One of my absolutely favorite military stories involves a simple, low-level admin screw-up half a century ago that had major historical consequences. It was August 1965, and out in the Western Pacific, American Navy and Marine forces were planning an amphibious assault on Viet Cong forces threatening the airbase under construction at Chu Lai in southern I Corps, the northernmost war zone in South Vietnam. There was a garage full of moving parts to what was being planned as the first regiment-sized assault on enemy forces involving men, ships, helicopters, and landing craft all converging in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. As D-Day approached, hard-pressed Marine clerks were scrambling to get a huge raft of operational orders typed and distributed to the various forces involved. That’s when Mr. Murphy, the bane of all military operations from the dawn of time, paid a visit to the headquarters planning Operation Satellite.
With sleep-deprived administrators bleeding from the eyes and deafened by the clatter of typewriters hammering out final orders and instructions, there was a major power outage. The lights went out but the work had to continue, so the clerks at headquarters of the III Marine Amphibious Force fired up some candles and continued to pound out the paperwork by candlelight. That’s when Operation Satellite became Operation Starlite. Some pressured Marine typist—likely a luckless lance corporal trapped behind lines of file cabinets—squinted in the dark, let his fingers wander from the home row on a beat-up Underwood, and renamed an operation that became a landmark in America’s long, bloody war in Vietnam. By the time the error was discovered, work was too far advanced to stop for rewrites, so Operation Satellite became Operation Starlite by default and desperation.
It’s this kind of little story behind the big event that makes military history, particularly the history of the war in Vietnam so fascinating to me and so many others as we contemplate the anniversary of the unsatisfactory end of hostilities this year. Here’s another example related to Operation Satellite/Starlite that exhibits the minor occurrences that often spur or influence larger events on battlefields. According to Otto Lehrack, Marine author and prolific expert on Operation Starlite, the primary impetus for the operation was a 17-year-old Viet Cong defector who wandered into South Vietnamese Army lines one day claiming that his unit was planning a strike on the American base at Chu Lai. An ARVN general commanding South Vietnamese forces in the area bought the kid’s story and contacted Marine Lieutenant General Lew Walt to pass along the intelligence. Marine units monitoring VC radio transmissions were able to confirm the information and before long, thousands of men and tons of materiel were moving into position for immediate response to a story told by one scrawny VC teenager who decided for some reason that he was playing on the wrong team.
While these little background incidents are interesting—even entertaining to those of us involved at the time—it’s really the big picture that counts in the history of America’s long, frustrating war in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s. What followed the VC teen’s revelation on Aug. 18, 1965, D-Day for the renamed Operation Starlite in the area of Van Tuong, 15 miles south of Chu Lai, was essentially the first major, large-scale operation against enemy forces by a purely American unit in the Vietnam War. It was also confirmation for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps that large-scale amphibious operations, honed to perfection during the island-hopping campaigns of World War II, were still relevant in the age of guerilla warfare and asymmetrical combat. A lethal task force of amphibious and fire support ships, squadrons of Navy and Marine aircraft, and four battalions of Marine infantry hit beaches and landing zones to tangle in bloody combat with a main-force Viet Cong unit only about one-fifth the size of the American ground force.
Operation Starlite lasted for a full week after the initial landings and involved some brutal combat that offered practical lessons for everyone involved on both sides of the fight. One of the biggest and steepest learning curves for American forces involved the nature, tenacity, and combat prowess of the enemy they faced in Vietnam. The Viet Cong, later reinforced and largely displaced by regular North Vietnamese Army units, were a force to be reckoned with in a serious manner. If after-action reports at this remove can be relied on as an accurate measure (U.S. casualties: 51 KIA; 200-plus wounded, VC: 600-plus KIA; wounded unknown) the American forces clearly came out on top of the fighting. The real lesson for all involved from that day in August 1965 and for ten long years thereafter was clear and disturbing for all involved in and out of uniform. The days of imagining the VC to be a bunch of under-supplied, pajama-clad, junior varsity, part-time guerillas ended with Operation Starlite.