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Marine Force Recon in Vietnam and the Killer Kane Operations

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Accurate and timely intelligence about the enemy’s strength, intentions, actions, and location was one of the most vexing problems confronting U.S. military commanders in the Vietnam War. In World War II and the Korean War, obtaining intelligence about enemy strength on “Hill 609” or the defenses of beach conditions on “Beach Green” was a relatively straightforward, if sometimes perilous, exercise. But in South Vietnam, how could a commander obtain intelligence, particularly tactical intelligence, about the enemy he faced if the enemy held no ground except that which he was transiting, was an expert in camouflage, and would only fight if cornered or had local superiority? These questions were especially important to the Marines because the northern border of II Zone, its area of operations, was the demilitarized zone that divided communist North Vietnam from democratic South Vietnam. To answer them, the Marine Corps high command turned to the special group of men who were trained to operate in four- to eight-man teams deep behind enemy lines, the Marine Force Reconnaissance companies.

Force Recon companies were active throughout the Vietnam War. By the time the last unit left Vietnam, they had recorded a remarkable record that distinguished them as an elite group within a branch of the military that regards itself as an elite service.

But such an achievement did not happen overnight. Initially, the experiences gained in World War II and the Korean War, with their large-scale operations and clearly defined front lines, heavily dominated the strategy and planning of the American high command in Vietnam. As a result, most senior commanders were philosophically ill-equipped for the guerrilla warfare reality that confronted them and how to best use such assets as Force Recon.

Force Recon Marines traced their origin to the Marine Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion of World War II, which  conducted more than 180 separate pre-assault and post-assault reconnaissance operations and earned a Presidential Unit Citation that, because of the top secret nature of the battalion’s operations, had to be classified. This legacy continued in the Korean War, most notably with D Company, 5th Marine Regiment under Capt. Kenneth Houghton and Gunnery Sgt. Ernest DeFazio. This unit was known as the “Foreign Legion of the Marine Corps” because of a large international composition that included a member of the World War II-era Polish underground and an Armenian who had lived most of his life in Iran and Russia. Houghton, who rose to the rank of major general, and DeFazio, who retired a colonel, were instrumental in developing Force Recon capability after the war.

But even Force Recon’s legacy and the high level of training conducted between the Korean and Vietnam Wars despite budget cutbacks did not fully prepare the first group of Force Recon Marines for what they encountered during the early Sixties military advisory period in South Vietnam: piecemeal commitments, inefficient use and distribution of intelligence gathered,  and loss of personnel to non-Force Recon missions and/or rotation of personnel who had reached the maximum duty tour limit of six months. These problems were compounded by a lack of appreciation by Marine Corps high command in Vietnam as to how the Force Recon Marines could be most efficiently used in the changed battlefield environment of South Vietnam even after active military operations commenced in 1965.

Congressman Howard Pollack (Alaska), back row center, discusses the slight difference in the weather between his home state and Vietnam with a recon patrol. Note the range of weapons, from shotguns and M79 “bloopers” to M16s and M14s with night vision sights. National Archives.

For example, some of the missions used Force Recon patrols as “bait” to lure and trap enemy troops. Other times they were assigned missions that seemed more appropriate to a fictional James Bond movie rather than a real-life highly- trained military unit. One of the more bizarre missions (canceled before it was launched) was one in which Force Recon Marines were to rappel from hovering helicopters and swing into a cave on the side of a steep cliff where a supposed Communist agent was holed up with thousands of American dollars.

But not all of Force Recon’s problems could be placed at the doorstep of the high command. Some of Force Recon’s early problems could also be traced to inappropriate doctrine and training that were both inadequate and did not take into account the environment where they’d be operating. Force Recon member Gunnery Sgt. Koch noted in 1966, “[Vietnam] is not a place for training at first hand, but a place for action.” Another member, Cpl. John Morrissey, later said, “The type of conditioning that [Marines] should be getting is to put a 70- or 80-pound pack on your back and go out humping five days, six days, maybe more, out in the brush climbing high mountains, down into ravines, crawling on your hands and knees through the brush.” There was also an element of racism involved. Morrissey added that at the time too many Marines believed that the enemy were “just ‘gooks’ and that they’re stupid … The enemy is far from being the ‘stupid Oriental.’”

Koch also noted of early doctrine, “When we first started out, we traveled light because we were still on our mission to observe and report intelligence. However, as we found out … it’s almost inevitable that contact [with the enemy] will be made, and when contact is made, you want all available weapons, grenades, and firepower to your advantage.” Force Recon teams soon adapted themselves to this reality. At first the Korean War-era M3A1 “grease gun” was standard issue. But the M3A1 proved unreliable in the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. As new weapons became available, they were promptly put to use. Ultimately it was not unusual for a Force Recon team to go into action carrying an assortment of weapons, depending on the mission, that included M-14, M-16, and CAR-15 automatic rifles, an M-79 grenade launcher, an M-60 machine gun, a shotgun, and pistols, as well as Claymore mines. An additional change in doctrine, made only after some hard lessons in which lives were lost, was the abandonment of the World War II-era “Quail Tactic,” a scatter plan technique, where if contact was made, troops disengaged, dispersed, and then rendezvoused at a predetermined location. This was replaced with a doctrine code named Sting Ray, developed to exploit the value of concentrated firepower from both the team acting as a mutually supportive unit and calling in artillery and air strikes.

What immediately became evident was that Force Recon missions placed a premium on ingenuity and creativity in its team members. Those who could overcome the harsh Darwinian demands of repeated combat operations in the jungle deep in enemy territory remained. Those who could not were quickly replaced.

Artillery crew during a fire mission against the enemy at Khe Sanh. Force Recon Marines used artillery and air strikes extensively against the enemy. National Archives.

Though each reconnaissance mission was fundamentally the same, each presented challenges that set it apart from other reconnaissance missions. One example of how teams adapted to their mission requirements was demonstrated in how different security was set up at overnight positions, or “harbor sites.” Some teams surrounded their position with Claymore mines. Others used pre-plotted artillery fire. Some established a defensive perimeter. Others used two separate positions with a wire or rope for silent signaling connecting the two. And still others used the “bait and switch” method — setting up at dusk in one location and then moving to another after it got dark. Capt. George “Digger” O’Dell recalled that this method proved particularly valuable. “On a number of occasions,” he said, “teams moved and then reported seeing NVA [North Vietnamese Army] sweeping the area they left.”

With the revised doctrines and new tactics in place, Force Recon teams began steadily proving their worth. In 1967, Maj. James Steele of the III Marine Amphibious Force Intelligence section began comparing statistics between Force Recon and regular Marine units. The results were startling. In tallying kill ratios, Steele discovered that the kill ratio for regular Marine infantry was 7.6 enemy killed for one Marine. For Force Recon, the ratio was 34 enemy killed for every one Force Recon Marine. In the category of enemy contact, he revealed that with regular Marine infantry units, the enemy initiated contact 80 percent of the time. But with Force Recon, it was the opposite. Astonishingly, in 95 percent of the incidents, it was Force Recon that initiated contact. These, and other extraordinary statistics, would have an impact on the use of Force Recon two years later. In 1969, Maj. Gen. (later Lt. Gen.) Herman Nickerson, Jr. returned to Vietnam as the commanding general III Marine Amphibious Force. Already familiar with Force Recon’s achievements, he decided to take their capabilities to the next level. He ordered that one of the units, Third Force Reconaissance Company, become a completely independent unit operating under his direct command, where it served with distinction.

Many of the teams made names for themselves in individual operations. Some of them became noteworthy as a result of a superior body of work achieved during their operational lifetime. The First Force Recon Company team, codenamed Killer Kane, was among that second select group as a result of the series of successful operations it conducted during most of 1967.

Gen. Wallace M. Greene, Jr., then-commandant of the Marine Corps, talks with members of a recon patrol. National Archives.

Organized under the command of 1st Lt. Andrew R. Finlayson, Killer Kane began reconnaissance operations in the Hiep Dup Valley, also known as Antenna Valley, where it quickly established a reputation for sound judgment and tactical skill.

The death of fellow Force Recon Marines Capt. Eric Barnes and Sgt. Godfred Blankenship to a booby trap while on patrol on March 25, 1967, had a profound impact on Finlayson and the future of Killer Kane operations. Barnes was deeply loved by his men and his death occurred on his last mission — one he did not have to be on. Finlayson vowed that his and Sgt. Blankenship’s deaths would not go unavenged. After talking it over with the rest of the team, they all agreed, from that point on, whenever team Killer Kane went out it would be as hunters, not just gatherers.

The opportunity to make good on this vow came on Killer Kane’s next mission. While en route to their preplanned landing zone, Finlayson managed to convince the helicopter pilots ferrying them to drop the team north of the intended drop zone, in the area where Barnes and Blankenship had been killed. They set up their ambush along a trail and proceeded to wait. Their first ambush killed two Viet Cong. A second ambush resulted in two more Viet Cong deaths and a dispatch case containing the names of a number of Communist undercover agents in Antenna Valley. Not wanting to push their luck after two successful ambushes, Finlayson radioed for an extraction. This successful mission proved to be just the first of many. For the next nine months of its existence, Team Killer Kane conducted 34 long-range reconnaissance patrols, caused 181 confirmed enemy kills and 254 probable kills by artillery and air strikes, 42 confirmed kills by small arms, nine captured enemy soldiers, and large caches of enemy documents, supplies, and materiel.

The mission on May 15, 1967, demonstrated the deadly combined force effectiveness of the team. Killer Kane had established an observation post on Hill 203 overlooking the Hiep Dup Trail. The action began when the team spotted seven Viet Cong walking down the trail and ambushed them with a combination of small arms fire and M-79 grenades. The result was one confirmed dead and four presumed killed with no casualties suffered by the team. Not long afterward, the team spotted an estimated 100 Viet Cong coming down the trail. Finlayson immediately called in an artillery mission. As the enemy began retreating from the artillery barrage, Finlayson succeeded in reaching a spotter plane who called in air strikes of napalm and rockets. The result was more than 30 enemy confirmed killed and an undetermined amount wounded.

Team Killer Kane’s greatest mission occurred on July 21, 1967, at Suoi Ca Valley, also known as Happy Valley. Killer Kane was ordered to conduct screening operations for the 1st Battalion 7th Marines in Operation Pecos at Ly Tin and Binh Son.

Pfc. Warren H. Ralya scans an area south of the DMZ while on a reconnaissance patrol along the Cua Viet River. National Archives.

The team was conducting a reconnaissance patrol on the second day of their mission when the point man heard voices in a nearby ravine. The voices were so loud that Finlayson initially thought he had come in contact with Marines operating in the area. After double-checking his map, he determined that no friendly forces were in his “box” and that the team had come into contact with an enemy that felt so confident it was safe that it had ignored standard security procedures.

Finlayson quietly set up a four-man ambush composed of his machine gunner, point man, back-up, and himself. At his signal they opened fire. The ambush was a total surprise. Ten minutes of intensive fire from the team, in which only two short bursts of erratic enemy automatic fire were received, were followed by a volley of hand grenades and gas grenades.  Finlayson then led his men cautiously down into the ravine to search the contact site. As they looked around, it became obvious that the enemy had chosen to run rather than fight. The bodies of two dead enemy were surrounded by a huge quantity of scattered supplies, weapons, and documents.  Finlayson ordered his men to gather up everything and return to their defensive positions on the ridge. After they secured the area they began to check out what they had captured. Finlayson later said, “The inventory included two Chinese light machine guns, an AK-47 assault rifle, two anti-tank rocket launchers 16 packs, 850 pounds of rice, 15 pounds of medical equipment, cooking utensils, knives, web gear, gas masks, 140 uniforms, and 15 sweatshirts.” But the most important part of their haul was 40 pounds of documents including codes, unit designations, diaries, and serialized equipment lists for the Viet Cong 402nd Sapper Battalion. It was the largest seizure of equipment, weapons, and intelligence gathered by a recon patrol at that point in the war.

Killer Kane’s growing reputation made them the focus of attention by both their superiors and the media. Newsweek wrote an article about Finlayson. Visiting dignitaries and higher-ranking officers were regularly briefed and updated by the team. Ultimately the team was disbanded through the normal rotation cycle as team members completed their tours of duty.

When Finlayson’s tour ended, he was awarded the Bronze Star. His citation read in part, “With a daring and a flair normally reserved for fictional accounts, Lieutenant Finlayson accumulated a year-long remarkable record. Behind the radio call sign Killer Kane, his thoroughly professional patrol time after time closed with the enemy and achieved outstanding results.”

The service Force Recon provided the Marine Corps units was acknowledged in 1970 at a joint service symposium in El Paso by Lt. Gen. Raymond G. Davis, former deputy commander of XXIV Corps and commanding general of 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam. Of Force Recon, Davis said, in part, “Our most reliable intelligence came from small four- or six-man Marine patrols. Throughout the province, as many as 40 of these teams were maintained on the ground in operation at all times — thereby providing a positive and rapid means of checking out indications of enemy activity anywhere. As a result, we knew with some precision where the enemy was located, what he was doing, and, just as important, where he was not.”

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...