Operation Starlite- First Major Ground Offensive in Vietnam War

By Faye Higbee

Fifty-three years ago on August 18, 1965, the United States Marine Corps launched “Operation Starlite” – also known as the Battle of Van Tuong (Vietnamese) or the Battle of Chu Lai (US)- the first major US ground offensive in the Vietnam War. At the end of the six day battle, over 600 Viet Cong were killed and their enclave destroyed. Marines lost at least 45 men and 203 wounded. The force of Marines totalled 5,500 troops.

Defector and SigInt

According to the Marine Corps,

On August 15th, Maj. Gen. Thi, the South Vietnamese Army Commander in I Corps, informed Lt. Gen. Lewis Walt, the senior Marine in Vietnam, that he had urgent news. He had an enemy defector, a seventeen year old who had been drafted into the Viet Cong the previous spring. The young man told Major General Thi that the 1st Viet Cong Regiment had moved onto the Van Tuong peninsula just south of the new Marine base at Chu Lai. Until this time, the Marines had received agent reports among other sources, that placed the unit in multiple locations and they weren’t sure how credible the defector’s information was. Then they received a lucky break. A National Security Agency SigInt analyst in Saigon pouring over direction finder reports, found several that located the radio known to be used by the headquarters of the 1st Viet Cong Regiment on the Van Tuong peninsula.

Recognizing a threat to the base at Chu Lai and an opportunity to destroy an important enemy unit, Gen. Walt immediately set in motion a major operation. Time was of the essence: he was determined to act before the enemy either attacked the Marine base at Chu Lai or melted away into the western hills. The units had two days and three sleepless nights to prepare and launch an attack. The operation was to be named Operation Satellite but a generator failure caused a clerk to misread the handwritten instructions and the operation became known as Starlite.”

The 3/3 Marines landed on a beach on one side of the enemy and the 2/4 Marines were inserted by helicopter on the other. The move trapped the enemy between them. Other Marine units were involved: 1/7, 3/7, and 3/12. Through casualties, jungle, mortar fire, artillery, ambushes,  the US Marines prevailed.

Corporal Robert O’Malley from the 3/3 received the Medal of Honor, as did Corporal Joe Paul from the 2/4.

“Perhaps the most important outcome of Operation Starlite was its psychological lift. In the first major engagement between American troops and Main Force Vietcong soldiers the Americans had been victorious. Had the American forces lost, a real possibility given their in experience, the effects might have been severe indeed. The old tactics of the VC, which had worked so well against ARVN, failed to rout the Marines. So the enemy learned a lesson as well; it would be many months before they would again stand to fight against the Marines.

For the Marines, Starlite, or the Battle of Chu Lai as became known in their lore, took on an almost mythic’ importance. For those Marines who came later and for, whom the landings at Iwo Jima and Inchon Beach were the glory of another generation, the Battle of Chu Lai remained for many months the only evidence of what the Marines could do if the enemy stood and engaged.” Read more here at Operation Starlite