The Marines in Vietnam 1965: The Landing and the Buildup
The 10-month period of March to December 1965 was one of expansion and experimentation for Marine forces in Vietnam. During the year, Marine units from California to Okinawa prepared for deployment to Vietnam. General Karch's 9,000 Marines of the 9th MEB were quickly absorbed by the division-wing force, III MAF. By the end of the year, General Walt had over 42,000 men in ICTZ. Since the landing on 8 March, the Marines had extended their influence from eight square miles around the Da Nang Airfield to three coastal enclaves containing over 804 square miles.
As III MAF's TAORs expanded into the densely populated coastal ricelands, the Marines found the Viet Cong intermingled with the local villagers and turned to a variety of pacification experiments to ferret out the Communists and win back the population. They employed counterguerrilla techniques such as combined action companies and civic action projects such as the GOLDEN FLEECE rice harvesting operations. By the end of 1965, the Marines were still unable to measure many real pacification gains.
General Walt's balanced approach for the elimination of the Communist threat initially stressed the establishment of secure beachheads at Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Phu Bai. During the March-June consolidation phase the Marines lost 34 killed and 157 wounded, while killing 270 Viet Cong. By mid-1965 with this phase completed, lII MAF began a two-pronged campaign to destroy main force Communist units, and at the same time root out the Viet Cong infrastructure. Operations STARLITE and HARVEST MOON encountered the Viet Cong in regimental strength. During the last six months of 1965 the Marines suffered 420 killed and 1,936 wounded, while killing 2,295 enemy soldiers and capturing more than 700 weapons.1
There could be no doubt that large-scale, conventional operations were to play a much larger role during the coming year. By the end of 1965, General Westmoreland's intelligence staff estimated that eight regular NVA regiments had arrived in South Vietnam. General Walt had received approval of his request for two full divisions and a reinforced aircraft wing. The 1st Marine Division was scheduled for deployment to I CTZ in early 1966, as were more aircraft squadrons.
Despite the emphasis on troop movement, reinforcement, and engagement of the enemy's larger units, the war was far from conventional. General Krulak cautioned:
As 1965 drew to a dose there was some hope for peace. Both the allies and the Viet Cong agreed to short truces over the Christmas and New Year holidays and President Johnson opened his 'peace offensive.' He ordered the bombing of North Vietnam suspended for an extended period and dispatched American envoys to visit world capitals in an effort to initiate peace negotiations with the other side. Everyone involved in the war in Vietnam talked of peace, but there was no peace. The prediction of a Vietnamese soothsayer would come true; 1966 would be a year of a 'lot of fighting and killing.'3