Fifty years ago today, August 18, 1965, the US Marines launched Operation Starlite, the first time the Marines took the offensive in Vietnam. Since March, when two battalions of Marines came ashore on the beaches near Da Nang, the Corps’ role had been strictly defensive, mostly protecting American air fields and personnel bases, as well as securing Vietnamese hamlets.
But that began to change when, on 15 August, ARVN Major General M Nguyen Chanh Thi alerted Marine Lieutenant General Lewis W. Walt that a Viet Cong defector had reported that the 1st Viet Cong Regiment was in the village of Van Tuong, just south of the new Marine base at Chu Lai, planning to attack the Marines. Marine intelligence had been eyeing a VC build up since July, and corroborated the defector’s story. General Walt saw the opportunity to preemptively break up the Viet Cong assault by closing with them in an open battle.
To spearhead the attack, Walt picked the two battalions at the Chu Lai base: the 3d Bn, Third Marine Regiment, and the 2d Bn, 4th Marines, aka “The Magnificent Bastards.” In addition, the 3d Bn, 7th Marines from the Special Landing Force (SLF) were ordered immediately to weigh anchor in the Philippines and steam for Vietnam. With only two days for planning, the 3rd Marine Division staff worked around the clock to pull together the operation orders. It’s said that during a power outage a clerk, working by candlelight, mistyped the original name for the operation, “Satellite” as “Starlite,” and in the way of the military the name stuck.
On the morning of 18 August, the 3d Bn came ashore, marking the opening of Starlite. Meanwhile the 4th Marines were choppered into three landing zones west of Van Tuong. Secrecy was of the utmost importance. Even General Thi insisted that no ARVN commander was told about the operation. As a result the Viet Cong were caught by surprise, something that would rarely happen again during the war.
Still the fighting grew fierce. Hotel Company from the 4th Marines found itself dropped into the middle of the 60th VC Battalion, who put up a ferocious defense. After letting the first wave of assault choppers land, they opened up on the succeeding waves.
They were only defeated when US Army UH-lB gunships were called in. Ordered to establish a defensive perimeter, Hotel
hunkered down and awaited reinforcements. However, those reinforcements were diverted to rescue an ambushed supply column. With the situation deteriorating, the 3d Bn was called in from the USS Iwo Jima, but caught in an ambush of their own when they tried to rescue a trapped LVT.
Near the village of An Cuong 2, Corporal Robert Emmett O'Malley from Woodside, Queens, was leading his squad in an assult on a VC trench. When the unit came under intense small arms fire, O’Malley single-handedly raced across open ground to attach the trench with his rifle and grenades, killing eight enemy. He then lead his squad to the assistance of another Marine unit that was pinned down. He helped evacuate the wounded, and when ordered to leave, gathered the remains of his squad and led the to the landing zone. He continually refused to evacuate himself while he provided cover for his men as they boarded the choppers, all while being wounded in the arms, legs and chest from mortar fragments. Only when his men were loaded did he join them.
Meanwhile, in 2d Bn, Corporal Joe Paul’s platoon was pinned down and taking heavy casualties by a barrage of mortar and rifle fire, as well as attacks with white phosphorus rifle grenades. Almost certainly knowing that he would be killed, Corporal Paul dashed across a rice paddy and put himself directly between the VC and his squad. He delivered suppressive fire long enough for the squad to withdraw, then continued at his position until he was wounded, collapsed and evacuated. He died of his wounds the next day.
Both Corporal O’Malley and Paul earned the Medal of Honor that day, becoming the first Marines to do so in Vietnam.
When nightfall finally came the Marines hunkered down and readied for a dawn assault. But by then most of the Viet Cong pulled out, though pockets of resistance remained. On the 19th, the Marines faced sporadic gunfire as the Viet Cong covered their retreat. The operation continued for five more days as the Marines, now joined by ARVN troops, conducted village-by-village searches. When it was over, both side claimed victory. The Marines reported that they had killed more than 600 Viet Cong and captured 9, while sustaining 46 killed and 203 wounded. The Viet Cong claimed that they had survived a battle with one of the US’s most ferocious forces.
The seven days of Operation Starlite marked the beginning of US offensive ground operations in Vietnam, and showed what a determined foe they faced. The Marines would be in Vietnam for another 10 years. For a history of the next phase of their war, and a comparison with their adversary, read US Marine vs NVA Soldier: Vietnam 1967-68 (Combat 13) by David R. Higgins.
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