In January 1967, I was a 26-year-old Marine Corps captain commanding a 224-man rifle company — Company C, First Battalion, First Regiment, First Marine Division — near Danang, near the North Vietnamese border. I had been in the field for four months and was getting to be relatively experienced in small-unit combat operations. In a rifle company — clearly the pointed end of the spear of American policy — there isn’t a lot of strategic thinking. Our day-to-day tactical responsibilities, designed to achieve our military objectives, dictated our activities.
Daily life was focused on continuous small patrols of 15 to 45 men with the mission of finding and killing or capturing Vietcong guerrillas. We would establish a base camp that could be defended by a third of our company, and the rest would be on patrols or, if it was rice harvest season, provide security for the farmers in the villages. We bathed from our helmets and ate a combat ration of canned meals that needed no cooking or heating. These were protein-fortified; our three full meals a day provided about 3,500 calories. Every few days armored vehicles would resupply us with food, clean clothing and mail, as well as ammunition, grenades, land mines, barbed wire, sandbags and replacement parts for broken or damaged weapons.
We were responsible for security in a roughly 10-square-mile district and carried out all sorts of tasks, including providing medical care to villagers and backing up the local Vietnamese militia, police and regular military forces. But our primary job was seeking out the Vietcong. One key to our operations was mobility: We carried everything we needed on our backs.
At the outset of 1967, it seemed to me that the war was entering a dangerous new phase. We had begun encountering hardened North Vietnamese Army soldiers who had come down the Ho Chi Minh Trail starting in mid-1965, after President Lyndon B. Johnson said he had no plans to physically invade North Vietnam. So now our challenge was multiplied: We faced local Vietcong guerrillas, who posed a substantial threat to Vietnamese civilians, while remaining ready to engage in conventional infantry combat with North Vietnamese regular units. Ho Chi Minh’s objective had always been to reunify his country, and he needed his regular army in South Vietnam to counter the aggressive tactics of the United States and South Vietnamese forces.
The escalation of the war became clear in mid-January, when my company was assigned a mission outside our normal operating area — a raid on an enemy village and safe area that was to host a meeting of more than 100 Vietcong leaders. A few days before, an enemy courier had been killed in an ambush; his documents revealed that the meeting was set for noon on Jan. 14 in the village of Ban Lanh in Quang Nam Province. Rapid intelligence exploitation and the ability to insert units into the enemy’s base area were two of the tenets of counterguerrilla operations. In order to kill or capture the maximum number of guerrillas, this one would do both.
So at noon on Jan. 14, 1967, 176 of us loaded into 12 helicopters and headed for the designated area. Arriving about 20 minutes later, we found ourselves in a “hot zone.” All of our helicopters received fire as we prepared to land and offload troops, and remained under fire until they took off again.
We then commenced our mission, fighting our way into the village, while airstrikes, helicopter gunships and a smoke screen laid down by American jets kept the enemy contained. This was a fortified village; each house had fighting positions and bunkers, and the village was protected by bamboo groves that restricted our movements.
Even during the French Indochina War (1946-54), this area had been considered a Communist stronghold. As we attacked and started taking casualties, it became apparent that the enemy force was much larger than we had expected; we needed to accomplish the mission and to be extracted rapidly. I can clearly recall observing mountains to the southwest — I knew that the enemy had reinforcements in those hills, as they were outside areas that had been marked by the United States for pacification.
All of us were impressed with the discipline, intensity and aggressiveness of the enemy. A few weeks later, we learned that the area was defended not only by Vietcong, but also by large North Vietnamese Army units who, once they saw that only 12 helicopters dropped troops off, began to reinforce the village. It was here that our Marine training and precombat planning paid off — as junior leaders were wounded, their corporals and sergeants took over without skipping a beat.
Under heavy fire, we finally reached the meeting area, a Buddhist pagoda, around 4 p.m., but nearly all the Vietcong leaders had fled. There was nothing to do but to regroup for extraction. We had suffered many casualties on the trails and in the village, and it took time to recover them. At one point, some of us had to crawl under enemy fire to recover a wounded Marine.
In the end, we killed more than 50 North Vietnamese fighters and captured one senior cadre member. As we called for helicopters to evacuate our 32 wounded and five dead Marines, we needed airstrikes to break contact with the enemy and to protect the helicopters. We knew we couldn’t stay overnight, as we were short of ammunition, and not in an area where we could be reinforced by other Marine units.
At this point in the war, we still felt confident that we could defeat the guerrillas and the North Vietnamese Army units. But it was also apparent that not enough was being done by the government of South Vietnam to remove the causes of the insurgency or the conditions that had driven so many Vietnamese to want to live under Communism. When, later, I had a few moments to think strategically, the nagging thought arose: Yes, we can win on the battlefield, but is that enough to win the war?
I was proud to serve in the Marines in Vietnam, and I believed in our mission. I later went on to a 35-year career in the financial sector, including positions as the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company and the chair of the New York Stock Exchange Group. But I never felt I had as much responsibility as being the commander of the 224 Marines of C Company, who put their faith in my leadership abilities, and entrusted me with their lives.
Marsh Carter, a West Point graduate who spent two years in Vietnam as a Marine Corps infantry officer, is a former chief executive of State Street Bank and Trust and was the chairman of New York Stock Exchange Group from 2005 to 2013.