Blue Dragons — Korean Marines in the Vietnam War

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Blue Dragons — Korean Marines in the Vietnam War

February 6th, 2024

6 minute read

A long flight on a CH-46 planted two of us on a sandy expanse of the Batangan Peninsula circled by concertina wire. While we hadn’t departed Danang with much guidance, it quickly became clear that we were likely in the right place. The area was swarming with stocky guys in Duck Hunter camouflage. A guidon flapping in a wet sea breeze indicated the compound contained elements of the Blue Dragons. We were in amongst a battalion of the 2nd Korean Marine Brigade scheduled to shortly kick off an operations titled Dragon Fire.

This photo shows a South Korea Marine of the Blue Dragons with a M16 rifle, bayonet, helmet and camouflage uniform. He is taking cover behind a hedgerow while waiting on an order from his sergeant to start the search and destroy mission looking for Viet Cong communists in South Vietnam.
In July, 1967, a Republic of Korea (ROK) Marine crouches behind a hedgerow and awaits the order to move out during a sweep and clear mission west of Binh Son. Image: Cpl. Cowan/U.S.M.C.

Our mission was to go along and observe or lend a hand where necessary to American Marines from the 1st Air-Naval Gunfire Company, which was tasked with providing air cover for the Korean foray against VC forces in this area of southern I Corps.

In this photo, ROK Marines unload a Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter from the United States Marine Corps that delivered supplies like food, rice, ammunition, water, and medical supplies. Things like first aid kits, bullets, mines and grenades were needed to fight North Korean soldier infiltrators attempting to overthrow the legitimate government of South Vietnam.
South Korean Marines of the Blue Dragons, offload supplies near Hoi An, Vietnam. The ROK Marines were supplied by Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265. Image: Lance Cpl. R. F. Nelson/U.S.M.C.

Personally, I was interested in a couple of other things on that trip. The Koreans, who had come to Vietnam with an admixture of vintage U.S. weapons (M1 and M-2 carbines, M1 rifles, BARs, etc.), had recently been issued the M16 rifle. Were they having the same sort of problems with it that were being reported by American counterparts? At the time, it was a big in-country controversy that was rapidly developing into a seriously bad reputation for the standard-issue American battle rifle.

[The South Koreans were one of several nations supporting South Vietnam in the Vietnam War. Read America’s Allies in the Vietnam War for the full story.]

The Ways of War

We had also heard reports concerning the way Koreans were fighting as U.S. allies, in a hard-headed, take-no-prisoners manner. Who had the effective methodology here? Was it the old American iron fist in a velvet glove SOP in counter-insurgency warfare? Or did the Koreans have it right with kick-ass and never mind taking names approach?

In this photograph, Republic of Korea Marines point rifles at terrorists who were setting up an ambush from a cave. The VC prisoners were taken into custody and turned over to investigators
During a September 1967 operation, ROK Marines capture Viet Cong militants who were hiding in a cave. Image: Sgt. Ryan/USMC

What was clear immediately was that these Korean Marines were a physical bunch. Granted they probably put on a little dog and pony show for the visiting yanks, but just watching them work through a full-contact Tae Kwon Do PT session gave me a feel for their combat mentality. They were aggressive in everything they did, including swift corrections for malcontents or miscreants.

In this image, South Korean Marines demonstrate martial arts during the Vietnam War. Korea is often associated with Taekwondo. However, there are many practitioners of karate, judo, kung fu, Chinese martial arts, kick boxing, Japanese martial arts, mixed martial arts and more. Several of the men in this jpeg are black belts.
A member of a Korean Marine Brigade demonstrates his proficiency in martial arts before a crowd of U.S. Marines at the Chu Lai. Image: Lance Cpl. Cowen/U.S.M.C.

At a morning formation, I watched a senior NCO take a wooden paddle to the backsides of a couple of slackers who upset him by being the last ones into line. You could hear the impacts all over the compound but the ROK Marines taking the punishment never made a sound.

In this picture, ROK Marines set up a hasty defense on a barrier island near Da Nang in Vietnam. They are equipped with M16 rifles, M14 rifles a M71 LAW and a M79 grenade launcher. One Marine is a radioman with a combat radio as part of his military gear. A river is visible in the background. The Marines are in grass in the beach sand.
Republic of Korea Marines set up a hasty defense perimeter on Barrier Island, 12 miles southeast of Da Nang. They were inserted by helicopters to search for the enemy. Image: Cpl. C. R. White/U.S.M.C.

I’d heard rumors from some intel guys that VC and NVA units operating in the Blue Dragon AO were instructed to avoid contact with the Koreans whenever possible. That likely explained why the three or four firefights we experienced up against the 48th VC Battalion during the operation were short, sharp and at relatively long ranges.

We captured a handful of prisoners, mostly locals, but a few were main force VC who tried to ambush the Koreans. Bad move against an aggressive outfit like the Blue Dragons who believed in close combat and overwhelming firepower. And while the Koreans didn’t pass out candy or cigarettes and were fairly pushy in manhandling those prisoners, I’d seen a whole hell of a lot worse during my time there. Intimidation by reputation is a thing in some cases.

In this photo, South Korean Marines ride an AMTRAC during Operation Dragon Fire. An AMTRAC is also known as a landing vehicle tracked. It is an amphibious vehicle used by the United States Marine Corps. As an armored fighting vehicle, it acts similar to a M113 armored personnel carrier, but it is much larger. More soldiers, equipment and other gear can be safely transported in one.
ROK Marines ride atop an AMTRAC to Hill 26 during Operation Dragon Fire in September 1967. Image: Sgt. Ryan/U.S.M.C.

During one of these firefights, the ANGLICO Marines called in a snake-eye and napalm strike from a pair of Marine A-4 Skyhawks orbiting overhead. Soon as the ordnance detonated and the napalm burned through everything flammable, the Korean Marines were up and on the move to round up any survivors. The ANGLICO guys said this was typical. The Korean Marines were nothing if not thorough in exploiting a battle site. They usually returned from a field operation with a sizeable stock of captured weapons and ammo.

This photo is of the 9th Infantry Division arriving in South Vietnam. The 9th Infantry Division, also known as White Horse Division after the victory of Battle of White Horse Hill, is an infantry division of the Republic of Korea Army. The unit is composed of the 28th, 29th, 30th infantry brigades, and an artillery brigade.
Troops of the Korean “White Horse” Division, 5,500 strong, march under a huge sign welcoming them to South Vietnam. Image: U.S. Navy

Their Perspective

When we found a couple of ROK Marine NCOs who spoke passable English, I got some insight to their motivation. Unlike American troops who were in Vietnam for a variety of reasons, ranging from the draft to a simple search for adventure, motivation for the Koreans we encountered was fairly simple and straightforward. They hated communists. And all of them seemed to have some sort of family horror story relating to North Korean oppression.

In this digital photo made from a film negative, US and Korean Marines swap military rations in the field during combat operations. The U.S. Marine has a M16A1 rifle on his lap. The South Korean Marine has a M26 grenade. The M26 is a fragmentation hand grenade developed by the United States military. It entered service around 1952 and was used in combat during the Korean War. Its distinct lemon shape led it to being nicknamed the "lemon grenade".
Pfc. Guy M. Wells gets a taste of Korean C-rations and instructions on using chop sticks from Kang Chang, a South Korean Marine, on Operation Meade River. Image: U.S.M.C.

Those same NCOs said they had some early problems with the newly issued M16 rifles, but the unit was promptly put on a serious and strictly enforced regimen of weapons maintenance. Everywhere we looked, every time the Korean Marines weren’t humping gear, eating or shooting, they were cleaning the M16s. Likely that attention to thorough cleaning and lubrication reduced the jamming incidents that seemed to plague American units in the early days of M16 employment in Vietnam. That said, we did note that certain platoons took precautions.

In this news photo, a wounded South Korean Marine is evacuated by US Marines in a medevac helicopter. Medical evacuation, often shortened to medevac or medivac, is the timely and efficient movement and en route care provided by medical personnel to wounded being evacuated from a battlefield, to injured patients being evacuated from the scene of an accident to receiving medical facilities, or to patients at a rural hospital requiring urgent care at a better-equipped facility using medically equipped air ambulances, helicopters and other means of emergency transport including ground ambulance and maritime transfers.
A wounded ROK Marine is evacuated by a medevac helicopter of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 163. Image: Sgt. T. E. Kingry/U.S.M.C.

Like their American Marine counterparts, the ROK Marines generally didn’t use the issue sling. An officer told us he thought a sling on a rifle meant the weapon was likely to be on a shoulder when it was needed in hand. That said, we did observe Korean Marines carrying the cleaning rod assembled and ready for use by wedging it between the upper and lower sling swivels. That kept it handy for failures to extract if a cartridge casing stuck in the chamber.

In this photo, ROK Marines load onto CH-46 helicopters in a grassy field. 	The Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight is an American medium-lift tandem-rotor transport helicopter powered by twin turboshaft engines. It was designed by Vertol and manufactured by Boeing Vertol following Vertol's acquisition by Boeing. Development of the Sea Knight, which was originally designated by the firm as the Vertol Model 107, commenced during 1956.
U.S. Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters rendezvous with elements of the South Korean 1st Marines in the ‘Dodge City’ area south of Da Nang. Image: Gunnery Sgt. Bob Jordan/U.S.M.C.


On orders to return to base camp, we made a detour to Barrier Island, a spit of sand offshore the Batangan Peninsula. Seems a landing craft had run aground in the area. It was stuck on a coral reef and needed security until the Navy could send a tug to haul it off. The Korean CO was unhappy with the detour until a couple of his swimmers investigated and discovered the stranded vessel was loaded with beer bound for local PXs the Chu Lai area. When the rescue vessel arrived a couple of days later, the overloaded beer barge was mysteriously empty. And there was a hell of a post-op party at the Korean base camp.

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Capt. Dale Dye, USMC (Ret)

Capt. Dale Dye, USMC (Ret)

Capt. Dale Dye, USMC, served 20 years in the Corps including combat tours in Vietnam and Beirut. He is a former enlisted Marine who rose to the rank of Master Sergeant before he was commissioned. After retirement in 1984, he founded Warriors Inc., the premier military consultancy to film and TV production. He is also an accomplished writer, director and actor. His showbiz resume includes more than 50 productions, many of which have won top awards. You can see Capt. Dye's many books here.

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