Some of you already know that I have several retired Marines as neighbors. (Considering I live in Marine and ‘Sailorville’ that’s not an uncommon #). 2 are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, one Vietnam vet, and Rick–he has seen both Korea and Vietnam. Well, he was out doing yard-work this afternoon so I stopped to talk to him. The subject of jungles came up (I referenced his yard) and it brought him back to Vietnam, 1965 & 1969–his eyes lit up when he starting talking about Operation Starlite–he and his Marine brothers were part of Vietnam’s first battle.
My curiosity led me to research the operation Rick was part of close to 40 years ago. Now, I’m sharing it with you.
I’m gonna to have to go tell him what I found, I bet he knows some of the names mentioned here.
On 15 Aug. 1965, Major General Nguyen Chanh Thi, commander of the South Vietnamese forces in I Corps, had urgent news for Marine Lieutenant General Lewis W. Walt, the commander of all the Marines in Vietnam. “I have,” said MajGen Thi, “the most important intelligence information of the war.”
A 17-year-old enemy defector had come into his lines and reported that the 1st Viet Cong Regiment was in the village of Van Tuong south of the new Marine base at Chu Lai. Shortly after MajGen Thi’s departure, the Marines’ 1st Radio Battalion intercepted radio traffic that confirmed the defector’s information.
This development posed a threat to the Chu Lai base and, at the same time, offered an opportunity to close with and destroy the elusive Viet Cong (VC) unit. LtGen Walt had two choices. He could reinforce the base and wait for the enemy, or he could take the aggressive path and launch a pre-emptive assault. There was never much doubt about which course LtGen Walt would take. He held two Navy Crosses and a Silver Star from World War II plus combat awards from Korea and was a man of action. He decided to carry the fight to the enemy.
The Marine he chose to lead the attack was Colonel Oscar F. Peatross, also a Navy Cross winner and former member of Carlson’s Raiders in WW II. Selecting the battalions was not as easy. The war was in its build-up phase, and there was a shortage of Marines everywhere. LtGen Walt finally decided on the two battalions at the Chu Lai base: the 3d Bn, Third Marine Regiment, commanded by the hard-driving, soft-spoken Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. “Joe” Muir, and the 2d Bn, 4th Marines, “The Magnificent Bastards,” commanded by the colorful and equally hard-driving Joseph R. “Bull” Fisher. Fisher had been awarded the Silver Star for action on Iwo Jima and the Navy Cross in Korea, where he served under then-Col Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller.
Sending just two battalions against an enemy regiment of 1,500 soldiers was dicey at best, so LtGen Walt asked the Commander in Chief, Pacific (CinCPac) to release the 3d Bn, 7th Marines from the Special Landing Force (SLF) for the operation. CinCPac agreed, but 3/7 was in the Philippines. Word immediately went out to the amphibious squadron to weigh anchor and steam for Vietnam.
LtGen Walt’s staff and commanders considered the various options and decided on a combined helicopter and amphibious assault. Although the Marines had used helicopters as far back as Korea, and the Corps had practiced combined operations of this sort time and again, this would be the first combat operation of its type.
It was to be a classic hammer and anvil operation with the amphibious force, 3/3, landing across Green Beach as the hammer, while the helicopter-borne force, 2/4, landing at LZs Red, White and Blue to the west of Van Tuong would be the anvil.
Speed and secrecy were of the essence. The operation would begin at first light on 18 Aug., less than three days away. At Third Marine Division headquarters in Da Nang, the staff labored for two sleepless nights to put the operation order together. The name for the operation was to be “Satellite,” but a generator failed when the clerks began typing up the order, and one of them, working by candlelight, misread the name and typed in “Starlite” instead.
At sunrise on D-day the Viet Cong on the Van Tuong Peninsula awoke to the fact that there was an amphibious armada just offshore launching amphibious landing vehicles. The VC had a superb intelligence network and figured the Marines were going to attack them at Van Tuong. What they hadn’t counted on was the speed with which the Marines operated. They expected to have several days or even weeks to realign or withdraw their forces. But the Marines were there now.
Messengers hotfooted it around the enemy encampments and spread the word. Two VC, Duong Hong Minh and Phan Tan Huan, were chosen to play important roles. Minh rushed to the beach where he set up a command-detonated antipersonnel mine. He was to detonate the mine against the landing force, killing as many Marines as possible, and then he, Huan and a few other VC were to fight a delaying action against the Marines. This was to provide cover for the withdrawal of the headquarters elements of the 1st VC Regiment.
The amtracs splashed and circled offshore, then aligned and headed for the beach. Captain Bruce D. Webb’s “India” Co, 3/3 was on the left and Capt Jay Doub’s Kilo on the right. Lima Co was the battalion reserve.
Thirty amtracs nosed up onto the beach and dropped their ramps, and the Marines swarmed across the beach. As they did so, Minh had an anxiety attack and set off his mine prematurely. He claims to have killed 15 Marines. In fact, he killed or wounded no one.
Minutes after the amphibious force hit the beach, Bull Fisher’s 2/4 alighted, one company at a time, in three inland landing zones. Golf Co landed without incident in LZ Red to the north and began moving toward the sea. Echo with the battalion command group was next. They landed at LZ White and found some enemy and pushed eastward under mortar and small-arms fire.
Last to land was First Lieutenant Homer K. “Mike” Jenkins’ Hotel Co. Unbeknownst to the Marines, LZ Blue was an easy rifle shot from the headquarters of the 60th Bn, 1st VC Regiment. LZ Blue was as hot as they came, and Hotel Co began taking casualties as soon as it landed. First Lt Jenkins had two objectives, one was the village of Nam Yen 3, the other Hill 43, the commanding terrain on the battlefield. Up to this point in the war, the VC always had fled from the Americans without putting up much resistance, so Jenkins decided to go against both objectives at once. He sent one platoon against each, holding one platoon in reserve.
When Jenkins’ 3d Platoon closed on Nam Yen 3, it discovered that many of the huts actually were fortified bunkers. The sides of them dropped down, revealing positions with set fields of fire. One platoon was not enough to take the village, and the Marines were repulsed after a furious fight. The platoon that went against Hill 43 did not fare much better and needed help.
Deciding to take one objective at a time, Jenkins pulled out of Nam Yen 3 and sent his entire company against Hill 43, figuring that if he could control that hill he could control the surrounding terrain. The timely arrival of a section of tanks that came over the beach with the amphibious force and a flight of UH-1 Huey gunships gave him the combat power he needed to take the hill. Once that was secured, he moved again against Nam Yen 3.
In the meantime, 3/3 ran into resistance of its own. The battalion became bogged down by the enemy delaying force until a Kilo Co platoon leader, 1stLt Burt Hinson, led one of his squads in a furious attack against the enemy position and routed them.
The battalion was moving westward once more when Capt Webb’s India Co spotted about 40 of the enemy in the village of An Cuong 2 on India’s left flank. The Marines engaged them with fire, but the village itself was out of the India zone of action. Capt Webb got permission to cross out of his area and attack the village. Permission was granted so he could take care of the enemy on his flank, but also in hopes that he could relieve pressure on Hotel, 2/4.
Just before Capt Webb’s India Co launched the assault on An Cuong 2, a section of M48 tanks arrived in his position. He assigned a squad to the tanks. The tanks could not participate in the attack because of a very wide and deep trench that they could not traverse.
Corporal Robert O’Malley and his squad boarded the tanks and headed southwest to try and find a way around the trench. They soon ran into a beehive of enemy. When the VC opened fire on the tanks, killing one of O’Malley’s Marines, the young corporal ordered his squad off the tanks and into the assault. O’Malley and Lance Corporal Chris Buchs jumped into a trench and killed eight of the enemy before they had to roll out of the trench and reload their M14s. Then O’Malley and his men resumed the assault, killing Viet Cong as they went.
O’Malley was wounded three times, but continued to savage the enemy. He later refused evacuation until his men were safe. He made several hazardous trips to the battlefield, retrieving wounded Marines under heavy fire.
When time came to be medevacked, an enemy machine gun was keeping the helicopters at bay. Finally Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 361’s 1stLt Dick Hooton landed under heavy fire and lifted off with a load of casualties. His “bird” took a number of hits, and he had to declare a Mayday situation when he set it down in a controlled crash on USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2). O’Malley was taken below to be patched up. He would be the first Marine to be presented the Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam. (link to page two below).