Operation Starlite: Battle of Van Tuong

In March 1965, the first US Marines landed in South Vietnam to protect US airbases as they supported the South Vietnamese Army’s fight against the Viet Cong and North Vietnam. On 15 August, the Marines learned that the 1st VC Main Force Regiment occupied the village of Van Tuong outside the Chu Lai Airbase on the South Vietnamese coast. In only two days (!?!?!) the Third Marine Division staff planned a joint combined arms hammer and anvil operation in complete secrecy to prevent VC infiltrators in the ARVN from tipping off the regiment about the attack.

On the morning of 18 August, the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment stormed ashore near Van Tuong in LTVPs launched from the landing ship USS Iwo Jima in the first contested amphibious assault since Inchon 15 years before. They were followed by 3/7 Marines. They were the “hammer” while the 2/4 Marines was the “anvil”. 2/4 was air assaulted into three landing zones west of the village by a company of Sikorsky S-58DT helicopters (you know: Riptide). The final battalion in the assault, 1/7, was reinforced with a company of M48 Patton tanks and secured the resupply convoys from the south.

The VC were completely surprised, but the Marines unknowingly played directly into their hands. The landing force did not have enough amtracs for more than one company at a time, so it was fed piecemeal into the fight for the small hamlets south of the village. Also, the far southern landing zone was only 400m from the communist Regimental HQ, was overlooked by the key piece of terrain in the area, Hill 43, and nearly overrun. Finally, one of the supply columns moved before the operation matured, and was promptly ambushed and surrounded. All three general actions (hamlets near beaches, the helicopter LZ’s, and convoy) were not coordinated effectively, and the operation was consumed in trying to desperately and disparately relieve each one simultaneously. Nonetheless, after heavy fighting, the battle was finally sorted out by nightfall: the Marines cleared the village and had the VC regiment surrounded.

Unfortunately, the Marines’ unfamiliarity with the terrain and distractions caused by severe thirst allowed the VC to exfiltrate that night. The Marines suffered 50 killed and 200 wounded, and the Viet Cong suffered about 600 killed. Operation Starlite, or the Battle of Van Tuong, was the first unilateral American ground offensive operation of the Vietnam War.

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