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)

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