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03-05-05, 04:16 PM
March 07, 2005

The Lore of the Corps
‘Rose Garden’ pivotal in Vietnam campaign

By Robert F. Dorr
Special to the Times

Marines called it the “Rose Garden.”
Its real name was Nam Phong, Thailand. When Marines first saw it, there was a generous, 12,000-foot runway and not much else.

The base opened in June 1972, when Marine Aircraft Group 15 moved there from Da Nang, South Vietnam.

“I was on one of the first C-130s to go in there,” said former Sgt. Norman Thums, 54, of Savannah, Ga., who served as a radar technician. “It was ... unnerving because, thanks to our agreement with the Thai government, we had to give up our weapons.” Marines at Nam Phong rarely saw a weapon except when flying combat or pulling security detail.

The Rose Garden was ideally situated for A-6 Intruders and F-4 Phantoms flying combat missions to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The air group included three flying squadrons — Marine Attack Squadron 533, flying A-6A Intruders; and Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115 and VMFA-232, both flying F-4 Phantoms.

The base was pivotal to the 1972 bombing campaign that many historians credit with bringing North Vietnam to the Jan. 27, 1973, cease-fire that ended U.S. combat in Vietnam. Nam Phong-based warplanes bombed Cambodia until Aug. 15, 1973.

“The popular Lynn Anderson song had a line, ‘I never promised you a rose garden,’” said former Cpl. Malcolm Browne, 51, of Houston. “In recruiting ads, the Marine Corps said that joining up would be a challenge. But we applied the nickname to Nam Phong because it initially had makeshift creature comforts.”

“We were going off to spread democracy in 500-pound increments,” said retired Lt. Col. David Van Esselstyn, 53, of Fairfax, Va., referring to the weight of a bomb. He was the radar intercept officer on an F-4 Phantom. “The Marine Corps F-4s were probably the most accurate iron bombers in Southeast Asia at the time.”

The U.S.-supported Cambodian government of Lon Nol became progressively less able to battle its opponents at a time when Americans were withdrawing. In August 1973, most of MAG-15 and its squadrons departed Nam Phong for their home base at Iwakuni, Japan. The final steps to shutting down the base were taken the following month.

In 1975, the United States withdrew key figures in the Lon Nol government from Cambodia and evacuated American citizens. This was followed by a takeover by forces loyal to the dictator Pol Pot and by a massacre later portrayed in the 1984 film “The Killing Fields.”

By then, Nam Phong was history. The Rose Garden was too late to change the outcome in Southeast Asia, but it inspired poignant memories among Marines who served there. Robert F. Dorr, an Air Force veteran, lives in Oakton, Va. He is the author of numerous books on military and naval topics, including “Air Force One.” His e-mail address is robert.f.dorr@cox.net.