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)
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)
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.
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).
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)
...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)|
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)