On 7 February 1965 Viet Cong Units attacked the American Advisory compound at Pleiku in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. The attackers killed nine U.S. servicemen and wounded 128 others. For the first time, American advisors had died in a deliberate enemy attack. This brought a quick response from Washington. Until now, American ground combat units had not been sent to Vietnam because of the political ramifications, but the deliberate attack on the U.S. advisors changed the political landscape. Military units across the Pacific went on alert for possible deployment to Vietnam. Commanders scrutinized maps, some of them dating back to the days of French Indo-China, familiar-izing themselves with the geography and place names, just in case.
Several units were available to move to Vietnam on short notice. The Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade was an elite unit that could be transported by air from Okinawa to Vietnam in a matter of hours. The 25th Infantry Division was stationed in Hawaii and could be transported by ship to Saigon in a matter of weeks. Finally, the 3rd Marine Division, also based in Okinawa, could deploy a Marine Expeditionary Brigade to Vietnam in a matter of days. All these units had advantages and disadvantages to their deployments. Finally, after careful evaluation, the Marines were ordered in. Although many of the politicians thought they were too large a unit, they were self-contained, which made them attractive for deployment to Vietnam.
The Coming of the Marines
Marine Landing Vehicle Tracked or LVT-5. The big vehicle was used as an armored personnel carrier, resupply vehicle and battlefield ambulance.
On 7 March 1965 two Battalion Landing Teams of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade stormed ashore northeast of Da Nang at the designated landing zone (LZ). The Marines were ready for action but their hopes of finding and destroying the enemy troops in the area were quickly dashed. The Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered that the Marines would only guard the vital airbase at Da Nang. They would not be responsible for the defense of the area, nor would they engage in daily operations against the enemy.
Marine reinforcements from Japan and Hawaii poured ashore during the course of the next few weeks. Two additional infantry battalions arrived. One remained at Da Nang and the other was sent to Phu Bai, near Hue, to guard the small landing strip and protect the Army's 8th Radio Research Unit stationed there. The Brigade Logistics Support Unit was established ashore, along with headquarters units, a fire support center, engineer, antiaircraft defense units and a variety of other units that made the Marines a self-supporting combat unit.
Marine air units also began to arrive at this time. Two Marine Attack Squadrons flying McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom jets were flown to Da Nang. An aerial reconnaissance detachment arrived to monitor enemy activities. Two helicopter squadrons, flying UH-34D 'Hueys', were assigned to the Brigade and were operational by the end of the month.
Having an entire Marine Brigade guarding one airfield certainly made it secure, but gave the men little opportunity to use their combat skills. The Marine commanders argued that they could better protect the airfield and keep the enemy off balance if they were allowed to actively patrol the area.
Finally, on 20 April, the Marines were given permission to patrol the area around Da Nang and to actively seek contact with the enemy. United States Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MAC-V) intelligence estimated that there were 560 enemy soldiers within 50 miles of Da Nang and 1,480 enemy soldiers within 100 miles. These numbers did not frighten the Marines, but Intelligence estimated that the enemy was building forces for some sort of offensive in the area.
The intelligence was discussed at a high level meeting held in Honolulu on 20 April. The meeting was attended by the Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara; Ambassador to South Vietnam, Maxwell D. Taylor; General William Westmoreland, the head of Military Assistance Command-Vietnam; and several other important military leaders. The consensus was that the enemy was planning to attack the Marines in the Da Nang perimeter.
The Naming of Chu Lai
A Marine Landing Platform Dock or LPD allowed the Marines to move rapidly along the coastline of Vietnam.
The participants at the meeting recommended that more Marines be sent to Viet Nam. They also approved the construction of an expeditionary airstrip at Chu Lai to ensure that the aircraft had a place to land should the enemy knock out the airfield at Da Nang.
Many Vietnamese place names were new and strange to the commanders, and the meeting participants were not overly distressed at not being able to immediately locate the site of the airstrip. The new airfield would need protection, and the conferees recommended that three more reinforced Marine battalions and three jet aircraft squadrons be sent to Vietnam to guard the Chu Lai facility. Their recommendation was quickly approved, and the Marines assigned the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade to the mission.
The plan for the Chu Lai facility was sound with the mere exception that the name couldn't be found on any map, nor did the locals know where it was. The reason was quite simple. The actual location for the airfield had been scouted out by Marine General Victor H. Krulak some months before. He was certain that the airfield at Da Nang would become a major air base for United States Forces. The limited facilities at that field would quickly be taxed and an alternate field, located nearby, would be required.
Gen. Krulak found the spot he needed for the airfield some 57 miles southeast of Da Nang. It was a flat coastal plain along the border of Quang Ngai and Quang Tin provinces. The plain could accommodate an airfield; it was serviced by a major road and was close to the coast so that the Marines could reach it by sea. The area had no official name as there was nothing there but flat coastland. Gen. Krulak, realizing that it would need a name, christened it Chu Lai, the Mandarin Chinese characters for his own name, and so it came to be.
Krulak proposed building a Short Airfield for Tactical Support, or SATS, field at Chu Lai. The field would be 2,000 to 3,000 feet long, 72 feet wide, and would have parallel taxiways, refueling facilities and maintenance areas. The field was, in essence, an aircraft-carrier deck built on shore. It was even equipped with arresting gear so the aircraft could use their arresting hooks for very short field landings.
On 3 April General Marion Carl, commanding the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and several members of his staff visited the site. They were supposed to meet a representative of the Vietnamese civilian contractor that would build the airfield. They reached the site, and waited. When no representative arrived, they laid out the airfield themselves and returned to Okinawa to order the necessary supplies. Marine engineers estimated that the airfield would take 25 days to build.
While engineers gathered supplies, the 3rd Brigade prepared for the landing at Chu Lai. The men and equipment boarded ships and headed for Vietnam. As they prepared for the landing, they received intelligence reports that there were 500 Viet Cong living in the local villages, that the area was a known resupply route from the sea to the interior of Vietnam, and that the enemy might well oppose the landing. So be it—that was why the Marines had been chosen.
Conducting a landing across a defended beach was not daunting for the Marines. They developed a plan to bring naval gunfire and air strikes on the beach area before the landing. After that they would shoot their way inland, establish a perimeter and bring in their artillery and tanks to expand the beachhead.
The invasion plan was sent up the chain of command and eventually made its way to Gen. Westmoreland. He was stunned when he saw the plan and immediately ordered that the Marine commanders meet in Saigon.
The meeting was held on 1 and 2 May with Army General John L. Throckmorton representing Westmoreland. The Marines were told that they would face an unopposed landing. Unopposed? The commanders asked if Throckmorton's intelligence was accurate. Throckmorton insisted it was. The Marines requested that the plan be retained but that fire support be kept in an "on call" status until actually needed. At 0880 on 7 May the Marines stormed ashore at Chu Lai. The landing was unopposed, despite the presence of Vietnamese troops—elements of a South Vietnamese army division which had thrown a perimeter around the landing area. Within a few hours the Marines had secured the beach and moved inland. Over the next few days, the rest of the Brigade came ashore. On 12 May the operation was officially concluded. By that date the Marines had landed three reinforced infantry battalions, a reconnaissance battalion and all their artillery, armor, engineer and other elements required to make the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade a self-sustaining unit.
The engineers immediately set to work building the airfield. There were many problems. The Vietnamese civilian firm had finally arrived at Chu Lai but had incorrectly marked off the airfield. Saving face was at stake here. The Marines averted a political controversy by simply moving the survey stakes to their correct positions, and construction began. Other problems also had to be overcome before they could progress. Moving heavily laden trucks in the soft sand proved difficult, the asphalt needed to stabilize the soil failed, and keeping the heavy equipment operating became a maintenance nightmare. Still, on 31 May, the first Marine McDonnell A-4 Skyhawk landed on the runway. Within days the strip was fully operational and an entire jet squadron was flying from the now 4,000-foot runway.
With the Marines ashore at Chu Lai, the Marine strength in Vietnam had grown to seven infantry battalions, an artillery regiment, the majority of the other combat support and service support of the 3rd Marine Division and most of the air assets of the 1st Marine Air Wing. Such a large force could no longer be considered a Brigade. Thus on 6 May the Marines officially combined all the units in Vietnam into the III Marine Expeditionary Force. The new force was initially commanded by General William R. Collins. He was near the end of his tour of duty, and on 4 June General Lewis W. Walt took command of all these Marine forces.
The arrival of so many Marines in a short period of time certainly signaled the Americans' intention to escalate the war. However, Gen. Westmoreland and his staff in Vietnam did not immediately realize the obvious signal they were sending the enemy. In fact, in an effort to mitigate the arrival of the Marines, they asked the units to change their name from Expeditionary to Amphibious. Expeditionary was the term often used by the French during their colonial days in Vietnam; Westmoreland's staff thought that nine infantry battalions of Marines would be less threatening if they changed their designation. The Marines were preoccupied with other issues, and promptly changed. Their real problem was closing with the enemy.
As early as 22 April, Marine units came in contact with Viet Cong units near Da Nang. A company of Marines accompanied by 38 South Vietnamese soldiers ran into an enemy force of 100 soldiers near the village of Binh Thai, nine miles southwest of Da Nang. The battle was inconclusive, but finding so strong an enemy unit near the base was a portent of things to come.
Despite having almost an entire 22,000-man division on the ground the Marines were still restricted to close-in patrols of the three airbases at Da Nang, Phu Bai, and Chu Lai. The infantry commanders wanted to at least push out the perimeter so that the airfields themselves would be out of enemy mortar and artillery range. The argument made sense, although there were many political considerations to overcome. The South Vietnamese Army commander near the Marine enclaves did not want the Marines to patrol aggressively as he was not sure the Marines were ready to do battle with the experienced Viet Cong units operating in the area. He was also did not want the heavily armed Marines patrolling heavily populated areas.
The Marines from Da Nang had already carried out a few successful operations near the base. On 8 May, Lieutenant Colonel David A. Clement, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, had been fired at from the village of Le My. The village was the nearest built-up area to the Marine perimeter and was known to be controlled by the Viet Cong. Clement took the near miss to heart and was given approval to occupy the village. Three days later the Marines moved into Le My in force. The attack brought a spirited enemy reaction but a battalion of "grunts," as Marine infantry was commonly called, quickly drove them off. The attack proved that the Marines could easily expand their perimeter and take on enemy units.
The successful operation and the establishment of the III Marine Amphibious Unit ashore convinced Gen. Westmoreland that the Marines needed more freedom. Technically the Marines were bound by the Letter of Instruction that allowed the Marines to conduct defensive missions, reinforce South Vietnamese units in combat, or act as reserve forces. On 15 June he authorized them to carry out Search and Destroy missions in the general areas of the enclaves, which consisted of 130 square miles of South Vietnam. This gave the Marines the latitude they needed to carry out the offensive operations for which they were designed. There were still many restrictions but the ability to conduct combat more freely came just in time.
Throughout June the Marines encountered small enemy units operating around their enclaves. The enemy was particularly busy around Da Nang. On 10 June a Marine patrol uncovered and destroyed an enemy base camp. Eleven days later, on 21 June, a Marine patrol was ambushed by the Viet Cong. The next day, the enemy probed the line of outposts the Marines had built around the base. Two days later a battalion-sized sweep to the south of the airbase killed two enemy soldiers and captured nineteen more. It was obvious that the enemy was in the area in some strength and planned some sort of attack in the area.
The aggressive Marine patrols provided Gen. Westmoreland with crucial intelligence information. He was certain the enemy would plan an attack on one of the American installations. As he surveyed his map he was certain the Marines at Da Nang, Chu Lai and Phu Bai could hold their own. However, there was a major American logistics base at Qhi Nhon, 175 miles south of Da Nang, which had little protection. It was an inviting target and Westmoreland knew he needed troops to guard it. Unfortunately, all his forces were heavily committed guarding other installations. He requested that two more Marine battalions be brought into Vietnam. One would be sent to Da Nang as a reserve and the other would go to Qhi Nhon. The Marines immediately complied with this request and, on July 1, the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines and its attachments moved ashore Qhi Nhon. The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines left Okinawa on the same day and headed for Da Nang. These reinforcements arrived just in time.
In the early morning hours of 1 July, the Viet Cong launched their most serious attack on the Da Nang airfield. An 85-man enemy company, supported by mortars, a recoilless rifle and sappers, cut through the barbed wire surrounding the perimeter. The enemy hit the weakest part of the airfield defenses. They came in from the south, an area where Marine patrols had been limited because of the heavy civilian population. The enemy actually managed to get onto the field and hit an Air Force C-130 and an F-102 jet before they were driven back by concentrated fire from the Marines.
Although little damage was done, the attack embarrassed and infuriated the Marines. During the remaining weeks of July they intensified their patrols. Enemy contact increased in both number and the size of enemy units engaged. The frequency of the contacts convinced the Marines that a large enemy force was in the area.
The intelligence reports worried Gen. Westmoreland. He requested more troops. Contained in the new list were two more Marine battalions: The 1st Battalion, 7th Marines landed at Chu Lai in mid August and the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines landed at Da Nang shortly after.
On 30 July Gen. Walt, the Marine commander, met with Gen. Westmoreland. The two men discussed the number of recent contacts, and Walt requested that he be allowed to carry out large-scale combat sweeps further from his enclaves. Based on the intelligence presented, Westmoreland approved the concept. He also did away with the restrictive Letter of Instruction and allowed the Marines to carry out offensive operations at greater distances from their bases. It was all that Gen. Walt and his Marines needed.
The Marines had located elements of the 1st Viet Cong Regiment operating nine miles south of Chu Lai. The enemy was poised to strike. Gen. Walt had no desire to sit and wait for an attack. However, he needed more definite information. A series of large patrols were sent into the area to gather intelligence.
On 15 August a Viet Cong deserter from the 1st Regiment surrendered to South Vietnamese troops. During the interrogation the deserter confirmed that the regiment was based around the Phuoc Thuan peninsula some 12 miles south of Chu Lai. The enemy perimeter extended in a rough circle from the village of An Cuong 1 on the coast westward to Hill 43, the highest land mass in the area, some two miles inland, and then back through the villages of Nam Yen (3) An Cuong (2), An Thoi (2) and Van Tuong (1). (The numbers behind the villages are American designations. The Vietnamese often called sprawling hamlets by the same name; the Americans had to be more precise to carry out a military operation and often designated hamlets or sections of hamlets by number).
The 1st Viet Cong regiment consisted of 60th and 80th Battalions supported by the 52nd Viet Cong company and a company from the 45th Weapons Battalion. The unit totaled 1,500 veteran fighters. They were dug in around their defensive perimeter waiting for the order to move out to attack Chu Lai.
The Marines reacted quickly. On the morning of 17 August the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines plus two additional rifle companies were flown into Chu Lai to take over the defense of the perimeter. The 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines and 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, which had been guarding the perimeter and were familiar with the area, could lead the assault elements.
The plan of attack was simple. The Marines would surround the area with an amphibious and heliborne assault and then drive the enemy back onto the Phuoc Thuan Peninsula and into the sea. The first part of the operation began before dawn on 18 August when Company M of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines took up a blocking position along the Tra Bong River which marked the northwestern side of the enemy perimeter.
Earlier in the day, the 7th Marine Regimental Headquarters commanding the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines and the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines embarked on amphibious ships and headed out to sea. They sailed east out over the horizon to deceive the enemy spies, and after dark they sailed back to the coast, arriving on the southern side of the battle zone just before dawn.
The Marines moved ashore in their amphibious-assault tracked vehicles at 0630. Their landing was preceeded by artillery and air strikes on the beach. It was unopposed and the Marines quickly seized An Cuong (1) and the southern side of the enemy perimeter.
As the amphibious landing was hitting the beach, the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines was helicoptered to three landing zones on the southwestern side of the enemy perimeter. Company G captured Landing Zone Red on the southern side of the Tra Bong River and started moving east toward the ocean. Company E, along with the Battalion Headquarters, took Landing Zone White and moved east toward the village of Van Tuong (1). Company H captured Landing Zone Blue, at the base of Hill 43.
Companies E and G, meeting no opposition, moved toward their objectives. Company H ran into a veritable hornet's nest. The 60th Viet Cong Battalion on Hill 43 quickly put the Marines under fire.
Unaware of the enemy strength on the hill, Lieutenant Homer K. Jenkins, the H company commanding officer, sent one platoon up the hill to destroy the enemy. The other two platoons of the company were sent to capture Nam Yen (3). The attack on the hill quickly faltered as the enemy was both superior in numbers and tactical position. Jenkins quickly realized his mistake. He recalled his two platoons from Nam Yen (3) to reinforce the attack on the hill. He also requested air and artillery strikes on the hilltop. Hearing the request for support on the net, the Marines sent five tanks and three M-50 Ontos (tracked, armored vehicles armed with six 106mm recoilless rifles) to assist. The Marines attacked again and took the hill, killing six enemy and capturing over 40 weapons. The enemy fell back into Nam Yen (3) and An Cuong (2).
The retreating Viet Cong ran into elements of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines and 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines advancing inland from the beach. The Marines took An Cuong (2) first. After a heated firefight the enemy left the village, leaving behind 50 dead and scores of weapons. Then the Marines moved on Nam Yen (3). It too was heavily defended by both enemy infantry. A Marine observation helicopter, calling in fire missions, fell victim to small-arms fire and crashed near the village.
The Marines from Hill 43 and those in An Cuong (2) saw the crash and moved toward the downed helicopter. Each unit assumed that the other had cleared the enemy from Nam Yen (3) when, in fact, neither had. Even worse, the Marines left no security in An Cuong (2) . The enemy took full advantage of the mistakes. As soon as the Americans passed the village, the Viet Cong opened fire. Other enemy forces swung around behind them and retook An Cuong (2).
As the Marines advanced they were caught in enemy crossfire. The attack took them by complete surprise. They tried to bring up their tanks and armored vehicles but they were bogged down in the rice paddies. Despite repeated attempts to get into the village the Marines could not drive the enemy from Nam Yen (3).
Lt. Jenkins called for air and artillery fire on the village and then ordered his men back to Landing Zone Blue. Jenkins and his men needed reinforcements to capture the village. They were ordered to form a defensive perimeter around the LZ and await reinforcements. Unfortunately, the fresh Marines would never arrive to help Jenkins. He and his men would remain near the LZ for the rest of the day.
After Jenkins and his men pulled out of Nam Yen (3) a supply column of amphibious tractors and tanks tried to move forward to deliver ammunition, water and medical supplies to the men of 7th Marines. The column got lost in the confusion of battle and ended up on a narrow trail between Nam Yen (3) and An Cuong (2). As the column moved north of the villages it was ambushed. Although they held their own against the enemy assaults, the situation was desperate and they would soon be overrun if help did not arrive.
The Marines quickly assembled reinforcements and sent them to relieve the battered supply column. The men, led by an M-48 tank and an Ontos, moved forward but immediately came under heavy fire. Despite the fire, the Marines pressed on. The enemy was well dug in, but accurate artillery fire and air strikes weakened their resolve. Within a few minutes, the enemy melted away and the Marines were able to relieve the supply column and occupy An Cuong (2).
At 1730, the Marines deployed the last of their reserves. Company L, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines was helilifted from the U.S.S. Iwo Jima into the area near the initial amphibious landing site. The men quickly joined the force which had taken An Cuong (2) and soon encountered heavy enemy fire from the rice paddies southeast of An Thoi (2). The advance was finally stalled by darkness. The Marines dug in and brought up supplies.
The Viet Cong saw their opportunity and disengaged during the night. Realizing they were faced with superior forces, the guerrillas simply melted away. When the Marines resumed their attack at dawn, most of the enemy were gone. By 1030 on 19 August, the Marines were in total control of the area.
Operation Starlite officially ended on 20 August. During the operation the Marines killed 614 VC and took nine prisoners. Hundreds of enemy weapons and documents were captured. The cost had not been light. The Marines lost 45 dead and 203 wounded during the bloody battle.
The operation demonstrated that the Marines could hold their own against Viet Cong. Although the Marines made many mistakes during this, their first major operation, they had proven that their tactics were sound. Their ability to move rapidly to isolate any battlefield could catch the enemy by surprise. Their effective use of artillery and airstrikes proved that they could take any enemy position.
During their first five months of operation in 1965 the Marines had built up their presence from a mere battalion to a force of over 19,000 combat troops supported by five helicopter squadrons and five fixed-wing attack squadrons. They had established and expanded their presence from Chu Lai in the north to Qui Nhon in the south and established tactical areas of responsibility that covered over 330 square miles of South Vietnam.
In their first few months in Vietnam the Marines had carried out scores of patrols and launched a major operation. Despite their lack of combat experience in Vietnam, they had destroyed most of one enemy regiment and damaged another. The Marines had demonstrated their abilities to the fullest.
by Timothy J. Kutta
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