In 2000 Barrie Lovell, the author of Incoming! Vietnam Rules for the Crossfire System, wrote an article for the Grunt! website called “Collecting Forces for Crossfire – Wargaming with the South Vietnamese Marine Corps.” Grunt! has disappeared from the web so I thought I’d republish Barrie’s article here. All words below are Barrie’s, all figures are from Barrie’s collection, and Barrie painted and photographed the figures as well. I recovered the article and copied the images from the WayBack Machine.
Earlier this year  I was considering expanding my Vietnam wargames collection to include some ARVN troops or MIKE Force troops. Before I had made a decision which to collect a friend gave me some of his old Vietnam figures which he no longer used. These were 15mm Peter Pig WW2 and Vietnam US troops, which had been painted in various uniforms, including olive drab and the “duck hunter” camouflage pattern, to represent ROK troops. After looking closely at the figures I decided to use them as the basis for a South Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC) unit. I had been researching the VNMC for a while and thought they would make an interesting subject for a wargames unit.
The models I had been given were fine but needed a little repainting so that they matched my own painting style and blended in with the VNMC uniforms. I also ordered a few more figures from Peter Pig to flesh out the TO&E.
The South Vietnamese Marine Corps
The VNMC was officially formed in 1954. Initially it comprised a single infantry battalion but evolved and expanded over the next 21 years to a divisional sized formation of 3 brigades (with 9 infantry battalions and 3 artillery battalions) and a range of supporting arms and services. In 1974 a fourth brigade was authorised, with a further 3 infantry battalions and an artillery company. Plans were also in hand to form a 2nd Marine Division but this was never implemented due to the collapse of the Saigon regime and the communist victory in 1975. The VNMC was modelled extensively on its US counterpart, but retained its uniquely Vietnamese
The VNMC was regarded throughout its existence as an elite formation and, in conjunction with the ARVN Airborne Division, formed the National Reserve, moving around the country in a “fire fighting” role in response to the VC and NVA threat.
As an elite formation, and with an enviable combat record, the VNMC was frequently in the news, and featured prominently in the South Vietnamese media, particularly the press and TV. The high profile afforded the VNMC meant that it was, to a certain extent, able to select the pick of the conscripts in order to maintain its standards. In addition, the high media profile afforded to the Corps meant that many Vietnamese men and a significant percentage of the conscripts volunteered, simply to be part of an elite, rather than an ordinary ARVN unit. This produced solders with a higher than average level of motivation and determination, all of which were fostered by the VNMC ethos, the privilege of belonging to an elite unit, its battlefield successes, and the distinctive “sea wave” camouflage uniform. One battalion frequently tried to select recruits over 5 feet 5 inches tall (above average height for Vietnamese males) so that they would look physically more imposing!
Organisation, recruitment and training
The VNMC was organised along similar lines to the US Marine Corps and used similar training and tactical doctrines. Recruits were trained according to the 16 week basic training syllabus set by the AFRVN National Training School but with the addition of a further 4 weeks amphibious and helicopter drills training. Whereas all ARVN recruits were trained at the National Recruit School, the VNMC was authorised to run its own training centres. Of course, being Marines and an elite force, the basic training was considered harder than the ARVN equivalent (with the possible exception of the ARVN Airborne units) and much time and effort was spent in indoctrinating new recruits into the Marine Corps ethos.
All Officers and NCOs, including VNMC personnel, within the Vietnamese Armed Forces were trained at one of the two Officer Military Academies (based at Dalat and Thu Duc) and the National NCO Training Centre. Further specialist training, along USMC lines, was given to the Marine officers and NCOs, who frequently attended training courses in the USA.
Recruitment was remarkably consistent throughout the war, for the reasons given above. One source said that the VNMC battalions were generally kept at about 90% of their authorised strength (unless reduced by heavy battle casualties) and at any given time some 5-6,000 recruits would be undergoing training. This system allowed the corps to replace losses relatively quickly when compared to other formations.
One of the VNMC methods of maintaining high morale was in the use of unit nicknames to foster unit pride, esprit de corps and a feeling of belonging amongst the soldiers. Each infantry and artillery battalion had its own nickname, which was frequently used as a battle cry by the troops.
- 147th Marine Brigade
- 1st Marine Battalion – “Wild Birds”
- 4th Marine Battalion – “Killer Sharks”
- 7th Marine Battalion – “Grey Tigers”
- 1st Marine Artillery Battalion – “Lightning Fire”
- 258th Marine Brigade
- 2nd Marine Battalion – “Crazy Buffaloes”
- 5th Marine Battalion – “Black Dragons”
- 8th Marine Battalion – “Sea Eagles”
- 2nd Marine Artillery Battalion – “Divine Arrows”
- 369th Marine Brigade
- 3rd Marine Battalion – “Sea Wolves”
- 6th Marine Battalion – “Divine Hawks”
- 9th Marine Battalion – “Ferocious Tigers”
- 3rd Marine Artillery Battalion – “Divine Crossbows”
Surprisingly for such a large organisation, and in contrast to the USMC, the VNMC did not have any integral
armoured or air support, relying instead on the ARVN armoured units and Vietnamese Air Force
(VNAF). Such support was invariably provided from the resources of the Corps or Division in whose TAOR the
marines were operating in at the time and the system seems to have worked remarkably well, with little of the
inter-service friction found in the US military.
One reason which has been given for this amicable co-operation between the marines and the ARVN and VNAF was that as most of the officers and NCOs were all graduates of the same training centres they frequently met up with classmates and friends from the training centres. The personal nature of these friendships, plus the loyalty to one’s classmates, led to friendly and generally good working relationships between soldiers of similar ages and ranks as they progressed up the rank structure. Of course, unlike the American soldiers who were only in Vietnam for short periods, the Vietnamese soldiers were in for the duration, thus the relationships between the Marine officers and NCOs and their ARVN or VNAF counterparts were able to develop over a period of years. Some officers were known throughout the military by the nicknames acquired during their basic officer training.
As with most South Vietnamese units the VNMC was also allocated US advisors. VNMC sources state that while some of the US advisors were experienced combat veterans many were not, and were in fact younger, of a junior rank and less experienced than the Vietnamese officers they were meant to “advise”. This could lead to friction between a keen but young and inexperienced US officer and a worldly-wise, experienced and probably cynical Vietnamese officer. It is noticeable also that many of the advisors were unfamiliar with the Vietnamese culture and way of life as well as the terrain and climate of South Vietnam which in turn led to further friction. In practice the role of the US advisor to the VNMC was narrowed to that of a liaison officer, providing the communications link between the VNMC and the US forces, particularly in co-ordinating Fire Support (air, artillery and naval gunfire support).
Obviously this is a necessarily brief look at the Vietnamese Marine Corps. Unfortunately there is little in print covering this subject. Most of the printed material available in the west (or at least in the UK) seems to be concerned primarily with the US and ANZAC involvement, and there is little mention of the South Vietnamese forces other than the almost obligatory derogatory comments on “Marvin the ARVN”. This is a very narrow attitude. Just as no army or nationality has a monopoly on courage or determination, neither can one army be judged on the basis of a few units.
The best source of information I have so far found on the VNMC is on the VNMC website, which is run by veterans of the VNMC and is based in the USA. The site, which is written in both English and Vietnamese, includes detailed accounts of operations and battles from the perspective of those who actually took part in the fighting, plus information on the Corps history and links to other sites. Obviously the site makes little or no mention of some of the poorer aspects of the South Vietnamese military effort and concentrates on the more positive accounts of battles which show the VNMC in a good light. However this is certainly no better or worse than many US Vietnam unit web sites which play up their own role and abilities while ignoring the less noteworthy actions. The site also has the benefit of humanising the South Vietnamese soldiers by giving us their names, family details and backgrounds, rather than treating them as just a bunch of indifferent conscripts, as has usually been the case in the past.
The site is an excellent source of inspiration for games and many of the articles provide a wealth of detail on battalion and company organisation, even down to the names of platoon commanders. One thing that comes across very strongly is the difference in the attitudes of the Vietnamese soldiers when compared to their US counterparts, and this is shown most powerfully when the authors refer to spending leave with their families, or having to fight in or around their home towns. For the Vietnamese Marine the war was not a year spent in a vacuum, far from the “world”, family and friends, but was actually fought on familiar ground, where family and friends were often caught up in the fighting. Particularly poignant is one account where a young VNMC officer spends several weeks fighting in the Hue area during and after the Tet Offensive in 1968 before he is able to visit his home in Hue and find out if his parents were still alive.
The site is well worth a visit and deserves to be supported by Vietnam gamers. Incidentally the webmaster is very helpful and wrote me a great reply to a long list of questions I e-mailed to the site. Please support them by visiting the site.
The models in my VNMC company are mostly 15mm Peter Pig (from the WW2 and Vietnam ranges), with the odd QRF 15mm figure thrown in for good measure. By mixing the WW2 and Vietnam figures I was able to get the mixture of old and new equipment so often seen in Vietnam. As a result the unit probably represents a company during the period 1967-68, before the M-16 was in full use (incidentally, one VNMC battalion was actually issued M-16s during the Tet Offensive, being given a couple of days to learn how to use it before being sent into action). I also ordered some of the new Peter Pig 15mm ARVN models. These are absolutely superb models, mostly wearing helmets but a couple wearing berets, with the best representation of the web equipment I have seen in this scale. The mortar crew is an excellent set, while the LAW troops are of a similar high standard.
Most of the models have been painted in various shades of olive drab and green, with a dark grey “sea wave” pattern camouflage. The “sea wave” pattern is the official name of the VNMC camouflage material, and is not the better known “Tiger Stripe” although both look similar and, to be honest, there is no difference in this scale. Others have been painted in some of the various other camouflage uniforms found in Vietnam, or else rely on the original olive drab utilities.
To provide some support I have also included a few ARVN M113 APCs. These were painted in an olive drab-sand pattern camouflage, which makes a nice contrast to the US vehicles. A south Vietnamese flag was added to the Platoon commanders vehicle (based on a couple of photos I had seen).
The History of the Vietnam War, Charles T Kamps Jr
Vietnam Marines 1965-73, C D Melton and Paul Hannon (Published by Osprey)
Uniforms of the Indo-China and Vietnam Wars, Leroy Thompson
All figures from the collection of Barrie Lovell
Figures painted and photographed by Barrie Lovell
Copyright © 2000 Barrie Lovell