After Operation Cedar Falls, Gen Westmoreland’s staff felt that the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN), the Viet Cong’s primary headquarters in the south, escaped into the Tay Ninh province along the border with Cambodia, with the VC battalions that weren’t found in the Iron Triangle. Furthermore, due to the movement to contact-esque and adhoc nature of Operation Attleboro in November, Westmoreland felt that, though the 9th VC Division and 101st NVA Regiment were mauled, their base areas in Tay Ninh weren’t completely destroyed. So he ordered the II Corps commander, LTG Seaman, to “think big”, and plan a deliberate operation to clear the Tay Ninh province, and complete the destruction of the Communist main force units. The problem was they weren’t there.
As per Giap’s orders after Operation Attleboro, the relatively unpopulated Tay Ninh, known as War Zone C to the Americans and South Vietnamese, was used strictly as a transit area for men, weapons, and supplies for guerilla operations in the much more densely populated area around Saigon, known as War Zone D. COSVN was firmly established in the Fishhook in Cambodia, where it would remain, except for a brief period in 1970, until 1975. COSVN did have the equivalent of a tactical command post in Tay Ninh, but it was just a clearing house for reports from inside South Vietnam. The VC that escaped the Cedar Fall’s cordon around the Iron Triangle, were either in the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon, or were used to reconstitute the 9th VC Division, which was in Cambodia. The only Communist troops in Tay Ninh in mid-February 1967 was an understrength local VC battalion primarily used to watch potential landing zones. LTG Seaman’s next big search and destroy operation, Operation Junction City, named after Fort Riley’s ville, was seemingly destined to find little and destroy less.
Operation Junction City was massive: Sixteen battalions from the 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions, and the 196th Infantry Brigade, established the eastern and western cordons. In the only airborne operation of the Vietnam War, a battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade dropped in to form blocking positions to the north, after the brigade commander lobbied Westmoreland, himself a paratrooper, to include a combat jump in the operation. With the anvil set, the hammer would again fall to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment supported by a brigade from the 25th Infantry Division, both assaulting into the pocket from the south.
At dawn on 22 February 1967, B-52’s pounded suspected Communist positions inside War Zone C. They hit nothing but earth and just alerted the small COSVN TAC to escape. At 9 am, paratroopers drifted down into drop zones, and enormous armadas of helicopters and trucks delivered the anvil battalions to their positions. They trapped virtually nothing, certainly not the twelve VC and NVA main force battalions Westmoreland expected to be there.
Fortunately, Gen Nguyen Thi Thanh, the COSVN commander and Giap’s rival, wanted to engage the Americans in battle. Unlike Giap, he felt that engaging the Americans would increase the likelihood of a general uprising in South Vietnam, and increase the morale of his men. If the Americans wanted a fight, he would oblige them.
It was the VC that would save Westmoreland and Seaman from embarrassment, cover up one of the biggest intelligence failures of the war, and prevent Operation Junction City, the largest Allied operation so far, from being a complete waste of resources.