People, mainly those who never fought there, have questioned the value of our combat experience in Vietnam. But for Lieutenant General Walter E. Boomer, commander of the corps-level I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) in the Gulf War, and Brigadier General John Admire, commander of the 3rd Marine Regiment in the Gulf, their combat experiences in Vietnam, and especially their experiences as advisers to the Republic of Vietnam Marine Corps (VNMC), had direct battlefield payoffs.
In March 1972, then-Major Boomer was serving as an adviser to a VNMC battalion in Quang Tri province. As he relates: ‘the battalion was at a mountaintop outpost called Fire Support Base Sarge. It was the farthest western outpost, overlooking Route 9 near the Cam Lo River. We were seeing North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units moving into our area from Laos. They were rolling in large truck convoys and becoming pretty blatant.
Heavy monsoon rains prevented helicopters from flying supplies to us. We were desperately low on food. So Major De, the South Vietnamese commander, split our battalion in two. I stayed at Fire Base Sarge with two infantry companies, a mortar platoon and the battalion commander’s headquarters. Captain Ray Smith went with the other half of the battalion about 1,000 meters north on Nui Ba Ho mountain.
General Boomer continues: On March 30, the Thursday before Easter, three North Vietnamese divisions attacked across the DMZ into Quang Tri province. Sarge and Nui Ba Ho were hit with a devastating artillery and rocket barrage. Infantry units of the NVA 308th Division moved into assault positions. We were surrounded. Storm clouds prevented Air Force gunships from providing us with fire support because the North Vietnamese were too close to our own position. Around 75 percent of our north perimeter defenses were pulverized by the relentless incoming explosions. They just killed us with artillery and rocket fire, then followed it with waves of ground forces.
After 24 hours, I received a radio message from Captain Smith that Nui Ba Ho was being overrun. My troops bravely kept fighting, but my counterpart Major De and I knew that we could not hold Sarge much longer. After midnight, with the NVA swarming through our defenses, Major De made the decision for whoever was still alive to escape from Sarge.
It became a desperate matter of pure survival. Close to half of our battalion was killed or wounded. Using the cover of smoke and darkness, we had to escape and evade in the jungle down the side of the mountain. It was not an organized ‘fighting’ retreat. We had a lot of walking wounded with us. We struggled through the dense jungle undergrowth down the jagged slope.
Everywhere we turned there were North Vietnamese units hunting for us. They were above us and below us. After two days of running, on Easter Sunday, at around 9 o’clock in the morning, we were in 6-foot-high elephant grass–almost out of the jungle. The NVA discovered us. We were surrounded and getting hit pretty hard. At that point, my troops broke and ran. I tried to stop them from running and turned around. In fact, I was yelling and shooting over their heads. The damn NVA heard me. I distinctly heard a North Vietnamese exclaim, ‘Co van! Co van!‘ [American adviser]. I said, ‘Crap! It’s time to get out of here.’
We finally regrouped and fell back to the Cua Viet River and dug in for a last stand. The Eastertide Offensive was a product of the North Vietnamese having changed to commanders who were well schooled in Soviet conventional tactics. That included saturation artillery fire and armor assaults. My unit faced sporadic tank attacks, from Soviet- or Chinese-built T-54 and T-55 models. We used a combination of weapons to stop one column of 15 to 20 tanks. We used field artillery fire very effectively. Other units stopped tanks at short range with LAWs [shoulder-fired, light anti-tank weapons]. We came away from that experience with the knowledge that once you overcome your initial fear, you certainly can fight tanks effectively.
Our forces were dug in on the banks of the Cua Viet River, preparing for a classic set piece battle. We were all that stood between the advancing NVA and Hue City. We stopped them. And with the help of U.S. air support, we began to push the North Vietnamese back.
[After surviving the 1972 Eastertide Offensive, Walter Boomer climbed his way
up the Marine Corps command ladder. On August 15, 1990, he deployed to Saudi Arabia as commanding general of the 100,000-Marine-strong I MEF.] General Boomer’s narrative continues:
The Gulf War was fought with Marine leadership up front, which is the only place I believe that a leader can fight from….An important lesson of the Vietnam War was the lack of continuity of leadership. Ever since, I have repeatedly stated, ‘We killed Marines as a result of changing leaders every six months.’ Because just as a commander got his feet on the ground and began to understand a little bit about the terrain and the enemy, the System moved him. If the war in the Gulf had gone on for a year, I would never have made a change in unit commanders unless a guy collapsed.
Almost all senior Marine infantry commanders in the Gulf had been advisers to the Vietnamese marines. As the years have gone by, this group has stayed in touch. And our friendships endure. This was an important factor in the teamwork among Marine leadership in the Gulf. The intensity of the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive is something that none of us will ever forget. The tactical lessons from that stayed in our heads. We understood the importance of combined arms [coordination between land forces and close air support].
A major lesson I learned from having been an adviser in Vietnam was how to deal with other cultures. The coalition approach was essential to our success. We simply could not ride roughshod over our Arab allies. We had to deal very carefully. And there were significant problems….I assigned Colonel [now Brigadier General] John Admire, regiment commander of the 3rd Marine Regiment, Task Force Taro, to train the Arab coalition forces. It was a matter of necessity. It was fortunate that he had previous experience in Vietnam as an adviser.
General John H. Admire continues the story: During my second tour of Vietnam, I was an adviser with the Vietnamese Marine Corps….[In Saudia Arabia] the only people in my regiment of 4,000 Marines with previous combat experience were the senior officers and NCOs. There were very few Vietnam veterans. I would talk with people informally about lessons I learned as an adviser in Vietnam. My primary advice was: ‘Treat the Arabs as you would like to be treated. Don’t act like a godsend who is going to teach them everything they need to know.’
We gave classes in tactics, in weapons and in maintenance. When we talked with the Saudis, we were very honest. We said: ‘You are the experts in the desert. Would you give us classes in desert navigation, desert tactics and desert survival?’ They looked at us kind of amazed. For us to ask the Saudis for classes boosted their self-esteem. Their chests puffed up a little, and they were very proud that they were giving us instruction. Task Force Taro, as my regiment was called, became the brother unit to the Saudis.
Beginning the first week in October 1990, I rotated 150 to 200 Marines up north in shifts of eight to 10 days to live and train with Saudi forces. We familiarized them with all of our support aircraft, because we didn’t want them firing on our guys. We developed personal friendships, as well.
I got to know the Saudi brigade commander, Colonel Turki, and some of his battalion commanders. It reached the point, much like in Vietnam, where they invited us to their tents to share dinner with us….I learned in my Vietnam advisory days that sometimes with a smile and pantomime you can communicate a hell of a lot. At the end of December, we moved the whole task force up to the Kuwait border. We were the only U.S. combat force positioned in an exclusively Arab sector. And we were closer to the Iraqis than any U.S. force. If the Iraqis surprise-attacked across the border, we would fight alongside the Arab Coalition forces. That made the bonds between Task Force Taro and our Arab allies even stronger.
We had no armor to fight against Iraqi armor and mechanized forces. At best we had some ‘Humvees’ with TOW anti-tank weapons. But the Saudis and Qataris had tanks. So through our cross-training we worked on infantry-versus-tank tactics. That paid off 100 times over when the actual war started.
[On the night of January 29,1991, Iraqi armored units made a surprise attack from Kuwait into Saudi Arabia. The main target was the coastal city of Khafji and the oil industry in the nearby area. The probe was an attempt by Saddam Hussein to intimidate and destroy the willpower of the Allies, particularly the Arab Coalition.] General Admire continues:
Ra’s al Khafji is a fairly large city by Saudi standards, close to the Kuwait border. In that area, the Iraqis had six to eight times more artillery, and four to six times more armor than our Coalition had. So we set up a defensive line south of the city.
On the night of January 29, a reinforced Iraqi battalion came across near Khafji. They had two divisions north of the border poised to follow. In Khafji I had two six-man recon teams. When the Iraqis attacked, while Navy SEAL [sea-air-land] teams fell back through our lines, my teams made the decision that they would stay. Corporal Ingram was the leader. The teams occupied two different rooftops in the southern portion of the city.
That night, along the coastal road, I met with Saudi Colonel Turki and Major Omani of Qatar. We had a frank conversation. I explained that my two recon teams were in the city. I said, ‘I believe that my teams can operate for 36 to 48 hours before they are jeopardized by the Iraqis.’
The courage of those young Marines had an impact. Colonel Turki listened quietly. Then, in my opinion, he said the two most important words of the war: ‘We attack.’ Until Colonel Turki spoke those two words, the Iraqis were considered by the Arab Coalition to be giants, 10 feet tall. The Iraqis were the most hardened, disciplined forces in the region, primarily because of their eight-year war with Iran. Plus, they were the fourth largest army in the world… We didn’t do a lot of planning. We just drew it out in the sand and went for it. I emphasized that the Arab force would do the main attack….That was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made, because most commanders wait an entire military career for an opportunity to conduct a major counterattack. I had all the confidence in the world in my Marines. It was an opportunity for us to validate six months of arduous training in the desert. But I felt that if we had tried to take charge, all of a sudden it would be like Vietnam–where the Americans come in and do it all, and the home forces get the idea that they have a secondary role.
At first, the Coalition conducted a probing attack. Our recon elements in the city radioed to us where the Iraqis were shifting their forces to react to our movement. We pulled back. Then the Arab forces led a forceful counterattack. Within six to 12 hours, we destroyed 93 Iraqi armor and mechanized vehicles. We captured more than 600 prisoners, including a brigadier general and five colonels.
Most of the Iraqi reinforcement vehicles north of the city were destroyed by Marine Air and Air Force A-10 Warthogs. The fighting in the city was a courageous tactical victory for the Arab forces. But it was also a strategic victory for the United States.
Khafji was a watershed for three reasons: First, the morale and confidence of the Arab forces went sky high. They had defeated the veteran Iraqis rather soundly…. Second, it was our evaluation that the Iraqis had no resolve or determination for a toe-to-toe slugfest with a determined opponent. If you hit them fast and hard, they’d quit early. We briefed Maj. Gen. Mike Myatt, the 1st Marine Division commander, and gave our opinion that we would have prisoners of war in large numbers. Third, and most important, after Khafji, the Saudis, Qataris and other Arab Coalition forces requested, if not demanded, to be equal partners when the attack came. They volunteered to attack along the coastal road.
We Marines thought that it would be ideal to shift west for our attack. If we tried to attack all across the Kuwait border, we would be spread too thin. Now, we were free to shift for a straight shot to Kuwait International Airport without having to go through oil fields or built-up areas. We could slice through the Iraqis rapidly.
More important, that freed the U.S. Army to shift even farther west and do what General Schwarzkopf later called the Hail Mary, or ‘end around’ flanking of Iraqi forces. The Vietnam experience had paid handsome dividends.
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