Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Korean "Blue Dragon " Marines in Vietnam

The 2nd Republic of Korea (ROK) Marine Brigade "Blue Dragons" landed at Cam Ranh Bay in early October 1965, shortly after the ROK Tiger Division arrived in Qui Nhon.

The ROK Marine Corps was only formed in April 1949 with an initial strength of 380 men, mostly volunteers from the ROK Navy and Coast Guard, with outdated Japanese weapons left over from WWII. It grew to two battalions by the end of 1949.

When the North Koreans invaded in June 1950, the allies were forced south to the Pusan Perimeter where they held. While that fighting was underway, in August 1950, a 3rd ROK Marine Battalion was created. The three battalions were organized into the 1st Korean Marine Corps Regiment and attached to the US 1st Marine Division (MARDIV). Following the Inchon landings, the ROK Marines occupied Inchon, enabling US forces to move toward Seoul.

In the spring of 1952, a decision was made to use ROK Marines to defend islands in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan. There are many of them, if you study a good map, and you'll see that many lie astride North Korea. As a result, the ROK 2nd Marine Regiment was formed with three battalions, two deployed to the Yellow Sea islands, one to the Sea of Japan islands.

Several US Marines have commented that while the ROKs were there to defend the islands, they frequently conducted raids into North Korea, not content to sit still on an island. Many of the islands are fairly close to the North Korean mainland, and have been a bone of contention and source friction.

The Corps quickly established itself as a potent fighting force in the Korean War, called the "Ghost Busters" by some, "The invincible Marines" by others, and "The Legendary Marines" by still others.

The Blue Dragon Brigade, evolving from the 2nd Marine Regiment, was also organized around three infantry battalions (1st, 2nd and 3rd) supported by a composite artillery battalion, a heavy mortar company, an aviation detachment, and the normal support.

Fast forward 12 years. The Blue Dragons are headed to fight communism in Vietnam.

The 2nd ROK Marine Brigade deployed to Cam Ranh Bay in late September and early October 1965, Brigadier General Yun Sang Kim, ROKMC, in command (shown next).

All the Blue Dragon brigade's officers had been trained by the USMC at Quantico or San Diego. One US Marine colonel at Hoi An is said to have remarked some years later:

"We taught them everything we know, and now they know it better than us." 

Brigadier General Lee Bong Chool, ROKMC, told reporters after the Dragons debarked in Cam Ranh Bay.:

“We have only one purpose here—combat.”

He added his Marines would fight the Communist Viet Cong (VC) “anywhere, anytime.”

The brigade remained at Cam Ranh for a couple months. The Dragons then deployed to the Tuy Hoa area to lend a hand against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 95th Regiment, which had disappeared for a while but then reared its ugly head in the rich rice regions around Tuy Hoa. 

When the 9th ROK White Horse Division arrived in fall 1966 and got settled in, it took responsibility for Tuy Hoa. That enabled the Blue Dragons to move farther to the north, into I Corps, the responsibility of the III Marine Amphibious Force (MAF). I Corps straddled the DMZ and Laos. The Dragons were positioned in Quang Ngai Province south of Chu Lai, #5 on the map, the southernmost province in I Corps. 

In August 1966, the Chu Lai region was added to the Dragons' area of responsibility (AOR).  Each of these moves to the north enabled US Marines to go elsewhere.

The Blue Dragons constructed and occupied Fire Support Base (FSB) Ky Tra, northeast of Chu Lai. It was surrounded by booby traps, with only one safe trail down the hill. This is a photo of the FSB in 1971.  It is typical of a ROK Marine FSB.

For example, this photo shows a ROK Marine site south of Danang. In their book, US Marines in Vietnam, The War that Would Not End, 1971-1973, Major Charles Melson and Lt. Colonel Curtis Arnold, both USMC, said:

"The Korean camp and outposts were examples right out of a field manual —immaculate in every way with every sandbag in place. It was apparent to Major Dyer that the "Blue Dragon" Marines were thoroughly professional: they kept their hair cut close, wore their uniforms with pride, and appeared physically ready."

The 5th ROK Marine Battalion arrived in 1967, to reinforce I Corps, which at that time was being strained by heavy NVA infiltration across the DMZ and from Laos. They arrived just in time. The year 1967 was a very hectic and active year for the allies in I Corps, and the Blue Dragons were in the thick of it.

Let's review a few of the battles in which the Dragons were engaged. Lt. Colonel James Durand, USMC, writing, "Korea's myth-making Marines," addresses more battles than are highlighted here. I commend his article to you

Battle of Tra Binh Dong, February 1967 

Col. Durand  has presented an inspiring account of this battle. It was the first major battle for the ROK Marines.

Tra Binh Dong was a village in the Chu Lai region. A 1,500-man NVA regiment attacked about 300 ROK Marines of the 11th Company. The enemy attacked from two directions and  breached perimeter defenses. 

SSgt Bae Jang Choon and his first squad, 3rd platoon, rather than abandoning their position, fought with bullets, then grenades, then entrenching tools, pick axes, and finally fists. Pfc Kim Myong Deok killed 10 enemy with his rifle as the enemy advanced on him. Sgt Lee Hak Won took hand grenades in both hands, waited for the enemy to approach, and at the very last moment, threw himself and the grenades on the advancing enemy killing himself and four NVA. Pfc Lee Young Bok lured the enemy to his position, slipped into a spider hole, then released several grenades as the enemy entered the trench.

Second Lt. Shin Won Bae, the 1st platoon commander, and his platoon sergeant, Gunny Sergeant Kim Yong Kil, gathered a force together to destroy an enemy mortar position. When they approached within 20 meters of the target, they threw grenades and advanced, threw more grenades and advanced, and kept doing so until they reached the objective and took the mortar tubes with them back to their own positions, leaving the dead enemy behind.

The NVA attacked with flame throwers, and the Koreans moved toward the flames, firing machine-guns and throwing grenades, killed the enemy and took the flame throwers.
Here you see 
Lt Gen Louis W. Walt, Commanding General (CG), III MAF, speaking with Capt Jung, Commanding Officer, 11th Company, the morning following the battle, surrounded by Brigadier General Kim Young Sang and other senior Marines. Around their feet are plenty of dead enemy. It's hard to read facial expressions, but General Walt appears to be acting like Capt. Jung's coach, or even dad, and Capt. Young looks mighty proud.

And it just kept on like that until the Marines finally zeroed in their artillery, brought in USMC A-4s and some attack helicopters, and finished the battle. The NVA left 243 dead behind. There were over 100 NVA dead within the perimeter, and another 140 dead enemy straddled on the wire.

Time magazine would say this in its article, "A savage week," February 24, 1967:

"It was knife to knife and hand-to-hand—and in that sort of fighting the Koreans, with their deadly tae kwon do (a form of karate), are unbeatable. When the action stopped shortly after dawn, 104 enemy bodies lay within the wire, many of them eviscerated or brained." 

The US Marine Corps History and Museums Division, in a booklet entitled, The Marines in Vietnam 1954-1973, talks about this battle this way:

"The heroic defense by the ROK Marine Brigade's 11th Company against a regimental-size attack southwest of Chu Lai triggered a series of actions, which resulted in the destruction of much of the 1st Viet Cong Regiment and perhaps some of the 21st NVA Regiment. With the enemy fixed in the hook of the Tra Khuc River, two ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) airborne battalions were heloed into position to the west and behind the enemy, more ARVN blocked along the river to the south, a battalion of the 5th Marines went into position in the foothills to the northwest, and the ROK Marines pushed southwest from their base camps along Route 1."
It should be mentioned here that by April 1967, General Westmoreland decided that considerable focus had to be shifted to I Corps. There was friction between Westmoreland and the US Marines, and, in fairness, the NVA was infiltrating through the DMZ and from Laos at increased rates. 

Task Force Oregon was deployed to the corps, consisting of three Army brigades of six infantry battalions sent mainly to Quang Tin and Quang Ngai, the two southernmost provinces, freeing the Marines to focus their attention on the northern three provinces in the corps. Task Force Oregon, by October 1967, would be reorganized into the Americal Division, the seventh Army division fighting in Vietnam. So the Army was now in Marine Country.

 While the Marines didn't like the Army coming into their territory, the Army's presence enabled the Marines to concentrate farther to the North.

During the summer of 1967, the 2nd NVA Division and VC units were conducting major operations in the southern three provinces of I Corps, the southernmost being Blue Dragon Country. By this time, nine US Army battalions were operating in and around Chu Lai. Along with the three ROK Marine Battalions just to the south of Chu Lai, these combined units forced the NVA and VC main force units to withdraw from the populated areas and move back into the mountains. They continued to cause problems for allied forces from the mountains, but at least they were out of the major population centers.

The enemy trawlers
During July 1967, US Navy (USN), USMC and Korean Blue Dragons had been watching movements by a NVA trawler (labeled Skunk Alpha) suspected of being loaded with ammunition sailing slowly southward along the coastline.

 Early in the war, the NVA enjoyed moving massive amounts of supplies to the RVN by boats along the coastline. The legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail from the NVN through Laos to the RVN and Cambodia was still in its infancy, though it grew quite rapidly.

The USN's "Market Time Northern Surveillance Group" had been tracking the trawler for several days, mainly using P2V Neptune patrol aircraft from Patrol Squadron One.

When south of the Paracel Islands, "Skunk Alpha" turned directly toward the Blue Dragon coastal area, headed toward Cape Batangan (also known as Batagnan Peninsula) south of Chu Lai and Danang. She was spotted on July 11 fairly close to the shoreline. Skunk Alpha then turned away eastward, then northward back toward the Paracels. Then on July 13, she turned south again, then west and headed straight for Cape Batangan yet again.

The USN prepared a major operation to get this boat, wanting to do so before her crew could blow up the ship, a routine practice for the Skunks.

The 174th AHC "Dolphins and Sharks" was called in to support the operation. The Shark gunships would provide close air support while the Dolphins would bring in a ROK Marine air assault force to be used as needed. The details of the operation, along with very interesting photography and graphics, can be viewed in the article, "Sa Ky River Victory."

Once the trawler turned to shore, apparently hoping to off-load her cargo to VC waiting there, various naval vessels worked exceedingly hard to trap the ship, get a firm identification, and identify her destination. Once that was done, the appropriate USN Swift boat patrol craft were tasked; the 174th Shark gunships were given directions; the 174th Dolphins carrying ROK Blue Dragon Marines were told their beach assault destination; and USN and RVN ships were positioned, everyone waiting for Skunk Alpha to enter the 12 mile limit.

The weather was bad, it was night, seas were running at 8-10 feet, the winds were blowing above 30 knots, and Skunk Alpha was trying to get into the smooth waters of the Sa Ky River, get to the nearby VC reception point, unload and escape under the cover of lousy weather and darkness.

The enemy, attempting to get to shore, spotted approaching ships and opened fire. Swift boats accurately targeted the pilot house, killing the crew, and preventing the enemy from blowing up the ship. Shark gunships also opened fire and dropped flares to light up the area. Shore-based Blue Dragons opened up with artillery fire.

Following a short naval battle that required some pretty good coordination and seamanship in the rough waters, Skunk Alpha was disabled. It became apparent its entire crew was dead or very badly wounded, and she went aground on the rocks.

The 174th Dolphins were airborne carrying ROK Blue Dragon Marines. They air assaulted in to secure the beach site, and clear out any VC waiting for their ship to come in.

This is Skunk Alpha "berthed" at a dock at Chu Lai. The disabling hits on the pilot house were devastating to the trawler's crew.

Here you see a portion of the cache of weapons and ammunition the trawler was carrying to enemy waiting on shore. 

Raul "Bean" Herrera provided some interesting background on Skunk Alpha to Vietnam Magazine, published in February 1996, and revised by Larry Wasikowski. He said this


"Skunk Alpha had been well suited for her mission. Her holds were lined with fiberglass between the hull and its sheathing. She was also equipped with a high-capacity pumping system. Her engine was muffled for silent running. There were also 2,000 pounds of TNT strategically located aboard the vessel that could be set off to self-destruct if she were to fail in her mission. Luckily (BM2 Bobby Don) Carver's mortar round had knocked out the detonation button. He saved thousands of Allied Forces' lives, including those of his crew. PCF-79 (patrol craft - Swiftboat) surely would have gone down in that explosion." 

Khe Sanh hill battles, enemy prisoners

Throughout much of 1967, the NVA moved major force levels across the DMZ and from Laos into northern Quang Tri Province, most especially toward the Marines' Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB). The "Hill Battles of Khe Sanh" were fought throughout the year, an intensive and very difficult prelude to the major NVA assault on the base in 1968. The Marines assessed that as many as 12 full strength and fully supplied NVA divisions led by the 304th NVA Division intended to attack KSCB and destroy the US Marines located there. This was one of two major NVA objectives for 1968: Tet and Khe Sanh. 

The Blue Dragons sent in a detachment of ROK Marines who specialized in jungle warfare. Their mission was to capture as many NVA regulars as possible for interrogation. The Blue Dragons did this with considerable dispatch, operating only at night. Marines write that the Dragons would always come back with prisoners.

This USMC CH-46 from HMM-263 is heading back from the DMZ, returning with Korean Marines and seven or eight Viet Cong captured by Korean troops, taking them to Da Nang, April 1968.

A South Korean Marine from 1st Battalion, 2nd ROK Marine Brigade (Blue Dragon Unit) escorts three Viet Cong prisoners captured during a search-and-destroy patrol near Tuy Hoa on April 15, 1966. The prisoners were caught setting booby traps on a trail.

Legend has it that it was not a good idea to be caught by the ROKs. For sure it was not a good idea to get into a fight with the Blue Dragons.

Tet Offensive 1968

The Tet Offensive of 1968 was, of course, everywhere. On January 30, 1968, General Westmoreland sent a telegram to Admiral Sharp, CINCPAC and told him, among other things, the following:

"The events of the past 18 hours have been replete with enemy attacks against certain of our key installations in the I and II CTZs. The heaviest attacks were launched against Danang, Kontum, Pleiku, Nha Trang, Ban Me Thuot, and Tan Canh in the Dak To area. Lesser attacks were made on Qui Nhon and Tuy Hoa ... The ARVN Corps Headquarters came under enemy mortar and ground attack by an estimated reinforced enemy company. An attempt was made against the Danang bridge by underwater swimmers ... Timely warning of the attacks plus rapid reaction by US/ARVN/ROK forces has brought the situation in the Danang area under control at this time. Casualties so far list 89 enemy KIA and 7 friendly KIA. Noteworthy among the counteractions launched in the early morning hours was that of the ROK Marines, who, in response to an enemy ground attack in the Hoi An area, inserted a force by helicopter, engaged the enemy, killing 21 with no friendly casualties."

Hoi An - "Victory Dragon"

"Ham Salad Alpha" was a Korean Marine position south of Da Nang. Daily resupply missions were flown bymHMM-265. In the Spring of 1968 it was one of the hottest zones in I Corps. It took gun ships and fixed wing aircraft to get in and out.

Pacific Stars and Stripes reported on March 20, 1968, that Brig. Gen. Yun Sang Kim, commander, 2nd ROK Marine Brigade, said that his troops arrived in the Hoi An area of Quang Nam Province one day before Tet. He decided that instead of bombarding the city, he would draw the enemy out of the city and then attack them. During the Blue Dragon effort in this area from January 30 - February 29, his forces killed 609 enemy, with his losses at 50.

The Blue Dragons conducted six "Victory Dragon" operations during 1968 in Quang Nam Province, and 12 more in 1969. Edwin H. Simmons, Brigadier General, USMC, has written a summary of "Marine Corps Operations in 1968" for the USMC History and Museums Division, in a booklet entitled, The Marines in Vietnam 1954-1973, and he writes this about these Victory Dragon operations in 1968:

"The ARVN had stood up to the test of the Tet offensive well. In 1968, they accounted for 26,688 enemy killed, more than double the 12,488 attributed to them in 1967. The ROK Marine Brigade in its Victory Dragon series had killed another 2,504 enemy. Added together, the Free World Military Forces in I Corps in 1968 had killed over 100,000 of the enemy, taken nearly 35,000 weapons." 

It's worth noting that an enemy sergeant from the 31st NVA Regiment told his interrogators in 1968 that the mission of his unit was to "attack Hoi An, five times if necessary, and set up a liberation government." Their attacks failed.

"Operation Defiant Stand"

Barrier Island, about 34 miles south of Danang, RVN, and just south of Hoi An, had long served as a haven for enemy units. It was fortified with bunkers, tunnels and fighting holes. Marines had fought there before and would fight there again. I have been unable to specifically locate Barrier Island. That said, I do know it is one of the islands shown on this satellite image of the Song Hoi An River just south of Hoi An, flowing west to east into the South China Sea.

In May 1969, HMM-362 lifted the 1/26 Marines to the island, setting them down in an area boxed off on the land side by the ARVN, Blue Dragons, and elements of the Americal Division. The Operation, known as "Daring Rebel," yet again proved the concept of large-scale cordon-and-search operations in disrupting the VC.

Then, on September 11, 1969, the target was once again the Barrier Island. The Washtenaw County, US Navy tank landing ship LST-1166, participated in the first combined US-ROK amphibious landing combat operation since 1953, the first ROK Marine amphibious landing in its 20 year history, and the last Special Landing Force (SLF) operation of the war. The assault was known as "Operation Defiant Stand."

Several units participated in this combined operation, including: USMC HMM-265 (from the ROK Blue Dragon standpoint appropriately nicknamed "The Dragons"), Brigade Landing Team (BLT) 1-26 Marines, the 3rd Battalion Blue Dragons, South Vietnamese patrol craft, and several 7th Fleet ships.

Just prior to the amphibious assault, the USS Vancouver group feinted an amphibious operation about 10 miles south of the real target to draw off defenders at the target. 

HMM-265 lifted BLT 1-26 and some Blue Dragons aboard CH-46Ds from the USS Whetstone to the far side of Barrier island. The USS Whetstone was the primary control ship, controlling the landings across Red Beach. The USS Taussig, a destroyer, provided offshore fire support.

The Blue Dragons set up a blocking position across the island. The 1/26 Marines landed just south of that blocking position and moved north to join the Dragons. Then the Washtenaw County brought US Marines and the 5th and 6th Companies, 3rd Battalion Blue Dragon Brigade, ashore by amphibious assault on the northern edge of the island. This force then swept south to the USMC-ROKMC blocking position. In all, 293 enemy were killed.

Vietnamese patrol craft cut off escape routes from the island. 


About 1,200 Blue Dragons left Da Nang, Vietnam on December 4, 1971. This group of Dragons shown here was the first element to leave. The rest were out by February 22, 1972.

Among the Dragons who served in Vietnam, some 1,076 were killed and 2,884 wounded. The 2nd Marine Brigade was deactivated on March 10, 1972.

A Marine Gunny Sergeant, worked with ROK Marines in Korea, and would tell his son:

"Those guys are so hardcore one of 'em could get shot and think it’s a mosquito bite."

Let's finish with this proud photo of Blue Dragon Vietnam veterans.


The combat legends of the Blue Dragons are not to be denied.  They were fierce fighters. However it has to be noted that some of them have been accused of atrocities. The allegations have caused great consternation and debate in the ROK. Many Koreans did not want their forces to go to Vietnam. 

Furthermore, after Tet 1968, in large part because the US had announced it would withdraw from Vietnam, all ROK forces decided to remain along the coastal regions and not engage in major combat. In turn this created difficulties in US-Korean relations. That said, US Marine Aviation assets that supported the Blue Dragon troops withdrew completely in May 1971 while the combat role of Korean troops continued.

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