The Very Next Day

(Continued from last week)

Introduction

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

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

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

Background

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

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

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

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

Enemies

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

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

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

Nguyen Van Loan

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

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

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

Photo by Eddie Adams, 1968

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

The rest of the story

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

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

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

Rear Admiral Huan T. Nguyen, USN

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

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

Endnotes:

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

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


Battleground Saigon — 1968

Background

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

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

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

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

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

The Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Major Robert J. O’Brien, USMC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Continued next week)

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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





The Spook

Edward Geary Lansdale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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


The Playboy Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semper Fidelis

Major Paul Webb Chapman, USMC (Retired)

Playboy 37

Operation Buffalo

July 1967

Some Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Operation Buffalo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

[4] Awarded Navy Cross for this action.

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

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

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

[8] Awarded Navy Cross Medal.

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

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


Special Landing force

America’s flashing sword

Background

Late in October 1914, two Ottoman warships (operating under the command of German officers) conducted a raid in the Black Sea.  They bombarded the Ukrainian port of Odessa and sank several ships.  Two days later, the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany against Russia.  Before the end of the year, the central powers had badly mauled British and French forces on the Western Front and effectively cut off overland trade routes by blockading the entrance to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles and cutting Russia off from resupply.

Winston Churchill, 1914

Although the idea to attack the Ottoman Empire originally came from French Minister Aristide Briand, the United Kingdom defeated the motion because the British hoped to convince the Turks to join the Allied effort.  Later, however, First Sea Lord Winston Churchill (who was then 41-years old) proposed a naval campaign to attack the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli, a peninsula located in the southern portion of  East Thrace, east of the Aegean Sea and west of the Dardanelles.  Churchill’s plan intended to threaten Constantinople, protect the Suez Canal, and open up a warm-water supply route through the Black Sea.

All good plans fall apart sooner or later.  In this case, the First Sea Lord didn’t know much about military operations beyond the small unit level and virtually nothing about naval warfare.  Consequently, the intelligence used to formulate the Gallipoli campaign was flawed.  After eight months of fighting, each side lost a quarter of a million men.  It was a resounding defeat for the Entente Powers, Turkey gained international prestige, and Churchill nearly lost his political career.  However, the operation did help propel the Turks toward their war of independence eight years later and prompted Australia and New Zealand to reconsider their relationship with the British Empire.

Following the First World War, the Gallipoli campaign led many military theorists to conclude that amphibious warfare was folly.  These experts decided that given the weapons of modern warfare, there was no way that a seaborne organization could force its way ashore and defeat a well-entrenched enemy.  It was not a belief shared by intellectuals in the United States Navy and Marine Corps, who began a protracted study of amphibious warfare capability in the 1920s.  They became convinced that successful amphibious operations were possible and set about discovering how to do it.

Between 1921 and 1939, Navy-Marine Corps war planners created the capabilities necessary for success in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.  Through innovative thinking, trial, and error, the work accomplished by Navy and Marine Corps officers allowed the allied powers to project military power across vast oceans, wrest the continent of Europe away from the Axis powers, and seize Pacific bases on the long road to Japan.  Not only did the Navy-Marine Corps develop Amphibious Warfare Doctrine, but they also taught it to the armies of the United States and Great Britain for use in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the invasion of the Atlantic.

Since then, the Navy and Marine Corps have continually evaluated and improved US amphibious doctrine.  Today, naval operations include pre-positioned logistics ships, carrier-borne close air support of amphibious forces, and vertical lift assault capabilities.  These competencies are what makes the Navy-Marine Corps team relevant to America’s national defense — even despite the ridiculous assertion of General of the Army Omar Bradley, who while serving as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1949 said, “I predict that large scale amphibious operations will never occur again.”  He could not have been more wrong.  General Bradley was apparently unaware of the observation by Karl von Clausewitz in 1832: “A swift and vigorous transition to attack — the flashing sword of vengeance — is the most brilliant point of the defense.”  Modern naval warfare capability is America’s flashing sword.  The only question is whether political leaders have the will to employ it in the nation’s defense.

Organizational Overview

The Navy and Marine Corps meet the challenges of a wide range of contingencies through task force organization.  All naval task forces are mission-centered, which is to say that both the Navy and Marine Corps organize their combat units for one or more specific missions.  All Marine Corps combat units are capable of becoming part of an air-ground task force, referred to as MAGTF, which consists of a ground combat element (GCE), air combat element (ACE), and a combat logistics element (CLE).

MAGTFs are organized under a single commander and structured to accomplish one or more specific missions.  According to official Marine Corps doctrine, “A Marine air-ground task force with separate air-ground headquarters is normally formed for combat operations and training exercises in which substantial combat forces of both Marine aviation and Marine ground units are part of the task organization of participating Marine forces.”

The basic organization of a MAGTF is the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) — generally organized as follows:

  • The MEU command element (CE) includes a colonel (commanding officer) supported by a regular staff: S-1 (Manpower), S-2 (Intelligence), S-3 (Operations/Training), S-4 (Logistics), S-6 (Communications), naval gunfire liaison, and other special staff personnel.  The MEU CE includes about 200 Marines and sailors.
  • The GCE is a reinforced infantry battalion called a battalion landing team (BLT), commanded by a lieutenant colonel.  A BLT is a reinforced battalion consisting of three rifle companies, a weapons company, and a headquarters and service company.  Depending on the MEU’s mission, reinforcements may include an artillery battery, armored vehicle platoons, reconnaissance platoons, attached U. S. Navy field corpsmen, and a detachment of combat engineers.  All members of the BLT are trained to conduct seaborne operations in several landing craft variants and tiltrotor vertical assault operations.  A BLT will contain between 950-1,200 Marines.
  • The ACE is usually a composite air squadron (reinforced) commanded by a lieutenant colonel.  The ACE includes a medium tiltrotor squadron augmented by detachments of heavy, light, and attack helicopters, one detachment of amphibious flight deck capable jet aircraft, and a Marine air control group detachment with tactical air, traffic control, direct air support, and anti-aircraft defense assets.  The ACE also includes headquarters, communications, and logistical support personnel.  The number of personnel in a typical MEU ACE is around 600 troops.
  • The CLE is Combat Logistics Battalion.  A major or lieutenant colonel commands the CLB, responsible for providing service support, intermediate maintenance, intermediate supply, transportation, explosive ordnance technology, utilities, and bulk fuel.  The CLB consists of approximately 400-500 Marines.

The size of a MAGTF may expand if its mission increases in scope.  A more extensive operation may demand a larger MAGTF organization, such as a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB).  The MEB consists of a regimental combat team (RCT), a composite Marine Aircraft Group, and a Combat Logistics Regiment.  The officer commanding an MEB is usually a brigadier general.  The MEB can function as part of a joint task force, as the lead element of a Marine Expeditionary Force, or alone.

Any mission that exceeds the capability of a brigade will involve a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF).  A MEF commander is usually a lieutenant general who exercises operational authority over a reinforced Marine infantry division, reinforced Marine aircraft wing, and a Combat Logistics Group.

Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force

The Navy’s Amphibious Ready Group consists of an amphibious task force (ATF) and an amphibious landing force called Special Landing Force (SLF).  The ARG/SLF  was first established in 1960.  The SLF deployed to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) as part of the first deployment of American ground forces.  The 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (BLT 2/9) served as the SLF to support the Marine expeditionary landing at Da Nang in March 1965.  In mid-April, III MAF temporarily dissolved the SLF because its amphibious assets were required to support the 3rd Marine Amphibious Brigade (3rdMAB) landing at Chu Lai.

Subsequently, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) and the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (CG FMFPac) outlined the advantages of maintaining an amphibious capability in support of the Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) — a dedicated force for conducting amphibious raids, assaults, and floating reserve.

President Lyndon Johnson’s formal commitment of US military forces to RVN in March 1965 presented General William C. Westmoreland (COMUSMACV) with a dilemma.  As a military assistance/advisory commander, Westmoreland lacked sufficient ground combat forces to meet threats imposed by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces operating in the central highlands.  Without adequate ground troops, General Westmoreland had no way of defending US military installations, particularly those in the area of Qui Nhon, where the threat of VC hostilities was most imminent.  US Army units and allied forces from South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand would not arrive in RVN until June.  Westmoreland didn’t like it, but he had no choice but to turn to the Marines for security.  Accordingly, the National Military Command Center (NMCC) directed the Commanding General, Third Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), to provide air/ground security operations until the arrival of the Army’s ground combat forces.

III MEF[1] headquarters was located in Okinawa.  Its ground combat subordinate was the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), also located in Okinawa.  3rdMarDiv routinely provided two BLTs to the Commander, US Seventh Fleet (COMSEVENTHFLT), to satisfy the landing force requirement for two special landing forces (designated SLF(A) and SLF(B)).  Tasked to provide Marines to support COMUSMACV, III MAF requested the support of COMSEVENTHFLT), who promptly made the ARG/SLF available to Westmoreland.

Action in the Central Highlands

Qui Nhon was a densely populated agricultural region located along the coastal plain southwest of Da Nang.[2]  Population density and agricultural production were the magnets that attracted VC[3] and NVA forces in the area.  Within three days of the NMCC’s tasking, the Special Landing Force conducted combat operations in the central highlands.

Operations in and around Qui Nhơn could not have been better timed.  The Marine’s surprise assault threw the VC force structure into confusion and delayed their hostilities along the coastal plain, but the landing also helped facilitate the gathering of local intelligence and allowed the Marines to test hypotheses for the pacification of local civilians.  The actual operation was uneventful, but it did demonstrate the flexibility and responsiveness of the ARG and the SLF to achieve limited objectives within a more extensive operation. 

In mid-August 1965, Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) intelligence officers communicated their belief that the 1st VC Regiment was preparing to attack the Marines at Chu Lai in Quảng Tri Province.  The basis for this assessment was an early July VC assault that overran ARVN units stationed at Ba Gia.  Accordingly, III MAF developed a plan to launch a preemptive assault against the enemy regiment, then located on the Van Tuong Peninsula, ten miles south of Chu Lai.  Its precursor was Operation Thunderbolt, conducted adjacent to the Trà Bồng River, a two-day area security/information collection mission jointly assigned to the 4th Marines and 51st ARVN Regiment.

The Marine assault against the 1st VC Regiment, designated Operation Starlight, occurred between 18-24 August 1965.  It was the first major offensive campaign conducted by the US military in South Vietnam.  Colonel Oscar Peatross commanded the RLT.  His subordinate commanders and their battalions included Lieutenant Colonel Joseph R. Fisher, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines (2/4), Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Muir, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines (3/3), and Lieutenant Colonel Charles H. Bodley, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines (3/7), which operated as the SLF reserve force.

The combined arms assault of three battalions of Marines on the 1,500-man 1st VC Regiment, located in and around the village of Van Tuong, was overwhelmingly effective; the Marines reduced the communist regiment to half of its effective strength.

Meanwhile, in late July, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), approved Operations Dagger Thrust and Harvest Moon.  Dagger Thrust was a series of amphibious raids on suspected enemy concentrations along the coastal regions of South Vietnam.  Of the five raids, only two produced significant contact with communist forces, but three uncovered notable stores of arms and munitions.  The raids were so effective that the enemy never knew when the Marines would come — only that they eventually would come, and the result of their visitations would not be pleasant.  As a consequence, some VC soldiers began floating their resumes for a new line of work.

In December 1965, Operation Harvest Moon was a reaction to the 1st VC Regiment’s attack on the Regional Force garrison at Hiệp Đức near the entrance to the Quế Son Valley.  Initially serving as a reserve force, heavy fighting prompted the operational commander to commit the SLF, quickly turning the tide against the Viet Cong regiment.  The staggering losses imposed on VC forces by the Marines caused General Võ Nguyên Giáp to increase the NVA’s footprint in South Vietnam, and this redirection of the American’s attention would enable new VC cadres to infiltrate population centers.  Apparently, Giáp assumed that the U. S. Marine Corps was a one-trick pony.  He was wrong.

By 1969, the ARG/SLF had conducted sixty-two amphibious landings against VC/NVA elements operating inside the Republic of Vietnam.  The SLFs made significant contributions to MACV’s operational mobility and flexibility by offering a timely striking power.

Among the significant benefits of the two SLFs were their flexibility, the element of surprise from “over-the-horizon” assaults, and their on-shore maneuverability.  Once ashore, operational control of the SLF passed from the ARG Commander to the senior ground combat commander.  Another plus was the SLF’s self-sustaining character, which stood in contrast to regular force ground units that relied on static functional organizations for airlift, logistics/resupply, fire support, and medical triage capabilities.

In the early 1990s, the Navy-Marine Corps planners began a re-examination of the ARG/SLF concept and developed an innovation they termed Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG).[4]  Currently, there are nine ESGs, ten Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs), and several Surface Warfare Action Groups (SWAGs).  ESGs allow the Navy to provide highly mobile/self-sustaining naval forces for missions in all parts of the world.  The ESG incorporates the capabilities of CSGs, SWAGs, ARGs, and MEUs to enhance the capabilities of combat commanders within six geographical regions.

Currently, there are seven Marine Expeditionary Units — three under the I Marine Expeditionary Force (US West Coast), three operating under the II Marine Expeditionary Force (US East Coast), and one operating under the III Marine Expeditionary Unit (Japan).

No one in the Navy and Marine Corps wants to go to war, but they know how to go to war.  They are America’s flashing sword.  Quite frankly, only an idiot would like to see these forces come knocking on their door, but we will need the Navy-Marine Corps combat team until the world has finally rid itself of idiots.

Sources:

  1. Bean, C.  The Story of ANZAC from 4 May 1915 to the Evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula.  Canberra: Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, 1921 (11 editions).
  2. Broadbent, H.  Gallipoli: The Fatal Shore.  Camberwell: Viking Press, 2005.
  3. Cassar, G. H.  Kitchener’s War: British Strategy from 1914-1916.  Lincoln: Potomac Books, 2004.
  4. Halpern, P. G.  A Naval History of World War I.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
  5. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History (Fourth Edition).  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] Temporarily changed to III MAF because the government of RVN objected to the word “expeditionary.”

[2] My reference to places in Vietnam, used in past tense, speaks to events in locations that then existed.  Since the end of the Vietnam War, the government of Vietnam has renamed many of the hamlets, villages, and districts of the former South Vietnamese republic.  Qui Nhơn is now known as Quy Nhơn.

[3] Short name for the National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam, an armed communist revolutionary organization that operated in South Vietnam and Cambodia.  The VC organized both regular and guerrilla forces to combat the South Vietnamese and United States military forces.

[4] ESGs are part of the Navy’s Expeditionary Task Force concept.


Union II

There was a time when American liberalism was identified with anti-Communism.  That time ended with the Vietnam War, because in starting that war, the Democratic Party delivered American liberalism into the arms of global communism.

—Observation

Introduction

During the Vietnam War, the III Marine Amphibious Force[1] had overall tactical responsibility for the I Corps Tactical Zone (also, I Corps and I CTZ).  I Corps was one of four separate military operating zones and the northern-most in the region of the former Republic of Vietnam (also, South Vietnam and RVN).

In land area, the size of I Corps involved around 1,800 square miles.  Its vast size is further complicated by terrain dominated by hills and the Annamite Mountains, steep slopes, sharp crests, deep narrow valleys, and dense broadleaf forests.  Most o the peaks range from 4,000 to 8,000 feet high.  The narrow coastal plain is compartmented by rocky headlands and belts of large sand dunes.  Prior to 1975, I Corps was the official border with North Vietnam—the two warring nations separated by the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

The I CTZ encompassed five political regions or provinces: Quang Tri, Thira Thien-Hue, Quang Nam, Quang Tin, and Quang Ngai.  Major cities or population centers included Khe Sanh, Dong Ha, Quang Tri City, Da Nang, How An, Tam Ky, Chu Lai, and Quang Ngai City.

Tactical units subordinate to III MEF included the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Marine Division, the US Americal Division, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, US 35th Tactical Wing, and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 1st Division, 2nd Division, and 51st (Independent) Regiment.

Operation Union II was a search and destroy mission within the Que Son Valley between 26 May — 5 June 1967.  The operational commander for Union II was Colonel Kenneth J. Houghton[2].  Que Son was in the southern part of South Vietnam’s I Corps.  Populous and “rice rich,” the valley was one of the keys to controlling South Vietnam’s five northern provinces.  The densely vegetated area was occupied by two regiments of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 2nd Division.  Que Son was also strategically important to the theater commander, (then) General Westmoreland, Commander U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (also, COMUSMACV).

During Operation Union (21 April—16 May 1967) 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1) engaged the 21st NVA Regiment near the Marine outpost on Loc Son Mountain.  Operation Union II focused on the destruction of the 21st Regiment.  Colonel Houghton’s 5th Marines coordinated offensive operations with the ARVN 6th Regiment and 1st Ranger Group.

Operation Union II called for two rifle companies (A & D) of 1/5 and Company F 2/5 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hilgartner, to establish a blocking position in the western portion of the valley.  Lieutenant Colonel Esslinger’s 3/5 would make a helicopter (vertical) assault into the southern portion of the valley and sweep northeast.  2/5 would serve as Houghton’s reserve.  Meanwhile, three ARVN battalions would attack southwest from Thang Bing, and two additional ARVN battalions would attack northwest from Tam Ky.

Union II kicked off as planned on 26 May.  1/5 took up its position and 3/5 (three rifle companies, a weapons company, and the battalion headquarters element) flew in to Landing Zone (LZ) Eagle, 3 miles east of Loc Son.  The first two waves of helicopters received light enemy small arms fire.  By the time the rest of 3/5 arrived, however, the battalion was under heavy weapons and mortar fire.  Lima and Mike companies launched an attack to relieve the pressure on the LZ and discovered a well-entrenched NVA force, which turned out to be elements of the 3rd NVA Regiment.  India Company, supported by Marine artillery, enveloped the enemy’s flank.  The assault was expensive for both sides, with 118 NVA dead and 38 Marine KIA/82 WIA.  Marine and ARVN forces swept the area for the next three days, but the NVA force had withdrawn.  ARVN commanders withdrew having concluded that their enemy had been routed.

Colonel Houghton, on the other hand, was not convinced that the NVA had been routed.  Relying on numerous intelligence reports, Houghton directed the regiment continue with the plan for Union II (less ARVN forces).  On the morning of 2 June, 3/5 swept toward the village of Vinh Huy.  Operating adjacent to 3/5, the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1)  encountered an estimated 200 NVA troops about one mile east of the engagement site on 26 May.  3/1 engaged and overran the defending NVA.  Meanwhile, while pushing forward to relieve the pressure on 3/5,  1/5[3] ran into a NVA ambush while crossing a 3,000 yard-wide rice paddy.  On battalion point, the well-concealed NVA caught Fox Company in a murderous crossfire with mounting casualties due to enemy mortar fires.  1/5 established a hasty defense posture.

Captain James A. Graham, commanding Fox Company, immediately set about consolidating his Marines, and calling for artillery and air support.  Hardest hit in the enemy assault was 2nd Platoon, which was pinned down by two enemy machine gun positions.  Forming his headquarters unit into an assault force, Captain Graham boldly led an attack against NVA positions.  The effect of Graham’s attack was that it diverted the enemy’s attention away from 2nd Platoon.

While Graham attacked the NVA, platoon NCOs began evacuating wounded Marines back toward positions of relative safety.  Determined to silence the NVA’s second machine gun, Graham’s small assault force withstood concentrated enemy fire and accounted for fifteen enemy dead, but Captain Graham suffered two bullet wounds and the assault force was inadequate to dislodging the enemy.

Running low on ammunition, and with one man critically wounded, Captain Graham ordered his men to withdraw back to the company perimeter.  Realizing that he could not survive in the forward position, Graham nevertheless elected to remain in place with his one critically wounded Marine, who could not be moved.  Shortly after his men withdrew, an NVA force of twenty-five men attacked Graham who resisted for as long as he had ammunition and gave up his life for the wounded Marine, whom he would not abandon.  In recognition of his exceptional courage while under fire, his indomitable fighting spirit, and his intrepidity while relieving his second platoon from danger, Captain Graham received a posthumous award of the nation’s highest recognition for gallantry in combat, the Medal of Honor.

At around 14:00, Colonel Houghton called for reinforcement from the Division’s rapid-reaction force[4].  Jackson’s force arrived by helicopter at 19:00 in total darkness.  Delta and Echo Companies (1/7) were inserted northeast of the fortified enemy position and quickly moved south to engage the NVA’s left flank.  Both companies encountered stiff enemy resistance; Delta Company suffered many casualties.  Owing to the darkness, Division operations denied Delta Company’s request for Medevac helicopters.  At that moment, a Marine CH-53 helicopter that had just inserted Echo 2/5 heard the call for assistance and  responded to the call for help[5].

With the arrival of E 2/5, NVA forces began to disengage and withdraw southwest; it was a costly decision because they ran right into elements of 3/5 and Marine artillery.  Despite being wounded himself, Houghton remained in the field to supervise re-consolidation of his regiment.  The next morning, Houghton directed another sweep of the area, during which the Marines uncovered the remains of 701 dead NVA soldiers and 23 injured NVA who were medically treated and taken as prisoners of war.  Operation Union II Marine casualties included 71 killed in action with 139 wounded.  This action rendered the 2nd NVA Division combat-ineffective for several months.

Operation Union II was significant for another, albeit unrelated reason.  It was during this operation that Marines began communicating with their parents and  loved-ones back home that their M-16 rifles were malfunctioning with such regularity that Marines were being killed because of jammed weapons at critical moments during battle.  In a random inspection of rifles by the III MAF staff, weapons experts and armors reported that a large number of rifles had pitted and eroded chambers.  Marine headquarters then suspended issuance of the M-16s in December 1967 because of the 9,844 rifles inspected, experts found 67% of the rifles required immediate replacement.

Sources:

  1.  Telfer, G. L. And Lane Rogers (et.al.).  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese.  Washington: Headquarters U. S. Marine Corps, 1984.
  2. Carland, J. M.  Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide, May 1965-Oct 1966.  Washington: Center of Military History, 2000.

Endnotes:

[1] The Marine Corps has since renamed its largest task force organizations “Expeditionary Forces.”  Today, III MAF is known as III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF).

[2] Colonel (later, Major General) Houghton (1920-2006) was commissioned in September 1942 and  served during World War II and participated in the Battles of Tarawa and Saipan.  During the Korean War, he participated with the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade at Pusan and the 1st Marine Division at the landing at Inchon.  He served in I Corps RVN during the Vietnam War commanding the 5th Marine Regiment.  He was awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, three Legion of Merits, two Bronze Star medals, and three Purple Heart medals.

[3] Fox Company 2/5 reinforced the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.

[4] Known as the Bald Eagle Reaction Force, a battalion-sized reserve then composed of Echo Company, 2/5, Delta Company, 1/7, and Echo Company, 2/7 (under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Mallett C. Jackson, Jr., whose primary assignment was Commanding Officer, 2/5).

[5] When the CH-53 returned to Da Nang, it had received 57 hits from small arms fire and mortar fragments.


Union I

Background

During the Second Indochina War (known to the west as the Vietnam War), the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) consisted of four tactical zones.  The northern-most of these was the First Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ), which included South Vietnam’s five northern provinces: from north to south, Quảng Trị, Thừa Thiên, Quảng Nam, Quảng Tín, and Quảng Ngãi.  The responsibility for combat operations within these provinces was assigned to the Third Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF)[1], involving about 14,000 square miles.  The Commanding General, III MAF, answered to the Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV).

Efforts to create a stabilizing security force in South Vietnam had begun in the mid-1950s.  The only way to describe these efforts — and their effects — is that they were an unmitigated disaster.  The most significant security force in 1955 was the Civil Guard, a paramilitary organization administered by South Vietnam’s interior ministry but controlled by the country’s 38 province chiefs.  The civil guard was a 55,000 man force serving in static defense positions.  Lacking mobility and modern communications, the civil guard’s small company and platoon sized units had no way to respond to Viet Cong attacks.  But even if they were capable of challenging the VC, most provincial chiefs had no interest in doing so.

In 1960, the South Vietnamese military force was no more capable of performing combat operations than it was in 1955. Built mainly on the remnants of French-trained colonial forces, the South Vietnamese army, navy, and air force numbered 150,000; the army (known as ARVN) numbered 138,000.  On paper, the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) looked formidable.  It wasn’t.  The military chain of command was convoluted. The quality of its officer corps ranged from excellent to horrible.  The efficiency and loyalty of ARVN units was dependent on the personality of its senior-most commander.  Few ARVN units were interested in sharing information with other units.  Vietnamese commanders were inflexible, prideful, and arrogant; they would spare no effort making themselves look good at someone else’s expense.

The Vietnamese high command treated the ARVN much in the same way as the civil guard — relegating them to static positions where the enemy always knew where they were.  This worked out well enough for senior commanders since few of them were willing to put their necks on the line confronting Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army units.

Despite significant funding from the United States for military training in1963, most combat training in Vietnam was a paper chase.  Vietnamese troops themselves were poorly paid, poorly educated, unmotivated, and inexperienced.  Some were capable of extraordinary acts of courage, but not many.  In the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963, which took place over several days, 300 Viet Cong irregulars fought 1,200 South Vietnamese Army troops to a standstill.  Once the VC had had their way with the ARVN, they melted away into the dense jungle.

Nui Loc Son

Que Son Valley

In mid-1966, American intelligence learned that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 2nd Infantry Division had begun infiltrating the Que Son Valley.  The densely populated valley was a central agricultural area that sat astride the boundaries of Quảng Nam and Quảng Tin provinces in the I CTZ.  Both US and NVA military commanders recognized that available food sources and the rugged terrain made the Que Son Basin a crucial military objective.  To control the valley was to dominate the entire I CTZ.

In January 1967, the 3rd and 21st NVA Regiments began operations within the Que Son Valley.  Joining them a short time later was the 3rd VC regiment from Quảng Ngãi Province.  The NVA intended to seize Que Son, which meant destroying isolated ARVN units, who at the time were occupying static defensive positions.  COMUSMACV directed the CG III MAF to replace all ARVN units with American forces.  III MAF’s challenge in carrying out his directive was the constant demand for combat troops elsewhere in I CTZ.  The Marines could simply not afford to send battalions or regiments into the Que Son region.  Yet, it was at the same time evident that ARVN units lacked the strength or effectiveness to carry out their defensive burden alone.  To bolster Marine forces, USMACV assigned US Army units to the southern I CTZ, which released the 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv) for operations within the Que Son Valley area.

Operation Union I

Operation Union I was the initiating campaign for what evolved into a bitter contest for control of the Que Son Basin.  In mid-January 1967, Fox Company 2/1 relieved the ARVN unit at Nui Loc Son and began operations under its parent command’s operational authority, the 1st Marine Regiment, commanded by Colonel Emil J. Radic.  By placing a Marine company on this small hill mass, III MAF hoped to achieve three goals: (1) deny VC/NVA access to this rice-producing area, (2) initiate a much-needed civic action effort, and (3) force the NVA into open battle.  The Marines of Fox 2/1 were the bait.

Under the command of Captain Gene A. Deegan, Fox Company was reinforced by an 81mm Mortar section, a 106mm Recoilless Rifle section, and a 4.2-inch Mortar Battery from the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines (artillery) (1/11).  Deegan soon began engaging small enemy units attempting to cross the valley floor.  Fox Company also undertook limited civic action projects, which generated a mutually beneficial relationship with local citizens and aided in collecting critical intelligence concerning VC/NVA operations.

The NVA found Fox Company’s aggressive behavior irksome.  Previously, NVA and VC units operated in the Que Son Basin with impunity but irritating the communists was why Marine HQ sent Fox Company to Nui Loc Son to begin with.  The 2nd NVA Division took the bait.

By mid-April, Captain Deegan informed his battalion commander that he believed enemy forces operating near Nui Loc Son involved two regiments in strength.  Colonel Radic decided to initiate a vertical assault against the enemy. Radic’s plan called for Fox Company to initiate contact from its observation post while elements of the 1st and 3rd Battalions, 1st Marines (1/1) (3/1) would make a heliborne assault into the operational area; another battalion would serve in reserve.  Additionally, elements of the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines would move by helicopter to Que Son village to provide artillery support to the operation.  Colonel Radic would control the operation from Nui Loc Son.  The CG 1stMarDiv approved Radic’s plan but delayed its execution until another operation had reached its final objective.

At 0700 on 21 April, Captain Deegan led his company out of Nui Loc Son.  The company experienced several minor encounters with small groups of enemy soldiers en route to the village of Binh Son, three miles to the northeast.  At 0930, Fox Company encountered heavy enemy small arms fire, pulled back into a tree line, and set up a  hasty defense.  From that location, Deegan called for artillery fire and airstrikes on the enemy’s positions.  At 1100, Deegan moved his 2nd and 3rd platoons against the village while the 1st platoon provided covering fire.  Initially, Deegan’s assault elements encountered little resistance, but as they approached the village, the intensity of enemy fire increased to such a degree that Deegan could no longer maneuver the assault platoons.  The 1st platoon, having attempted a flanking maneuver, was also halted.

Lieutenant Colonel Hillmer F. DeAtley, commanding 3/1, led his command group and India and Mike companies into the fight some 1,500 meters from Fox Company’s position.  Eventually, 3/1 fought its way to Deegan’s location.  Despite his several wounds, Captain Deegan continued to direct his company’s action until Colonel DeAtley relieved him of his command and ordered his evacuation.

Lieutenant Colonel Dean E. Esslinger, commanding 3/5, arrived from Chu Lai at around 1600 and linked up with DeAtley’s flank.  Lieutenant Colonel Van D. Bell’s 1/1 arrived from Da Nang after dark.  After reforming his Battalion adjacent to Colonel Radic’s command post, Bell led his Marines into the battle, which was already shaping up into a hell of a fight.  At the conclusion of the first day, Fox 2/1 and India & Mike 3/1 had borne the brunt of the fighting.  At dawn on the morning of the second day, 1/1, 3/1, and 2/5 had joined the battle.

Punishing Marine fire and aggressive maneuvering finally began to dislodge the enemy from their positions, forcing them northward into a blocking force of three ARVN ranger battalions.  In its withdrawal, the NVA suffered significant casualties from artillery fire and airstrikes. Bell and Esslinger continued their attack, pursuing the enemy east and north of Nui Loc Son, but there were only intermittent contacts with the retreating enemy.

On 25 April, Colonel Kenneth J. Houghton’s 5th Marines (-) arrived from Chu Lai and moved into the Que Son Valley.  Responsibility for Union I passed to Colonel Houghton, and by the end of next day, all of Colonel Radic’s 1st Marines had returned to Da Nang — leaving Fox Company under a new commander to man the outpost at Nui Loc Son.

3/5 began a thorough search of the mountains south and west of the basin; enemy contact was generally light until the evening of the 27th when a Marine triggered an anti-personnel mine that set off several explosions.  One Marine died; 43 received wounds, and of those, 35 required medical evacuation.  On the 28th, Esslinger’s 3/5 was joined by Lieutenant Colonel Peter A. Wickwire’s 1/3, which was part of the Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force Alpha[2].  Both battalions began a sweep within their respective tactical zones.  Despite intelligence reports indicating a significant enemy presence, contact with enemy forces was sporadic and light.

Kenneth J. Houghton

Colonel Houghton was an experienced combat commander.  On 1 May, he directed 1/5, under Lieutenant Colonel Peter L. Hilgartner, into the mountains eight miles east of Hiep Duc. 1/5’s sweep initially encountered light resistance, but as the Battalion moved westward, the frequency and intensity of enemy engagements increased.  On 5 May, Delta Company 1/5 stumbled upon an enemy storage site containing weapons, ammunition, military uniforms, surgical kits, and other military gear.  Both 1/5 and 3/5 continued sweeping north; 1/3 began sweeping northwest of the Que Son village.  All three battalions were experiencing only sporadic enemy contacts — the enemy withdrew away from the Marines.

On 10 May, the Marines ran into a more significant enemy force.  Charlie 1/5 was moving up the slope of Hill 110 some 4,000 meters north of Que Son when the company came under heavy fire from a battalion-sized unit entrenched along the edge of Nui Nong Ham.  The Marines took Hill 110, but when they set into a hasty defense on the hill’s summit, they began taking heavy fire from a cane field below and inside caves along Nui Nong Ham’s lower slopes.  Captain Russell J. Caswell, commanding Charlie Company, called for assistance.

The nearest units were Bravo and Charlie companies 1/3.  They responded to relieve Caswell, but heavy NVA resistance stopped their advance.  Operational control of Bravo & Charlie shifted to Hilgartner’s 1/5.  Calls for artillery fire were ineffective because the Marines and the NVA forces were too close.  Bravo & Charlie companies soon called for reinforcements.  One platoon from Alpha Company 1/3 arrived by air to support them, but enemy fires were so intense that Hilgartner’s air officer waived off subsequent landings.

Alpha Company 1/5, commanded by Captain Gerald L. McKay, situated 2,000 meters to the east, moved to support Wickwire’s companies and came under heavy enemy fire.  Captain McKay was determined to push through.  Just as he positioned his company for an assault, an air support controller mistakenly marked the company’s position for an airstrike.  Marine F-4’s strafed the company — killing five Marines and wounded 24.  The combination of the enemy and friendly fire halted McKay’s advance.

By 15:00, Colonel Hilgartner’s command group (with Delta Company 1/5), was positioned on the slope of Nui Nong Ham from which they could lend fire support to Delta 1/3. Hilgartner’s Marines began lobbing mortars into the enemy’s positions.  Soon after, helicopters landed Esslinger’s Mike Company 3/5 at Hilgartner’s position and joined Captain Caswell’s Charlie Company.  The two companies quickly consolidated their position and began delivering fire into NVA positions.  With this support, Bravo & Charlie Company 1/3 aggressed the NVA positions in the cane field and on Nui Nong Ham’s northern slope.  By nightfall, the Marines had driven off the NVA force, leaving behind 116 dead communists; the cost to the Marines was 33 killed and 135 wounded (including those killed and injured from friendly fire).

On 12 May, Colonel Wickwire’s 1/3 was withdrawn and replaced by Colonel Bell’s 1/1.  On the 12th and 13th, 1/1, 1/5, and 3/5 remained in perpetual contact with enemy forces.  Esslinger assaulted an enemy battalion 3 miles east of Que Son in the evening of 13 May.  After making maximum use of artillery and airstrikes, Esslinger’s Marines ruthlessly attacked the NVA; artillery and aircraft support then shifted to block an NVA withdrawal.  On the other end of the Marine assault, 122 dead communists littered the battle site.

On 13-14 May, the Marines continually employed artillery and air power to strike enemy positions.  In the late afternoon of 14 May, Delta Company 1/1 discovered 68 enemy dead — all killed by either fragmentation or concussion.

The last battle of Union I took place on 15 May when Alpha 1/5 and Mike 3/5 discovered another bunker complex.  After preparatory fires and a coordinated assault, the Marines found 22 dead enemies within the bunker complex.  Operation Union I ended the next day.  Within these 27 days, the Marines had killed 865 enemy troops, of which 465 were NVA regulars of the 2nd NVA Division.  The number of communists killed was impressive, but Colonel Houghton believed that the most significant damage inflicted on the enemy was the psychological impact on the Que Son Valley population.  Houghton thought that the VC’s hold over local villages and hamlets was broken.

If Colonel Houghton was right about that — the enemy didn’t seem to realize it. The story of the fight for the Que Son Valley continues next week.

Sources:

  1. Steward, R. W.  Deepening Involvement: 1945-1965. Washington: Center for Military History, 2012.
  2. Telfer, G. L. et al. U. S. Marines in Vietnam: Fighting the North Vietnamese.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1974.

Endnotes:

[1] The official name of this Marine Corps organization is III Marine Expeditionary Force.  It was temporarily changed to III Marine Amphibious Force in 1965 because the South Vietnamese government expressed a psychological objection to use of the word “expeditionary.” 

[2] The SLF(A) code name for this operation was Beaver Cage.


Lieutenant Colonel C. Jack Lewis, USMCR

When he was just a little guy, Jack Lewis became separated from his mother in a large department store.  Anyone who’s been lost in a department store at the age of five or six knows that it’s a terrifying experience.  But then, two young men came to his rescue.  They were Marine Corps recruiters, wearing the dress blue uniform that makes Marines stand out among all other servicemen.  They returned him to his mom.  Jack Lewis never forgot those Marines.

So, in 1942, when it came time for Americans to stand up against fascism, C. Jack Lewis made his way to the local recruiting office and joined the Marines.  Now, for the uninitiated, there are only two kinds of Marines: live Marines and dead Marines.  You see, becoming a United States Marine is a lifetime endeavor.  My good friend Colonel Jim Bathurst titled his autobiography on this very concept: as long as Marines keep faith with one another, and with the code of honor to which we all subscribe, then, We’ll All Die As Marines.

I met Lieutenant Colonel Jack Lewis while assigned as the Adjutant, Marine Aircraft Group 46 in 1979-81.  Lewis was a reserve officer, then serving as the Reserve Liaison Officer for Southern California.  I suspect that there was no better-qualified individual to serve in that capacity than Colonel Lewis.  He served in World War II, the Korean War, and in Vietnam.  In each instance, after serving a tour of combat duty, Jack left the active-duty force and went back into the Marine reserve.  He did this, he told me because there was too much “chicken shit” in the active force … and if there was one thing Lewis could not abide, it was “oppressive regulations, careerist officers, and people who called themselves Marines but wouldn’t have made a pimple of a dead Marine’s ass.”

Like many young men of his day, the teenaged Jack Lewis became what he described as an “amateur juvenile delinquent.”  He was always in trouble.  The problem wasn’t so much Jack’s behavior as it was that he wanted more out of life than his circumstances would allow.  By the late 1930s, Jack was looking for something special in his life.  Something that would offer him a challenge, hold him accountable, and something that he could love with unbridled passion.  In this regard, the Second World War probably came along at the right time for Jack Lewis.  Jack Lewis joined the Marines out of a sense of patriotism, but in doing so, he found that “special something” he was looking for.  The Marines squared his ass away, gave him a reason to get up in the morning, inculcated him with the values so dear to anyone who has ever (honorably) worn the uniform of a United States Marine.  The U. S. Marine Corps became the organization that set him on the pathway of success for the balance of his life.

Jack was born in Iowa on 19 November 1924 but at the age of two, his family moved to Florida.  As a lad, he was a voracious reader and a writer and at age 14, he sold his first novel … The Cherokee Kid’s Last Stand.  The novel earned him five dollars.  Now, while five dollars doesn’t sound like a lot of money, one must recall that in those days a field hand earned a dollar a day for backbreaking work.  No, it wasn’t much, but he was fourteen years of age, and it was a start in a writing career that lasted the balance of his 84-years.

Following World War II, Lewis returned to Iowa, where in 1949 he graduated from the state university with a degree in journalism.  He was subsequently commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve.  A short time later he was assigned to help produce a Marine Corps training film, and then owing to his service in World War II, he became a technical advisor to the John Wayne film, Sands of Iwo Jima.  Of this later effort, Lewis said that he basically advised members of the cast on how to lace up their leggings.  He no doubt contributed far more than that.

When the Korean War erupted in June 1950, Lewis returned to active duty for six years.  He served as a combat correspondent and photographer.  Now this may not seem like much in terms of what Hollywood tells us about combat (which is mostly wrong), but every Marine — no matter what his occupational specialty, no matter what his rank — is first and foremost a rifleman.  Initially, Jack Lewis carried an M-1 carbine as his T/O weapon.  It was the first time he’d carried that particular firearm, considerably smaller than the M-1 Garand.  In one fire fight, Jack shot a communist Chinese soldier eight times, hitting him six times, without doing any noticeable damage to this enemy.  Another Marine standing nearby, who was armed with a Thompson submarine gun, stepped up and blew the communist into the afterlife.  Allowing that no matter where you hit a man with a .45 caliber weapon he’s going down, Lewis thereafter armed himself with a Thompson and would not part with it.  During a second combat tour of duty in Korea, Lewis earned a Bronze Star for his work filming Marine Corps aircraft engaging the enemy from an exposed position.

During the Korean War, Jack Lewis submitted over two dozen magazine articles to Marine Corps headquarters for publication in the Leatherneck Magazine.  HQMC returned the articles telling Lewis that they all sounded too much like Marine Corps propaganda.  Miffed, Lewis then sent the articles to his civilian literary agent who had them published, earning Lewis $200.00 each.  Lewis sent copies of the published articles to the individual at HQMC who had rejected them.  Knowing Jack, I can easily imagine that he sent these copies with a caustic note, but I don’t know that for a fact.

Following the Korean War, Jack commanded a rifle company in the 4th Marines at Camp Pendleton, California.  He was subsequently transferred to the Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii where he served as a public information officer.  During this tour of duty, Lewis was assigned as a technical advisor on John Ford’s film titled Mister Roberts.  When no one could locate a stunt performer to drive a motorcycle off a pier, Lewis did the job himself.  Lewis later appeared in a minor role in Admiral Ford’s film, Sergeant Rutledge.

Marines, by their nature, are exceptional.  Jack’s stellar performance prompted his commanding officer to encourage Jack to apply for a regular (as opposed to reserve) commission.  Jack would have none of this, however.  He wanted to pursue a writing career and upon expiration of his active duty obligation, Jack Lewis returned to inactive service in the reserves.

In addition to writing screenplays for films, Lewis found work as a magazine editor in 1956; after three years of learning how magazines are done, he teamed up with Dean Grennell[1] to publish Gun World magazine in 1959.  He continued to author the monthly knife column until his death in 2009.  Lewis was highly critical of the capabilities of various weapons marketed to military and law enforcement agencies.  In fact, he was so critical that the firearms manufacturing companies refused to advertise in his magazine.  Lewis once told the Commandant of the Marine Corps that the M16’s only consistent effect was that it changed the world’s perception of the American rifleman.  Americans, he said, used to be sharpshooters, but after the M16, they were little more than “sprayers.”

Jack Lewis developed a story that he originally titled Year of the Tiger.  When Marshall Thompson[2] selected Lewis’ work for a 1963 film, he hired Lewis to write the screenplay and the title was changed to A Yank in Viet-Nam, which was filmed on location in South Vietnam in 1963, often in the midst of, or within range, of actual fire fights.

In 1966, Lewis published a novel titled Tell it to the Marines.  It is the story of a Marine officer who, during the Korean War, is placed in command of a band of misfits in a motion picture unit.  In the preface of this book, Jack penned, “Any similarity to persons, places, or incidents is highly plausible; only the names have been changed to avoid court-martial.”  The humor in this book may be lost among those who never earned the Marine Corps emblem, and among those born in the 21st Century, life in the Marine Corps during the Korean war may not resonate.  I have a copy of this book on my shelf.

He was also the author of White Horse, Black Hat: A Quarter Century on Hollywood’s Poverty Row; Renegade Canyon; Mohave; Massacre Mountain; and The Coffin Racers.

In 1969, Lewis returned to active duty to serve a full-length tour in Vietnam with the III Marine Amphibious Corps.  During this tour, Lewis earned his second and third air medal, signifying 50 air missions exposed to enemy fire.  Lewis retired from the Marine Corps in 1984, one day prior to his 60th birthday.

Colonel Jack Lewis was a man of many talents and many careers.  He did not suffer fools gladly; he was a maverick, not at all concerned about becoming someone else’s vision of a Marine —but his own vision was good enough for him and almost everyone who knew him.  He may have been a bit rough around the edges, and blunt, but he was a decent man whose professionalism was well-balanced with his friendliness.  He loved his Corps, and he loved Marines until his last breath.  In the company he managed for 37 years, he preferred hiring retired and former Marines. When Jack Lewis retired, he moved to Hilo, Hawaii, where he continued to write.  Colonel C. Jack Lewis, United States Marine Corps Reserve, passed away at his home on 24 May 2009.

Endnotes:

[1] Dean Grennell (1923-2004) served as a firearms instructor in the Army Air Corps during World War II and is remembered as an American firearms expert, writer, editor, managing editor of Gun World magazine, and the editor of the science fiction “fanzine” Grue. 

[2] Marshall Thompson (1925-1992) (a classmate of Norma Jean Baker) was an actor, director, and producer of films beginning in the 1940s of science fiction genre.  One film titled The Terror from Beyond Space in 1958 became the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien films.  A second Viet Nam era film was titled To the Shores of Hell (1965).


McNamara’s Folly

Throughout America’s history, no citizen with common sense ever wanted to go to war.  “We the people” do not start wars — our elected officials and bureaucrats do that.  At no time in my memory has the US government offered a compelling argument or justification for involving our nation in a foreign war.  When they try to provide a convincing reason for war, they always wrap it in a lie.  For example, the government told Americans that the United States sent combat troops to Vietnam to defend the South Vietnamese people from their authoritarian cousins in the north.  In fact, both North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh and South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem had the same aspirations: unification under their leadership.  Neither man ever gave a damn about the poor South Vietnamese peasant.  War is bad enough, but when politicians and unelected bureaucrats contrive to make things worse for the combat soldier — which is the topic of this essay, the American voter should put his or her foot down and loudly and angrily proclaim, “enough is enough!”

Some Background

Combat units of the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv) began offering important lessons to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in 1965.  One of these lessons was that they should refrain from firing their weapons at U. S. Marines — because being shot at makes American Marines very cranky.

At the beginning of 1966, the 3rdMarDiv employed its 24,000 men against several communist thrusts into Quang Tri Province, also known as the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ).  The five provinces of the I CTZ were the northernmost area of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).  General William C. Westmoreland, U. S. Army, Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV), ordered the 3rdMarDiv to defend this northern tier.  In 1966, the 3rdMarDiv was the Marine Corps’ largest (ever) combat division.  There were five infantry regiments, one artillery regiment, all of the usual supporting units, Army artillery units, Navy logistical units (including Seabees), and two Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) infantry regiments.  The division was huge — but then, so too was their area of defense.[1]

The 3rdMarDiv’s tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) encompassed 1,800 square miles of Indian country.  The terrain was all rugged, elevated, menacing, and over-populated with things that hurt, such as an abundant enemy — and predatory cats.  At the far northern tip of South Vietnam, along its border with North Vietnam, was the demilitarized zone (DMZ).  Defending the DMZ was one of the division’s primary missions, but not the only one.[2]

To achieve this defensive objective, two unusual behaviors were necessary.  First, the United States had to adopt the strategy of the North Vietnamese, which was to prosecute a war of attrition.  Simply stated, the US and North Vietnamese agreed to see which of them could afford to give up the most human lives to further their political goals.[3]  Think about that for a moment.[4]  Second, for the Marines to defend the northern provinces, they had to establish a wide arc of defensive bases (euphemistically called combat bases) that would permit the 3rdMarDiv to respond to the enemy within an area of 1,800 square miles.

The main north-south highway within I CTZ was Route 1.  It connected Marine combat bases at Dong Ha and Quang Tri City in the North to Phu Bai and Da Nang in the South.  Any obstruction along this highway would disrupt vital logistical support of the division’s forward-most units; the enemy knew this exceptionally well.  So, the primary logistical highway became the Cua Viet River, which extended from its mouth on the coast to Dong Ha.

At Dong Ha, the river was about as wide as a mountain footpath.  Additionally, Route 9 linked Dong Ha with Khe Sanh.  East of Khe Sanh, the 3rdMarDiv created a series of outposts that offered some protection for Route 9 and the Cam Lo River Valley (which extended from Dong Ha to the coastal plain).  Of these outposts, the more critical were located at Ca Lu (ten miles east of Khe Sanh), the “Rockpile” (a sheer outcrop eight miles north), Camp Carroll (10 miles eastward), and “Leatherneck Square,” which was a quadrilateral region outlined by Cam Lo, Con Thien, Gio Linh, and Dong Ha.

As previously mentioned, the 3rdMarDiv’s TAOR was massive.  The division’s defense plan further divided the TAOR among its regiments and separate battalions.  Each of these had a code name, such as Napoleon, Kentucky, Lancaster, and Scotland.

The Third Marine Division defeated the NVA and Viet Cong (VC) in every engagement — but in confronting and defeating this enemy, the Marines encountered a high casualty rate.  By the end of 1967, Marine commanders were frustrated; the division lost good men and had nothing to show for it.  Between 1966-67, the division had lost 5,000 killed and wounded Marines.  It was an unacceptable casualty rate … and a direct result of the imbecilic static war concept.

In 1965, Washington bureaucrats began experimenting with various schemes for achieving their political goals through static defensive measures.  This may be all fine and good when looking at the larger picture, but on closer examination, the cost of “experimentation” was an excessively high US casualty rate.  Most of these “good ideas” had been rejected by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because, to implement them, the US would have to increase (at least initially) its troop strength in South Vietnam.  Moreover, implementing these ideas would force the North Vietnamese to change its strategy — specifically, a full-scale invasion of Laos by the NVA, which the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to avoid.

Whiz Boy

Robert S. McNamara

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was known as one of Ford Motor Company’s “whiz kids.”[5]  He was one of those “good idea” people who thought he knew everything he needed to know about fighting a war.  In reality, McNamara was a bean counter who knew nothing about warfare.

One of McNamara’s schemes was constructing a defensive line along the northern border of South Vietnam and its border with Southeast Laos.  McNamara met with former national security advisor Carl Kaysen.[6]  Kaysen convinced McNamara that the key to success in static defensive strategies was establishing an electronic barrier.  Kaysen argued (successfully) that an electronic barrier would limit NVA infiltration into South Vietnam.  An electronic wall made great sense to McNamara, so he convened a feasibility group consisting of several science technologists.  They submitted their proposals in March 1966 — which McNamara dutifully passed along to the JCS for their comments.

At best, the JCS was lukewarm to the idea of an electric barrier, particularly since the barrier wouldn’t prevent infiltration and because creating the barrier would still require additional forces in Vietnam.  Moreover, it would require a significant construction effort, would involve a massive logistical effort, exponentially increasing the costs of the war.  McNamara didn’t like being told “no.” It might have been better for everyone if McNamara had any knowledge of history — specifically, of Hadrian’s Wall.

Somewhat rebuffed, McNamara then turned to the JASON Group.[7]  The JASON group had impressed McNamara by proclaiming that Lyndon Johnson’s bombing campaign over North Vietnam was an utter failure.  Junior Airman Smith of the Strategic Air Command could have told McNamara that for a lot less money.

JASON recommended a two-tier defensive barrier system.  The first tier involved conventional detection/response capability inland from the coast along the southern portion of the DMZ and another system along the remote western section abutting Laos that would trigger electronic detection, air interdiction, and remotely triggered minefields.  JASON thought that such a system could be in place within a year.  At this point, McNamara had tiny electric tingles running up and down his leg.

Mr. McNamara sent the JASON proposal to the JCS for review.  Every service chief rejected it, save one.  JCS Chairman General Earle G. Wheeler, U. S. Army, was positively enthralled with the idea.[8]  Despite the overwhelming JCS rejection of the JASON plan, Wheeler sent the report to the Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Command, Admiral Ulysses S. G. Sharp, for his review.[9]  Admiral Sharp rejected the plan as impractical; General Westmoreland agreed.

With the backing of only one uniformed flag rank officer, McNamara took the plan to President Johnson, who knew no more about fighting a war than Junior Airman Smith of the Strategic Air Command. McNamara’s cost estimate — in dollars — was $1.5 billion.  Well, another $750-million (annually) for operating costs.  President Johnson, who never saw a spending package he didn’t like, approved it.[10]  In terms of combat casualties, the project would far exceed the material costs of McNamara’s Wall.

Louis Metzger

Marine Corps combat engineers began preparing the ground for the construction of Project Dye Marker along a strip of land 500 meters wide from Gio Linh westward to Con Thien in early 1967.  The Marines assigned to this project (infantry, artillery, and combat engineers) were utterly exhausted, a fact first expressed by (then) Brigadier General Louis Metzger, who served as Assistant Division Commander, 3rdMarDiv/CG 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade — because in addition to providing security for construction of McNamara’s Wall, they also constantly responded to the enemy’s initiatives in Northwest South Vietnam.  For the Marines, the project involved sustained periods of heavy combat.  Major General Raymond L. Murray, Deputy Commander, III MAF, echoed Metzger’s sentiments. “The division commander’s primary mission was the tactical handling of his troops … rather than build the damn line that nobody believed in, in the first place.” In December 1967, Murray angrily remarked, “How in the hell were you going to build this thing when you had to fight people off while you were building it?”

The actual cost of McNamara’s Wall was dear.  Not including the lives lost and the men wounded in trying to construct Dye Marker, the Marines spent close to a million man-hours and 114,000 equipment hours on the project; they had also lost more than $1.6 million in combat equipment to the enemy’s ground and artillery assaults.  Everything associated with Dye Marker became an enemy target, from convoys moving equipment forward to killing combat engineers while seated atop their bulldozers.

In 1967, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, warned senior commanders in Vietnam that for the Marines to succeed, they must be allowed to wage war on their terms — not as part of a static defensive strategy subject to the prerogatives of the enemy — but as a lethal force that set its terms of engagement.[11]  By this time, the NVA had already demonstrated its willingness to lose large numbers of men in exchange for a fewer number of Americans, but over a sustained period.

Krulak identified three options along the DMZ: (1) Withdraw the Marines further south of the DMZ, out of range of NVA artillery (which, while tactically sound, offered a propaganda victory to the NVA exceeding Ted Kennedy and Jane Fonda’s visit to North Vietnam); (2) Invade North Vietnam (tactically and logistically difficult, not to mention politically impossible); or (3) Reinforce the 3rdMarDiv and intensify US air and artillery assaults on North Vietnam.  The ball was thus placed in Westmoreland’s court.  He needed to either crap or got off the pot.  Westmoreland elected to get off the pot.

At the beginning of 1968, the NVA used the western end of the barrier, from Khe Sanh, through the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, to attack American forces in that region.  Lang Vei was overrun with 309 killed, 64 wounded, and 122 captured by the NVA, and Khe Sanh was placed under a siege that lasted for 77 days.  After the blockade, Westmoreland’s replacement, General Creighton W. Abrams, ordered Khe Sanh abandoned.  Abrams also ordered the destruction of all infrastructure along Route 9 toward Laos, including all roadways and bridges.  In October 1968, all work relating to Dye Marker ceased.

In March 1968, Major General Raymond G. Davis, USMC, served As Deputy Commander, Provisional Corps.[12]  In May, he was assigned as Commanding General, 3rdMarDiv, through April 1969.  During his tenure in this position, Davis refused to leave his men in static positions where they could be targeted and slaughtered by the NVA.  Soon after taking command, he ordered his subordinate commanders to move out of their static combat bases and execute their traditional mission: locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver and close combat.  Operation Dewey Canyon was how he took the war to the enemy.  With a stream of officers who agreed with this philosophy following him as the division commander, the Marines of I CTZ inflicted a terrible price upon the enemy.  At the end of 1972, the NVA began conscripting young teenagers.  The war might have turned out much differently were it not for Washington politicians (of both parties) who shocked NVA General in Chief Vo Nguyen Giap by ordering the withdrawal of US Forces.

Conclusion

I have long given up my hope that the American people will begin to exercise their sovereignty over the federal government.  They seem not to mind burying their children in massive national cemeteries — and they apparently have never learned that elections have costly consequences.  John Kennedy’s election to the presidency was one of our nation’s more corrupt campaigns. Kennedy’s running mate was one of the most corrupt politicians in the history of the U. S. Congress.  Kennedy selected McNamara to serve as SecDef; Johnson kept him on the payroll.  Who, then, is to blame for getting the American people engaged in a land war that politicians had no intention of winning?  The blame rests with the American voter.  Democrats lied — to both the American people and our South Vietnamese allies — and tens of thousands of Americans died.

President Richard Nixon was roundly criticized by the vocal American communist/anti-war/progressive movement for expanding the war into Cambodia and Laos — but this was precisely what Nixon needed to do to defeat the NVA, who were already operating in Cambodia and Laos — but progressive Democrats/neo-communists gave Kennedy/Johnson a pass for having committed troops to Vietnam in the first place.

Sources:

  1.  Brush, P.  The Story Behind the McNamara Line. Vietnam Magazine, 1996.
  2. Cash, J. A.  The Other Side of the Hill.  Army Center of Military History, 2014.
  3. Philips, W. R.  Night of the Silver Stars: The Battle of Lang Vei.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
  4. Prados, J.  The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail
  5. Shulimson, J. And Blasiol, L. A. And others.  U. S. Marines in Vietnam: The Defining Year, 1968.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1997.

Endnotes:

[1] Marines defend the United States of America.  They do that through aggressive, overpowering combat.  There are defensive tactics in the Marine Corps, but they are designed as a temporary respite while transitioning from one attack to another.  A bended knee is not a Marine Corps tradition, and neither is establishing defensive positions while waiting for the enemy to make his next move.  US Policy in Vietnam tied the hands of the Marines (indeed, all air, ground, and naval forces), by restricting offensive operations and imposing our combat forces criminally malfeasant rules of engagement.

[2] A DMZ is an area of land in which treaties or agreements forbid the establishment of any military activity (installations, activities, or personnel).  It is a buffer zone between two warring factions.  In the case of Vietnam, it was the official border area between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Republic of South Vietnam.  The NVA frequently violated this agreement, in much the same way they violated the neutrality of neighboring Laos.

[3] Never before in US history had the government of the United States adopted an enemy’s game plan.  Whether this was Westmoreland’s idea, or one imposed upon him from Washington, the result was the devastating loss of 58,000 American lives in a conflict that they could not win. 

[4] The aggressive nature of USMC combat operations has always been to save lives, not waste them.  If the United States must fight a war, then the sooner the enemy is defeated, the better.  Washington/Westmoreland denied this proven strategy to the Marines during the Vietnam War.

[5] McNamara served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, gaining a commission as a captain, and achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel before the end of the war.  During the war, he served in the Office of Statistical Control where he analyzed the effectiveness of bomber efficiency.  In 1946, McNamara and ten others of the OSC joined Ford Motor Company.  Collectively, they became known as the Whiz Kids because they helped reform a money-losing FMC.  McNamara became the first president of Ford Motor Company outside the Ford family.  Kennedy appointed him as SecDef at the beginning of his administration.

[6] Kaysen (1920-2010) was an academic advisor in the Kennedy administration, a “specialist” in international security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  His field of expertise was nuclear warfare, foreign trade, international economic policy, and international security policy.  Presumably, Kaysen was an architect of the “Mutual Atomic Destruction,” which essentially changed forever the psychological characteristics of American society.

[7] The JASON Group was established in 1960.  It is affiliated with the MITRE Corporation, which operates seven Federally funded research and development centers at the expense of the American taxpayer.  Consisting of between thirty and sixty scientific technologists, JASON focuses on the development of military technology, with additional interests in global warming and renewable energy.  The term JASON came from “July-August-September-October-November,” the months in which the group typically met.  They are also skeptically known as “Junior Achiever Somewhat Older Now.”  Most developmental ideas originating from JASON were costly failures, shepherded through Washington bureaucrats by theoretical physicists, biologists, chemists, oceanographers, mathematicians, and computer geeks.  They no doubt had a hand in the creation of unmanned naval ships that currently sail the nation’s oceans.

[8] “Bus” Wheeler was a career staff officer and school instructor with active service between 1924-1970.  The Vietnam War may be a direct result of appointing a non-combat officer to head the JCS, particularly one who simply could not kiss enough political ass inside the Washington beltway.

[9] Admiral Sharp served as Commander, U. S. Pacific Fleet from 1963-64, and as Commander, U. S. Pacific Command from 1964-68.  Sharp was Westmoreland’s boss.

[10] Johnson’s only military experience occurred during World War II when he served as a Congressman/Navy Lieutenant Commander in the Public Affairs Section in Washington, D. C.  The 1965 epic war film In Harm’s Way based the character of LCdr Neal Owynn, a sycophant congressman, on Lyndon Baines Johnson.  When the project’s classified code name was leaked to the American press, Operation Practice Nine became Operation Illinois City and then later Project Dye Marker.

[11] Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (FMFPac) (1941-Present} is the largest maritime landing force in the world.  The general officer commanding reports directly to the Commander, U. S. Pacific Command, and exercises command authority over all subordinate commands of the Navy/Marine Corps expeditionary units operating in the Pacific, from California to the Far East.  During the Vietnam War, the CG FMFPac did not exercise operational control of Marines in Vietnam, but he nevertheless had something to say about how the Marines were employed within USMACV.

[12] Raymond G. Davis (1915-2003) served as a U. S. Marine from 1938-1972.  He participated in the Guadalcanal/Tulagi landings-campaigns, Cape Gloucester campaign, and the invasion of Peleliu.  He was awarded the Navy Cross and Purple Heart while commanding 1st Battalion, 1st Marines.  During the Korean War, Davis commanded 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, during which time he was awarded the Medal of Honor during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.  He was also awarded the two Silver Stars, Bronze Star, and two Legions of Merit.