Jarhead Adventures

By Cliff Judkins [1]

Chu Lai AB 1966At the time [in 1966], there was only the expeditionary field of 4,000 feet of shifting metal.  All takeoffs were with Jet-Assisted Take Off (JATO) bottles (lots of things went wrong with these —especially at night) and all landings were arrested.  One day we taxied in to VMA-223 from a mission and noticed an Air Force C-123 parked at the main ramp.  It had made an emergency landing at Chu Lai.

That night at the club, the only passenger from the C-123 was there.  He was an F-100 pilot in his flight suit on crutches and with two broken legs.  Of course, we wanted to know how he broke his legs.  He told us that he was an F-100F (two-seater) Misty Fast FAC (Airborne Forward Air Controller).  The aircrew took turns flying front and back seat.  He said that it was his day to go up North in the back seat.  They found the target for the F-105s and marked it with 5″ white phosphorus (WP) rockets.  Then, after the 105s were done, they were supposed to fly low and fast and take an after-action picture of the target.  He was the guy with the hand-held camera.

Of course, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) knew the routine and began shooting the shit out of them.  The front seat guy did a lot of jinking and somehow, the lens came off the camera and disappeared.  The aircraft safely got “feet wet” and in-flight refueled for their return trip home down south to Tui Hoa. Our guy said that he kept looking for the lens but the front seater said to forget it.  They would find it after landing.  Upon landing and taxi back, the front seater called “Canopy Clear” and raised the canopy.  The lens had landed near one of the actuators for the ejection seat.  The back-seater said that he heard this tremendous explosion and realized what had happened when he got seat separation about 250 feet up at the top of the arc and, looking down saw a miniature F-100 below him missing a canopy.  He said that it was like a “Wily Coyote” cartoon.

There was a point where you stop going up, a pause, and then a rapid going down thing.  The F-100 didn’t have a zero/zero seat either (needed 100 knots and 100 feet).  So, he said that he had always heard that in a long fall, one dies of a heart attack before one hits the ground.  So he said he kept shouting: “Come on heart attack.”

The drogue chute had deployed and that kept his feet straight down.  It was real steep near the taxiway, they had been doing a lot of excavating, and it had rained.  He hit feet first.  The un-deployed chute saved his back and kept it straight.  He skidded down the embankment into a large pool of water. He had two simple fractures. Needless to say, he couldn’t buy another drink that night.

This next story is from a pilot who was in VMFA 314 at Chu Lai in ’69.  Vietnam era F4 guys will appreciate this story.  Here’s another ‘bad day’ from Chu Lai:

F-4B Phantom II VMFA 323I was one of a half-dozen replacements who checked-in with MAG-13 on August 2.  We were not all assigned to VMFA-314 though.  There were two other combat squadrons in the Air Group: VMFA-115 (the Able Eagles), and VMFA-323 (the Death Rattlers).  All three squadrons flew the McDonnell Douglas F4B Phantom II and shared common living areas.  Although we may have been in different squadrons, eventually we all got to know each other very well.

The first thing we six rookies did was attend an Air Group briefing in an underground bunker protected by a thick layer of sandbags.  This bunker served as our group intelligence center.  (When I was there in `66, we used a house trailer. I guess things got hotter when the gooks realized that I left and started flying for Delta).  Suddenly, an urgent radio call interrupted our briefing. We listened as one of VMFA-115s aircraft radioed-in to report a problem.  The aircraft had been hit by enemy ground fire and could not lower its landing gear.  The pilot was going to attempt a belly landing on the runway.  At that news, we all raced outside near the runway to grab a good spot from which to watch the crash landing.

Crash crews raced to cover the runway with a layer of fire retardant foam while the damaged F4 circled overhead, burning down its load of fuel.  Two arresting cables were strung across the middle of the runway.  The cables were anchored on each end by a chain made with heavy, 40-pound links.  The plan was for the F4 to lower his tail hook, to belly-land in the foam, to catch one of the arresting wires, and to come to a screeching halt.

It did not quite happen that way.

After burning off most of his fuel, the pilot gingerly lowered the airplane onto the foamed runway.  A spark set off the fumes in the jet’s empty wing tanks and they erupted into flames.  All one could see racing down the runway were two wingtips protruding from an orange and black ball of fire heading toward the arresting cables.  The F4 hit the first arresting cable. We watched the cable snap and hurl its 40-pound chain links skyward.  Then the plane hit the second arresting cable.  It also parted and flung its chain links.  The aircraft was now just a ball of fire heading toward the end of the runway.

Then we heard, Boom!  Boom!

The pilot had lit his afterburners.  He was attempting to takeoff without wheels!  As the aircraft roared toward the end of the runway, it slowly struggled skyward.  It got airborne and began to climb nearly vertically.  Then, both the pilot and his back-seater, the radar intercept officer (RIO), ejected.

We stared in wonder as the aircraft crashed into the nearby ocean.  The two crewmen slowly floated down in their parachutes.  The wind carried them over the ocean and they too soon splashed down.  A rescue helicopter was on the scene immediately.  Both of the F-4 crewmen, treading water, raised their right hand.  This was a signal to the chopper that they were unharmed.  The helicopter slowly lowered itself and plucked the pilot out of the water and into the safety of the helicopter.  The helicopter then turned its attention to the RIO.  As the helicopter slowly lowered itself over the RIO, the helicopter pilot suddenly lost control of his chopper, and he crashed into the water on top of the RIO.  As soon as the chopper hit the water, its pilot regained control, got airborne again, and yanked the RIO from the water.  Although the RIO was rescued safely, his leg was broken when the helicopter crashed on top of him.

That night at the Officers Club, the RIO sat with his leg elevated and encased in a full-leg cast.  As he imbibed a few, he related his story: “First, we got the shit shot out of us.  But, hey, that’s okay —we weren’t hurt.  Then, we survived a belly landing.  But, that was okay too, we weren’t hurt.  Then the pilot decided he’d take off without wheels, but that worked out well too.  Then we survived an aircraft ejection [2] and water landing, but that was also okay, we weren’t hurt.  Then the damn rescue helicopter crashed on me and broke my leg!”

Endnotes:

[1] In 1963, (then) First Lieutenant Cliff Judkins experienced an in-flight fire while refueling during a trans-Pacific flight.  After he ejected from his aircraft, his parachute failed to open.  He fell 15,000 feet into the Pacific … and survived. You can read about it here.

[2] The F-4 B was fitted with the Martin-Baker ejection seat.  Powerful rockets launched the pilot and RIO seats out of the aircraft, propelling them clear of a disabled aircraft.  Most everyone who ejected experienced significant back trauma, including broken back.

Remembering the Ladies

Adams A 001
Abigail Adams

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency.  And by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.  Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.  If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Abigail Adamsin a letter to her husband John, 31 March 1776.

Johnson OM 001
Opha May Johnson (1878-1955)

Opha May Jacob was born on 4 May 1878 in Kokomo, Indiana.  She graduated from the shorthand and typewriting department of Wood’s Commercial College in Washington, D. C. at the age of 17.  In 1898, she married a gentleman named Victor H. Johnson. Victor was the musical director at the Lafayette Square Opera House and Opha worked as a civil servant for the Interstate Commerce Commission.

And then, World War I came along.  Women have always been involved during times of war.  For centuries, women followed armies—many of whom were the wives of soldiers who provided indispensable services to their men, such as cooking, laundry, and nursing wounds.  World War I involved women, too … albeit in a different way than at any previous time. Thousands of women in the United States formed or joined organizations that worked to bring relief to the war-torn countries in Europe even before America’s official entry into the war in April 1917.  American women weren’t alone in this effort; thousands of women in the United Kingdom followed a similar path —the difference being that Great Britain had been engaged in World War I from its beginning.

After the United States entered World War I, women continued to join the war time organizations and expand the war effort.  They were highly organized groups, much like the military, and this helped women to gain respect from their fellow citizens and have their patriotic endeavors recognized and respected.  The key difference between the efforts of women during World War I and previous wars was the class of women involved.  Typically, women who followed the armies in earlier times were working-class women, but during World War I, women from all classes of society served in many different capacities.  So-called upper-class women were primary founders of war time organizations because they could afford to devote so much of their time (and money) to these efforts. Middle and lower-class ladies were more likely to serve as nurses, telephone operators, and office clerks. And for the first time in American history, women from every part of the social spectrum stepped up to serve in the military.

The first women to enlist in the United States Marine Corps on 13 August 1918 was Opha May Johnson.  She became the first woman Marine because when the recruiting doors were opened to enlist women for the first time, Opha Johnson was standing first in line —the first among 300 women accepted for enlistment in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Given her background as a civil servant, Private Johnson’s first duty was clerical at Headquarters Marine Corps. Within one month, Johnson was promoted to sergeant and therefore became the Marine Corps’ first female sergeant and the highest-ranking woman in the Marine Corps.

Streeter RC 001At the end of World War I, women were discharged from the services as part of general demobilization.  Opha May Johnson remained at Headquarters Marine Corps as a civil service clerk until her retirement from in 1943.  She was still working at Headquarters Marine Corps in 1943 when the Marine Corps reinstituted the Women’s Reserve for World War II service.  At the time of her enlistment in 1918, Opha May Johnson was 40 years old.  In 1943, the Marine Corps appointed its first Director of the Women Reserve, a lady named Ruth Cheney Streeter (shown right).  At the time of Streeter’s appointment as a reserve major, she was 48-years old.  In those days, the age of the applicant would not have affected enlistment or appointment eligibility because, with few exceptions, women did not perform their duties at sea or foreign shore.

As Abigail Adams admonished her now-famous husband, we should always remember the ladies and give them due credit for their patriotism and service to the United States of America. Women have been an integral part of the United States Marine Corps since 1948 when the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act gave them permanent status in the regular and reserve forces. During World War II, twenty-thousand women served as Marines in more than 225 occupational specialties.  Eighty-five percent of the enlisted jobs at Headquarters Marine Corps in World War II were filled by women; two-thirds of the permanent personnel assigned to Marine Corps posts and stations in the United States were women Marines.

Womens Reserve USMCThe first woman Marine to serve in a combat zone was Master Sergeant Barbara Dulinsky, who served on the MACV Staff in Saigon, Vietnam in 1967 [1].  Since then, women Marines have taken on new roles, from combat aviators [2] to rifleman.  In Afghanistan and Iraq, women Marine officers commanded combat service support units in combat zones and served on the staffs of forward deployed headquarters. By every account, these women acquitted themselves very well.  Still, the issue of women serving in the combat arms, while authorized and directed by the Department of Defense, remains a contentious issue.  Prominent women Marines have spoken out about this, with more than a few claiming that while women do perform well in the combat environment, such duties have a deleterious effect on their physical health —more so than men— and that it is therefore unnecessary to employ women in the combat arms in order to maintain a high state of readiness in combat units and organizations.

Endnotes:

[1] American women have served on the front line of combat since the Revolutionary War, primarily as nurses, medics, and ambulance drivers, and provisioners.  The US Army Nurse Corps was established in 1901, and the Navy Nurse Corps was created in 1908.  Prohibitions of women serving aboard navy ships (excluding hospital ships) resulted in most Navy nurses serving in field hospitals ashore and not within a battle area; Army nurses similarly served in field medical hospitals on foreign shore.

[2] See also: Wings of honor.

7th Motor Transport Battalion

7thMTBn 002It isn’t just about driving and maintaining rolling stock. It’s about providing sustainable combat service support to front line troops; without the motor transportation community, there would be no way to push forward to the battle area much-needed combat supplies: bullets, beans, and band-aids.  Without a steady flow of logistics, there can be no success on the battlefield.  Motor transport is a tough job; there’s a lot to know about moving men and equipment forward under all weather conditions and terrain features.  It’s also dangerous work, because motor transport units are primary targets of enemy air and ground forces.  If an enemy can interrupt the supply chain, really bad things start to happen.  It is for this reason that Marines assigned to motor transport units are, in fact, combat Marines.

The Marine Corps activated the 7th Motor Transport Battalion (now known as the 1st Transportation Battalion) to support the 1st Marine Division during the Korean War.  Its Korean War service began in October 1950 and lasted through December 1953.

Twelve years later, in May 1965, forward elements of the 7th Motor Transport Battalion began their service in the Vietnam War.  Company A (Reinforced) arrived in Indochina as an attachment to the 7th Regimental Landing Team (RLT-7).  By July of that year, the 7th Motor Transport Battalion consisted (on paper) of H&S Company (-), Company B, Company C, and Company D.  The battalion commander was Major Louis A. Bonin[1].

Almost immediately after arriving in Vietnam, ninety percent of the personnel assigned to the 7th Motor Transport Battalion in California received orders moving them over to the 1st Motor Transport Battalion, which was at that time assigned to Chu Lai. The reason for this shift of personnel was combat necessity —but along with this decision, 7th Motors became ineffective as a combat service support organization pending the arrival of newly graduated Marines from recruit training and basic motor transportation schools (in the United States) and pending the arrival of additional equipment. Combat operations were intense during this period —so much so, in fact, that much needed battalion-level (second echelon) maintenance simply wasn’t performed because Company A was detached from the battalion.  This resulted in a significant reduction in motor transport operational capability.  By the time these vehicles received their much-needed attention, vehicle readiness was around 50%.  As an example of why proper vehicle maintenance was (and is) important:

In May 1966, Colonel Bonin and his Marines executed 3,744 combat support missions involving 22 tactical convoys over 129,961 miles.  During this month, there were eight separate enemy attacks that involved the detonation of enemy mines, incoming mortars and small arms fire, and on the 24th of that month, a Viet Cong sympathizer tossed a poisonous snake into the bed of one of the trucks.  The Marines riding in the bed of that truck were not happy campers.  Moreover, the battalion lifted 24,061 tons of supplies on 1,623 pallets and a total of 33,923 combat personnel supporting forward units.  The battalion served in Vietnam for five years; to appreciate their service, multiply the foregoing statistics by a factor of sixty.

7thMTBn Convoy RVN
Marine combat convoy operators from 7thMTBn, located in Quang Tri, prepare for a run over the dangerous Hai Van Mountain Pass into Da Nang Vietnam. Trucks shown are M52 tractors with semitrailers and M54 5-ton cargo vehicles.

In effect, the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion were constantly on the road, constantly exposed to enemy action, and constantly involved in such programs as Medical Civil Action (MEDCAP).  When the Marines weren’t moving personnel or equipment, or seeing to the needs of local Vietnamese, they were cleaning their weapons and getting a few hours rest. After weeks of sustained operations, hardly anyone knew what day it was.  See also: Personal Memoir by Corporal Chuck McCarroll, USMC.

In the infantry, Marines train to fight.  In the combat service support arena, Marines perform real-world support on an ongoing basis. Their daily missions in times of peace are the same as those performed in actual combat, less people shooting at them, of course.  And, given the deployment and training schedules prevalent in the Marine Corps since the end of the Vietnam War, the pace is fast and furious.  Marines who drive medium to heavy-lift vehicles must know how to complete their combat service support missions.  Supplies, materials, and men must always get through —and they do, in times of peace and in times of war.  In order to accomplish these things, the vehicles must be maintained —and they are.  It’s a tough job —made tougher when higher headquarters assigns unusual tasks.

1988 was a busy year. Long reduced to three companies (H&S Company, Truck Company, and Transport Company), the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion were “turning and burning.”  Beyond their mission to support the two Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs), additional requirements reduced manpower levels to a point where Combat Service Support Elements (CSSEs) could barely complete their missions.  Worse, personnel shortages increased the likelihood of serious mishaps.  Operating heavy equipment is dangerous work.  What additional taskings?  Under mandated fleet assistance programs, motor transport companies experienced personnel reductions by as much as 20% in order to satisfy the demands of host commands … that is, sending combat Marines to base organizations to staff “special services” billets.  It was a waste of well-trained and much-needed operators/mechanics, particularly when the host commander assigned these Marines to rock-painting details.

This was the situation at 7th Motor Transport Battalion in 1988.  As already stated, personnel shortages make dangerous work even more so. Marines would return to the battalion after one six-month MEU deployment and begin spooling up for a second.

Between May and August 1988, 250-forest fires broke out within the Yellowstone National Forest —seven of these caused 95% of the destruction. At the end of June, the National Park Service and other federal agencies had mobilized all available personnel. It wasn’t enough … the fires continued to expand.  Dry storms brought howling winds and lightening, but no rain.  On 20 August —dubbed Black Saturday— a single wildfire consumed more than 150,000.  Ash from the fire drifted as far as Billings, Montana —60 miles northeast of Yellowstone. More land went to flames on this one day than in all the years since the creation of Yellowstone National Park.  Among the worst were the Snake River Complex and Shoshone fires.

Yellowstone wasn’t the Western United States’ only fire.  In that year, officials reported more than 72,000 fires.  Firefighters and equipment were stretched to the limit. To help fight the fire, US military personnel were tasked to provide support to the front-line firefighters.  Before it was over, more than 25,000 personnel participated in efforts to quell these fires.  Crews worked for two or three weeks, send home to rest, and returned for another tour on the line.  The task involved digging trenches, watering down buildings, clearing undergrowth near structures, and installing water pumps.  The front line extended more than 655 miles.  Hundreds of men worked on engine crews and bulldozing equipment; much of their efforts involved protecting existing structures.  Men received injuries requiring medical treatment for broken bones, skin burns, and lung damage due to noxious fumes.  One firefighter and one pilot died in an incident outside the wildfire area.

USMC 5-ton truck7th Motor Transport Battalion received its warning order: within 48 hours, provide a detachment of Marines to support to the national firefighting force.  The Battalion Commander, LtCol William C. Curtis[2], tasked Transport Company with the mission, Captain Greg Dunlap, commanding.  Within 24-hours, Dunlap had mobilized 50 trucks and 175 Marines.  Operational control of Transport Company passed to the 7th Engineer Battalion, placed in overall command of the Combat Service Support Element mission.

Captain Dunlap and his Marines Departed Norton Air Force Base aboard C-5 aircraft.  The combat service support element landed at the Wester Yellowstone airstrip, which at the time was serving as the Federal and State Firefighting headquarters and where, ultimately, the 7th Engineer Battalion established its command post.  Upon arrival, Dunlap assigned one transport platoon with five-ton trucks in direct support of a Marine infantry battalion further inside the park.

The Marine Corps mission was to relieve civilian firefighters by following up on the fire-line and extinguishing any smoldering areas.  Transport Company provided the lift for infantry Marines to operationally sensitive areas inside Yellowstone.  The overall commander of the U. S. Forest Service assigned daily missions to the Marines via the 7th Engineer Battalion command element, who in turn passed them on for execution to Captain Dunlap.

While serving in Yellowstone, 7th Motor Transport Battalion personnel dined on field rations (officially referred to as Meals, Ready to Eat[3]) and meals provided by US Forest Service caterers.  West Yellowstone Base Camp personnel could walk to the small town of West Yellowstone. Local restaurant owners offered free chow to firefighters and military personnel; few of Dunlap’s Marines partook of the freebies because of the financial impact on local citizens.  Dunlap’s Marines didn’t see any reason to make it more complicated for them than it already was.  Local hotel owners offered billeting to the Marines, but they preferred to live in tents.  The Forest Service provided showering facilities.

Captain Dunlap’s company returned to Camp Pendleton, California two weeks later.  The citizens of West Yellowstone loved “their” Marines and invited them to march in their town parade on the Fourth of July, an invitation that Captain Dunlap accepted.  Town elders also invited the Marines to attend the local high school prom … an invitation that the Marines did not accept.

Marines of the 7th Motor Transport Battalion excelled in this mission.  It’s what these Marines have always done since the beginning of the Korean War.  It’s a tough, thankless job.  In 1988, the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion were ready, their equipment was ready, their attitudes were positive, and they excelled in the completion of their mission.  Seventh-motors Marines shined in the face of unusual adversity, and in doing so, they brought great credit upon themselves, the Marine Corps, and the United States Naval Service.  They continue to do this today as the 1st Transportation Battalion.

It was my privilege to serve alongside the Marines of 7th Motor Transport Battalion from June 1987 to June 1989.

Endnotes:

[1] Promoted to lieutenant colonel on 12 May 1966.  I served under Colonel Bonin while a member of the 3rdMarDiv staff in 1972.

[2] Lieutenant Colonel Curtis retired from active duty in 1991, completing more than 34 years of continuous honorable service.  He has written several essays for this blog beginning with Combined Action Platoon, Part I.

[3] Also referred to as meals rejected by Ethiopians.

Hold High the Torch, Part III

The 4th Marines: From Harry Truman’s War to the Street Without Joy

EGA BlackAmong the effects of Harry S. Truman’s presidential incompetence came the Korean War —and along with that, the re-activation of the 4th Marine Regiment.  The war began in late June 1950.  A stalemate in the war two years later resulted in the re-activation of the 3rd Marine Division and within that organization on 2 September 1952, the 4th Marines —Colonel Robert O. Bowen, commanding.  The regiment’s initial units included Headquarters & Service Company (H&SCo), Anti-Tank Company, 4.2-inch Mortar Company, and the 1st Battalion (1/4).  Within a short time, the regiment added 2/4 and 3/4.  A fourth battalion came on line in January 1953 but was deactivated within a period of seven months.

After reactivation, the 4th Marines began a series of pre-combat deployment training; spooling up to speed would take another six months.  The 3rd Marine Division was alerted to its far-east deployment shortly before the Korean Armistice.  Despite cessation of fighting, the 3rdMarDiv relocated from Camp Pendleton, California to Japan.  The regiment’s new home was Nara, on the island of Honshu.  Arriving too late to participate in the Korean War, the 4th Marines became a garrison force whose responsibilities included the defense of southern Honshu and its readiness [1] for rapid deployment to potential hot-spots in the Far East.  In January 1954, 3/4 was assigned to task of escorting former Chinese Communist soldiers who wanted to go to Taiwan (rather than be repatriated to mainland China) from Inchon, South Korea [2].

Eighteen-months later, the 4th Marines (and supporting units) was relocated to Hawaii where the regiment became the principal ground combat element (GCE) of the 1st Provisional Marine MAGTF at Kaneohe Bay. Once established in Hawaii, the regiment began an intensive program of coordinated training with the air combat element (ACE), which at the time was Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-13.  The MAGTF was redesignated as the 1st Marine Brigade on 1 May 1956.  The advent of combat helicopters led the regiment into vertical envelopment training. The 4th Marines was the first GCE to live and train with a co-located ACE.  As a Pacific area force in readiness, the 1st Marine Brigade (1stMarBde) engaged in rigorous training.  Maneuver areas included the California coast, Taiwan, and the Philippine Islands.  In March 1961, BLT 1/4 was diverted from its original destination (California) to the Far East when a communist insurgency threatened Laos.  The battalion was never sent into Laos, however.

Ngo Dinh Diem 001
Ngo Dinh Diem, 1960 Photo from Public Domain

The President of South Vietnam between 1954 and 1963 was Ngo Dinh Diem, and man whom the United States government decided to support because he was well-educated, smooth in his presentation, a true patriot to his country’s cause, and also because he shared the same religion with the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.  A devout Roman Catholic, Diem was staunchly anti-Communist, a nationalist, and socially conservative.  He also shared the same long-term goals with his enemy in the north: Ho Chi Minh. Both Ngo and Ho wanted to unify Vietnam under their own flag.

Between 1954-1957, South Vietnam experienced a large-scale resistance to Ngo’s policies from the areas outlying the national capital, Saigon.  Dissidents included the thugs in minor cities who fancied themselves as war lords, and Buddhist monks who seemed to keep South Vietnamese peasants in a constant state of instability. Ngo responded rather harshly, as he suspected that the culprits behind these destabilizing demonstrations were North Vietnamese insurgents.  His assumption was mostly correct; when the country was politically divided in 1954, about 90,000 hard-core communists remained in the South and Ho’s government encouraged these to engage in low-level insurgencies.

Upon Kennedy’s election to the presidency in 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned him against becoming entangled in the Indochinese conflict.  In 1961, the United States had around 50,000 troops based in South Korea.  Kennedy faced a four-pronged crisis in the early days of his administration: Bay of Pigs fiasco, construction of the Berlin Wall, the Pathet Lao movement in Laos, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).  The onslaught of communist schemes to disrupt the world balance of power led Kennedy to conclude that the United States and its free-world allies could not sustain another “failure” confronting global communism. This particular insecurity helped to drive Kennedy’s space program.  Kennedy was thus determined to “draw a line in the sand” to prevent another communist victory in Vietnam [3].

Kennedy’s policy toward Vietnam initially mirrored that of President Eisenhower, who saw no benefit to the United States by committing large-scale military forces to solve the Vietnam problem.  Given the poor state of South Vietnam’s military, however, Kennedy did continue Eisenhower’s program to provide US Army Special Forces to help train the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) across a wide range of areas: ground combat, air combat, and logistical resupply.  Kennedy advisors tried to convince the president to send US troops to Vietnam “disguised as flood relief workers [4].”  Others tried to convince Kennedy that sending troops to Vietnam in large numbers would be a tragic mistake.  By late 1963, Kennedy had increased the number of military advisors serving in Vietnam from 900 (Eisenhower) to 16,000.  On 2 November 1963, as the US government officials pretended not to know what was going on, President Ngo and his brother was assassinated and the man ultimately responsible for this was John F. Kennedy.  Twenty days later, Kennedy himself was assassinated and power shifted to Lyndon Baines Johnson.  Johnson wanted an escalation of the war and lied to the American people to achieve it. North Vietnamese patrol boats did not launch assaults against the USS Maddox (DD 731) on 2 August 1964; the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that precipitated War in Vietnam never happened.

Discounting a rather large number of special operations troops serving as advisors to the South Vietnamese government, the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa was the first ground combat force committed to the Vietnam War.  The 4th Marines received their warning order almost immediately after the decision was made to commit the Marines.  Forward elements of the 3rdMarDiv began landing at Da Nang on 8 March 1965; the 4th Marines started arriving from Hawaii (via Okinawa) in mid-April 1965, the first battalion to arrive being BLT 3/4, which deployed to the ancient Imperial City of Hue.  Regimental HQ, 1/4 and 2/4 disembarked at Chu Lai on 7 May 1965.  All 3rdMarDiv units came under the operational control of the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).

In Vietnam, the nature of the war changed the organization of Marine units.  Since the conflict in Vietnam was often fought at or below the battalion level, one or more battalions of a regiment were frequently fighting under the operational control of another regiment.  As an example, a regiment exercising operational control of two or more battalions belonging to another regiment could enlarge its operations to that of a brigade.  In the summer of 1965, the 4th Marine Regiment exercised operational control over its own first and second battalions, but also 3/3 and 3/12 and their supporting elements.  The 3rd Marines, meanwhile, had operational control over 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines.

Combat for the 4th Marines in Vietnam arrived on 19 April when 3/4 (assigned Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) of Hue City and Phu Bai) defenses were probed by communist forces.  Two days later, 1/4 and 2/4 (assigned responsibility for Chu Lai) also experienced light probing attacks.  Vigorous patrolling operations were implemented almost immediately. Such activities were variously called security patrols and “search and clear” operations.  They were later expanded to include security operations for other than military installations, and these in turn expanded to a full measure search for the enemy so that he could be destroyed (search and destroy operations).

Combat in Vietnam was limited by its weather, terrain, and the nature of an elusive enemy.  Marines (indeed, all ground forces) were beset with guerrilla warfare tactics, including anti-personnel mines, booby traps, and ambushes combined with the placement of punji-sticks (sharpened sticks dipped in human excrement) —all designed to hamper the progress of Marine operations.   Before the arrival of helicopters, Marines sought out the enemy on foot, and their aggressive operations kept the enemy off balance within the 4th Marines TAOR.

Op STARLITE 001The first major engagement was the regimental sized Operation Starlite —a combined amphibious and vertical assault against enemy fortified positions on the Van Tuong Peninsula, 15 miles south of the Chu Lai air base.  2nd Battalion, 4th Marines was air-lifted into the jump-off point on 18 August 1965 and began a drive to the sea to block off any escape route.  Within nine days, the 1st Viet Cong Regiment was decisively defeated.  The operation prevented the VC from attacking the Chu Lai air base.

In addition to engaging the enemy in small-unit actions, the 4th Marines participated in several major operations in Vietnam, some of these conducted in phases over extended periods of time.  They were Starlite, Hastings (1966), Prairie (1966-67), Deckhouse VI/Desoto (16 Feb-3 Mar 1967), Prairie IV (April-May 1967), Hickory (April-May 1967), Kingfisher (July-October 1967), and Kentucky (November 1967-February 1969).  Elements of the 4th Marines also participated in Operation Jay, Lancaster II, Scotland II, Napoleon/Saline, the Battle of Dai Do (also, Dong Ha).  Most of these combat operations involved several organizations (as previously discussed), including 2/1, 3/3, 1/4, 2/4, 3/4, 2/9, 2/12, and various units of the ARVN and RVNMD [5].

The Dong Ha Combat Base (also known as Camp Spillman) was a joint Marine Corps-US Army multi-purpose base along Route 9 in northwest of Quang Tri in central Vietnam.  The base was first used by 3/4 in late April 1966.  In late May 2/4 was deployed to Dong Ha to support Operation Reno, which was designed to render support to the ARVN forces assigned to this region.  The only US casualties during RENO involved a USAF team of six radar technicians who were ambushed and killed on 5 June 1966.  The Commanding Officer of 2/4 (LtCol P. X. Kelly [6]) offered to provide security for the radar team before it departed from Dong Ha, but this offer was refused.

Beginning in mid-July, Dong Ha also served as a Marine Corps helicopter base of operations for flight detachments of HMM-163 (December 1966-January 1967), HMM-164 (July 1966-March 1967), HMM-263(August 1966-April 1967), HMM-265 (April-June 1967), HMM-361 (June-November 1967), HMM-363 (April-June 1967, August-November 1967), and VMO-2 (July 1966-November 1967).  Dong Ha also served as an advance logistics base.  Army and Marine Corps artillery units used Dong Ha as a fire support base, and in October 1966, Dong Ha became the forward headquarters of the 3rdMarDiv; several operations (listed above) were initiated from the Dong Ha Combat Base. During 1968, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) made repeated attacks against Dong Ha, on one occasion destroying its ammunition depot.  In each attack, NVA forces experienced heavy casualties.

There were many accomplishments of the 4th Marines in Vietnam, a few of which were exceptional examples of Marines thinking outside the box.  Notwithstanding the regiment’s role in finding and killing the enemy, there was another war: the effort to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. The 4th Marines undertook civic action programs almost from the start of their arrival in Vietnam.  In May 1965, the regiment distributed nearly 1,000 pounds of clothing to the villagers at Chu Lai—clothing that had been collected by the dependents of these Marines in Hawaii and sent directly to the regiment. Marines also pitched in with “self-help” projects in Chu Lai and Hue City designed to improve the living conditions of the villagers: digging wells, road-grading, clearing home sites.  The Golden Fleece program aided villagers in the harvesting of rice, protecting them from harassment by the Viet Cong, and protecting the crop from confiscation by local VC thugs.

Operation County Fair was a program that originated within the 4th Marines (with the blessings of the Commanding General, FMF Pacific, LtGen Victor H. Krulak).  Its purpose was to pacify select villages known to harbor elements of the Viet Cong.  3rd Battalion, 4th Marines initiated a Combined Action Company, and from this concept evolved the Combined Action Platoons.  In the summer of 1965, the 1st ARVN Division assigned a number of Vietnamese Popular Forces (PFs) units in the Phu Bai area to operate under the auspices of 3/4.  Integrating Marine rifle squads with PFs initially fell under the leadership and direction of First Lieutenant Paul R. Ek (then known as Joint Action Company). The concept was one way of reestablishing government control over rural villages while freeing the people from the terror and intimidation of local VC elements.  See also: Vietnam Counterinsurgency and Combined Action Platoon (in six parts).

9thMAB 001One an example of the Navy-Marine Corps ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome all obstacles were operations conducted by Amphibious Ready Group (Task Force 76.5) and Special Landing Force (Task Force 79.5) (ARG/SLF). It was a powerful and versatile formation capable of striking along the length of the South Vietnam Littoral and inland.  Initially, the ARG consisted of three to four ships, including an amphibious assault ship (LPH), and dock landing ship (LSD), an attack transport ship (APA) or amphibious transport dock (LPD), and a tank landing ship (LST).  The SLF was composed of a medium helicopter squadron (HMM), a Battalion Landing Team (reinforced with artillery, armor, engineer, and other support units as required).  The SLF came ashore either as part of an amphibious assault (sea-land) or by vertical assault (air), or both.  While at sea, Marines of the SLF came under the administrative control of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade; when gearing up for a landing, they came under the operational control of the senior Marine commander in the area of their operations.

Operation Deckhouse VI/Beacon Hill was the first major operation of 1967 for the 4th Marines.  1st Battalion, 4th Marines (1/4) had been temporarily assigned to Okinawa for rest and refit.  BLT 1/4 was directed to make an amphibious landing near Sa Huyn in the southern portion of I Corps.  The battalion stormed ashore in search of Viet Cong forces on 16 February.  Nine days later, the Marines reembarked aboard ARG shipping and within a few days made another amphibious assault 200-miles farther north, landing near Gio Linh.  After a combined operation lasting 22 days, Marines had located and killed 334 Viet Cong.  The battalion’s casualties were 29 killed, 230 wounded.

3:4 - 001 1967
BLT 3/4 clearing NVA bunkers. DoD Photo.

The northern I Corps region continued to be the scene of heavy fighting throughout the year.  All three 4th Marines’ battalions were deployed against NVA and VC main line units.  Delta Company 1/4  was hit hard at Con Tien on 8 May; following a mortar assault of some 250-rounds, two enemy battalions assaulted the Marine Company.  In spite of these overwhelming numbers, the Delta Company Marines repulsed the NVA/VC attack, and although suffering 49 killed and over 100 wounded, the Marines killed 210 communists and captured ten.  Four days later, the battalion commander was himself wounded three times in successive enemy assaults.  In each instance, the Marines soundly defeated the NVA/VC units.  CG III MAF concluded that the NVA and VC main line units were using the DMZ as a staging area for attacks against US forces.

General Cushman ordered Operation Hickory:  Six infantry battalions with artillery support assaulted the NVA 324B Division within the DMZ.  Marine units included 3/4, 2/3, 1/9, 2/9, 3/9, 2/26, and 1/12.  On the morning of 18 May 2/26 and 2/9 began an advance from Con Thien to press the NVA while 3/4 landed by helicopter on the Ben Hai river as a blocking force.  Five Marine battalions assaulted a complex of heavily fortified bunkers within the so-called demilitarized zone.  At the conclusion of Hickory, 362 additional enemy had been killed with 30 taken as POWs; Marine losses were 142 KIA and 896 WIA.  A separate operation in the area involving the 1st ARVN Division killed another 340 NVA/VC with 22 of their own killed and 122-wounded.  Combined, Operations Lam Son 54, Hickory, Belt Tight, and Beau Charger ended with the removal of the entire civilian populations.  From that point on, the DMZ and northern I Corps became a free fire zone.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon announced that the US effort in the Vietnam War would be reduced.  It was time to turn this effort over to the Republic of Vietnam armed forces.  The 9th Marines departed Vietnam in August; the 3rd Marine Division began its stand down in September.  The 4th Marines was ordered to Okinawa, 1/4 departing the combat zone on 22 October. All 3rdMarDiv units were out of Vietnam by November 1969.

The 4th Marine Regiment has a long and proud history of service to the United States of America and her people. Whatever mission assigned, the Marines of the 4th Regiment have distinguished themselves time and again through courage, devotion to one another, and unparalleled sacrifice in the completion of their mission.  Today, the 4th Marine Regiment remains part of the 3rd Marine Division and while its battalions continue to rotate in and out of global hotspots, the regimental headquarters is anchored at Camp Schwab, Okinawa.

Sources:

  1. Organization of the United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Reference Publication (MCRP) 5-12D. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 2015.
  2. Santelli, J. S. A Brief History of the Fourth Marines.  Washington: U. S. Marine Corps Historical Division, 1970

[1] Readiness infers continual combat training.  During this period of time, the 4th Marines participated in training exercises in Japan, on Okinawa, and on the island of Iwo Jima.

[2] Even peacetime and training duty is hazardous in the military.  During 3/4’s deployment to Inchon, a landing craft capsized in Inchon Harbor resulting in the death of 27 Marines and two Navy Corpsmen.

[3] Kennedy told James Reston of the NYT, “Now we have a problem making our power credible; Vietnam looks like the place.”

[4] Another hair-brained scheme devised by General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow.

[5] Republic of Vietnam Marine Division  (SưĐoàn Thy Quân Lc Chiến) (1953-1975).

[6] Paul X. Kelly served as the 28th Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1 July 1983 to 30 June 1987.

The Hill Fights

881-N
Hill 881N as seen from 881S

Increases in elevation on military maps are measured in meters above sea level.  A section of terrain that rises above its surroundings is generally regarded as a hill.  On military maps, hills are designated as a number that equates to the number of meters its summit rises above sea level.  For example, a hill designated 861 has a summit that rises 861 meters above sea level.  Note: Until the mid-twentieth century, the official definition of a hill was a rise in land with summits less than 1,000 feet above sea level, but this definition was abandoned.  Today, there is no official distinction between hills and mountains.

Hills aren’t uniform things, of course.  Some are natural formations, others are man-made (usually called mounds).  Forces of nature shape hills through erosion and land movement, producing such things as ridges and saddles.  And there are different kinds of hills.  A drumlin is a long hill formed by the movement of glaciers. A butte is a hill that stands alone in a flat landscape.  A tor is a rock formation on top of a hill.  A puy is a cone-shaped, volcanic hill, while a pingo is a mound of ice covered with earth.

Higher elevations allow humans to establish defenses, particularly when the hills are heavily forested or covered by thick shrub.  During the Viet Nam War, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) sought to make use of an extensive network of hills and caves to challenge US and South Vietnamese forces.  The hills in the northern regions of South Viet Nam did not stop the U. S. Marines from finding and killing them.

881-001This is an account of the First Battle of Khe Sanh, also known as the Hill Fights.  The NVA 325C Division [1] occupied significant portions of Hills 861, 881-S(outh), and 881-N(orth), which overlooked the Khe Sanh combat base in I Corps. On 20 April 1967, operational control of Khe Sanh passed to the 3rd Marine Regiment (3rd Marines).  The 3rd Marines had just initiated OPERATION PRAIRIE IV, and although the Khe Sanh area was not included as part of the operational area, it was a territorial appendage assigned to the 3rd Marines because that regiment was in the best position to oversee and reinforce the base if necessary.

On 22nd April the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines (2/3) commenced Operation BEACON STAR (a search and destroy operation) in the southern portion of Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces against elements of the VC 6th Regiment, which at the time included the 810th and 812th battalions.

On 23 April 1967 Marines of the first and third platoons of Company B, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment (B/1/9) were conducting security patrols (unrelated to Beacon Star) in the area north and east of Hill 861.  Late in the afternoon, the Bravo Company commander, Captain Michael W. Sayers [2], ordered these platoons to link up and establish a night position north of 861 in preparation for a sweep the following morning. Of interest to the Marines was a cave complex located to the northwest.

On 24 April 1967, 2ndLt Thomas G. King’s 2nd Platoon, B/1/9 led his 30 Marines and an 81mm mortar section to Hill 700, south of Hill 861.  Their mission was to provide additional fire support for a company sweep to the northwest.  Once the mortar section was in position, 1stLt Phil Sauer led four men (including a forward observer [3]) to the top of Hill 861 to establish an observation post.  As soon as the FO team entered a bamboo thicket NVA forces ambushed them.  The first Marine was instantly killed.  1stLt Sauer ordered a withdrawal, remaining behind firing at the enemy with his side arm as his men attempted to reach safety. Only the forward observer managed to escape.  This was the opening engagement of the First Battle of Khe Sanh [4].

2ndLt King, having lost radio contact [5] with the FO team, but being aware of the firefight, dispatched a rifle squad to investigate the incident.  As the squad moved forward, it came upon the FO, the team’s only survivor.  The squad returned to the area of contact to recover the other members of the team. Enemy fire kept them from retrieving the dead Marines.  The rifle squad returned to King’s mortar position.

King radioed for artillery support and then led another squad to the ambush site.  Marine artillery and air support missions pounded the hill with napalm, white phosphorous, 500-pound bombs, and gunship fire —measures that appeared to have no discernible effect on the enemy.  By the time King arrived back at the ambush site, the enemy had withdrawn, and he was able to recover two bodies.  Two other Marines were initially unaccounted for [6].

www.richard-seaman.com
USMC UH-34

King withdrew his men to a location suitable for helicopter landing and ignited a smoke grenade marking his position and called for a medevac.  A UH-34 came in for the extraction, but no sooner had its wheels touched the deck, the whole crest of Hill 861 opened up with automatic weapons.  The chopper was hit 35 times in a matter of seconds. King’s men took cover as two UH-1E gunship escorts delivered withering fire toward the enemy positions.  As the NVA fire fell off, King’s Marines loaded the bodies aboard the helicopter, and it took off.  King and his men returned to the mortar position.

King was soon joined by Captain Sayers, who radioed the first and third platoons to sweep further east across Hill 861 and strike the NVA from the rear.  The two platoons were positioned roughly 2,000 meters (1.2 miles) northwest of their new objective.  As these two platoons turned toward their new objective, five enemy mortars dropped among them, killing one Marine and wounded several others.  The Marine advance continued [7] until halted by intense enemy fire.

After an intense engagement, with Marines running low on ammunition, they withdrew back over the crest of the hill and called for medevac assistance for their wounded comrades.  Two landing attempts were thwarted by enemy fire; the grunts took several more casualties.  Sayers ordered them to withdraw to a more secure position and dig in the night.  From the outset, Sayers realized that the NVA presence on Hill 861 was formidable.  Bravo Company Marines (through good patrolling) had forced the NVA into a premature revelation of their plan to seize Khe Sanh [8].  NVA forces operating in the hills around Khe Sanh were about to receive more attention from the Marines than they had hoped for; in addition to an influx of more ground units, Hill 861 was soon receiving massive quantities of napalm and 500-pound bombs.  The NVA had broken cardinal rule number one: do not shoot at a US Marine.  Bravo Company’s losses for this day were 14 dead, 17 wounded.

The job of engaging the NVA in the hills around Khe Sanh fell to Colonel John P. Lanigan’s 3rd Marine Regiment.  Twenty-two years earlier, Lanigan had been engaged in a similar mission, one that earned him the Silver Star Medal during the Battle for Okinawa.  Prior to the incident involving King’s second platoon, Lanigan planned to replace Company B with K/3/3 on 29 April.  The events of 24th April changed that plan.

On the morning of 25 April, dense fog at Khe Sanh delayed the arrival of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines (3/3), commanded by LtCol Gary Wilder.  By the time 3/3 arrived at Khe Sanh,  Captain Sayers’ Bravo Company had begun its advance on Hill 861.  Heavy fog, difficult terrain, and concentrations of enemy fire hampered the company’s progress.  Radio communications with HQ 3rd Marines was hampered by the fact that Sayers did not have 3/3’s radio frequencies.  Sayers was also convinced that the enemy was monitoring radio communications, so he sent coded messages back to his rear echelon, who passed that information to the regimental headquarters.

Shortly after arriving at Khe Sanh, Colonel Wilder began moving his battalion north to assist B/1/9. Captain Bayliss L. Spivey, Jr., commanding Kilo Company 3/3 reached the base of Hill 861 around 1500 hours and deployed his platoons on two axes: first platoon moved up along a ridgeline, followed by the company command group.  Third platoon advanced along another ridgeline on the right flank.  Kilo’s under-strength second platoon provided security for the battalion command group and a 60mm mortar section.  Spivey had his Marines positioned for an attack at 1530. Artillery check fire was in effect as the Marines closed with the enemy.

On order from Spivey, First platoon (1PLT) continued its advance through the heavy foliage on the ridgeline.  Three hundred meters from the crest, 1PLT made contact with an NVA company-size unit and encountered heavy grazing fire from well-fortified positions and mortars from reverse slope locations.  US counter-mortar and artillery was ineffective in silencing NVA mortars. 1PLT continued its attack for another 200 meters, but by 1730, the platoon had been reduced to only ten combat-effective Marines.  With darkness approaching, Spivey needed additional Marines on the line.  Irregular terrain hindered 3PLT from providing immediate assistance.  Spivey requested the release of 2PLT from 3/3 and was soon engaged in heavy combat, which continued until nightfall.  Captain Spivey ordered his Marines to dig in for the night.

881-004Bravo Company also had a hard day.  Enemy fire prevented helicopter evacuations of Sayers’ wounded; attached Navy corpsmen were nearly exhausted.  Bravo company’s advance was limited to less than a half-mile to a position 800 meters northwest of Hill 861.

Heavy enemy resistance necessitated a call for more Marines. Captain J. E. Giles’ K/3/9 was flown to Khe Sanh from Camp Carroll.  Arriving after sundown, Giles’ company remained at Khe Sanh for the night.

The NVA launched a massive mortar assault against the 3/3 command group at 0500 on 26 April.  At the same time, NVA mortared the Khe Sanh combat base.  The shelling caused no damage at Khe Sanh, but the attack revealed a heavy NVA presence on Hill 881-S.  From information provided by Captain Sayers, Marine artillery blanketed the eastern slope of 881-S, which silenced the NVA’s recoilless rifles [9].  The mortars were more difficult to target.

K/3/9 departed Khe Sanh at 0800, arriving at the 3/3 command post (CP) at noon.  Spivey’s K/3/3 had been heavily engaged throughout the morning. NVA forces, operating from strongly fortified positions, repelled every attempt to seize the crest of the hill. By noon, Spivey’s 3PLT had taken so many casualties that it was unable to withdraw.  Wilder ordered Giles to send two platoons to help Spivey disengage and evacuate the dead and wounded.  The two companies linked up, but despite the effective use of helicopter gunships, efforts to disengage lasted until 1900.

Sayers’ Bravo company was also stopped by fierce enemy resistance.  Well-concealed enemy allowed the Marines to advance to within five meters before opening up on them.  It was a killing zone.  Sayers and his first sergeant were wounded.  NVA mortars produced additional casualties.  Nevertheless, Bravo Company gained fire superiority at noon, and the enemy withdrew.  Sayers moved his Marines to the top of a small knoll and called for medevac assistance. As the helicopters began the descent, the Marines waived them off because the aircraft were helping the NVA to pinpoint their position.  At 1445, Sayers informed Wilder that he had so many casualties he could not move his Marines further.

Colonel Wilder ordered Sayers to leave his dead and bring out his wounded.  Sayers reiterated that he could not move, even with only his wounded. Resupply was impossible.  Bravo Company had five operational radios remaining; batteries were running low.  Captain Glen Golden, commanding Battery F, 12th Marines at Khe Sanh, managed to place a ring of steel around Sayer’s position.

Wilder sent Giles and his one remaining platoon to assist Sayers.  It took Giles four hours to reach Company B.  Under the cover of darkness, heavy fog and rain, Giles and Sayers began their withdrawal.  Every man (except point and rear guard) carried stretchers of wounded and dead Marines and their equipment.  The weary Marines finally reached Wilder’s CP at 0500 on 27 April.  The few Bravo Company Marines who remained effective refused to ride trucks back to Khe Sanh.  They marched in.

Commanding the 3rd Marine Division, Major General Bruno Hochmuth [10] realized that 3/3 was an insufficient force to carry Hill 861. He shifted the Special Landing Force [11] (SLF) Battalion (2/3) under LtCol Earl R. Delong back to the 3rd Marines.  2/3 had been conducting Operation BEACON STAR at a location 16  miles north of Hue City.  The battalion was loaded on to helicopters beginning around noon on 26 April and flown to Phu Bai.  From there, the battalion was loaded aboard C-130s and dispatched to Khe Sanh.  By 1600, the 2/3 command group and letter companies E, G, and H had arrived and began their movement toward Hill 861. 2/3 set into night positions 500 meters east of Wilder’s battalion.

27 April was a day for preparations.  3/3 completed medevac operations by 1130 and moved to Khe Sanh for replacements.  Colonel Lanigan transferred M/3/9 and M/3/3 to Wilder’s battalion as relief for K/3/3 and B/1/9 —both of which were no longer capable of combat operations.  F/2/3 arrived from Phu Bai and was assigned as regimental reserve.  Battery B 12th Marines arrived at Khe Sanh at 1900 and was ready for firing missions by 2045.  Together, Batteries B and F had linked in such a manner as to allow them to perform artillery support as an artillery group.  Each battery served in direct support of an infantry battalion; two 155mm howitzers and two 4.2-inch mortars were allocated as general support of regimental operations.

Throughout 27-28th April, artillery and air delivered munitions focused on the NVA positions. The Army’s 175mm guns, situated farther east, began pouring high explosives onto Hill 861.  It was a 24-hour long onslaught of artillery and air-delivery munitions.  Snake-eye [12] munitions were used to clear away the dense vegetation so that other aircraft, armed with 750, 1,000, and 2,000-pound bombs could destroy the NVA’s well-fortified bunkers.  A preponderance of these air missions were performed by the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW).

Late in the afternoon of 28 April, the infantry was ready to resume their attack.  Colonel Lanigan decided on a two-battalion assault to achieve three objectives: Hill 861 was Objective 1; Hill 881-S was Objective 2; Hill 881-N was the final objective.  Delong’s 2/3 would seize Objective 1 on 28 April.  Wilder’s 3/3 would follow 2/3.  After Delong achieved his objective, Wilder’s Marines would turn west, secure the ground between 861 and 881-S, then assault Objective 2 from the northeast.  As Wilder went into the attack, Delong would consolidate Objective 1 and then move out toward 881-N, screening Wilder’s right flank, reinforcing him if necessary. After securing Objectives 1 and 2, Delong would continue on to achieve Objective 3, Hill 881-N.

861-002Following preparatory fires, 2/3 assaulted 861 with two companies abreast.  Beyond sporadic mortar fire, there was no NVA resistance; the NVA had withdrawn.  Both companies dug in on the crest, the command group and reserve took up positions on the southern slope.  The stench of human remains permeated the entire hill. Marines discovered more than 400 mutually supporting fighting holes and 25 interlocking reinforced bunkers.

Once Delong declared 861 secure, 3/3 took up their position on the west flank of 2/3.  Wilder began his advance early the next morning. M/3/9 was the lead element.  At 1120, Mike Company’s point encountered an NVA platoon is a draw.  The company commander called for artillery and air support.  At about the same time, M/3/3 advanced to take the lead. Objective 2 was achieved at around 1915 with scant enemy contact.  3/3 dug in for the night.  Shortly after laying in their defenses, M/3/3 observed an NVA mortar team attempting to set up on Hill 881S and called in artillery.  The NVA were able to fire four rounds before being dusted by the 12th Marines.  An hour later, Marine listening posts (LPs) detected enemy movement outside their perimeter.  The company FO adjusted variable time (VT) fuzed artillery fire [13] on the enemy’s position.  Marines could hear the NVA screaming as artillery destroyed them. The Marines were not bothered for the rest of the night.

At first light on 30 April, Wilder prepared to assault 881-S and Delong moved off 861.  Delong’s mission was to clear the area on Wilder’s right flank and secure positions for the assault on Objective 3.  Company H 3/3 encountered two NVA platoons in a bunker complex.  After a particularly vicious firefight, Hotel Company backed off to evacuate casualties: 9 dead, 43 wounded.  Artillery fire was directed onto the NVA positions.  Later that day, Hotel 3/3 assaulted the bunker complex and secured it. Of this assault, the Marines concluded that the NVA regular was every bit as fanatical as the World War II Japanese Imperial Army.

The next morning, following preparatory fires, Colonel Wilder began his assault on 881-S.  He wasn’t sure where the NVA positions were, but 33 air sorties and 1,300 artillery rounds should have done some damage.  The terrain on Wilder’s approach was broken, restricted access to the ridge line, and severely constrained the maneuver of his line companies.  M/3/3 took the lead, followed by K/3/9.  By 1030, the lead platoon reached the western end of the top of the hill, having encountered only occasional small arms fire.  A second platoon moved up and together launched an assault on enemy positions.

NVA defended with automatic weapons from well-concealed bunkers and accurate sniper fire.  Thirty mortar rounds fell on these Marines.  They were stuck —unable to advance or withdraw.  NVA infantry from bypassed (unseen) bunkers blocked their way out.  K Company and the 3rd platoon of Mike Company advanced into the savage battle.  UH-1E gunships and attack aircraft streaked in dropping bombs within 50 meters of the Marine line.  Wilder ordered his Marines to disengage and pull back off the hill.  It took the Marines several hours to disentangle themselves.  They brought out their wounded but could not evacuate the dead.  Forty-three Marines were killed, 109 were wounded. Mike Company was rendered ineffective.

Fox Company 2/3 was brought in from reserve.  With the reserve committed and no other to replace it, General Hochmuth committed another rifle company to the hill fight: Company E 2/9 was flown in to Khe Sanh.  Marine artillery and aircraft reengaged Hill 881-S.

Wilder was ready to resume his attack on the morning of 2 May.  M/3/9 and K/3/9 led off in that order.  By 1420, the Marines had secured the hill, having encountered only sporadic sniper fire.  Wilder established his CP on 881-S and dug in for the night with two assault companies. F/2/9, the most recent arrival, took up a position on the intermediate objective.

The NVA had prepared around 250 bunkers on Hill 881-S.  After four days of heavy air strikes and artillery fire, 50 of these remained. The bunkers were wired for communications and arranged with interlocking fields of fire.  The extent of these bunkers surprised the Marines, but their discovery alerted Colonel Delong of what he might expect on 881-N.

Since 28 April, Delong’s Marines had been sweeping the area northwest of the hill, carefully checking its ravines and ridgelines.  By the morning of 2 May, Delong was ready to begin his objective.  Echo Company 2/3 assaulted the hill from the south; Golf 2/3 moved in from the east.  Hotel 2/3 was in reserve between the maneuver companies.  Golf made contact almost immediately and after a brief firefight, moved back and called in artillery.  After the artillery was lifted, Golf moved forward again, encountering automatic weapons fire and mortars.  Additional supporting arms silenced the enemy.  Hotel Company moved into position to support Golf and also came under mortar fire, which ceased when Golf called in for additional artillery.

Echo Company had almost battled its way to the crest of the hill when a fierce rain squall lashed at the hills.  Delong, realizing that control of his men under these circumstances would be impossible, pulled the battalion back to a more defensible position and ordered his Marines to dig in for the night.  Early in the morning of 3 May, the NVA launched a strong counter-attack.  Echo Company set in on a small hill 500 meters south of Hill 881-N received small arms fire and incoming mortars.  This was followed by a two-company NVA assault.  The engagement soon devolved into hand-to-hand combat with the NVA penetrating the line on the northeast quarter. The NVA either killed or wounded all the Marines in this area.  They then moved into a tree line in the middle of the company position and reoccupied bunkers that the engineers had yet to destroy.

106mm Recoiless RifleAbout ten minutes after the initial attack, First Lieutenant Frank Izenour (whose platoon held the western section of the perimeter), received orders to take a squad of Marines and seal off the penetration. With the second squad in tow, Izenour moved forward but was immediately taken under fire by two machine gun positions; several of his men were hit.  Izenour called for reinforcements.

Captain Alfred Lyon did not want to weaken the 1st platoon further, so he organized eleven engineers and sent them into the fight.  Both squads took positions on the left edge of the penetration and fired into the enemy’s flank.  With the help of artillery and on-call gunships, the Marines stalled the NVA attack, but Izenour still did not have sufficient strength to drive out two companies of NVA regulars.  A flare ship arrived and transformed the dark of night into day.  From 881-S, the Marines of 3/3 could see about 200 NVA soldiers moving toward Echo Company from the west.  106mm recoilless rifles were quickly positioned; 100 rounds were fired into the enemy’s flank, which broke up the assault.  Additional artillery pounded the NVA as they withdrew.

881-003By first light, the Marines had shattered the NVA attack, but some enemy soldiers remained inside the company perimeter.  At 0700, Fox 2/3 moved into the line and one platoon was quickly transferred by helicopter to Echo Company’s position.  These Marines immediately attacked the southern edge of the penetration.  Delong ordered Hotel Company to close in on the enemy’s rear.  Echo and Hotel companies finally managed to seal the breach. After a short rest, Hotel Company began the difficult task of eliminating NVA in the bunkers and tree line. Bitter close-quarters fighting continued until 1500 when the company commander declared all bunkers cleared of the enemy.  The NVA had fought to the last man.  Company E lost 27 Marines KIA with 84 wounded.  NVA dead covered the battle area.  Only three prisoners were taken, these all admitting that another attack was scheduled for the night of 4 May.

Despite Delong’s preparations for that night, the expected attack never came.  Instead, an NVA company attacked the Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei.  The attack had no effect on The Hill Fight, but it was a tactical victory for the NVA, who quickly penetrated the camp’s defenses and killed everyone they could find, including the Special Forces Detachment Commander and his Executive Officer. The NVA then began destroying vital equipment.  Despite artillery fire from the Marines at Khe Sanh, the NVA withdrew with only light casualties.  South Vietnamese irregulars at Lang Vei were destroyed: 20 killed, 39 missing.

Given the attack at Lang Vei, General Hochmuth ordered Company C, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines flown in from Phu Bai to bolster security at Khe Sanh.  On 5 May, Delong’s Marines advanced toward the final objective. While organizing his Marines for the assault, artillery and air strikes dropped tons of munitions on Hill 881-N. E/2/3 and F/2/3 took the lead, meeting steadily increasing resistance.  The Marines halted their advance on several occasions while additional artillery could soften up the enemy’s opposition.  Echo Company established a base of fire while Fox Company resumed the advance and Golf Company made an envelopment maneuver.  By now, the only resistance encountered was sporadic sniper fire.  2/3 achieved the objective at 1445.

For the next three days, Marines conducted sweeps of the area, searching the hills for any additional NVA presence.  Engineers destroyed all remaining bunkers.  Marine air attacked suspected enemy positions to the north and west. Air observers reported enemy troops moving toward the northwest, indicating that the 325C Division was withdrawing toward Laos and North Vietnam.

During The Hill Fight, 1stMAW flew more than 1,100 sorties, expended 1,900 tons of ordnance.  USAF B-52s made 23 air strikes against enemy concentrations.  Combined Marine and Army artillery fired 25,000 rounds.  NVA casualties between 24 April and 11 May stood at 940 confirmed killed. Of the Marines, 155 were killed in action, 423 suffered combat wounds.

Sources:

  1. Telfer, G. L. and others. U. S. Marines in Viet Nam: Fighting the North Vietnamese.  History & Museums Division, HQ U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C.  1984
  2. “Arrow of Death.” Time Magazine, 12 May 1967

Endnotes:

[1] The 325th Infantry Division was first formed in 1951 from independent units in Thua Thien Province, one of six “iron and steel” divisions of the Viet Minh.  The 325th Division remains part of the Army of Viet Nam.

[2] Sayers was responsible for the security of the Khe Sanh combat base.  Conducting security patrols in the surrounding area was part of that responsibility.

[3] Forward observers are trained to direct artillery and close air support to enemy positions within the battle space.

[4] Communist gunners held their fire until Marines were at near point-blank distance from concealed machine gun positions and made liberal use of their 82mm mortars, the blasting radius of which was about 40 meters.

[5] Line of sight propagation is a characteristic of electromagnetic radiation or acoustic wave propagation.  The means that radio waves travel in a direct path from source to receiver. Mountainous terrain interrupts these signals.

[6] The bodies of the two missing Marines were later found.  The NVA had decapitated them.

[7] Advancing toward the enemy is a standard defense against mortar attack.

[8] The NVA plan for Khe Sanh was a rehash of the one they had used against the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  First, a major effort to build up troops and supplies; second, isolation of Khe Sanh by targeting helicopters and cutting the main supply route; third, launch diversionary assaults at Con Thien, Dong Ha, Gio Linh, Phu Bai, and Lang Vei.

[9] Recoilless rifles provide a lightweight artillery capability to forward units.  It fires a 105mm shell that has a destructive effect on troops operating in mountainous areas where heavy artillery is much too cumbersome.

[10] MajGen Hochmuth was killed on 14 November 1967 when his helicopter exploded mid-air.  Hochmuth was the most senior US military officer killed in the Viet Nam War.  He was succeeded in command by BrigGen Louis Metzger, the Assistant Division Commander, previously Commanding General, 9thMAB.

[11] The special landing forces belonged to the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade as part of a naval task force, designated Task Force 79.  When the SLF went ashore, operational control of the battalion landing teams (BLTs) were transferred to the senior operational commander ashore.

[12] Snake-eye refers to the high drag fin system of the Mk-82 bomb, but the fin configuration was also used on all Mk-8 series munitions.  The Mk-82 is an unguided, low drag, general purpose bomb.  In low-level operations, it is possible for the delivery aircraft to receive damage from the blast and fragmentation effects of the bomb because the aircraft and bomb arrive at the target very close to the same time.  This was the reason for the high-drag tail fin configuration.

[13] VT fuze detonates an artillery round several meters above the ground, which increases fragmentation and kill radius.  Air bursts are especially effective against troops in the open or in unprotected positions, such as fox holes or open trenches.

Vietnam Counterinsurgency

Phoenix 001Designed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Phoenix program evolved into a cooperative effort between US, South Vietnam, and the Australian military.  It was designed to identify and destroy Communist Viet Cong infrastructure through infiltration, capture, interrogation, and assassination.  This all may sound hideous now, but in the late 1950s and the next ten years, some of the worst abominations were committed against innocent peasants by the Viet Cong.  To stabilize the South Vietnamese government, it was necessary to find out who these people were, and deal with them.

This is precisely what the Phoenix program did.  By 1972, Phoenix operatives had neutralized a bit under 82,000 suspected Viet Cong operatives, informants, and shadow-government cadres.  Sounds bad, I suppose.  Yet, at the same time, Viet Cong murdered 34,000 South Vietnamese village officials, innocent by-standers, and district or provincial civil servants.  As soon as the NVA and VC units had seized Hue City in 1968, they immediately began rounding up and killing civil servants, priests, teachers, any foreigner they could find, and anyone found at the US Special Forces compound.

History doesn’t change, only man’s perceptions of it.  Those who have never placed themselves in harm’s way are quick to criticize the program’s methods and results, never thinking what a blight upon humanity the Viet Cong were.  And by the way, I was in Vietnam in 2012; the deportment of Vietnamese uniformed personnel toward any and all foreigners hasn’t changed from the days when NVA and VC contemptuously beheaded fallen soldiers and marines.  The communists were then, and remain now, pure evil.

The main players in the Phoenix program were the CIA (in a supervisory role), USMACV (both military and civilian agencies), the government of South Vietnam, and the Australian special forces.  Speaking of this today, there appears three points of view: (1) Phoenix was a low-cost, well-coordinated, targeted effort to eliminate a ruthlessly vile enemy; (2) It was a counterinsurgency program run amok, and (3) A balanced analysis of historical fact.

Let’s take a look at it—because there are consequences to every human decision.  In history, we sometimes refer to these decisions and their resulting actions as “causes and effects.”  There may be one or more causes of an event, and these may produce any number of effects. Whenever we make important decisions, we hope (and sometimes pray) that there are no unintended consequences.  It does happen—and while there is not a lot we can do once Pandora’s box is opened, we should at least learn important lessons from our foopahs.

Background

A sense of nationalism (national and cultural unity) began in Vietnam around 3,000 years ago—at a time when the Vietnamese lived in two independent kingdoms.  Since then, the Vietnamese have constantly rejected (often through war) foreign meddling by the Chinese, Champs, Khmers, Siamese, French (twice), Japanese, internal civil strife, and then finally, the Americans.

Before World War II, Vietnam was colonized and brutalized by France.  By the time the Japanese enveloped Indochina, France was an ally of Japan and Germany.  Throughout Japanese occupation, an official French presence remained in Hanoi (even if it was ignored by the Japanese).  In September 1945, the Japanese Empire was defeated.  France quickly moved to recover its former colony. Vietnamese Nationalists had a different preference.

One of these nationalists was a communist named Ho Chi Minh (not his real name).  He wasted no time announcing the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  It was a short-lived republic, however.  Nationalist Chinese and British occupation forces sided with the anti-communist Vietnamese who, having had enough slavery under French colonialism, rejected slavery under a communist regime.  Anti-communist Vietnamese were well-aware of what Stalin did to the Russian people between 1924 and 1945.

Vietnam held its first national assembly election in 1946.  Central and northern Vietnamese favored the communist ticket [1], those living in the south —not so much.  Then, France attempted to reclaim its previous authority by force —an unpopular move among many (but not all) Vietnamese.  It was the beginning of the First Indochina War and it lasted until 1953.

After the French defeat in 1953, the United States stepped in to help broker an agreement that would bring peace to the region.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  The 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation.  Ho Chi Minh ruled the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north from Hanoi, and Ngo Dinh Diem ruled the Republic of Vietnam in the south from Saigon.

Between 1953 and 1956, North Vietnam instituted oppressive reforms.  Witness testimony from those living in the north suggested a government run assassination campaign that produced a murder ratio of one for every 160 residents.  If true, then the North Vietnamese regime murdered upwards of 100,000 people.  Today we think this number is a bit high, but it is true that an awful lot of people were brutalized and murdered.

As Ho Chi Minh crushed his people in the north, Ngo Dinh Diem crushed his people living in the south, carrying out murderous campaigns against political and religious opponents.

Today we can conclude that America’s involvement in South Vietnamese affairs was a massive mistake, but we should remember that there were other things going on in the world. President Truman had a lot of irons in the fire after 1946, and he wasn’t all that bright to begin with. The United States became involved with Vietnam as a consequence of its trying to convince France to relinquish its former colonies and to join an emerging NATO alliance.  Ultimately, tens of millions of American tax dollars went to French Indochina and then later, to the newly created Republic of Vietnam.  It was a commitment inherited by President Eisenhower who, to his credit, refused to engage the United States militarily beyond providing arms, equipment, and a small cadre of military and civil advisors.

The Second Indochina War broke out in 1954.  It was more on the order of a civil war between the communist north and the non-communist south.  Ho Chi Minh sought to unify Vietnam under his rule.  Ngo Dinh Diem sought to unite Vietnam under his rule [2].  Vietnam entered into a period of bloody civil war and the United States became South Vietnam’s proxy much in the same way that China became North Vietnam’s source of support.  Of course, there was one difference between the two Vietnam’s: Diem focused on consolidating his power in the south; Ho Chi Minh’s ruthlessness between 1946 and 1957 solved his problem.  Not having a lot of people nipping at his heals allowed Uncle Ho to initiate a communist insurgency in the south.  There are several names for these insurgents.  We mostly remember them as Viet Cong.

The Viet Cong Insurgency

Recall that most Vietnamese from the central highlands who participated in the first national assembly (1946) threw their support behind the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the communist regime). According to the 1954 Geneva accord, the people of Vietnam could relocate to one country or the other, of their choosing, through 1956.  In the mean, the shift in populations north or south was probably even.  Around 90,000 pro-communist Vietnamese relocated to the north; 10,000 of like persuasion remained behind.  Of those migrating south, some percentage were no doubt sent into the south to agitate.

From these pro-communist factions came the Viet Cong, or more formerly, the National Liberation Front and the People’s Liberation Army.  Their task of creating an insurgency was made easier by the fact that Diem was a tyrant [3].  It wasn’t long before the communists began a campaign of assassination and intimidation. They called it “exterminating traitors.” Another euphemism was “armed propaganda.”

The North Vietnamese Communist Party approved a people’s war on the South in January 1959.  Arms began flowing into the south along the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos.  A communist command center was created, called the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN).  Afterwards, with increasing frequency, communist insurgents began targeting US military and civilian advisors.  Bombings in Saigon were becoming more frequent.

The People’s War was waged primarily in the rural areas, home to a vast majority of South Vietnam’s (then) 16 million inhabitants.  Central to the task of fomenting rebellion and revolution in the countryside was what the Americans called the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) —a shadow government called the People’s Revolutionary Party and the National Liberation Front. NLF subcommittees existed in secret alongside South Vietnam’s political entities at the village, district, provincial and national levels.  A key mission of VCI was providing support to local communist military units: recruitment, intelligence-gathering, logistics support, and obtaining needed funds.  To achieve this last task, the VCI imposed taxes on peasant farmers and business owners.  People who refused to pay (or were unable to pay) simply disappeared. It was quite an operation: the Republic of South Vietnam governed during the day, the VCI governed at night.

VCI success depended in large measure on its ability to break the Vietnamese peasant’s strong kinship, adherence to tradition, including literally thousands of demonstrations where the village head man was humiliated in front of his villagers to emphasize the fact that the National Liberation Front would no longer tolerate adherence to the old ways.  Officials disappeared with amazing regularity.

In 1967, VCI teams numbered as many as 100,000 willing insurgents.  Most of South Vietnam’s efforts and resources, and those of the US military, went toward combating guerrillas and main-force units.  Citizen Nguyen was caught in the middle. Something had to be done.

Counter-insurgency

US and allied efforts haven’t all been 007ish.  Beginning in the early 1960s, and with the assistance of the USA, RVN launched a series of programs to identify, disrupt, and dismantle the VC’s shadow-government. Now anyone who suggests that this was a wrong move, or inappropriate, needs a few reality checks.  I wonder what the United States would do today if suddenly an insurgency developed from within our largest (and most dangerous) cities. Slap on the wrist, perhaps?  And, as they tried to destroy the VC shadow government, they stepped up military operations against VC and NVA units. Again, how would the US react to Mexico smuggling dangerous weapons across our border and putting them into the hands of MS-13 thugs?

Here are a few of the programs implemented under the Phoenix umbrella:

(1) The Open Arms program, beginning in 1963.  It offered amnesty and resettlement to encourage defections from the VC.  Through this one program, close to 200,000 people came in and spilled their guts about the VC: who, what, where, and how.  We already knew the why.

(2) Census Grievance Program sought to interview family members to see how the government could be more responsive to the needs of average families. Actually, the questions were asked in such a way as to elicit information about VC activities in that locality.  This ploy generated more information than RVN officials could manage.  It was the time before computers.

(3) Counter-Terror Teams attempted to mirror the VC counterparts.  These individuals were organized, trained, and equipped by the CIA to perform small-unit operations within VC dominated areas.  The teams were to capture or kill members of the VCI.  Success was personality driven.  Some teams were effective, others not so much.  If one looks hard enough, it was possible to find corruption at every level of Vietnamese government and society.  It was true in 1960, its’ true today.  A lot of people died under the auspices of this program.  If someone made a mistake, well … you can’t bring them back.

As previously mentioned, the program was the brainchild the CIA, but Army Special Forces and other snake eaters loved it.  It was great fun.  Thousands of people running around killing other thousands.  But while it did reduce the number of VC (and some of the RVNs as well), it really didn’t do much for the rice farmer who just wanted everyone to leave him alone.  More to the point, Phoenix didn’t save South Vietnam, either.

The Marine Corps had a better idea —one that General Westmoreland, the MACV commander absolutely detested and fought against.  The Combined Action Program (CAP) began in 1965 as an operational initiative/counterinsurgency program whereby a Marine rifle squad of thirteen Marines and one attached U. S. Navy Corpsman was placed within or adjacent to a rural Vietnamese village or hamlet to provide security to the villagers.  The Marine squad was augmented by a Vietnamese Popular Forces (PF) squad consisting mostly of individuals too young or too old for active service with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

CAP was not a perfect counterinsurgency tool, however; there were problems:

  • Training for Marines/Navy personnel assigned to CAP was inadequate. The in-country school consisted of two weeks of orientation to Vietnamese history and culture.  Under the best of circumstances, Marine volunteers spoke only rudimentary Vietnamese, so at the very outset, there was a language deficiency.
  • Marines assigned to the CAP first served half of their 13-month in-country tour of duty with a regular rifle company. Unless these Marines “extended” their tours of duty in Vietnam, they would rotate back to the United States within six or so months.  Frequent turnovers of key personnel resulted in a lack of continuity.
  • The program was personality dependent. Squad leaders who were fully engaged and proactive in this mission helped to produce quality results within the village.  Not every NCO was detail oriented, and these kinds of situations produced villagers who would not cooperate with the Marines and, in fact, may have created the greatest danger to CAP personnel.
  • Not every village could produce a sufficient number of Vietnamese to serve in a PF contingent. Whenever villages communicated apathy to the Marines, too often the Marines developed a “to hell with it” mindset.  It was for this reason that program managers wanted only the best sergeants to serve as NCOIC of the CAP.  This didn’t always happen, however.

The genesis of the Combined Action Program/Platoon was the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual (1940), which was developed over many years from Marine Corps experience in the Caribbean/Central America during the so-called Banana Wars.  Between 1915-1933, Marines learned how to defeat a counterinsurgency —they passed these lesson on to future generations.  Was the CAP successful?  The answer is “mostly,” but the only people who can authoritatively answer this question are those who served in Combined Action Platoons.  I’ve provided a few posts about the CAP in the past:

Go ahead and check them out. I’ll be here if you have any questions.

Sources:

  1. Combined Action Platoons: A Possible Role in the Low-Intensity Conflict Environment, Major Charles W. Driest, USMC, School of Advanced Military Studies, U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1990
  2. The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency, William Rosenau and Austin Long, National Defense Research Institute, The RAND Corporation, 2009

Endnotes:

[1] Communist agents employed a wide range of strategies to secure a pro-communist referendum, including the murder of non-communist politicians and intimidation at polling stations.

[2] Lyndon Johnson told the American people that it was necessary to commit US forces in defense of South Vietnam.  It was only partially true.  The series of South Vietnamese presidents following (but also including) Diem had every intention to unify the country under his own flag.  American troops were fighting and dying in Vietnam in furtherance of this goal.

[3] Ngo Dinh Diem had unique problems in the south.  Culturally, they were fiercely independent and wanted to stay that way.  In the vacuum of repatriated Japanese, war lords began taking control of large areas of South Vietnam.  Diem acted harshly to squash these gangsters.  Ho Chi Minh never had these kinds of problems.  The people of North Vietnam were used to doing what they were told.

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.