Tagged: Vietnam

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.

The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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.”

The Battle of Phou Pha Thi: The Fall of Lima Site 85

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 Battle of Bien Hoa Air Base

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.

Operation Linebacker II

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.

The Border Battles: The Battle of Dak To

 In 1967, the General Secretary of the North Vietnamese Communist Party Le Duan, and the new commander of the Central Office of South Vietnam, Tran Van Tra, felt that South Vietnam was ripe for revolution, contrary to what both Gen Westmoreland, the American Commander of Military Assistance Command – Vietnam and Võ Nguyên Giáp, the commander of the People’s Army of North Vietnam were saying. Both Tran and Le Duan felt that a general offensive during the Tet holiday would lead to a general uprising among the South Vietnamese. However, Giap was politically neutralized over the summer, and could not prevent Tran and Le Duan’s from carrying out their plan.
 
The first phase of the “Tong-Tan-cong-Noi-day” or “General Offensive, General Uprising”, called for North Vietnamese attacks along the borders with Laos and Cambodia in order to lure American units out of the interior of South Vietnam. In the late summer of 1967, the North Vietnamese began a series of division level operations with the short term objective of destroying an American brigade, but with the ultimate objective of pulling American units away from their bases and Vietnamese population centers.
 
The first such battle was for the area around Dak To in the Kontum province of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Four PAVN (People’s Army of [North] Vietnam) Regiments fortified the hills around Dak To in order to isolate and destroy the Special Forces base there. In October 1967, the American 173rd Airborne Brigade launched Operation Greeley to clear the PAVN troops from their fortifications among the jungle covered hills. The 173rd Airborne Brigade, elements of the 4th Infantry Division, the 1st Air Cavalry Division, the 42nd ARVN Regiment and various US and ARVN Special Forces were in close combat with the North Vietnamese regulars among the steep hills in what became known as “The Battle of the Slopes”. In late October, the North Vietnamese withdrew, but it was a ruse to lure the Americans into a deadly regimental sized ambush.
 
The hills around Dak To were honeycombed with tunnels, bunkers, and fortifications designed to withstand the heaviest American bombardments short of a direct hit from a B-52 strike. On 3 November 1967, the 173rd Airborne and supporting tough ARVN paratroopers launched Operation MacArthur specifically to seize the hills which dominated that stretch of the border with Cambodia, protect the vital Dak To airfield, and destroy the “fleeing” North Vietnamese. The 174th PAVN Regiment was waiting, dug deep into the hills.
 
By 19 November the 173rd and ARVN troops cleared most of the hills, but took heavy losses. The 173rd’s 1st Battalion 503rd Parachute Infantry (1/503rd) was wrecked nearly beyond repair, but the so were three PAVN regiments. That morning, 2/503rd moved overland to clear a hill where a CIDG company reported taking fire from bunkers the day before. The hill was 875 meters high.
 
Unbeknownst to the Sky Soldiers, the veterans of the 2nd Bn, 174th PAVN Infantry Regiment were watching from the steep slopes above. 2/503rd assaulted Hill 875 in a classic “two up – one back” formation since they could no longer put four rifle companies into the field. The assault was actually under tactical command of the senior infantry company commander on the ground, CPT Harold Kaufman, with the battalion commander circling above coordinating support. However, the “one back” company had to hold the landing zone so only two companies assaulted the heavily fortified hill held by an entire PAVN battalion. The initial attack met heavy resistance and only managed to get half way up the hill.
 
At 1400, the 174th sprung the trap. Its 1st and 3rd battalions surrounded and struck A Company who was securing the landing zone. Heavy machine gun fire, mortars, and B-40 rockets pounded the assaulting troops on the hill side. Kaufman immediately called off the assault and formed a perimeter, but he had about a hundred casualties, mostly dead or missing, of his original 300, and the North Vietnamese had overrun the landing zone. That evening six helicopters were shot down trying to deliver ammunition and take wounded off the bare slope. To make matters worse, a Marine A-1 Skyraider dropped two 500 lb bombs directly on the Americans, and caused 80 more casualties. It looked as if Tran and Le Duan would get their destroyed American unit.
 
The “friendly fire” decapitated the 2/503rd leadership on the ground. When the bomb hit, Kaufman and the two other company commanders and first sergeants were conversing on how to hold out for the night, until the relief column could get there in the morning. The errant airstrike killed or seriously wounded them all. Even worse, chaos broke out among the remaining troops who thought they were all going to die. Discipline broke down. The leadership of the battalion fell to the platoon leaders, with C Company commanded by a platoon sergeant, and they regained control of the men. For the rest of the night, one of the PLs called in artillery that ringed the small American perimeter like a palisade.
 
The next morning, the 173rd’s 4/503rd was still hours away. Desperate hand to hand fighting occurred all along the perimeter that morning, The 2nd Battalion men thought they were being sacrificed, but the North Vietnamese shot up so many American helicopters the day before that the 4th Battalion had trouble getting to an LZ near Hill 875. Also, the thick vegetation made the three km ruck difficult, and there was the threat of ambush every step of the way. The besieged 2nd Battalion men were outnumbered, out of water, out of medical supplies, and desperately low on ammunition.
 
The first relief wasn’t from the 4th Battalion though, but from a lone helicopter. Hovering 15ft off the ground, the 2nd Battalion’s executive officer, MAJ William Kelly, jumped out with the battalion surgeon and some of the the companies’ headquarters troops with ammunition and water. Shortly thereafter, the lead company of the 4th battalion fought its way over the dead bodies of the previous day’s battles, and through the attacking North Vietnamese. That night the rest of the relief battalion infiltrated into the perimeter. MAJ Kelly took command of the both battalions. The two battalion commanders circling overhead might have disagreed, but in reality they were just glorified fire support officers. Sometimes your men have to be able to look you in the eye.
 
The next day, the 4th Battalion assaulted the hill while the remnants of 2nd Battalion held the perimeter against the North Vietnamese at the base. The bunkers had to be cleared before any medical evacuation or resupply could be attempted for the cut off Americans. After fighting all day, the 4th Battalion managed to take the first line of trenches and bunkers, but it was enough for several helicopters to get in that night. On the 22nd the 173rd’s brigade commander forbade any further frontal assaults and ringed the perimeter with constant airstrikes and artillery. A battalion from the 4th Infantry Division was landed at the same landing zone that 4/503rd landed at two days before. A combined assault was scheduled to take the hill the next day.
 
On Thanksgiving morning, 1967, the North Vietnamese regimental commander decided that he had had enough. He mauled the Americans, but he had lost over a thousand men. Just before the American assault, he pulled his men off of Hill 875 through escape tunnels. Tran ordered the remaining PAVN troops around Dak To area back to Cambodia. Le Duan wouldn’t get his destroyed American brigade, though he came close.
 
The Battle of Dak To was some of the bitterest fighting of the Vietnam War. The Americans defeated the North Vietnamese, and badly, but the Battle of Dak To and those like it, such as the Siege of Khe Sahn, fulfilled Tran’s operational objective of pulling the Americans away from the population centers. More than half of American combat power in South Vietnam was along the borders of Laos and Cambodia when the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive three months later in January, 1968.