Marines and Operation Torch

EGA BlackOperation Torch was the name assigned to the allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942.  It is true that during World War II most Marines were assigned to combat duty in the Pacific Ocean Area, but not all.  A few served with distinction in the Atlantic, as well. This is an overview of their contributions in context with the evolving conflict..

The main problem of doing nothing other than watching dictators take over the free world is the time, money, and blood required to take it back.  Doing nothing is what happened in the years leading up to World War II.  In 1935, Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia.  Between 1936-39, Spain erupted in a bloody civil war.  Japan invaded China in 1937.  In the mid-1930s, Japanese forces in Manchukuo often clashed with the Soviet Union and Mongolia.  With Japan’s defeat at Khalkin Gol in 1939, the on-going (second) Sino-Japanese War, and Nazi Germany pursuing neutrality with the Soviet Union, Japan’s policy of northward movement was impossible to maintain.  Eventually, Japan and the USSR signed a neutrality pact in April 1941.  It was after this that the Japanese began looking south.

In Europe, Germany and Italy became more aggressive. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, which provoked little more than gasps from any other European power.  Thus encouraged, Germany began to press claims on the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia with a predominant ethnic German population. Against the wishes of Czechoslovakia, the United Kingdom and France conceded this territory to Germany in the Munich Agreement; Germany promised not to make any further territorial demands. Soon afterwards, Germany and Italy forced the Czechs to cede additional territory to Hungary; Poland annexed the Zaoizie region of Czechoslovakia.

On 20 March 1939, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler delivered an ultimatum to Lithuania, forcing more territorial concessions.  In April, Hitler made further demands on the “Free City” of Danzig; the UK and France made assurances of support for Polish independence.  When Italy conquered Albania in April 1939, the British and French offered similar pledges to Romania and Greece.  Undaunted, Germany and Italy formed the “Pact of Steel” alliance.  Germany then denounced the UK and Poland, accusing them of trying to encircle Germany; he promptly cancelled the Anglo-German Naval Agreement and German-Polish Non-aggression Pact.

Meanwhile, the UK, France, and Soviet Union were trying to negotiate an alliance.  When these talks stalled, the USSR signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  The pact included a secret protocol, each side agreeing to spheres of influence.  Germany would control western Poland and Lithuania, and Russia would control eastern Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Bessarabia [1].  The prospect of a free and independent Poland looked dim in 1939.  It looked even worse on 1 September 1939 when Germany launched its blitzkrieg into Poland.

Germany continued its territorial expansion through 1941; Denmark and Norway fell.  Denmark capitulated in less than five hours; Norway held out for two months.  It was Norway’s collapse that propelled Winston Churchill back to 10 Downing Street on 10 May 1941.

Before Churchill, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin wanted to avoid a war with Germany and seemed willing to do almost anything to achieve “peace in our time” —he became one of world history’s greatest appeasers.  Meanwhile, in the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for reelection promising to keep America out of the emerging European War, while at the same time doing everything in his power to circumvent congressional neutrality laws [2].

In April 1941, the US Congress limited the strength of the Marine Corps to 20% of that of the U. S. Navy.  It was a small Marine Corps.  The U. S. Atlantic Fleet consisted of four old battleships (New York, Texas, Arkansas, and Wyoming), one division of heavy cruisers (San Francisco, TuscaloosaQuincy, and Vincennes), the USS Ranger (CV-4), and a squadron of destroyers.  Accordingly, only a handful of Marines were detailed to duty in the Atlantic and these were assigned traditional functions: security of naval installations and service with Marine Detachments afloat —mostly battleships, cruisers, and aircraft-carriers.

In May and June 1941, Marine Corps Major Gerald C. Thomas, and Captain James Roosevelt USMC conducted a special diplomatic mission on behalf of President Franklin D. Roosevelt —one that took them from the United States to England, onward to India and Basra, Iraq, where they met with British Brigadier Sir William Slim and then continued by plane and automobile to Suez and Cairo.  During this exhaustive and dangerous trip, these two relatively junior officers received high-ranking briefings from Air Vice Marshal Theodore Tedder, General Sir Archibald Wavell, King George of Greece, King Peter of Yugoslavia, Sir John McMichael (who served as High Commissioner to Palestine), King Abdul of Iraq, General Charles De Gaulle (in exile), and Lord Mountbatten.

In July 1941, the Marine Corps set up its first embassy detachment in London, England.  The detachment commander was Major Walter I. Jordon, USMC.  From its initial strength of 60 officers and men, the detachment doubled in size in the first six months of service.  Initially headquartered at 20 Grosvenor Square, Marines provided security to the American Embassy and served as an armed messenger service for senior American diplomats.  After Admiral Harold R. Stark assumed his post as Commander, Naval Forces Europe (COMNAVEUR), the Marine Detachment was realigned to focus on naval rather than diplomatic duties.

President Roosevelt knew early on that ultimately, the United States would become involved in the war (—hence the bolstering of US forces in the United Kingdom—) but he also realized that Congress would never authorize American military intervention in the war without an enemy attack upon the United States [3].  Miraculously, the Japanese attacked Honolulu, Hawaii on 7 December 1941 and launched a full-scale invasion of the Philippine Islands the very next day.

By the end of December 1941, the Pact of Steel (Germany, Italy, and Japan) had managed to swallow up most of the civilized world.  German forces conquered France in only six weeks.  Japan seized China, Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, and all European colonies in Asia extending from Southeast Asia to the Central Pacific.  It was up to the Allied Powers to take it back, but with Russia confined to fighting Germans inside the Soviet Union and Nationalist Chinese confronting the Japanese in China, the allied effort mainly involved the United States and the United Kingdom.  It would take time, enormous sums of money, and buckets of British and American blood.

To achieve victory over Germany and Italy, the British and Americans devised a strategy that involved encircling Germany and strangling the Germans into submission. The first step in this process was the occupation of French North Africa [4]; it would open the Mediterranean to allied supply convoys and save time by not having to send shipments around the Cape of Good Hope.

Litzenberg 001
Homer L. Litzenberg

Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt was appointed Commander, Amphibious Forces, Atlantic Fleet (Task Force 34) in April 1942.  Two of Admiral Hewitt’s key staff officers were Lieutenant Colonel Homer L. Litzenberg [5], who served as Assistant Operations Officer, and Major Francis Millet Rogers, Assistant Intelligence Officer.  Hewitt and his staff would be responsible to putting together a plan for operations in North Africa.  It was designated Operation Torch.  The Amphibious forces expanded from a force of three transports to 28 troop-carrying ships. The plan called for an invasion force of 37,000 Army troops, 250 tanks, and all necessary combat support equipment.

Admiral Hewitt’s plan called for creation of sustainable and mutually supporting US landing forces for an invasion of French Morocco on the Atlantic coast of Africa, and simultaneously, for a joint UK/US landing force to seize Algiers/Tunis in the Mediterranean.  Hewitt’s force was prepared to take action against Spanish Morocco and respond to Axis forces in the western desert.  French Morocco was under the control of the Vichy French government, a German ally, headed by Marshal Henri Petain, a hero of France during World War I.  In North Africa, Admiral Jean Darlan commanded the French fleet; given his intense loyalty to Petain, Hewitt and his planning staff expected that Darlan would oppose the allied landing.

Hewitt 001
RAdm H. Kent Hewitt

At this time, there was only a negligible American presence in North Africa, but their efforts included working among the French to ease the way for the expected landing force.  First Lieutenant Pierre J. Ortiz, attached to the US Embassy, Tangiers as a naval attaché was one of the few Americans working behind the scenes to collect intelligence on Axis forces. Prominent among this small number of Americans was Robert Murphy, US Consul to the Vichy government, and his attaché, Colonel William A. Eddy [6], USMC.  Eddy’s assistant, First Lieutenant Franklin Holcomb, USMC, contributed to the success of Torch by finding and smuggling out of Morocco two boatmen from Casablanca who were familiar with the complex hydrographic conditions in North Africa.  Both gentlemen helped to guide the landing force ashore.

Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower [7] was appointed to serve as Commander-in-Chief, Allied Expeditionary Forces early enough to become involved in the planning for Operation Torch.  Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham exercised overall command of the operation. Colonel Eddy traveled from Morocco to brief Eisenhower and his staff on the operation.  He was then sent to Washington to brief the military and naval service chiefs and President Roosevelt.  Eisenhower, who was favorably impressed with Colonel Eddy, appointed him Senior Military Attaché for Africa.

Meanwhile, it was determined that weapons training was needed for navy boat crews.  In September 1942, twenty-five Marine Corps instructors under Lieutenant Colonel Louis C. Plain and Captain William E. Davis set up training camps at the naval base in Rosneath, Scotland.  They were joined by First Lieutenant Fenton J. Mee and fifteen enlisted men.  At the conclusion of training, the officers and men were divided into six-man teams and assigned to six different ships as part of the landing force; the remaining ten Marines returned to their base in Londonderry.

To facilitate the transportation of large numbers of soldiers, ships were gathered from all along the US eastern seaboard.  One hundred ships left for the Mediterranean in late October 1942.  The troops for the North African landing came from Major General George S. Patton’s Western Task Force.  Owing to the presence of French capital ships Richelieu and Jean Bart [8], the task force included USS Massachusetts (BB-59), USS Texas (BB-35), USS New York (BB-34), USS Ranger (CV-4), four escort carriers, USS Wichita (CA-45), USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37), USS Augusta (CA-45), light cruisers USS Savannah, USS Brooklyn, USS PhiladelphiaUSS Cleveland, 38 destroyers, and four submarines.  Marine detachments were assigned to all capital ships and the carrier USS Ranger; beyond their security duties, the detachments were trained to man naval guns and conduct amphibious operations ashore

Unlike the its army, the French Navy was full of fight and intended to resist any US/UK intervention.  Vice Admiral Francois Michelier commanded coastal defenses, including artillery and offshore aerial reconnaissance.

To facilitate the scheduled D-Day [9] landing of 8 November 1942, the American convoy cross 4,000 miles through submarine-infested waters, averaging 14 knots per hour. Hewitt planned to land his forces at three locations.  The main effort pressed ashore at Fedala (14-miles north of Casablanca) with secondary landings at Port Lyautey (65-miles north) and at Safi (125-miles south) of Casablanca.  H-hour was delayed for an hour owing to the confusion in the dark of night.  The main opposition to the joint-forces landing came from French shore batteries and strafing by French planes.

As expected, the French Navy mounted an aggressive defense, but after losing several ships to American sea power, ships staying afloat made the profoundly wise decision to withdraw.  Several American ships were lost to French shore battery fires and German submarines.  Once the Americans landed, however, French resistance collapsed within a few hours. Colonel Litzenberg went ashore at Fedala and was temporarily attached to General Patton’s headquarters.  Major Rogers [10], who was fluent in both French and Arabic, also went ashore.  His mission was to make his way through hostile territory,  seek out Admiral Michelier, and negotiate a surrender of all French forces in Morocco.  Within four days, US troops were positioned to attack Casablanca.  Due to Roger’s efforts, Michelier surrendered his command and the assault was cancelled.

French troops in North Africa (along with those in French West Africa) who were not already captured eventually joined the allied cause and served as part of the French Expeditionary Corps throughout the rest of World War II.  Initially, Moroccans made up 60% of the French expeditionary forces.  When Adolf Hitler learned that Admirals Michelier and Darlan had surrendered to the allies, he ordered the occupation of Vichy France and dispatched the German Army to Tunisia.  Admiral Darlan was assassinated in December 1942.

As for Marines serving in Europe after 1942, many served with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and British SOE.  One of these men was a famous actor and author.  He and several others played an important role in the pacification of the Balkan states; their tales are hair-raising and amusing.  I’ll have to tell you about them some time.


[1] A historic region in Eastern Europe bounded by the Dniester River on the east and the Prut River on the west.  About two-thirds of Bessarabia lies within modern day Moldova. Ukraine’s Budjak region covers the southern coastal region and its Chernivtsi Oblast covering a small area in the north.

[2] The United States Congress adopted several neutrality acts intending to ensure that the US remained disengaged from European conflicts. The Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937 made it illegal for Americans to sell or transport arms and munitions to warring nations.  Roosevelt lobbied Congress to amend the neutrality provisions to allow the provision of arms to allied nations if they paid cash for such goods and assumed responsibility for transporting them on non-US flagged ships.  Accordingly, Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1939 ending the embargo on a cash and carry basis.  In doing so, Congress began its shift away from isolationism toward interventionism.

[3] Few academics are willing to argue that FDR pushed Japan into making its attack on 7 December 1941.  They cite the absence of any documentation to this effect, and if this is true, then it had to be one of the most amazing coincidences in modern history. Japan had long established a proclivity for surprise attacks: The First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the invasion of Taiwan (1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), they overstayed their welcome during the Siberian intervention (1918-22), they invaded Manchuria (1931-32), invaded China again (1937-45), and they Invaded French Indochina (1940).  Moreover, following World War I, Japan made no apologies for seizing and retaining control of numerous islands in the western pacific region during the first world war.  Who, with even limited knowledge of these events, could not have predicted Japan’s attack on the United States’ advanced pacific bases?  Roosevelt made no preparation for war in the far east after 1937, even while making every possible provocation for a Japanese attack. If US policy toward Japan could provoke an attack upon American territory, then Roosevelt would have his excuse for US involvement in the European war.

[4] Following Germany’s conquest of France and its later occupation by German and Italian forces, France collaborated with the Pact of Steel under Marshal Philippe Petain, the nominal head of the French government.  The allied effort to invade North Africa pitted British and American forces against Nazi Germany and the so-called Vichy French forces of Marshal Petain.

[5] Litzenberg (1903-1963) joined the USMC in 1922.  He received his commission to Second Lieutenant after a tour of duty in Haiti and served in Nicaragua from 1928-29.  He also served aboard USS Idaho, USS Augusta, USS Arkansas, USS Arizona, and USS New Mexico.  Following his service with the Navy in Europe, Colonel Litzenberg was sent to the Pacific where commanded the 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, served as Executive Officer, 24thMarines, and served as assistant operations officer of the V Amphibious Corps.  During World War II, he took part in combat at Roi-Namur, Saipan, and Tinian. During the Korean War, Litzenberg commanded the 7th Marine Regiment at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. He retired as a Lieutenant General in 1959 and passed away on 27 Jun 1963.

[6] Colonel Bill Eddy (1896-1962) was a World War I and World War II Marine, university professor, college president (1936-1942), US Minister to Saudi Arabia (1944-1946), and a US intelligence officer (1942-1944).  As a lieutenant, Eddy served in the 6th Marines during World War I.  During World War I, Eddy was awarded the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Star Medals, and two Purple Heart Medals.  In 1946, Eddy served as Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for Research and Intelligence and was instrumental in the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency.

[7] General Eisenhower never held a combat command until being assigned to command allied combat forces.  It was this lack of experience that led other general officers, who had combat experience, to denigrate him at every opportunity.

[8] Both ships had fifteen-inch guns.  There were also concerns about the possible intervention of German warships.

[9] D-Day was a designation for the date of an important military operation or invasion.  Since the actual date was classified top secret, the use of D-Day was intended to mask the actual date the operation was to begin.

[10] Rogers was awarded the Silver Star Medal by General Patton for his courageous actions.  Promoted to lieutenant colonel, Rogers remained on Admiral Hewitt’s staff for the duration of US Naval operations in the Mediterranean Sea.  After the war, Rogers joined the faculty of Harvard University as a professor of romance languages and dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences.  He retired from Harvard in 1981 and passed away in August 1989.

At Bladensburg, 1814

Americans generally regard the War of 1812 as an engagement between Great Britain and the United States, a war lasting from 1812 to 1815.  Today’s post is about this conflict.  There was another war during this period, also sometimes referred to as the War of 1812; it involved the French invasion of Russia.  The 1812 Overture [1] reminds of this event as part of the Napoleonic Wars.

As with all history, there were a number of events that eventually led the United States into lethal conflict with Great Britain.  In this particular conflict, there were a series of British behaviors that the Americans found offensive, and these were triggered by the fact that Great Britain went to war against Napoleonic France in 1803 in a conflict lasting until April 1814.  In many ways, the Napoleonic War was an international conflict —a world war, perhaps— that involved Great Britain, Russia, Batavia, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Austria, Portugal, Prussia, Saxony, Sweden, Scandinavia, and Finland.

From the outbreak of war between Great Britain and Napoleonic France in 1803, British strategy involved the use of its considerable navy to halt or restrict trade with France by any other nation.  The British believed that Napoleon Bonaparte could be weakened economically and militarily by limiting the flow of goods into France.  Their strategy might even cause the people of France to rebel against their tyrant emperor.  At the time, the United States was emerging as a new nation.  The British naval blockade of French ports restricted the United States’ access to a much-needed trade partner, and of course, the American navy was much smaller than the British Royal Navy.

The first objectionable behavior was the British blockade of French ports; a second behavior involved the British policy of accosting ships in international waters and impressing sailors from foreign ships into service with the Royal Navy.  From the British perspective, this activity was understandable: The Royal Navy needed experienced sailors to man ships to establish their blockades.  To the Americans, the practice was illegal and objectionable.  Of course, trade with France benefitted the economic interests of the United States.  Leading to war with Great Britain were two related incidents:

On 22 June 1807, HMS Leopard accosted the USS Chesapeake off the coast of Virginia.  Leopard was supposedly looking for deserters from the Royal Navy.  Leopard’s attempt to intercept Chesapeake caused that ship to take flight.  After several British broadsides [2], Chesapeake surrendered (having fired only one shot in her own defense).  After arresting four crewmen, the British sent Chesapeake on her way [3].  Commanding Chesapeakeat the time was Captain James Barron, USN.  Baron was later court-marshaled and dismissed from the navy.  The incident, when publicized, enraged the American people, but President Thomas Jefferson, being no enthusiast of the American navy, ignored them.  He and the US Congress backed away from popular demands for open warfare with Great Britain.  While American leadership was searching for a backbone, the British navy reiterated its intent to inspect all non-British ships for deserters and contraband.

On 1 May1811, HMS Guerriere detained USS Spitfire off Sandy Hook, New Jersey and impressed Mr. John Diggio, a member of Spitfire’s crew and a citizen of Maine. In response, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton directed USS President and USS Argus to patrol America’s coastal waters from the Carolina coast to New York.  In command of USS President was Commodore John Rodgers [4].  On 16 May, Rodgers sighted HMS Little Belt and, believing her to be HMS Guerriere, gave chase.  On more than one occasion during the hours-long pursuit, each ship’s captain signaled his demanded to know the other’s identity; neither captain would give up this information and so eventually, both ships engaged.  USS President was a much larger ship (more guns) and in raking HMS Little Belt, nine British seamen died, and 23 others were seriously injured.  The President lost one man killed in action.  Both captains later claimed that the other had fired the first shot.

A third objectionable British behavior was that they supplied firearms to hostile Indians and incited them to attack America’s western settlements.  Seeking to limit America’s westward expansion, the Indians became a useful British tool in achieving this policy.  The Indian’s murderous attacks achieved two things: it did hinder (although only slightly) American westward expansion, but it also created deep resentment toward both the British and the Indians.

On 18 June 1812, pressured by congressional war hawks, President James Madison declared war on the United Kingdom.  When publicized in London a few months later, the article appeared as a mere footnote on page 34 of the London Times.  The British were not impressed.  With most of its army and navy fighting against Napoleon in Europe, the Americans were a mere annoyance —a flea to be swatted aside until a later time.

At the beginning of the war, the British adopted a defensive strategy in dealing with the Americans. Initially, offensive operations were limited to the border separating Canada and the United States, and in the western regions where American settlements were sparsely populated and poorly defended.  The prevailing attitude among these western settlers was utter disdain for a government that failed to protect them from Indian and Redcoat depredations.  Elsewhere, underscoring early America’s regionalism, the War of 1812 was unpopular among those living along the eastern seaboard; among those who depended on trade for their livelihood.

In any case, the American’s initial efforts against the British were unfocused, contrary to the United States’ long-term interests, and grossly inept.  The British handed the Americans defeats at Detroit, Queenstown Heights, and Montreal.  Finally, in 1813, the Americans won the Battle of Lake Erie and managed to defeat the Tecumseh Confederacy [5].  Meanwhile, the Royal Navy blockaded American seaports which allowed the British to raid the American coastal regions at will.  One of these actions involved the British Army’s assault on the city of Washington. Great Britain’s land war against the United States began in earnest after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814. Thousands of British combat veterans were reassigned to the American continent.

What the British wanted most of all was a quick end to the war with the United States; war is expensive, and the British had been at it since 1803.  Accordingly, a new British strategy evolved: seizure of New England and New Orleans: isolate and control US trading hubs and transportation routes north and south. In addition to destroying American trade, the British sought to demoralize the American population by attacking their main central seaboard cities: beyond Boston and New Orleans was Washington, Baltimore, Charleston, and Savannah.

Major General Robert Ross
Major General Robert Ross

Major General Robert Ross [6], appointed to command all British land forces along the Atlantic Coast, arrived in Maryland directly from the Napoleonic War. He had been wounded at the Battle of Orthez but recovered sufficiently to command all British forces along the Atlantic Coast.  He confidently led his 4,500-man army from Benedict, Maryland towards Washington.

Brigadier General William H. Winder [7], appointed to command the American forces in defense of Washington, theoretically commanded fifteen-thousand militia, but his professional force at arms consisted of only 120 dragoons, 300 regular infantry, 360 sailors and 120 Marines.  In reality, the American militia involved 6,500 poorly trained, inadequately equipped, and undisciplined citizen-soldiers.  With but few exceptions, America’s militia excelled in only one area: it’s rate of march in retreat.

On 20 August 1814, Winder ordered his force to advance south toward Long Old Fields and Woodyard to confront the British force at Upper Marlboro.  After a brief clash with General Ross’ advance units late in the day on 22 August, (and, fearing a British night attack [8]), Winder ordered a retreat.  It occurred to Winder that Bladensburg was the key to a solid defense of Washington.  Whoever controlled Bladensburg would command the roads to Baltimore and Annapolis —roads along which reinforcements were moving to join Winder.  Bladensburg also lay on one of the only two routes available to the British for an advance on Washington.  Winder ordered Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury to move his force of men to Bladensburg and “… take the best position in advance of Bladensburg, and should you be attacked, resist for as long as possible. [9]

Stansbury immediately deployed his force [10] on Lowndes Hill where he hastily dug earthworks for artillery emplacements.  The road from Annapolis crossed Lowndes Hill; the road from Upper Marlboro extended to its south and west.  The roads to Washington, Georgetown, and Baltimore all intersected behind it and the town of Bladensburg.  Stansbury’s position dominated the likely British approach and controlled all vital lines of communication.

Early in the morning of 23 August, Winder advised Stansbury by courier that he had withdrawn across the Eastern Branch of the Anacostia River with the intention of firing the lower bridge. Surprised, Stansbury subsequently developed an unreasonable fear that the British might turn his right flank. Rather than strengthening his commanding position, he decamped and marched his exhausted troops across the Bladensburg Bridge, which he failed to destroy, to a brickyard two miles further on. Stansbury thus squandered his only tactical advantage over the approaching British [11].

Behind Stansbury’s right flank was a brigade of Washington militia under Brigadier General Walter Smith. Smith’s brigade occupied a strong position behind a creek and along the crest of a small rise, but Smith had not conferred with Stansbury about this position and there was a gap of a mile between them.  Smith’s position would do Stansbury no good at all.

Joshua Barney c. 1800Commodore Joshua Barney commanded the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla.  His sailors and Marines manned artillery batteries that briefly held off the British advance on the upper hill of the present-day Fort Lincoln Cemetery. Barney’s men manned two 18-pound guns and three 12-pound guns, which had come from the Washington Navy Yard.  To Barney’s left were the 1st Regiment of District Militia, an artillery battery under Major George Peters, and a provisional battalion of regulars under Lieutenant Colonel William Scott. The 2nd Regiment of District Militia was posted as a reserve behind Peters and Scott.

The Battle of Bladensburg began on 24 August when British Colonel William Thornton led his 85th Light Infantry Brigade into the advance on Bladensburg.  Baltimore artillery and well-aimed rifles impeded his advance for a time, but he and his men eventually moved forward under fire in loose order.  Unfortunately for Winder, Baltimore’s solid shot artillery was of little use against scattered skirmishers.  Ultimately, Thornton’s advance forced the Baltimore artillery to retreat with only five of their six guns.

The British 1st Battalion, 44th Regiment of Foot managed to ford the Eastern Branch of the Anacostia River above the bridge.  As they prepared to envelop the American left, General Winder commanded the Fifth Maryland to initiate a counter-attack against them; it was during this engagement that the First and Second Maryland broke ranks and fled the battlefield.  In the heat of the battle (fog of war), General Winder’s orders became confused or were misunderstood.

The British pressed their advantage but were soon engaged by Smith’s brigade and Commodore Barney’s sailors and Marines.  Thornton’s brigade made several frontal attacks across the creek, but each time his advance was thwarted by Barney’s naval artillery and counter-attacks by Marines [12].  With the British attempting to isolate American positions, General Winder directed an orderly withdrawal [13].  Smith’s brigade initially fell back in good order, but it wasn’t long before nearly every American militia unit went into full retreat.  It was the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American Arms —later referred to as the Bladensburg Races.

Bladensburg Marines
Marines at Bladensburg

Commodore Barney, however, did not receive Winder’s order to withdraw.  With fewer than three rounds of canister shot and charges per gun, Barney’s sailors and Marines held their positions against British frontal assaults for well over two hours; in some instances, the Marines counter-attacked the British with ferocity and resolve [14].  But Barney’s situation worsened when the drivers of ammunition carts joined in the general retreat.  Eventually, the British 1st Battalion, 4th Regiment, and 1st Battalion, 44th Regiment made an attempt to surround Barney’s land flotilla.  Observing this, Barney ordered his men (and the president) to retreat to avoid capture.  Barney, himself badly wounded in the thigh by musket shot, was captured.

The British suffered far more casualties than the Americans, most of these inflicted by the sailors and Marines in Commodore Barney’s flotilla, but the fact is that the American militia ran from the field of battle to save themselves.  British casualties included 64 killed in action with an additional 185 seriously wounded.  Americans reported killed in action numbered 10 or 12 with 40 wounded and 100 captured [15].  Modern scholars argue that of the American captured, most suffered serious injury.

In any case, on the evening of 25 August, Major General Ross led his force into the city of Washington. As British soldiers set fire to government buildings throughout the city, General Ross and his staff enjoyed a quiet dinner in the Presidential Mansion (now called the White House) before setting it ablaze.  It was the first and last time that a foreign army ever occupied the United States capital.

CMC House MB Washington
The Commandant’s House

But there was one government building spared from the British torch.  Out of respect for the Marines who so valiantly defended their country’s capital at Bladensburg, the British spared the Marine Barracks located at 8th & I Streets in southeast Washington.  It was then, and continues to be, the home of the Commandant of the Marine Corps [16].  There are scholars today who argue that this story is a myth; they say that the Marine Barracks was simply overlooked by storming British soldiers.  The argument appears implausible (and revisionist) in light of the fact that the British did locate and set fire to the Washington Navy Yard, which was (and is) just down the street from the Marine Barracks.  For anyone intent on burning down government buildings, Marine Barracks Washington would be impossible to overlook.

Post script:  On the morning of 12 September 1814, Major General Robert Ross led his men to what would become the Battle of North Point, a part of the larger Battle of Baltimore.  Advance elements encountered American skirmishers, and as General Ross rode forward to personally direct his troops, American sharpshooters shot him through the right arm into his chest.  History recalls the two men that likely fired the fatal shot: Daniel Wells, aged 18 years and Henry McComas, aged 19 years.  General Ross succumbed to his wounds while being returned to the British Fleet.


[1] Written in 1880 by Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

[2] British guns resulted in the death of three Americans and serious injury to eighteen others.

[3] All four crewmen were later tried for desertion and one of these men was hanged.

[4] Commodore Rodgers was an insightful and competent naval officer. Anticipating war with Great Britain, he had all ships of his squadron properly fitted for wartime service at sea. He led his ships to sea within the hour of learning about President Madison’s declaration of war.

[5] A league of Indians in the Great Lakes region of the United States involving the Shawnee leader Tecumseh who set into motion a long series of hostile acts directed at westward-moving Americans.  The confederation fell apart after Tecumseh’s death in 1813.

[6] Robert Ross (1766-1814) was an Irishman who began service with the British Army in 1789.  Between 1789-1814, Ross fought Krabbendam, Netherlands, Alexandria, Egypt, Naples, Italy, and in Spain at Corunna, Roncesvalles, Sorauren, and Orthez.

[7] Winder (1775-1824) was a Maryland attorney commissioned as an Army colonel at the outset of the War of 1812.  Captured at the Battle of Stoney Creek in 1813, he was later exchanged for a captive British officer.  Winder was appointed to command the 10th Military District (encompassing Washington and Baltimore) on 4 July 1814.

[8] Earlier, Winder had been captured during a British night attack.

[9] Williams, John S.  History of the Invasion and Capture of Washington, and of the Events Which Preceded and Followed.  Harper & Brothers, New York, 1837.

[10] Stansbury commanded the First, Second, and Fifth Regiments of Maryland Militia; three volunteer rifle companies, and two batteries of Baltimore artillery.

[11] If we bemoan the fact that American militia “cut and run” in the face of the British Army, we must have nothing but scorn for the hundreds of government officials who hastily departed the city of Washington to safer locations further south –although it may have been a prudent decision based solely on their understanding that the British would give no quarter to any captured American official.

[12] The number of Marines participating in the Battle of Bladensburg was 120; it was, at the time, one-third of the total force of United States Marines.

[13] General Winder’s battle plan had made no provision for withdrawal; without designated fallback positions, the militia simply retreated from the battlefield and headed for all points south of Bladensburg.

[14] Commanding the Marines under Barney’s command was none other than President James Madison.

[15] Heidler’s Encyclopedia of the War of 1812.

[16] This is the reason why the home of the Commandant of the Marine Corps at Marine Barracks, Washington, is the oldest continually used public building inside the nation’s capital.

Hold High the Torch, Part III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hold High the Torch, Part II

The Continuing story of the 4th Marines

EGA BlackThe size and scope of Operation Iceberg —the Battle for Okinawa, given the island’s size and terrain, was massive.  Iceberg included the Tenth US Army’s XXIV Corps (four infantry divisions) and the III Marine Amphibious Corps (1st, 2nd, and 6th Marine Divisions), the Fifth US Fleet (Task Force 58, 57, and the Joint Expeditionary Force), involving a combined force of 541,000 personnel (250,000 of which were combat troops).  Tenth Army was uniquely organized in the sense that it had its own tactical air force (joint Army-Marine Corps aviation).

The Tenth Army faced 96,000 Japanese and Okinawan belligerents.  Between 14,000 to 20,000 Americans died on Okinawa; between 38,000 to 55,000 Americans received serious wounds.  Japanese losses were between 77,000 to 110,000 killed with 7,000 captured alive.  Approximately half of the entire civilian population living on Okinawa were killed out of an estimated island-wide population of 300,000.

Iceberg was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War.  The 82-day battle had but one purpose: seize the Kadena air base for Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands.  The Japanese put up one hell of a fight in their defense of Okinawa but in doing so, they sealed their own fate: the ferocity of the Japanese Imperial Army convinced Washington politicians that dropping its new secret weapon (an atomic bomb) was far better than trying to take the Japanese home islands by force of arms —and costing the Americans an (estimated) additional one-million casualties.

The landing force demanded a massive armada of ships.  The Navy would have their hands full with Kamikaze aircraft from mainland Japan. The 6th Marine Division’s mission was to capture Yontan airfield in the center part of the Island.  The first assault wave came ashore at 0837, and the 4th Marines (less its 2nd Battalion, held in reserve) was among the first units to hit the beach.  What shocked the Marines was that they encountered no resistance from Japanese defenders.  Accordingly, the American advance was rapid; significant territorial gains were achieved on that first day.  In the absence of Japanese resistance, 2/4 came ashore at noon and rejoined the regiment. Yontan was taken ahead of schedule and then, according to the game plan, the 6thMarDiv turned north.  Marine progress continued unimpeded until 7 April when the Marines encountered Japanese defenders on the Motobu Peninsula.

The defense of this peninsula included several Japanese obstacles along the Marine’s likely avenues of approach. Terrain favored the Japanese. Mount Yaetake formed the core of the Japanese defense.  The mission of pacifying Mount Yaetake was assigned to the 4th Marines, reinforced by 3/29.  The 22nd Marines and the balance of the 29th Marines moved to seal off the peninsula.  There is no sense in having to fight the same enemy twice.

The 4th Marines attack commenced on 0830 on 14 April.  2/4 and 3/29 made the preliminary assault on a 700-foot ridge.  The Marine advance was bitterly contested until 16 April; it was a classic search and destroy mission but the Japanese weren’t going quietly. On 16 April BLT 3/4 was brought into the line.  Marines from Company A and Company C boldly charged through the enemy’s heavy barrage of mortar and machine gun fires to seize the crest by mid-afternoon.  Once the Marines secured and consolidated their positions, the mission continued to eliminate pockets of resistance. Combined, the two-company assault resulted in the loss of 50 Marines killed and wounded.

The 6thMarDiv pushed on and the peninsula was pacified on 20 April.  Organized resistance in northern Okinawa ended on 21 April 1945.  Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., commanding the division, declared his sector secure and available for further operations.  In the southern sector of the Island, all American progress came to a halt at the Shuri Line [1].

General Buckner ordered III Amphibious Corps (Lieutenant General Roy Geiger, commanding) to redeploy his Marines to the left of XXIV Corps; the US 27th Division replaced the 6thMarDiv in its mopping up operations.  Shepherd’s Marines were in place by 6th May.  Buckner ordered another advance and the 6thMarDiv was tasked with capturing the city of Naha.  4th Marines began their engagement on 19 May after relieving the 29th Marines, who by this time were fought-out.  It was a brutal form of war —up close and personal: Marines had to dislodge the Japanese in hand to hand combat.  By the time the 4th Marines reached Naha, they were ready to come off the line and were replaced by the 29th Marines.

Okinawa 1945
4th Marines assault on Naha, Okinawa. DoD picture from the public domain.

On 4 June, the 4th Marines assaulted the Oroku Peninsula, the location of the Naha airfield. It was an amphibious assault involving BLTs 1/4  and 2/4 under a blanket of naval gunfire and field artillery support.  BLT 3/4  came ashore a few hours later as the reserve force.  That afternoon, the 29th Marines came ashore and lined up next to the 4th regiment.  It was a slug-fest with a well-entrenched enemy; the battle lasted for nearly two weeks. Torrential rains and thick mud hampered the progress of Marines —mud and slime not even tracked vehicles could penetrate.  On 12 June, the outcome of the battle became self-evident.  The Japanese continued fighting, of course, but their back was to the water and there was no possibility of escape.  By this time, the Marines weren’t keen on taking prisoners. The 22nd Marines closed the back door by moving into a blocking position at the base of the peninsula.  The Japanese had but two choices: surrender or die. Most opted for the second option. General Shepherd informed III Amphibious Corps on 13 June that the peninsula belonged to the American Marines.

Following this battle, 6thMarDiv proceeded south to link up with the 1stMarDiv in the final engagement of the battle.  4th Marines returned to the front on 19 June and commenced their advance on the next morning.  The Marines encountered some resistance, but not much —the Japanese were fought out, too.  All organized resistance ended on 21 June 1945.  The 4th regiment’s casualties in the Battle of Okinawa exceeded 3,000 killed and wounded.  With Okinawa in American hands, the 4th Marines headed back to Guam for rest, retraining, and refit.  Everyone was thinking of the planned assault on the Japanese home islands; no one was happy about such a prospect.

US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place in early August.  I’m not sure most Marines knew what an atomic bomb was back then, but even among those who might have had an inkling I doubt whether many were remorseful.  Planners began to consider final preparations for occupation. With Japanese acceptance of the terms of surrender on 14 August, Task Force Alpha began to organize for seizure of key Japanese positions, including the naval base at Yokosuka in Tokyo Bay. The main element of Task Force Alpha was the 4th Marine Regiment.  The decision to assign the 4th Marines to this duty was a symbolic gesture to avenge the capture of the “old” 4th Marines on Corregidor.

The US 4th Marine regiment was the first American combat unit to land on the Japanese mainland.

As the Marines transitioned from transport ships to landing craft at 0430 on 30 August, they no doubt expected treachery from their war time foe.  No matter —the Marines were prepared for any eventuality.  First ashore was BLT 2/4, which landed at Cape Futtsu.  The Marines were the first foreign invasion force ever to set foot on Japanese soil.  Upon landing, the Marines quickly neutralized shore batteries by rendering them inoperable. After accepting the surrender of the Japanese garrison, BLT 2/4 reembarked to serve as a reserve force for the main landing at Yokosuka.  BLTs 1/4 and 3/4 landed at around 0900; 3/4 seized the naval base, and 1/4 took over the airfield.  Demilitarization of all Japanese installations was initiated as a priority; it would be better not to have loaded weapons in the hand of a recently conquered army.  For all of that, all landings were unopposed.  Japanese officials cooperated with the Marines to the best of their ability.

Task Force Alpha was disbanded on 21 September 1945 and all 6thMarDiv units were withdrawn from Japan —except one.  The Fourth Marines were placed under the operational control of the Eighth Army and the regiment was assigned to maintain the defense of the Yokosuka naval base.  This included providing interior guard and the disarming Japanese (who appeared in droves to surrender their weapons).  This duty continued until November.  President Truman had ordered rapid demobilization of the US Armed Forces. Operational control of the 4th Marines passed from Eighth Army to Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific on 20 November. At the end of the month, BLT 1/4 was ordered to proceed to Camp Pendleton, California, where it was deactivated on 29 December 1945.  The regiment’s remaining elements (except for the regimental headquarters and BLT 3/4) departed Japan on 1 January 1946.  These units were deactivated at Camp Pendleton on 20 January.  BLT 2/4 was deactivated on 31 January 1946.  BLT 3/4, still in Japan, was deactivated at Yokosuka and these Marines formed the core of a newly created 2nd Separate Guard Battalion.  They would remain in Japan to guard the naval base.

4th Marines return to China, 1945. DoD Photo from Public domain.

Headquarters 4th Marines departed Japan on 6 January for Tsingtao, China.  After four years, The China Marines had returned from whence they came.  In China, 4th Marines headquarters was re-attached to the 6th Marine Division, but the regiment really only existed on paper until 8 March 1946.  On that date, all three battalions and weapons company were reactivated in China, a matter of shifting personnel from the 22nd and 29th Marines, which were deactivated.

Occupation duty in China presented an uneasy situation for everyone concerned.  Truman wanted a smaller military, and he wanted it now, even as Marines confronted an aggressive Communist Chinese Army in North China.  The 6th Marine Division was deactivated  on 31 March.  All remaining Marine Corps units in China were re-organized as the 3rd Marine Brigade. The core element of the 3rd Brigade was the 4th Marine Regiment.  Initially, 4th Marines was the only Marine Corps regiment to retain its World War II combat organization of three battalions.  Then, on 10 June 1946, the 3rd Marine Brigade was also deactivated; operational control of the 4th Marines was transferred to the 1stMarDiv.

Truman’s reductions kept the Marine Corps in a constant state of flux.  In the second half of 1946, the 4th Marines (less its 3rd Battalion) was ordered back to the United States.  BLT 3/4 was placed under the operational control of the Commander, Naval Port Facilities, Tsingtao.  Meanwhile, the regiment’s arrival at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina on 1 October was the first time the 4th Marines had set foot inside the United States in twenty years.  As most of its veterans were discharged or reassigned, the regiment was once more reduced to a paper tiger.  In May 1947, the 1st Battalion was reactivated.  BLT 3/4, which was still in China was deactivated.  In November 1947, 4th Marines lost its traditional structure and became a four-company size organization: Headquarters Company, Company A, Company B, and Company C.  This significantly reduced structure remained in place for the next two years.  Even so, these rifle companies participated in a number of post-War exercises in the Caribbean.

In September 1948, what was left of the 4th Marines was again sent overseas aboard vessels of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea.  Cold War antagonism between the Soviet Union and United States threatened to erupt into a full-scale war.  By this time, President Truman may have realized that downsizing the US Department of Defense [2] while at the same time challenging the power of the Soviet Union wasn’t a very good idea.  Suddenly realizing the ominous consequences of a Soviet-dominated Europe, Truman began sending military and economic aid to nations menaced by Communist aggression.  Truman also decided to maintain a US presence in the Mediterranean to help ease the pressure on such countries as Greece and Turkey.  In furtherance of this policy, the Marine Corps maintained a battalion landing team (BLT) as part of the Mediterranean fleet.  The 4th Marines was re-activated from this BLT beginning in September 1948 and lasting until January 1949.  America’s “show of force” included a landing at Haifa, Palestine in October.  This detachment was ordered to proceed to Jerusalem to perform temporary guard duty at the American Consulate.

A few months after returning to the United States, the 4th Marines deployed to Puerto Rico for training exercises.  The regiment was once again deactivated on 17 October 1949.  Less than one year later, the military weakness of the United States along with other Truman administration blunders encouraged the North Koreans to invade the Republic of South Korea.

Next week: From Harry Truman’s War to the Streets Without Joy


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


[1] The Shuri-Naha-Yanabaru Line was a defensible series of positions held by the Japanese Imperial Army. It was so formidable, in fact, that during the contest, Marine Corps Commandant suggested that Tenth Army commander General Simon B. Buckner consider using the 2ndMarDiv in an amphibious assault on the southern coast of Okinawa, thereby outflanking the Japanese defenses.  Buckner rejected the proposal, which left only one strategy: frontal assault.

[2] The Department of Defense was created through the National Security Act of 1947, a major restructuring of the US military and intelligence agencies.  This act merged the War Department (renamed as Department of the Army) and Navy Department into the National Military Establishment, headed by the Secretary of Defense.  It also created the Department of the Air Force and United States Air Force and established the United States Marine Corps as a separate service under the Department of the Navy.

Hold High the Torch, Part I

The story of the Fourth Marine Regiment

EGA BlackA provisional military unit or organization is formed on an ad hoc basis for specific operations and, at the time of its creation, is never intended to become a permanent command. The Marine Corps has had several provisional organizations in the past, and in the sense of its present-day operations, continues to do this as part of the Marine-Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs). A MAGTF is an expeditionary organization formed with a specific mission or range of similar contingency operations [1].  The more complicated the mission, the larger the MAGTF.  At the conclusion of the assigned mission, ground, air, and combat support elements are returned to their parent (major) commands of the U. S. Marine Corps (e.g., divisions, wings, logistics commands).

In the Marine Corps, an infantry division provides necessary forces for amphibious assaults or in the execution of other operations as may be directed by competent authority.  A Marine Division must be able to provide ground amphibious forcible-entry capability to an amphibious task force and conduct subsequent land operations in any operational environment.  As the ground combat element of a Marine Expeditionary Force, the Marine Division may be tasked to provide task-organized forces for smaller operations.

There are three infantry regiments within a Marine Corps infantry division.  The primary mission of an infantry regiment is to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or to repel his assault by fire and close combat. The infantry regiment consists of a headquarters company and two (or more) infantry battalions—normally, three such battalions.  Infantry battalions are the basic tactical unit with which the regiment accomplishes its mission.  The Marine Infantry Regiment is the major element of close combat power of the Marine Division.  Infantry regiments (with appropriate attachments) are capable of sustained, independent operations.  When the regiment is combined with other combat support and combat service support elements, it will form a Regimental Landing Team (RLT).  The Fourth Marine Regiment is one of these.

4th MarinesThe 4th Marines was initially activated in April 1911 to perform expedition duty.  Later re-designated a Provisional Battalion, the organization was deactivated in July of that same year.

Diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States were strained beginning in 1910, when a series of revolutions, counter-revolutions, civil conflict, and outright banditry resulted in several incursions by Mexicans into US territory, notably in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  This was a period during which Texas sent companies of Texas Rangers into the Rio Grande Valley to protect ranches and homesteads from Mexican depredations.

In April 1914, a number of American sailors were on liberty in Tampico, Mexico from USS Dolphinwhen they were arrested by Mexican authorities.  We do not know why they were arrested, but having observed sailors on liberty in foreign ports, I have my own theory.  The Mexicans soon released the sailors and issued an apology for the arrest.  An outraged Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo demanded that Mexican authorities render honors to the United States flag as Dolphindeparted port —this they refused to do.

Eleven days later, the United States learned that a German vessel was about to off-load a quantity of arms and munitions at Vera Cruz, Mexico.  This was a violation of an embargo against the shipment of arms to Mexico, imposed by the United States because (1) the United States failed to recognize the legitimacy of the regime of General Victoriano Huerta, and (2) the bloodshed and turmoil associated with the Mexican civil wars/revolution.  Mexico’s violation of the embargo gave President Wilson the excuse he needed to intervene.  On 21 April 1914, Wilson ordered the Navy to land the Marines and seize the customs house at Vera Cruz.

One consequence of Wilson’s directive was the re-activation of the 4th Marines at Puget Sound, Washington.

Col Pendleton 004The newly re-formed 4th Marines was initially composed of its headquarters company and the 24th, 26th, and 27th rifle companies.  Colonel Joseph H. Pendleton, with considerable experience commanding expeditionary units, was ordered to assume command of the regiment.  Within only two days, the regiment embarked aboard USS South Dakota and sailed for San Francisco, California.  At Mare Island, four additional companies joined the regiment: the 31st and 32nd companies boarded South Dakota, and the 34th and 35th companies embarked aboard USS Jupiter.  Both ships set sail almost immediately after loading the Marines.

On that same day, 21 April, USS Prairie landed 502 Marines in Vera Cruz from the 2nd Advanced Base Regiment.  Marine Detachments and 295 sailors (bluejackets) from USS Florida and USS Utah also went ashore as a provisional battalion.  The Mexican commander at Vera Cruz was General Gustavo Maass who, owing to a great deal of common sense, withdrew his forces from the city.  The American landing force was unopposed but taking control of the city was not as easy. Fierce fighting began when cadets of the Vera Cruz Naval Academy, supported by fifty-or-so Mexican soldiers and untrained citizens resisted the US invasion force.  Naval artillery destroyed the Naval Academy and its cadets. Afterward, the Marines took complete control of the city with little difficulty.

South Dakota and Jupiter arrived at Mazatlán on 28 April 1914, with South Dakota ordered to proceed further south into Acapulco harbor.  Within a week, USS West Virginia arrived at Mazatlán with reinforcements, the 28th and 36th rifle companies.  The 4th Marines was now comprised of ten rifle companies (three battalions) and all of its forces were in Mexican waters primed for action while stationary off the West Coast of Mexico.

The naval force remained in Mexican waters through June 1914.  The 4th Marines would only be put ashore if the situation demanded it.  By the end of June, Wilson had decided to support his own dictator of choice and with the election of Venustiano Carranza, tensions between Mexico and the United States eased.  Wilson permitted the supply of arms and munitions to Carranza; the 4th Marines were withdrawn from Mexican waters.

Upon return to the United States, most of the regiment established its base of operations at San Diego, California; 1st Battalion (Major John T. Myers, Commanding) was (initially) ordered to return to Mare Island.  The 1st Battalion later relocated to San Francisco, where a “model camp” was established on the grounds of the Panama-Pacific Exposition [2].  Meanwhile, regimental headquarters and four rifle companies occupied a new camp on North Island. Owing to the success of the 1st Battalion’s model camp in San Francisco, Colonel Pendleton was tasked to do the same at the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego.  The 2nd Battalion, operating under the command of Major William N. McKelvy [3] was designated to assume this assignment.

Then, in 1915, marauding Indians threatened the lives and property of Americans living in the Mexican state of Sonora. As Mexico had not taken any worthwhile measures to prevent these attacks, or to defend the Americans, relations between the US and Mexico were once more strained.  USS Colorado was dispatched with BLT 2/4(-) [4], arriving off Guaymas on 20 June.  Again, the Marines were withheld from going ashore.

In November 1915, Mexican revolutionaries and Yaqui Indian depredations prompted the dispatch of Marines to Mexico, this time involving the regimental headquarters and BLT 1/4 reinforced by the 25thand 28thcompanies.  USS San Diego anchored off shore adjacent to Topolobampo, which exerted pressure on Mexican authorities to act in ending threats to American lives and property.  Again, the Marines did not execute a landing in Mexico.

In the spring of 1916, civil war broke out in the Dominican Republic.  Once more, by presidential order, Marines were ordered to intervene.  See Also: Dominican Operations (in three parts).  The regiment remained in the Dominican Republic until August 1924.

After returning to San Diego, California, the 4th Marines began receiving Marines from a recently deactivated 7th Marine Regiment.  With so many years of peace keeping and constabulary duties in the Dominican Republic and the arrival of new personnel, the regiment began a series of training operations to reorient the Marines to their intended purpose: landing force operations, which have always been a complex undertaking.  Training included maneuvers in the Hawaiian Islands.  Normal peace time operations were interrupted in 1925 when 2/4 was dispatched to aid local authorities in Santa Barbara, California. An earthquake had severely damaged the city.  Duty for these Marines involved general assistance to the civil government and for augmenting law enforcement agencies in restoring order, guarding property, and preventing looting.

In October 1925, the 4th Marines was reorganized to include a third rifle battalion, but for whatever reason this battalion was deactivated within nine months.  In 1926, following a series of mail robberies, the President ordered the Secretary of the Navy to assign Marines to mail protection duties.  The United States was divided into two zones of operations.  Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler was placed in overall charge of the western operations and the 4th Marines became America’s mail guards.  Units of the 4th Marines were deployed throughout the western states.  Their mission not only included guarding trains and postal trucks, but also post-office guards and railway stations.  See also: General Order Number One.  Not even the American mob wanted to tangle with Marines; by 1927, the number of mail robberies had dropped to nearly zero and, as the postal department had created its own system of armed guards, the 4th Marines were sent back to San Diego, California.

Our world is not now and has never been free of conflict.  In early 1927, threats to the security of the International Settlement in Shanghai, China sent the 4th Marines to deal with the problem.  The 4th Marine Regiment subsequently spent so much of its time in China that they became known throughout the Corps as “The China Marines.” Of the number of Marine officers assigned to China with the 4th Marines, six went on to serve as Commandant of the Marine Corps: Alexander A. Vandegrift, Clifton B. Cates, Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., Randolph M. Pate, David M. Shoup, and Wallace M. Green.  See also: The China Marines (series).

Tensions within the International Settlement in Shanghai never quite subsided, particularly since the Japanese adopted an aggressive stance in China.  See also: Pete Ellis-Oracle.  With a large contingent of Japanese forces located on the outside of Shanghai, their command authority embarked on a systematic program to undermine the position of the Western powers in the International Settlement.  It then became the mission of the Marines to thwart any Japanese attempt to change the status quo of the American sector.  The reality of the situation, however, was that should the Japanese have made an overt attempt to seize the American sector, the Marines would receive no assistance from other foreign military contingents. The atmosphere in China after the outbreak of the European war in 1939 was tense; the future of China uncertain. Italy, at the time an official ally of Japan, placed no value in preserving the International Settlement.  The situation worsened in 1940 when Italy became actively involved as an ally of Germany against Great Britain and France. It was a downward spiral: The Vichy government of France ordered French forces not to interfere with Japanese military intentions in Shanghai, whatever they might be.  At this time, the only obstacle to Japanese aggression in the International Settlement was the 4th Marine Regiment.

In early 1941, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, Commander-in-Chief, Asiatic Fleet concluded that war with Japan was inevitable. Accordingly, on his own initiative, he began withdrawing his most exposed units.  He recommended to President Roosevelt the withdrawal the 4th Marines, as well.  Roosevelt still had not made his decision by September 1941; the situation had by then become dire.  US intelligence sources uncovered evidence that Japan was planning to implement a series of incidents that would give them an excuse for seizing the American sector of the International Settlement.  Roosevelt finally acted and ordered all naval personnel out of China —including, finally, the 4th Marines.  Complete evacuation of the American sector was ordered on 10 November 1941.

On 27 November, Headquarters 4th Marines and the 1st Battalion embarked aboard SS President Madison.  The rest of the regiment boarded SS President Harrison the next day: destination, Philippine Islands. The situation was serious enough to cause the navy to assign four US submarines to escort these contracted troop ships to the Philippines.  Not so amazingly, the Japanese knew the full details of the Navy’s withdrawal operations, including the names of the ships and their destinations —even before either ship arrived in Chinese waters.  One reminder to all hands during World War II was, “Loose lips, sinks ships.”

The unhappy story of the 4th Marines in the Philippine Islands is provided as part of a series titled On to Corregidor. As a result of this debacle, the regimental commander, Colonel Samuel L. Howard ordered the United States Flag and the Regimental Colors burned to avoid their capture by Japanese forces in the Philippines.  At that moment, the 4th Marine Regiment ceased to exist.  The date was 6 May 1942.

American Marines are a proud lot.  There was no way on earth that Marine Corps leadership would allow the 4th Marines to pass into history.  On 1 February 1944, the 4th Marine Regiment was reactivated, reconstituted from units of the 1st Raider Regiment.  What the Marines needed more of at this stage of the Pacific war was infantry battalions, and fewer “special purpose” battalions.  In any case, the reactivation of 4th Marines was unique in the sense that the lineage and honors of both the “old” 4th Marines and 1st Raider regiment were passed on to the “new” 4th Marine Regiment.  The regiment’s  first operation was the seizure of Emirau Island in the St. Mathias Group.  America needed  airfields, and since you can’t construct these with Japanese soldiers running all over the place, the Marines were send to terminate all Japanese forces with extreme prejudice.  The Japanese, having anticipated that the Americans wanted this island withdrew some time before the landing.  The 4th Marines first amphibious landing was unopposed. There was no need for these Marines to worry, though.  Marine Corps leadership found something for them to do —they went to Guam.  The Battle for Guam is presented in sections.

Next on the agenda for the 4thMarines was the Battle for Okinawa—a brutal slog-fest lasting from 1 April 1945 to 22 June 1945.  In this awful battle, the 4thMarines would serve alongside the 15thMarines, 22ndMarines, and 29thMarines and part of the 6thMarine Division.  That story will continue next week.


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


[1] Navy task forces operate on a similar basis.

[2] Commemorating 400thanniversary of Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the opening of the Panama Canal.

[3] Colonel McKelvy (1869-1933) received his commission as a Marine officer after graduating from the US Naval Academy in 1893.  McKelvy served during the Spanish-American War and was awarded the Brevet Medal for extraordinary courage under fire during his service in Cuba, 1898.

[4] (-) indicates that some portion of the battalion’s organic assets have been detached.

The Hill Fights

Hill 881N as seen from 881S

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vietnam Counterinsurgency

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Viet Cong Insurgency

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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