Operation Starlite represented the first major battle between the United States Marine Corps and the National Liberation Front. Learn about the campaign, including its strategy, engagement and outcome.

Testing the United States Marines

Operation Starlite was the first major military engagement of the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. Over the course of six days – August 18-24 1965 – the Third Battalion, Third Infantry Division of the Third Marine Amphibious Force (or MAF) led a large-scale search-and-destroy campaign against the First Battalion of the National Liberation Front (or NLF), the insurgent arm of North Vietnam, at Van Tuong, which was just south of Chu Lai in the I Corps Tactical Zone.

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The amphibious assault on the First NLF Battalion by the United States Marine Corps was important for two reasons. First, they represented a shift in military strategy by the Third MAF. The strategy for March-August 1965 had stressed defense. The Marines were ordered to protect important military interests as well as bring security to local Vietnamese hamlets. The order to conduct a search-and-destroy mission – that is, locating and eliminating the enemy – was the first time the Marines went on the offensive.

Second, a byproduct of Starlite was the beginning of the Combined Action Platoons, or CAP. After South Vietnamese leadership voiced its displeasure over aspects of the mission – specifically the post-combat reporting – American military leaders encouraged more South Vietnamese troops from the popular forces to work in tandem with the Third MAF.

Background and Planning Phase

When the United States Marine Corps landed at Da Nang in March 8, 1965, it was expected to take up defensive tactics against the enemy within the I Corps Tactical Zone. During its first few months in Vietnam, the Third MAF successfully carried out the enclave strategy that witnessed the Marines protect American air and personnel bases as well as bring enhanced security to Vietnamese hamlets. However, the defensive mission quickly changed to offensive when the Third MAF learned that the First NLF Battalion was staging its forces just south of the Marine position at Chu Lai.

On August 15, General William Westmoreland, commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), ordered Major General Lewis Walt, commander of the Third MAF, to strike the First NLF Battalion. While Walt had his reservations about attrition warfare, he followed orders and commenced planning for an amphibious assault by the Third Marine Division scheduled for dawn on August 18. Understanding the enemy forces numbered over 1,000, Walt arranged for additional support by acquiring the Second Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, a mechanized ground unit, aerial support via helicopter, and artillery from the United States Navy.

There were two stages to Operation Starlite. The first was to surround components of the First NLF Battalion and push them toward a checkpoint known as ‘Phase Line Banana.’ After the Marine Corps reached Phase Line Banana, it would reassemble as one powerful unit and force the NLF out of Van Tuong and into the open coast where American firepower would decimate the remainder of the unit. In an interesting side note, Operation Starlite was originally known as ‘Satellite,’ but during the planning phase, a power outage at the Third MAF headquarters caused a transcriber to incorrectly label the campaign name.

Starlite Commences

At dawn on August 18, the Third Battalion, Third Marine Division combined with the mechanized unit roared ashore at An Cuong, which was just south of Van Tuong. Personnel from the Fourth Marine Regiment as well as helicopters established Landing Zones Red, White, and Blue west of Van Tuong. American forces were now positioned to move toward Phase Line Banana.

The amphibious landing at An Cuong was relatively easy. Marines faced very little enemy resistance and were able to quickly secure the area. Marines from the Fourth Regiment, however, were firmly engaged from entrenched and highly disciplined NLF soldiers on their move to Phase Line Banana. Soldiers from the Fourth Regiment who were dropped at Landing Zone Blue especially struggled against the fortified bunkers of the enemy at the village of Nam Yen.

After hours of fighting, the various Marine components eventually broke through the difficult enemy lines with the help of the mechanized force and reassembled at Phase Line Banana on August 19. Unfortunately, the units quickly learned that the enemy had retreated from Van Tuong under the cover of darkness of the night on August 18. Regardless, the Marines marched from Phase Line Banana to the coast, eliminating every enemy in the area.

The mission was completed on August 24, 1965. Operation Starlite was terminated.

Outcome

As a search-and-destroy mission, Operation Starlite was a resounding success for elements of the Third MAF. Marines eliminated over 600 soldiers from the First NLF Battalion and captured roughly 50 enemy suspects. In comparison, the Marine Corps lost 45 soldiers. The only downfall of Starlite was the fact that the enemy was not completely eliminated from the area. Those who escaped the Starlite campaign eventually returned and caused complications for the Third MAF throughout the duration of the war. This was a common theme with search-and-destroy missions for both the United States Marine Corps and the United States Army.

An unintended byproduct of Operation Starlite was the development of Combined Action Platoons. The success of the Marines at Van Tuong was heralded by the media within Vietnam. South Vietnamese military leaders became upset by the fact that the United States was primarily operating the engagements. Many suggested that more Vietnamese civilians would side with the United States in South Vietnam if there were more South Vietnamese troops present in battle. Therefore, Walt ordered various Marine regiments to begin utilizing members of the Popular Forces in a joint pacification effort within the I Corps Tactical Zone.

Lesson Summary

Between August 18 and 24, 1965, the United States Marine Corps Third Division, a component of the Third Marine Amphibious Force (or Third MAF), engaged the First Battalion of the National Liberation Front (or NLF) under Operation Starlite. This was the first major battle between the two forces during the Vietnam War. Operation Starlite represented a switch in tactics for the MAF, which witnessed its soldiers move from a defensive to an offensive strategy. The move was successful, as the Marines eliminated over 600 enemy soldiers via search-and-destroy around Van Tuong in the I Corps Tactical Zone.

Operation Starlite was heralded by the media in Vietnam but criticized by South Vietnamese officials due to the absence of South Vietnamese troops in the campaign. The Third MAF quickly mitigated the issue by establishing Combined Action Platoons (or CAP), which organized Marine and Popular Force soldiers to work in tandem throughout the I Corps Tactical Zone. Notwithstanding, Operation Starlite was a success, yet, similar to many other triumphant search-and-destroy missions, the enemy eventually returned to the area.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is done, you should be able to:

  • Recall American military action in Vietnam
  • Describe the first U.S. marine action against the National Liberation Front in 1965
  • Summarize the details of Operation Starlite