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1st Force Reconnaissance Company and One Tough Marine

Activated on June 19, 1957, 1st Force Recon, as it is popularly known, until 1965 was the only unit within the Department of Defense (DoD) organized and trained to conduct deep reconnaissance missions. The unit’s first major missions took place during the Vietnam War, include the reconnoitering of Cam Ranh Bay to determine its suitability as a major port for U.S forces in South Vietnam.

By early May 1965, two platoons were assigned to U.S. Special Forces A-Team, A-103, conducting specialized reconnaissance and combat raiding missions. The Recon platoons operated from Da Nang, Phu Bai, Chu Lai, Gia Vuc and Kham Duc in the I Corps zone. Their mission was to collect any enemy intelligence in the mountain approaches to the Marines’ area of operation along the border of Laos.

In November 1965, 2nd Platoon was attached to the Special Forces detachment A-106 at Ba To. A combined patrol from Ba To was attacked on the night of Dec. 16, 1965, and three Marines, a Green Beret sergeant, and ten members of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) were killed. By mid-Dec. 1965, 3rd platoon had arrived in the Republic of Vietnam and was attached to Special Forces team A-107 at Tra Bong. The last two Force Recon Company platoons (4th and 5th) arrived in June 1965.

At the time of its deactivation on Oct. 26, 2006, 1st Force Recon had received numerous decorations, including the Presidential Unit Citation (Navy), the Navy Unit Commendation, Meritorious Unit Commendation, and other decorations. The 1st Force Recon Marines at the time either became part of the Deep Recon Platoons (DRP) of 1st and 3rd Division Recon Battalions, or the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion (1st MSOB) of Marine Corps Forces Special operations Command (MARSOC).

But as important as those decorations are, arguably 1st Force Recon’s most important contribution was in the development of many of the special operations tactics in use today. With stunt parachutist and Marine Corps reservist Jacques-André Istel, 1st Force Recon pioneered the “free-fall” HALO (High Altitude-Low Opening) parachuting technique in 1958 that allowed for a more secure and accurate insertion of a deep reconnaissance team. It also developed new methods for amphibious patrols to leave and enter submerged submarines and new procedures for entering a moving submarine. Another innovation was the insertion of troops from hovering helicopters through a thick forest using rappel lines.

Like all Force Recon Marines, the men of 1st Force Recon were all volunteers and only accepted after serving at least three years in the Corps and successfully passing a battery of grueling tests. It was not unusual for someone to undergo the regimen three or four times before passing. This culling process was necessary because of the broad range and nature of Force Recon deep reconnaissance and direct-action missions.

Deep reconnaissance, also known as “green operations,” include amphibious reconnaissance; deep ground reconnaissance; battlespace shaping; and covert surveillance. Specialized terrain reconnaissance includes hydrography; beaches; roads; bridges; urban areas; helicopter and airborne drop zones; and aircraft forward operating sites.

Direct action, or “black operations,” include assaults on gas and oil platforms (GOPLATS); vessel boarding search and seizure (VBSS); capture/recovery of selected enemy personnel and equipment; and tactical recovery of aircraft/personnel (TRAP).

No better example exists of the kind of Marine it took to be a 1st Force Recon Marine (or, for that matter, any Force Recon Marine) than Donald Hamblen, who retired with the rank of first sergeant in 1970 after serving twenty years in the Marine Corps.

On Sept. 21, 1962, at Camp Pendleton, then-Staff Sgt. Hamblen took his 215th parachute jump. The wind caused him to drift onto two levels of high-tension electrical wires. The canopy of his parachute collapsed on the top wire, charged with 69,000 volts. This caused him to swing into contact with the lower wires that carried 12,000 volts. Marines watching on the ground heard a thunderous “crack” and saw Hamblen and his parachute canopy burst into flames. The seriously injured Hamblen fell thirty feet to the ground. He was rushed to the base hospital where doctors desperately worked to save his life.

During his months-long recovery period, gangrene set into his left leg, and it had to be amputated below the knee. Everyone thought he would take medical retirement. But Hamblen was determined to stay in the Corps come hell or high water. His petitions eventually reached Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David M. Shoup who, after pointing out the advantages of medical retirement, told the sergeant that if he wanted to remain a Marine, so long as he met the physical requirements, he could.

But Hamblen didn’t want to just remain a Marine, he wanted to return to Force Recon. Following therapy in getting used to moving around with his prosthesis, in September 1963, he took the physical course needed to qualify for Force Recon. All the observers thought he would put forth a good effort but fail. Under a grueling hot sun, Hamblen took the first test, a timed 100-yard run to pick up a “casualty”—a prone 180-pound Marine in full combat gear—and return with the Marine to the starting point. Showing only the slightest limp, Hamblen did so within forty seconds, well within the qualifying time. He aced all the other tests and made his 216th parachute jump on September 11, 1963. Hamblen, who served in Vietnam, became the first Marine to go into combat wearing a prothesis. He later said, “There’s practically nothing a man can’t do if he is determined enough to see it through – whatever the odds. But that determination has to come from within. And sometimes it has to be pretty powerful.”

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