15 July – 03 August 1966
~Recollection by George Neville~
In the summer of 1966, the United States Marine Corps began a combat operation on the northeastern border of The Republic of South Vietnam.
Seven Marine infantry battalions deployed from Dong Ha, a small village south of the Demilitarized Zone, the boundary between North and South Vietnam. In support were elements of the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. The deployment of the Marine battalions was the largest and deepest penetration into South Vietnam since their arrival the previous year. The brushy hill country and tangled jungles in the mountains bordering the eastern DMZ was unexplored territory for American Infantry forces. The Marines moved north to engage forces of the North Vietnamese Army infiltrating south through this difficult terrain.
As a nineteen-year-old Reconnaissance Marine, I along with a handful of other men, were sent with a task organized Marine recon mission to pinpoint the location and activities of the North Vietnamese. Combined U.S. intelligence assets determined that a well equipped, superbly trained North Vietnamese force had massed in large numbers west of Dong Ha and south of the DMZ. Our mission was successful.
Over the next ten days, the Marine Corps encountered its most bloody and bitter combat since the Korean War, fighting a jungle war that matched WWII in difficulty and savagery. Upon its conclusion, six of the seven Marine battalions were re-deployed, and the Operation was a declared a success. Press releases and "official sources" declared victory, reporting that the North Vietnamese Army fled back across the DMZ to sanctuaries in the north. The Marines fighting in blazing heat, steep jungles, and unforgiving brush and scrub country that summer, may remember things differently, though. I am among them. I recall that operation as one of the bloodiest, most difficult and historically significant battles of the war in Vietnam.
The operation was code named "Hastings." Within Operation Hastings, there is a story to tell. It is a story of individual heroism, but also a story of American military and political arrogance and ignorance. It is a story that provokes questions and requires answers. It is a story known best, in part, by the men who fought there, but never told in its whole truth. It is a story that is a paradigm of America’s war in Vietnam. It is a story that moves from the rarefied and abstract world of a U.S. President to the grim reality of the Marine rifleman. The story of Operation Hastings is both a complex and simple story, and it is a story that demands to be told.
Years after my tour in Vietnam, I became perplexed by the "official" histories of Operation Hastings. What I read conflicted with my recollection of events. Intrigued by that conflict, my curiosity compelled me to dig deeper into the archives. When confronted with resistance from military and civilian authorities to reveal classified documents, my curiosity transformed to an investigation of Operation Hastings. It began a ten-year investigative odyssey, searching through the archives of the four service branches, and numerous agencies of the Federal Government. My research yielded two salient points. The first was that I would meet official resistance at every turn. The second was that as I found material and conducted hundreds of interviews with participants on "Hastings" a pattern of deceit and distortion was emerging. The "histories" were distorted to endorse the purported "victory" of Operation Hastings, but my research and interviews were unearthing a very different story. Each interview and document expanded a pattern of self-serving historical scholarship designed to withhold the actual facts about the intelligence data, execution and aftermath of "Hastings."
My research became a quest for fact, and my curiosity resolved into a relentless search for documented facts that contradicted the calculated optimism of published research. As I began to discover the extent of the significance of "Hastings," to the National Command Authority and senior military officers prosecuting the Vietnam War, my resolve hardened.
As I shared some of my information with several mentors and friends, they encouraged, cajoled, and in some cases, berated me to begin a narrative of the pieces of the puzzle that were forming. To accomplish this, I had to ask and answer some fundamental questions based on my research.
Marine Reconnaissance, and other intelligence gathering and analysis agencies had knowledge of well armed, well equipped North Vietnamese Forces in strength occupying fortified positions south of the DMZ before the conduct of Hastings. Why wasn’t that information disseminated to the Operation task force and maneuver battalion commanders?
Why was every aspect of Operation Hastings under continued scrutiny by MACV, CINCPAC, JCS, and the National Command Center? The operation received ambassadorial and presidential attention, yet the ground commanders had no real time intelligence.
Why was the operation abruptly terminated and declared a success when existing intelligence data confirmed that North Vietnamese units remained south of the DMZ ?
Why were 80,000 pages of documents captured by the Marines during "Hastings" retained by the intelligence community until I discovered them in 1999? These documents depicted the North Vietnamese Army realistically as a highly trained, dedicated, motivated Light Infantry Army. They also contained tables of organization, tables of equipment and strategic and tactical plans for the North Vietnamese prosecution of the war along the DMZ. Why were these documents never shared with the Marine commanders who began conducting extended operations in Northern I Corps shortly after the termination of "Hastings."
These are only a few of the questions I pose in my narrative. There are many more. I also have answers. The answers support my contention that "Operation Hastings" was a multi-service operation, a battle in which the Marines engaged a superior force without adequate intelligence or support. It was a battle that marked a fundamental shift in the nature of ground combat and disposition of North Vietnamese forces and strategy in the war. U. S. Marine casualties were horrendous and far greater then ever admitted to in the historical record. It was also a battle that was a historical pivot point for the American war in Vietnam, one that both Hanoi and Washington attempt to shroud in secrecy to this day. Finally, it was a battle in which Marine units at the individual, squad and platoon level endured and performed "above and beyond the call of duty," in a terrible climate, brutal terrain and "against all odds."
It is my intention to reduce the complex chain of events surrounding Operation Hastings to its true historical perspective, and to honor the men who fought that terrible battle with the "truth" as best as I can write it. You deserve no less. It is also my intent to apply standards of documented "truth" to the standing histories of Operation Hastings for the general readership. It will inform not only the conduct of the Vietnam War, but also the nature of American political, social and military leadership of the era. It is often said, "In war, truth is the first casualty." In this instance, the truth will prevail.
For those of you who have provided me so much assistance and support, know that my commitment and diligence has not wavered, and I continue to work hard on this extremely complex and difficult material. l will not cease until it is a manuscript as factual and thorough as can be written.
George G. Neville, Jr.
Author George Neville’s Hastings Web Site: http://www.georgeneville.com/
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