The village of Van Tuong lies on the seacoast of Quang Ngai Province, atop the narrow strip of rich soil that drew Vietnamese noblemen and rice farmers to the coastal plain 1,000 years ago. Rice paddies stretch to the coastline, where sandy beaches alternate with sheer cliffs that plunge 50 feet into the lapping waves of the South China Sea. During the rainy season, the paddies flood to a depth of two feet or more, turning the soil into a thick mud that clings to shoes and hooves.
When thousands of soldiers from the other side of the planet arrived at Van Tuong in the middle of August 1965, the rice paddies were dry and hence easy to traverse by foot or vehicle. But interspersed among the paddies were hedgerows, earthen mounds, and marshes that presented formidable natural obstacles to any would-be conqueror. And, as the U.S. Marines were to discover when they disembarked from their helicopters and landing craft on August 18, North Vietnamese soldiers had turned Van Tuong into what they called a “combat village.” By constructing fortified fighting positions and crisscrossing the area with trenches five feet deep and 10 feet wide, the North Vietnamese had ensured that the village could be taken from them only at heavy cost.
The population of Van Tuong had strong ties to the Vietnamese Communists. In 1954, many of its families had sent sons to North Vietnam, and a large number of those sons had returned to the South as trained insurgents in the early 1960s. The days of local men leading the opposition to the Saigon government in Van Tuong had, however, passed by well before the Americans paid their visit. In August 1965, the village was occupied by what the Americans dubbed the 1st Viet Cong (VC) Regiment. In American minds, the term Viet Cong implied that a unit was manned by natives of South Vietnam, in contrast to a unit designated as North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which was believed to be made up of native Northerners. But the 1st Viet Cong Regiment, like most of the other so-called Viet Cong units, was replete with North Vietnamese soldiers and fell within the same chain of command as the North Vietnamese Army units. To the North Vietnamese, it was simply the 1st Regiment.
Although American engineers had begun constructing a large military base at Chu Lai, a mere 17 kilometers from Van Tuong, the commander of the 1st Regiment was sure that the Americans would not find his unit. He was so sure that in early August he took all his battalion commanders with him to a conference of military leaders in the central highlands. When the Americans came to Van Tuong, therefore, the 1st Regiment and its four battalions would be under the command of their political officers, whose strengths lay in political indoctrination rather than combat leadership. As a further consequence, two of the 1st Regiment’s battalions, the 45th and 90th, would at that time be collecting rice at a site 15 kilometers to the south, leaving only the 40th and 60th battalions at the village.
The American assault on Van Tuong, like so many orchestrations of American military power that were to follow, originated with signals intelligence. Through the triangulation of enemy radio transmissions, American direction-finding equipment had pinpointed the 1st Regiment’s headquarters at Van Tuong a few days earlier. Corroborating this intelligence was an enemy defector who told South Vietnamese soldiers that the 1st Regiment was massing near Van Tuong for an attack on the American base at Chu Lai.
Peatross developed a plan to converge on Van Tuong from all sides so as to trap and annihilate the North Vietnamese. One Marine battalion was to assault by helicopter, a second would land amphibiously on the beach, and a third would float in the USS Talladega and USS Iwo Jima offshore in reserve.
Major General Lewis W. Walt, the senior U.S. Marine commander in South Vietnam, decided to attack the enemy at Van Tuong as soon as he learned of its presence. Although American combat forces had fought a few skirmishes with Communist soldiers since first coming ashore in March 1965, they had not previously engaged a large enemy unit, concentrating instead on defending expensive American aircraft and installations while their South Vietnamese allies undertook the major offensive operations. By the beginning of August, however, Communist offensive operations had depleted South Vietnam’s armed forces to the point that the commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, had decided that American forces needed to go on offense. On August 6, he had notified General Walt that his orders had changed. Walt and his Marines were now authorized and encouraged to seek battle with large concentrations of the enemy.
General Walt assembled three battalions for the assault on Van Tuong, which was given the code name Operation Starlite. To lead the operation, he plucked the commander from the 7th Regimental Combat Team and put him in command of the three battalions. That officer was Colonel Oscar “Peat” Peatross, a 25-year veteran who had earned Walt’s respect as a battalion commander in the Korean War. Peatross developed a plan to converge on Van Tuong from all sides so as to trap and annihilate the North Vietnamese. One Marine battalion was to assault by helicopter, a second would land amphibiously on the beach, and a third would float in the USS Talladega and USS Iwo Jima offshore in reserve, ready to fly from helicopter pads to the shore at a moment’s notice. Few of the Marines in these battalions had seen combat before, but they arrived with the confidence of well-trained and well-armed young men, certain that they could crush the armed forces of an impoverished Communist dictatorship, excited that they would escape the boredom of military routine to put years of preparation to real use.
At 5:00 a.m. on the morning of August 18, in a scene reminiscent of Tarawa, Saipan, and other epic struggles of World War II in the Pacific, ships of the U.S. Navy anchored off the coast near Van Tuong to disgorge amphibious Amtrac vehicles. Descendants of the tracked landing vehicles that had driven the Marines of World War II onto beaches studded with Japanese mines and machine guns, the Amtracs carried 700-horsepower engines that could propel their 37-ton hulks and 37 passengers through the sea at a speed of eight miles per hour. The American destroyers Orleck and Prichett and the cruiser Galveston watched over the proceedings, their main guns pointing like eagle’s talons at the shoreline as they awaited targeting data from the Amtracs.
The approach of the amphibious vehicles caught the eyes of North Vietnamese sentries on shore. The sentries rushed a report on the size and bearing of the Marine flotilla to the command post of the 1st Regiment, which was four kilometers from the coast. Based on this report, the staff at the regimental command post concluded that the axis of advance would bring the Marines directly to the command post’s location. The acting regimental commander ordered 150 troops to conduct a delaying action while the command post and its staff relocated farther inland.
The small arms fire of the delaying force hit several Marines as they came ashore. One of them was Staff Sergeant Catfish Campbell, who suffered a wound in the scrotum. Evacuated to an American warship, Campbell was stitched up within a matter of hours and sent back into the fight later in the day. The amphibious battalion nonetheless had little difficulty in securing the beach. The Marines pressed forward for two kilometers in the Amtracs before encountering significant resistance, at which point the battalion slowed to a crawl while officers considered how best to press the attack.
The first American helicopters touched down at 7:00 a.m. One company of Marines was scheduled to land at each of three landing zones, dubbed Red, White, and Blue. Lacking enough helicopters to land an entire battalion at once, the Marines had to shuttle them in stages, which afforded the enemy time to move forces toward the landing zones while Marines were still arriving. At Red and White, successive clumps of Marines disembarked from UH-34D Seahorse helicopters without incident. At Blue, the first helicopters encountered no display of hostility, but the subsequent waves met heavy fire from the automatic and semiautomatic weapons of the 60th battalion, whose defensive perimeter was very close to LZ Blue. Camouflaging themselves to look like bushes, North Vietnamese troops advanced toward the landing zone unseen and then hit the Marines at close range. “We were taking fire from everywhere,” remembered Lance Corporal Ernie Wallace.
The Marine company at LZ Blue—Hotel Company of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines—sustained a considerable number of injuries and fatalities during the opening minutes of the engagement. Nevertheless, enough of its Marines reached the fringes of the landing zone to establish a solid perimeter. Helicopter gunships and fixed-wing A-4 Skyhawks and F-4 Phantoms hurried to the assistance of the Marines, loosing gushers of firepower that held the North Vietnamese battalion back.
At 9:00 a.m., the acting commander of the 1st Regiment concluded that the Americans were sending the preponderance of their troops to LZ Blue, owing to the amount of air support being marshaled in defense of Hotel company. He therefore decided to mass the 40th and 60th battalions, the entirety of his fighting strength at Van Tuong, to annihilate the Marines at LZ Blue before they could move into better defensive terrain and receive reinforcements. The 40th battalion marched toward LZ Blue in three columns to join the 60th battalion for a concerted onslaught.
While the 40th battalion was en route, the amphibious U.S. Marine battalion pushed toward the right flank of the 60th battalion. In response, a large detachment of the 60th battalion pulled back from LZ Blue to protect its flank. The movements of the American amphibious battalion spooked the North Vietnamese regimental commander, causing him to order all his units to shift from the offensive to the defensive.
The reduction in pressure on landing zone Blue convinced the commander of Hotel company, 1st Lieutenant Homer K. Jenkins, to send two of his platoons forward to the hamlet of Nam Yen 3, which he believed to be lightly guarded. Only when the two platoons reached the edge of the hamlet did they learn that scores of enemy soldiers had hidden themselves in trees and in fortified houses whose walls dropped down for firing. The North Vietnamese gunned down some of the Marines when they neared the hamlet. The remaining Marines laid poncho liners over the dead as best they could and withdrew to a berm that was dotted with trees.
Behind the berm, Sergeant Jerry Tharp gathered Marines from the third platoon of Hotel company and barked out instructions for a renewal of the attack. One of the Marines listening to him was Private First Class Richard Boggia. “As we waited for Sergeant Tharp to give the command to assault, I saw him raise himself above the berm,” Boggia recalled. “With a loud crack, he grabbed his chest and started pulling off his equipment to see what happened. Within a few seconds blood ran out of his mouth and he fell over.” Another Marine crawled to Tharp but found that he was already dead.
They Chose to Shoot
The loss of Sergeant Tharp did not slow the momentum of the Marines as another man was ready to step into his position. Employing tactics that had been drilled into them for months at bases in the United States, the Marines assaulted Nam Yen 3 from multiple directions. Although they suffered additional casualties in the approach, enough Marines penetrated the hamlet to give the enemy a good fight. Scattered groups of Americans and North Vietnamese engaged in close-quarter melees, with mortar rounds and grenades exploding among them in such a fashion that few could tell who was hitting whom.
If the North Vietnamese had hoped that the Americans would refrain from using heavy weapons in the presence of civilian noncombatants, they were sorely disappointed. When North Vietnamese soldiers fired at Americans from fortified positions in Nam Yen 3, American aircraft and tanks blasted the fortifications and their occupants into rubble. The Americans were not seeking to harm South Vietnamese civilians, but when forced to choose between risking civilian casualties by shooting their weapons and risking American casualties by not shooting, they chose to shoot. The same had been no less true of the Americans who had gone before them at Normandy, Okinawa, and Seoul. Like the civilians of France, Japan, and South Korea, the residents of Nam Yen 3 would subsequently be treated by American medical personnel in large numbers for wounds inflicted by American weapons that had been aimed at hostile combatants. The American firepower eventually broke the resistance of the North Vietnamese, enabling the Marines to take control of Nam Yen 3.
India company of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, one of the companies that had driven ashore in the Amtracs, took the fortified hamlet of An Cuong 2 later in the morning. In this case, too, American tanks dislodged sizable numbers of North Vietnamese defenders from fortifications and trenches. After the firing subsided, one of the Marines began shooting enemy bodies strewn across the ground in case any were feigning death. One faker had already caused injury to two Americans. The company commander, Captain Bruce Webb, ordered the Marine to desist, on the grounds that firing bullets into the bodies was inhumane. A few minutes later, a North Vietnamese soldier who had been playing dead hurled a grenade at Captain Webb, killing him.
A column of five Amtracs and three M67 flame tanks motored from the south to resupply India company 3/3 with ammunition and water. In its haste, the column drove past India company, traveling another 400 meters until it ran into the 3rd company of the enemy’s 60th battalion, which had been hiding in hedgerows and thickets on the side of the road. The North Vietnamese opened fire with 57mm recoilless rifles, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades. Their initial volleys missed. The American vehicles circled around to the northeast and assaulted the hedgerows and thickets, a bold move but one that underestimated the enemy’s firepower.
As the Americans closed within 100 meters, North Vietnamese recoilless rifles knocked several Amtracs out of action. The assault was halted so that the undamaged vehicles could come to the assistance of those that had been disabled. The officer commanding the rescue column, Lieutenant Robert F. Cochran Jr., dismounted and methodically organized the evacuation of the immobilized Amtracs and tanks, then positioned the other vehicles into a defensive formation. Once he had completed these tasks, he returned to one of the Amtracs. Rather than having the ramp lowered, which would have endangered the men inside, Cochran climbed up the side to crawl through the crew hatch. Hostile fire struck him while he was scaling the vehicle. Mortally wounded, he fell into the dust.
The remaining Amtracs and tanks stayed put, which made it easier for both them and their adversaries to score hits. North Vietnamese heavy weapons quickly disabled most of the vehicles, aside from one tank that fled the scene in what the battalion’s executive officer subsequently adjudged an act of cowardice. Some of the surviving Marines disembarked, took up positions in the rice paddy, and used their assault rifles to pick off North Vietnamese infantrymen who attempted to close in on the smoking vehicles.
An Amtrac radio operator transmitted a message stating that the column was surrounded and about to be overrun. So panicked was he during his pleading that he held down the call button, which prevented him from hearing the operator on the other end asking questions about the unit’s location. He kept his finger on the call button for over one hour.
Answers to those questions would have been of great assistance to the two infantry companies that Colonel Peatross had sent to rescue the supply column. Forging ahead based on vague estimates of the column’s position, both companies stumbled into large enemy forces and were caught up in intense fighting that kept them from venturing any farther that afternoon. An American account noted that during these engagements, “The Marines discovered that some of the most macho among them in peacetime became very careful when real bullets were being fired, and that some of those most reticent around the barracks were tigers in combat.”
Men on the Verge of Extinction
In the next few hours, as Marines were incapacitated and ammunition was expended, the bark of weapons from the beleaguered supply column became steadily softer. By the middle of the afternoon, only a dozen Marines remained alive in the vehicles, some of them seriously wounded, while another five were sprawled out in the rice paddies. They had only one machine gun that still worked. Lack of radio communications left them bereft of either air or artillery support.
Perceiving that American firepower had dwindled, a North Vietnamese deputy company commander summoned additional soldiers to wipe out what was left of the Marines. Organized into three-man cells, the assault troops received instructions to climb onto the vehicles and kill the occupants. Although the North Vietnamese commander could have sent 100 or more soldiers to attack at once, he instead opted to send them forward in small groups. No record of the battle explains this fateful decision; most likely it resulted from the cautiousness that typically induces commanders to probe the enemy with small units rather than commit large forces simultaneously.
Had the North Vietnamese attacked in strength from multiple directions, they undoubtedly would have overrun the Marines. By approaching piecemeal, they permitted the Americans to concentrate their limited fire. With the instinctive tenacity of men on the verge of extinction, the small band of Marine defenders unleashed well-aimed bursts of bullets at each three-man cell that came near the Marine Amtracs and tanks.
Some of the North Vietnamese soldiers reached the American vehicles, but none were able to overpower the Marines. According to a North Vietnamese history, “When 1st Cell charged, all of its men were killed. Then 2nd Cell charged, and all of its men were killed as well. 3rd Cell launched its assault and suffered heavy losses. The following cells continued to run up next to the vehicles, but they were unable to climb up onto the vehicles because the enemy vehicles were very tall and very slippery. When some of our men managed to climb up on an enemy vehicle, they were killed or wounded by fire from the other enemy vehicles.”
When dusk came, the Marines were still alive. There was, however, no sign of the relief forces that should have arrived by now. After dark, the Marines kept their fingers on their triggers in expectation of a night assault by the North Vietnamese. It never came, for the North Vietnamese had decided to depart the area during the night. The next morning, an American aircraft would spot the isolated Marines and guide Marine ground forces to their rescue.
The North Vietnamese forces on the other sections of the battlefield also disengaged at day’s end. The regimental headquarters ordered the 40th and 60th battalions to leave Van Tuong because of the severe losses of life they had incurred during the day. As a result of the unexpected twists and turns in the fighting, some of the American units did not end the day in the places that had been planned, leaving gaps in the American cordon through which enemy soldiers could slip. Some of the survivors from the 40th and 60th battalions escaped from Van Tuong through these gaps, while others fled through an intricate tunnel system. The Americans spotted one group of 100 men trying to flee by boat, and the main guns of the USS Orleck and USS Galveston riddled them with heavy shells. A similarly sized group was fleeing overland when the Americans sighted them in the open and summoned Marine aircraft to plaster them with napalm and rockets.
The headquarters of the North Vietnamese Army’s 1st Regiment did not, however, intend to end the battle. Its 45th battalion, which had been informed of the fighting and was on its way to Van Tuong, received orders to attack the Marines upon reaching the village. At 0200, with all the soldiers of the 45th Battalion present at Van Tuong, the battalion’s officers reported their men ready for combat. When regimental officers inspected the battalion, however, they determined that it was not yet ready. If the attack were delayed to complete the necessary preparations, the inspectors said, the battalion could get caught in open terrain by U.S. firepower after sunrise, to devastating effect. The acting regimental commander therefore decided to abort the attack and evacuate the entire regiment from the area.
During searches of the battlefield the next day, the Marines found the corpses of 614 enemy combatants. Interrogations of prisoners revealed that the 60th Battalion had been almost completely destroyed and the 40th Battalion had been badly damaged. From the stench that persisted on the battlefield long afterward and from evidence that demolitions and air and artillery strikes had killed or trapped additional soldiers in bunkers and tunnels, the Marines estimated total enemy fatalities to be 1,430.
The North Vietnamese high command deemed the magnitude of its losses at Van Tuong to be nothing less than calamitous. Henceforth, it decreed, conventional North Vietnamese units were prohibited from maintaining bases on the coastal plain. They would instead set up camp in rougher terrain in the country’s interior, where they could find better shelter from the boulder-crushing might of American air and artillery, and where they would be outside the range of American naval gunfire and amphibiously landed American battalions. From these base areas, they could march to the coast for offensive operations when the time was right.
U.S. Marine losses in Operation Starlite totaled 45 dead and 203 wounded. American officers who had witnessed previous battles as advisers to the South Vietnamese Army would not have been surprised that the Marines suffered this many casualties in such a battle. The price in blood was, however, higher than had been expected by newly arrived Marines, unfamiliar as they were with the enemy’s tactical proficiency and tenacity.
A Cultural Aptitude for War
Operation Starlite had showcased most of the advantages that the U.S. military had brought with it to South Vietnam. Sophisticated intelligence equipment and techniques had pinpointed the forces of an elusive enemy. Helicopters, ships, amphibious vehicles, and ground vehicles had transported thousands of American troops to advantageous positions on the battlefield. Through radio communications and visual signals, American ground forces had rapidly directed the firepower of helicopter gunships, fixed-wing strike aircraft, and artillery tubes at enemy troops and fortifications.
The American strengths were not merely technological. The young American men who wielded weapons in Operation Starlite were products of a culture that had developed an aptitude for war over thousands of years. Western Civilization had been carried to the American continent by the Englishmen who began settling there in the 17th century and was revised, nationalized, and institutionalized during the break from the English motherland. Protestantism had shaped every aspect of American culture, including those that the rest of the world deemed peculiarly American, such as rugged individualism and workaholism.
The giant hands of geography and climate had also helped sculpt the American nation and its approach to war as well as giving each of its regions unique cultural contours. Migrations across the harsh western frontier had fostered a spirit of pragmatic innovation, a readiness to use overwhelming force to resolve disputes, and a contempt for intellectuals and distant politicians and other would-be elites. The Americans who set down in the vast flatlands of the Midwest had developed, in the sedentary diligence of agricultural life, pronounced habits of moderation, agreeableness, and provincialism. Along the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards, the oceans had drawn Americans toward seafaring, trade, international travel, and foreign ideas. In the south, the need for agricultural labor capable of withstanding pestilence and heat had driven the importation of slaves from Africa, resulting ultimately in the region’s devastation in the Civil War. That epochal event had ended slavery but had done little to change the white south’s hostility to racial egalitarianism or its fondness for the use of force.
Only just now, 100 years after the Civil War, was the white population of the United States beginning to integrate blacks into its society, and nowhere was that effort progressing as swiftly as in the military. In prior times of war, the U.S. armed forces had made cohesive fighting units from assorted young men of German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Mexican, Chinese, and Polynesian ethnicities, relying upon the rigors and tribulations of military service to strengthen the bonds of common national identity. Now the U.S. armed forces were adding blacks into the military melting pot. Colin Powell, who served two tours in Vietnam and later became the first black to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state, recalled that the military appealed to him as a young man because its meritocracy and indifference to racial and ethnic identity provided blacks unparalleled opportunities for advancement and leadership. “You could not name, in those days, another profession where black men routinely told white men what to do and how to do it,” Powell recounted.
The Americans of the 1960s differed by region in their attitudes toward trade, diplomacy, government spending, and war, but they were unified by their faith in God and country. While 97 percent of Americans surveyed in 1965 believed in God, and 93 percent identified themselves as Christian, only 2 percent did not identify with a religion. Three in four Americans believed in life after death, an especially important belief for Americans preparing to wage war. Polling companies did not produce surveys on patriotic sentiment in 1965, but by all accounts national pride was high. Americans young and old shared a common respect for the Founding Fathers, Paul Revere, the Constitution, the American flag, Davy Crockett, D-Day, and apple pie.
The young men of the 1960s had been reared on America’s struggles, sacrifices, and triumphs in World War II. As boys, they had found role models in the movies of John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, the books of Audie Murphy and Richard Tregaskis, and the stories of fathers and uncles who had fought in Europe or the Pacific. They had spent holidays watching veterans parade down Main Street, wearing uniforms and medals that testified to patriotism and manliness. Many of them volunteered for the military because they considered it a duty and an honor for a man to risk his life for his country. That sentiment was particularly strong in the west and south, owing to the high esteem for the military among the descendants of frontiersmen and Confederates, though it could also be found in regions where martial culture was less in evidence. Among the young men who were not excited enough about automatic weapons and jungle combat to join the armed forces voluntarily, some entered the military through conscription, which had been introduced in 1940 and had continued at reduced levels during the periods of peace before and after the Korean War.
Americans were also united in their confidence that their political principles transcended ethnic and cultural boundaries and were worthy of adoption in every corner of the world. They differed on whether the United States should actively coerce others into adoption or only seek to persuade them, but that was mainly a detail for government officials to work out. Although the attention of the American people to international affairs had been known to wane in times of tranquility, Americans came together to launch overseas expeditions in the face of mortal threats. In the middle of the 1960s, international Communism was widely recognized as such a threat by liberals as well as conservatives, Democrats as well as Republicans. Few had voiced objections when Lyndon Johnson began deploying a massive expeditionary force to Vietnam in the first half of 1965.
National zeal made it possible to mobilize Americans for large military ventures on the other side of the world. During America’s rise to global primacy in the first half of the 20th century and the ensuing interventions in Korea and Vietnam, the United States had shown that it could project military power farther, faster, and in greater quantities than any nation or empire in history. The U.S. military did not always have as much finesse as its opponents, but it always had more weapons thanks to its gigantic industrial base. When faced with opponents of considerable willpower and capabilities, such as the Germans and Japanese in World War II, the United States could overpower them by weight of numbers, and perseverance.
The actions of the Americans at Van Tuong reflected the cultural norms of the U.S. military, many of which had been transposed from civilian society. American officers made sound decisions on the battlefield because they had been chosen based on merit rather than social status or personal connections. American troops heeded the orders of officers because military training had imbued them with respect for authority. The ability of American personnel to operate sophisticated equipment depended upon behaviors and skills that had been inculcated through education and training. It was prolonged training in tactics and weapons that enabled the American ground units at Van Tuong to fight effectively when air power and artillery could not be summoned.