On 7 January 1967, ten battalions of 25th Infantry Division and 196th Infantry Brigade truck borne infantry established blocking positions along the Saigon River, and the next day six battalions of the 1st Infantry Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade air assaulted into landing zones north and east; all to establish a large cordon around the Iron Triangle and prevent the escape of the nine Viet Cong main force battalions suspected of operating from there.
The Iron Triangle was just one of the Viet Cong’s 80 plus relatively inaccessible safe havens inside South Vietnam in January 1967. It was 40 square miles of thick double canopy jungle, and few open areas inside. For over twenty years it was the center of Vietnamese resistance around Saigon: first against the Japanese, then the French, and now the Americans. Like Iwo Jima in the previous generation, the entire area was honeycombed with decades’ worth of tunnels, 30,000 miles worth, some extending four and five levels underground. The Triangle contained hospitals, communications centers, rest and recreation areas, logistics depots, way stations for communist units coming from Cambodia, a processing and training center for new VC recruits, and until recently the Central Office for South Vietnam, the VC main headquarters. The entire 6500 strong civilian population was organized to support the VC infrastructure. The South Vietnamese Army assaulted the area twice, once in 1963 and again in 1964, but after heavy fighting all they could do was blow up some tunnel entrances, and return to Saigon. In early 1966, the 173rd Airborne, 1st ID, and the Royal Australian Regiment tried again in Operation Crimp, and though they did more damage than the ARVN assaults, they did little more than dent the extensive fortifications and tunnel system.
In the spring of 1966, an American officer who was an ARVN advisor had dinner with Gen Westmoreland at his request. During the after dinner cigar, Westmoreland asked him what needed to be done about the Iron Triangle, as the advisor had been on the last two operations into the area. The young captain replied without hesitating, “Burn it down”. In August, Westmoreland attempted just that. The Air Force dropped defoliants on the area which dried the vegetation. And then two weeks later, they napalmed it. 15 of the 40 square miles of the Iron Triangle went up in flames, but it burned so large and so hot that it created a weather phenomenon known as a “cloudburst”, which eventually put the fires out. In any case, it didn’t matter – the jungle just grew back within a month when the monsoon hit later that year. The Americans hadn’t been back since.
LTG Seaman assured Westmoreland and DePuy that this time would be different. Once the Iron Triangle was occupied, and the VC defeated, the entire population would be relocated by the South Vietnamese, and two brigades of engineers would level the entire area and collapse the tunnels. Operation Cedar Falls would have five times the manpower as Operation Crimp. Also, the 2nd Brigade 1st Infantry Division and the entire 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment would serve as the hammer. The VC would not escape this overwhelming force, and they would not reoccupy the barren wasteland that would remain.
On the morning of 8 January 1967, the first M113 armored personnel carriers and M48 tanks of the 11th ACR crossed the Tinh River in the east and crashed through the jungle driving the VC forward like hunting dogs. Coming in low out of the rising sun, the 500 men of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment led by LTC Alexander Haig descended upon the village of Ben Suc, the administrative epicenter of the Iron Triangle, and the home of most of the population.
The surprise was complete, or so it seemed.
LTC Haig’s battalion quickly surrounded the village of Ben Suc, and less than dozen of the villagers fought back. Those who resisted were quickly overwhelmed. Loudspeakers broadcast for the villagers to assemble outside of the school and about 1000 showed up. A second wave of helicopters brought in a field kitchen and medical personnel, as well as an ARVN battalion to screen them and conduct an extensive search to the village. The Americans spread out into the surrounding jungle, or secured the entrances to the numerous tunnels they found.
The Americans were under strict orders that “Vietnamese deal with Vietnamese”. The American troops were supposed to fight the VC, and the ARVN deal with the population. Unfortunately, LTG Seaman’s desire for secrecy meant that the South Vietnamese, and even the advisors and USAID personnel weren’t told of Operation Cedar Falls until the day before it started. The VC were surprised, but the South Vietnamese were even more surprised. They were completely unprepared to secure such a large village, and screen the entire population. And then they had to transport the villagers, their possessions and livestock to a resettlement camp at the province capital at Phu Cuong down the Saigon River.
The ARVN troops found dozens of tunnel entrances and hundreds of hiding villagers. And they weren’t easy on them. Accompanying Haig’s battalion was a reporter, Jonathan Schell from the New Yorker, who chronicled everything he saw. And he saw a lot. One incident stood out. Schell walked into a hut and witnessed an ARVN soldier beating a suspected VC for information, in front of an American advisor. The bored looking advisor calmly explained to Schell that it was part of their culture, that they had “methods and practices” that Americans weren’t accustomed to, and he wasn’t here to impose American values on the South Vietnamese. (aka the wrong answer in “The COIN Culture Conundrum” i.e Pick one: A. Step in, stop the abuse, upset the supposedly “friendly natives”, and get yelled at later by the smug ones who think all cultures are equal and by stopping human rights abuses, whether it be abusing women, screwing little boys, or in this case beating prisoners, you are “interfering with their culture” or “imposing American Values”. Or B, Letting it happen thereby being more “Culturally sensitive” and then getting crushed for violating someone’s human rights. The right answer is always A, but you would be floored how many well-meaning people overlook gross violations of human rights in the name “cultural equivalence”.) Schell was rightfully appalled. His observations on the evacuation of the village, especially the beating, would be published in the New Yorker in July, and it would set the Summer of Love on fire.
By noon, the system was breaking down. 3500 villagers were gathered at the school. 106 were detained and helicoptered out for further interrogation, but the rest waited, and waited. They couldn’t return to their homes, and the South Vietnamese couldn’t get transportation coordinated to move them. Chaos began. And order was only maintained by force. The bad day turned into a worse night as the entire population, which would grow to 6000, were forced to stay by the school.
Shocked at the scene in the morning, Haig stepped in and took charge. He informed DePuy that he needed assistance, or a humanitarian disaster was going to ensue, if it hadn’t already. The furious DePuy organized an ad hoc truck convoy to transport the villagers. It would take them two days to transport everyone in convoys which the VC left unmolested for the most part. The original plan was to use a South Vietnamese Navy flotilla but DePuy had them transport the villagers possessions and livestock (which went as well as it sounded), because most of the villagers were gone by the time the boats were assembled.
The camp at Phu Cuong was not prepared either. As reports from the convoys came in, DePuy went down to see for himself and was shocked at what he found: it lacked adequate food, shelter, sanitation, medical facilities, even water. The enraged DePuy called the USAID director in Saigon, the equally livid John Paul Vann, a former advisor, ranger, LTC, and probably the most culturally competent American in Vietnam, and told him he was taking over the resettlement as well as the evacuation. (In Vann’s defense he only found out about Cedar Falls with the South Vietnamese, but with 6000 dejected, cold, hungry, and thirsty refugees in a field with nothing but the clothes they wore when the loudspeakers told them to go to the school, that hardly mattered)
The conventional American Army just got its first lesson in counterinsurgency in Vietnam: If not you, then who? Understaffed and underfunded civilian agencies? 12 man Special Forces teams? Random poorly trained, inexperienced indigenous troops crawling with infiltrators that you aren’t partnered with? The enemy?
Ben Suc sent shock waves through Saigon, Washington, and America