2nd Battalion, 1st Marines deployment to Vietnam in 1965:
A Personal History by Tom Isenburg of 2nd Platoon, Echo Company
Companion to Picture Chronology

By Tom Isenburg
Cpl, 2nd Platoon, Echo Company
2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment
January 1965 to October 1966
Email: TFICT@aol.com
Formation:  January to March 1965

2/1 was being formed between January and March 1965 with Marines and Corpsman from the 3rd and 2nd Divisions at Camp San Mateo, Camp Pendleton, CA to prepare for support to a possible invasion of the Dominican Republic.

2nd Platoon, Echo was billeted in the single story cement barracks on the south side of the far parade deck (near supply and the old mess hall).  The order of the day was to “keep off the damn ice plants (whatever they were).”

We trained for beach assaults, hill assaults on base and for liberty in Oceanside, Long Beach (who can forget the Circus Bar) and Disneyland (they are over 18 and the parties start at 1am).  Our senior training NCOs were WW II and Korea veterans.

2nd Platoon was led by 2ndLt Doug Pickersgill, formerly of the deep water Navy; SSgt Jim Little, Korea war veteran and the “assault on the Beirut Lebanon bathers mission.”  Sergeants Paul Steen, George Wilson and Bill Lucas led the squads.  My Fire Team leader was Corporal Dave Reyner.

Training and the New Mission:  March to July 1965

As part of the training for the assault on the Dominican Republic, 2/1 became the aggressor to the 27th Marines who were flown in from Chicago as if they were to invade the island republic.  Operation Crazy Quilt tested every resource of the Regiment and the Battalion in large scale, open land based fire fights and house to house search and destroy missions, including how to use air support.

Every Marine in the company was required to know the next person’s job, read and use terrain maps and be aware of the battle plan at all times.  As such small units, usually at squad level, operated independently of the main force for days.  These small unit tactics helped us in Nam.

We also learned how to load and unload ships at sea – a task I prefer be done by our swabby friends.  On the bright side we didn’t shove any ‘mighty-mites’ over the side.

We were told our training would change to supporting 3rd Marine Division for 13 months as they conducted missions in Southeast Asia beginning in the summer of 1965.

Small unit tactics were emphasized even more, with most of the training conducted at night on the beaches and in the arroyos around Pendleton.  Some of us were trained as Vietnamese language interpreters.  Others were trained to call and manage air, sea and artillery support at the squad level.

We were designated a “Raider” company and 2nd platoon trained in rubber boats off the California Coast.  We were trained to depart from submarines, land at or near inland waterway outlets to the sea and assault villages or outposts. 

On one occasion we attacked an aircraft tracking radar site for MCAS El Toro and were damn near shot by the Marines guarding the installation – apparently they didn’t get the word we were attacking and were not pleased at our waking them up at 3 in the morning.  That same morning when we got back to the beach to return, the waves were over 12 feet high.  But what the hell, we charged our rubber boats out into the surf, only to be overturned and thrown back on the beach repeatedly causing the training NCO to declare the mission a success and let us live another day.

We deployed from San Diego aboard the USS Bexar (“Bear”) a WWII troop ship apparently activated just for us.  Deployment was originally scheduled for June but was delayed to 10 August.

The deployment will be etched in my memory for the rest of my life.  We mounted out about 12am on the San Mateo parade deck, August 9, 1965.  Families and girl friends were permitted to congregate around the mess hall.  It was a clear night with a late rising full moon.  For all of the activity to load gear and count heads there was almost no sound.  We all knew that were not going to be supporting anybody – we were going to fight.

Deployment:   August to Early September 1965

August and September of 1965 found us training in Okinawa at Camp Hansen and at Subic Bay, Philippines.  The training was a mixed bag of small unit tactics and rubber boat landings.  Our first landings were in September as well.

We made beach assaults in Higgins boats from the USS Bexar, Amtracks’s from the USS Talladega and HH34 Helicopters from the USS Valley Forge and the USS Iwo Jima.  The initial attacks were staged more for training, I think, as there was little opposition to the landings.  One such landing was followed up the next day with a beer bust on the beach we had just assaulted across the day before – this was one crazy war.

On the other hand we thought Charlie was a very smart fellow.  Looking back on those early landings, it must have been impressive to see the United States 7th fleet parked off the beach with 1,100 Marines and Corpsman kicking over beach chairs and landing in rice paddies – I think I would have di di to Laos too.

We made a couple of landings, one with just Echo Company tacking down some counter-insurgent forces which expanded into Operations Highland in Qui Nhon.  After that we were on 6 hours mount out notice as the SLF to provide support to the landing of the 1st Air Cav.  It was strange seeing aircraft carriers loaded with helo’s wrapped in white cocoons.

The Naval base at Subic Bay and the associated town of Olongapo became our base of operations and training for most of the fall of 1965.  The Battalion was arranged in tent villages on the slopes overlooking the Bay which were formerly occupied by Japanese barracks from WW2. When we arrived, the area was occupied by some very large Cobras – which we chased out to make way for our shelter halves. It was called “Andersonville” after the infamous Civil War POW camp – social amenities were lacking.

We did most of our jungle training in the Philippines and learned how to forage for food, avoid the wrong food (ham and lima bean C-rations) and suffer any unpleasant animal, shark or plant encounters.  We made hot rice and raisin cakes in hollowed out bamboo cooking pots; became masters at mixing the C-ration desert specials (my favorite was the jelly and cinnamon bun sweet role); and learned to read terrain, how to pick out sniper and ambush sites; and get acclimated to the jungle.

And of course there was Olongapo, with the Anchor and Globe and Anchor bars, monkey meat jerky, ‘dance partners’; the River; Jitney buses and love.  The officers went to parties at the Naval Base clubs but we had Olongapo.  We had the better time.  There were old women who hadn’t seen this many Marines and Corpsman since Korea and WWII.  We were welcomed (and so was our money) with open arms for as long or as short a time as we could spend.

It was in Olongapo that I developed a life lesson I have used in all my civilian international travel.  My rule for dining with my Asian hosts is to decline meals that: look up at you from the plate;  try to crawl off the plate; or scream as you bite into them.

Late September through December:  Dagger Thrust and Harvest Moon

We conducted four of a planned seven raids up and down the coast of Vietnam known as Dagger Thrust.  While the landings were Battalion-sized we would disperse along the coast and inland with platoon-sized patrols checking out villages and suspected VC command bunkers and caves.  Sometimes we would invite the village elders to meet with us and other times we provided medical aid to the villagers.  Occasionally we walked into a few fire fights.

Steve “Doc” Byars, the Company Corpsman, joined the platoon and then stayed with us for the duration.  His tireless devotion to us, keeping us repaired, or just keeping us out of certain establishments is a credit to his service.  Unfortunately he was too busy.  He was and is the most Marine Sailor I have ever had the privileged of serving with.  I watched him repeatedly move in harms way to keep us out of harms way.  Thanks Doc.

Dagger Thrust I was in the Vung Mu peninsula on September 25.  Dagger Thrust II was on Hon Lou Island on December 28.  We made both landings from Higgins boats going over the side in nets from the USS Montrose APA212.

Dagger Thrust III was down the Mu Gia river in Tam Quan on October 10.  We took a break and became floating reserve for Operation Blue Marlin being conducted by the 5th Marines somewhere south of Chu Lai.  We had a beach landing for a beer bust on the Marine Corps birthday, November 10, 1965

We were pulled off the beach and sailed south to be ready to evacuate American citizens and other non-combatants fleeing Indonesia as Communist forces advanced on the Capital.  We showed the flag, the indigenous forces did their job and the world was safe from one communist take over.  What a difference a few short decades later made to that area.

We went back to work with split operations with companies paired off for landings by air or sea some 30 or 40 miles apart.  These were attacks into villages along the coast and a few miles inland to search out VC training and support areas.  What was interesting is that the Dagger Thrust IV landing was made with some success just 70 miles east of Saigon.  It was the first and only time the Battalion ventured that far south.  We landed by Air (HMM-261 as I recall) and sea at Lang Ke Ga  at Kega Point (Bihn Thuan province – III Corps area) with the other companies landing 17 miles north at Phan Thiet from November 26 through November 30.  We moved north and south to link up in a river valley.  We disrupted a number of VC and broke up there encampments.

Dagger Thrust V landings made on November 30 into Phu Thu Village (Quan Phu My province) was relatively peaceful since the villagers hid out in a train tunnel.  We took no prisoners or fire except from a single VC who let go his one issued magazine of  ammunition at some dumb jarhead with an bright orange air panel on his helmet (as ordered by a certain platoon commander).  Dagger Thrust raids VI and VII were cancelled.  We never found out where we were to land for those last raids but we had unpacked the rubber boats and scuttlebutt about the raids gave us the impression we would be going north for those next two raids.

On December 8 we were transferred to the Valley Forge and were briefed on a helicopter assault scheduled for 20 December in support of “Task Force Delta” consisting of our 2/1, and elements of 2/7, 3/3 and 3 ARVN Battalions which became known as Operation Harvest Moon.  Echo moved to positions south of Tam Ky in the Phouc Ha Valley after the first B52 raids.  Patrols into 500lb bomb craters filled with animal and human parts was our first introduction to what it must have been like for Soldiers and Marines in World War II.  The devastation was total and we could feel the compression waves from the bombs three miles away. 

There has been much written on this operation but little on the role of 2/1.  We were being called the ghost battalion because our role didn’t appear to amount to much in the official reports of the battle.  From my perspective the cold wet weather, leeches, B52 raids, fire fights, losses for Golf, Fox and Echo in major ambushes confirmed that the Marines and Corpsmen of 2/1 made their mark.  We lost a lot of friends over those 10 days.  We also learned to operate in smaller units with limited food and supply to fight effectively and survive.  We marched out on 19 December 1965 a lot smarter, a lot smaller, but more determined than we had been before.

We have never been as cold or hungry as we were during that Operation, nor more appreciative of our Corpsman and Fleet sailors.  Their care, support and welcome back aboard ship after Harvest Moon was tireless and gratefully received.

January to July 1966:  Phu Bai, Hue, Dong Ha, RockPile and the DMZ

The Battalion took up residence at Phu Bai from 3rd Bat/4th Mar who replaced us as the SLF.  We were now recognized as a unit in country.  We built the unit compound with hard-side tent barracks, mess hall and landing pad away from the runway.  We surrounded the place with bunkers, fox and spider holes and concertina wire to protect the airfield and an Army listening post.  I had accommodations at the DaNang Naval hospital and missed most of the move but arrived just in time to re-arrange the tent city and stand a post on Hill 225.  I never did find out who brought my gear ashore.  Thank you.

We were presented with awards and promotions for the Dagger Thrust raids and Operation Harvest Moon.  Someone gave us a plaque to recognize the deployment but we noticed that the snow capped mountain pictured in the plaque suggested to us that this was a deployment sign for a past 2/1 that stopped off in Japan.  Still the picture looked great and was embroidered into uniform carrying bags for purchase at the local HoChi store and barber shop.

Our NCOs and officers were transferred to fill out the ranks of Golf and Fox companies and other units.  Staff Sergeants became Platoon commanders and Lance Corporals became squad leaders.  We changed all of our M-14s to automatic, and added shot guns and .45 cal side arms to our personal arsenals.  Carrying extra ammo, grenades, socks and food was never a problem after Harvest Moon.  Platoons were balanced out at about 35 with four squads of  7 to 8 Marines in each squad, a Corpsman and 2 or 3 souls from Weapons platoon rounding out the unit.

Squad-size patrols and night ambushes were the tactics norms.  Occasionally we would run patrols around the Refugee camps to our north to keep Charles from scaring the hell out of the natives and we began to live in the surrounding villages in support of the “pacification program” of winning hearts and minds.  We were also introduced to the new rule of engagement – ‘don’t fire unless you are fired upon’ which did much to aid and comfort the enemy.

Sniper fire and small skirmishes were the norm during our Phu Bai deployment.  Occasionally we would be sent to patrol along the DMZ and in river valleys near the western boarder of Vietnam. 

A nasty rumor was started about this time that 2nd platoon had shot a water buffalo and paid off the offended villager in scrip.  Seems the water bo was approaching the platoon in a menacing manner.  We were also accused of offering snakes for sale to the village ladies who were already scared of us.  I am sure all of these stories were fabricated by our enemies.

Our mail caught up with us on one of those extended patrols.  One of the packages we got was from Alameda High School, Alameda, California.  The senior class adopted us.  I need to send the school the picture we took of the citation.  The other package was from my girl friend (and future wife).  It contained a birthday cake with a bottle of vodka inside.  Our first drink since Subic Bay.  Gary Ford and I had a good time on that 2 shot bottle – we have the same birth date.  I knew that I needed to keep that woman close.  Fortunately, she said yes 2 years later.

We lost Lt Doug Pickersgill just before operation New York.  He was ordered south but we lost track of him and a few weeks later we got a rumor that he had been killed.  We were without the Platoon Commander who had trained us and lead us into fights.  He is one of the bravest men I have known.  Years later we found out that his first wedding anniversary was the day before we shipped out in August.  We didn’t know he was married.  We were very angry about the loss of our first and only Platoon Commander and were ready for revenge.  But SSgt Little took over the platoon and quickly kept us focused and moving forward to get our job done.

Operation New York was conducted near the end of February.  It was one of our most violent, with VC contact almost constant from landing to extraction.  It was our first night landing.  2nd platoon was the ready force the day we launched to aid our sister ARVN battalion a few miles northeast of Phu Bai in a wide river laced valley.  Charlie was dug in and wanted to fight.  The operations lasted about a week, ending on March 3rd.

On the way back to Phu Bai, 2nd platoon conducted patrols in a number of isolated valleys, including a horseshoe shaped place with a small hill in the center surrounded by  a range if mountains.  We met with and provided support for  a group of US Special Forces soldiers who were surveying the area.  We pitched poncho tents and spent a week in Khe Sanh just down highway 9 from an old French Fort that the Special Forces unit had just vacated.

Back at Phu Bai we were being spilt up to move into local villages and refugee camps as part of the I-Corps Joint Action Company program.  We were treated to USO shows from Big Tiny Little; and from Ann Margret.  Ann Margret can’t sing worth a damn but when she did even Charlie stopped fighting.  It was as if she was singing to each one of us and the fact that she and her troop traveled to this sand spit made us her number one fans.  I wish I had a picture of Ann Margret’s show.  It was one of our happy times.

We also traveled north to Hue after the main railroad bridge across the River of Perfumes was blown up.  Hue was to have been kept as an open city - no combatants allowed thank you.  The ancient capital was a combination of Asian and French architecture.  Most everyone there spoke French and attended Jesuit schools.  If you wanted to enjoy yourself you needed to practice your French.  The people were friendly and welcomed us to their city.  For all we knew we were visiting with NVA and VC each time we went to town. 

We traveled to Hue in 6-bys in civilian clothes and unarmed.  Yep.  Civilian clothes and unarmed!  Looking back on what happened to Hue in 1968, I can’t help but wonder what happened to those teachers, school children and ‘friends’ who invited us into their city.

From April to June we became village people. Formed into the newly named Combined Action Companies we settled in with local Popular Forces Platoons giving aid and training. For our Corpsman, an almost constant stream of happy, healthy children and adoring mothers kept them busy. 

After we filled the latrines in Phu Bai, new tactical orders were cut to disperse the Battalions into platoon-sized enclaves north of Hue.  2nd Platoon, Echo won the former girls school at Dong Ha as our base of operations for patrols along the DMZ and into the area with a large rock hill, we called the RockPile.  Most of our patrols were to set ambushes coordinated with artillery and air to block supplies moving into the northwestern corner of South Vietnam.  A Corpsman and a squad from the platoon would also hang out at a suspected VC or NVA sympathetic village along the rivers in that area as part of the ‘winning minds’ program.

Companies and platoons ran a series of operations to draw out our friends.  Known as Operations Beaver, Florida and Jay we would work in concert with elements of 4th Marines and surround our friends where we could.  If we weren’t on the operation we were supplying protection to fire bases.

We had some good success in late spring and early summer losing only a few of our comrades.  But by mid summer we were getting new replacements and taking on Battalion sized missions where we got hurt but gave back in equal measure.  Operation Hastings was probably the worst of the lot mainly because we were half our TO strength and making another night assault.  And this time we faced North Vietnamese regulars who knew we were coming.  We landed near Cam Lo just south of Hwy 9 and moved along the Suoi Then Hien River (The Ear).  This was our first experience with our own heavy artillery, Puff Gun Ships and the NVA mortars and rockets.  Our patrols and their patrols would meet on the same trails – and nobody backed down.  Action was almost constant from July 15 to August 3.  We had an enemy who wanted to fight and we wanted to oblige them. The savagery of it was satisfying.  We got even for all of those brothers we had lost over the last year.

Operation Hastings hurt 2nd platoon.  We lost most of the Marines who deployed with us the year before, including our Platoon Sergeant SSgt Jim Little and two of my good friends, including my birthday brother, Gary Ford.  Sgt Little’s legs were shattered so badly we didn’t think he would walk again.  I tracked him down a couple of years later to find that the Navy doctors had wired him up enough to return him to active duty first as a recruiter in wheel chair and then leading FMF Marines into the Mediterranean where he aggravated his old wounds and returned to the states. He is the bravest man I know.  And he can still scare the hell out of me.  Likewise, Gary survived his wounds, married his high school sweetheart and leads a happy and productive life.  He is my hero.

The rest of the platoon and for that matter Echo Company was a collection of walking wounded with phosphorus burns, shrapnel wounds, malaria and dysentery.  On August 6, Echo Company was relieved of duty and declared non-effective combatants (what ever that meant).  I guess that even with the outstanding replacements who joined us over the last three months, we only had 16 souls in the platoon -- it was time to rest and re-group.

On August 8, 1966 2nd Platoon, Echo Company was pulled off the line and shipped to DaNang, almost 12 months to the day since leaving the States.

August to October 1966:  Rebuilding in DaNang and saying goodbye

Of the original platoon, 16 of us traveled by truck down Highway 1 from Dong Ha airport to just outside DaNang – the new Battalion location.  I never did find out what area we were in – it just didn’t seem to matter other than it was very flat and very isolated.

Of the Echo Company Marines and Corpsmen who deployed in August 1965 most of the surviving officers and enlisted began to rotate back to the States.  New replacements arrived and we trained them.  The company and platoon commands changed from Sergeants and Corporals back to officers and new NCOs. 

We got new utilities and jungle boots to replace our rotted out gear.  We patrolled around the local villages and were sniped at from time to time.  Some of the ‘old salts’ were sent out to the villages with the Corpsman to live with and help the villagers who supported us with information on NVA staging area’s.  I felt we were doing something worthwhile in those villages – they were wonderful people.

As a “short timer” I sat on the side lines one October morning watching the company brief for a large sized search and destroy mission west of DaNang.  I signed over my squad and took pictures of the new 2nd Platoon as the next generation of 2/1 formed and then moved out of the area.

The last 2 Marines from 2nd Platoon and the original company clerk mustered out to DaNang airfield in an Amtrack.  We turned in our weapons, jungle utilities (but kept our boots and other memorabilia) and accepted our transportation orders to CONUS.  We were given new uniforms, and shoes to replace our rotted gear.  Clerks tried to update our 214s from bits and pieces of information almost destroyed when our company CP was hit by rockets months before.  We were given medals and ribbons to wear, instructing us on the appropriate placement of such items on our person, and finished up with a quick physical.  We were given sheets, blankets and a rack to sleep in for two days.  I was never more scared than during those two days in the transit barracks.  I was unarmed and without my brothers around me.  I felt very alone.

In morning we were marched in our clean Kaki uniforms to the airbase where the most beautiful Braniff Airlines jet I have ever seen was waiting to take us to Okinawa.  We spent another two days in Okinawa, at Camp Hansen, somewhat isolated from everyone on the base, but allowed into town without restriction. 

On 27 October 1966 we boarded an equally beautiful United Airlines jet with round-eye, blond stewardess’s fussing over us from Okinawa to the Honolulu.  They let us stretch our legs at the airport.  We wondered why we were being stared at but enjoyed the eye candy of tanned legs, hamburgers, french fries, and fresh salads. 

My tour ended late in the afternoon when the nice United Airlines crew dropped us off at MCAS El Toro, California, United States of America – just a few miles up the road from Camp Pendleton where our journey began so long ago.

Years later, Doug Pickersgill turned up alive and well with his family just 600 miles from my home.  He looked great for a dead guy and was just as intense as I remembered him.  Together we found Jim Little, retired from the Corps as a 1st Sergeant  and still taking care of service men but for the VA this time.  And later we found Steve Byars – our “Doc.”  It may be 40 years later, but when we meet we are in our 20s again.  I am privileged to know and continue to know such brave men.

To the Marines and Corpsman of 2nd Platoon, Echo Company, and to the Sailors and Soldiers I served with "Semper Fidelis".  Because of you, I am here today.

Tom Isenburg
2nd Platoon, Echo Company
1965 - 1966