Week of August 25
This week in Vietnam War history, on August 24, 1965, the U.S. Marine Corps officially ended Operation STARLITE. STARLITE was the first major confrontation between American troops and a major Việt Cộng force—the 1st Việt Cộng Regiment boasted some 2,000 soldiers—and marked a crucial turning point for the United States in Vietnam as the Marines saw their mission expand from strictly defensive to offensive operations.
U.S. Marine Corps ground forces had waded ashore in Vietnam five months earlier, in March 1965, becoming the first American combat units to deploy to Vietnam. At the time, President Lyndon B. Johnson had limited them to defensive missions only—to protect American bases, personnel, and facilities from attack, but not to pursue Communist troops in offensive operations. Within weeks of their landing, however, U.S. commanders requested an expansion of the Marine Corps’ defensive mission, so that they could pursue Việt Cộng and North Vietnamese forces away from American bases. President Johnson approved this request and also agreed to send two additional deployments of Marines as reinforcements.
Operation STARLITE was designed to be the largest operation for the United States armed forces since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Units from the U.S. 7th, 4th, and 3d Marines conducted simultaneous amphibious and mobile helicopter assaults near the Van Tuong Peninsula, in Quảng Ngãi Province—a three-pronged advance to trap the Việt Cộng regiment between the Marines and the coast. The ground forces were aided by nearby artillery and air support. Because the operation took place near the coast of central South Vietnam, the Marines were also supported by naval gunfire from U.S. Navy vessels stationed just off shore. In strict military terms, STARLITE seemed a significant success. The plan to push Communist troops toward the sea and cut off their routes of retreat to the west proved effective, and the Marines inflicted at least 614 fatal casualties on the Việt Cộng while sustaining 45 Marines killed and 203 wounded.
The end of Operation STARLITE on August 24, 1965, in fact marked the beginning of full-scale escalation of the American war in Vietnam. No longer could the United States argue that it was simply advising the South Vietnamese armed forces or protecting its own property in South Vietnam. American troops now aimed to seek out Việt Cộng and North Vietnamese regular soldiers throughout South Vietnam in order to attack and destroy them, if they could. Between mid-1965 and the end of 1968, the number of American service people in Southeast Asia climbed from approximately 33,000 to well over 500,000 troops.1
1Robert Dallek, “Fear, Ambition, and Politics” in McMahon, ed., Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, 176; John M. Carland, Stemming the Tide, May 1965–October 1966, United States Army in Vietnam (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2000), 19; Frank E. Vandiver, Shadows of Vietnam: Lyndon Johnson’s Wars (College Station, TX.: Texas A&M University Press, 1997), 102–104; Mike Gravel, The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume 3 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 705–706 (https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pentagon3/doc256.htm) ; Jack Shulimson and Charles M. Johnson, The Landing and the Buildup, 1965, U.S. Marines in Vietnam (Washington, D.C.: History and Museums Division, 1978), 70–74, 80–83; Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (2nd edition; Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 1061–62; Otto J. Lehrack, The First Battle: Operation Starlite and the Beginning of the Blood Debt in Vietnam (Philadelphia, PA: Casemate, 2013).