Amphibious Landings in South Vietnam
The fleet provided direct support to the campaign in South Vietnam with its long-established Amphibious Ready Group and Special Landing Force (ARG/SLF). The powerful, versatile, and mobile formation capable of striking along the length of the South Vietnamese littoral and far inland.
Initially, the ARG usually consisted of three or four ships, including an amphibious assault ship (LPH), a dock landing ship (LSD), an attack transport (APA) or an amphibious transport dock (LPD), and a tank landing ship (LST). Other amphibious vessels often augmented this force. The Marine SLF was composed of a medium helicopter squadron equipped with 24 UH-34s and embarked in the LPH. An infantry battalion landing team, reinforced with artillery, armor, engineer, and other support units, comprised the ground combat element. These men and their equipment were divided among the ships, enabling landings on shore by helicopter, by the force's 41 organic tracked landing vehicles (LVT), or by both methods.
The fleet provided additional assistance for amphibious operations, including carrier air cover, naval gunfire support, supply by the Logistic Support Force (Task Force 73), and medical support by hospital ships Repose (AH 16) and Sanctuary (AH 17) positioned close offshore. Naval personnel also served in Marine units as medical corpsmen, chaplains, and spotters, the latter in 1st Air and Naval Gunfire Liaison Company detachments. Furthermore, underwater demolition team, SEAL, beachmaster, and special communications beach jumper units supported operations on shore.
At various times during the war, transport submarines Perch (APSS 313), Tunny (APSS 282), and Grayback (LPSS 574) carried Navy underwater demolition teams, SEALs, and South Vietnamese marines to points off prospective landing beaches. Once there, the naval special warfare men silently exited the boats, swam or rowed rubber rafts through the surf, and carried out vital reconnaissance or other special operations ashore.
The Seventh Fleet's Commander Amphibious Task Force (Commander Task Force 76) exercised operational control of the ARG (Task Group 76.5) and the SLF (Task Group 79.5) at sea. With the deployment of another ARG/SLF, assigned the designations 76.4 and 79.4, respectively, to the South China Sea in April 1967, the amphibious flotilla was divided into ARG/SLF Alpha and ARG/SLF Bravo.
A battalion of the 9th Marines was one of the first units to land in Vietnam following the decision to commit Marine forces against the Viet Cong. On 8 March 1965, BLT (Battalion Landing Team) 3/9, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. McPartllin, Jr., landed in Da Nang in central Vietnam as part of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade. Although clearly communicating that the Marines had arrived, the landing was an administrative landing in friendly territory, rather than an assault landing on an enemy-held beach.
Following the landing on 8 March 1965 of Marine forces at Danang, which marked the beginning of a new era in America's Southeast Asian involvement, naval leaders awaited additional amphibious shipping and prepared plans for employing the ARG/SLF against the enemy. In the interim, the task group protected Qui Nhon until Army units arrived, and covered the landing in II Corps of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division.
During this preparation, the U.S. command took advantage of good intelligence to launch Operation Starlite, perhaps the greatest amphibious success of the war. Discovering that the 1st Viet Cong Regiment planned to attack the Marine enclave at Chu Lai from a coastal village 12 miles to the south, General Westmoreland directed the III Marine Amphibious Force, the chief Marine command in South Vietnam, to preempt the assault and destroy the 1,500-man enemy unit. Between 18 and 25 August, a cruiser and two destroyers poured accurate naval gunfire on the enemy concentration as the Seventh Fleet Amphibious Ready Group landed Marine units on the beach. Other elements were helicoptered inland from Iwo Jima (LPH 2) and Chu Lai. By the end of the week-long battle, the 1st Viet Cong Regiment was pushed up to the sea by three Marine and two South Vietnamese battalions and then pounded by air and naval gunfire. At the cost of 45 Marines killed and 203 wounded, the allied force inflicted 623 casualties on the enemy unit, putting it out of action for some time.
Seeking to complete the destruction of the Viet Cong unit that had withdrawn further south to the Batangan Peninsula, in September U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine, and South Vietnamese forces, including Coastal Force elements, conducted Operation Piranha. Learning from the costly Starlite setback, however, the Communists now avoided pitched battles on the coast and evaded the allied search. Although 178 enemy soldiers were reported killed, contact was light throughout the action.
By the end of September 1965, U.S. leaders were prepared to initiate an amphibious campaign against Communist forces along the entire South Vietnamese coast. COMUSMACV and fleet commanders planned a series of ARG/SLF raids, designated Dagger Thrust, in support of the Market Time antiinfiltration effort against Viet Cong bases, supply points, and small units. The first three raids were carried out in rapid succession between 25 September and 1 October as the force struck at target areas near Vung Mu, Ben Goi, and Tam Quan in II Corps, but without finding any significant sign of the enemy. On 30 November the Navy-Marine team first struck at a suspected Viet Cong infiltration base on Cape Ke Ga southwest of Phan Thiet and then at Phu Thu in northern II Corps on 5 and 6 December. Neither strike was successful. The program was hampered by dated intelligence, some enemy foreknowledge of U.S. intentions, and prolonged preparations.
The focus on destroying the enemy's main force units also continued as naval amphibious forces conducted operations Blue Marlin I and II near Tam Ky and Hoi An in November. Again, the results were negligible. Then from 9 to 19 December, III Marine Amphibious Force units and the fleet's ARG/SLF combined with South Vietnamese troops to strike at their old nemesis, the 1st Viet Cong Regiment, again up to strength and located in the hills west of Chu Lai. Although the three Marine and three South Vietnamese battalions killed 407 and captured 33 of the enemy and seized over 100 weapons and 60 tons of ammunition, the cost was very high. Ambushes and other tactics left 181 South Vietnamese troops killed or missing and 141 wounded. The Marines suffered 45 dead and 218 wounded.
In Double Eagle, the largest amphibious operation to date in South Vietnam, the ARG/SLF forces joined Marine and South Vietnamese units in a lengthy sweep for enemy regiments near Quang Ngai City and Tam Ky in I Corps. From 28 January to 1 March 1966, the allied force searched for Viet Cong units, but the enemy's good intelligence network enabled him to avoid significant contact.
Again in March and April the allies mounted a multiunit effort to find and destroy Communist forces. In Operation Jackstay, which lasted from 26 March to 7 April, the Navy-Marine ARG/SLF combined with other U.S. and South Vietnamese units to attack the Viet Cong in the Rung Sat swamp that surrounded the vital shipping channel to Saigon. Although most enemy units evaded the search, the allies, at least temporarily, disrupted operations in the Viet Cong base area.
Following the unproductive Operation Osage in April and May 1966, U.S. leaders concluded that the growing allied strength in coastal areas would keep the enemy from concentrating large units there in the future. Thus, amphibious raids and sweeps along the shore were no longer considered valid tactics. From June through September, in a series of operations labelled Deckhouse, the ARG/SLF joined Army or III Marine Amphibious Force troops in lengthy multibattalion combat actions inland. Still, the results were disappointing for the Navy-Marine team as the enemy, except during Deckhouse IV, declined to stand and fight.
Beginning in October 1966, the growing menace from North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units moving south through the DMZ drew the ARG/SLF to the northernmost reaches of the Republic of Vietnam. Before the end of the year Vice Admiral John J. Hyland, Commander Seventh Fleet, temporarily established an additional amphibious task group positioned just offshore for quick reaction. While Deckhouse V was undertaken during the early part of 1967 in the Mekong Delta, the year's other 24 amphibious operations took place in I Corps. Further, most ARG/SLF combat actions were in support of the Marine stand against the fierce thrusts of the North Vietnamese Army at Dong Ha, Con Thien, and Quang Tri City and in the DMZ itself.
The amphibious force, permanently augmented by another ARG/SLF after April 1967, was often used to extend the allied flank at sea, block Communist movements, land troops in the enemy's rear, or reinforce front-line units. Troops deployed by helicopter or amphibious craft, cruisers, and destroyers provided this ready, mobile, and powerful assistance. Noteworthy actions included landings in the southern half of the DMZ in May and operations in August and September to prevent the Communists from disrupting South Vietnam's national elections. While the ARG/SLF accounted for over 3,000 enemy killed during the year, the force's support enabled other allied units to inflict even greater damage on the North Vietnamese Army.
During January 1968, the ARG/SLF Marines carried out four heliborne operations ashore in I Corps. The enemy's massive Tet Offensive, launched on the 30th, soon demanded the suspension of amphibious landings and long-term commitment ashore of the fleet's Marine forces. During the next four months, the ships of both ARGs served as havens for the Navy's riverine combat and logistic craft deployed to the area for the emergency. This sea- based support was crucial to the eventual allied military success in the northern reaches of South Vietnam. From June to the end of the year, the amphibious task forces took part in nine I Corps operations that decimated Communist forces fighting to hold Hue and the surrounding region.
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