In the early days of Marine involvement in Vietnam, it quickly became apparent that doctrines drawn from fighting the Japanese and the North Koreans were insufficient for fighting the Vietcong. The Japanese, North Koreans, and Chinese had used defined front lines, something the VC explicitly did not. Stopping small, mobile units of guerrillas with conventional infantry formations was not working. The reaction time for large formations was too long; the orders process alone was prohibitive for tactical agility.
In 1965, it was becoming obvious that something else was needed. Up until that time, Reconnaissance assets were considered strictly non-combat support elements. They were intended to go in lightly armed, lightly burdened, look around, and get out. It took some doing to even get higher headquarters to consider applying Recon to a combat role. It was actually doctrine, according to FMFM 2-2, that the Force Recon Company had “no offensive capability and is not employed as a tactical unit…”
Several individuals within Force Recon began to put forward the idea that their small, mobile teams could conceivably be able to inflict a great deal of damage on the enemy, being lighter, faster, and less obvious than regular line infantry. They had to argue against Marine Corps doctrine, which any Marine will tell you is not easy. However, Major “Reb” Bearce pointed out that while FMFM 2-2 did not allow for offensive use of Recon assets, FMFM 6-2, Marine Infantry Regiment, and 6-1, Marine Division, both referred to “reconnaissance in force” and using Recon assets to “direct and adjust supporting fires.” Furthermore, FMFM 8-1, Special Operations, specified the use of subsurface swimming and parachute operations in raids, while FMFM 8-2, Counterinsurgency Operations, actually discussed using Recon troops in an offensive capacity against small units of guerrillas. Taking this conflicting doctrine, Major Bearce suggested amending FMFM 2-2 and putting Force Recon to work hunting the VC.
At the end of July, 1966, the Vietcong attempted a major invasion south out of the DMZ. They were met by Marine rifle companies and heavy air and artillery support, and stopped cold. It was estimated that some 800 North Vietnamese had been killed during Operation Hastings. However, many of the survivors were slipping away into the jungle. Team Primness, under the leadership of Sgt. Orest Bishko, was sent out to find and destroy these small elements.
The team inserted by Huey in the early morning. To minimize their signature, Force Recon teams were only four to six men. This team consisted of only Sgt. Bishko, Cpl. William McWilliams, the team scout, LCpl. Thomas Moran, the radio operator, Cpl. Joe Miller, the Tail-End-Charlie, and a Marine infantry officer, Bing West, serving as the secondary radioman. West had been ordered to go along on a Force Recon patrol that intended to engage the enemy by indirect fire, in order to analyze the action and report on the concept’s feasibility.
Once off the bird, the Marines ran into the brush and headed uphill, onto the ridge. The next two days were a combination of moving through steep terrain and thick brush, hiding in OPs, watching and listening, and trying to find the enemy. Several times they heard the VC making noise, but were unable to find them.
On the second day, they saw their first VC. McWilliams and Miller were close enough, and only hidden by tall grass, that they thought they would be seen, but the VC didn’t notice them, and they crept back to join the rest of the team on the other side of the ridge. That evening, they spotted enough enemy to attempt calling fire, but the angle the 105mm howitzers had to fire, coupled with high winds, was throwing the fire off. Bishko called off any more fire missions until morning.
From their hide the next morning, they heard what sounded like something close to a company of VC in a grove below them. Bishko called for one round of white phosphorus in adjust. The first round was off, and didn’t seem to alert the Vietnamese. Bishko adjusted and called for fire for effect.
As the shells started to rain down on the grove, VC began to pour out, trying to cross the stream to the west of the grove. Bishko continued adjusting fire on them, bringing down volley after volley. At one point he estimated at least 200 VC in the open. The artillery was smashing down trees and Vietcong with every salvo.
As the artillery pounded the encampment, several dozen armed VC charged out of the kill zone and up the hill to the Marines’ right flank, where they began searching for the team. Their commander had evidently figured out that someone had to be directing the artillery. Team Primness stayed in place long enough to continue to direct fires until they could see no one moving below. Then, fully aware of the enemy element hunting for them, Bishko got his team up and they ran down the back side of the ridge, where they took cover in a streambed.
During the fire missions, the Company S-3, Capt. William Ostrie, had called an Air Force observation plane in over the team to provide support. As the Vietcong searched for the Recon Marines, getting closer and closer, Bishko made contact with the observation plane, establishing their position. The FO then called in an F-8 Crusader to drop bombs on the advancing North Vietnamese.
The first strike was so close that it rocked the Recon team. Bishko called up that the pilot had missed, but the FO told him that it had been a direct hit. There were no longer any enemy troops behind them. It was just their first taste of danger close with two 2000 pound bombs.
The patrol moved out to the east, looking for another good observation point. They didn’t find one, but Miller and McWilliams were watching their back trail, and in the late afternoon, spotted more North Vietnamese following them. The enemy wasn’t trying to be stealthy, and Moran called in more artillery, destroying the trailing force. That was the last of the enemy they saw.
The next morning, they linked up with the Huey to bring them out. They had just executed the most successful artillery strikes of the war thus far. West’s report was well received, and the Stingray patrols program was born. From then on, Force Recon teams would haunt the North Vietnamese, calling down artillery and bombs wherever they could find them.