Vietnam 1965: Operation Starlite and the Early Doubts about Westmoreland’s Attrition Strategy

In late June, 1965, President Johnson gave General William C. Westmoreland authority to send U.S. ground units into combat against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army, “…when in COMUSMACV’s judgment their use is necessary to strengthen the relative position of GVN forces.”[1] Westmoreland interpreted this purposely-ambiguous presidential authorization for what it was – a blank check to deploy U.S. ground forces wherever he saw fit.  Soon after, U.S. soldiers launched their first offensive ground operation in South Vietnam. Prior operations in the South Vietnamese countryside had been characterized as defensive in nature because they were conducted to protect U.S. bases from Vietcong and North Vietnamese troop concentrations. But in late June, MACV conceded that U.S. troops were now taking the war to the enemy.

On June 27, elements of the 173d Airborne Brigade, along with South Vietnamese and Australian troops, entered the infamous War Zone D, which had been a Communist base area since the 1940s. The Vietcong used the region as a relay station for troops and supplies passing from the delta to the highlands and from Cambodia to the South Vietnamese capital. The Dong Nai River bordered the zone on the south and Route l4 ran along its northern fringe. A barely decipherable network of foot trails and dirt roads crisscrossed the area’s 648 square miles. Thick scrub brush, patches of jungle, and elephant grass grew across the district, providing the Vietcong with an infinite number of potential ambush sites, hiding places, and arms caches.[2]

Westmoreland wanted this first official search and destroy operation to send the message to the Vietcong that they were no longer safe in their base areas. But the operation did not go as planned. After the awe-inspiring insertion of U.S. and ARVN troops by 120 U.S. helicopters on the first day of the operation, things started to go awry. The operation quickly turned into a monotonous, unproductive walk in the sun for the American G.I.’s, Aussie Diggers, and South Vietnamese ARViN given the job of finding and killing the Vietcong. At the end of four days, Allied units had nothing to show for their efforts. A Vietcong sniper shot dead one G.I. and two-dozen others required medical attention; but the operation had been all search and no destroy. The guerrillas eluded the Allies. The perennial problem of the Vietnam War, which was the difficulty of finding and destroying the Vietcong, had again vexed the Allies. Back in Washington, officials were surprised at the operation’s dismal results. Unwilling to accept that the Vietcong gave the Americans the slip, presidential adviser George Ball concluded that the mission failed because someone within the GVN or ARVN passed on details of the operation to the enemy.  Of course, Ball may have been correct, and if he had been, his assessment raised a whole series of questions about the competence and loyalty of the South Vietnamese government.[3]

The results of U.S. search and destroy operations in July and early August 1965 mirrored those of the War Zone D operation – the Americans either did not find the Vietcong, did not find them in sufficient numbers, or did not kill them in numbers to justify the tremendous expenditure of time and energy. On July 28, 1965, the Marines and ARVN began the largest combined Allied operation of the war to date. Allied units scoured an eighteen-square-mile area of paddy country southwest of Chu Lai. In two days of hard slogging, the Allies killed just twenty-six Vietcong, a number that had no real effect on the strength of the Vietcong known to be operating in that area.[4]

The small number of enemy killed in action in June, July, and early August raised doubts in Washington about whether the U.S. could ever hope to attrite the enemy in such numbers as to convince Hanoi and the National Liberation Front to quit the struggle in South Vietnam.

These early operational failures did not cause Westmoreland to re-evaluate or second-guess his preferred strategy. The general understood that the new, Americanized war had just begun. It was early and there was still plenty of time to rack up the high body counts necessary to break Hanoi’s will. With his big war barely begun, Westmoreland told JCS Chair General Earle Wheeler, “…(I) believe it is time all concerned face up to the fact that we must be prepared for a long war which will probably involve increasing numbers of US troops.”[5]

Another reason Westmoreland believed his strategy would still work was that in summer 1965 he did not yet have the ground combat troops to fully execute it. The bulk of his ground units in South Vietnam at the time manned stationary positions, guarding U.S. base areas. As soon as he received the troops to simultaneously guard his rear areas and conduct major search and destroy operations, he believed the U.S. would kill the enemy in the necessary numbers.

Apparent success in a search and destroy operation finally came during the third week of August on the Van Tuong Peninsula, sixteen miles southeast of Chu Lai. In operation “Starlite,” the Marines trapped an estimated 2,000 Vietcong between themselves and the South China Sea. Believing they had sealed the landward escape routes, the Marines advanced northeastward upon the ensnared guerrillas. The Vietcong were ready for the Americans, having carefully fortified the countryside. Communist soldiers waited for the Marines behind paddy dikes, atop rocky outcroppings, beneath stands of palm trees and inside blockhouses disguised as peasant huts. Neil Sheehan of the “New York Times” reported, “The Vietcong were protected by well-fortified bunkers, tunnels, and foxholes…Some of the bunkers concealed under peasant huts were reinforced by concrete.”[6] When the fighting ended on August 19, the Marines claimed to have killed 600 guerrillas, the highest single enemy death toll inflicted by U.S. ground forces in the war. Barely able to conceal his glee at the number of enemy killed by U.S. firepower, a Marine commander said, “This time we fought the war our way…We called the tune.”[7] The lowly grunts that had to root out the enemy from their entrenched positions did not feel the same way as their commanding officer. A weary Marine remarked on the tenacity of the Vietcong, “We frankly did not expect this…They [the Vietcong] simply would not give up any ground. They had to be killed to be dislodged.”[8] Back in March and April, during the first U.S. combat troop deployments to I Corps, the cocksure Marines thought they would make short work of the small, wiry guerrillas. By August, the Marines had developed a grudging respect for their Vietnamese foe.

After Starlite ended, the Marines admitted that airpower, artillery, and naval gunfire had made it possible for them to achieve a high enemy body count. Marine and Navy jets flew 140 strike sorties during the two-day battle, dropping approximately 184,000 pounds of bombs on Vietcong positions. Helicopter gunships fired six tons of rockets; and an assortment of aircraft laid down four tons of flesh-consuming napalm.  Naval vessels and artillery batteries added their share to the destruction, firing thousands of rounds of high explosives into Vietcong bunkers and trenches. In a sign of things to come, the Americans smothered the Vietcong in flames and hot metal fragments during Operation Starlite.[9]

Yet, even with the overwhelming application of firepower, the presence of thousands of Marines, and the high number of planes and helicopters in the skies above the battlefield, hundreds of Vietcong escaped the scene of carnage to live to fight another day. Many went underground into a deep, impenetrable tunnel system. There in the damp darkness, they waited for the Marines to depart. A few days after the end of the operation, the guerrillas resurfaced and retook possession of the Van Tuong Peninsula’s villages and hamlets. At the conclusion of the operation, the Pentagon did not release Starlite’s U.S. casualty figures for “security reasons.” But reports circulated claiming the Marines suffered the highest number of casualties of any U.S. unit engaged in the ground war up to that time. The fortified countryside, along with the skill and dedication of the guerrillas, exacted the high U.S. toll. Had it not been for the prolific use of firepower, and the willingness of U.S. aircrews and artillery gunners to hit areas holding both guerrillas and civilians, Marine casualties would have been much higher. U.S. aircraft and artillery pried the guerrillas out of their dug-in positions, sparing Marine infantry the deadly job of clearing out the Vietcong in close quarters combat.[10]

Westmoreland considered Starlite a huge success. For him, the operation provided proof that large-scale search and destroy operations could succeed in South Vietnam’s challenging environment. MACV officials felt so confident they had found the recipe for success on the ground in South Vietnam that they told reporters Operation Starlite confronted the Communists with a choice, they could continue to suffer staggering, unacceptable losses or they could sue for peace now.[11]

But Hanoi and the National Liberation Front did not sue for peace. Communist leaders, like their American counterparts, recognized that the new war in South Vietnam was only beginning. It was still very early; and the trajectory of the war and its final outcome remained unknown. Plus, the Communists, unlike the Americans, were willing to accept enormous casualties to achieve the twin goals of independence and the furtherance of the global Communist movement.

Operation Starlite aided Westmoreland in one important way. The inability of U.S. forces to locate and destroy the enemy in the previous two months had fostered doubts at the White House and at the Pentagon about whether Westmoreland’s attrition strategy would work. The biggest question on the minds of top officials was whether the U.S. could actually find, fix, and kill the Vietcong in numbers sufficient to convince Hanoi and the NLF to quit the war. Starlite allayed those concerns, so much so that by the end of September the White House gave Westmoreland the go ahead to pursue a war of attrition against the Communists in South Vietnam.[12]


Endnotes

[1] Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History 1946-1975, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 349.

[2] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964 – 1968, Volume III, Vietnam June – December 1965, “Document 146, Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State, September 22, 1965,” (Washington: GPO, 1996), 401.

[3] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964 – 1968, Volume III, Vietnam June – December 1965,  “Document 40, Paper by the Under Secretary of State (Ball), undated, (Washington: GPO, 1996), 107; New York Times, “U.S. troops Open First Big Attack Against Vietcong,” June 30, 1965; New York Times, “Vietcong Raiders Slip into Danang; Destroy 3 Planes,” Associated Press, July 1, 1965.

[4] New York Times, “U.S. Troops Join in Two Offensives,” Jack Langguth, July 30, 1965.

[5] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964 – 1968, Volume III, Vietnam June – December 1965, “Document 17, Telegram From the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Westmoreland) to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler), June 24, 1965,” (Washington: GPO, 1996), 42.

[6] New York Times, “U.S. Marines Kill 600 Guerrillas in 2-Day Battle,” Neil Sheehan, August 20, 1965.

[7] Ibid.

[8] New York Times, “Battle of Chu Lai,” August 22, 1965; New York Times, “U.S. Marines Kill 600 Guerrillas,” August 20, 1965.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964 – 1968, Volume III, Vietnam June – December 1965, “Document 136, Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (McNaughton) to Secretary of Defense McNamara, September 8, 1965,” (Washington: GPO, 1996), 378; Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964 – 1968, Volume III, Vietnam June – December 1965, “Document 145, Memorandum for the Record, September 20, 1965,” (Washington: GPO, 1996), 398.

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