The Ken Burns Vietnam series wrapped up it’s first week featuring a story I know well, the destruction of Bravo company 1st Battalion 9th Marines (1/9) in the Leatherneck square on July 2nd 1967. 1/9 (pronounced one nine in Marine speak) was known as The Walking Dead back then as it was in 1987 when I joined the battalion as a rifle platoon commander. 1/9 took more casualties than any other battalion in Vietnam but their nickname did not come from the unfortunate stat.
Ho Chi, Minh gave 1/9 the Walking Dead handle in early 1966 when 1/9 was working out of Hill 55, which was 16 km southwest of Da Nang, in the Qung Nam province. The French had occupied it years before and had lost 2 battalions on that hill to the Viet Minh. Later in the war it would become famous for the sniper school established there by Captain James Land. Graduates from that school included Carlos Hathcock and John Roland Burke; both Marine Corps sniper legends .
When 1/9 arrived on Hill 55 the area was under solid VC control. While establishing defensive positions on the Hill a lineman from 9th Engineers was captured, tortured, mutilated and killed by local Viet Minh. He was left (one presumes) as an example to intimidate the Americans who were new to the area. It had the opposite affect, the enraged Marines started a series of aggressive small unit patrols throughout the river valley area. They took heavy casualties in those patrols but not that many prisoners.
On the 12 May 1966 a 14 man patrol from Bravo 1/9 located and attacked a giant Viet Minh base camp/training area complete with classrooms, ranges, barracks and a hospital. The rest of 1/9 piled on this camp starting what turned out to be a four day brawl that gutted the 324B NVA Regiment. Hanoi Hana, the Vietnamese version of Tokyo Rose, during one of her nightly broadcasts said of 1/9 that Ho Chi Minh had called them “Di bo chet” (The Walking Dead) and promised them they would all be dead before Uncle Ho’s birthday which was 19 May. 1/9 pulled back to Hill 55, dug in and waited; the promised attack never came.
On the 2nd of July, 1967 Bravo and Alpha 1/9 left the wire of Con Thien on a unit sweep. About a mile outside of the wire Bravo walked into a vicious, well coordinated battalion sized ambush, the commanding officer, Captain Sterling Coates and 3 of his platoon commanders were killed early during the contact by an artillery round, the remainder of the company was pinned down. The NVA then used flamer throwers to set the brush around the Marines on fire forcing them to break cover where they were hammered by both direct fire and indirect fire. Alpha 1/9 moved in to help but they too got pinned down by heavy direct and indirect fire.
A hastily assembled reaction force comprised of Headquarters and Delta companies 1/9 along with 4 tanks charged out of the wire to help. A young Lieutenant by the name of Frank Libutti from Charlie company (which was detached guarding the base at Dong Ha but would fly in later that day) was at the Battalion HQ and part of that force. Twenty years after this battle Frank Libutti was a Colonel, the commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and his Battalion Landing Team was the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines.
I was a platoon commander in Charlie 1/9 on that deployment and the company commander for B 1/9 was Bob Coates. The commanding officer of Bravo 1/9 back in 1967 had also been named Coates. I always thought that to be one hell of a coincidence as did Col Libbuti. What he stressed to us when he talked about that day was that the Bravo 1/9 of 1967 could not be compared in any way to Bravo 1/9 of 1987. The difference in the proficiency of the 87 Bravo company from the 67 Bravo company wasn’t superior leadership or more advanced weapons; it was due to the most contentious issue in the Vietnam War. The use of the individual replacement system of personnel management.
In their book Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army, written by Major Richard A. Gabriel and Lt. Col. Paul L. Savage, the authors write:
‘The rotation policies operative in Vietnam, virtually foreclosed the possibility of establishing fighting units with a sense of identity, morale, and strong cohesiveness….Not only did the rotation policy foreclose the possibility of developing a sense of unit integrity and responsibility, but it also ensured a continuing supply of low quality, inexperienced officers at the point of greatest stress in any army, namely in its combat units.’
The rotation policies were driven by two factors; the draft (which mandated two years of service) and the refusal of the Johnson administration to mobilize the reserves to give the commanders on the ground the men they were asking for. A two year commitment meant that draftee’s could be deployed for 12 months max when mobilization, training and demobilization is factored into the time line. The Marines were not using draftees at this point in the Vietnam War which was why Marine combat tours were 13 months instead of the 12 month Army tour.
Prior to Vietnam American infantry units were formed, trained together and then deployed together into combat. This built unit cohesion, trust in the chain of command, developed the leadership abilities of small unit leaders before combat, and allowed for casualty replacements to be integrated into already functional combat units. Battalions that train together and fight together are giant families designed to withstand the shock of war and function in the face of incredible adversity.
In Vietnam individual soldiers and Marines rotated into battalions that were a conglomeration of individuals serving out their time. Officer came in as individuals too but they tended to have shorter tours (6 months on average) to free up combat command opportunities for other officers. New joins in Vietnam, just like new joins in every war experienced higher casualty rates. Junior officers, sergeants, staff sergeants and more senior SNCO’s always experience high casualty rates in all wars at all times. When rotated into combat units as individuals they did not last long. This rotation policy meant there was no established cohesion or pride at the battalion level. Those battalions were stripped of experienced small unit leaders. It is remarkable these battalion still fought as well as they did.
The Burns series includes multiple requests from General Westmorland for more troops. It ignores what he wanted to do with those troops and that was to get Americans away from the populated regions and into Cambodia and Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail and take on the NVA. John Del Vecchio covers this well in his most recent post which can be found here and is essential reading for those who want to understand the context surrounding the tactical decisions in Vietnam.
Calling up more troops required committing the reserves who had trained together and had developed unit cohesion. Using them to go after the NVA in their “safe spaces” may well have given the South enough space and time to get organized. That option was taken off the table because President Johnson was afraid it would draw Chinese or Soviet ground forces into the conflict, a probability that, given the million plus casualties the Chinese had suffered in Korea, was remote.
Our 7th President, Andrew Jackson (the only president to pay our national debt) once said “never take counsel of your fears“. Sage advice that as was General MacArthur’s saying that it is “fatal to enter any war without the will to win it”. The biggest complaint by the military during the Vietnam War was the feeling we weren’t fighting to win but instead doing just enough not to lose.
Part of the McNamara’s whiz kids genius strategy was using remote sensors on the border of the DMV to detect NVA formations moving south. To support that dubious plan the Marines moved up to the DMV, well within the artillery fan of the North Vietnamese, to establish fire bases. Those fire bases then supported undermanned battalions as they swept the DMZ to clear out NVA formations. But there weren’t enough of them to secure the ground they swept which allowed the NVA to move into newly swept areas knowing they could stay there for weeks or months before the area was “swept” again.
Which brings us back to Bravo 1/9 and what the Burns documentary called “The Marketplace Massacre”. I’ve never heard the Bravo 1/9 ambush called that, never seen it referenced that way in historical accounts and if you google the name it is used to describe an event in Sarajevo. Regardless what did happen was that Bravo 1/9 walked into a hornets nest and got hammered.
In the documentary the claim is made that Charlie and Delta companies went out and extracted Bravo and Alpha companies but because they could’t get to all the fallen they had to return two days later to recover 34 bodies. That is not what happened; the narrative presented by Burns is flawed on this point.
It is true that on day one of the battle, after 3/9 was flown into that area and had attacked the NVA battalions who had ambushed 1/9, the battalion pulled back and found they had 34 missing in action (the battalion not just Bravo company). It is also true that it wasn’t until 5 July that 23 Marine KIA were recovered (the nine remaining Marines were never found). What is not true is Marines left the field on day one and the bodies were not recovered by some half ass effort sortieing out from Con Thien three days later.
When 1/9 pulled back into Con Thien on July 2nd the commanding officer of Alpha company, Albert J Slater pulled the survivors of his company, the survivors of Charlie company (who had flown into the fray from Dong Ha) and a detachment from 3rd Reconnaissance company together and went back out to join the battle. 3/9 had remained in the field and was joined by the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 3rd Marines. Captain Slater took his company to the northwest looking for good dirt (key terrain) and when he found some they dug in, fortified and then concealed their positions. The NVA had no idea the Walking Dead were back in play.
The maneuver battalions (3/9, 1/3 and 2/3) stayed on the offensive trying to maul what turned out to be the 90th NVA Regiment before they could get back to safe haven on the other side of the DMZ.
On the 5th of July a 400 man NVA battalion came across the DMZ in an attempt to flank the Marine maneuvering elements and walked, in column formation, right into Alpha 1/9’s prepared defense. The Walking Dead then got some payback and destroyed the NVA battalion with direct and indirect fires. The NVA 90 Regiment soon broke contact and withdrew some after marking the end of Operation Buffalo.
I know these kind of details are not going to make a PBS documentary about Vietnam. What is remarkable about this battle is not just the tenacity demonstrated by Capt Slater and the surviving members of a battered battalion. What is remarkable is they performed this way under constraints placed upon them by a President and DoD leadership who were arrogant in their unfounded faith of systems analysis, ignorant about the realities of war and dismissive of the senior military leadership who was supposed to be influencing the effort via sage council.
It seems to me that Burn and company are giving McNamara and LBJ a pass on their disastrous decision making which stemmed from politically motivated assumptions. The men who fought in Vietnam got the short end of the stick then and they are getting it now. They deserve better.