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The Aussie Digger in the Marine Corps

Captain Ivan Cahill, Royal Australian Regiment

the only foreigner to have direct command of an American Rifle Company in Vietnam

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The upturned brim of his distinctive Australian slouch hat made him immediately stand out to the young Marines at their base camp south of Da Nang. And his manner of saluting, flat palm of hand facing forward and brought crisply to his hat-brim, reverberating slightly as it snapped to a stop in the British manner, caused whole groups of young Marines to deliberately cross his path so that they could salute him and then watch the spectacle of his return salute. 

Captain Ivan J. Cahill of the Royal Australian Regiment held an entirely unique distinction: He was the only foreigner to have direct command of an American rifle company in combat. Not an adviser, not an observer, not a liaison officer, Captain Cahill was the commander of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, during some of the most savage fighting in that unit's proud history.

Even after a long and distinguished career in the Australian army, including the command of an Australian infantry company during his second tour of Vietnam in 1971, retired Colonel Cahill would remain proud of the uniqueness of his American company command.

Unit History (part). The 3rd Marine Regiment was reactivated on 16 June 1942, in North Carolina, as part of the World War II military expansion. The regiment fought and bled at Bougainville and Guam. Four medals of Honour were awarded to members of 3d Marines for actions during this period. Following World War II, the Regiment was ordered to China to aid in the disarming of Japanese units and to assist the Nationalist Government in the occupation of Northern China in an effort to deny land to the communists.

3rd Marines was quick to respond to the call for forces in Vietnam, providing security for the Da Nang Air Base in early 1965. The Regimentís experience level and ability to adapt led to many innovations including the Combined Action Company and the Civic Action Program. Ultimately, 3rd Marines was to participate in 48 major operations in the Republic of Vietnam.

 Echo Coy 2nd Bn 3rd Marine Regiment

USMC   2002

The story of how he came to command a U.S. Marine rifle company began in Melbourne, Australia, where Cahill had been born some 26 years before he served in Vietnam. After finishing high school, he trained at Australia's prestigious Royal Military College, Duntroon, where he was commissioned a Lieutenant in December 1963. Cahill was then posted to an Australian Infantry Battalion stationed in north-eastern Australia and from there to the Pacific Islands Regiment in Wewak, New Guinea. At that time New Guinea was still an Australian protectorate, its forces part of the Australian army and led by Australian officers.

After a couple of years in New Guinea, Cahill was sent to Okinawa in May 1967, where his duties had him working with American forces, in particular with the headquarters of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (MAB). At the time, the 9th MAB had several responsibilities, one of which was the provision of two of its battalions as the Seventh Fleet's Special Landing Force (SLF).

The SLF served as the Marines' mobile fire brigade, cruising off the coast of Vietnam and ready to be deployed to hot spots and battles as needed. Only a month before Cahill's arrival, in April 1967, the SLF had been thrown into the hill fights around Khe Sanh and had seized the strategic Hills 881S, 881N and 861, which would later prove extremely valuable to the defence of the Khe Sanh airstrip during the Tet offensive of 1968.

Service in the SLF battalions was clearly service in the vanguard of the Marines' war against the NVA and VC, and Captain Cahill was eager to be a part of it. While he was initially posted to the island of Okinawa in a liaison billet as an S-3 (operations) officer, in August 1967 he managed to join the SLF quietly, without advising Australia, and take up duties on board USS Tripoli as part of the normal reinforcement chain from the 9th MAB.

A career soldier, Cahill would later recall, "I was very keen to go to Vietnam." With the SLF he was dispatched as Liaison Officer to the forces (U.S. Marine Corps and ARVN) in Vietnam being supported by the SLF. In that role he participated in several SLF operations, including 

  • Operations 

    • Belt Drive, 

    • Swift, 

    • Fortress Sentry, 

    • Kingfisher, 

    • Formation Leader and 

    • Knox 

in the northern provinces of the I Corps area. (The Yanks pronounce it 'eye core', to Aussies it is "one core")

In the course of Cahill's job on the Marine headquarters staff, he rubbed shoulders on a daily basis with American Marine Majors and Colonels. One of those Colonels was Henry Englisch, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (2/3), whose troops were embarked on board USS Tripoli as SLF-Bravo. Cahill later recalled, "I knew the battalion commander, Hank Englisch. . .and just kept making it known that I was keen to command a company within the battalion." He noted: "I didn't say anything to Australia about this. I didn't even tell Australia that I'd left Okinawa. Because they could only say 'yes' or 'no,' and I didn't want to give them the opportunity to say "no"."

In November 1967 the Australian Captain's constant requests for a job with the battalion finally paid off. Cahill later re-called: "One day Hank Englisch said to me, 'How would you like to have Echo Company?' And so I went from the staff of the Landing Force to the Landing Force battalion." The U.S. Marines of Echo Company now had an Australian Commanding Officer.

Within a few weeks the 2/3 was reassigned to land-based duty in Vietnam and another battalion took its turn as the SLF. When Captain Cahill's Echo Company, 2/3, took up positions south of Da Nang in November 1967, Cahill simply went along with it. Still he sent no word to Australia that he had even left Okinawa.

Cahill was enjoying his time with the U.S. Marines. "The Marines were very keen," he recalled, "very enthusiastic. Terrific young people. Professionals wanting to do a decent job and trying their utmost to do so." And the Marines in his charge were equally happy with their foreign skipper. Echo Company's first sergeant, David Johnston, noted at the time, in an article that appeared in Stars and Stripes, "We're fortunate in having Captain Cahill as our Company commander and we're proud and pleased with the situation."

Soon the Marines of Echo Company even began referring to themselves as "Diggers," a term Australian soldiers used to describe themselves.

The "Australian connection" was made even stronger when Cahill managed to acquire 200 Australian slouch hats for the Marines of Echo Company-and even received permission from the battalion commander for the Marines to wear the distinctive hats around the battalion base camp.

But the real test would come on December 28, 1967, when Cahill's Echo Company, 2/3, was placed under the operational control of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (3/5), for a combat operation against NVA forces that threatened the U.S. Marine air base at nearby Da Nang. Cahill's Echo Company was in the first wave of a helicopter-borne assault. 

As they exited the choppers and moved off from the landing zone, Cahill recalled, "we were brought under fire, and a number of our troops in the forward platoon were killed."

Click to enlarge A citation for the Bronze Star with combat distinguishing device, signed by the Secretary of the U.S. Navy, tells how "Captain Cahill, with extraordinary coolness and tactical acumen, deployed the Marines under fire to meet this unexpected threat" and how, for the next several hours, the Australian Commander skilfully directed air and artillery support. 

It also describes how he "without regard for his own safety, courageously moved about the battlefield, encouraging the Marines of the Company in their action against the enemy.

Cahill's actions that day kept the landing zone open and allowed the Marines of the 3/5 to enter the battle and complete their assigned mission, as well as eliminate more than 30 enemy soldiers. Colonel William Rockey, Commander of the 3/5, summed up his performance, stating that Cahill "conducted himself heroically, professionally, and efficiently in command of his company. His leadership was inspirational to the Marines under his command." But that was not the end of Captain Cahill's time with the Marines. Far from it. He went on to command Echo Company through the Tet offensive and several additional operations around Da Nang before moving north with his battalion to join the 1st Marine Regiment for Operations Ford, Pegasus and Scotland 11.

For the latter two operations, which took place in and around Khe Sanh, Lt. Col. Jack Davis, now commanding the 2/3, assigned Cahill as battalion 5-3. But the highlight of his tour, "perhaps one highlight amongst many," Cahill later recalled, was command of the 2/3's tactical area of responsibility for a week while the battalion commander and three of the battalion's rifle companies were away on a task assigned to them by the regimental commander of the 1st Marines.

Thus, during his last week with the battalion, Cahill commanded a force consisting of two rifle companies (one from his own battalion and one "on loan" from the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment), as well as the direct support artillery battery, a platoon each of tanks, 81 mm mortars, 4.2-inch mortars, 106mm recoilless rifles and various other attachments; well over 500 Marines in all.

During that period he was responsible for a four-mile stretch of Route 9 near Khe Sanh and an area of operations encompassing some 40 square miles north and south of the highway. While Captain Cahill's time with the Marines eventually came to an end in May 1968, today he still speaks with great pride of what he terms "the great honour of having led Marines." He also notes, "whatever views one hears today about Vietnam, no one can deny the dedication and professionalism of those Marines with whom I was privileged to serve.

To this day, it is not entirely clear what levels of approval were given for the unusual arrangements. A foreigner in command of an American unit? When queried about that many years later, Cahill said: "I think it was done within 9th MAB and within the Landing Force arrangements. I imagine that if the [U.S. Marine] battalion commander or the regimental commander had sought approval from higher up, it might have been denied."

Regardless of the level at which his arrangements had been approved and authorized, how effective was he in achieving the Marines' objectives?
The Secretary of the U.S. Navy said: "His gallant efforts and brave initiative in the face of extreme danger were instrumental in the successful accomplishment of the battalion's mission. Captain Cahill's exceptional ability, steadfast perseverance, and total dedication to duty reflected great credit upon himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service." And finally, how did I know that whole groups of young Marines would alter their route just so that they could salute him and see the peculiar way in which he returned the salute? A quarter of a century ago, I was one of those young Marines.

Mark W. Woodruff

partly sourced from

and partly from

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