FROM: CG III MAF
TO : III MAFF
311TH AIR COMMANDO SQ DANANG
315TH AIR DIV TACHIKAWA
I CORPS ADVISORY GROUP
7TH AIRLIFT PLAT I CORPS AVNCO (PROV)
220TH AVN CO DANANG
USS IWO JIMA
USS POINT DEFIANCE
USS VERNON COUNTY
UNCLAS E F T C
1. TWO DAYS AGO A VC REGIMENT WAS DECIMATED AT BAN TUONG [VAN TUONG] BY A SURPRISE AMPHIBIOUS/HELICOPTER ASSAULT. THIS SIGNIF- CANT DEFEAT OF A TOUGH WELL-ARMED, FANATICAL ENEMY IS A TRIBUTE TO THE PROFESSIONAL SKILL, CONSUMATE COURAGE, AND TEAM- WORK OF ALL WHO PARTICIPATED, AND IS A BRIGHT NEW CHAPTER IN THE ANNULS OF OUR COUNTRY'S HISTORIC BATTLES AGAINST THE ENEMIES OF FREEDOM. LET US NOT FORGET THAT THIS WAS A VICTORY TO WHICH ALL SERVICES AND OUR VIETNAMESE COMRADES HAVE CONTRIBUTED. NAVY SHIPS AND NAVAL GUNFIRE, ARMY AVIATION, AND THE AIR FORCE ALL PLAYED THEIR PART AS WELL. THE RESULT WAS A VICTORY WHICH HAS PROMPTED OUR PRESIDENT TO EXTEND HIS HEARTFELT CONGRATULATIONS AND THANKS AND TO EXPRESS THE PRIDE OF THE NATION IN ITS FIGHTING SONS. WHILE WE HAVE HAD FRIENDS AND COMRADES FALL IN THIS BATTLE THEY DIED IN A GREAT CAUSE.... THE PRESERVATION OF FREEDOM IN THIS WORLD. THERE IS NO BETTER CAUSE. WELL DONE TO ALL MARINES, THE U.S. AND VIETNAMESE SOLDIERS, SAILORS, AND AIRMEN WHO PARTICIPATED.
CG III MAF 210634Z AUG 65
(Transcribed by Ed NICHOLLS, STARLITE SURVIVOR's ASSOC.,
archievist, Kendall Co., TX, 1993)
Unfortunately the same could not be said for the helo assault. Co. G, landing at LZ RED, quickly tied in with Mike 3/3, further closing the cordon that guarded the area. Co. E, 2/4, together with FISHER's staff, touched down on LZ WHITE and pressed straight ahead. Soon the infantrymen ran into stiff opposition from Viet Cong entrenched on a ridgeline that traversed east and northeast of the LZ. After some heavy fighting, the leathernecks dislodged the insurgents from the hilly terrain. At one point, Echo Co., 2/4, observed a large group of Viet Cong, estimated to be about 100 strong, moving in the open. Taking advantage of this opportunity, a fire mission was requested and a 107mm "Howtar-" Battery (4.2-inch mortars mounted on a 75mm howitzer frame; hence the nickname of "Howtar") was flown to Mike 3/3's location to carry out that order. In a matter of minutes, over 90 Viet Cong lay dead. Col. FISHER himself was heli-lifted over the area and confirmed the body count.
As E and C [I&K] were enjoying substantial gains, Co. H 2/4 set down on LZ BLUE and formed a hasty defence. The surroundings were a hodgepodge of rice paddies, streams, hedgerows and small wooded thickets approximately one kilometer square in size boardered by the villages of An Thuong 2 on the north, Nam Yen 3 on the south and An Cuong 2 to the East. At first everything appeared normal in the tranquil atmosphere, but as the second wave of choppers dropped off the Marines, the sharp crack of Viet Cong snipers filled the air.
LCpl Jimmy BROOKS, a tall, amiable Southerner they called "The Buzzard" tumbled off the noisy "bird". Thinking he had tripped, a Marine rushed to his aid. As the individual cradeled him in his arms, he noticed a gaping hole where the bullet had exited his back. BROOKS died later. There was a scurry for cover as the volume of fire grew in intensity. A door gunner had his jaw ripped off. One sergeant caught a round in the throat. Capt. Howard B. HENRY, a pilot from HMM-361, later recalled: "You just have to close your eyes and drop down to the deck".
Unknown to the Marines, they had stumbled upon the headquarters of the 60th VC Battalion! Hill 43, a small rise to the east of LZ BLUE, seemed to be the likely source of the painfully accurate fire. Three UH-1B Huey gunships swung into action against the enemy pinning them down.
First Lt. Homer K. JENKINS, Hotel Co. Cdr, was in the dark as to the size of the enemy unit he was facing. Consequently, he dispatched one platoon to take hill 43 and the rest of the company to proceed to Nam Yen 3 to backtrack to hill 43 for a concentrated effort at securing the enemy stronghold.
While jet aircraft from VMFA-513 and VMFA-342 pummeled the slopes of and summit of Hill 43, the "grunts" prepared themselves to attack the small knoll. As soon as the planes peeled off, the riflemen began their frontal assault to push the Viet Cong off the rise. Coupled with tanks and continued air sorties, the gyrenes scattered their pajama-clad foe from their emplacements. Numerous enemy bodies were strewn throughout the zone of action, and JENKIN's men collected over 40 weapons.
Forced to halt their advance while the Skyhawks and Phantoms were hammering the Communists on hill 43, the leader of Co. I,3/3, Cpt. Bruce D. WEBB, radioed for permission to move on to An Cuong 2 and make contact with Co. H,2/4. An Cuong 2 was a heavily fortified hamlet and WEBB's unit was receiving automatic weapons fire from the ville. The terrain was ideal for an ambush as "An Cuong 2, itself, consisted of 25-30 huts, fighting holes and camouflaged trench lines connected by a system of interlocking tunnels". Given the go-ahead by PEATROSS, India Company probed the first few hootches when a grenade was tossed at the Marines. Killed in the explosion was WEBB. For his leadership, he was awarded the NAVY CROSS posthumously. Without warning, several mortor rounds fell among the infantrymen
inflicting further casualties.
Taking charge, Lt. Richard M. PURNELL resumed the attack and overran the tiny village killing 50 of the enemy. Upon its completion, PURNELL was told to wheel his company around and reinforce Co. K,3/3, hotly engaged with the Viet Cong near Phase Line BANANA, 2000 meters to the northeast[*].
Just as PURNELL's men were departing An Cuong 2, a gunship from VMO-2 (Marine Observation Squdron) crashed northeast of the hamet as a result of small-arms fire. Transmitting the information to the CP, MUIR ordered the young Lt. to use a squad, augmented by three tanks, to guard the downed chopper. In the distance, the leathernecks of Hotel 2/4 could be seen advancing in their direction. PURNELL informed this group to attach themselves to JENKINs command as soon as they reached them. But, on this day, the Magnificent Bastards" would not reach their destination.
Late in the morining, Hotel riflemen left Hill 43 and crept slowly eastward heading for Nan Yen 3 following the Ontos and tanks. Mistakingly thinking that India 3/3 had just cleared the ville, JENKINS intended to bypass it. As the strung-out company reached an open rice paddie sandwiched between Nam Yen 3 and An Cuong 2, the 60th Battalion let loose a broadside upon the unexpecting Marines. The sides of the grass huts fell down, revealing hidden machine guns-nests nestled in the hootches. This strategic junction separating 3/3 from 2/4 was honeycombed trenches, underground bunkers and spider holes. GySgt Victor NUNEZ remembers vividly: "As we came nearer, snipers opened up and then all of a sudden all hell broke loose. It seemed a whole damn divison of VC was out there waiting for us. Those bastards had us zeroed in [with] machine guns, mortatrs, recoilless rifles rocket-propelled grenades, and I
don't know what else. [I] saw alot of our guys get hit... the Co, CP was hit hard too... our Co. Gy was killed too."
The Marines were fighting for their lives. Unable to maneuver in the thick mud of the rice paddies, the armor was drawn into a tight circle, western style. JENKINS sent one squad to the northwest corner of Nam Yen 3 try to outflank the enemy. After knocking out a VC mortar crew, the Marines themselves boxed in. Placing the wounded in a clearing to await the medivac choppers, they came under fire from the VC pouring automatic weapons fire from behind a line of dence hedgerows. LCpl Joe C. "J.C" PAUL, a 19 year-old baby-faced fire team leader, raced across a dried up rice paddie and logged himself between the enemy and his squad, delivering accurate fire to allow the helicopters to evacuate the wounded. Although, hit several times, PAUL continued his suppressive fire. He died while enroute to the hospital.He would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery.
JENKINS, in the meantime, ordered a withdrawl to LZ BLUE. To cover his retrograde movement, jets were summoned to rake Nam Yen 3 and hill 30, an undersized pimple north of An Cuong 2, where savage crossfire was coming from. By early afternoon, Hotel Co. was ready. However, the point Plt. veered off course as medevac "birds" attempted to land within the Company and take away the additional wounded. Isolated from the main body, the platoon luckily found India Companie's detail still at the wreckage of the Huey. Together this polyglot force decided to fight their way to An Cuong 2. As the vigilant "grunts" went forward, one machine gunner, LCpl Ernie WALLACE of Hotel Company, thought something seemed out of place with the trees nearby. Then it hit him like a thunderbolt: "Start killing trees," he screamed. The alert WALLACE had spotted VC guerrillas sitting on their haunches behind the shrubbery. Taken completely by surprise, every enemy soldier was killed as bullets whined and snapped into the treeline. WALLACE "fearlessly moved moved into an exposed position, firing his machinegun from the offhand position and assault positions at close range, delivering such devastating fire into the stunned adversary that he personally accounted for 25 dead enemy, allowing the squad to maneuver to a more advantageous area". He would receive the Navy Cross.
Heroism was commonplace rather than the exception. In action elsewhere, some Marines attacked enemy trenchlines. Private Sam BADNEK ran 45 yards through a murderous crossfire and flung grenades at VC emplacements. He too was awarded the Navy Cross. Corporal Richard TONUCCI and Pfc Ronal CENTERS wiped out a .50 caliber machine-gun nest by out flanking it and pitching grenades through an opening in the top of the bunker. They were both awarded Silver Stars. Nearby, Corporal Robert O'MALLEY, a squad leader with India Company 3/3, leaped into a trench alone and singlehandedly killed 8 Viet Cong caught completely unaware. Thrice wounded, the stubborn New Yorker steadfastly refused medical attention intil every Marine was treated and put aboard choppers. He would survive to have the Medal of Honor proudly draped around
Reaching LZ BLUE with the main body, JENKINS conversed with "Bull" FISHER via radio and was instructed to set up a tight defensive perimeter and hang on for reinforcements to bolster his depleted ranks. Unknown to both of them, the additional troops slated for them were experiencing difficulties of their own-they were ambushed 400 meters west of An Cuong 2. This mobile (LVT)["21"] Supply Column had gotten lost in the area of Nam yen 3 and An Thoi 2. As the lead vehicle went around a turn, a recoilless rifle round slammed into it. As the tank shudderd to an abrupt halt, mortars began to cascade upon the Marines. A hot firefight ensued. Maj. Andrew C. COMER, 3.3's Executive Officer, took the call for assistance:"The LVT operator kept the microphone button depressed the entire time and pleaded for help. "We were unable to quiet him sufficiently to gain essential information as to their location. This continued for an extended period, perhaps an hour."
LtCol MUIR, without hesitation, told COMER to "gather support" and "rescue them as rapidly as possible". Informed of the attack, PEATROSS deduced that the VC were attempting to drive a wedge between Hotel Company and the supply detachment to spearhead a drive upon the regimental CP at the beach. If successfull, the Marines would be caught with their backs to the sea. Gathering Co. I 3/3, one M-48 tank, an LVT and an Ontos, COMER started his sojourn to rescue the beleagured leathernecks. Fortunately, a staff sergeant, one of the flame-thrower tank operators of the first supply column, has broken through and reported he could guide COMER's party to the ambush area.
Approaching Hill 30, the tank took the lead. As it reached the top, a shell from a 57mm recoilless rifle stopped the clanking machine in its tracks. A traffic jam resulted and, as with the first column, this one too, was in serious trouble. COMER responded with air and artillery strikes on his hidden foe and the firing subsided after three hours of relentless combat, but
sporadic sniper rounds were everywhere. After the original supply group was saved and casualties cared for, COMER left India 3/3 at Hill 30 to safeguard the wounded. Moving on, the remainder of of his command entered An Cuong 2 and discovered the isolated platoon from JENKINS' company and the lone squad from India 3/3.
At this point, the Marines caught a fusillade from the Viet Cong stemming from a wooded area to their right. COMER later remarked:"...it was obvious I could not move the `B' group [the command group] in either direction....I radioed instructions to Lt. PURNELL to extricate the supply column as rapidly as he could, as I deemed that the most urgent matter."
PEATROSS, alarmed at the growing gravity of the situation, wanted to deploy the SLF positioned off shore. L.Gen. Victor H. "Brute" KRULAC, Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, had flown in to witness the progress of the operation as "rifle and recoilless rounds were flying around". Gen. KARCH, also there, told PEATROSS to have him (KRULAC) "obtain permission to employ 3/7." However, KRULAC's chopper was forced down with a bullet in its gas tank. Finally granted approval, Cpt. Ronald A. CLARK's Co. L, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, was heli-lifted from LPH IWO JIMA and put under MUIR's control. Without delay, CLARK's men were to be sent to boost COMER's band until they learned the supply column was out of immediate danger for the time being. So, the fresh unit was dispatched instead to Phase Line BANANA and tied in with Companies K
and L, 3/3, for the night. Close behind CLARK's riflemen were India and Mike Companies 3/7.
With the added manpower filtering in from the ships, the 60th Battalion finally broke contact and retreated. Throughout the night, the bright glare emmitted from the illumination shells from the destroyers in the South China Sea kept the terrain well lit for the jittery Marines huddled in their fighting holes. As one Marine can attest to: "During the night 3/7 landed and approached our lines with: "Please don't shoot, this is India 3/7 coming in..."
With supplementary forces at his disposal, PEATROSS could now breath a sigh of relief. He adjusted the battalion's boundries and took steps to complete the envelopment of the Viet Cong within the ring he had formed to crush them.
The following morning, August 19th, the SLF battalions departed the regimental CP headed for An Cuong 2. Meeting no resistance, the leathernecks reached the supply column survivors and established a barrior to hamper the escape of any fleeing Communist troops at An Thoi 2. Small pockets of Viet Cong remained, but the heavy combat was over. As
3/7 flushed stragglers from their spider holes and caves, the "Magnificent Bastards" of Hotel 2/4, after a harrowing 48 hours, were relieved, and boarded an LST for Chu Lai. Their part in Starlite was over. The remaining companies of FISHER's battalion, Echo and Golf, joined 3/7 to "squeeze the vise around the VC and drive them towards the sea". By
nightfall, 2/4 had completed its sweep of the Phuoc Thuan Peninsula.
General Walt issued orders to extend Starlite an additional five days to assure that all the enemy resistance had been terminated. Ltc KELLY's 1/7 was summoned from Chu Lai to preform this chore, while other battalions were transported back to resume their defensive work and have a much-needed rest. On August 24, at 2100 hours, Operation SARLITE officially ended.
Over 600 Viet Cong were killed during the week-long invasion of the 1st VC Regiment's lair. Some claim this figure was much higher because numerous caves and subterranean bunkers utilized by the enemy were sealed shut by the combat engineers. Also, over 100 weapons, the majority of Chinese and Russian make, were seized. The Marines sustained 45 dead and 203 wounded during the battle.
Certainly the fighting spirit of the leathernecks cannot be denied. When the situation appeared to be hopeless and confused, the infantrymen rose to the occasion and adapted magnificently, equaling their counterparts in World War II and Korea. Close air support also played a signifigant role in defeating the Viet Cong, as Gen. WALT later stated:"It was an
outstanding professional preformance of the highest order. Strafing was done within 200 feet of our pinned down troops....I have never seen a finer example of close air support."
Perhaps the entire exercise can best be summed up by Col. PETEROSS: “Three factors contributed to the success of STARLITE: Accurate information, speedy reaction to the information, and secrecy under which the operation was conducted. But, important as these factors are, the credit really belongs to the doctrine, tactics, techniques, and training
of the amphibious forces."
The Vietnam conflict was entering a new phase.
There would be many large-scale operations in the years to come. But STARLITE would have the distinction of being the first.
(fr Starlite Survivors, RVN, Assoc.)
3d Copy fr Burt HINSON, Aug 1996