Local hero led Marines in the first battle of Vietnam, ‘Operation Starlite’

By MARLENE BOHR

Special Correspondentweb Mike Jenkins in chair

Editor’s Note: Today, August 18, marks the 50th anniversary of ‘Operation Starlite’, the first battle of Vietnam. Hughes Springs resident Homer ‘Mike” Jenkins has the distinction of leading the historic mission.

It isn’t every day a farmer in East Texas receives a visit from officials representing Marine Headquarters in Washington, D.C.; however, Hughes Springs resident Homer’Mike’ Jenkins received such a visit earlier this summer. The Marine veteran was interviewed as he told his story of ‘Operation Starlite,’ the first battle of Vietnam.
Sgt. Melissa Karnath and Cpl. Sarah Luna from Public Affairs at Headquarters included Jenkins on their mission to visit and interview survivors of ‘Operation Starlite.’ Aug. 18 marks the 50-year anniversary of that first major offensive operaweb Mike Jenkins 2tion in Vietnam.
“We are doing this at the request of headquarters,” Karnath said. “They are putting together a 50th anniversary production for ‘Operation Starlite.’ They asked us to help. On this trip we are interviewing three Marines, and we will interview two more. We have the last four planned for later this month.
“Headquarters will put it together in a video production, and I think it will be on Marine.mil web page. I will be writing the article about Mike and other Marines we have interviewed.”
Jenkins spent six years in the Marine Corps from 1960 to 1966. He first reported to Saigon in an advisory capacity.
“I decided to become an officer as I almost had a degree and they offered me a commission,” Jenkins said. “When I went in, they were not looking for officers. Like others, I was looking to be a pilot. I went to Hawaii where I was stationed for two years. I heard they were sending advisers to Vietnam. They told me I was a reserve officer. Later they had me sign a paper to transfer from reserve to regular. Seven months after that I went to Saigon. That was a six-month tour. After that tour I went for an interview with the colonel again, and he made me Hotel Company Commander.
“I realized it would be a heavy responsibility, but I felt I could handle it and I did. I had the best company, and we got all the tough assignments. ‘Operation Starlite’ came about because the Viet Cong were preparing a massive attack. Intelligence indicated that the VC regiment was about to move in on the base at Chu Lai. They were 10 miles south of the base, and the Marine Corps decided rather than let them attack, we would attack them first. On the morning of Aug. 18, we began the plan called ‘Operation Starlite.’ It was a day and a half battle. I was company commander of Hotel Company, and we faced a regimental size VC force. Some 2,500 VC prepared to attack the base and my company landed inside the perimeter of the VC force.
“When we landed at 7:30 a.m., I was totally surrounded immediately. We fought all day and never moved more than 100 yards. We could not get out. We were badly outnumbered. The idea was to push the VC out to the sea. We were in a ravine and several times they came at us and it was hand-to-hand combat.”
Even though Jenkins was the commander, due to the situation, he enlisted the opinions from the troops and asked what they would do.
“One said let’s do it like John Wayne ‘circle the wagons’,” Jenkins said. “We had one tank. After dark we dug in pretty tight. In the morning the 7th Marines came to relieve us, and we got on a ship out. Then we went back Chi Lai.
“I landed with 200 men and the next day by noon 50 of us were able to walk out. There were 400 VC left of the 1,200. ”
Jenkins said the hardest part of the operation for him personally during the heat of the battle when the tank was disabled.
“I was giving directions to a tank commander, and they shot the telephone out of my hand,” he said. “A mortar hit the front of the tank and I was in the back. It blew me 15 feet back. I was laying in 12 inches of water, and when I came to I looked up and I thought this was what it was like to be dead. The farm and family went by in less than 5 seconds and then I began to feel that I had both legs and arms and I sat up. I was totally deaf and when I got out of the rice paddy I could not hear anything for an hour. I laid behind a dike for an hour until I could hear something. That was the toughest thing.”
Karnath asked him what it was like to be the commander of Hotel Company.
“It was a rewarding experience, but an awesome responsibility,” Jenkins said. “It is tough to give orders when you know people will be killed when you give that order. That is tough, but somebody has to do it. I think the commanders’ hands were tired by politics. We could not pursue the enemy; they would call us back. We could not fire until they fired first, but when they did, we returned fire with gusto.
“I was a reserve officer so when my time was up, I went home.”
Jenkins is also featured in the book ‘The Magnificent Bastards of Chu Lai’ that tells about ‘Operation Starlite.’
“Some combat experiences are like yesterday; some are vague; some memories are lost and forgotten,” Jenkins said. “It’s amazing how the brain memory system works. When someone says ‘Starlite,’ one memory always jumps out instantly, regardless whether you are talking about a clear night or a military operation. Other memories follow at a slower pace.
Jenkins has been active in his community and leads the Honor Guard of the American Legion Post 351 in parades, funerals, schools activities and other events.

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