In August, the 27th Marines had an average strength of over 3,500 Marines and sailors. Only those Marines close to the end of their enlistments or those who had originally deployed with less than two years in the United States would actually leave Vietnam with the regiment. Of the over 5,000 Marines and sailors deployed with RLT 27 in February, some 1,500 had already reached the end of their enlistments or become casualties and returned to the United States.132 Only 800 of the remaining men met the return criteria. Under Operation Mixmaster, the rest of the Marines and sailors in the 27th Marines and attached units transferred to other commands to complete their tours in Vietnam.* Public announcements by the Marine Corps made it clear that most of the Marines were staying in Vietnam and that the return of RLT 27 did not represent the beginning of a withdrawal from Vietnam, w
On 12 September, the first planeload of returning Marines left for Okinawa. On 16 September, the last of 699 Marines and sailors from RLT 27 arrived in California, and on 17 September the last group of the 101 returnees from BLT 1/27 arrived in Hawaii. Nearly 400 Marines from other units who had completed a full tour in Vietnam returned with the regiment.134 The End of the Year
The redistribution of men from the 27th Marines brought about a dramatic improvement in the manpower situation. In October, infantry battalions in Vietnam carried an average of 1,183 Marines on their rolls, only 10 Marines below their T/O strength.These gains proved shortlived, for the departure of the 27th Marines marked the beginning of a slow but steady reduction in the number of Marines in III MAF. The Defense Department Program 6 strength authorization set the total number of American servicemen in Vietnam at 549,500. Deputy Secretary of Defense Nitze made it clear that this number represented an upper limit not to be exceeded. To stay within this limit while adding Army and Air Force units, the Defense Department reduced the Marine Corps' Vietnam troop ceiling to 82,100 for September, falling to 81,600 by December, w
Both General Cushman and General Buse vigorously opposed the new Program 6 limits. To reduce Marine strength to the proposed level some Marine units would have to leave Vietnam, although the Defense Department had no plans to reduce the commitments of the remaining units. More importantly, the proposed Defense Department manning levels not only did not allow for the previously approved strength overages needed to support the extended operations in Vietnam, but they also failed to authorize enough Marines to man all units at their T/O strength.
In late September and early October the staffs of Headquarters, Marine Corps; III MAF; Fleet Marine Force Pacific; and the Defense Department debated exactly which units would be withdrawn or cut, with the attention focusing on amphibian tractor, aviation support, reconnaissance, and headquarters units. No units were actually withdrawn, and on 21 November the Deputy Secretary of Defense ruled out the redeployment of any units since this might have a negative impact on the Paris Peace talks. At the same time he denied any increases in the Marine Corps' Southeast- Asia allowance.136
In early November, General Cushman complained that his efforts to stay within the Program 6 ceiling had already led to a shortage of experienced officers and decline in foxhole strength.'s7 This problem was exacerbated by the lack of replacements. In contrast to the normal "summer surge" at the recruit depots, the number of new recruits joined between July and September fell well below the level of the previous summer, it did not even reach the level met during the first six months of 1968. The fall replacement flow was unable to keep the battalions up to strength. By December, the average strength of infantry battalions had fallen to 1,136 Marines. Rifle companies averaged 197.9 Marines on their rolls, of whom 178.5 were actually present. The division headquarters battalions were still relatively well off, with well over half again as many Marines as their tables of organization called for. The strength of III MAF's headquarters had grown by over 300 Marines since July. On 31 December there were 79,960 Marines in III
*See Shulimson and Johnson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam 1965, p. 117, and Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam 1966, n, p. 283, for an explanation of Operation Mixmaster. Since most units in Vietnam had arrived before the end of 1966, in 1967 there was little need to "Mix-master" units. RLT 27 was the first major Marine unit to return to the United States, and the personnel transfers it underwent foreshadowed the policies used when Marine Corps forces began to withdraw from Vietnam. See Cosmas and Murray, U.S. Marines in Vietnam 1970-1971,pp. 331-34.