At 0545 on 8 March 1965, the four ships of the U.S. Navy's Amphibious Task Force 76, the Mount McKinley, Henrico, Union, and Vancouver, steamed into the harbor of Da Nang, South Vietnam. Slicing through four-foot-high waves, the vessels moved into position three thousand meters offshore. A raspy, clanging sound challenged the morning air as four heavy anchors pulled thick chain links to the bay's bottom. The eyes of hundreds of anxious U.S. Marines crowding the ships' railings peered through the haze of a light drizzle, furtively searching for a glimpse of the distant shoreline.
Rear Admiral Don W. Wulzen, the task force commander aboard the Mount McKinley, ordered at 0600, "Land the landing force!" H hour was 0800.
The well-armed Marines moved into position to begin the ship-to-shore movement. As they clambered down rope nets slung over the ship's steel sides, the weather suddenly worsened. The waiting landing craft bounced dangerously on the building waves. Mooring lines snapped under the strain. Soon the harbor's surface teemed with white-capped swells stretching to ten feet in height.
At 0730 Admiral Wulzen ordered the landing postponed one hour so that larger, heavier, more stable landing craft could be brought into position. Once they were lashed securely alongside the transports, the troops resumed climbing down the treacherous nets. The loaded vessels moved into position for the run to the beaches.
Many of the young men crouching nervously in the bobbing craft had fathers and uncles who had made landings on Pacific Ocean islands during World War II, just two decades earlier. These assaults had been deadly affairs. Enemy artillery shells had crashed among the assault waves, spreading brutal death. Casualties during these landings had been horrendous. Fortunately, the only casualties the Marines of this generation were apt to experience this day would be from seasickness. The rolling surf heaved the boats up and down as they neared the beach.
Corporal Garry Powers jumped from his amphibious tractor into knee-deep water at 0903 and splashed his way ashore. This first Marine would soon be followed by tens of thousands more as the United States commenced a controversial ten-year effort to keep South Vietnam from falling to the Communists. The journey to the beaches of Da Nang had begun ten years earlier.
The Geneva Accords of 1954 ended France's colonial role in what was then known as French Indochina. The accords divided the new country into a Communist-supported government north of the seventeenth parallel and an anti-Communist regime to the south. Despite the accords Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam's leader, launched a subversive effort to overthrow the government of South Vietnam and reunite the country.
The United States enthusiastically supported South Vietnam's desire to remain free of Communist domination. To help the fledgling country, in 1954 it established a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in the capital of Saigon to train the newly created South Vietnamese Armed Forces. As the insurgents' terrorism escalated in the early 1960s the United States took significant steps to strengthen its ally. By the end of 1962 more than twelve thousand American military personnel were in South Vietnam. Among them were eighteen U.S. Marines serving as advisers to the infant South Vietnamese Marine Corps and a Marine Corps helicopter squadron.
With this major expansion in commitment, the United States abolished the MAAG in February 1962. It was replaced by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, a more comprehensive structure, headed by U.S. Army General Paul D. Harkins.
Despite this massive infusion of American aid, the fragile South Vietnamese government was continually torn by internal dissidence. A series of violent clashes between Buddhist monks and President Ngo Dinh Diem's national police resulted in the arrest of the insurgent Buddhist leaders in August 1963. The crisis continued, culminating in the assassination of Diem in November. The turbulent period of political instability that followed witnessed numerous coups and countercoups. South Vietnam's leaders changed so rapidly during this time that it was often difficult for the Americans to know who was in charge of the country on any given day.
This continued instability was not lost on Saigon's enemies, the North Vietnamese-supported Viet Cong (VC). Taking full advantage of the situation, the VC struck again and again. After repeatedly thrashing the much vaunted Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the VC next turned to terrorist tactics designed to demoralize the civilian population. Among the targets were U.S. military personnel and installations.
In retaliation, in late July and early August 1964, U.S.-trained South Vietnamese naval commandos aboard fast-moving torpedo boats attacked two islands north of the demilitarized zone dividing the two countries. Though they did little physical damage, the attacks infuriated the North Vietnamese. They struck back, attacking the U.S. Navy destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin with their own torpedo boats on 2 August. A second attack against the Maddox and the recently arrived Turner Joy came two days later. President Lyndon B. Johnson responded by sending naval aircraft on bombing missions against targets in North Vietnam.
The next major event came on 31 October when Viet Cong sappers hit the U.S. Air Force base at Bien Hoa, northeast of Saigon. Four Americans died and five U.S. planes were destroyed in the attack. On Christmas Eve, a VC terrorist bomb exploded in the downtown Saigon Brink Hotel, which served as an American bachelor officers' billet. One American naval officer died and fifty-eight more suffered injuries in the massive blast.
Relative quiet reigned over the country for the next few weeks. Then, in the early morning hours of 7 February 1965, Viet Cong infantry attacked two U.S. Army installations near Pleiku, in South Vietnam's mountainous Central Highlands. The fifteen-minute ground assault left 8 Americans dead and more than 125 wounded.
Elevated to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson fought a bitter campaign during the summer and fall of 1964 to be elected in his own right. Regarding the building crisis in South Vietnam, he frequently stated his objections to sending "American boys to do what Asian boys should be doing . . ." Once elected and safely in office, Johnson wasted no time in committing U.S. forces to the war. Less than twelve hours after the Pleiku attack, U.S. naval fighter-bomber aircraft from the carriers Ranger, Hancock, and Coral Sea hit military targets near Dong Hoi, North Vietnam. The next day, in the second stage of Operation Flaming Dart, land-based U.S. Air Force F-100 Supersaber jet fighters launched from the Da Nang air base. They struck guerrilla staging and communications centers near Vinh Linh and Chap Le, just across the demilitarized zone.
In a televised speech that same evening, President Johnson announced the air raids to the American public, saying: "We have no choice but to clear the decks and make absolutely clear our continued determination to back South Vietnam." The president further stated that he had ordered dependents of American servicemen stationed in South Vietnam to return home. He then declared, "I have ordered the deployment to South Vietnam of a HAWK air defense battalion. Other reinforcements, in units and individuals, may follow."
Though the logic of sending a surface-to-air guided missile weapons system to South Vietnam, which had never been threatened with air attacks, and never would, escaped many, nevertheless the orders went out. On Okinawa the Marines' 1st Light Antiaircraft Missile (LAAM) Battalion got the nod.
Battery A, 1st LAAM flew into Da Nang on the night of 8-9 February. The rest of the battalion, traveling by ship, arrived over the next week. By 16 February the five-hundred-plus Marines of the 1st LAAM occupied positions surrounding the Da Nang air base. America's leaders were convinced that this show of force would persuade North Vietnam's leaders to curtail terrorist attacks.
They were wrong.
On 10 February, the Viet Cong attacked a U.S. Army enlisted men's barracks at coastal Qui Nhon in Binh Dinh Province. Twenty-three American soldiers died; another twenty-two were wounded. President Johnson immediately ordered another round of air strikes. Naval warplanes from the carriers and ground-based aircraft from Da Nang headed north on 12 February under Operation Flaming Dart II.
Significantly, President Johnson referred to these raids not as reprisals but as "air operations" provoked by "continued aggression." The next day, heeding the recommendations of his key military advisers-Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff-Johnson opted to begin a program of "measured and limited air action jointly with South Vietnam against selected military targets in North Vietnam . . ." The air attacks would be regularly scheduled several times per week with two or three major targets on each operation. The new campaign was called Rolling Thunder.
Though the first strikes had been scheduled for 20 February, renewed South Vietnamese political instability put Operation Rolling Thunder on hold. The day before, a military coup aimed at the current premier, Gen. Nguyen Khanh, failed. However, after a subsequent vote of no confidence from the Armed Forces Council, Khanh departed the country. The leadership of South Vietnam was again in doubt.
Confronted with an unstable political situation just as a massive air campaign was commencing, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the new commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), had grave reservations about the ability of the ARVN forces to protect the U.S. air base at Da Nang and the HAWK battalion. He ordered his deputy, Lt. Gen. John L. Throckmorton, to determine what level of U.S. ground forces would be needed for adequate security. Throckmorton responded within twenty-four hours. He recommended two battalions of Marines be deployed to guard the Da Nang complex.
General Westmoreland concurred. He sent the request to his immediate superior, Adm. Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Jr., commander in chief, Pacific, on 22 February. Admiral Sharp forwarded his positive endorsement of Westmoreland's request to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
However, in a separate, private, back-channel cable to President Johnson, the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, retired U.S. Army general Maxwell Taylor, expressed strong reservations about committing U.S. ground troops to South Vietnam. After the first contingent of American forces arrived, Taylor said, "It will be very difficult to hold the line" on further force commitments. Without a doubt, Taylor predicted, ARVN commanders would soon relinquish other "ground force tasks" to the Americans. These tasks were sure to escalate, the ambassador asserted, leading to his chief worry: "The white-faced soldier, armed, equipped, and trained as he is, is not a suitable guerrilla fighter for Asian forests and jungles. The French tried to adapt their forces to this mission and failed. I doubt that U.S. forces could do much better."
Despite Taylor's prescient view, Washington cabled him on 27 February that the Marines would land. Taylor was to so inform the South Vietnamese government. On 1 March, the minister of the South Vietnamese Armed Forces, Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu, and the Vietnamese chairman of the Joint General Staff, Gen. Tran Van Minh, approved the landing. Fearing opposition by some segments of the South Vietnamese population, Thieu and Minh requested that the landing of the Marines be accomplished as "inconspicuously as possible."
Two battalions from the 3d Marine Division's 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) had been aboard ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet sailing off South Vietnam's coast since January. Several times the shipboard Marines had been within hours of hitting the beaches. Each time a cooling off of the crisis alleviated the landing. Now, however, word for the Marines to go ashore had come directly from Washington. There would be no last minute reversal of these orders.
Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch, a dapper-looking, mustache-sporting veteran of two bloody World War II island campaigns, had taken command of the 9th MEB on 22 January 1965. As the assistant division commander, Karch had made several visits to the country over the previous year. He did not like what he saw. In his opinion the ARVN were so weak that if Marines were to land in Vietnam he felt they should "make it North Vietnam, not South. If we go into Da Nang, we'll disappear into the countryside and never be heard from again."
Nonetheless, when Karch got his orders he went to work. Spread aboard the four ships of naval amphibious Task Force 76 were the 2d and 3d Battalions, 9th Marines. (The Marine Corps does not use the traditional identifier "Infantry Regiment" or "Artillery Regiment" in referring to its units. Instead, it simply refers to a regiment with its numerical designator followed by "Marines." Thus, the 1st Marines is actually the 1st Marine Infantry Regiment.) The 2d and 3d Battalions served as the battalion landing teams (BLT). (The BLT is the basic Marine unit in an assault landing. The team's core is an infantry battalion reinforced by other mission-necessary combat and service units.) Karch selected BLT 3/9 to make an amphibious landing at Da Nang. The Marines would go ashore at Red Beach 2, north and west of the city. Once ashore, they would be carried by trucks to defensive positions at the air base. As a reserve, BLT 2/9 would remain aboard ship.
The second of the two battalions would come directly from 3d Marine Division units on Okinawa. The 1st Battalion, 3d Marines would be airlifted directly to Da Nang soon after the arrival of BLT 3/9.
After completing a flurry of activities ashore related to getting his units ready for the actual landing, General Karch returned to his command ship, the Mount McKinley, on the evening of 6 March. Late the next day Admiral Wulzen handed Karch a dispatch. "Close Da Nang. Land the landing force," the message read.
Karch turned to Wulzen. "Don, do you think in Washington they know what time it is in Da Nang? This means a night landing if we close Da Nang at this point."
Besides that, the task force was experiencing the worst weather it had yet encountered while traveling around the South China Sea. Waves were cresting at four feet in a strong wind. Visibility was limited to two hundred meters. Karch contacted his headquarters. The orders were modified; the landing would commence the next day.
No enemy action awaited Corporal Powers. Instead, when he reached the top of the beach a South Vietnamese beauty queen placed a fragrant lei over his helmeted head. A short distance away a stone-faced, lei-draped General Karch watched as the four rifle companies of BLT 3/9 crossed the wet sand. Within thirty minutes Company L had boarded trucks and started for the airfield. It was soon followed by Companies I and K; Company M remained behind to provide security for the unloading of the battalion's equipment.
Excerpted from Semper Fi: Vietnam by Edward F. Murphy. Copyright © 2003 by Edward F. Murphy. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.