VAN STOCKUM: Brigadier General of Marines: Part 3, Early days of Vietnam War era

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Growing in rank and responsibility, a newly minted Marine Corps brigadier general, in a 4-part series, brings a perspective on life during the Cold War Era. Today: Life in California and on to Southeast Asia.

By Ron Van Stockum

My last column described my duties and experiences as national director of the Marine Corps Reserve. While stationed at Marine Headquarters in Washington D.C., I traveled widely in the United States to inspect my reserve units.


In March 1964, I was transferred across the country to Coronado, Calif., to assume command of the Landing Force Training Unit, Pacific. My mission here was to provide teams of Marines to train our allies throughout the Far East in the Marine Corps’ specialty: amphibious operations.

Here I acquired the many perquisites provided general officers in command of units in the field. I was assigned an aide de camp and lived in a spacious set of pre-world war quarters on the Marine Corps base in San Diego, with a staff of two to help in the household.

I also had use of an official sedan to drive me to my headquarters, located across San Diego Harbor on the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado.

Probably unique in the Marine Corps, I had also the use of a Navy “barge,” for occasional use for transportation to my headquarters. A barge is a boat assigned to a flag officer, normally an admiral. Coronado, connected to the mainland by a strand, was practically an island, a long trip by sedan, a short trip by boat.

My barge also was used for a number of other official purposes, including the entertainment of prominent local Naval supporters. On one occasion, I used it to take Gen. Wallace M. Greene, then commandant of the Marine Corps, for an official call on a senior admiral on board his flagship tied up at a Coronado pier.


Familiar visitor

Shortly after arriving in San Diego, my wife, Susanne, and I had a visitor at our quarters on the Marine Corps base. It was the global traveler Lee Meriwether, our close friend, by then 101, who was visiting the Crystal Pier in San Diego, which he remembered as the nationally known resort it had been during his youth.

Asked by a reporter of the San Diego Union to what he attributed his long life, he answered: "I never smoked, drank or ran around with wild women…before I was 14 years old. I won't tell what happened after that.”


Amphibious training of our allies

The amphibious training provided by my teams deployed to the Far East included the “Ship to Shore Movement,” in which troops aboard Naval transports would debark into small boats, land on enemy shores and fight their way inland to secure a beachhead for further operations.

Such training also including instruction in debarking from a transport by climbing down a cargo net draped over the ship’s side into a landing craft waiting below. This function was simulated by the use of a wooden replica of a ship’s deck and side, called a “mockup,” down which the net was lowered.

My teams also provided instruction in living aboard ship, where troops were crowded into ship’s holds using stacked rudimentary steel bunks. Ship-to-shore communication, including the control of Naval gunfire once ashore, also was taught.

I was responsible, through my teams deployed abroad, for training of allied forces in the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Thailand, South Vietnam and South Korea.


The Vietnam War

In August 1964, an American destroyer, USS Maddox, engaged several North Vietnamese torpedo boats in Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin. The actual facts of this action have been subject to a great deal of postwar scrutiny, but it provided the basis for the passage by Congress on Aug. 7 of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in which:

“Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.”

This resolution served as President Lyndon Johnson's legal justification for deploying U.S. conventional forces and the commencement of open warfare against North Vietnam.

The president then initiated a plan for direct involvement of American troops in Vietnam. Previously our support had been indirect, such as that provided by my teams of instructors. Also support was being provided by Marine helicopter units and U. S. military advisors, imbedded in the field with Republic of Vietnam units engaged in combat.

In September 1964, Gen. Greene visited his commands in California, including mine, and held a conference of all Marine general officers serving on the West Coast at nearby Camp Pendleton, Calif. I heard him describe a policy of gradually introducing Marine combat units into South Vietnam.

He said he planned to increase the pressure on the Vietcong and their North Vietnam supporters and convince them that their aggression was fruitless. He would do this by deploying to Vietnam first a battalion, then a regiment and even a division if needed.


To the Far East

Shortly thereafter, from Oct. 14 to Nov. 6, 1964, during the early stages of our involvement in the Vietnam War, I made my first trip to the Far East to inspect my instructional teams. In the course of my travels I made official calls on senior commanders of U. S and Allied Forces, in Hawaii, Tokyo, Yokosuka, Atsugi, and Iwakuni in Japan, Okinawa, Korea, Taiwan, Saigon, Vietnam, Bangkok, Thailand and Manila in the Philippines.

A highlight of this trip was my visit on Oct. 22 with Lt Gen. Yu Hao-chang, commandant of the Chinese (Taiwan) Marine Corps at his headquarters in Tsoying, Taiwan. I played a round of golf with this impressive and hospitable commander.

Gen. Yu hosted in honor of my visit a magnificent and memorable banquet at a large round table, which represented the best in genuine Chinese cuisine. I was given an elaborate plaque carrying the emblem of the Chinese Marine Corps, patterned after the U. S. Marine Corps insignia, but containing in the background the entire map of China, including the mainland, even though the Republic of China controlled only Taiwan.

It was customary during such official visits to exchange plaques. I gave him in return, the one representing my command.


Vietnam inspections

During this trip it was possible for me to travel extensively through South Vietnam to observe training without the threat of guerilla activity. Or so it seems, for, in retrospect, I now believe that my fellow Americans and I were often unknowingly the object of hostile stares.

I called on all U. S. senior commanders and many Republic of Vietnam senior officers, including the commandant of the Vietnamese Marine Corps and the Commandant of the Command and General Staff College at Dalat, which was located in the highlands of South Vietnam, north of Saigon, and had a temperate climate because of its altitude comparable to that of Baguio, the summer capital in the highlands of the Philippines.


Derby west

On July 1, 1965, Susanne and I gave a fabulous party in honor of Millard and Marguerite Cox of Louisville. Millard Cox, a Kentucky racing commissioner, had invited us to the Kentucky Derby, held only two months earlier. The Coxes were visiting San Diego to say farewell to their son, Marine 2nd Lt. Millard Cox III, who was being deployed to Vietnam.

It was a truly remarkable party. I was wise enough to leave all the details to my imaginative wife. Susanne billed it as “Kentucky Derby (West)” and extended invitations in the form of a racing form. Then she arranged for our prominent civilian guests and admirals and generals to ride around on hobby horses, simulating a run for the roses.

She even had King Crab flown in from Alaska, and, as all were feasting on it, I decided, prompted by the festivities of the occasion, to announce in a loud voice that this was merely hors d'oeuvres and thatthe main course was to follow.

Society columnist Eileen Jackson of the San Diego Union reported under the heading “Races Evening Is Social Winnah:”

“The summer social race for hospitality–with–the–most–verve already has been won by Brig. Gen. Ronald Reginald Van Stockum, USMC, and Mrs. Van Stockum. Their party, “an evening at the races,” given in their garden at the Marine Corps Depot, set a social standard for imaginative, fun–with–dignity entertaining which will be difficult to approach.”

Years later, Ms Jackson, in recalling social events, again mentioned this fabulous party in her social column. It was one to remember.

2nd Lt. Cox did not attend. He elected quite properly to remain aboard ship with his platoon. They sailed for Vietnam the next day.


Postscript: A strong partner

Susanne de Charette Van Stockum (1915-2000), born in Paris, in addition to being unassuming and thoughtful, was imbued abundantly with the qualities of imagination and curiosity. She possessed flair. I learned early in our marriage to let her have her way, while retaining a restraining hand.

In 1955, while I was anchored in Tokyo Bay, preparing to disembark for a 2-year tour of duty, she expressed an intention to explore Japan in our American automobile. Having been stationed in Japan before, I advised her that the rocky roads beyond the confines of Tokyo were ill-suited for our low-slung Dodge. I was to be proven wrong, for, following her lead, we traveled far and wide over rugged country roads to become acquainted with rice farmers and fishermen in areas seldom seen by an American.

Later, while stationed at the Marine base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., a Halloween party was given at the officers club. Dressed in a black robe with a peaked hat covering a “wig” of moss from the nearby North Carolina swamps, there she stood to greet the guests, with long-puttied nose, stirring a large tureen and offering “witches brew” to all who attended.

It was strong stuff!

Life with Susanne was never dull!


Next: Working for 5-foot, 3-inch Lt. Gen. Victor H. (Brute) Krulak


Ron Van Stockum can be reached at ronvanstockum@mac.com. His latest book, Coming to Kentucky: Heaven is a Kentucky of a Place, just off the press, as well as his others, Kentucky and the Bourbons: the Story of Allen Dale Farm, Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers,and Remembrances of World Wars,  may be purchased at Terhune’s Style Shop in Village Plaza Shopping Center in Shelbyville or from Amazon.com.