The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the beginning of serious American involvement in Vietnam in 1965 began a new and more volatile phase in America’s Civil Rights Movement. The booming post war economy of the 50s and early 60s couldn’t keep up with the competing fiscal requirements of enforcement of the CRA, Johnson’s Great Society Programs, and the Cold War. A combination of Southern Democrats (for mostly racial reasons) and Northeastern Republicans (for mostly economic and political reasons) consistently steered money away from urban programs creating a widening economic gulf in America. In response to this, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at the forefront of America’s Civil Rights Movement, organized the Poor People’s Campaign in late 1967 and early 1968, focusing on jobs and income for America’s urban poor.
As part of this campaign, Dr. King traveled to Memphis Tennessee in March 1968 to give support to the plight of black sanitation workers who received unequal pay and benefits compared to their white counterparts. Memphis was no stranger to Dr. King: he was there often and routinely stayed in the same hotel, even the same room. At 6pm on 4 April 1968, a gunman, James Earl Ray, took advantage of this situation. Ray shot and killed Dr. King as he stood on the 2nd floor balcony of his usual room in the Lorraine Hotel. Ray would escape, but would be captured in London two months later.
Later that evening, at a campaign stop in Indianapolis, Senator Robert Kennedy learned of Dr. King’s assassination. He had one last campaign speech to make that day but he tore up his remarks. During this impromptu address he gave one of the most memorable speeches in American history. He focused on Dr. King’s belief of non-violence and abhorrence of racial divisiveness. He concluded by saying,
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
In 1962, the Geneva Accords declared Laos a neutral country in the fight for Vietnam. US and SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization, the Pacific’s NATO) pulled out immediately, but North Vietnam kept about 7000 troops in the north of the country to support the Pathet Lao, the Laotian Communist insurgents. Unwilling to accept the political costs of sending troops back into Laos, Kennedy and later Johnson supported the Royal Laotian government with cash, mercenaries, and covert support. The war in Laos became the purview of the CIA. The “Secret War in Laos” was the largest CIA covert operation of the Cold War until Afghanistan in the 80s.
In 1965, the monsoon disrupted US bombing campaigns against the Communists, specifically Operations Rolling Thunder in North Vietnam, Steel Tiger on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Laotian panhandle, and Barrel Roll against the Pathet Lao in northern Laos. So a navigational station was put on top of Phou Pha Thi, a jagged and steep mountain in the Hmong dominated area of Laos. The Hmong, like the Montagnards in Vietnam, were a tough mountain people who had been fighting Communists for a decade. A tactical navigational aid (TACAN) transponder was placed at Landing (Lima) Site 85 on the very top of Phou Pha Thi, a Hmong sacred mountain whose summit was thought to be impenetrable to anyone who hadn’t lived in the area their entire lives.
Lima Site 85 was just one of hundreds of landing sites for the CIA’s proprietary airline in Laos, Air America. Also, LS-85 was quickly discovered to be the perfect place for radar to cover the North Vietnamese heartland, and its height gave a straight shot to cover Hanoi and Haiphong, just 175 miles away to the east. The site was expanded but still small, just a landing pad, and three small buildings for commo, operations, and living quarters. However, the TSQ-81, a portable version of the venerable and reliable MSQ-77 radar, required a team of 12 US Air Force technicians to operate. This posed a problem: No US military personnel were allowed in the country. So the CIA “sheep-dipped” them. Sheep Dipping is the practice of asking for military volunteers for a covert mission, discharging them from the service, hiring them through a civilian company, in LS-85’s case Lockheed Aircraft Service Corp, and when the mission was over they releasing themd back into the service.
By the end of 1967, Lima Site 85 directed nearly a quarter of all US airstrikes in theater. The North Vietnamese knew of the site and in mid-1967 began a concerted effort to break into Hmong territory and seize Phou Pha Thi. By 1968, almost half of LS-85’s airstrikes were in support of Royal Laotian troops or CIA led Hmong militia. In January 1968, the first direct assault on LS-85 occurred when two North Vietnamese Antonov-2 Colt biplanes attempted to bomb the site. But the slow moving planes were shot down by Air America Huey crewmembers with small arms, a submachine gun in one case.
With the failure of their air attack, the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao began ground operations against LS-85 in earnest. They were close enough to shell and rocket the site, but its position meant almost all of the incoming rounds either hit the side of the mountain or flew harmlessly overhead. Nonetheless, the indicators were ominous. The CIA brought in several companies of Hmong militia and a Thai Army infantry battalion that were under cover as “mercenaries” to defend the base of the mountain.
The Hmong were excellent guerrilla fighters but they were unsuited for a static defense against a deliberate attack by North Vietnamese regulars and a swarm of Pathet Lao. On 18 February 1968, a North Vietnamese officer was captured five miles south east of the site. On him were papers that indicated an imminent attack on the site by four battalions of the veteran 766th PAVN Regiment and one PL battalion, supported by a battalion of artillery. However, LS-85 was integral to the air campaign and would not be evacuated. The authority to evacuate rested solely with the American ambassador in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, and then only at the sole request of the Air Force. Furthermore, no more troops were brought in to defend the site as air power and the terrain were thought to be sufficient.
On 9 March, 1968, the Communists attacked. Despite massive American airstrikes, the North Vietnamese and Communist Laotians pushed the Hmong and Thai soldiers with their CIA commanders slowly up the mountain. Even during the attack, the Air Force did not want to request evacuation as the inclement weather in North Vietnam made the radar exceptionally valuable. But for the first time, they did issue the technicians M-16s, who up to this point had been unarmed because they were posing as civilians working for Lockheed. Only the senior NCO, CMSgt Richard Etchberger, knew how to competently operate the weapon. On 10 March, the fighting was dangerously close to the site, but even as late as 9pm the Air Force thought they could hold out. The ambassador authorized a dawn extraction by Air America for the technicians and the remaining Thai and Hmong soldiers. The CIA station chief immediately commented that it “was a day too late.”
The Air Force might have been correct, the Communists sustained significant casualties assaulting the mountain and looked to suspend attacks. But they were just waiting on their trump card – Communism is nothing if not dangerously seductive and a dozen local Hmong mountaineers volunteered to scale the northern cliff face to show their dedication to the cause. At 3 am on the morning of 11 March, the Hmong sappers attacked the compound from the rear. They killed several Air Force technicians in the barracks and surprised several more exiting the ops building fumbling with their weapons. The technicians weren’t ignorant of their precarious situation and knew they couldn’t rely on the ambassador and their own command for a timely evacuation. So they prepared ropes to rappel down the mountain to safety. The off-duty shift immediately did this, but the sappers killed them on the shelf below the cliff face. That any Americans survived the initial attack at all was due to Etchberg fighting from the commo building.
Upon hearing firing from the top of the mountain, the senior CIA commander, a former Green Beret Huey Marlow, took his Hmong radio man and trotted toward the site’s buildings. With his shotgun and some gratuitous close combat, he killed a sapper machine gun crew positioned to stop any counterattack from below, and scattered the remaining sappers. However, his missing presence from the fight at the base of the mountain was the final straw that broke the Hmong and Thai resistance from the unceasing Communist attacks.
After dawn Air America helicopters evacuated 8 of the 19 Americans on Lima Site 85, and as many Hmong and Thai soldiers as they could in four chaotic landing attempts. The last American brought off was the wounded TACAN technician Jack Starling, who had been playing dead underneath one of the buildings. At 9:46 am, nearly four hours after dawn and six after the sapper attack, an MH-53 Jolly Green Giant returned for him after a friend said he was probably still alive. Starling sprinted and jumped into the helicopter hovering off the cliff face while the door gunners returned fire against the multitude of Communists then at the site. Hollywood has nothing on reality.
Eight of the eleven remaining Americans were known to have been killed in the attack and three were initially thought captured. Later in the day, it was determined that they also were killed, and the Air Force bombed the hell out of the site to prevent the equipment from being analyzed by the Communists.
The surviving technicians of the Battle of Phou Pha Thi returned to Air Force service. Marlowe received an Intelligence Star for actions on the mountain during the night 10/11 March 1968. In 2003, a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command expedition to Laos found the remains of one technician and the equipment of four more, whose bodies were thrown off the mountain by the North Vietnamese. CMSgt Etchberger’s widow (he was killed in the evacuation from ground fire that penetrated his helicopter’s floorboards) received a Medal of Honor from President Obama at a small White House ceremony in 2012.
The Fall of Lima Site 85 was a grievous blow to Operation Rolling Thunder. Without the TACAN and the radar, the bombing had to be severely curtailed during the monsoon season. Politically, ending the operation became more useful than any military effect it had when the monsoon arrived. President Johnson suspended Operation Rolling Thunder in May, 1968, and cancelled it completely in November.
The North Vietnamese “General Offensive, General Uprising” during the Tet holiday of 1968 did not produce the “general uprising” among the South Vietnamese people. The “Offensive” however did strike every significant American and South Vietnamese military and political center in South Vietnam, including the American air base outside the city of Bien Hoa.
Bien Hoa Airbase was 60 miles north of Saigon and the primary tactical air base for War Zones C and D along the Cambodian border. At 0330, 31 January 1968, the 68th, 274th, and 275th NLF (National Liberation Front, i.e. Viet Cong) main force regiments assaulted Bien Hoa Airbase. The Viet Cong broke through and overran a portion of the perimeter secured by the US Air Force’s 3rd Security Police Squadron and seized the eastern portion of the airbase. Before they crossed the last remaining obstacle, the runway, the Communists stopped to regroup to coordinate a massive final assault.
The flat runway bisected Bien Hoa Airbase from north to south and presented an obvious killing ground for American defenders on the west side. But unbeknownst to the Communists, they overran the air base’s arms rooms, which were located on the east end of the base. The 10,000 airmen and civilians trapped on the west side of the base were unarmed. Just a single platoon, 30 airmen, were left to secure the 3050m long runway. All the Communists had to do was cross the runway and they could have massacred everyone.
Just after the sun rose, at about 0640, the Communists began their assault. “You could see the VC rise for the attack”. At least 2500 Communists charged across the open space, and the airmen and civilians watched helplessly from the west side of the runway. They had no weapons. Their arms were all securely locked away and seized the night before when the NLF overran the eastern perimeter.
Every one of the Americans assumed they were going to die.
As the powerless airmen looked on the mass of humanity screaming across the runway, their saviors appeared in the form of three Cobra gunships from the 145th Aviation Battalion. The Cobras strafed and rocketed the airstrip breaking up the Communist attack. The Cobras’ attacks would continue for the rest of the day. One section would attack, as one would disengage and return to rearm and refuel at a small helipad on the south side of the airbase. One more would return to replace the attacker. The Cobra gunships continued the rotation for the next 51 hours.
On the morning of 1 February, 1968, crew chiefs of Bien Hoa’s F-105 Thunderchief fight-bombers on the far west side of the base readied their planes as Cobras were still killing anything they saw. Dodging bodies and craters on the south side on the runway, the Thuderchiefs took off and then immediately turned and plastered the NLF, in the only instance in US Air Force history where they had to bomb their own base.
The next day, a squadron of the 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment and two battalions of ARVN (Army of the Republic of [South] Vietnam) arrived to secure the airbase.
The Tet Offensives of 1968 and 1969 destroyed the Viet Cong as a viable military entity, and forced Gen. Vo Nguyan Giap to move PAVN regular units into South Vietnam to take their place. 1969 was an unsuccessful rebuilding year for the Communists in South Vietnam, and they couldn’t prevent the US and South Vietnamese invasions of Laos and Cambodia in 1970 which caused serious damage to hitherto untouchable PAVN base camps in those countries. PAVN’s weakness and the disruption of the Ho Chi Minh Trail gave Gen Creighton Abrams, the new commander of the Military Assistance Command – Vietnam, the opportunity to implement new tactics in Vietnam dubbed the “Inkblot Strategy”. American and ARVN troops secured the cities, town, hamlets, and then the countryside of S. Vietnam through counterinsurgency tactics the way ink blots spread on a piece of paper. (Combined with targeted strikes on high value targets and training of South Vietnamese troops and militias). From 1969 through 1972, the strategy was successful, and with President Richard Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization, the ARVN took over security of the country. Almost all American combat troops left Vietnam by the autumn of 1972.
Though Abrams’ strategy was successful, the South Vietnamese still needed American advisers, air support, supplies, and financial assistance to deal with the conventional PAVN attacks. The war in the south was being waged almost exclusively by North Vietnamese regular troops, not the indigenous Viet Cong. Contrary to what you learned in university, the PAVN were almost as alien to the South Vietnamese as the Americans. Giap decided to gamble on a conventional assault similar to the one that almost overran the south in 1964. However, Giap underestimated the destructiveness of the remaining American firepower, and the professionalism of ARVN, which by 1972 was relatively well trained and equipped. With American assistance, South Vietnam repelled North Vietnam’s spring offensive in 1972, the Easter Offensive, and inflicted debilitating casualties on forces that Giap had painstakingly concentrated throughout 1971.
With the North Vietnamese defeat during the Easter Offensive, the Paris Peace Talks took on a new fervor. By October, the US and North Vietnam had reached an agreement, but South Vietnam’s President Theiu would not sign, because he felt the US would abandon South Vietnam after the cease fire so he wanted better terms in case South Vietnam had to fight on itself. Theiu proposed many changes to the cease fire document, which convinced the North to renegotiate all the points in full to get their own better terms. Both sides infuriated Nixon. On 14 December 1972, the talks ceased completely when the North Vietnamese walked out and would not commit to a resumption of negotiations. Nixon sent North Vietnam an ultimatum to resume talks within 72 hours. Nixon needed a cease fire because the newly elected Democratic majority in the 93rd Congress would begin sessions just after New Year’s. They threatened to end all support to South Vietnam if there was no cease fire.
After the ultimatum deadline passed on 17 December, Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II to bring the North back to the bargaining table and more importantly convince Theiu that America wouldn’t abandon his country after the cease fire. Unlike previous bombing campaigns, Linebacker II was a “maximum effort” and no targets not covered in Law of Land Warfare were off limits. Linebacker II would not consist of strictly tactical air support, but would unleash B-52’s over Hanoi and Haiphong. Furthermore, Nixon authorized the mining of Haiphong harbor which was the primary entrance point for support by North Vietnam’s primary sponsor, the Soviet Union. By 1972, the “Chinese” faction inside the North Vietnamese Communist Party had been thoroughly discredited by the defeats in 1968 and 1969. And the Sino-Soviet Split was permanent after Nixon’s policy of rapprochement culminating with his visit to China in February 1972. (China and Vietnam would eventually go to war in 1979.)
Starting the morning of 18 December, Operation Linebacker II pounded targets in North Vietnam. North Vietnamese infrastructure was smashed. But the repetitive and unimaginative nature of the strikes allowed the North Vietnamese to anticipate the third day’s strike and its Soviet-manned air defenses shot down several B-52s and other aircraft. Even worse a poorly placed B-52 strike destroyed a hospital outside Hanoi which galvanized the peace movement in America. Nevertheless, Nixon wasn’t backing down and ordered the US Air Force and Navy to continue strikes across North Vietnam. A-7 Corsair IIs from carriers in Gulf of Tonkin, F-4’s from bases in Thailand, and B-52s from Guam and the Philippines struck airfields, bridges, power plants, air defenses, storage areas, and military bases across the country. The operation was only supposed to last three days, but continued until 30 December. On 29 December, Hanoi asked to resume talks on the 2nd of January. That evening, Nixon ordered air operations against North Vietnam to cease the next day.
The next day, on New Year’s Eve 1972, Gen Giap wrote in his diary, “We have lost the war”.
On 27 January 1973, both North and South Vietnam accepted the original October 1972 draft of the Paris Peace Accords cease fire documents.
It didn’t matter. Though US ground troops were effectively out of the war, both Vietnam governments broke the accords almost immediately and both the US and the Soviet Union continue to supply their respective partners. Despite South Vietnam defeating Communist offensives in 1973 and 1974, the US Congress ceased all aid in 1975, and the well supplied PAVN forces overran the country that spring. Saigon fell on 29 April 1975.
Although the devastating battles in 1966 and early 1967 killed nearly 100,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, it wasn’t enough. Analysis of population estimates of North Vietnam found that 200,000 North Vietnamese reached draftable age every year. “Body Count” wasn’t going to work, and Gen. Westmoreland, the commander of the American Military Assistance Command – Vietnam, knew it.
The alternative was to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail at its junctions in Laos and Cambodia, thereby preventing the North Vietnamese Army from replacing the losses suffered by the Main Force units and the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. In the early spring of 1967, Westmoreland’s planners devised Operation York, the simultaneous assault on the Laotian Panhandle opposite Khe Sahn and Hue near the DMZ, and the “Fishhook” in Cambodia. These attacks would have severed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and “was our worst fear” according to Col. Bui Tuin, a senior North Vietnamese member of Giap’s staff. Westmoreland requested 200,000 more troops to conduct Operation York.
The air war was routinely working over the eastern portions of Laos and Cambodia, but to little effect. The expansion of the ground war into both countries would come at a significant political cost at home. And President Johnson was unwilling to pay it. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Westmoreland to find a “Plan B”. The decision effectively made the war militarily unwinnable for America and its allies, unless the North Vietnamese did something rash (like launch themselves into the teeth of American firepower and be slaughtered… *cough* Tet *cough*).
Westmoreland’s “Plan B” was to block the major Ho Chi Minh Trail outlets into South Vietnam. He couldn’t defend the entire border with the available troops, so his only alternative was to prevent infiltration in several key areas. To this end, Johnson approved an increase in total American personnel in Vietnam by 47,000 (to 536,100, the highest it would go in war). Westmoreland ordered his commanders to seal the major infiltration routes into South Vietnam at or near the border, and leave securing the population in the interior to the South Vietnamese. In the south in the III Corps sector, this was already being done in War Zones C and D by the 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions opposite the Fishhook, and they continued for the rest of 1967.
II Corps was the main effort, with a series of continuous operations in the Central Highlands and the Coastal Plains to secure Central Vietnam. Along the coast was a massive clearing operation, Operation Pershing, in the Binh Long province by the 1st Cavalry Division. In the Central Highlands, the 4th Infantry Division embarked on Operation Francis Marion to establish a mobile defense in depth based on a series of hills, near Dak To, along the border where Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam met.
In the north along the DMZ opposite the middle Laotian Panhandle, the Marines would continue the series of successful Lam Son, Prairie, and Hickory operations with the ARVN (I mean, as successful as you can be when the enemy can just scoot back across the border after being defeated). However, until the remaining troops Johnson approved arrived in country, which would take some months, Giap’s superhighway into South Vietnam, the A Shau Valley in I Corps sector, would be left to the ARVN, CIDG, and Special Forces around Hue, with supporting airpower. The city with its massive citadel is located at the narrowest portion of Vietnam. (“The ancient city of Hue” was established in the mid-17th Century, which makes it “about as ancient as Philadelphia”).
At the time, the population of Hue, like all urban areas in South Vietnam, was mostly in support of the Thieu regime, though not completely. Westmoreland’s planners surmised that if there was an area that allowed for an economy of force, it was around Hue. In any case, the A Shau Valley was the largest Communist sanctuary in South Vietnam and couldn’t be cleared without a massive expenditure of resources. The A Shau would have to wait until II and III Corps were finished further to the south.
For the rest of 1967, Westmoreland sent the Americans to the border, while the ARVN and CIDG, stiffened by the Korean divisions and the Special Forces, held the interior. Though he had no choice, Westmoreland inadvertently played directly into the North Vietnamese hands.
Into North Vietnamese hands, but not Giap’s. An internal power struggle raged inside North Vietnam between those who wanted to return to guerrilla operations in the south, (to offset the massive casualties of 66 and 67) led by Giap and Ho, and those that wanted continue main force operations (which was how they defeated the French) led by the COSVN commander Nguyen Chi Thanh, and Le Duan, the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party. In the eyes of Giap, Thanh was thoroughly discredited by his failure to destroy any significant American force with his costly assaults on the Junction City troops. In May 1967, Thanh returned north to plead his case for continued main force operations, but suddenly died “of a heart attack” in June. Giap won, or so he thought.
Unfortunately for Giap and a few hundred thousand North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, the last thing Thanh did before his “heart attack”, was brief the North Vietnamese politburo on a plan to defeat South Vietnam in early 1968. The plan had six key elements: First, North Vietnamese units would infiltrate South Vietnam in large numbers to replace Viet Cong casualties. Second, the NVA would begin a series of large scale border operations to bring American forces away from the population centers, which the Americans had obliging agreed to do. Thirdly, the NVA would make every effort to overrun the remote US Marine outpost at Khe Sanh along the Laotian border. The hope was for a repeat of their victory at Dien Ben Phu, which decisively swayed world opinion against the French a decade before. Next, as part of a comprehensive information operations campaign against the South Vietnamese government, the Viet Cong would begin a massive campaign of terrorist bombings in the cities to weary the population. As the final point of the preparation the North Vietnamese would return to negotiations to stop the disruptive bombing of the Trail (which surprisingly for North Vietnam, Johnson agreed to as a condition just for the North to return to the table). Finally, after all was prepared, Communist forces would attack every major South Vietnamese, American, and Allied government and military facility during the annual Tet cease fire in late January 1968. By Thanh’s reasoning, this would spark a massive uprising among the South Vietnamese civilian population and disintegrate the South Vietnamese government and army. With the American troops at the border, their airbases overrun, and the North in control of the population, Johnson would have no choice but to withdraw American and Allied troops from Vietnam immediately. The Politburo approved Thanh’s plan, known as “Tong-Tan-cong-Noi-day”, “The General Offensive – The General Uprising”, and ordered Giap to execute it.
Giap was powerless to refuse. Thanh was replaced by his competent subordinate Tran Van Tra, who proved to be a worthy political adversary for Giap, and effectively neutered any support Giap had inside COSVN. More importantly though, by 1967, Ho Chi Minh was deathly ill, and spent most of his time in a hospital in China (Ho would die in 1968). Without Ho’s influence in the politburo, Giap could not refuse Le Duan, especially since most of Ho’s faction was “purged” (read: assassinated) in June and July.
Giap could not prevent what he was sure would lead to the destruction of the Viet Cong and the needless slaughter of the North Vietnamese Army (He was right). Giap reluctantly agreed to The General Offensive, The General Uprising. However, despite the predicted heavy losses, the Tet Offensive was win-win for pragmatic Giap: If it worked, the plan would end the war and unite Vietnam; if it failed, he could place blame and take advantage of the situation politically. Moreover, the losses would inflame the American anti-war movement.
For the remainder of 1967, Giap fed troops into the Central Highlands into what the Americans were increasingly calling the Battle of Dak To, while laying siege to Khe Sanh in the north. All along the South Vietnamese border with Laos and Cambodia, Americans were drawn into battle with increasingly aggressive NVA attacks. Guerilla attacks on military targets in the interior dropped and bombings of civilian targets in the cities dramatically increased. But the border attacks and the Communist actions in the interior were just ruses: in the last six months of 1967, Giap infiltrated nearly 100,000 new NVA soldiers into South Vietnam. The centerpieces for the Tet Offensive would be the capture of its great cities: Hue, Da Nang, Nha Trang, and Saigon. At the end of the A Shau Valley outside Hue alone, 15,000 NVA soldiers waited patiently, while the VC prepped the battlefield. There were even more outside Saigon. Every South Vietnamese government facility, and every official and senior army officer’s home and family were targeted.
Westmoreland assumed his plan to stop the men and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail at the border was working, and briefed Johnson and McNamara that he “could see the light at the end of the tunnel”.
He was wrong, but so were La Duan and Tra – Both sides would pay a terrible price in 1968 for their miscalculations.
America temporarily lost its greatest invention, Rock and Roll, when Elvis Presley left for the Army and the Day the Music Died in a cornfield in Iowa. But the generation that didn’t remember the horrors and sacrifices of their parents’ generation during the Great Depression and the Second World War, the Baby Boomers, were coming of age. Primed by Chubby Checker and Motown, the Big Bang that was the British Invasion reminded America of what it had lost: Rock and Roll, the music that changed a generation.
The Monterey Pop Festival is the seminal event in the history of Rock and Roll: everything that came before it led to it, and everything’s that came after it was because of it
In late 1971, North Vietnam was terribly worried about the situation in South Vietnam. Although the political situation was well in hand with the peace movement in the US, the military situation was dire, even though the US troops were pulling out in great numbers. The war in the south was being waged almost exclusively by North Vietnamese regular troops, not the native South Vietnamese Viet Cong. The indigenous Viet Cong had all but been wiped out by failed spring offensives over the last several years, the most famous being the Tet Offensive of 1968. Vo Nguyan Giap, the head of the North Vietnamese military, gambled that since the Army of S Vietnam (ARVN) and the US defeated the insurgency, they were not prepared for a conventional attack. On 30 March 1972, virtually the entire People’s Republic of Vietnam Army, 200,000 North Vietnamese troops including 300 tanks swept into S Vietnam. However, Giap underestimated the ARVN, which by 1972 was relatively well trained and equipped, and the destructiveness of American firepower. By June the offensive had ended in failure. It had made some territorial gains but the PAVN had suffered horrendous casualties, over 100,000 and 250 tanks by their count.
In late February 1967, Operation Junction City was the largest American and Vietnamese operation of the war: 24 American infantry, cavalry, and artillery squadrons and battalions, two tough South Vietnamese marine battalions, and untold numbers of engineers and support troops swarmed the Tay Ninh province, known as War Zone C, to search for and destroy the Central Office of South Vietnam, or COSVN, the main Viet Cong headquarters, and the base areas of the 9th VC Division. They found almost nothing.
The massive operation did uncover numerous caches of rice and ammunition, and even COSVN’s photo lab, but actual contact with the VC was almost nonexistent. This was greatly disappointing for the LTG Seaman, the US III Corps/II Field Force commander, and Gen Westmoreland, the US Military Assistance Command – Vietnam (MAC-V) Commander. Westmoreland had seen the South Vietnamese Army nearly wiped out by Communist main force units in 1964-65 while they conducted village pacification (hence increased American involvement in 1965), and he wasn’t about to make the same mistake. He needed to find and destroy the big communist units before he could disperse his battalions into the countryside and protect the population. Junction City was supposed to isolate and destroy the largest Communist formation threatening Saigon: the 9th VC Division and its attachment of regular North Vietnamese Army troops, the elite 101st Infantry Regiment. But they were gone.
Gen Nguyen Thi Thanh, the COSVN commander, pulled them back into Cambodia after the serious losses they took during Operation Attleboro the November before. Upon their return to South Vietnam, he wanted to engage the Americans again. His rival, Gen Vo Nguyen Giap, the commander of the North Vietnamese Army, wanted them to cease the wasteful and “suicidal” attacks on American units, and conduct a guerilla campaign in the South. Thanh did not, and thought Giap “soft” for not wanting to engage the Americans: the French were thrown out of North Vietnam precisely by targeting French army units whose destruction greatly increased Vietnamese morale, and led directly to a popular uprising in North Vietnam. Furthermore, the American casualties would inflame the burgeoning Soviet sponsored American antiwar movement, which would ultimately lead to America’s withdrawal, as it had the French. Thanh wanted to do the same. Fortunately for Thanh, Giap wasn’t his commander: Thanh reported directly to the Party in Hanoi. He would get his chance to attack the Americans.
After the initial first few days’ disappointment, American engineers began building firebases and Special Forces’ camps in War Zone C to hold the area, and prevent further Communist infiltration from Cambodia. Thanh saw this as an opportunity to defeat the spread out American battalions in detail. On 27 February, the 101st NVA Regt infiltrated into Tay Ninh and the next day assaulted the 1/16 Infantry battalion of the 1st Infantry Division on a search and destroy mission outside of Prek Klok. Though the American fought off over four hours several assaults by the Vietnamese, casualties on both sides were heavy. On 3 March, the COSVN’s own security battalion attacked a paratrooper battalion of the 172nd Airborne Brigade, the short 30 minute fight killed 25 Americans and wrecked two entire infantry companies, and only superior firepower prevented the battalion’s complete destruction. A week later the 101st came back for Prek Klok, and again were fought off. On 19 March, the entire 273rd VC Regiment locked horns with the tanks and armored personnel carriers of the 3rd squadron of the 5th Cavalry in the Battle of Ap Bau Bang II. It was a bold move to fix the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which was ultimately successful, though devastatingly costly. All along the border, the now static American battalions were assaulted, and more importantly fixed, by the increasing numbers of VC infiltrating from Cambodia.
Westmoreland wanted his big unit fights and though these weren’t exactly as big as he was hoping, they would do for the time being.
But as the old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for” – These were just Thanh’s opening moves.