Tagged: Vietnam

Operation Attleboro

By September 1966, there were 385,000 US troops in Vietnam and the most recently arrived were the 4500 of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade from Ft Devens, Massachusetts. By mid-October, their base camps were built in the operationally important Tay Ninh Province, the gateway to Saigon from the Cambodian border. On 25 September 1966, the arctic trained Brigade began Operation Attleboro, a series of battalion search and destroy missions into the sparsely populated countryside, as more of a training exercise to confirm standard operating procedures and familiarize themselves with air mobile operations in Vietnam.

Surprisingly, Operation Attleboro was initially spectacularly successful beyond the wildest fever dreams of its commander. The sweeps just south of the expansive Michelin Rubber Plantation had little contact and uncovered massive supply caches: one cache located by the “Polar Bears” of 4-31 IN had 843 tons of rice, enough to feed thousands of VC for months. The Americans had inadvertently stumbled on the prepositioned supplies of the entire 9th VC Division and the elite 101st Brigade of the North Vietnamese Army.

Both communist units were just across the border in Cambodia in a base area known to the Americans as the “Fishhook”, where they were conducting their final training and preparation for their assault on the newly arrived 196th. Gen Giap in Hanoi had personally selected the 196th for destruction in order to inflame the burgeoning US anti-war movement. And instead of having to assault their base camps, the brigade had come into the open. As the 196th painstakingly cleared the caches and redistributed the rice, the Communists moved to assault positions.

Among the mounds of weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies, the 196th found documents detailing another large logistics complex (the NVA brigade’s prepositioned supplies) along the Suoi Bao stream off the Saigon River, about 6 km away. The 196th’s commander, feeling pretty cocky, developed an overly complicated plan to assault the area from all four directions, with none of his battalions in mutual support. Despite protests from the battalion commanders, who were all infantrymen, that command and control would be impossible in the dense terrain, the brigade commander, an artilleryman in World War II, ordered the operation forward assuming the same level of opposition as before. He could not have been more wrong.

On 3 November 1966, the brigade air assaulted into widely scattered landing zones around the logistics complex and were immediately swarmed upon by the entire 9th VC Division and its supporting North Vietnamese regulars. For three days (about as long as a human can stay awake and coherently fight), 4000 Americans and 9000 Communists locked horns in a small 14 square km area of jungle and swamp, where as predicted, command and control broke down at the tactical level. Both sides fought each other to exhaustion. Every American company had at least 40% casualties and when they trudged to their landing zones for extraction on 6 November, the men of the 196th assumed they had gotten their asses kicked. They were also wrong.

The Vietnamese had gotten as good as they gave, but what they hadn’t counted on was the ability of the Americans to mass forces quickly. At the ardent behest of the nearby 1st Infantry Division’s commander, MG William DePuy, the Americans air assaulted nearby battalions in to continue the fight. For the next three weeks, a new brigade from either the 1st ID or 4th ID, and the 173rd were inserted into Tay Ninh Provice to continue the destruction of the Communist units. At first Giap tried to do the same by marching in from Cambodia, but soon realized he was just feeding good men into a battle he could not win against superior American mobility and firepower. The 9th VC Division and its NVA attachment were destroyed, the logistics areas cleared, and the Tay Ninh Province quiet for the next year in America’s first corps level operation of the Vietnam War.

But Giap took advantage of the quiet area and forbade future contact there, if possible. As American units moved on to other “hot” areas, such as “The Iron Triangle” further south, Giap’s Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN), the primary Communist headquarters outside of Hanoi, established itself just across the Cambodian border in the Fishhook. COSVN used the “pacified” but now nearly unpopulated Tay Ninh province as a transit point to infiltrate men, supplies and equipment from the Ho Chi Minh Trail to VC and NVA units in the south. The province was simply too large and too sparsely populated for the South Vietnamese CIDG battalions to control or even know what was going on in the area. Americans would occasionally sweep the area (Operation Junction City in 1967) but never stayed. Most of the supplies used in the south during the Tet Offensive 14 mos later came thru Tay Ninh. This would continue until Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in 1970, whose primary objective was the Fishhook.

The Battle of Long Tan

SEATO was the South East Asian equivalent of NATO, and in 1966, several countries contributed troops to halt the Communist expansion into South Vietnam, including South Korea, Thailand, The Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia.

The 1st Australian Task Force was assigned the Phuoc Tuy province on Vietnam’s southern coast. They built a base at Nui Dat between April and June, and in July began securing the population and conducting offensive operations against the local Viet Cong.

Nui Dat was decidedly inconvenient for the Communists; it had to be destroyed. Nui Dat sat astride a major communist supply route and base area, and was dangerously close to the population centers (Something the Americans wouldn’t do for another two years). Additionally, Gen Giap, North Vietnam’s military commander, wanted to inflict a quick defeat on the Australians and force them out of the war. So he ordered the entire 275th VC Main Force Regt down from the Iron Triangle to overrun the pesky base.

The plan was the time honored tactic that worked so well against the French: lure a company (coy) off of the base into an ambush, ambush the inevitable relief column, destroy them both, and then overrun the weakened base. The first part worked perfectly.

On the night of 16/17 Aug 1966, the VC bombarded the base, and B coy, 6th Bn/ 6th Royal Australian Regt gave chase. On 18 Aug, D coy took over and walked into a large ambush on the Long Tan Rubber Plantation.

However, the Australians knew exactly what they were getting into. Their signals intelligence had tracked the 275th into the sector. The odds were daunting, but the Aussies fell back on their unique talent for not giving a fuck. At Long Tan, the 108 men of D Coy 6/6 RAR, were assaulted on all sides by the entire 275 VC Main Force Regt, a local VC Bn, and a regular North Vietnamese Army Bn that Giap threw in like a cherry on top of the sundae. The attackers numbered nearly 2500 men, 20:1 odds is a sure victory in any commander’s mind.

But the Aussies dug in and were supported by copious amounts of American and New Zealand artillery which massacred the attackers. Nonetheless, quantity has a quality all its own and by the afternoon, the diggers were hard pressed and low on ammunition. Fortunately, two Royal Aus Air Force Huey’s piloted by men with Outback sized gonads, braved brutal ground fire to resupply the company just in time to defeat a full regimental assault. (For context, imagine if vegemite fueled Texans won at the Alamo.) By nightfall just as D coy was firing it’s last rounds, the expected relief column of APCs and tanks fought through their ambushes, and like the good cavalrymen they were, arrived in the nick of time. The battered D coy fell back to a landing zone with the column for the night. They had 18 killed and 28 wounded, and despite the casualties they inflicted, thought they had lost the battle.

But in a typically Australian “Fuck it” moment, the D Coy commander, Maj Harry Smith, decided to return to the plantation to recover the dead bodies of his men. To his surprise, they didn’t find live VC but dead ones: the Communists were gone. The relief column forced the Communists to withdraw just as they were about to launch their inevitably successful final assault. An NVA report later stated that the 275th was combat ineffective for months and had to be reconstituted. More importantly, the local VC Bn was destroyed and the NVA Bn had to take over the defense of the district.

Like the Battle of Tet 18 mos later, the destruction of the local VC and subsequent NVA takeover of the area made securing the population much easier. (Despite speaking the same language, the North Vietnamese were as foreign to the area as the Australians.) Unlike many American units, the Australians would have a much easier time securing their province in the ensuing years.

The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial

Reflections by Lee Teeter

On 6 May 1981, the Commission of Fine Arts unanimously chose Maya Yang Lin’s simple and elegant design for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in the Constitution Gardens in Washington D.C. Lin’s post minimalist design was of two black walls of granite that descend into a gravelike depression and meet at an angle. It was chosen from over 1100 submissions in an open call to artists by the Department of the Interior. The walls would be engraved with the names of those who were killed in the line of duty during the war in chronological order, starting with Air Force T-Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr. who was murdered on 8 June 1956 by another airman as he was handing out candy to orphans in Saigon.

The choice, like the war, was controversial. Veteran’s groups hated it and wanted something more akin to the Marine Corps War Memorial. Several compromises were proposed, but President Ronald Reagan called the Commission and told them to ignore the critics. One of the compromises, adding the “Three Servicemembers” to the Memorial, was eventually approved but only when it was placed far enough away that it wouldn’t disrupt the integrity of Lin’s creation.

Names are still being added as remains of those listed as “missing in action” are found, or those who died as a direct result of injuries sustained in the war. The last six names were added in 2010.

The Battle of Camp A Shau

Camp A Shau was the last of three US Special Forces camps in the strategically important A Shau Valley in South Vietnam. Just two miles from the Laotian border, Camp A Shau sat astride a juncture in the Ho Chi Minh Trail where supplies could continue south, or enter infiltration routes to the cities of Da Nang and Hue, both thirty miles away.

On the morning of 9 March, 1966, four communist regular North Vietnamese Army battalions of 2000 men attacked the camp defended by 17 Americans, 40 Nung mercenaries, and 400 Vietnamese and Montagnard militiamen of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG).The communists took part of the camp the first night but the battle raged for the next 36 hours. On the night of 10 March, out of ammunition and water, with staggering loses among the air support, the camp was ordered abandoned. A squadron of US Marine Sikorsky H-34s, HMM-163, flew through what they called “The Tube” in an attempt to evacuate the camp.

In addition to withering fire from all angles, including above, the evacuation proved more difficult than expected. Discipline broke down as the helicopters approached. Many of the Vietnamese switched sides or, with the Montagnards, tried to swarm the helicopters as they landed. Unable to take off because of the weight of soldiers hanging off of the birds, crew chiefs and green berets had to resort to shooting the hangers-on, after yelling and beating didn’t work. In the chaos, this resulted in full-fledged gun battles inside some helicopters, a breakdown in the defense as the NVA surged onto the landing zone, and some special forces leading a breakout into the jungle to escape.

The next day, the squadron conducted a series of search and rescue missions looking for survivors. Over half the garrison was killed or turned, and all but three of HMM-163’s helicopters were either shot down or too damaged to fix. The NVA would turn the A Shau valley into one of its major logistics and staging areas, and over the next four years the US would launch increasingly large operations to clear the valley, culminating with the Battle of Hill 937, aka Hamburger Hill.

The Siege of Plei Me

In October 1963, the US 5th Special Forces Group established a small camp in the heart of the South Vietnamese Central Highlands at Plei Me in order to train indigenous Montagnard tribesmen for the South Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) initiative. The 450 CIDG troops at Plei Me, with 12 Americans of ODA-217 and 14 S. Vietnamese advisors, were tasked to gain civilian support among the Montagnards for the South Vietnamese war effort against Communist North Vietnam, and interdict Ho Chi Minh trail access routes along the Ia Drang River.

On 19 October, 1965, the 32nd Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army encircled the camp, while the 33rd Regiment waited for the inevitable relief column from the South Vietnamese army units outside of the city of Pleiku, 25 miles away. The 32nd Regiment came close to overrunning the camp but massive American air support, dropped as close as forty meters from the perimeter, defeated the NVA assaults.

That night the US airlifted 175 Vietnamese Rangers and US Special Forces, led by MAJ Charlie Beckwith, to reinforce the camp. And as the NVA predicted, the ARVN launched a 1400 strong armored task force from Pleiku. Over the next three days the NVA ambushed the column multiple times. Although there was heavy fighting, the combination of South Vietnamese armored firepower and American air support broke up the ambushes.

On 24 October 1965, the North Vietnamese commander broke off the siege and withdrew back toward his base camps around the Chu Pong Mountain near the Cambodian border. That same day, US General William Westmoreland ordered the recently arrived US 1st Cavalry Division, with its unprecedented air mobility through the use of helicopters, to pursue the North Vietnamese before they could escape across the Cambodian border.

Operation Starlite: Battle of Van Tuong

In March 1965, the first US Marines landed in South Vietnam to protect US airbases as they supported the South Vietnamese Army’s fight against the Viet Cong and North Vietnam. On 15 August, the Marines learned that the 1st VC Main Force Regiment occupied the village of Van Tuong outside the Chu Lai Airbase on the South Vietnamese coast. In only two days (!?!?!) the Third Marine Division staff planned a joint combined arms hammer and anvil operation in complete secrecy to prevent VC infiltrators in the ARVN from tipping off the regiment about the attack.

On the morning of 18 August, the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment stormed ashore near Van Tuong in LTVPs launched from the landing ship USS Iwo Jima in the first contested amphibious assault since Inchon 15 years before. They were followed by 3/7 Marines. They were the “hammer” while the 2/4 Marines was the “anvil”. 2/4 was air assaulted into three landing zones west of the village by a company of Sikorsky S-58DT helicopters (you know: Riptide). The final battalion in the assault, 1/7, was reinforced with a company of M48 Patton tanks and secured the resupply convoys from the south.

The VC were completely surprised, but the Marines unknowingly played directly into their hands. The landing force did not have enough amtracs for more than one company at a time, so it was fed piecemeal into the fight for the small hamlets south of the village. Also, the far southern landing zone was only 400m from the communist Regimental HQ, was overlooked by the key piece of terrain in the area, Hill 43, and nearly overrun. Finally, one of the supply columns moved before the operation matured, and was promptly ambushed and surrounded. All three general actions (hamlets near beaches, the helicopter LZ’s, and convoy) were not coordinated effectively, and the operation was consumed in trying to desperately and disparately relieve each one simultaneously. Nonetheless, after heavy fighting, the battle was finally sorted out by nightfall: the Marines cleared the village and had the VC regiment surrounded.

Unfortunately, the Marines’ unfamiliarity with the terrain and distractions caused by severe thirst allowed the VC to exfiltrate that night. The Marines suffered 50 killed and 200 wounded, and the Viet Cong suffered about 600 killed. Operation Starlite, or the Battle of Van Tuong, was the first unilateral American ground offensive operation of the Vietnam War.

The Cambodian Civil War and The Killing Fields

After being replaced in power by a soft coup in 1967, the Soviet faction inside North Vietnam led by Võ Nguyên Giáp was forced to watch impotently as the Chinese faction prepared to engage in large scale battles against the US, Allied, and South Vietnamese units. Led by Le Duan, the Chinese faction believed that the Americans could be beaten by large scale pitched battles, just as the French had been defeated the decade before, not through guerilla warfare as Giap proposed. Though a political victory in the United States for the Communists, the General Offensive/General Uprising, aka the Tet Offensive of 1968, was a complete disaster for the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies in South Vietnam. The Tet Offensive thoroughly discredited the Chinese faction. Giap returned to power.

Throughout the late 60s, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia believed in inevitable Chinese Communist domination of the Indochinese peninsula and was firmly allied with the Chinese faction in North Vietnam. Cambodia was all but a formal North Vietnamese and Chinese ally. Eastern Cambodia was essentially a North Vietnamese colony with the Ho Chi Minh trail and large areas along the border of South Vietnam under PAVN’s (People’s Army of North Vietnam) control. Soviet and Eastern Bloc ships routinely used Cambodian ports, and most of Cambodia’s rice harvest went to PAVN troops. The Cambodian Communists, the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) were a small indigenous guerilla auxiliary of the PAVN.

By 1969, Sihanouk was caught up in complicated plots while attempting placate all sides in the conflict. Cambodia’s support for the Vietnamese communists was one sided and destroying Cambodia’s economy. Sihanouk thoroughly supported the Chinese faction and had purged most urban i.e. Soviet supporting communists from the country. In 1970, Cambodian nationalists overthrew Sihanouk when they felt he wasn’t going far enough to restore Cambodian autonomy from Vietnam. The coup created an unholy alliance between the Sihanouk monarchists, the discredited Chinese faction of the PAVN, intellectuals outside the capital of Phnom Penh, and the agrarian peasants of the Khmer Rouge led by the unassuming and nondescript Pol Pot, to oppose the pro US Khmer Republic.

As Giap reconsolidated his hold on the PAVN in the wake of the Tet Offensive, the PAVN and the Khmer Rouge launched an offensive into north eastern Cambodian to continue the Maoist struggle against the Khmer Republic. In 1972, when Giap and the Soviet faction finally regained control of North Vietnamese leadership, the Khmer Rouge, like a petulant teenager who ran away from his parents, broke with their Vietnamese socialist brothers, and sought direct support from the Chinese Communist Party. By the end of 1973, all Sihanouk loyalists were purged. The agrarian-intellectual Khmer Rouge was greatly expanded by support from Mao Zedong’s CCP. The Khmer Rouge became the dominant force in the war against the Khmer Republic and Pol Pot the most powerful man in Cambodia.

Pol Pot was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), the official name of the Khmer Rouge, since 1963. Known “First Brother” to his socialist allies, Pol Pot was born in French Cambodia and an early French Communist. Pol Pot patterned the Khmer Rouge on the secretive French Maquis in the Second World War and Maoist agrarian socialism, combined with a Cambodian cultural distinctiveness. Pol Pot exploited the Khmer cultural divides between urban and rural, Heaven and Hell, civilization and the wild to create an indisputable boundary between the Khmer Rouge and its enemies, whomever they may be. Sihanouk’s purge of Soviet communists i.e the proletariat, in Phnom Penh left no place in the Khmer Rouge for industrial workers, just an ideal of happy and ignorant peasants lorded over by their supposedly intellectual superiors. Pol Pot’s ideology was especially effective on teenagers and younger children. Hundreds of thousands of Khmer children were indoctrinated and desensitized to violence. They were given power of life and death which their developing minds were incapable of handling. The CPK controlled areas were “Lord of the Flies” on an exponential scale. Pol Pot’s volatile political concoction led to an ideological violence seen only in the darkest depths of socialist and pseudo religious identity politics.

With declining support from America, the Khmer Republic declared a unilateral ceasefire with the Khmer Rouge when the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge saw no reason to abide by the terms. Throughout 1973 and 1974, they launched continuous offensives that eventually took them to the gates of Phnom Penh, the “Pearl of Asia”. After a yearlong siege, Phnom Penh fell to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975, just a few days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.

The Khmer Rouge’s popular slogan at the time was “The Rotten Must Be Purged”. They killed anyone that did not fit their ideal. These included:

-Anyone associated with the former Cambodian government, their extended families and neighbors.
-Anyone with foreign connections or even knew the basics of a foreign language.
-Intellectuals. The Khmer definition “intellectual” included students who did not drop out of school to fight for them, anyone who could read, anyone who owned a book, or even anyone who wore glasses.
-The sick and infirm, and any caretakers.
-Anyone who owned a business or employed people.
-Anyone who displayed any signs whatsoever of individualism.
-Anyone who resisted, did not support the party, or offended a member of the party.

The punishment for being an enemy of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was swift, brutal, and agonizing.

The Khmer Rouge forcefully evacuated all three million residents of the city. Phnom Penh went from bustling metropolis to ghost town in less than a month. What was left of the population of the city went on a weeks long Death March into the Cambodian countryside. Anyone who stopped moving or fell out of the march was killed. Way stops became torture centers. The Khmer Rouge played god with people’s lives just because they could. Once there they were used as slave labor on the collective farms.

20,000 mass grave sites were later identified, results of Khmer Rouge’s capture of Phnom Penh in 1975, the subsequent Death March, and the atrocities born from forced collectivization. At least 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered during Pol Pot’s and the Khmer Rouge’s Chinese sponsored reign in Cambodia.

Cambodian journalist Dith Pran coined the term “Killing Fields” to describe the clusters of skeletons and corpses he encountered on his forty mile journey during his escape from Cambodia in 1978.

Operation Babylift

In January 1975, the United States Congress refused to further fund the war in South Vietnam. Emboldened by America’s refusal to assist its ally, Communist North Vietnam launched the Ho Chi Minh campaign, a massive conventional invasion of South Vietnam. On 3 April 1975, the first shells from communist artillery slammed into South Vietnam’s capital, Saigon. The next day, President Gerald Ford authorized Operation Babylift to evacuate Vietnamese orphans from South Vietnam to prevent them from abuse, exploitation, and/or murder at the hands of the oncoming North Vietnamese troops.

Operation Babylift got off to an inauspicious start. On 4 April, a C-5A Galaxy crashed twelve minutes after takeoff from Tan Son Nhut airport when an unknown explosion rocked the rear of the aircraft. The first sortie of Operation Babylift killed 138 people, including 35 Saigon embassy personnel and 70 children. Nonetheless, Operation Babylift continued in coordination with international and Catholic non-governmental organizations.

The number of orphans vastly outweighed the capacity of the military transport planes assigned to the operation. When American businessman Bob Macauley heard it was going to take more than a week to evacuate the children, he sold his house and chartered a World Airways 737 to assist the US Air Force. Over the next ten days, Operation Babylift evacuated 3300 Vietnamese orphans to Guam or the Philippines. There they joined the nearly 130,000 Vietnamese refugees who had previously fled the communists.

The 3300 Operation Babylift evacuees found foster homes in the United States, Australia, France, Canada, and West Germany after the war.

The Ho Chi Minh Campaign: The 1975 North Vietnamese Spring Offensive

Almost ten years to the day after the first US combat troops entered South Vietnam, Communist North Vietnam launched their war winning conventional offensive against South Vietnam.

In 1964, the South Vietnamese Army was almost completely combat ineffective and had to be rebuilt. To buy the time to do so, General William Westmoreland, the commander of the US and SEATO Military Assistance Command- Vietnam (MAC-V), brought in US airpower and US combat troops. Between 1965 and 1968, Westmoreland used US and Allied troops to search for and destroy VC and NVA main force units, while relying on special forces, indigenous militias and the ARVN for counter insurgency and security. These tactics proved effective to a point, but didn’t play well on TV and certainly weren’t quantifiable, though Westmoreland tried with “body counts”. When Westmoreland was denied the authority to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail and seize communist base camps in the Laotian panhandle and the Fishhook in Cambodia, the war was militarily unwinnable for the US and South Vietnam. North Vietnamese Minister of Defense and commander of the North Vietnamese Army, General Võ Nguyên Giáp, took advantage of this reality and advocated for a slower insurgency campaign that avoided costly big unit engagements. This approach would empower the VC, increase US casualties, embolden the US anti-war movement, and allow time for the Soviet propaganda machine to work over America.

This slower, but inevitably successful, course of action was backed by the Soviet faction inside the North Vietnamese Communist Party, led by Giap and Ho Chi Minh. In 1967, when Ho was ill and Giap at a conference in Moscow, the Chinese faction in the government and armed forces staged a soft coup. The Chinese faction, led by COSVN commander Tran Van Tra and North Vietnamese politician Le Duan, came to power and demanded big unit battle with the Americans, because that was how the French were defeated previously. Returning to Vietnam, Giap was forced to accept the new strategy.

In January 1968, the NVA and VC launched the “General Offensive/General Uprising” i.e. the Tet Offensive, which shocked the Americans and South Vietnamese. However, though the General Offensive portion of the plan was executed, the General Uprising of South Vietnamese was nonexistent. The South Vietnamese populace on the whole refused to support the communists. The NVA and VC were defeated in a few weeks, the VC decisively so. Although the communists suffered extremely heavy casualties, the Tet Offensive turned the US public opinion against the war. The scale of the offensive gave lie to the official Johnson and Westmoreland position that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Gen Westmoreland was replaced that spring by General Creighton Abrams.

The Tet Offensive destroyed the Viet Cong as a viable military entity, and forced Giap to move NVA regular units into South Vietnam to take their place, setting the insurgency back years. This gave Abrams 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 partnering and training of South Vietnamese troops and irregulars, the “inkblot strategy” proved effective. Dubbed “Vietnamization” the strategy was successful, and the ARVN took over security of the country with most American combat troops out of Vietnam by 1972.

Though Abrams’ strategy was successful, the four years of lost time under Westmoreland meant that the South Vietnamese still needed American advisors, air support, supplies, and financial assistance to deal with the increasingly conventional NVA attacks. With American assistance, the ARVN held its own against the NVA coming out of Cambodia and Laos. On New Year’s Eve 1972, Giap conceded that “We have lost the war” (his words) after Operation Linebacker II and the disastrous Easter Offensive, both of which prompted the North Vietnamese to accept the Paris Peace Accords in early 1973. South Vietnam repelled North Vietnam’s 1972, 1973, and 1974 spring offensives, without American combat troops.

As usual for modern American peace deals, the United States kept its part of the bargain and its adversaries did not. In February 1975, the US public was tired of the war. The newly elected Democratic congress cut off all funding to South Vietnam, while North Vietnam was awash in funds and supplies from various Communist bloc countries. On 10 March 1975, Giap launched the spring offensive, named after the deceased former leader of North Vietnam Ho Chi Minh, with hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces. “The Ho Chi Minh Campaign” was the fourth massive conventional spring offensive in as many years against South Vietnam. Giap had reached the bottom of his manpower pool, but unfortunately South Vietnam had neither the resources nor the will to properly defend. The NVA broke through within days and Saigon fell on 30 April.

Contrary to popular historical opinion, South Vietnam did not fall to a popular insurgency, but a conventional attack that would not have been out of place in the Second World War.

130,000 South Vietnamese fled the country and 200,000 more were be murdered by the North Vietnamese over the next month. Hundreds of thousands more were forced into re-education camps. Following their victory in Vietnam, Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge, and Laos fell to the Pathet Lao. A further 1.6 million men, women, and children were murdered by the Communists.

Operation Rolling Thunder and the Ground War in Vietnam

In early 1965, there were 22,000 US Special Forces advisers, pilots, and support personnel in South Vietnam assisting the Republic of South Vietnam in the war against the communist National Liberation Front insurgents aka Viet Cong (VC), and their backers in North Vietnam. The situation in South Vietnam steadily deteriorated over the previous two years and the chaos reached a crescendo in February 1965. The Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) was recently defeated in two conventional battles against the VC and regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Also the civilian government of South Vietnam endured a successful coup by the ARVN Army Chief of Staff, Gen Nguyen Khanh and his Buddhist supporters, only to be immediately followed by another failed coup by communist sympathizers on the Armed Forces Council (The Vietnamese version of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Furthermore, the South Vietnamese village pacification program was recognized as a complete failure in February. Additionally, Viet Cong terror bombings became increasing common in South Vietnam’s major cities. But the final straw was the attack on Pleiku Air Base which killed eight Americans, wounded 128 others and destroyed 20 aircraft in the first large scale attack directed solely at Americans.

In response to the chaos, on 2 March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson authorized Operation Rolling Thunder, a sustained bombing campaign against the Viet Cong’s supply routes aka the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”, and military and industrial targets inside North Vietnam. Rolling Thunder was a major escalation to the war. The operation was scheduled to last eight weeks; it would go on for three years.

In order to protect the Rolling Thunder airbases from further Pleiku style attacks, the Military Assistance Command – Vietnam commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, requested American ground combat troops. The first of these arrived on 8 March 1965 when two battalions of US Marines landed on the beach at Danang, where they assumed security of the US airbase there. They could have flown directly to the airbase, but Westmoreland thought it more dramatic for the cameras if they landed on the beach like their fathers did in the Pacific War.

95,000 more American troops followed over the course of 1965.