The Battle of Ap Bac was the first major battle in Vietnam and it involved two different groups, the US Army and the Marines. Both sides had their own plans for attacking and both were fighting for control over a small village called Ap Bac.
The list of marines in vietnam is a list of the names and ranks of the Marines who participated in the Battle of Ia Drang.
Early in 1968, tensions between senior Army and Marine commanders flared as generals with opposing perspectives on combat tactics attacked not just the enemy but also each other. The conflict was centered on South Vietnam’s northernmost area, which was the only part of the country with a large concentration of Army and Marine troops.
Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the commander of all US combat troops in South Vietnam as head of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, chose to assign a senior Army commander to the northern area, where a Marine general was already in control, which sparked the rivalry.
The I Corps Tactical Zone, a grouping of five provinces, was under the authority of the South Vietnamese army’s I Corps unit in the country’s northernmost area. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the I Corps was one of four military zones established in the South.
The III Marine Amphibious Force, which was established in May 1965 after the Marine landing at Da Nang in March delivered the first U.S. ground combat force to Vietnam, was in command of American soldiers in the I Corps Tactical Zone. In February 1966, the 3rd Marine Division was joined by the 1st Marine Division. The 3rd Marine Division was responsible for the two provinces closest to the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Vietnam, while the 1st Marine Division was in charge of the lower provinces of the I Corps. In June 1967, Marine Lt. Gen. Robert E. Cushman assumed command of the III MAF.
Concerned about increasing activity by the North Vietnamese Army in late 1967, Westmoreland developed contingency plans for a second high-level I Corps command, led by an Army general, in January 1968. Westmoreland believed there would be a big NVA assault and “did not trust III MAF to be able to manage the battle,” according to Army historian Graham A. Cosmas. The communists began their Tet Offensive, a series of near-simultaneous assaults throughout South Vietnam, on Jan. 31, only days after Westmoreland’s intentions were revealed.
Provisional Corps Vietnam was officially established on March 10 by Westmoreland. Army Lt. Gen. William B. Rosson was in charge of PCV, with Marine Maj. Gen. Raymond G. Davis as his deputy. PCV was based in the Hue-Phu Bai region, approximately 50 miles north of the III MAF’s Da Nang headquarters. (On August 15, PVC reactivated as XXIV Corps, a World War II force.)
The Army reinforced I Corps with two highly mobile elite divisions: the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and the 101st Airborne Division, which comprised the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, in addition to establishing a corps headquarters. They were stationed in central South Vietnam’s II Corps Tactical Zone.
Gen. William Westmoreland, the top US commander in Vietnam, was dissatisfied with the performance of Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Cushman, right, in northern South Vietnam, and placed certain troops under the direct direction of Army Lt. Gen. William Rosson, left. / Photo: Getty Images
PCV was subordinate to Marine headquarters on the organization chart, although the 1st Cav and 101st Airborne were not immediately under the authority of III MAF commanding general Cushman. They were immediately responsible to Rosson. He even took command of the 3rd Marine Division, which was located in Dong Ha.
The creation of the Army PCV headquarters seemed to many Marines to be a vote of no confidence in III MAF, and it was to a great extent.
After the conflict, Westmoreland stated, “General Cushman and his staff looked smug, appearing hesitant to utilize the Army troops I had placed at their disposal.” “Marines are overly reliant on their bases.”
The creation of PCV enraged Maj. Gen. Rathvon McClure Tompkins, commander of the 3rd Marine Division. He claimed, “It’s equivalent to…commander relief.” The arrangement was never fully trusted by III MAF headquarters.
Davis, on the other hand, was unconcerned. “Having a senior Army command in the Marine zone did not strike me as a sign of no confidence… He remembered his interactions with Marines in Da Nang [III MAF headquarters]. “The Army had sent out its finest and most vital forces…these were the Army’s best, and they were all helicopters… So I see why the Army would be hesitant to hand them over to the Marines.”
Davis was someone I came to know well. I was transferred to the battalion staff after serving as a captain in the 3rd Marine Division’s Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, and became Davis’ aide de camp. I worked with him for a few years and talked with him on an almost daily basis. I conducted an interview with him for one of my books.
Davis was characterized as “a nice, mild-mannered guy in many ways, but was one of the most combative characters I’ve ever met, a kind of bulldog determination” by Army Lt. Gen. Richard Stilwell, who replaced Rosson as head of PCV in July 1968.
When the Army requested a Marine deputy to serve alongside Rosson, the request reached the Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington, where Davis was in command of personnel. “I have someone in mind—me,” he replied laconically when he went to the commander to propose a general for the new post in I Corps. Davis’ name was sent once the commandant approved. Rosson eagerly accepted the invitation.
The disagreement among the Army’s and Marines’ top levels in I Corps prompted angry remarks from both sides.
At a conference, Westmoreland complained that the Marines had failed to give sufficient air support to 1st Cav Division troops in I Corps. Cushman protested, claiming that the 1st Cav “didn’t know how to ask for it or how to utilize it.”
In an interview after the war, Westmoreland stated, “I blew my top,” adding that this was “certainly the final straw.” The Marine Corps, which regarded its aviation units to be an essential component of the Corps’ air-ground combination, objected to his attempt to centralize control of air operations under a single command, the 7th Air Force.
When the commander of the 7th Air Force, Gen. William W. Momyer, asked Rosson to get Army general approval for the idea, the feud became even more heated. Rosson was aware of the sensitive nature of the Marine situation and, unbeknownst to Momyer, asked Davis to attend the meeting. To say the Marine general’s presence in the office alarmed the Air Force commander would be an understatement.
Westmoreland issued an order on March 7 to adopt the single-manager model.
Davis arrived at PCV in March 1968 and was greeted warmly by Rosson, who regarded him as a colleague and friend. Maj. Gen. John J. “Jack” Tolson III of the 1st Cavalry, Maj. Gen. Olinto M. Barsanti of the 101st Airborne, and Tompkins of the 3rd Marine Division all offered the same respect to Rosson and his staff.
Davis responded, and he started to form personal connections with the Army generals as well as professional working relationships. He made it clear that he had come to study. On Rosson’s squad, there were no contentious Marine-Army ties as there were at the senior-command level.
I saw a significant contrast between the two Army generals and the commander of the Marine division. Tolson and Barsanti led their troops with vigour and zeal. Tompkins looked exhausted, as though the burden of leadership weighed heavily on his shoulders. He had been at war for much too long, in my opinion. The Marine served in World War II in Guadalcanal (where he received a Bronze Star with a V device for bravery), Tarawa (where he received a Silver Star), and Saipan (where he received a Bronze Star with a V device for valor) (Navy Cross). He was awarded a second Bronze Star with a V in Korea.
Davis established a pattern that he followed throughout his time in Vietnam: waking up before daybreak, receiving a briefing on the situation, and then visiting troops in the field. Davis was given a helicopter by Rosson on a regular basis to tour the Corps’ area of operations. “In terms of assessing the preparedness and efficacy of [our] troops, it was an excellent approach to become orientated and sensitized to the whole situation,” Davis said. Late in the afternoon, he returned to PCV headquarters in Phu Bai.
Davis was urged to attend briefings and engage in operations by Army leaders. He saw the 1st Cav launch a helicopter attack in the infamous A Shau Valley, which the NVA exploited to transport supplies and people along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It also served as a staging location for assaults in I Corps’ northern sector.
After overrunning an isolated Special Forces base in March 1966, the NVA took control of the A Shau Valley. The valley was defended with strong 37 mm and rapid-firing twin-barreled 23 mm anti-aircraft guns, dozens of 12.7 mm heavy machine guns, a maze of subterranean bunkers, and even tanks by the North Vietnamese.
When Davis led the 3rd Marine Division and ordered the 9th Marine Regiment into the A Shau and Song Da Krong valleys, the insights he collected during the 1st Cav mission would come in handy. Davis’ mission was hailed as a “resounding success” by Army commander Stilwell. It may be unrivaled as a standalone regimental operation.”
Davis also saw an operation by the 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, in collaboration with the elite Black Panther Company of the South Vietnamese 1st Division. Near the little hamlet of Phuc Yen, 2 miles northwest of Hue, the Panthers cornered an NVA battalion. While coalition artillery hammered the North Vietnamese for two days until the NVA unit was decimated, US Army helicopters quickly delivered the brigade to the battle and completed the encirclement. The ultimate score was 300 enemy killed and 100 captured, the highest number of detainees seized in a single battle at the time.
Battalion Landing Team 2/4 (2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment) of the Marine Special Landing Force fought elements of the NVA’s 320th Division near Dai Do, just north of the 3rd Marine Division headquarters at Dong Ha, in late April. At the time, Rosson and Davis were on a regular visit. Tompkins gave them an overview of the division’s operations, but he hardly addressed Dai Do and seemed unconcerned about the situation.
The next day, Rosson and Davis returned to Dong Ha. The two generals saw intense combat near Dai Do as their chopper approached the base. Bomb and artillery hits were characterized by plumes of grey smoke. Helicopters carrying supplies and medical evacuations raced back and forth. Despite the fact that 2/4 was engaged in intense action with a large enemy force, Tompkins kept back US troops that might have destroyed the enemy. The division’s area of operations included 15 fighting battalions, including a brigade of the 1st Cavalry.
Davis remembered Rosson being “disappointed” with Tompkins. “I could see he was worried about the Marines’ mobility…and I agreed.” Rosson’s assistant told me privately that the Army commander “was so angry at Tomkins that he would have removed him if he hadn’t been a Marine.” Rosson was worried that dismissing a Marine general by an Army general would further strain Army-Marine ties.
Davis was persuaded that the Marines needed to change their tactics and become more engaged in high-mobility operations after the A Shau, Phuc Yen, and Dai Do missions. He said, “This was a completely new idea [of operations], and I took it up right away.” Senior officers on Rosson’s staff would “take turns having dinner with him [Davis] every night in the headquarters mess, offering him our thoughts on mobile warfare, and we flew around with him throughout the day,” according to one PCV officer.
Davis published an essay for the Marine Corps Gazette, a professional magazine that provides as a platform for discussing problems and ideas, in which he provided a hypothetical scenario of how a Marine regiment might execute a heliborne attack. Davis’ essay was a lesson-learned style that integrated Army and Marine helicopter techniques. Davis got a rejection notice from the Gazette a month after submitting the piece: “As the essay did not include anything fresh in the form of creative methods, the Gazette did not believe it was worthy of publication.” “Nothing new here, the Corps has been doing this for years,” one curt remark simply said.
Davis, furious, contacted the chief of staff of the Headquarters Marine Corps to seek his assistance. The essay was accepted for publication. Another example of the Marine Corps’ inability to grasp the reality of the fight in northern I Corps was this event.
The Army saw helicopters as Sky Cavalry, a way to outmaneuver and outflank the NVA, while the Marines saw them as boats intended to transport soldiers from ships to shore in order to break through enemy defenses.
The Marines seemed to be on the defensive when it came to helicopters. When I saw the 1st Cav raise a whole battalion at once, I realized they had that mentality. To a senior Marine officer, I observed that the air appeared to be thick with helicopters. The cop scowled and puffed out his chest. “Remember, captain,” he added emphatically, “the Marines invented vertical assault.” They [the Army] are just trespassers.” Although the Marines developed the troop-carrying helicopter, they did not fully utilize it as the Army did.
A small crowd gathered around the 3rd Marine Division landing zone at Dong Ha at 11 a.m. on May 21, 1968, when Davis assumed command of the division. He knew precisely what he wanted to accomplish after spending two months at PCV observing the division.
“I had ample time to do something I’d never done before or since, which was to go in prepared to totally flip the command upside down in the first hours,” Davis said.
Davis immediately gathered his senior staff officers and regimental commanders and informed them that his yet-to-be-published essay in the Marine Corps Gazette on heliborne assaults would be used as a guide. Several of the more senior officers grumbled about the new principles after he left.
It didn’t take them long to figure out that Davis was serious about what he stated. A South Vietnamese commander indicated to the location of two large North Vietnamese troops on a map during the morning intelligence briefing the next day. Davis launched a massive offensive with a multibattalion force that included two battalions that were immediately airlifted in.
Rosson’s deputy was Marine Maj. Gen. Ray Davis, seen aboard an aircraft. / Getty Images
“I had Bill Rosson’s assurance of assistance because of my strong connection with him,” Davis said. “If I needed Army helicopters, he’d provide them to me. … I was promised that I would be supported. When we went into these tactical operations, Rosson [and his replacement, Stilwell] assured me that I would never have to glance back over my shoulder and worry whether I would be supported. I could call and an Army brigade would be sent to the area to assist me if required. They’d never put me out on a limb like that.”
III MAF and its 1st Marine Air Wing, which controlled helicopters and fighter-bombers, had not given Davis such guarantees. Davis described the lack of assistance as especially frustrating since the 3rd Marine Division had “set all sorts of records in terms of helicopter lift, support, and utilization rates—but something was wrong with the system.” There were far too many unpleasant days as a result.”
“You have to figure out in detail the day before precisely what you want and arrange it,” Davis said of the Marine helicopter allocation system. Without the adversary holding stationary, a ground commander will be unable to devise a clear strategy for the following day’s operation.” Davis desired a system that was “completely adaptable and sensitive to the requirements of the ground commander.” A flight of CH-53 Sea Stallion heavy-lift helicopters was forced to return to base after running out of flying time—the amount of hours the crew could fly before resting—in the midst of an operation.
In staff correspondence, Brig. Gen. Earl E. Anderson, III MAF chief of staff, addressed Davis’ views: “Ray Davis has been shot in the fanny with the Army helicopter system, although I honestly believe it’s more the result of the large number of helicopters available to Army units, combined with the fact that the ground officer has greater control over them than the Marine comma.”
Davis said that this was precisely the issue. He claimed that the Marine infantry commander played a secondary role after the initial preparation for an operation: “The helicopter leader with his captive load of soldiers chooses where, when, and even whether the troops would land.”
Westmoreland, according to Cushman, “never understood why the Marine Corps’ helicopters weren’t connected to the divisions and all this sort of Army doctrine, and I tried explaining why, but I never could persuade him.”
Marine Aircraft Group 39, based in Quang Tri, provided assistance to the 3rd Marine Division. It was unable to offer sufficient evidence for Davis’ notion of high mobility. In a fast-paced tactical scenario, the MAG-39 commander, a colonel, lacked the authority to alter strict operating protocols. He once seized the helicopter that was supposed to be used for Davis’ daily inspections and utilized it for his own reasons, believing that his status as group commander gave him the authority to do so. He didn’t value the division commander’s interests as highly as his own, highlighting the worsening relationship between Marine air and ground commanders.
The 1st Marine Air Wing, located in Da Nang, 70 miles south of the 3rd Marine Division headquarters in Dong Ha, created an auxiliary command post at Quang Tri under the leadership of Brig. Gen. Homer S. Hill, an assistant wing commander, in an effort to appease Davis. Hill aided Davis in making the mobile idea a reality. “He was here to address problems,” Davis said, adding that he was given “enough authority.” He may issue orders to air units.”
The air wing, though, continued to report that “Davis was completely insatiable.” Davis was delighted by his “insatiable” need for choppers “when I had more enemies than anybody else!”
“If I don’t receive this helicopter assistance that I’m asking for from you, I’m going to seek it from the Army,” the Marine commander informed III MAF frankly. The devil has the last laugh.”
Davis’ mobile operations strategy relied not just on the helicopter, but also on the wide use of information collected by small reconnaissance patrols, reinforced by electronic and human-acquired intelligence, and backed up by air and artillery troops.
Davis said, “The division never began an action without obtaining a precise description of the targets and goals via information verified by recon patrols.” “High mobility operations were much too tough and complicated to fail or fail miserably.”
The issue of helicopter allocation was never properly addressed. During Davis’ assignment, it was a continuous cause of annoyance. Davis was promoted to lieutenant general and sent to the Marine Corps Development and Education Command as head of the Education Center at Marine Corps Base Quantico in April 1969. Cushman praised Davis’ work after the move, except in the area of “cooperation.” Davis’ persistent demand for more helicopter assistance, I think, contributed to this score.
Davis was promoted to assistant commandant of the Marine Corps on March 12, 1971, after receiving his fourth star. After 34 years of service, he retired one year later. Davis passed away on September 3, 2003. V
After 26 years in the Marine Corps, Dick Camp resigned as a colonel in 1988. Camp has authored 15 books and over 100 articles for military publications. Three Marine War Heroes: General Raymond G. Davis is his most recent book. Camp resides in the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia.
This story first published in Vietnam magazine’s August 2022 edition. Subscribe to Vietnam magazine and follow us on Facebook for more stories:
The how many marines served in vietnam is a major topic of contention between the Army and Marines. The two branches have battled over war plans for years, with no end in sight.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who did the Marines fight in Vietnam?
The Marines fought against the North Vietnamese Army.
What Marine Division was in Vietnam in 1967?
The 1st Marine Division was in Vietnam from 1967 to 1970.
When did the Marines enter the Vietnam war?
The Marines did not enter the Vietnam war until after it had already begun.
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