A Call for Marines, 1965

EGA 2014-002The official mission of the United States Marine Corps is to serve as an expeditionary force in readiness, as outlined within the National Security Act of 1947, with three primary areas of responsibility: Seize or defend advanced naval bases and other land operations in support of naval campaigns, the development of tactics, techniques, and equipment used for amphibious operations in coordination with the Army and Air Force, and to fulfill such other duties as the President of the United States may direct.

Given the fact that the President of the United States is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States, that last clause (above) may appear to some as a redundant mission, but “…other duties as the President may direct” has been specifically addressed to the Marines since 1798, reaffirmed in 1834 and 1951. The Marine Corps has more often than not performed combat operations of a non-naval nature since Tripoli, the War of 1812, the battle at Chapultepec, numerous campaigns in Central America and the Caribbean, during World War I, and the Korean War. The common thread for each of these is that the President of the United States ordered the Marines to perform them —but of course, this was back when we still had a commander in chief.

The Marines, as with its sister service the U. S. Navy and other branches of the Armed Forces, continually develop, review, exercise, and modify (as necessary) various contingency operations plans at locations throughout the entire world. It is this process of operational planning that enables Marine Corps commands to “execute” combat operations within a short time frame once the national command authority that combat operations are necessary. This is what happened in 1965 —sort of.

9th MABIn January 1965, Fleet Marine Force headquarters placed the 3rd Marine Division (Okinawa) on alert status. Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch, a veteran of several amphibious operations during World War II, was then serving as the Assistant Division Commander of the 3rd Marine Division, was detailed to form a brigade around the 9th Marine Regiment, designated 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade [1]. In 1965, the 9th MAB consisted of 1st Battalion, 9th Marines and 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines —both of which were at sea with the US Navy’s Task Force 76, then called an amphibious ready group (ARG).

Five months following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Lyndon Johnson [2] was still struggling with having to make a decision about the US role in South Vietnam. A flurry of messages between Washington, Hawaii, and Saigon served to confuse the alert status of the Marines. By the end of January, General Westmoreland (Commanding the Military Advisory Command, Vietnam) requested that Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp [3] (Commander in Chief, Pacific) support him by stationing the US Seventh Fleet off the coast of Vietnam for an extended period. With nearly forty years service in the Navy, Admiral Sharp knew better than most that the only thing gained from keeping Marines penned up aboard ship is that it makes them testy. Accordingly, Admiral Sharp declined Westmoreland’s request, offering instead a 72-hour window.

Meanwhile, General Karch was flying back and forth between Okinawa, the Special Landing Force Camp at Subic Bay, and Saigon attempting to plan training exercises in Thailand, and concurrently, making final plans for possible combat operations in Vietnam.

In early February, Viet Cong forces attacked a US compound at Pleiku in the Central Highlands. They killed nine Americans, wounded 128, and damaged or destroyed 122 aircraft. Higher authority ordered the Marines to station a battery of HAWK missiles at Đà Nẵng as part of a defense shield. The movement of one battery was no easy task; it required 27 aircraft to move personnel and equipment from Okinawa to Đà Nẵng.

Operational reappraisals were occurring almost by the minute in Washington, Hawaii, and Saigon. President Johnson sent a delegation to Vietnam to confer with Westmoreland and Ambassador Maxwell D. Taylor and determine the feasibility of airstrikes against North Vietnam and the likely impact on the communists operating in RVN. It was McGeorge Bundy’s recommendation that Lyndon Johnson develop a “sustained reprisal policy.” And, whereas Westmoreland earlier concluded that the introduction of combat forces would only make matters worse in Vietnam, the Pleiku attack seemed to suggest that the insurgency had taken a new direction.

The internal power struggles continued in South Vietnam; no one was quite sure who was in charge of the government in any given hour of the day. President Johnson decided in mid-February to approve a “limited and measured” air campaign against the North Vietnamese, which the US military would refer to as ROLLING THUNDER. General Westmoreland made up his mind about the number of ground troops needed to defend the air base at Đà Nẵng. He submitted a request to the JCS on 22 February for a 3-battalion Marine brigade. By this time, General Karch and two battalions were afloat off the coast of Vietnam. At the end of the month, President Johnson approved a two-battalion brigade with the mission to protect Đà Nẵng airbase from enemy intrusion.

Brigadier General Karch met with General Westmoreland on 25 February 1965 to discuss the plan for a Marine landing at Đà Nẵng. Two days later, Karch met with the Vietnamese I Corps commander, Major General Nguyễn Chánh Thi (the virtual warlord of South Vietnam’s five northern-most provinces). As Karch and Westmoreland’s operations officer, Brigadier General William E. DuPuy were arriving at Thi’s headquarters, he noticed the presence of a New York Times reporter within the compound. DuPuy told Karch, “This is not a good sign.” Moments later, a phone call from Saigon ordered DuPuy, “Get Karch and his staff out of Vietnam as soon as possible.”

Karch and his staff returned to Subic Bay, and then flew back to Okinawa. I can see everyone in Karch’s party scratching their heads and muttering obscenities. At about the same time as this was taking place, the US Department of State cabled Ambassador Taylor and ordered him to seek RVN’s pre-approval for a Marine landing. For two days, Taylor wrangled with various Vietnamese officials. Some of these had no objection to the employment of Marines at Đà Nẵng, but voicing concern for the reaction of local citizens, the official request was that the Marines come ashore “inconspicuously.”

I served as a Marine for 3 decades; in all that time, I never saw an inconspicuous amphibious landing. The RVN demand caused US officials in Washington to reconsider using the Marines at all. Instead, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton suggested using the 173rd Airborne Brigade. It could land at Đà Nẵng in the middle of the night and, in the absence of tanks, amphibian tractors, heavy weapons, and a bad case of attitude, no one would even know the brigade had arrived.

To their credit, both Westmoreland and Taylor objected to the employment of a light infantry brigade: the Marines were self-sustaining and had participated in the development of Operation Plan 32 (Vietnam) and a number of related contingencies, since 1959. Admiral Sharp sent a message to the JCS that might have sounded a bit like this: “The Commanding General, 9th MAB is already at Đà Nẵng, for Christ Sake!” By 7 March, the national command authority overruled all previous objections to landing Marines in Vietnam. The way was clear —the war was on.

Should anyone wonder if there is a point to this essay, it is only this: to illustrate why the Vietnam War had such an unhappy ending for the United States. Defensive strategies always do.



[1] In the Marine Corps, brigades are non-permanent organizations tasked for specific missions. The size of a Marine Brigade may vary from two battalion landing teams to two regiments, with aviation and logistical support units attached. Today, the term “expeditionary” replaces the term “amphibious.”

[2] During World War II, Lyndon Johnson asked for, and received, a naval reserve commission as a lieutenant commander. Initially relegated to inspecting navy shipyards in Texas and Louisiana, Franklin Roosevelt decided to use Johnson to spy on Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific. From this sojourn emerged several interesting fairy tales about Johnson having been attacked by the Japanese, but none of these has any greater credibility than the imagined attacks against Hillary Clinton during a taxpayer funded junket to the Middle East. Some claim that Lyndon Johnson was the model for a fictional character Commander Neal Owynn (played by Patrick O’Neal) in the Otto Preminger film In Harms Way.

[3] Admiral Sharp was highly critical of US policy in the Vietnam War. In 1969 he authored an article titled We could have won in Vietnam Long Ago, and in 1978 he published a book titled Strategy for Defeat: Vietnam in Retrospect.

22 thoughts on “A Call for Marines, 1965”

  1. And while all this was going on, the American public was reading the newspapers (then a powerful news source) and watching television all the time wondering what was going on. It is all so long ago, and yet, the memories of those times are still vivid.

  2. LBJ , made an instant LtCmdr in the Naval Reserve, was given the Siver Star Medal for flying as an observer in an Army Air Corps bomber. Any act of valor, gallanty or conspicuous bravery was not observed. The other members of the crew of the bomber received no awards. Rumors suggest that General MacArthur ordered the award presented to get young Congrssman LBJ off his back. LBJ had the classless can’t to wear the small metal Silver Star Medal ribbon in his suit lapel for nearly the rest of his life. A bully, a self-server, a phony…and a lousy Commander in Chief. Note: LBJ’s “heroism” took place during WW II. He only served very briefly in uniform and was back safely in Congress.

    1. @Tad…”He only served very briefly in uniform and was back safely in Congress”. Perhaps John Kerry was confused by this? Maybe it wasn’t JFK he emulated in his little sojourn in Nam…I’m thinking he looks more and more like LBJ each day. Still a coward and a traitor though…our Sec of State is.

    2. remember-LBJ- decreed the 401 C3 to silence criticism of his un Constitutional ‘decrees’–and= he was a known pervert— other than that – he was a “good man” —

      As to the officers= their OATH DOES NOT include the word PRESIDENT~!!!
      It Does include the word CONSTITUTION!!!!!
      When are our OFFICERS going to honor their OATH>>>>
      PS – I have had enough of Un-Constitutional actions>>>>>

  3. I wish I understood all of this better…I have no clue about this type of thing …….you say ‘defensive’ in relation to the following? “….because the Viet Cong hitIn early February, Viet Cong forces attacked a US compound at Pleiku in the Central Highlands. They killed nine Americans, wounded 128, and damaged or destroyed 122 aircraft. Higher authority ordered the Marines to station a battery of HAWK missiles at Đà Nẵng as part of a defense shield. The movement of one battery was no easy task; it required 27 aircraft to move personnel and equipment from Okinawa to Đà Nẵng.” ?

    1. LBJ sent the Armed Forces to Vietnam to “defend” the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). This decision tied the hands of military commanders —by which I mean LBJ restricted our military to a defensive posture. No army can win by remaining on the defensive.

      In effect, LBJ gave the initiative to North Vietnam by relegating US forces to a defensive posture. We did our best to counter the NVA and VC elements, but they did have an edge in the following areas: surprise, tempo of operations, when and where to concentrate their forces, and flexibility. We did our best to aggress the enemy, but in many cases we fought the battles on their terms, not ours. We also ended up fighting the war in the backyard of our ally; we blew up his agriculture, we poisoned his water, we dropped carcinogens on our friends. Today in southern Vietnam, the rate of cancer is unbelievable. We should have been fighting the war in North Vietnam.

      At the end of the war, the North Vietnamese were on the brink of giving up the fight (this according to General Vo Nguyen Giap). We were winning this “war of attrition,” but then we suddenly quit the fight and went home. General Vo could not believe it. Many of us today still wonder … why we gave up so many good men for nothing. We wonder why we have to get involved in wars that no one inside our government is prepared to win.

    2. Does it never work to DEFEND other countries? Seems like America’s done a lot of that, but when I think about it we didn’t really DEFEND the Jews in WWII, we were also AT WAR with Germany….for example?
      Many servicemen say we HAD won the Vietnam war, or could have….and are devastated that we closed shop when we did. I guess the Left really brought that on, right? Walter Cronkite, etc.??

    3. The best way to defend (France, Belgium, Holland, England) is by attacking Germany. The best way to defend South Korea is by attacking North Korea, the aggressor. The best way to defend South Vietnam was by attacking North Vietnam, the aggressor … (although there is room for a debate about who the aggressor actually was in the Vietnam War).
  4. I heard several years ago that the Marines also considered the “preponderance of force” issue to insure they had a major command in VN. My source also said that just prior to the division landing there was a cable to call it off. Somehow it was not delivered unti after the fact. Thus the Marines got their Air-Land team in and had more boots than any other service.
    In any event, LBJ was terrible and powerful. We know the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a put up job – the Navy refused to confirm the action.
    And so it goes …
    Excellent post, Mustang

  5. OK – as to Vietnam and et cl- my comment above fits here:

    remember-LBJ- decreed the 401 C3 to silence criticism of his un Constitutional ‘decrees’–and= he was a known pervert— other than that – he was a “good man” —

    As to the officers= their OATH DOES NOT include the word PRESIDENT~!!!
    It Does include the word CONSTITUTION!!!!!
    When are our OFFICERS going to honor their OATH>>>>
    PS – I have had enough of Un-Constitutional actions>>>>>

    1. Carol, you are correct to say that the oath of office does not mention the President. For commissioned and warrant officers of the Armed Forces, the oath of office reads as follows:

      I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

      However, actual commissions, warrants, and appointments do include the following charge:

      And I do strictly charge and require those Officers and other personnel of lesser rank to render such obedience as is due an officer of this grade and position. And this Officer is to observe and follow such orders and directives, from time to time, as may be given by me, or the future President of the United States of America, or other Superior Officers acting in accordance with the laws of the United States of America.

      Accordingly, an officer’s obedience to the orders of the President is required.

  6. The more I hear about lbj the more he sounds like obama in that his ignorance is only exceeded by his arrogance.

    I’ve never won a chess game playing defensively.

  7. You learn something new every day. I never knew “May He Forever Rot In Hell” Johnson struggled with having to make a decision about the US role in South Vietnam. I always thought he was hot to trot on the deal… too much money to be made. War is a good business. I never knew that anyone ever had any respect for Westmoreland, either.

    1. I am unable to reply directly to Mustang’s comment due to WordPress but I do feel they died – and you all endured – for something better in the end…

  8. The American liberal press was complicit with the enemy during the Vietnam War. I was in college back in those days. Anti-military spewing every night on the evening news.

  9. Thank you Mustang- I must ask- by which President and when– were the “…actual commissions, warrants, and appointments…” added to the OATH?

    I do know that the enlisted OATH does contain the word President–
    I was given the impression that the Officer Oath protected US citizens against an internal usurpation of our military by a tyrannous presidential ‘regime’

    1. I have answered with a rather long email, my friend. I hope it clears the matter up for you.

  10. Best defense …. a good offense. The last defensive posture (I know about) that succeeded was Jean de Valette at Malta, 1565. It certainly didn’t work for the French at Dien Bien Phu, now did it. Great point about carrying the war to your enemy. Many lessons to apply TODAY.

    Mustang, I don’t believe I’ve responded to an FB post, but lately I’ve dropped and enjoyed several, particularly the one about the chaplain in Viet Nam. A blog is a lot of work. Thanks.

  11. Somehow, I believe in your footnote that Owynn was a depiction of LBJ. I dislike the civilian mindset ultimately controlling the military but so be it.

    As an American, I believe the US Marine Corps is the best offensive weapon in the world, even in its diminished budgetary and quantitative state due to the idiocy and misguided beliefs of our Islamic loving President. As always, if called to attack, they will make do with what they got.

    I wonder, sir, how you would feel today as a learned officer if you were called to active duty today… but I’m sure you will do your duty.

    An eye-opening bit of history, Mustang.

    1. I would not hesitate to don the uniform once more, Koji … and I think I keep myself in pretty good shape for just such an eventuality. To be honest, however, this country would have to be in deep shit for them to recall someone pushing 70.

      I agree with you about the “best offensive” weapon, but of course that weapon has to be appropriately employed, and properly maintained. Our Marines deserve the best leadership, and they sure aren’t getting it from that crew inside the beltway.

      Thank you for stopping by once more …

Comments are closed.