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Operation Starlite: The First Battle of the Vietnam War
Leatherneck: Operation Starlite: The First Battle of the Vietnam War

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By Otto J. Lehrack

Echo Co, 2/4 leathernecks hit LZ White on 18 Aug. 1965, just minutes after the amphibious force had landed. In just a short time, the VC struck back with mortars and small-arms fire.
(Photo courtesy of the author)

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 .

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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.

While O'Malley's men were struggling with their fight, the rest of India Co assaulted An Cuong 2. The ferocity of their attack killed or routed all the enemy in the village. Not wanting to take any chances, Staff Sergeant Jean Pinguet was putting .45 rounds in the heads of the dead VC until Capt Webb told him to stop because it was inhumane.

Seconds later a supposedly dead VC rolled over and tossed a grenade into the India Co command group. The blast killed two Marines, including Capt Webb, and wounded several others. After the dead and wounded were evacuated, India Co, now under the command of 1stLt Richard M. Purnell, was ordered to rejoin the rest of the battalion. The company had to fight its way back to the battalion position.

In the Hotel, 2/4 sector, 1stLt Jenkins' Marines were once more closing on the village of Nam Yen 3. As they prepared to assault the village, a large VC force tried to flank them. The well-camouflaged enemy looked like trees or bushes and were hard to see. LCpl Ernie Wallace managed to separate them from the terrain and went after them with his M60 machine gun, killing approximately 25 of the enemy. He was to account for more than 40 enemy dead before the day was done. He later was awarded the Navy Cross.

While he was busy, Cpl Dick Tonucci, a squad leader, and one of Tonucci's riflemen, Private First Class Ron Centers, took off after a machine-gun position that was bedeviling the Marines. Tonucci and Centers no sooner killed the VC manning the gun than another crew popped up to take their place. Tonucci and Centers killed them, too, and then took out another enemy bunker. Tonucci had left LCpl J. C. Paul, an automatic rifleman, to protect several wounded who were lying in the open.

Paul had been wounded earlier that day and placed on a medevac chopper. Before the bird took off, he decided that he wasn't wounded badly enough to leave the fight and rejoined his comrades. Paul came under attack while defending the wounded. A large number of VC tried to pick them off. Adding to Paul's troubles, the enemy fired a couple of white phosphorus mortar rounds, and some of the burning pieces landed on Paul.

The young lance corporal was hit once, then again with small-arms fire. He refused to leave his post and the wounded Marines under his care. By the time help came, he had been wounded again, this time mortally. Cpl Tonucci picked him up to carry him to a medevac chopper, but Paul died on the way. J. C. Paul later was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and the Navy named a frigate after him.

First Lt Jenkins organized his men and again assaulted Nam Yen 3. The enemy was too strong, and the assault once more was repulsed with a high loss of life on both sides. Bull Fisher ordered Jenkins to return to LZ Blue and dig in. On the way back to the LZ, one platoon became separated from the main body of the company, and when Jenkins reached the zone, he had just 28 Marines left in his company who were fit to fight.

About noon, an amtrac supply convoy, accompanied by two tanks and commanded by 1stLt Robert Cochran, left the beach to take ammo and water to India Co. They were ambushed, and the front and rear vehicles of the column were disabled, freezing the convoy in place. The enemy attacked the column most of the day and well into the night. First Lt Cochran, displaying superb courage, did everything he could to get the column reorganized, but he was killed early in the fight. His platoon sergeant, SSgt Jack Marino, took charge and fought off the enemy most of the night.

Word of the beleaguered column reached Col Peatross about the time that 1stLt Purnell and India Co rejoined the battalion. LtCol Muir, tasked with mounting a relief column for the supply group, decided to send Purnell's men back into the fray because they had been over the terrain on which the column was stuck. A second column of amtracs and the sole available tank was organized and sent out. It, too, was ambushed not far from where it started, and the mission was aborted.

In late afternoon the SLF arrived offshore, and Lima, 3/7 was heli-lifted ashore and dispatched to help India, 3/3. It, too, got in a scrap on the way in and was heavily mortared.

As darkness fell on the battlefield, the remains of Hotel Co were dug in at LZ Blue, 3/3 had regrouped, and the rest of 3/7 was coming ashore. The supply column would be found the next morning. Throughout the day the aviators of LtCol Lloyd Childers' HMM-361 provided outstanding support for their ground brethren. In just one day nearly every one of their helicopters was hit by enemy fire, one was completely destroyed and nearly half were unflyable by day's end. The ground crews performed heroically in keeping as many birds as possible in the air, and as crewmembers were wounded, others volunteered to fill their places.

During the night the enemy took advantage of the cover of darkness to withdraw from the battlefield, leaving the bodies of more than 600 of their comrades behind. Americans killed in action were 52 Marines, one corpsman and an Army major who flew gunship support. The wounded numbered in the hundreds. There were many heroes that day. Two Medals of Honor, six Navy Crosses and 14 Silver Stars were among the honors awarded the leathernecks of Operation Starlite.

The Marines passed their first big test in Vietnam. Moreover, they tested on the battlefield the combined helicopter and amphibious doctrine that they had studied for more than a decade. Their success in Starlite renewed their faith in their ability to “fight in any clime and place.”

Editor's note: This is the first of two articles on Starlite—the Corps' first major ground operation of the Vietnam War. Next month's Leatherneck will highlight the pivotal roles of several enlisted Marines in the battle.

Otto Lehrack, a retired Marine infantry officer, has authored four books on Marines at war. His “The First Battle: Operation Starlite and the Beginning of the Blood Debt in Vietnam,” published in 2004, is a graphic, well-researched rendering of the actions leading up to the battle as well as a detailed account of the battle. The book is available from Marine Corps Association bookstores.

© 2005 Leatherneck Magazine. All rights reserved.




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