct operations within the DMZ; it would be a combined Marine Corps and RVN Army (ARVN) force. The operation was code named Hickory/Lam Son 54.

The hill fights, which ended on 11 May 1967, produced 155 Marine killed in action and 425 wounded. NVA losses were 940 confirmed killed in action.

Getting the wounded to the Landing Zone (LZ)
Getting the wounded to the Landing Zone (LZ)

Operation Hickory launched on the morning of May 18, 1967. 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines and 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines were supported by tanks as they moved forward into Con Thien. 2/26 made contact with an estimated two battalions of NVA regulars who had positioned themselves in well defended bunkers and trenches. Marines began receiving murderous automatic weapons and mortar fire from the right flank. Casualties were immediate and heavy. 2/9 moved up to reinforce the right flank, immediately engaging the enemy. As night fell, the Marines pulled back to evacuate the dead and wounded. Air strikes were called in during hours of darkness; with daylight came Marine artillery fires. Both Marine battalions went into the attack at 0700. 2/26 was stopped in its tracks within minutes due to withering fire to the front and right. 2/9 moved forward against light resistance and was able to relieve the pressure on 2/26. Within four hours, the Marines had successfully overrun the enemy bunker complex and continued the advance.

Mid-afternoon of the same day, Hotel 2/9 operating on the eastern-most flank of the advance came under heavy enemy fire near the intersection of Route 606 and 561. Several Marines in the point squad were down; one Marine gallantly ran out to carry them to the safety of Marine lives, but he too was hit three times and later succumbed to his wounds. Corporal Robert Gillingham was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions.

Tanks moved up to join the attack, but the NVA efficiently employed RPGs against them. The gunner and tank commander of the first tank were mortally wounded. A second tank was also destroyed. Hotel 2/9 aggressively moved forward so that all the dead and wounded could be evacuated, and as he withdrew he called in for supporting fires. Seven Marines were killed, 10 more wounded.

The war continued: Operation Kingfisher in July lasting until October. Out of five battalions participating (3/3, 2/4, 3/4, 2/9, and 3/9) Marine casualties included 340 killed; 3,000 wounded. NVA losses were 1,117 killed, 2,000 wounded. In the late fall, Operation Kentucky, Operation Scotland, the Second Battle of Khe Sanh, The Rockpile, and Vandergrift.

From January to mid-March 1969, 2/9 participated in Operation Dewey Canyon —a sweep of the A Shau Valley and the last major offensive by the Marine Corps in Vietnam. Second Battalion, Ninth Marines … Hell in a Helmet and a band of extraordinary brothers.

Hastings

In May 1966, a small North Vietnamese reconnaissance force made their way across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) into Quang Tri Province. The unit’s mission was to begin preparations for a massive invasion by regular forces of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Preparations included organizing local sympathizers to help with a very large logistics support mission.

The Commanding General of he NVA 324B Division was Nguyen Vang. General Vang began his infiltration during the last week of May but soon learned that thanks to the ineptness of Viet Cong locals, much needed supplies were not in place. The division’s advance stalled on the banks of the Ben Hat River; General Vang sent troops back into the North for supplies.

The infiltration was not a well-kept secret. General Westmoreland had been receiving intelligence reports about the presence of the NVA 324B, and he had long suspected that the NVA would make an attempt to seize Quang Tri Province, which was part of the I Corps Tactical Zone (also, I CTZ and often said as “One Corps”). Photo intelligence suggested the presence of NVA forces in Quang Tri —a captured NVA soldier confirmed it.

General Westmoreland believed that the Americans lacked sufficient intelligence about the enemy’s intent. The natural tendency would be to order up a blocking force and plan for a robust counter-attack. Marine commanders suggested that an NVA presence in Quang Tri could be a ruse, intending to lure the Marines away from Da Nang. Westmoreland directed General Lew Walt to employ reconnaissance units to determine the purpose and scope of the NVA 324B.

A Recon team of 12 Marines lifted off from Dong Ha on 1 July 1966. They were inserted near two intersecting trails inside the DMZ; they were immediately overwhelmed by enemy fire and quickly withdrew. For two weeks, recon teams landed in several locations observing NVA regulars as they developed fortified positions. With these confirmations, Westmoreland ordered Walt: seven Marine Corps infantry battalions, five Army of Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) infantry and airborne battalions (11,000 men) would be reinforced by artillery, combined aircraft, and long-range naval support from the Seventh Fleet. A special landing force was placed in reserve.

Operation Hastings had begun.

More than half of Quang Tri Province was mountainous jungle. The canopy was so thick that bombs couldn’t penetrate it, and ground damage assessment was next to impossible. To the east of these mountains were foothills, and then rice paddies and sandy beaches along the coastal shore.

Commanding Operation Hastings was Brigadier general Lowell English, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. He developed a plan to cut off the NVA 324B by seizing control of two trails just south of the DMZ. One key point in this place was placing a Marine unit on top of the “Rock Pile,” a craggy hill overlooking the Cam Lo River and the flat plain in the north. NVA observed the dust rising out of nearby Dong Ha as US aircraft continuously landed troops and supplies. For three days, B-52 aircraft dropped ordinance on NVA positions.

Combat operations began in earnest on 15 July 1966. A-4 Skyhawks from Marine Aircraft Group —12 (MAG-12) and F-4 Phantoms from MAG-11 began bombing and laying down napalm at two pre-designed landing zones (LZs): LZ Crow, 8 kilometers northeast of the Rock Pile, and LZ Dove at the mouth of the valley five kilometers northeast of LZ Crow. As ground support aircraft withdrew, Marine artillery from the 12th Marines began a twenty-minute bombardment of LZ Crow. CH-46s began inserting Marines at LZ Crow at 0750. The first drops were conducted without incident; a second insertion was answered by sniper fire. The landing zone was too small; two helicopters collided and crashed while a third CH-46 hit a tree while trying to avoid the other two. Two Marines were killed, seven seriously injured. Later that day, another CH-46 was hit by NVA fire; 13 Marines from 2/1 were killed. The Marines promptly renamed the Song Ngan as “Helicopter Valley.”

Marines from 3/4 were soon receiving deadly accurate fire from the NVA 324B. It wasn’t long before 3/4 was cut off behind enemy lines. They took a pounding that lasted for days; it was the bloodiest battle of the operation.

Operation HastingsOn 24 July 1966, India Company 3/5 was ordered to proceed to the top of Hill 362 and establish a radio relay station —necessary for effective communications in mountainous terrain. The company completed their movement and had begun to secure their perimeter when attacked by a large force of NVA. Marines incurred significant casualties but remained in their positions throughout the night, protecting it and their wounded comrades. The carnage of the fight became apparent at dawn. Fighting continued as medevac aircraft removed the dead and wounded.

Operation Hastings lasted throughout the month of July. The NVA abandoned their plan for the invasion of Quang Tri Province. When they withdrew back into North Vietnam, they left behind 882 dead, hundreds of weapons, tons of ammunition, and 17 prisoners of war. Of the Marines, 126 were killed in action with an additional 448 wounded. Among those from India Company:

First Lieutenant Joseph Kopfler, III, USMC
Staff Sergeant Jerry Hailey, USMC
Staff Sergeant William Hawkins, USMC
Corporal Richard Currier, Jr., USMC
Corporal Robert Johnson, USMC
Lance Corporal Robin L. Arnold, USMC
Lance Corporal Ronald Coates, USMC
Lance Corporal George Corey, USMC
Lance Corporal Sidney Malone, Jr., USMC
Private First Class Randy Brosnan, USMC
Private First Class Lawrence Daniels, USMC
Private First Class Lawrence Denny, USMC
Private First Class Franklin Eucker, USMC
Private First Class R. Fenstermacher, USMC
Private First Class Daniel Harmon, USMC
Private First Class Stephen Kittle, USMC
Private First Class Thomas Presby, USMC
Private Oscar Cruz, USMC