Marines on 25 July, remembered that at the time the "operation was considered a successful experiment in command and control."3
Eight days after THUNDERBOLT, the allies finally comfirmed the location of the 1st VC Regiment. On 15 August, a deserter from the enemy regiment surrendered to the South Vietnamese. During his interrogation at General Thi's headquarters he revealed that the regiment had established its base in the Van Tuong village complex on the coast, 12 miles south of Chu Lai. It planned to attack the American enclave. The prisoner told his interrogators that the 1st VC Regiment at Van Tuong consisted of two of its three battalions, the 60th and 80th, reinforced by the 52d VC Company and a company from the 45th Weapons Battalion, approximately 1,500 men in all. General Thi, who personally questioned the prisoner and believed the man was telling the truth, relayed the information to General Walt. At about the same time, Colonel Dulacki's G-2 section received corroborative information from another source. Convinced of the danger to the airfield, Colonels Dulacki and Simmons advised a spoiling attack in the Van Tuong region.4
Agreeing that the situation called for action, General Walt flew to Chu Lai and held a hurried council of war with his senior commanders there: General Karch, who had become the Chu Lai Coordinator on 5 August, Colonel McClanahan of the 4th Marines, and Colonel Oscar F. Peatross, the newly arrived 7th Marines commander.* According to Peatross, "General Walt laid the situation out rather plainly . . . ." The III MAF commander remarked that "General Thi thought this was the best information he's had in the corps area throughout the whole Vietnam War." Two obvious courses were open to the Marines: they could remain within their defenses and wait for the enemy to attack, or they could strike the VC before the enemy was ready to move. The latter course of action meant reducing the defensive forces manning the Chu Lai perimeter, but the arrival of the 7th Marines and BLT 1/7 on the 14th made the risk acceptable. Walt told the assembled officers:
At most, all we're going to dig up is two battalions. If we dig up as many as two battalions, we've got to have the amphibious means of making a [landing] and our ultimate action depends upon how we come to grips with this thing.
He then turned to Colonel Peatross, and according to the latter stated, "Pete, you're the only one available." General Walt then returned to Da Nang and made the final decision to go ahead with the operation after further consultations with his staff and, "going to General Westmoreland for permission to carry out the plan."5
In a hectic two-day period, the III MAF, division, wing, and 7th Marines staffs assembled forces and prepared the plans for the attack. The concept for the operation, code-named STARLITE,** dictated a two-battalion assault, one battalion to land across the beach and the other to land by helicopter further inland. The division reassigned two battalions previously under the operational control of the 4th Marines to Colonel Peatross as the assault battalions, Lieutenant Colonel Fisher's 2d Battalion, 4th Marines and Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Muir's 3d Battalion, 3d Marines. General Walt, who wanted a third battalion as a floating reserve, requested permission to use the SLF. Admiral Sharp approved immediately. At the time of the request the amphibious task force was located at Subic Bay, 720 miles away. Based upon its transit time to the operational area, the planners selected 18 August as D-Day.
Colonel Peatross, in the meantime, had borrowed General Walt's helicopter and, accompanied by Lieutenant Colonels Muir and Fisher, made an aerial reconnaissance of the 10-square mile objective area. They saw relatively flat terrain occasionally broken by small wooded knolls and numerous streams. The many hamlets were surrounded by rice paddies and
* See Chapter 8 for the establishment of the Coordinator and ADC Command Group at Chu Lai. Colonel Peatross was a veteran of several amphibious operations during World War II including the Makin Island Raid and Iwo Jima. For his actions on Makin Island, he was awarded the Navy Cross. Colonel Peatross had served previously as a battalion commander under General Walt when the latter commanded the 5th Marines in Korea.
** Colonel Don P. Wyckoff, the 3d Marine Division G-3, designated the code name SATELLITE for the operation, but as the division plan was being typed, the electrical generators failed and the typing was completed using candlelight. Inadvertently, the clerk typed STARLITE instead of SATELLITE throughout the document. The next morning the error was discovered, but there was insufficient time to correct the error. Many accounts of the operation have mistakenly spelled the code name for the operation as STARLIGHT. LtCol Richard J. Johnson intvw by Hist&Mus Div, HQMC, dtd 24Mar73 (OralHistColl, Hist&Mus Div, HQMC).Page 70 (1965: The Landing and the Buildup)