Operation Starlite: The Marines Take the Offensive

When the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade came ashore near Da Nang in March 1965, they were strictly limited to defensive activities. In their landing order, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had directed that the U.S. Marine Force will not, repeat will not, engage in day-to-day actions against the Viet Cong. However, the Johnson administration had already determined that escalation of U.S. involvement was necessary and restrictions on Marine Corps activity would soon begin to be lifted.

At an April 1, 1965 meeting of the U.S. National Security Council, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized U.S. combat troops to go out on patrol with the aim of rooting out Viet Cong insurgents in the countryside, marking a shift from purely defensive ground-troop activity to the undertaking of offensive operations.

Search and Destroy

Institutional differences between the Army and the Marines surfaced in a debate over strategy, as the U.S. became militarily involved in Vietnam. The Army had trained to fight masses of Soviet tanks coming across the central German plain, or to resist an invasion like the one in Korea in 1950. The Marine Corps, with decades of experience in combating insurgencies, favored counterinsurgency operations with an emphasis on pacification of the rural countryside. William Westmoreland , the U.S. joint-service commander in Vietnam, was from the Army.

The search-and-destroy strategy was adopted in order to carry out a war of attrition in Vietnam. Restricted by President Johnson from carrying the ground war to North Vietnamese territory, Westmoreland elected to attempt to erode enemy war making ability by inflicting as many casualties as possible, to a point where they simply could not continue the war against the South Vietnamese government.

The Chu Lai Air Base

At an April 20 conference it was agreed to recommend deploying 42,000 additional U.S. servicemen to Vietnam, including 5,000 more Marines. These Marine forces were to construct a jet-capable airfield and base area at the port city of Chu Lai, situated about 85 kilometers southeast of Da Nang. The Da Nang Air Base was the first major airfield used by the U.S. Marine Corps in the Vietnam War. Heavy traffic caused by conventional ground forces arriving in Vietnam had created a need for a second airfield.

The Chu Lai airfield would be built according to a Marine Corps concept employing metal runways and taxi strips, called Short Airfield for Tactical Support (SATS). The SATS system had been developed to meet Marine Corps requirements for the rapid construction by Navy Seabees of short expeditionary airfields. These airfields were, in effect, land-based carrier decks, and the one at Chu Lai even had catapults and arresting gear, just like an aircraft carrier!

The Viet Cong Threat

Evidence showing a Viet Cong buildup in the area south of Chu Lai had been accumulating througout July. In mid-August, interrogation of a deserter revealed that the 1st Viet Cong Regiment was preparing to attack the American enclave at Chu Lai from a base they had established 12 miles to the south, in the Van Tuong village complex near the coast. The 1st VC Regiment was a thoroughly professional organization of battle-hardened fighters whose commander, Le Huu Tru, had led a regiment at the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Operation Starlite was conceived to nullify the Viet Cong threat to the Chu Lai Air Base and Base Area. In accordance with General Westmoreland's strategy of taking the fight to enemy main-force units in the mountains and jungles, it was a search-and-destroy operation. It would become the first major U.S. offensive movement against a Viet Cong main force regiment.

Operation Starlite

In a hectic two-day period, Marine commanders prepared plans for an attack and assembled forces. The plan would test a combat doctrine developed in peacetime featuring the launching of simultaneous amphibious and "vertical envelopment" movements, to trap the enemy in a "hammer and anvil".

On the morning of August 18, one Marine battalion began to land at the beach, performing the first combat amphibious landing of the Vietnam War. Another was heliborne to landing zones inland of the Viet Cong base at Van Tuong, cutting off any path of retreat to the mountains to the west. Meanwhile, one Marine company had moved overland down from Chu Lai, to close off the potential Viet Cong avenue of escape to the north. By noon, the troops landed by helicopter had linked up with those landed by sea, enclosing the enemy on three sides. Headlines in the U.S. announced that about 2,000 Viet Cong guerrillas had been caught in the trap, but many slipped away under the cover of darkness, while Marine forces were preparing for a morning assault.

After the battle concluded, Marine commanders discovered a fantastic underground network constructed not just beneath the surface, but 30 feet down. From cunningly concealed entrances the Viet Cong built channels deep enough for a man to walk upright, extending for more than a hundred yards before branching out to subsidiary channels concealing not only weapons but also Viet Cong wives and children. Not anticipating the magnitude of the American onslaught, they had prepared to defend their territory from these concealed positions. This is how the discovery was described in the August 22, 1965 edition of the New York Times.

The Viet Cong met the initial drive with a vicious fight, but vast American firepower and close air support carried the day. The Marines sustained 45 killed and 203 wounded, while claiming 614 Viet Cong killed, going by body count. Veteran South Vietnamese commanders had witnessed the supposed destruction of more than one enemy unit, only to see them reappear at full strength a few months later. The Viet Cong battalions targeted in this operation had taken a beating, but they would be back.