Marines in Vietnam


Overview of Marines in Vietnam

By Bruce Eades, delivered at the Vietnam War Foundation & Museum Memorial Day 2015 Program revised 12-21-2017 to add two additional casualties: 2nd Lt. Carl Reed Gibson, PFC Charles Rudolph Milton Jr.


WELCOME HOME MARINES & SAILORS

 April 2015, the Marine Corps League dedicated bricks that memorialize our fallen Brothers and those Battles that we fought together in Vietnam.  As hard as it is to conjure up these old memories of those gentle heroes we lost in the rice paddies, deltas, jungles, mountains and cities and villages of I Corps; it is important that we take a backward glance at what these brave Marines and Sailors have taught us with their dying and to keep their memory alive.

It was February 1965 and the 9th Marines Expeditionary Brigade, over 7,000 Marines and Navy Corpsmen under General Karch had been standing off coast of Vietnam for 2 months.  Finally in rough seas on March 8th BLT 3/9 hit Red Beach DaNang at 0900 hrs and were met by the Mayor, Vietnam General Thi in purple camo, and a bevy of pretty Vietnamese college girls with flower leis.  Embarrassed General Karch and his Marines would rather have been hitting the beaches of North Vietnam.

By summer (5) infantry Regiments were in country supported by (4) aircraft groups.  Operation Starlite pitted the 7th Marines in a 3 prong attack on 2000 Viet Cong in BaTanGan peninsula south of Cha Lau.  (Ba Tang An means 3 villages of peace in Vietnamese).  Over 1000 Viet Cong were killed in ensuing battle that forever changed the Viet Cong strategy to that of an insurgency … rockets, mortars, ambushes, sniper and worst of all the hideous mines and booby traps.  But the 26th Marines would, 4 years later, return here for the largest amphibious landing of the war.  The first local Marine casualty was LCpl. Tom Grinnell, who’s Mighty Mite Jeep, like the one inside the museum, hit a mine at Hi Van Pass on 3 Sept 1966 (just 13 days before he was due to rotate). 

About that time Intel indicated that the 324th North Vietnam Division Had crossed the DMZ and were in the hamlets across the Cau Viet river from Dong Ha. Thus started Operation Hastings, as the Marines took on a new enemy with superior weapons and supplies. Concurrently Operation Prairie against 341st  NVA went on around the Rockpile through May. Combat firebases were being established in an area known as Leather Neck Square that extended out from Dong Ha north to Gio Linh and west to Con Thien near the DMZ and south Rockpile/CamLo on Route 9. 

April 29 of 1967 saw the 2nd area Marine casualty PFC Doug Wallace killed in Action by a booby trap as the 9th Marines operated west of Phu Bai. When I arrived in country one month later, like most of us, I was a “F”NG (brand new guy) point rifleman for Lima 3/1 making a sweep of the Happy Valley “Rocket Belt” west of  DaNang on Operations Union.  To the South as part of the same operation, there was also heavy fighting by 5th Marines in Que Son Valley southwest of Hoi An.Things were getting even bloodier in the Northwest Corner of Quang Tri around Hill 861 and Khe Sanh.

That Spring also saw Marines trading in M-14’s and being re-armed with M-16’s.  As we all know, there were initially a lot of problems with the new rifle jamming and the lack of proper cleaning kits.  It was great at short range with terrific velocity (3250 fps) and together with new loose camo uniforms and jungle boots and flak jackets, we were ready for Bear.  But what we got were Divisions of NVA soldiers (29,000 crossed the DMZ in 6 months, many didn’t make it back).  They carried AK-47’s, a much more powerful and reliable weapon.  In fact it and their RPG Rockets, which your grandkids can see and hold in the museum, are the weapons of choice for today’s terrorist. May 15th (the day I actually arrived in Vietnam as a replacement Marine rifleman) the third young man from our small community, PFC Charles Rudolph Milton Jr. was lost in an artillery barrage near the DMZ.

Mid-Summer of 1967 (after 2 1/2 years) Marine casualties in Vietnam passed the total for the entire Korean War and Vietnam became the 2nd largest war in United States history. In July 1967, the largest single disaster of the war took place just off the coast on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. An accident on the USS Forrestal aircraft carrier occurred when sailors from two different crews trying to perform a record number of combat sorties both unknowingly to other team, circumvented safe guards loading rocket flares in order to speed up their operation. Thus an accidental firing hit McCain’s plane and set off a five hundred pound bomb with the explosions ripping open the 8” steel decking and leading to a tragic loss of life (186 Sailors died putting out fires). Reading “Sailors to the End will give you tremendous respect for what those Sailors and all Navy personnel today are trained for, which is a fire at sea. Amazingly the Forrestal was back on station within a month.

Fall of 1967 saw heavy fighting by 2nd B/ 1st Marines around Leather Neck Square in Northern I Corps.  Our 4th local casualty Sgt. Allen Firth, who is depicted here at the museum in the guard tower at Con Thien, was also killed by artillery from the DMZ.

The TET Offensive of 1968 actually started for us the day after Christmas when our BLT 3rd Battalion/1st Marines made an amphibious landing North of Hue in Operation “Badger Tooth”.  We hit the wrong hamlet and then were caught in the open by a regiment of NVA preparing for their attack on Hue. Out of range of any air, artillery or navel guns support, our losses that day are indescribable; my only solace is the fact that 1 month later, during Operation “Badger Catch”, we were able to trap and decimate them in the Hamlet of Lam Xuan East near the DMZ.

Although the enemy was not successful in their TET attacks on DaNang and the other cities of I corps, they were able to infiltrate the open city of Hue in civilian clothes.  On midnight January 30th, they changed into uniforms, let go rocket and mortar barrages and revealed themselves essentially in control of the City.  After 23 grinding days of street fighting (an experience that the Marine Corps used to advantage later in Faluja, Iraq) 1/1 and 1/5 along with Vietnamese Marines reached the Southeast wall of the Citadel.  Mop up continued for a week and on March 2nd the Battle for Hue was declared over. 

Of course a lot was happening in the North, near the DMZ, particularly with the 26th Marines around Khe Sanh (the longest battle of the war) where our 5th casualty PFC Howard Hollar was shot down in a C-130 which had been cleared to land and then was waived off for another fateful pass, because of an ARVN pilot who had ditched his radios in an 0-2 Birddog who dropped in at the same time, Howard died along with 47 other Marines (a real tragedy). 

Mid-April brought what the Marines called the “Second TET or the Battle of Dai Do”. A determined NVA 320th Division attacking Dong Ha fought a seesaw battle with 2/ 4 Marines in the deadliest battle of the war! A very brave Forward Observer 2nd. Lt.Carl Reed Gibson was KIA while providing much needed artillery support to save the lives of his comrades. Equally deadly was the fight the 27th Marines got into clearing GoNoi Island, an NVA stronghold Southwest of DaNang, in Operation Allen Brook. The heat index was 130 degrees!

After Tet, General Cushman’s plan for Spring included three phases: the Relief of Khe Sanh, a Raid of the A Shau Valley and a Sweep of the DMZ.

On Operation Pegasus, our BLT 3/ 1st Marines, after 3 months of fighting to keep the Cua Viet River supply route to Dong Ha open, was moved west to Ca Lu to protect Route 9 from 308th NVA operating from Laos on a tank roadbuilding effort which had already made it 30 miles east toward Hue when it was discovered.  Sharp battles and ambushes broke out as we set up platoon size units at all the bridge positions and fought off the rejuvenated 301st NVA.  The 1st Cav leapfrogged ahead of us to meet 26th Marines working southeast out of Khe Sanh.  Meanwhile General Davis ordered the 4th   Marines and one Battalion of 9th Marines to get out of their defensive posture and back to fast moving, high mobility operations, for which the USMC is more suited.  These Operations “Robin North” and “Robin South” were deemed extremely successful decimating the brand new 308 NVA div. in less than 2 weeks.  Meanwhile as the 320th NVA was being ejected from DMZ by 3rd Marine Div, local hero Warrant Officer Robert Marshall ,while winning the Bronze Star at Con Thien, became our community’s 7th loss.

Monsoon season pitted six Marines Battalions of 1st and 4th Marines on Operation Meade River in the Dodge City area South of DaNang along with 5th Marines in Arizona Territory pushing west out of Hoi An to opening Route 4 to the Special Forces camp at Thuong Duc (it was the second Special Forces Camp to Lang Vei to be overrun).  The Operation ended with a 1400 NVA and 100 Viet Cong Body Count.  Not worth it, because our community lost our 8th marine, a pilot 1st Lt. Charles Butler, who achieved a Distinguished Flying Cross, before crashing his CH-46 due to instrument failure while returning in a storm through Hai Van Pass.

TET 1969 was only a pale shadow of the TET 1968.  So after the second Dewey Canyon in the Song Da Krong Valley, and with the enemy’s base camps cleaned out, the war was over for the 9th Marines.    They returned to Okinawa as part of a drawdown of troops.

By the end of 1969, in the five Northern provinces of Vietnam composing I Corps, 94% of the population, was judged to live in secure areas.

The pacification programs were accelerating with county fairs and CAP (Combined Action Platoons) growing to number 110 Marine Squads now living among the villagers with a platoon of local popular forces whom they were training to defend themselves.  The all-volunteer program had a 50% causality rate, but was successful enough that the model was used for subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  One of these CAP Marines was another local hero, LCpl Howell Blakey who died of small arms fire while patrolling with two other Marines and a shepherd scout dog.  Upon being ambushed he sent the other two Marines and the dog for help and held off  the Viet Cong until he was KIA when they returned.

The enemy had reverted to guerrilla and terrorist operations in 1970 and Marine casualties were down to 403 and continued to trail off in 1971 as compared to many more in 1968 (661 3rd week in May). Still Lance Corporal Walter Ross became our areas’ 10th  and final Marine casualty in July 1970 while winning the Bronze Star with Combat V for his actions in a firefight in Arizona Territory West of Hoi An.

Conclusion

We owe thanks to Carlton Crenshaw who generously funded these Memorial Battle Bricks

Recently, he reminded me that the Vietnam War was unique in that the Marines were not only fighting the larger Operational battles depicted here today.  Unlike any other previous war, we were in constant danger daily from ambushes and firefights, snipers, booby traps, land mines and artillery, rockets and Mortars----------LORD, it is no small miracle that we are here today to remember our Fallen Heroes.

Semper Fi.                  



SUMMARY

The Marines were the First Combat troops in Vietnam and the last to leave.

They bore a greater portion of the fighting than any previous war.

Trained as an attacking force, many times Marines found themselves in an unfamiliar defensive role.

Rapidly they adapted to this new type of counter insurgency warfare…. living up to their legendary fighting tradition in these hard fought Battles that we honor here today! 

 OOH RAH


*** Today many Marine Vietnam Veterans are still fighting battles, rather it be from old wounds, PTSD or the effects of Agent Orange.


Once A Marine, Always A Marine