4th VNMC Battalion and Binh Gia Battle
(The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)
Following the mid-1964 reorganization, the Vietnamese Marines performed combat missions not unlike those they had been assigned prior to July. One exception was that the brigade no longer found itself tasked with actual pacification phases of operations. Instead, the Marine battalions concentrated on clearing operations around Saigon in conjunction with the Hop Tac campaign. Additionally, the various battalions were called upon occasionally during this period to provide security for key government installations located in Saigon and Vung Tau-assignments which gave the infantry units much needed respites from field duty.
By the end of the year the Vietnamese Marine Corps had been improved in several areas. In the motor transport field two new pieces of equipment were put into full-time operation-a high pressure steam cleaner and an M-108 wrecker. Progress also was made in upgrading the entire communications capability of the brigade when the table of equipment was revised in accordance with the modified table of organization. The new tables provided for modern test and repair equipment and eliminated obsolete and impractical items. Other unrealized improvements were still in their formative stages as the year closed. In the field of supply, for example, the brigade supply officer, with assistance from his American advisor, was drawing up plans which would give the Vietnamese Marines a more responsive and more manageable system.
While the technically oriented programs were being developed and implemented, intensified training programs were preparing more and better trained Vietnamese Marines for their responsibilities. Established in July, the Marine Training Center at Thu Due had graduated 1,464 recruits before the end of the year. These recruits, moreover, were trained by Vietnamese noncommissioned officers who had recently completed the drill instructor course at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. For the first time since its inception, the VNMC was benefiting from a flow of recruits trained by Vietnamese Marines at a separate Marine training facility. Other programs likewise were helping prepare Vietnamese officers and noncommissioned officers to command and manage their growing service. A total of 718 officers and noncommissioned officers attended various training courses in South Vietnam during the year while 42 more officers attended formal schools in the United States during the same period. Another 52 small unit leaders participated in on-the-job training programs with U.S. Marine units on Okinawa between January and December.8
Unfortunately, these developments were overshadowed by a military disaster which befell the 4th VNMC Battalion on the last day of the year. The Marine unit had been serving since early December as the reserve force for III Corps Tactical Zone. On the 27th an estimated Viet Cong battalion overran the small pro-government town of Binh Gia located in Phuoc Thy Province roughly 35 miles east of Saigon. Ill Corps officials reacted by dispatching the 4th Battalion and an ARVN Ranger battalion to the area. The 4th Battalion, accompanied by two U.S. Marine advisors and three OJT observers from the 3d Marine Division, was ordered to recapture the town. It proceeded to do so on the 30th, encountering no enemy opposition. Later in the day, while the Marines were developing defensive positions around the town, a spotter aircraft sighted a large Viet Cong force approximately two miles to the west and called for air strikes. A U.S. Army helicopter gunship was shot down and its crew killed while attacking the target.
Against the advice of his senior U.S. Marine Advisor, Captain Franklin P. Eller, the 4th Battalion commander ordered one of his companies to secure the crash site and recover the bodies of the dead crewmen. Accompanied by Eller, First Lieutenant James P. Kelliher, and Staff Sergeant Clifford J. Beaver, two of the 3d Division OJTs, the company moved west from Binh Gia on the morning of the 31st to carry out the mission. After reaching the crash site, the Marine unit was ambushed by a large Viet Cong force using 82mm mortars, 57mm recoilless rifles, and .50 caliber machine guns. Unable to maneuver because of the intense fire, the company radioed for assistance and began withdrawing from the ambush site in small groups.
The battalion commander, accompanied by the assistant Marine advisor. First Lieutenant Philip 0. Brady and the other OJTs, responded to the call for assistance by leading the remaining three companies from their positions at Binh Gia. Just outside the town they met Captain Eller, who had been wounded in the face, along with Lieutenant Kelliher and the remnants of the hard-hit company. Eller and the survivors of the morning ambush returned to Binh Gia while the remainder of the battalion pushed westward in an attempt to locate the enemy force. Later in the morning, the Marine column was surprised while moving through an abandoned rubber plantation by a Communist force of between 1,200 and 1,800 men.
No artillery was available to support the beleaguered battalion. Vietnamese Air Force A-l Skyraiders, however, were able to deliver close air strikes for about 45 minutes. U.S. Army helicopter gunships replaced the Skyraiders on station, but their rocket and machine gun fire proved too light to dislodge the enemy from his positions under the dense vegetation. By late afternoon, 29 of the 4th Battalion's 35 officers, including the battalion commander, were dead. In desperation, the Americans organized the surviving Viet-namese Marines into small groups some of which managed to slip past the Viet Cong and find their way back to Binh Gia.
Marine Captain Franklin P. Eller, advisor to the 4th Vietnamese Marine Battalion, coordinates with other American-advised units operating nearby. (USMC Photo A183570).
The Vietnamese Marines had suffered their most decisive defeat of the war. Their losses were extremely high: 112 killed, 71 wounded, and 13 missing out of a 326-man battalion. Equipment losses included 142 weapons and over a dozen radios. Additionally, all four of the U.S. Marines who had participated in the disastrous action had been wounded. Both Captain Eller and Lieutenant Brady were later awarded the Silver Star Medal for their roles in the battle.* Captain Donald G. Cook, one of the OJT observers from the 3d Marine Division, was missing in action at the close of the battle.**
Capt.Donald E. Koelper, advisor to the 4th VNMC Bn.
The ranger battalion operating nearby suffered a similar fate, incurring nearly 400 casualties in another violent ambush. Thus, within a 24-hour period two elite government battalions had been shattered. Only later was it learned that the Marines and rangers had clashed with two main force regiments of the 9th Viet Cong Division-the first Communist division to become operational in South Vietnam.
As a result of the disastrous engagement at Binh Gia, the 4th Vietnamese Marine Battalion was rendered ineffective as a fighting force for a period of three months. This loss created two immediate problems for General Khang and his American advisors. It reduced the brigade's available infantry strength by approximately 25 percent and placed an added burden on the recruit training center which was already laboring to provide enough new troops to fill the 5th Battalion. For the Vietnamese Marine Corps, 1964 ended on a discouraging note.