The Marines in Vietnam 1965: The Landing and the Buildup
U.S. Marines in Vietnam:
The Landing and the Buildup, 1965
(from page 80) (USMC Photo A184966( A MAG-16 helicopter evacuates STARLITE casualties, while a Marine M-48 tank stands guard. The Marine on the left carries an M-79 grenade launcher. (colorized - see p.80 for bw original)
THE LANDING AND THE BUILDUP
and Major Charles M. Johnson, USMC
HISTORY AND MUSEUMS DIVISION
HEADQUARTERS, U.S. MARINE CORPS
library of Congress Card No. 78-600120
PCN 190 003076 00
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office Washington, D.C.20402 (Paper Cover)
This is the second volume in a series of nine chronological histories being prepared by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division to cover the entire span of Marine Corps involvement in the Vietnam War. This volume details the Marine activities during 1965, the year the war escalated and major American combat units were committed to the conflict. The narrative traces the landing of the nearly 5,000-man 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade and its transformation into the in Marine Amphibious Force, which by the end of the year contained over 38,000 Marines.
During this period, the Marines established three enclaves in South Vietnam's northernmost corps area, I Corps, and their mission expanded from defense of the Da Nang Airbase to a balanced strategy involving base defense, offensive operations, and pacification. This volume continues to treat the activities of Marine advisors to the South Vietnamese armed forces but in less detail than its predecessor volume, U. S. Marines in Vietnam, 1954-1964; The Advisory and Combat Assistance Era.
The co-author, Mr. Jack Shulimson, is the senior civilian historian on the Vietnam project. He has been with the division since 1964 and has worked on Vietnam studies since 1965. Mr. Shulimson has a MA in history from the University of Michigan and is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of Maryland.
Major (now Lieutenant Colonel) Charles M. Johnson was with the History and Museums Division from September 1972 until September 1973. He has a BA in history from the University of Minnesota and was commissioned in the Marine Corps upon graduation in 1959. Lieutenant Colonel Johnson served two tours in Vietnam, first as Commanding Officer, Battery L, 4th Battalion, llth Marines from May 1966 until May 1967 and then from December 1970 until August 1971 as public information officer in the Public Information Office, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam in Saigon. He is now Commanding Officer, Headquarters and Service Battalion, 1st Force Service Support Group at Camp Pendleton, California.
E. H. SIMMONS
Brigadier General, U. S. Marine Corps (Ret.) Director of Marine Corps History and Museums
Reviewed and Approved: 15 June 1978
U. S. Marines in Vietnam, 1965 is largely based on previously classified studies prepared by the History and Museums Division in the 1960s and early 1970s. These are: Lieutenant Colonel John J. Cahill and Jack Shulimson, "History of U. S. Marine Corps Operations in Vietnam, January-June 1965"; Jack Shulimson, "U. S. Marine Corps Operations in the Republic of Vietnam, July-December 1965"; and Jack Shulimson, "U. S. Marines in Vietnam, Introduction,'' and "U.S. Marines in Vietnam, May-December 1965,'' Parts 1 and 2 of a then projected eight-part, single-volume history, entitled ' 'Marines in Vietnam, 1954-May 1968."
In 1972, Major Johnson was given the task of combining these four separate histories into one coherent narrative. Upon Major Johnson's departure from the division the following year, Mr. Shulimson continued with the revision, incorporating new research material as it became available. In addition to the four studies listed above, the authors have consulted the official records of the U. S. Marine Corps, records of other Services when appropriate, the Oral History Collection of the History and Museums Division, comment files of the History and Museum Division, and pertinent published primary and secondary works. Although none of the information in this history is classified, some of the documentation on which it is based still has a classified designation. Comment drafts of the manuscript were reviewed by over 110 persons, most of whom were directly associated with the events and many of their remarks have been incorporated into the narrative. A list of all those asked to comment is included in the appendices. All ranks used in the body of the text are those ranks held by the individual in 1965.
The production of this volume has been a cooperative effort on the part of several members of the History and Museums Division. The manuscript was prepared under the editoral direction of Mr. Henry I. Shaw, Jr., Chief Historian of the History and Museums Division. Lieutenant Colonel Lane Rogers completed the final editing and also wrote the reconnaissance section of Chapter 11. Mr. Benis M. Frank prepared the index. Mr. Paul D. Johnston, head of the Publications Production Section, skillfully shepherded the manuscript through the various production stages. Special thanks go to Mrs. Mary Lewis, who helped type the first comment draft, and Miss Catherine A. Stoll, Corporal Denise F. Alexander, and Lance Corporal Paul W. Gibson of the Production Section, who worked unstintingly on both comment editions and the final version. Staff Sergeant Jerry L. Jakes was responsible for preparing all maps, charts, and cover layouts. Unless otherwise credited, photographs are from official Marine Corps files. The authors, of course, assume sole responsibility for the content of the text, including opinions expressed and any errors in fact.
Charles M. Johnson Jack Shulimson
Table of Contents
In 1965, the Marines were the first of the U. S. Armed Services to deploy large ground combat units to South Vietnam. By the end of the year, more than 38,000 Marines made up the in Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) under the command of Major General Lewis W. Walt. III MAF was part of the United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (USMACV), commanded by General William C. Westmoreland. General Westmoreland in turn was responsible to Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Commander in Chief, Pacific (CinCPac) in Hawaii, and through Sharp to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in Washington. The American command's mission in Vietnam was to assist the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) in its war against the Communist insurgents, the Viet Cong, who were being provided with leadership, reinforcements, and supplies from the north by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN).
Since July 1954, when the Geneva Accords ended the Communist Viet Minh war against the French in what was then called Indochina, Vietnam remained divided along the 17th Parallel with a Communist government in the north and an anti-Communist regime in the south. Throughout the following decade, Vietnamese Communists conducted a sub-rosa political war, which after 1960 became an active guerrilla war to overthrow the southern government. Long before 1965, the United States had been involved in this embattled nation.
A U. S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) existed in Vietnam as early as 1950 and continued to function after the signing of the Geneva Accords. At the end of 1954 the United States agreed to support the South Vietnamese Armed Forces in conjunction with the French. After the last French military advisors departed Vietnam in 1957, the entire advisory effort came under American auspices.
In the first year of his administration, 1961, President John P. Kennedy sent a high-level mission, headed by former U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Maxwell D. Taylor, to determine what the United States could do to prevent a Communist takeover in South Vietnam. Acting on General Taylor's recommendations, President Kennedy directed the implementation of a series of military and political measures to strengthen the South Vietnamese regime. These actions included the provision of substantial amounts of military equipment, as well as sending U.S. military advisors and support units to Vietnam.
With the growing U.S. commitment in South Vietnam as a result of the Communist insurgency, on 8 February 1962 the United States established the United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam under Army General Paul D. Harkins. By the end of the year, more than 12,000 U.S. military personnel, including technicians, advisors, pilots, and supply and administrative personnel, were in Vietnam. Among this number were 18 Marine advisors to the South Vietnamese Marine Corps and a Marine helicopter task group, code named SHUFLY, consisting of a helicopter squadron and support elements.
Despite this infusion of American assistance, an open dispute between the South Vietnamese government and the Buddhist hierarchy tore apart the delicate fabric of the South Vietnamese political structure. Faced with increasingly violent and dramatic Buddhist demonstrations against his rule, Ngo Dinh Diem, the controversial President of the RVN, attempted to crush the Buddhist movement in August 1963 by arresting its leaders. The crisis eventually resulted in a successful military coup against Diem's government in November and his death.
Following the coup, there was a drastic realignment of the South Vietnamese civil and military apparatus. More than 31 high-ranking military officers were dismissed for having actively supported the Diem regime. On 6 January 1964, the provisional government appointed a three-man military junta consisting of Major General Duong Van "Big" Minh,* as Chief of Staff, Major General Tran Van Don, and Major General Le Van Kim, to run the government and the armed forces. Twenty-three days later, a new personality, Major General Nguyen Khanh, assumed the leadership from the junta. He became the chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council while General Minh remained as the nominal chief of state. In August, Khanh, having encountered Buddhist opposition, promised liberalization of his regime. On 26 September, the Vietnamese Revolutionary Council elected Phan Khac Sun as Chief of State, and the former mayor of Saigon, Tran Van Huong, as Premier. Real power, however, continued to lie with the military, which on 20 December dissolved the Civilian High National Council, although Suu and Huong remained in their respective positions.
With this political instability and growing enemy strength, the U.S. increased its military support to the South Vietnamese regime. By the end of 1964, the United States Military Assistance Command, now commanded by General Westmoreland, had grown to over 20,000 men.
The Marine contingents in Vietnam showed a corresponding increase in 1964. Of the over 800 Marines in Vietnam, the bulk were in South Vietnam's I Corps Tactical Zone (ICTZ) consisting of the five northern provinces. Sixty Marine advisors were attached to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units in ICTZ. The SHUFLY unit, reinforced by a Marine rifle company for airfield security, was at the Da Nang Airbase just south of the city of Da Nang in Quang Nam Province. The remaining Marines served as advisors to the Vietnamese Marine Corps (20 Marines served in this capacity), as members of the Marine guard detachment at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and with the MACV staff in Saigon.
In May 1964, a Marine radio detachment supported by a reinforced Marine infantry platoon deployed to Tiger Tooth Mountain, north of Khe Sanh in northwestern South Vietnam. This composite force, designated Advisory Team One, later redeployed to Dong Bach Ma, a 3,500-foot mountain 25 miles west-northwest of Da Nang. Advisory Team One returned to Da Nang in September 1964 and then was disbanded. During its short existence, Advisory Team One became the first Marine ground unit to conduct independent operations in South Vietnam.**
During 1964, the U. S. government examined the possibility of sending U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam for the defense of critical U.S. installations within the country. At that time General Taylor, then the U. S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, warned Washington against overstressing static security and observed that aggressive field operations by the Vietnamese Armed Forces were the best means for restoring law, order, and public safety in the Republic of Vietnam.1
In August 1964, tensions between North Vietnam and the United States reached a new high when North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked two U.S. destroyers, the Turner Joy (DD 951) and Maddox (DD 731), in the Gulf of Tonkin. On 4 August, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended retaliatory air strikes against several North Vietnamese patrol boat bases and fuel storage areas. The President approved the recommendation and on 5 August Seventh Fleet carrier aircraft carried out bombing missions against selected targets in North Vietnam. On 7 August, the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in which it approved and supported "the determination of the President, as Commander-in-Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.''
The possible involvement of American forces.was of special concern to the Marine Corps. In the summer of 1964, the most combat ready American troops in the Far East were those of the 3d Marine Division (3d MarDiv) on Okinawa, commanded by Major General William R. Collins, and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1st MAW) at Iwakuni, Japan, and Okinawa, under the command of Major General Paul J. Fontana. These two Marine units were task-organized under several provisional headquarters to support the various contingency plans for Southeast Asia. The largest of the provisional commands was the III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF) consisting of the entire 3d Division and the 1st MAW. Components of the division and wing could also be combined provisionally into a Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB), essentially composed of a regimental landing team (RLT) and a Marine aircraft group (MAG). Both the air and ground components could be quickly loaded on board Navy amphibious shipping for deployment to South Vietnam or anywhere in the Pacific.
Following the attack against the U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, the U.S. Pacific Command activated the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9th MEB). The MEB, under the command of the assistant division commander of the 3d Marine Division, Brigadier General Raymond G. Davis, a holder of the Medal of Honor, consisted of the 9th Marines regimental headquarters and three battalion landing teams (BLTs). On 6 August, the 6,000 Marines of the MEB embarked on board Seventh Fleet amphibious shipping. A composite Marine aircraft group (MAG), with headquarters and fixed wing squadrons in Japan and helicopter squadrons on Okinawa, was alerted to support the MEB, but was not embarked. Although the brigade did not land in Vietnam at this time, the August crisis resulted in the transformation of the 9th MEB from a paper organization into an effective force in readiness, capable of landing whereever needed on extremely short notice.
When the Gulf of Tonkin crisis faded, the amphibious task force carrying the MEB relaxed. Of the three BLTs making up the brigade, one returned to Okinawa, another to the Philippines, and a third remained afloat as part of the Special Landing Force (SLF) of the Seventh Fleet. While General Davis returned to Okinawa, he maintained a skeleton headquarters at Subic Bay on board the U.S. task force command ship, Mount McKinley (AGC 7). Brigadier General John P. Coursey relieved General Davis as brigade commander on 16 October 1964.
As 1965 began the Viet Cong had entered a new phase of their insurgency against the South Vietnamese government. The Communists departed from their usual hit and run guerrilla tactics and engaged the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam (RVNAF) near the village of Binh Gia, 40 miles east of Saigon, in a pitched battle which lasted from 28 December 1964 until 1 January 1965. During the struggle for Binh Gia, two regiments from the 9th VC Division ambushed and virtually destroyed two battalions of South Vietnamese troops, including the 4th Battalion, Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC), and inflicted heavy casualties on relieving armored and mechanized forces. According to General Westmoreland, Binh Gia marked the start of the final Communist offensive, "it meant the beginning of an intensive military challenge which the Vietnamese government could not meet with its own resources."2
*Ironically General Minh was to be the last President of South Vietnam. He ordered the surrender of South Vietnam to the Communist forces on 30 April 1975, two days after assuming the Presidency when the South Vietnamese cause was already lost.
**See LtGen Victor H. Krulak Ret), comments on draft MS, dtd 2Aug77 (Vietnam Comment File) and Captain Robert H. Whitlow, U. S. Marines in Vietnam; The Advisory and Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964 (Washington, D. C.: History and Museums Division, HQMC, 1977), pp. 138-41.