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Korea’s Myth-Making Marines

By James F. Durand
6/7/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

The Blue Dragon Marine Brigade’s service in Vietnam earned it a legendary reputation.

On October 9, 1965, Brigadier General Lee Bong Chool and the Korean 2nd Marine Brigade debarked in Cam Ranh Bay. Speaking to reporters who had come to witness the arrival of the first combat unit from the Republic of Korea (ROK), the Korean War veteran declared, “We have only one purpose here—combat,” and he stressed that the marines, sailors and soldiers of the Korean Blue Dragon Unit were ready to fight the Communist Viet Cong “anywhere, anytime.”

Over the next six years, more than 37,000 ROK marines fulfilled General Lee’s pledge. Accounting for just over 10 percent of the Korean servicemen deployed to Vietnam, they distinguished themselves in ways greater than their numbers suggest. Serving throughout the country, both alongside and independent of the U.S. Marines, the Korean marines continued a legacy of courage and sacrifice begun in the Korean War. Success on Vietnam’s battlefields brought about new missions and responsibilities at home, ushering in

“The Golden Age of the Marine Corps” in Korea. The Blue Dragon Unit was not the first Korean contingent sent to Vietnam. Responding to appeals for international support, the Korean government dispatched 10 Tae Kwon Do instructors and a mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) to South Vietnam on September 13, 1964. Heavy flooding during the fall monsoon led the Saigon government to request engineer support to assist in reconstruction and pacification efforts. In February 1965, the 2,400-man Korean Military Assistance Group, Vietnam, arrived in Bien Hoa. The “Dove Unit” was organized around army and marine engineer companies, supported by a security battalion, a transportation company, headquarters and liaison elements and a tank landing ship. During their first year, the engineers built four schools, three bridges, two dispensaries and two hamlet offices, and also carried out numerous minor reconstruction projects.

In spring 1965, Korean President Park Chung Hee announced the deployment of a Korean infantry division to Vietnam. The marines were certain to have a role in the force, as former marine commandant Kim Seung Un served as Park’s defense minister. ROK Marine Corps headquarters recommended a 5,800-man brigade as the marine contribution, and ordered the 1st Marine Division to form and train a brigade for deployment. The Ministry of National Defense directed the Korean army regiments to be organized similarly. General Lee, who had commanded a company in Minister Kim’s battalion during the 1950 Inchon-Seoul campaign, was appointed the first commander.

The 2nd Marine Brigade was organized around the 2nd Marine Regiment’s three infantry battalions, supported by a composite (105mm and 155mm) artillery battalion, a heavy mortar company, an aviation detachment and headquarters, service, medical and security companies. The ROK army provided a 155mm artillery battalion and a pioneer engineer company, while the navy fulfilled traditional roles as doctors, corpsmen and naval gunfire officers. Marines were proud that the 1st Marine Division immediately answered the nation’s call, affirming the motto adopted by the previous five commanders, “Prepare to Deploy.”

When the ROK marines landed at Cam Ranh Bay in October 1965, they relieved the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, assuming responsibility for protecting the burgeoning supply depot. It was the beginning of monsoon season, and the Blue Dragons had to adapt quickly to challenges of the new environment. In torrential rains and accompanying mud, they pursued an elusive enemy who favored hit-and-run tactics from the tunnels that honeycombed the area. While focusing on small unit patrols, the marines readily incorporated new tactics learned from allied forces. During Operation Washington, the 2nd Battalion was airlifted to Phan Rang, where ROK marines cleared the area of guerrilla forces threatening the air base. The battalion returned to Cam Ranh Bay to take on a task that neither French nor South Vietnamese army units had been able to accomplish: secure Ca Tau Mountain. On November 4, the 2nd Battalion attacked up the mountain, methodically destroying enemy forces fighting from positions fortified for more than 18 years. After nine hours of combat, the ROK marines secured the mountain.

Four days later, the Blue Dragons began Operation Lightning, their first brigade-size operation. Moving swiftly, they cleared areas from which Viet Cong guerrillas regularly attacked allied facilities, and secured Highway 1, South Vietnam’s main road. The marines seized the hill overlooking Nha Trang Air Base, capturing heavy mortars and removing the threat to the American air base. As a result of the ROK marines’ actions during these early fights, Viet Cong commanders ordered their soldiers to avoid Korean units and withdraw should they come into contact.

In December the ROK marines moved to the Tue Hoa area, where North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units and Viet Cong irregulars targeted the region’s abundant rice crop. Operating alongside the ARVN’s 47th Regiment and supported by U.S. Marine and U.S. Army aviation, the ROK marines began Operation Blue Dragon I to protect the rice harvest. Through January 16, 1966, the ROK marines cleared the area of enemy forces, defeating elements of the NVA 95th Regiment, securing Highway 1 and blocking sea infiltration routes. Immediately following the operation, the Blue Dragons began six months of civic action in the region, gaining the trust of Tue Hoa’s residents through many reconstruction projects.

The brigade began Operation Sea Breeze on July 22, 1966, pursuing guerrillas who had fled the coastal areas and now operated from the mountains. During this operation, the actions of Captain Lee In Ho—an infantry officer who graduated from the Korean Naval Academy and the U.S. Marine Corps’ Basic School—came to symbolize the bravery of all Korean servicemen. On August 11, 3rd Battalion marines brought two captured Viet Cong women to Captain Lee, the battalion’s intelligence officer. During interrogation, the women revealed the location of their headquarters and took Lee and a six-man patrol to the entrance of a large cave. As Lee and his marines entered the cave, a guerrilla hiding inside tossed a hand grenade toward them. Lee immediately threw it back, but a second grenade followed, and Lee ordered his men out. The grenade exploded as he reached for it. Lee’s body absorbed the blast, shielding his marines from harm and killing him instantly.

Accounts of Captain Lee’s actions dominated the front pages of major Korean newspapers, whose editorials extolled his virtue and lamented his loss. Deeply moved by the young officer’s sacrifice, President Park wrote a letter of condolence to Lee’s family, posthumously promoted him to major and awarded him the Taeguk Medal, Korea’s highest honor for valor. President Lyndon Johnson presented Lee’s widow the Silver Star during his visit to Korea that fall.

The ROK 2nd Marine Brigade redeployed to the Batangan Peninsula during August and September and was assigned a tactical area of responsibility within the Chu Lai Defense Command. This was the first time Ameri- can and Korean marine units had operated together since March 1954. It was also a reunion between the senior commanders; Lieutenant General Lewis W. Walt, the commanding general of III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), and General Lee had been classmates at Quantico, Va. Although the Blue Dragons were not under the command of III MAF, American and Korean marines coordinated their actions in defense of the base.

Immediately after arriving, the brigade began a series of operations to regain control of villages, roads and waterways from Viet Cong units and irregulars. Individual and small unit actions were characterized by countless examples of extraordinary courage. No one embodied those virtues more than Petty Officer Ji Deok Chul.

During Operation Kang Ku, Viet Cong forces ambushed the 2nd Company’s 3rd Platoon as it entered a village on February 1, 1967. The VC surrounded the platoon, and ROK marine casualties climbed quickly. Petty Officer Ji, the company corpsman, rushed to the injured marines. Although hit by rifle fire, he ignored his own wounds and treated three men. Seeing 20 VC advancing toward his position, Ji picked up a rifle and killed many of the guerrillas. When the helicopter arrived to transport the injured, Ji refused to get aboard, insisting that those under his care be evacuated first. He died watching the helicopter take the wounded marines to the rear. In recognition of his selfless valor, Petty Officer Ji was posthumously promoted and awarded the Taeguk Medal, the only ROK sailor to receive the award.

In the early hours of February 14, approximately 2,400 NVA soldiers attacked the 3rd Battalion’s 11th Company. Captain Jung Kyung Jin’s marines defended a small hill on the outskirts of Tra Binh Dong. When the North Vietnamese breached the 3rd Platoon’s defense, the Koreans fought back with entrenching tools, pickaxes and fists. Second Lieutenant Shin Won Bae, the 1st Platoon commander, led a fire team 100 meters beyond the perimeter to destroy an enemy mortar section. Firing machine guns and throwing hand grenades, Lieutenant Shin and Staff Sergeant Oh Sung Hwan killed the NVA soldiers and rallied the platoon to restore the perimeter. When the North Vietnamese advanced on the company one final time, the ROK marines cut them down.

The fleeing NVA left behind 243 dead, more than 100 of them within the ROK perimeter. The 11th Company lost 15 marines. After that defeat, the NVA abandoned plans for subsequent attacks against Quang Ngai City and the U.S. Marine Base at Chu Lai.

The Korean government awarded more decorations for the Battle of Tra Binh Dong than any other action during the war. President Park promoted all enlisted Korean marines one rank, the first unit-wide promotion since the Korean War. Captain Jung and Lieutenant Shin received the only Taeguk Medals awarded to two individuals for the same action. The 11th Company also received U.S. and ROK Presidential Unit Citations. Following a briefing to foreign reporters, the phrase “Myth-Making Marines” appeared in the media, continuing the legacy of the “Ghost-Catching Marines” and “Invincible Marines” of the Korean War.

In the months following the Battle of Tra Binh Dong, the brigade conducted a series of clearing operations. Alongside U.S. Marine, U.S. Army and ARVN units, the Korean marines hunted an enemy who skillfully used the complex terrain of the coast and the natural caves in the mountains as bases for guerrilla operations. The brigade’s riflemen received the M16, replacing the World War II– vintage M1 Garands that Korean marines had used since the Korean War. Despite the new weapons, the operations continued to be challenging and progress was difficult to assess. Operation Dragon Head II, on July 15, 1967, was the exception, when the ROK marines discovered the NVA 2nd Division’s command post, and captured weapons, ammunition and 350 tons of food. Later that summer, the ROK 5th Marine Battalion arrived in Vietnam, pulsing-up the Blue Dragon Brigade to four infantry battalions.

In late 1967, the 2nd Marine Brigade started to move to the area surrounding Hoi An, where it operated for the remainder of the war. The Blue Dragons completed the redeployment one day before the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive, and defeated a large-scale attack by the NVA 3rd Division during a month of combat on the outskirts of the city. Following Tet, the ROK marines began a series of operations in Quang Nam Province, conducting six in 1968 and 12 in 1969. They aggressively and repeatedly patrolled the region to rid the villages of VC guerrillas. Concurrently, the Koreans emphasized civil affairs efforts, training officers and staff noncommissioned officers to serve as interpreters and assigning them to each company. ROK units established relationships with hamlets and schools. Through feasts to honor village elders, assisting in the planting of rice and demonstrations of Tae Kwon Do, ROK marines worked to earn the trust and support of the South Vietnamese.

During the summer of 1969, the brigade fought with U.S. Marines and ARVN soldiers to clear enemy forces from Go Noi Island, which was riddled with NVA mines, booby traps and tunnel complexes. Eleven allied battalions swept the area for five months, enduring intense 115-degree heat, snakes and disease to eliminate the Viet Cong’s infrastructure.

On September 12, 1969, Korean and American marines conducted their first combined amphibious assault since the 1950 Inchon landing. Operation Defiant Stand was the last special landing force operation of the war.

The ROK marines’ performance in Vietnam brought about many changes for the corps back home. The Korean 5th Marine Brigade was established in November 1966 and assumed responsibility for defense of the Kimpo Peninsula from the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, allowing the latter to be transferred to Pohang and refitted with new weapons and equipment. The ROK government designated the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, as the “99 Unit,” and tasked it with providing security for all presidential visits to the naval headquarters at Chinhae. The ROK Marine Corps established a command and staff college and consolidated all training and education units under a single command in 1967. In that year, the ROK Marine Corps commandant was elevated to four-star rank.

Good press fueled an interest in the corps, attracting South Korea’s best young men to its smallest service. For the first time, top ROK Naval Academy graduates began to elect a career in the corps. Competing against other services and universities, ROK marine athletic teams captured national championships in marksmanship, soccer, baseball and Tae Kwon Do.

Nonetheless, the fundamentals of marine life remained the same. All officers and senior NCOs were expected to serve a year in Vietnam. Many volunteered for a second tour. Enlisted marines served three years in order to fulfill their service obligations. Discipline was absolute and training focused on the basics. Martial arts training was added as a measure of combat readiness based on experiences in Vietnam.

In November 1971, President Park announced the withdrawal of Korean forces from Vietnam. The Blue Dragon Unit was the first to leave. The initial battalions departed in December, and the final ROK marines left on February 22, 1972. During the six-year-and-five-month deployment, 37,304 ROK marines served in Vietnam, of whom 1,076 were killed and 2,884 wounded—proportionally the highest casualty rates of any Korean unit. The 2nd Marine Brigade was deactivated on March 10, 1972.

While acknowledging the human toll and the ultimate fall of the Saigon government, Korean marines view the conflict within the larger context of their own nation’s development and the struggle against communism. Experience gained on Vietnam’s battlefields allowed ROK marines to improve defensive capabilities on the Korean peninsula. The war underscored the threat of communism at home, while showcasing ROK military capabilities to allies and adversaries alike. Korea’s involvement also contributed to the nation’s industrial and economic development. Companies that gained overseas experience in Vietnam became the basis for today’s export-led economy.

Forty years after the Blue Dragons deployed to Vietnam, their service there continues to inspire new generations of ROK marines. Major Lee In Ho’s statue is located at the entrance to the ROK Naval Academy, where his death is commemorated annually. His son followed his father’s path to the academy and the corps. Major General Shin Won Bae was one of the last Vietnam veterans to retire. The Taeguk Medal recipient commanded the 2nd Marine Division, which inherited the lineage of the 2nd Marine Brigade. Today’s Blue Dragons defend Kanghwa Island and the Kimpo Peninsula, serving with the same dedication as their predecessors did in the jungles of Vietnam.

 

Lieutenant Colonel James F. Durand is a Marine intelligence and foreign area officer. He served five years in Korea and is a graduate of the Korean Naval War College. For additional reading, see: Allied Participation in Vietnam, by Stanley R. Larsen and James L. Collins, Jr.; and U.S. Marines in Vietnam: An Expanding War, 1966, by Jack Shulimson.

Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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