Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Unit Breakdown - U.S. Marine Corps Recon in Vietnam

Excerpted from 1st Marine Division in Vietnam by Simon Dunstan

Recon: Elite of the Elite

While the U.S. Marine Corps considers itself the elite of the U.S. armed forces, so the reconnaissance units of the Corps consider themselves to be the elite of the elite. This was particularly  so in the Vietnam War. One of the most frustrating aspects of the conflict was the lack of accurate and timely intelligence concerning enemy units. Their ability to blend into the local population or disperse into hidden base areas was arguably the greatest impediment to mounting successful operations against the NVA or VC. The Marine Corps employed two types of reconnaissance units in Vietnam. Each division had an integral reconnaissance battalion tasked with gaining tactical intelligence within the divisional TAOR. For deeper strategic reconnaissance, II MAF employed force reconnaissance companies. Traditionally these had conducted beach reconnaissance before an amphibious landing and long-range patrolling in the subsequent land campaign, often behind enemy lines.

In Vietnam, the 1st and 3rd Reconnaissance Companies were directed by the II MAF Surveillance and reconnaissance Center in their deep penetration patrols to enemy base areas and elsewhere during which they directed the full gamut of U.S. Firepower on the enemy from tube artillery up to B-52 Arclight raids. The 1st Reconnaissance Battalion comprised four companies, each of approximately 150 men. On occasion it was reinforced to increase flexibility as in 1970 when A Company, 5th Reconnaissance Battalion, was attached. Typically, a reconnaissance patrol comprised a team of six Marines. They would be inserted by helicopter, usually into the mountainous areas on the western edge of the division TAOR where NVA infiltration routes were most numerous. Each team included an officer or NCO patrol leader, a radioman, thre specially trained riflemen and a Navy corpsman. Each team member carried roughly 70 pound of equipment, ammunition, and food for up to six days. On their return to base, the team spend a day cleaning their weapons and equipment, a second day on training, and a third in preparing for another patrol which began on the next day. For most of 1970, the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion fielded 48 such teams with approximately half on patrol at any one time. During June 1970, it conducted 130 patrols and sighted 834 enemy, while directing 120 artillery fire missions and 25 air strikes, resulting in 198 enemy killed at a cost of 2 Marine dead and 15 wounded, as well as 9 non-battle casualties.

As with most special forces units, recon teams tried to avoid contact with the enemy during their surveillance patrols. However, one standard technique was to set ambushes for small enemy units in order to capture prisoners for intelligence purposes. Nevertheless, the principal missions were intelligence-gathering and Stingray operations. The latter involved searching for enemy camps or infiltration routes and putting them under cover observation until a suitably moment came to call in artillery and air strikes. Deep inside enemy-dominated territory, recon was a dangerous and harrowing assignment and only the elite were up to the task.

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