ORDEAL ON THE
Operation STARLITE would be the first major U.S. Marine Corps assault of the Vietnam War. Accurate information, speedy reaction and absolute secrecy contributed to its success. It would prove to be the first of many in the years to come.
By Robert A. Lynn and Albert Hemingway [Article reproduced from Vietnam Magazine 1989]
Major General Lewis W. Walt, Commanding General, III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), glanced around the conference table at his senior commanders and awaited their comments. Walt, a highly decorated veteran of World War II and Korea, had flown to Chu Laili and "held a hurried council of war." Several days before, he informed his listeners, a Viet Cong deserter was apprehended by the South Vietnamese, and the individual spoke freely of an entire regiment situated in the Van Tuong village complex, 12 miles south of the Marine enclave at Chu Lai, in Vietnam's Southern I Corps region. Colonel Leo J. Dulacki, Walt's intelligence officer, and Colonel Edwin H. Simmons, operations officer for III MAF, corroborated the data-the VC were massing for an all-out attack on the important airfield at Chu Lai.
Since disembarking in Vietnam in March 1965, the Marines were restricted to mere reserve-reaction missions in support of the South Vietnamese Army and defensive responsibilities of the Da Nang and Chu Lai bases. This was in strict accordance with the May 6 "Letter of Instruction" from General William C. Westmoreland, commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam.
However, by July, intelligence revealed a buildup of as many as three VC regiments in Southern I Corps. Westmoreland's staff doubted that the Viet Cong would risk a large concentration of their forces against massive U.S. firepower. They did believe, however, a hit-and-run attack could be successfully launched at the Chu Lai airstrip with devastating results.
Realizing his "Letter of Instruction" would be a hindrance to the Marines, Westmoreland contacted Walt and lifted "restraints [that] were no longer realistic ... working into them the authority he [Walt] thought he needed:' The leathernecks had finally received the green light to engage the enemy on his own ground. And they wasted no time in doing so.
In conjunction with the 51st ARVN Regiment, the 4th Marines conducted a battalion-size operation, code-named T'HUNDER-BOLT, in an area south of the Tra Bong River arid west of Route 1. Despite no major encounters with the enemy, the Marines considered the venture a "successful experiment in command and control:' and thought it would prove to be beneficial to them in future endeavors against their crafty adversaries. Casualties were light; 43 Marines suffered heatstroke and only two were wounded.
Finally, the break the Marines had hoped for came in the form of a prisoner taken on August 15. Major General Nguyen Chanh Thi, South Vietnam's I Corps commander, interrogated him personally. The enemy soldier rambled on about an assault on Chu Lai. Thi quickly relayed the information to Walt. They both concurred the runaway was speaking the truth. Also, intelligence confirmed the enemy unit to be their old nemesis: the 1st Viet Cong Regiment; the same troops that struck Ba Gia in early July, overrunning the garrison and capturing two 105mm howitzers and numerous other weapons. Now they were moving en masse toward Chu Lai with an estimated force of 2,000 consisting of the 60th and 80th VC Battalions and reinforced with one company of the 45th Weapons Battalion and the 52nd VC Company.
This was the startling news Walt had brought to his trio of officers on that hot, muggy day in August at Chu Lai. Seated before him were Brig. Gen. Frederick J. Karch, Assistant 3rd Marine Division Commander; Colonel James F. McClanahan, 4th Marines Regimental Commander; and the newly arrived 7th Marines leader, Colonel Oscar F. Peatross. As the men sat in silence, the burly Colorado native explained the situation: One, they could remain in the defenses and await the inevitable assault; or, two, strike the Viet Cong in their own backyard. The second option posed some peril. If chosen, it would mean the Chu Lai perimeter defenses would be thinned out and vulnerable to an enemy counterattack. But, with reinforcements in the shape of Battalion Landing Team 1/7, Walt felt the gamble could be taken.
"General Walt laid the situation out rather plainly:' Peatross would later write. At the conclusion of the meeting, Walt selected Peatross as the landing force commander and instructed him to set the plan in motion. With that, the barrelchested general returned to Da Nang to get official permission from Westmoreland to carry out his daring scheme. It was granted forthwith.