MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. --
On Aug. 18, 1965, more than 5,000 Marines descended in force upon a Viet Cong base near Van Tuong, Vietnam, in the first major offensive action of regimental size conducted solely by U.S. military units during the Vietnam War, called Operation Starlite. The Marines attacked first and they attacked hard, resulting in more than 600 enemy casualties and a critical victory in the conflict.
According to the United States Marine Corps History Division, three days prior, at Marine Corps Base Chu Lai, Lt. Gen. Lewis Walt, commander of all the Corps’ assets in Vietnam, received word of a deserter from the 1st Vietcong Regiment, who revealed an imminent attack against Chu Lai from Van Tuong to the south.
According to a 2005 article in Leatherneck magazine by Otto Lehrack, transmissions intercepted by 1st Radio Battalion confirmed the information and left Walt with two choices: take up a defensive posture and reinforce his base, or take the fight to his would-be attackers. Walt, a World War II Silver Star recipient and Korean War combat veteran, was a man of action. He chose to mobilize and strike first against the elusive Viet Cong unit.
3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, and 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment – both stationed at Chu Lai – were chosen to move on Van Tuong, as well as 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, from the Special Landing Force, which made haste from the Philippines.
Forty-eight years later, the lessons learned from Operation Starlite still echo through military operation manuals today and the Marines who laid their lives on the line are recognized for their heroism.
The engagement showed the Marine Corps to be a prime fighting force 190 years after its birth, even when faced with an enemy of relatively unknown capabilities in conditions less than ideal. Also, according to the Lehrack, the combination of amphibious assault and helicopter-borne forces used in Operation Starlite showed the Marines to be masters of their chosen crafts: amphibious assault and assault via helicopter.
According to Lehrack, with success in Operation Starlite the Marines passed their first big test in Vietnam. Moreover, they tested on the battlefield the combined helicopter and amphibious doctrine that they had studied for more than a decade. Their success in Starlite renewed their faith in their ability to “fight in any clime and place.”