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STARLITE: The First Big Battle
Intelligence and Planning-The Battle-The Aftermath
Intelligence and Planning
Throughout July evidence had accumulated showing a VC buildup in southern I Corps, especially in the area south of Chu Lai. By the 21st, General Westmoreland's intelligence staff, assessing enemy capabilities, stated that the Viet Cong could attack Chu Lai with as many as three regiments. The American command doubted that the enemy was ready to risk such a large concentration of forces against American firepower; a more likely course of action would be a sudden hit-and-run attack against the Marine base in regimental strength.
On 30 July, General Westmoreland told Walt that he expected the Marine commander to undertake larger offensive operations with the South Vietnamese against the enemy at greater distances from his base areas. General Walt reminded Westmoreland that the Marines were still bound by the 6 May Letter of Instruction that restricted III MAF to reserve/reaction missions in support of South Vietnamese units heavily engaged with an enemy force. The MACV commander replied 'these restraints were no longer realistic, and invited General Walt to rewrite the instructions, working into them the authority he thought he needed, and promised his approval.'1
On 6 August, General Walt received official permission to take the offensive against the enemy. With the arrival of the 7th Marines a week later, he prepared to move against the 1st VC Regiment. In early July, the 1st VC Regiment had launched a second attack against the hamlet of Ba Gia, 20 miles south of Chu Lai. The garrison had been overrun, causing 130 casualties and the loss of more than 200 weapons, including two 105mm howitzers. After the attack on Ba Gia, American intelligence agencies located the 1st VC Regiment in the mountains west of the hamlet. Disturbing reports indicated that the enemy regiment was once more on the march.
According to Colonel Leo J. Dulacki, Walt's experienced intelligence officer:
Early in August, we began receiving countless low-level reports from the numerous intelligence collection organizations concerning the movement of the 1st VC Regiment. The sources for most of these reports were of doubtful reliability and, indeed, many were contradictory, nevertheless, it was decided to plot all of the hundreds of reported movements, regardless of credibility, on a map, and an interesting picture developed. When the many 'aberrations' were discounted, it appeared that the 1st VC Regiment was, in fact, moving towards Chu Lai. Although most of the intelligence experts, including ARVN and the U.S. Army I Corps Advisory Group, discounted such a possibility, I briefed Colonel Edwin Simmons, III MAF G-3, on what appeared to be developing and suggested the consideration, if further indicators developed, of an offensive operation in the area south of Chu Lai.2*
Acting on this intelligence, the 4th Marines conducted a one-battalion operation with the 51st ARVN Regiment in search for the 1st VC Regiment south of the Tra Bong River. Code-named THUNDERBOLT, the operation lasted for two days, 6-7 August, and extended 7,000 meters south of the river in an area west of Route l. The ARVN and Marines found little sign of any major VC force in the area and encountered only scattered resistance. In fact, the Marines suffered more from the 110 degree temperature than at the hands of the enemy, sustaining 43 heat casualties and only two wounded. Nevertheless, Colonel James F. McClanahan,** who had relieved Colonel Dupras as commander of the 4th
* Both Colonels Dulacki and Simmons had arrived in Vietnam and assumed their new duties in July. Colonel Dulacki, who served in World War II and commanded the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines in Korea, had an extensive intelligence background, including two tours with the Defense Intelligence Agency. Colonel Simmons, also a veteran of World War II and Korea, and holder of both the Silver and Bronze Stars, had just finished a tour with the Strategic Plans Branch of the G-3 Division, HQMC.
* * Colonel McClanahan was a veteran Marine of nearly 30 years of enlisted and commissioned service. He was commissioned in June 1942 and was awarded the Silver Star for his actions on Guadalcanal. He came to Vietnam after serving as Commanding Officer of Camp H. M. Smith in Hawaii.
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