Recently our former unit chaplain asked me a simple question: “Did Gen. Mattis ever serve in 3/3?” According to the general’s official biography, “[a]s a lieutenant, he served as a rifle and weapons platoon commander in the 3rd Marine Division. As a captain, he commanded a rifle company and a weapons company in the 1st Marine Brigade.”
Curious, but not hopeful, a mutual friend e-mailed the general and received this reply:
On your questions, yes, I was in 3/3. It was from the summer of ’78 to the fall of ’81. I commander [sic] Kilo 3/3 for a year, then ass’t ops officer for the battalion, and then the C.O. of Weapons Company for my last year in 3/3. Great outfit, we deployed three times in three years to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.
Here’s the more expanded background:
On 20 July 1978, Captain James Mattis formally took command of Kilo Company. At the time the Marine Corps was just coming out from the shadow of the Vietnam War, which had ended only three years earlier. On deployments near southeast Asia, Marines occasionally encountered “boat people”: Vietnamese refugees fleeing to the West. Locals would frequently ask Marines if they had served in Vietnam; many mid-level officers and enlisted had, and it was not unusual to see battalion commanders with Silver Stars.
Shortly after Captain Mattis joined Kilo, Battalion Landing Team 3/3 conducted a tour, or “float,” in the Western Pacific (or WEST-PAC) in September as part of the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU), going to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Okinawa, and Korea. They returned to Hawaii in April 1979. On 7 May, immediately following the deployment, Captain Mattis turned over command of Kilo and moved to the S-3 Operations Section.
On 20 January 1980, 3/3 conducted another deployment with the 31st MAU, originally to the Pacific. However events in the Middle East quickly drew the Marines’ attention there. On 4 November 1979, Iranian students had overrun the United States Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage. On 24 December the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan.
In response to this, President Jimmy Carter ordered a show of force by the 31st MAU to the Arabian Sea in early February 1980, officially to show the Soviets that the U.S. could deploy ground troops to the region if necessary. Landing exercises by the 31st MAU in the Philippines scheduled for February were repeatedly postponed, and on 1 March 3/3 sailed to the Indian Ocean.
Although not discussed in the official chronology, a Kilo Company veteran later said that during this time a group of 3/3 Marines were also flown over to the USS Nimitz to discuss the battalion’s role as a back-up force in Operation Eagle Claw, the attempted rescue of the Iranian hostages. However the battalion would not be called into action and the Marines instead spent their time, “training, doing PT on the flight deck, and sweating in the hold.”
On 31 May, 3/3 and James Mattis ended their first (but not last) visit to the Middle East. The 31st MAU went on to conduct port calls in Kenya, Australia, and the Philippines, before returning to Hawaii on 24 June 1980.
On 4 August 1980, Captain Mattis assumed command of Weapons Company. These companies were still relatively new to the Marine Corps; prior to 1978, infantry battalions had possessed four rifle companies. However, on 20 June 1979, 3/3 had been ordered to stand up a company for its specialized weapons systems. Captain Mattis was 3/3 Weapons’ second commander.
On 21 February 1981, 3/3 and Captain Mattis departed on another WEST-PAC float. The Marines conducted routine partnered training exercises and port calls in Okinawa, Korea, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Diego Garcia, Australia, and Thailand, returning on 24 July.
On 28 July 1981, Captain Mattis’ time in Hawaii with 3/3 came to an end and he relinquished command of Weapons Company, moving on to bigger (and some might say better) things.
Sources: E-mail correspondence, 3/3 Command Chronologies: July-December 1978, January-June 1979, January-June 1980, January-June 1981, July-December 1981; BLT 3/3 78-79 WEST-PAC Deployment Cruisebook; New York Times (13 Feb 1980) “U.S. Will Send Assault Troops To Arabian Sea“; RescueAttempt.Tripod.Com: The Hostage Rescue Attempt In Iran, April 24-25, 1980