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At III MAF Headquarters, General Cushman also made his adjustments
to reinforce the northern battlefield. In late December, he implemented
Operation Checkers which would eventually result in the 1st Marine Division
taking over responsibility for all operations in Thua Thien Province
so that General Tompkins 3d Division could concentrate its full resources
in the DMZ and Khe Sanh sector. By January 1968, elements of the 1st
Division's 5th Marines had deployed into the former 3d Division TAOR
south of Phu Bai. Both divisions had established timetables for the
phased placement of their regiments and battalions into new operating
areas. In sort of hop, skip, and jump movements, hence the name Checkers,
the units were to displace one another. For example, the 4th Marines
was to assume control of Operation Lancaster in the central DMZ from
the 3d Marines. In turn, the 3d Marines was to go to Quang Tri and relieve
the 1st Marines. The 1st Marines then was to replace the 4th Marines
at Camp Evans in Thua Thien Province and return to the operational control
of the 1st Division. Both the 9th Marines and the 1st Amphibian Tractor
Battalion would continue with their respective operations, Kentucky
and Napoleon. The 2d ARVN Regiment would stay tied in with the 9th Marines
on the right and take over more of the strongpoints of the barrier system.
On 15 January, General Tompkins planned to transfer his command post
from Phu Bai to Dong Ha.9

General Tompkins was relatively new to the Vietnam War. He assumed
command of the 3d Division in November after the unexpected death of
his predecessor, Major General Bruno A. Hochmuth, in a helicopter crash.
Holder of the Navy Cross, Silver Star, and Bronze Star, General Tompkins
was a veteran of the island campaigns of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan
in World War II. He had the 5th Marines in Korea after the signing of
the armistice and oversaw the implementation of its terms in his sector.
During the Dominican crisis of April-May 1965, he commanded the Marine
forces ashore. While Commanding General, Marine Corps Recruit Depot,
Parris Island, South Carolina, he received his orders to Vietnam.10

Regarded in Marine Corps circles as one of its best tacticians, General
Tompkins was thought the ideal candidate to take charge of the DMZ War.
Vietnam was to be a unique experience for him. Colonel James R. Stockman,
his operations officer who had served with him on Saipan, recalled that
when General Tompkins arrived he asked one question: "Tell me about
the operational folklore in the division's area of operations." According
to Stockman, he told the general that from his point of view it "was
a bad war, highly inhibited by MACV restrictions . . . [and] political
considerations emanating from Washington."11

General Tompkins soon became well acquainted with the "operational
folklore" of the 3d Marine Division. He learned quickly that a regiment
may have responsibility for a sector but have none of its battalions
under its command. For example, the 9th Marines in the five-battalion
Operation Kentucky only had one of its original battalions, the 2d Battalion
with only two of four companies, participating in the operation. The
other four battalions came from the 1st Marines, 3d Marines, and 4th
Marines. According to Colonel Stockman, General Tompkins "caught on
fast to the term 'opcon' [operational control]" which permitted the
interchange of battalions from regiment to regiment without the relinquishment
of administrative responsibility.12*

This tasking of units, as one Marine historical analyst, Brigadier
General Edwin H. Simmons, observed, "demonstrated the interchangeable
nature of Marine battalions and gave the division commander great flexibility."13
Yet this flexibility had a price. Command lines were somewhat blurred
and tactical integrity was more difficult to maintain. Simmons noted
"One regimental commander estimated that it took about two weeks of
working with a new battalion to iron out problems of procedures and

Two other aspects of the "operational folklore" of the 3d Marine Division
impinged upon General Tompkins as 1967 drew to a close. One was Khe
Sanh and the other was the strongpoint system or barrier. Although ordered
to reinforce Khe Sanh with a battalion in December by both Generals
Westmoreland and Cush-

* Colonel Vaughn R. Stuart, who served both as executive officer and
later commander of the 3d Marines, commented that General Hochmuth believed
that regiments were "capable of controlling any number of battalions."
The regimental headquarters would be located "in the important areas
. . . and the principal tactic was in the shifting of the maneuver battalions
to various regiments as the situation dictated." Col Vaughn R. Stuart,
Comments on draft chapter, dtd 20Dec1994 (Vietnam Comment File).

** Lieutenant General Metzger, the 3d Marine Division assistant division
commander in January 1968, remarked that General Tompkins wanted to
bring "the tangle of battalions and regiments into some sort of order;
to the extent possible, aligning the battalions with their parent regiments."
Metzger believed that Tompkins "was faced with nearly an impossible
situation, fighting the battle with an inadequate force for the assigned
missions." Metzger Comments.

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