Not Forgotten Heroes: Vietnamese and American Marines
By Jackie Bong-Wright
Silver Star Medal from President Bush
On Independence Day week-end, 100 former U.S. Marine advisors joined 400 Vietnamese Marines, their families and friends in Falls Church, Virginia to celebrate the latters’ 49th anniversary. Retired U.S. Marine Col. John Ripley, director of Marine Corps History and Museums, used the occasion to present the Silver Star medal to Major Le Ba Binh, a former Vietnamese Marine and battalion commander. In attendance were also former Marine Commandant Gen. Anthony Zinni, Gen. Walter Boomer, deputy commandant, and Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper.
The action for which Major Binh earned his medal occurred during the Communists’ Easter offensive of 1972. The Major’s 735 man-battalion underwent a massive attack by a North Vietnamese force of 20,000 soldiers and 200 tanks at Dong Ha bridge. “Major Binh,” said Col. Ripley, “placed half of his battalion at the bridge and positioned the other half along the river’s edge wrapping it around the left flank. He inspired his Marines to superhuman efforts in throwing back the enemy time and time again. He was responsible for enabling the U.S. Marine Corps and his U.S. Army counterpart to destroy the bridge, depriving the enemy from capturing the Dong Ha village. By his extraordinary heroism in the face of extreme danger, Major Binh reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the Naval Service.”
Ripley had served as Senior Advisor to Binh’s 3rd battalion, and he himself had been awarded the nation’s second-highest honor, the Navy Cross, for his role in the Dong Ha’s bridge’s destruction. Never having forgotten Maj. Binh, whom he called “the real hero of Dong Ha,” Col. Ripley wrote to the Secretary of the Navy to request the award for Major Binh and persisted until it was finally granted. Today, Maj. Binh is a U.S. citizen who lives with his family in Texas.
History of U.S. Marine Corps Advisory Unit and Vietnamese Marines Corps
In 1962, the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) began assigning officers and enlisted men to Vietnam as advisors to the Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC). This grew from a few advisors — or Covan in Vietnamese — to over 550 during the next 14 years. The two partners worked together on strategies and tactics during the Vietnam war. Many of the U.S. Marines rose to the highest levels of the Marine Corps – 27 reached the general officer level to include five, four-star and six, three star generals.
The South Vietnamese Marines were formed in 1954, and officers graduated from the country’s most prestigious military schools. They were known to have won many major battles during the Vietnam War.
The close relationship between the U.S. and South Vietnamese counterparts remains to this day. Retired MGen. Ray Smith said, “This reunion is a great reminder that you are a Marine forever. It is something that makes you hold your head up higher, and you feel the ever-lasting pride of being a Marine.”
Gen. Boomer also recognized Mrs. Le Nguyen Khang, widow of the first VNMC commandant, and expressed the U.S. Marines’ admiration and respect for her husband.
The general reminisced, too, about Captain Don Koelper, the first American Marine to die in the war, and Captain Don Cook, who in 1964 became the first Marine to be taken prisoner and the first to earn the Medal of Honor while in captivity. Earlier that day, a team of U.S. and Vietnamese Marines had gone to Arlington cemetery to pay tribute to these two brave Marines. “Let us hope they do not become forgotten heroes.”
Gen. Boomer lamented that it had been 10 years since the Marine advisors had had a reunion with their Vietnamese counterparts, and made several suggestions for the future. He thought a newsletter would help the former Marines stay in touch with one another, proposed more use of the internet, and specifically mentioned the “superb” new Vietnamese Marine website. He wanted to start a Marine advisor collection at the Marine training base at Quantico, Virginia, with maps, diaries, letters, pictures, log books, and citations. Finally, he recommended that scholarships be started for deserving blood descendants of both Vietnamese and American Marines.
The reunion was organized by a committee composed of Col. Gerry Turley, Col. Don Price, Col. Ripley and Capt. Cy Kammeier who coordinated the event along with Col. Phan Nguyen, Luong Nguyen and other Vietnamese counterparts from many parts of the country. The event’s program booklet cited the stirring words of Shakespeare in Henry V, “Whoever does not have the stomach for this fight, let him depart. Give him his money to speed his departure since we wish not to die in this man’s company. Whoever lives past today and comes home safely will rouse himself every year on this day, show his neighbor his scars, and tell him embellished stories of their great feats of battle. These stories he will teach his son and from this day until the end of the world we shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for whoever has shed his blood with me shall be my brother. And those men afraid to go will think themselves lesser men as they hear of how we fought and died together.”
Gen. Bui The Lan who was the VNMC Commandant in 1975, had the last word. He reminded the Marines of both countries that their mission had not been achieved, and urged all Vietnamese, especially the younger generations, to work for the safety and peace of their adopted land, the United States of America.