Military history

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INTRODUCTION

LESSONS LEARNED

During the summer of 1965, I was deployed with a Force Recon Platoon attached to BLT 2/6 in the Caribbean, and on a particularly long patrol. The BLT Commander (there were no MEU’s in those days) sent a message to all widely scattered units directing that we reveal our positions, stop action, and await his arrival. For a young lieutenant on his fourth deployment, this was as serious as it got. Rumors flew, and I recall how my Marines were convinced we were being recalled in order to be shipped directly to the country most could not yet pronounce: Vietnam. We were going to war and we were elated.

However, the scenario didn’t play out that way. The cause of this remarkable pause of an entire operation was the C.O.’s intent to go to every single unit and explain firsthand the tremendous success our brethren had just brought about on a far off battlefield in Vietnam. While greatly motivated, we were also silently disappointed we would not, as we had supposed, soon be on our way to join them.

Otto J. Leharck’s The First Battle is a graphic account of the first major clash of the Vietnam War. On August 18, 1965, regiment fought regiment on the Van Tuong Peninsula near the new Marine base at Chu Lai. On the U.S. side were three battalions of Marines under the command of Colonel Oscar Peatross, a hero from two previous wars. His opponent was the 1st Viet Cong Regiment, led by Nguyen Dinh Trong, a veteran of many fights against the French and South Vietnamese. Codenamed Operation Starlite, the battle was a resounding success for the Marines. Its result was cause for great optimism about America’s future in Vietnam. The brutal and hot fight (both figuratively and literally) shocked the enemy as to what they could expect from Marines. With full reliance on fire support, artillery fire from Chu Lai air base north of the battlefield, naval gunfire (including an 8”gun cruiser), and constant fixed wing air support and tactical lift by helos, the enemy experienced for the first time what Marines brought to a fight. Starlite set the tone for what followed. In the unlikely event the Viet Cong could ever field an independent regiment after this, it would surely never enter a fight against Marines unless fully supported by the North Vietnamese regulars.

Several months later the American Army fought its first large scale battle in the Central Highlands at LZ X-Ray (as told in the book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young, by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway). This battle was fought exclusively against NVA regulars (no Viet Cong took part). However, postwar interviews revealed the NVA changed their tactics to meet the Americans in this battle because of what had been learned during the Operation Starlite engagement.

For those expecting a book about Americans in battle, you will not be disappointed by the detailed descriptions of how the fighting unfolded. Leharck interviewed Marines from private to colonel during his research for this book. The battle is presented from the mud level by those who looked the enemy in the face. But The First Battle is not just another war story told exclusively from the American point of view. In researching the book, Leharck walked the battlefield and spoke with the men who fought with the 1st Viet Cong Regiment. All of them were accomplished combat veterans years before the U.S. entered the war.

Leharck plants his readers squarely in 1965 America—the year that truly began the U.S.’s long involvement in Indochina. Hardly anyone was against the war in 1965. Casualties numbered in the hundreds. The administration and the public thought it a noble little war in the continuing struggle against the Red Menace, and that it would be concluded quickly and cheaply. Operation Starlite propelled the Vietnam War into the headlines across the nation and into the minds of Americans, where it took up residence for more than a decade. Starlite was the first step in Vietnam becoming America’s Tar Baby; the more she struggled to find a solution, the more difficult it became.

The subtitle of the book is Operation Starlite and the Beginning of the Blood Debt in Vietnam. Blood debt—in Vietnamese hantu—means revenge, debt of honor, or blood owed for blood spilled. The Blood Debt came into Vietnamese usage early in the war with the U.S. With this battle, the Johnson Administration began compiling its own Blood Debt, this one to the American people. It was a fateful conundrum. Before Starlite, the Blood Debt to the American public was relatively low and relatively easy to write off. As this debit grew, Johnson and his successors came to resemble losing gamblers. They continued throwing lives and treasure into the game, hoping somehow their fortunes would reverse and the Blood Debt would be justified.

The First Battle also examines the ongoing conflict between the U.S. Army and the Marines about the way the war was fought. With decades of experience with insurrection and rebellion, the Marines were institutionally oriented to base the struggle on pacification of the population. The Army, on the other hand, having largely trained to meet the Soviet Army on the plains of Germany, opted to search and destroy main force units. The history of the Vietnam War is decorated with many “what ifs.” This may be the biggest of them.

A year later most of the men of the platoon who had heard the Starlite message from the BLT Commander would themselves be in Vietnam. Most would return again to Vietnam; several would never return home. Each of them, however, was influenced by this battle that set the stage for long years ahead while forcing the enemy to change his intent of dominating the population areas while telegraphing the eventual downfall of the Viet Cong as an independent military organization capable of open, large scale battle with American units.

Colonel John Ripley

Director, Marine Corps Historical Division

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