US Marine Corps vs the National Liberation Front: Operation Starlite

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  • 0:01 Testing the United…
  • 1:17 Background and Planning Phase
  • 2:52 Starlite Commences
  • 4:00 Outcome
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

Operation Starlite represented the first major battle between the United States Marine Corps and the National Liberation Front. Learn about the campaign, including its strategy, engagement and outcome.

Testing the United States Marines

Operation Starlite was the first major military engagement of the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. Over the course of six days - August 18-24 1965 - the Third Battalion, Third Infantry Division of the Third Marine Amphibious Force (or MAF) led a large-scale search-and-destroy campaign against the First Battalion of the National Liberation Front (or NLF), the insurgent arm of North Vietnam, at Van Tuong, which was just south of Chu Lai in the I Corps Tactical Zone.

The amphibious assault on the First NLF Battalion by the United States Marine Corps was important for two reasons. First, they represented a shift in military strategy by the Third MAF. The strategy for March-August 1965 had stressed defense. The Marines were ordered to protect important military interests as well as bring security to local Vietnamese hamlets. The order to conduct a search-and-destroy mission - that is, locating and eliminating the enemy - was the first time the Marines went on the offensive.

Second, a byproduct of Starlite was the beginning of the Combined Action Platoons, or CAP. After South Vietnamese leadership voiced its displeasure over aspects of the mission - specifically the post-combat reporting - American military leaders encouraged more South Vietnamese troops from the popular forces to work in tandem with the Third MAF.

Background and Planning Phase

When the United States Marine Corps landed at Da Nang in March 8, 1965, it was expected to take up defensive tactics against the enemy within the I Corps Tactical Zone. During its first few months in Vietnam, the Third MAF successfully carried out the enclave strategy that witnessed the Marines protect American air and personnel bases as well as bring enhanced security to Vietnamese hamlets. However, the defensive mission quickly changed to offensive when the Third MAF learned that the First NLF Battalion was staging its forces just south of the Marine position at Chu Lai.

On August 15, General William Westmoreland, commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), ordered Major General Lewis Walt, commander of the Third MAF, to strike the First NLF Battalion. While Walt had his reservations about attrition warfare, he followed orders and commenced planning for an amphibious assault by the Third Marine Division scheduled for dawn on August 18. Understanding the enemy forces numbered over 1,000, Walt arranged for additional support by acquiring the Second Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, a mechanized ground unit, aerial support via helicopter, and artillery from the United States Navy.

There were two stages to Operation Starlite. The first was to surround components of the First NLF Battalion and push them toward a checkpoint known as 'Phase Line Banana.' After the Marine Corps reached Phase Line Banana, it would reassemble as one powerful unit and force the NLF out of Van Tuong and into the open coast where American firepower would decimate the remainder of the unit. In an interesting side note, Operation Starlite was originally known as 'Satellite,' but during the planning phase, a power outage at the Third MAF headquarters caused a transcriber to incorrectly label the campaign name.

Starlite Commences

At dawn on August 18, the Third Battalion, Third Marine Division combined with the mechanized unit roared ashore at An Cuong, which was just south of Van Tuong. Personnel from the Fourth Marine Regiment as well as helicopters established Landing Zones Red, White, and Blue west of Van Tuong. American forces were now positioned to move toward Phase Line Banana.

The amphibious landing at An Cuong was relatively easy. Marines faced very little enemy resistance and were able to quickly secure the area. Marines from the Fourth Regiment, however, were firmly engaged from entrenched and highly disciplined NLF soldiers on their move to Phase Line Banana. Soldiers from the Fourth Regiment who were dropped at Landing Zone Blue especially struggled against the fortified bunkers of the enemy at the village of Nam Yen.

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