These long-range reconnaissance patrols probed deep into enemy territory

Specialists in intelligence gathering are as old as organized warfare and “know thy enemy” remains a fundamental need of any armed force. The Vietnam War, with its unforgiving operating environment, was a crucible in which both sides developed specially trained scouting units and every branch of the U.S. military fielded its own.

On June 19, 1957, the Marine Corps organized force reconnaissance, or Force Recon, battalions out of World War II’s Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, a parallel to the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams that evolved into the SEAL (sea, air, land) teams.

Entering service in Vietnam as the 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company in September 1965, Marine long-range patrols came in three primary forms. A combat patrol, operating within range of friendly artillery, consisted of a team leader, a grenadier, a hospital corpsman, two radiomen, a point man and a trail man at the end of the line.

  • Members of 3rd Platoon, Company A, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, hop off a UH-34 helicopter during a patrol. / National Archives
  • Cpl. John L. Borst and Staff Sgt. David D. Woodward of the 3rd Force Reconnaissance call for a gunship to hit the area in front their patrol near the Demilitarized Zone and the Laotian border. / USMC
  • On Jan. 16, 1967, a Marine sergeant shows his hand with a new supply of ace of spades cards, also known as “death cards” because recon patrols left them as a marker of their presence to intimidate the enemy. / Getty Images
  • A U.S. Marine Force Reconnaissance patrol tries to keep a low profile as it seeks out enemy forces in 1968. / Frederick J. Vogel Collection / Archives Branch
  • Sgt. David E. Weimer prepares to go into the field with Company A, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion. / National Archives
  • CH-46A Sea Knight choppers of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 take on members of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion at Quang Tri in northern South Vietnam for transport to enemy territory. / USMC
  • An NVA soldier captured by a recon patrol is given a drink of water. Prisoners wear labels with the time and place of their capture. The captives were a valuable source of intelligence. / USMC
  • Marines of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion haul a North Vietnamese Army 12.7 mm anti-aircraft gun from a large munitions cache they uncovered near the DMZ. / AP Photo, Eddie Adams
  • Point man Pfc. Ruben Zapata leads a six-man patrol just south of the DMZ./ USMC photo by Lance Corporal Bob Partain

A “keyhole” patrol, or “green operation,” designed to avoid contact, employed four to 10 men to gather intelligence. “Stingray” or “black ops” teams were eight to 12 men who ambushed enemy soldiers and then drew them into kill zones.

Unlike the Army’s long-range reconnaissance patrols and Special Forces units, the Marines did not operate with local militias, such as fighters from Montagnard tribes. They also differed from the other services in that they passed their intel only to high-level commands, which in Vietnam was the III Marine Expeditionary Force.

In the years since Vietnam, the Marines have continued to evolve their special ops structure. Today, in addition to Force Recon, there is a separate Marine Special Operations Command with “Raider” battalions.

The Force Recon teams still follow the same Latin motto: Celer, Silens, Mortalis (“swift, silent, deadly”). V

This article appeared in the October 2021 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe and visit us on Facebook: