Friday, April 3, 2015

150 Years Ago: CSS Hampton's Flag is Captured


The following recollection was recorded on page 578 of Thirteenth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865: A Diary Covering Three Years and a Day by S. Millett Thompson, who believed Captain William J. Ladd to be the first Union soldier to enter Richmond, Virginia after its evacuation.  This was Ladd's recollection of his brief encounter with the gunboat Hampton on the morning of April 3, 1865:

The Confederate gunboat Hampton's flag as it appears today at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum after an extensive restoration.  It was taken by Captain William J. Ladd of the 13th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry Regiment just before explosives planted aboard the vessel detonated.

I was in the Capitol grounds as early as 5.30 a. m. I saw no flag on the Capitol at that time. After looking about the grounds and vicinity for a few minutes, and realizing that I was alone in the city, I rode back toward Rocketts, and when near there met a white Union cavalryman—the first Union soldier I had seen in Richmond that morning. We tied our horses, took a skiff and rowed out to a rebel war ship in the James, and captured the two Confederate flags then flying upon her. I pulled down the larger flag, the cavalryman the smaller one, and we rolled them up and tied them to our saddles.  These were the first and only flags of any kind—Federal or Confederate—that I saw in Richmond that morning... Soon after we secured these flags the vessel blew up.

A model of the Hampton-class gunboat Nansemond at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

Final Orders for the James River Squadron



                                                                                  CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA
                                                                                  Executive Office, Richmond, Va., April 2, 1865

     SIR: General Lee advises the Government to withdraw from this city, and the officers will leave this evening accordingly.  
     I presume that General Lee has advised you of this and of his movements, and made suggestions as to the disposition to be made of your squadron.  He withdraws from his lines toward Danville this night: and, unless otherwise directed by General Lee, upon you is devolved the duty of destroying your ships this night, and with all the forces under your command, joining General Lee.  Confer with him, if practicable, before destroying them.
     Let your people be rationed as far as possible for the march and armed and equipped duly in the field.
                                                                                                                  Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
                                                                                                                   
                                                                                                                   S.R. MALLORY
                                                                                                                   Secretary of the Navy

Rear-Admiral RAPHAEL SEMMES,
Commanding James River Squadron

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

River Queen: Ark of a Civil War Covenant

He was mystically, sincerely, but most discreetly religious.
Life of George P.A. Healy by His Daughter Mary (Mme. Charles Bigot), 1912

Entitled, The Peacemakers, it is an extraordinary painting of an extraordinary meeting near Hampton Roads; the only face-to-face strategy session between four men who were by this time 150 years ago deciding not only how best to finish a period of war, but how to begin an era of peace.
The Scene: Arguably the greatest military leaders of the American Civil War meet with their Commander-in-Chief in what appears to be a cozy parlor.  William T. Sherman, fresh from leading the greatest punitive expedition of the war, seems to give advice to the President.  His friend Ulysses S. Grant at Lincoln’s right listens, yet seems nonplussed.  David D. Porter, seated at Lincoln’s left after his recent return from waging a successful military campaign against Wilmington, North Carolina, followed by blunting Benjamin Butler’s political campaign against him before Congress, listens as well.
The painter George P.A. Healy's rendering of the meeting of President Abraham Lincoln, Major General William T. Sherman, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, and Rear Admiral David Porter aboard the steamer River Queen at City Point (now Hopewell), Virginia.  Less than two weeks later, Robert E. Lee would surrender. Lincoln himself would be assassinated the week after that.  One of the original copies of the painting now hangs in the Oval Office dining room. (Wikipedia.org)


There is something more than a little allegorical about the scene rendered by the prolific artist George P.A. Healy in 1868.  With their symmetrical gestures, Lt. Gen. Grant and Rear Adm. Porter seem to be holding back an invisible curtain or veil revealing Lincoln, who has borne the responsibility for deciding nearly every major strategic decision of the war.   Note that the four windows behind them seem to progress, beginning on the left with curtains and shades drawn, to the rainbow’s appearance followed by the parting of the clouds.  The destructive flood of war that swept the nation is subsiding, Healy seems to say, and it seems that one merely has to open the doors located directly behind the president and step out into the light.   

But of course, life after great drama and trauma is never that simple for an individual, much less a nation.  Important decisions must be made about how to proceed, and that is why Lincoln pensively listens behind the closed doors, seemingly lost in thought, his mind far beyond the contemplation of tactics to bring the swiftest defeat to General Robert E. Lee's remaining forces.  There were weightier strategic issues to contemplate.  
As depicted by William R. McGrath, River Queen (at the far left) would have hardly been noticeable among the throngs of cargo vessels in the teeming logistical center of City Point, Virginia, at the end of March 1865. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)  

The setting for The Peacemakers was the steamer River Queen, then moored near Lt. Gen Grant's headquarters at City Point, Virginia.  River Queen was also the setting for a very different conference held near Fort Monroe just a few days after the fall of Fort Fisher in January.  Perhaps within the very cabin depicted in the painting, Lincoln had received three other high-ranking visitors, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell, and Senator Robert M.T. Hunter, who had traveled under a flag of truce from Richmond to propose an armistice and joint expedition against Mexico.

Probably preoccupied with more profound thoughts than the three Confederate emissaries could possibly fathom, Lincoln stated flatly during the February 3 meeting that only the disbandment of the Confederate armies and the restoration of the union would bring the peace they supposedly sought; not a mere redirection of the fighting.        

In the conference with Sherman, Grant, and Porter on March 28,  Lincoln still seemed deep in thought, yet above the fray.  Much of the discussions revolved around whether or not Gen. Lee's forces could somehow escape Central Virginia and unite with those of General Joseph E. Johnston, which Sherman's forces had bottled up in North Carolina. 
According to Adm. David Porter's account of the meeting, Maj. Gen. Sherman "took a military view of the situation.  He had made a long toilsome march and desired to reap the honors due a victorious general." 
Thanks to Sherman’s account of his meeting with Healy while his painting was still in the planning stages, we have a pretty good insight into precisely what he was actually telling the President during this reconstructed moment. 
“In this picture I seem to be talking, the others attentively listening,” Sherman wrote to Lincoln’s friend and early biographer Isaac Newton Arnold.  “Whether Healy made this combination from Admiral Porter's letter or not, I cannot say; but I thought that he caught the idea from what I told him had occurred when saying that ‘if Lee would only remain in Richmond till I could reach Burkesville, we would have him between our thumb and fingers,’ suiting the action to the word.”
According to Porter, Lincoln's response might not have been what some of his officers were hoping to hear, yet it was consistent with the higher goal he had elucidated within his second inaugural address earlier that month, with intentions to "bind the wounds of the nation...[w]ith malice towards none, with charity for all....". 
"All very well," said the President, "but we must make no mistakes, and my way is a sure one: Offer General Johnston the same terms that will be offered Lee; then, if he will not accept them, try your plan; but as long as the Confederates lay down their arms I don't think it matters much how they do it.  Don't let us have any more bloodshed if it can be avoided.  General Grant is in favor of giving General Lee the most favorable terms."
And that is precisely what Grant did 12 days later at the village of Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865.
Porter concluded:
General Grant shared in the President's desire for the most liberal arrangements that could be entered into for the surrender of the confederate armies; and while Mr. Lincoln had implicit confidence in Grant's military abilities, he relied no less on his good judgment and kind feeling, and it is fortunate that the last act in the bloody drama of the civil war[sic] was under the direction of the two men acting in perfect accord, whose names will be handed down to posterity with increase of honor as the years roll by.


The steamer River Queen in a detail from a larger photo made by the photography studio of Charles H. Shute and Son of Nantucket after the war.  Despite the length of time President Lincoln spent aboard the vessel and his obvious preference for her above the plethora of Union Navy steamers available to him, she was not retained by the War Department nor was her historic significance ever recognized.  River Queen went back to plying standard ferry routes around New England for another half-century, finally succumbing to fire in 1911. (oldtimeislands.org

Thursday, March 19, 2015

150 Years Ago: The Court Martial of William A. Parker


"The action of the court in this case has somewhat embarrassed the Department."

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles
March 18, 1865

Aboard the sidewheel steamer USS Baltimore, anchored on the James River a century-and-a-half ago, a 33-year naval career hung in the balance.  Commander William A. Parker, who had until recently commanded the Fifth Division of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, stood accused of, among other things, "withdrawing from and keeping out of danger to which he should have exposed himself," and "[f]ailing to do his utmost to overtake and capture or destroy a vessel it was his duty to encounter."  


This print by William R. McGrath in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum collection shows the powerful ironclad Onondaga patrolling the James  River in more tranquil times.  Although successful in damaging the ironclads of the Confederate James River Squadron without suffering a single fatality or serious damage during the Battle of Trent's Reach in January 1865, the controversial decision of her commander, Commander William A. Parker, to withdraw during the first hours of the battle led to Parker's court martial in March.    
Nearly two months before, Parker had been in command of the double-turreted USS Onondaga and eight wooden gunboats dispersed along a 70-mile stretch between Richmond and Hampton Roads when the bulk of the Confederate Navy's James River Squadron, composed of three ironclads, five wooden gunboats, and three smaller torpedo boats, staged a desperate attack on the evening of January 23 to breach Union obstructions placed across the river. 

The week before, Commodore John K. Mitchell at his office within the Mechanic's Institute in Richmond faced a now-or-never decision.  The grim news that Fort Fisher had fallen on January 15 hung in the frozen air.  Wilmington, North Carolina; the last functioning port of the Confederacy and lifeline to Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, was effectively neutralized. 

The city, buttressed by other fortifications guarding its approaches on the Cape Fear River, continued its resistance against the Union Navy some weeks afterward, leveling the odds between Mitchell's James River Squadron guarding Richmond, and the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron's Fifth Division, commanded by Cmdr. Parker, tasked with defending the Armies of the James and the Potomac.  The lion's share of Rear Admiral David D. Porter's North Atlantic Squadron was still tied up in the Wilmington Campaign over 300 miles to the south, portending the possibility of the Confederate Navy snatching a victory in Virginia from the jaws of defeat in North Carolina.  Change, it seemed, was in the air. 

As it happened, the air was literally changing.  A warm front sweeping across Virginia that week had also made conditions optimal for a naval attack against Union targets.  During the middle of January, much of the snow across the river basin suddenly melted, unleashing a freshet, or sudden rise of fresh water, temporarily surging the river.  Intelligence that the freshet had damaged Union obstructions at a bend in the river called Trent's Reach had also reached the Confederate commodore's desk. 

If Mitchell had not yet made up his mind about attacking, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory made up his mind for him.  "I deem the opportunity a favorable one for striking a blow at the enemy, if we are able to do so.  In a short time many of his vessels will have returned to the river from Wilmington and he will again perfect his obstructions," Mallory wrote to Mitchell.  


Time was of the essence to take advantage of the spring thaw, the destructive water surge and the elevated river levels that came with it, as well as the apparent parity in opposing forces.  These factors were temporary, but the James River Squadron's mission was simply to do what the Confederate Navy did best throughout the war: Wreak havoc upon the Union's commercial shipping.  

The plan entailed cutting off both the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac from their base of supplies at City Point, Virginia, only about 15 miles south of Richmond, which was also the location of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters.  "If we can block the river at or below City Point, Grant might be compelled to evacuate his position," Mallory wrote.     





Before the sudden thaw and surging of the river, the Union obstructions confronting the squadron would have included a thick hawser supporting a net intended to catch Confederate torpedoes before they reached the main barrier, which was made up of 14 sunken vessels, including five schooners, connected by double spars or booms.  This barrier was linked together by a one and one-quarter-inch chain spanning the river, supported by beams.    

Thanks to the freshet, Confederate Lieutenant Charles W. Read, the daring young officer commanding the James River Squadron's torpedo boats, was able to inform Mitchell after his men scouted the area:

SIR: The net which was stretched across the river above the obstructions in Trent's Reach is gone.  The schooner that was sunk in the old channel, on the south side, has drifted down several hundred yards.  The vessel that was nearest the north shore has been drifted ashore abreast of her old position.  The two vessels on each side of the north channel have lightened up by the stern; their entire sterns are out of the water; their bows are under the water.  There is no vessel to be seen in the north channel.    

On the Union side of the now-fraying obstructions, the news was remarkably similar, if not quite as enthusiastic. 


"The condition of the river obstructions above us is bad; they are washed away by the freshet," Cmdr. Parker telegraphed City Point from his base at Aiken's Landing, replying to a query from Major General John Gibbons, commanding XXIV Corps of the Army of the James. "I do not consider our naval forces sufficient to prevent the possibility of the enemy's gunboats coming down at high water, should they make the attempt.  I believe it impossible to replace the obstructions unless Howlett's battery [also known as Battery Dantzler] be first captured."

One of the 10-inch Columbiads at what was known by the Confederates as Battery Dantzler overlooks the James River in this image taken after its abandonment in April 1865.  Cmdr. William A. Parker's concern over the two Columbiads and two Brooke rifles overlooking the James about three-quarters of a mile above Trent's Reach at what he called "Howlett's Battery" prompted a cautious approach. (Civilwartalk.com

Two days before the attack, Cmdr. Parker received word from Brigadier General John A. Rawlins, Grant's chief of staff, that the Confederate order to attack had been given, and that he should "exercise more than usual vigilance to defeat any plan the rebels may have in contemplation upon the river."  This would be easier said than done.  No less than 10 of Parker's vessels were laid up at Norfolk Navy Yard with no word as to when repairs would be complete, and he had just given up two of his needed tugs to the Potomac Flotilla in Maryland.  

On January 23, the day of the attack, Parker sent a request to Maj. Gen. Gibbons that more vessels be sunk and torpedoes put in place that evening to make up for what had been lost, but by that time, it was too late.  The confederate squadron got underway from its base at Drewry's Bluff at 6 pm, and about 5 hours later, Lt. Read began sounding out the north channel in a small boat as a team of Confederate Sailors hacked away at the remaining chains of the obstruction.  Two hours after that, Commodore Mitchell ordered CSS Fredericksburg, the ironclad with the shallowest draft, through the obstruction. 

The Confederate Ironclads FredericksburgRichmond, and Virginia II of the James River Squadron lead eight other vessels including the gunboat CSS Hampton past the guns of Fort Brady at about 8 pm on the evening of January 23, 1865. (Harper's)
Although sustaining damage from sunken hulks on either side, Fredericksburg, followed closely by the gunboat Hampton, made it through the obstruction, and behind enemy lines.  The jubilation on the part of the insurgents would be short-lived, but not because of Cmdr. Parker or his Fifth Division, seemingly the only force left to opposing them.  Nature herself had by this time turned against the squadron's other two ironclads, the flagship Virginia II and CSS Richmond.  Both had run aground, and the remaining Confederate gunboats and torpedo boats were either grounded, abandoned, or even destroyed by Union shore batteries just downstream of the obstruction in the attempt to free them.  

Make-or-break time had once again come to Commodore Mitchell.  He decided to recall the only vessels that had any hope of carrying out the mission.  Both ships retreated past their marooned shipmates under what Lt. Read called "a perfect rain of missiles," to relative safety under the guns of Battery Dantzler. 

Lieutenant E.T. Eggleston of the C.S. Marine Corps, who was aboard Fredericksburg during the operation, wrote of his frustration a few days later:
This vessel passed through the Yankee obstruction at 1:30 a.m., and we all flattered ourselves that every difficulty had been overcome.  The enemy's fire from their mortars had been quite troublesome for some time, but their heavy guns had not struck us once.  After waiting for the other vessels for about an hour and seeing nothing of them, our captain sent me in a small boat to report to the commodore [Mitchell] that we were safely through and ask if we should wait any longer. I went up to the obstructions, and seeing nothing of them, continued for some distance before I came to them.  After reporting, the commodore ordered me to return without delay and say to our captain that both the other vessels were aground and would not be able to get off before 11 a.m. the next day.  This compelled our abandonment of all ideas of success, for the first requisite was a complete surprise, and before the next night they would have time to concentrate a large fleet above City Point. 
By daylight, multiple Union shore batteries were finding their mark on the forlorn ironclads to surprisingly little effect, yet the question on Lt. Gen, U.S. Grant's lips, and on his telegraphers' fingertips, was, "What fleet has [Cmdr. Parker] collected or ordered to the front?"

CSS Fredericksburg, distinctive among Confederate ironclads because of her two pilot houses, had a shallower draft than her sister ship Richmond and flag ship Virginia II, which enabled her to pass Union obstructions at Trent's Reach when the others could not.  When she was ordered back through the obstructions early on the morning of January 25, her weaknesses, lighter armor overall and a casemate covered only with iron grating, threatened to be her undoing.    
 As the ironclad Fredericksburg and gunboat Hampton awaited further instructions amid their momentary mile-long foray past the Union obstruction, Cmdr. Parker ordered Onondaga nearly two miles back from her normal station at Aiken's Landing to a pontoon bridge spanning the James at about 2:45 am, where he promptly damaged one of his propellers attempting to bring the massive ironclad around.  

These two models in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum gallery show that, even under optimal conditions, the fight between CSS Richmond (left) 180 feet long (minus the spar torpedo) and around 800 tons, and USS Onondega (right) 226 feet long and 1,250 tons, would have been uneven.  The actual conditions on the morning of January 24 made matters much worse for the Confederate ironclad.  
Parker waited until around 8:30 to go back up the James.  Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Grant continued sending furious cables to Parker, but after hearing an explosion coming from the direction of Trent's Reach (which was actually the result of a direct hit upon the ammunition stores of gunboat CSS Drewry, abandoned and aground after the effort to free CSS Richmond), he moved up to Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox.  Shortly after that, Grant issued "Special Orders to GUNBOAT COMMANDERS," which were ostensibly issued "By authority of the Secretary of the Navy," to "proceed to the front above the pontoon bridge, near Varina Landing."  

"This order is imperative," continued Grant, "the orders of any naval commanders notwithstanding."     
"I have been compelled to take the matter in my own hands to get vessels to the front, ordering by direction of the Secretary of the Navy," Grant informed Fox.
There seemed to be no objection on Fox's or Secretary Gideon Welles' part to Grant assuming direct command of US Navy vessels on the James River.  In fact, Fox and Welles moved with dispatch, issuing orders to remove Parker from command and replace him with his deputy until Commodore William Radford and his New Ironsides could arrive from Hampton Roads.   

This illustration from Harper's published February 11, 1865, depicts the scene at Trent's Reach around daybreak on January 24, 1865, after the ironclad Fredericksburg and the gunboat Hampton had made it through the gap in the Union obstructions created by the crew of the torpedo launch Scorpion (not pictured) at about 1:30 am.  Yet after making it a mile past the obstructions, Fredericksburg was ordered to return after the ironclads Richmond and Virginia II became grounded waiting for the obstruction to be breached.  Commodore Mitchell's decision doomed the only chance of the mission's success.  Shortly after 7 am, the gunboat Drewry took a direct hit in its magazine and exploded, and Scorpion also had to be abandoned under fire. (A.R. Waud)
When Onondaga did make her reappearance at around 10:45 am, along with the former ferry boat USS Hunchback and the side wheel steamer USS Massasoit, Parker was still in charge.  Richmond was grounded at an angle in which her guns could not even be brought to bear, and she and the other ironclads were sitting ducks.  Virginia II was struck over 70 times that morning from Union shore batteries, yet direct hits from Onondaga's 15-inch Dahlgren guns almost became the Union coup de grace.  One shot tore a five foot square hole in her armor, killing one Sailor and wounding two others before the rising tide finally allowed the ironclads to make their escape.
"The monitor opened on us," wrote Lieutenant John W. Dunnington after surviving the pummeling aboard Virginia II, "and I am of the opinion that the two most damaging shots, one aft on port side of shield, and one between after port and port quarter port, were fired from the monitor."  Richmond also sustained a hit from the much larger Union ironclad knocking away the port side gun port shutter.  In contrast, one of Onondaga's whaleboats and two dinghies were "stove in" during the fight.

As the sun came up the following morning, Parker appeared on the double-ender gunboat USS Eutaw and, upon finding her commander, Lieutenant Commander Homer C. Blake, informed him that he had been removed from the command of the division "'by the honorable Secretary of the Navy.'"  "'You being the senior officer present,'" Blake recalled Parker saying, "'I turn the command over to you.'"
Lt. Cmdr. Blake reported the exchange to Rear Adm. Porter, who had meanwhile joined the chorus of castigation concerning Parker, going so far as to say later, "Parker proved afterwards to be of unsound mind, though it was not suspected at the time, and previous to this fiasco stood high in the naval service both as a brave man and an excellent officer."
Two days after the battle, Parker outlined the preparations he had made, as well as the problems he had encountered before the attack, appealing to Secretary Welles, "I pray that you will order an investigation of the facts."
On March 18, Parker's prayers were answered in the form of a general court martial held aboard Baltimore.  He was tried on two lengthy charges that essentially amounted to willful cowardice before the enemy.  Although he had sent the order stripping Parker of command in the heat of the battle that day in January, Welles' attitude towards the incident had softened markedly by the time the voluminous specifications against the erstwhile commander appeared in black and white. 
Welles surmised that many of the charges against Parker, such as that he "did order the U.S.S. Onondaga... to be moved down the river and away from the vessels of the enemy for the discreditable purpose of avoiding an encounter with [enemy] vessels," was practically unprovable, in that "[t]he ways in which an officer might fail to do his utmost to encounter and capture or destroy an enemy's vessel are innumerable."  Furthermore, the secretary declared the allegation that Parker gave the order to move downstream for a "discreditable purpose" was not proved either, and that finding had thereby "virtually acquitted the accused of the charge of avoiding an encounter with the enemy."   
Welles concluded:

It is to be inferred from the opinion of the individual members of the court, as stated in their individual recommendations for clemency, that the sole offense of Commander Parker... was "error of judgment."  The Department is at a loss to understand whether the court considered "error of judgment" a crime in itself, or, under some circumstances, a valid defense against a proved crime.  Neither can be sanctioned by the Department.  The findings of the court ...and its specifications are not approved, and as the sentence... can now be modified, it is necessarily set aside, and Commander Parker is hereby relieved from arrest.

And with that, the sentence that Parker be dismissed from the Navy was vacated, and he was moved to the retired list.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Fifty Years Ago: The Navy "Lands the Landing Force" in Vietnam



Fifty years ago this week, the scope of American military involvement in supporting the 10-year-old Republic of Vietnam (created in the wake of the Geneva Accords between French and nationalist Vietnamese officials in 1954) broadened in a visually dramatic way.  Reminiscent of the D-Day images of Normandy, or, more comparably, those of Douglas MacArthur and his forces returning to the Philippines a generation before, the first battalion-sized American combat unit came ashore near the strategic air base at Da Nang, and the images of those Marines have symbolized the massive expansion of America's footprint in the country ever since.  The year 1965 opened with roughly 23,000 military advisors and support personnel, ballooning to around 181,000 by year's end, much of the increase made up of combat forces.

Special Landing Force (SLF) Marines of Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment (BLT 3/9), come ashore about four miles northwest of Da Nang Air Base on March 8, 1965. (Official US Marine Corps Photo/ mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision)
There was nothing spontaneous about their arrival.  The US military had a presence in Vietnam for nearly a decade in advisory and support roles, but the need to have a flexible fighting force available for emergencies increased as the political and security situation in the Republic of Vietnam (also known as South Vietnam) deteriorated.  A Marine Special Landing Force consisting of Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment (BLT 3/9) had been on 72-hour alert status offshore since January, 1965, partially because of the removal of South Vietnamese Premier Tran Van Huong on January 27, and partially because of an increase in enemy activity against American military targets.  

On February 26, President Lyndon Johnson authorized the deployment to Vietnam of two Marine battalion landing teams, a medium helicopter squadron, and headquarters elements of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade.  

And of course, they didn't just appear out of nowhere. 


The Seventh Fleet Amphibious Force Flagship Mount McKinley (AGC-7) prepares to depart Naval Station Subic Bay, Philippines, in 1966. (Rich Draves/ USS Estes.org)
The Navy's Seventh Fleet was becoming rapidly enmeshed in the operations of the growing Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), which had been established in February 1962, one month after President John F. Kennedy's decision to establish a military advisory effort.  Its Amphibious Force (Task Force 76) and attached Marine Units were by 1965 becoming instrumental as a potential resource to counter an increasingly brazen National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (then, as now, known popularly as the Viet Cong), which had changed its strategy from targeting primarily South Vietnamese military forces to targeting Americans as well.  Since 1962, US Marine helicopter units had supported Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) combat operations, and on February 9, 1965, batteries of the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft Missile Battalion, equipped with the "Homing-All-the-Way-Killer" (HAWK) medium-range surface-to-air missile, began arriving at Da Nang air base, which had been home to Marine Corps and US Air Force aviation units for some time.


US Marine Corps UH-34 Seahorses approach Da Nang airfield from the north in this 1965 photo.  The City of Da Nang lies  to the east of the airfield, bordered by the Han River, with the East Vietnam Sea immediately beyond. At the time of the first major amphibious landing nearby on March 8, 1965, the Marines of BLT 3/9 were assigned only to protect the air base.  That would change on April 1, when President Lyndon Johnson authorized the Marines to engage National Liberation Front (NLF, or Viet Cong) and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN, or North Vietnamese) forces in combat. (Official US Marine Corps Photo/ mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision
On March 1, South Vietnamese government officials had, through diplomatic channels, agreed to the deployment of American combat troops to protect Da Nang, yet, conscious of the image it would convey to the Vietnamese public, requested that they be deployed "in the most inconspicuous way possible."  Two days later, US Ambassador Maxwell Taylor received word from Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton that deploying the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade from Okinawa would satisfy this desire for a lighter footprint.  Parachutes gently falling through the tropical air over the airfield would not present as forceful a picture as Marines storming a beach.

In Hawaii, Admiral  Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Commander in Chief, Pacific, was of one mind with General William Westmoreland, Commander, MACV, in rejecting this change to a plan that was already in motion.  Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch, commander of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and his staff had already wrapped up preparatory visits to Saigon and Da Nang in February, meeting with Westmoreland and Vietnamese Major General Nguyen Chanh Thi, senior commander of the Republic of Vietnam's five northern provinces.  BLT 3/9 was already aboard the ships of Task Force 76, off the coast.   

Sharp cabled the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), "The CG, 9th MEB is presently in Da Nang finalizing the details for landing the MEB forces in such a way as to cause minimum impact on the civilian populace... I recommend that the MEB be landed at Da Nang as previously planned."

High-level reservations about what picture the landing would convey to the Vietnamese people were swept aside, and the decision to go ahead with the landing was handed down from the JCS on March 7. 


During the landing of the Third Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) on May 7, 1965 at Chu Lai, 57 miles south of Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam, 3rd MEB commander Brigadier General M.E. Carl confers with Task Force 76 commander Rear Admiral D.W. Wulzen aboard Amphibious Assault Ship Princeton (LPH-5), as Captain R.W. Clark, commanding Amphibious Squadron One, looks on.  The Third and Ninth MEBs, joined by the Seventh MEB in July 1965, subsequently came under the operational control of III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF). (Official US Marine Corps Photo/ mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision)

The task of delivering BLT 3/9 to Da Nang the momentous morning of March 8 was the job of the Seventh Fleet's Amphibious Task Force commander, Rear Admiral Donald W. Wulzen, who gave the order to "land the landing force" at 6 am.  The four ships involved in delivering the Marines that morning consisted of the flagship Mount McKinley (AGC-7), Amphibious Transport Dock Vancouver (LPD-2), Attack Transport Henrico (APA-45), and Attack Cargo Ship Union (AKA-106).



As seen from Landing Craft, Utility 1476 (LCU-1476) as it departs the well deck of Amphibious Transport Dock Vancouver (LPD-2), Marines, armored vehicles and supplies transit the Bay of Da Nang on their way to Red Beach during the first major American amphibious landing in Vietnam, March 8, 1965. (Official US Marine Corps Photo/ mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision)   



Marines and their M-48 Patton tanks transit the Bay of Da Nang aboard LCU-1476 during the first major amphibious operation undertaken by US forces in Vietnam on March 8, 1965.  The Attack Transport Henrico (APA-45), also disembarking elements of the 3rd battalion, 9th Marines, can be seen in the background.  (Official US Marine Corps Photo/ mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision)
LCU 1476 disembarks Marines, vehicles and equipment on Red Beach near Da Nang Air Base on the morning of March 8, 1965.  (Official US Marine Corps Photo/ mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision)



Attack Transport Henrico (APA-45), with a Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCM) and a Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP) alongside.  Date and location unrecorded.  (Chief Signalman Ronald Roy/ Navsource.org)
Marines from BLT 3/9 come ashore on March 8, 1965 at Red Beach 2 from a Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCM), northwest of Da Nang (Official US Marine Corps Photo/ mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision)
 Between 9:02 and 9:18 that morning, the roughly 1,500 Marines of BLT 3/9 had crossed the beach...


A Marine Corps truck of BLT 3/9 passes under a banner at the entrance to the City of Da Nang on March 8, 1965.  After coming ashore, the members of BLT 3/9 became part of the 9th Expeditionary Brigade (9th MEB).  later that day, lead elements of the Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (BLT 1/3) would arrive by aircraft at Da Nang Air Base.    
...and by that afternoon had made it under the welcoming signs (and the curious stares of local children) of the City of Da Nang.   


Attack Cargo Ship Union (AKA-106) in 1966. (Richard Dawson/ Navsource.org)
The morning of the first landing, the Marines of BLT 3/9 were assigned only to defend Da Nang Air Base, and they received a curious but cordial reception from local officials and residents, as well as the press.  Only three weeks later, however, their defensive posture would change when President Lyndon Johnson authorized the Marines at Da Nang to move out and engage National Liberation Front (also known as Viet Cong) guerrillas, as well as elements of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN, or North Vietnamese Army).  


Marine Corps Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch, commanding general of the
9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, sports a freshly applied lei as he receives a warm
welcome from ARVN (South Vietnamese) Major General Nguyen Chanh Thi on
March 8. 1965.  Although Karch emphasized the defensive mission of his Marines
to the press, they were to go on the offensive beginning in April.  He was later quoted
in the New York Times as saying of their new enemy, the Viet Cong, "I thought that 
once they ran up against our first team they wouldn't stand and fight, but they did. 
I made a miscalculation."  Karch moved on to his final assignment at Quantico, 
Virginia in December as director of the Command and Staff College, until his 
retirement in 1967.

Maj. Gen. Thi, a hero to the Buddhist population of South Vietnam, was forced by 
rival military officers into exile in the United States in 1966, further fracturing the 
political and sectarian fault lines in the country.  (LIFE)


In October 1965, Naval Support Activity, Da Nang, also known as Camp Tien Sha, would be established, later becoming the Navy's largest overseas logistics command, staffed at its peak by over 4,000 naval personnel.  It would be disestablished in 1973.




Rear Admiral (Upper Half) Donald Wesley 
Wulzen finished his active duty career 
in 1969 as deputy director of the Directorate of 
Inspection Services, Office of the Assistant 
Secretary of Defense (Administration).  (Official 
US Navy Photo)