Tagged: Vietnam

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.

The General Offensive, The General Uprising: The Border Battles

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.

The Monterey Pop Festival

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.

By the late sixties, the Vietnam War had reached a fever pitch and tens of thousands of young men were drafted at random every month. Without knowing whether they were going to be drafted, with the possibility of returning home in a metal coffin as hundreds were by 1967, Rock and Roll was first an escape, then a cultural force unequaled so far in American history.

In early 1967, music promoters in Monterey, California wanted to capitalize on this phenomenon. They wanted to do for Rock and Roll what they did for Jazz with the Monterey Jazz Festival: bring together the best acts in the country to a single venue. This had never been done before on this scale. In 1965 and 66, Rock and Roll occupied that holy trifecta of the music industry: it was the best written and most creative music, it was the most popular, and you could dance to it. Furthermore, by having it in the same venue as the respected jazz and folk festivals, it would legitimize Rock and Roll as a serious musical genre.

The first act the Monterey Pop Festival promoters contacted was biggest live band of 1966, The Mamas and the Papas. However, the Jazz template was barely large enough for them, much less the who’s who of Rock and Roll that were on the list to be invited. The Mamas and the Papas’ producers and managers expanded the scope of the festival, spread the performances over three days, and then got about the business of herding the eclectic group of the biggest names in Music to Monterey.

The response was unheard of and the heavy advertising meant fans of all kinds began to arrive. By early June, 1967, the original promoters and the city of Monterey began to get cold feet. The Age of Psychedelia was upon America and the Summer of Love was all around. The hippies of San Francisco were descending upon the city in ever increasing numbers for the festival. The city commissioned a song, “San Francisco”, (you know, the one with the silly line, “…gentle people with flowers in their hair…”) to be used in a commercial to remind the festival goers that violence, squalor, and vandalism does not equal peace, love, and harmony. That public service announcement would become one on the biggest hits of the year (San Francisco was a big hit with many Vietnam vets: San Francisco was the first stop on the return trip back from Vietnam) The advertising campaign worked and the police and security found themselves wielding bouquets not batons.

On 16, 17, and 18 June 1967, almost a hundred thousand spectators arrived to listen to and watch the best live Rock and Roll bands in the world. The Monterey Pop Festival immediately revolutionized the industry and became the template for every music festival since. Without it there would be no Coachella, no Woodstock, no Lollapalooza, or no Punk Rock Bowling. Monterey wasn’t the first music festival, but it was the first filmed and the resulting documentary made it the standard. Careers were launched based on their performances and many would go on to be household names, while some bands would fade into obscurity after cracking under the cultural pressure. Many performers would cement their place in Rock and Roll history with their performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Of the thirty or so bands that played, including Eric Burdon and the Animals, The Byrds, and The Grateful Dead, five acts in particular stood out.

The first and possibly the biggest surprise was Janis Joplin of Big Brother and the Holding Company. “She didn’t just sing with her voice; she sang with her whole body” commented a newspaper review. After just one song, The Mamas and the Papas, watching in the audience, knew they were no longer the biggest act on the West Coast.

The next was Otis Redding. Unlike today, Rock and Roll was a unifying force with artists either consciously or unconsciously introducing their culture to their audiences, no matter the color of any of their skins. Otis Redding just moved from gospel music to R&B and his appearance was his “coming out”. He stunned the crowd and sang with such soulfulness, that it was as if he knew he wouldn’t last the year.

The third act to steal the show were the British invasion late arrivals, The Who. Though Pete Townsend and Keith Moon had been destroying their instruments for years in Britain, Pete’s first smashed guitar in America sent shock waves though the audience, and catapulted The Who to instant superstardom.

Another shocker was Jimi Hendrix who electrified the audiences with his guitar. At the end of his set, Jimi doused his guitar in lighter fluid, and set it on fire. He then got down his hands and knees and worshiped the flaming instrument like a pagan god – the High Priest of Rock and Roll in front of a hundred thousand disciples.

The last act to steal the show was not at all pleased with Hendrix’ theatrics. The 47 year old Master Sitarist Ravi Shankar was appalled at the flaming guitar and saw it as a desecration. The former court musician of the Indian Raj was the most unlikely Rock and Roll star; nonetheless, Shankar stole the show and held the audience enraptured. His music is most associated with the mind expanding psychedelia of the time, but at the festival, he did the unthinkable: asked the audience to stop doing drugs, implying that they couldn’t truly appreciate the music while high. And they did, at least for a bit.

Ravi Shankar’s presence at the Monterey Pop Festival highlighted the fact that the biggest band on the planet, the Beatles, were not actually playing live at the festival. He had almost single handedly invented World Music after taking the Beatles’ George Harrison as a pupil, and their absence was noticeable. The Beatles were there: high as kites and partying three days straight, but they never got on stage.

By late 1966, the Beatles were the best studio musicians in the business, bar none. They wrote the most innovative, most creative, most technically difficult music heard in generations. But that creativity came at a price: it sounded like shit on stage.

Many of their latest songs required facilities and back up only found in a studio. There was no place for an accompanying orchestra on a stage. These were the days of Eleanor Rigby and Sgt Pepper, not a Hard Days’ Night and I Want To Hold Your Hand. Their recently released Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was, and is, the greatest studio album ever released and will continue to be so until we invent new musical instruments or aliens give them to us, and even then we’ll have our work cut out for us. But as great as Sgt Pepper is, it couldn’t be played on stage, at least not in 1967 nor could their previous two albums.

By then the Beatles hadn’t played live for some time. Sgt Pepper was written specifically because they knew if they got on that stage at Monterey their mystique would be ruined. They decided to ditch the limitations and showmanship of the stage, for the expansive creativity of the studio and the business of selling records. The chose the science of the studio over the art of entertainment. They needed a studio album to compete with the Festival and to remind everyone they existed even though they weren’t on stage in the biggest rock concert of the century. Sgt Pepper was the first Pop album.

Popular music is a fiscal contract between a producer of a popular product in the most convenient media format and a consumer who is the best judge of the various merits of that product. Rock and Roll is a social contact between band and fan separated only by bright lights, stacks of speakers, and an elevated dais. Sgt Pepper and the Monterey Pop Festival created an irrevocable and irreparable divide in music. The bands that played Monterey influenced the development of rock and roll and its countless sub genres. The disciples of the mastery of Sgt Pepper, who didn’t or couldn’t play at Monterey, mostly because their studio albums couldn’t be replicated on stage, influenced pop.

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

The Easter Offensive

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.

The Battle of Suoi Tre, aka The Battle for Firebase Gold

The Operation Junction City cordon may have prevented the Viet Cong from escaping War Zone C, had there been any there, but it most definitely didn’t prevent any VC from entering War Zone C. The initial attacks in the first few weeks fixed the outlying American battalions in place, as the VC streamed past to assault the half-finished firebases and Special Forces’ camps further into the interior of the Tay Ninh province.
One such firebase was located at Landing Zone Gold outside of Suoi Tre. Landing Zone Gold was well known to the Viet Cong due to its frequent use during Operation Attleboro a few months prior, and was littered with 82mm mortars and 122mm artillery shells rigged with pressure plates and trip wires. On 19 March, 1967, the 3rd Battalion/22nd Infantry, and 2nd Bn, 77th Artillery landed at Gold to establish a firebase to support further operations in the area.
The improvised explosive devices were the first indications that the landing zone was targeted. And though the battalions lost some men and three helicopters, the damage was not nearly what it could have been. The men of 3-22 IN dug in immediately with A company securing the west side of the perimeter and B Company securing the east (C Company was the Bde Reserve), with the three batteries of the artillery battalion in a second smaller perimeter inside. On the 20th, they were reinforced with a section of quad .50 Cal anti-aircraft guns, which were particularly useful in an anti-personnel role. It was none too soon. The 450 men of the two battalions were in place less than 36 hours before the entire 2400 strong reinforced 272nd VC Regiment descended upon them.
Just before dawn on the 21st, B Co’s squad on night ambush was itself ambushed as it returned to the firebase, as dozens, if not hundreds, of mortars and rockets landed inside the perimeter. The VC conducted a feint against the west side of the perimeter, then launched a full scale three battalion assault against B Co in the east. B Co held as the Quad 50s continually fired two guns as the other two reloaded, while the artillery battalion laid their own guns directly on advancing Vietnamese. Two other firebases joined in with a final protective and counterbattery fire, along with a flight of F-4s, with more air on the way. Nonetheless, the VC were so many that the B Co commander reported that within minutes he had enemy inside the perimeter, and close contact inside the fighting positions.
The battle turned when the VC shot down the forward air controller’s plane, then knocked out the quad .50 with a recoilless rifle. The VC surged forward, overran an entire platoon, and forced the rest back inside the perimeter. Gunners, ammo handlers, and support personnel from the artillery battalion went forward to help the infantry, but there was still hand to hand fighting inside the infantry battalion command post and medical bunker. The VC also overran a quad .50 cal, and turned it on the defenders. Fortunately, American gunners destroyed it before it could do too much damage with a well-placed high explosive round over open sights. In a last desperate attempt to slow down the Communist assault, the B Co commander requested the artillerymen fire directly into the southern and eastern perimeter with special “beehive” rounds, a modern, and much more deadly, version of the canister round used by artillerymen for centuries. When fired indirectly, the rounds had a timer which would explode and release the 8000 metal flechettes packed inside, but with the VC fifteen meters from the guns, the timers were disabled. The gunners fired cloud after cloud of flechettes into American and Vietnamese alike, though most of what was left of B Co had established a new firing line around the guns, inside the artillery perimeter.
The desperate move temporarily checked the VC assault, and bought just enough time for some reinforcements to arrive. First, A Co on the west was having its own problems with a VC battalion, especially in the north where the VC from the east had penetrated and occupied some of his fighting positions. They had lost contact with their own night ambush patrol, which unlike B Co, was almost an entire platoon. The A Co commander assumed they were dead, like B Co’s. However, this was not the case. The ambushing platoon leader recognized his predicament, and infiltrated all of his men out of the pending VC ambush, through the attacking battalion, and back into the perimeter, without losing a man. They were immediately sent to help the gunners, led by their battalion commander and future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff GEN Vessey, literally fighting for their guns. The A Co infantrymen helped hold the east and south side of the artillery perimeter and assisted what was left of B Co seal the penetration. They arrived just after the last beehive rounds were fired.
Also, 2-77 FA was tasked to support the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry on a search and destroy mission to the southwest. The 272nd commander knew of the mission, and tasked mortar and artillery fire to fix them. However, when the wounded 2-12 IN battalion commander heard the fighting to his east, and in particular the cannons firing that weren’t in support of him, he literally marched to the sound of the guns, correctly assuming the firebase was under attack.
About this time their brigade commander was above the battle in a small observer plane with a new forward air controller who began directing the dozen or so planes who had had stacked up in the sky. They were unable to drop their ordnance on the confused melee below without fear of even more friendly casualties. The first coordinated attack of F-100s dropped the infamous combination of “Snake and Nape” (two 250 lbs Mark 81 “Snakeye” general purpose bombs to ignite a 500 lb canister of napalm) directly on the eastern perimeter, and broke up a surprisingly rapid reorganized VC assault. The next few airstrikes were in support of 2-12 IN who were practically jogging into an ambush. The first men from 2-12 IN burst through the smoking woodline at 0900, after an excruciatingly difficult 4 km quick march through the thick bamboo to find the firebase in chaos. The 2-12 IN commander ordered his men to reestablish the eastern perimeter. Their subsequent counterattack ran straight into the next wave of assaulting VC, but the renewed effort by the Americans pushed them back outside the original perimeter. Nevertheless, the VC came on: the 272nd commander still had his reserve battalion and his men were so determined to kill Americans that many wounded demanded to be carried to support by fire positions to continue the fight.
Further south, the M48 tanks and M113 APC’s of 2-34 Armor carrying C Co 2-22 Infantry, had been ordered to the battle but couldn’t find a crossing over the Suoi May Ta River. For 30 minutes the tankers and mechanized infantrymen listened helplessly as scouts searched for a ford. The tankers and APC crews eventually found a spot where they could sink an M113, and drive over it. However, they could only send one vehicle across at a time.
In true cavalry fashion they arrived just as the VC were about to launch their last assault. Moving forward in a wedge, the tankers launched their own flechette rounds into the flank of the assault, as the .50 Cal’s on the commander’s cupolas of the tanks, APCs and M88 Recovery vehicles pounded away. What was left of the 272nd VC Regiment broke and ran. In one last act of defiance, the guns of Firebase Gold pounded the eastern tree line as the Viet Cong fled through. The tankers and APCs pursued for another two hours before turning back.
The American’s initiative, flexibility, tactical mobility, and firepower were clearly far superior to that of the French fifteen years before. Tranh’s search for big unit battles was proving very costly. The Battle for Firebase Gold was the single largest loss of life for the Communists up to that point in the war, to include the fights for LZs XRay and Albany 18 months previously. Though Tranh was not completely discredited, yet, Giap would not let him forget it.

Operation Junction City: Thanh Attacks

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.

Operation Junction City

After Operation Cedar Falls, Gen Westmoreland’s staff felt that the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN), the Viet Cong’s primary headquarters in the south, escaped into the Tay Ninh province along the border with Cambodia, with the VC battalions that weren’t found in the Iron Triangle. Furthermore, due to the movement to contact-esque and adhoc nature of Operation Attleboro in November, Westmoreland felt that, though the 9th VC Division and 101st NVA Regiment were mauled, their base areas in Tay Ninh weren’t completely destroyed. So he ordered the II Corps commander, LTG Seaman, to “think big”, and plan a deliberate operation to clear the Tay Ninh province, and complete the destruction of the Communist main force units. The problem was they weren’t there.

As per Giap’s orders after Operation Attleboro, the relatively unpopulated Tay Ninh, known as War Zone C to the Americans and South Vietnamese, was used strictly as a transit area for men, weapons, and supplies for guerilla operations in the much more densely populated area around Saigon, known as War Zone D. COSVN was firmly established in the Fishhook in Cambodia, where it would remain, except for a brief period in 1970, until 1975. COSVN did have the equivalent of a tactical command post in Tay Ninh, but it was just a clearing house for reports from inside South Vietnam. The VC that escaped the Cedar Fall’s cordon around the Iron Triangle, were either in the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon, or were used to reconstitute the 9th VC Division, which was in Cambodia. The only Communist troops in Tay Ninh in mid-February 1967 was an understrength local VC battalion primarily used to watch potential landing zones. LTG Seaman’s next big search and destroy operation, Operation Junction City, named after Fort Riley’s ville, was seemingly destined to find little and destroy less.

Operation Junction City was massive: Sixteen battalions from the 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions, and the 196th Infantry Brigade, established the eastern and western cordons. In the only airborne operation of the Vietnam War, a battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade dropped in to form blocking positions to the north, after the brigade commander lobbied Westmoreland, himself a paratrooper, to include a combat jump in the operation. With the anvil set, the hammer would again fall to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment supported by a brigade from the 25th Infantry Division, both assaulting into the pocket from the south.

At dawn on 22 February 1967, B-52’s pounded suspected Communist positions inside War Zone C. They hit nothing but earth and just alerted the small COSVN TAC to escape. At 9 am, paratroopers drifted down into drop zones, and enormous armadas of helicopters and trucks delivered the anvil battalions to their positions. They trapped virtually nothing, certainly not the twelve VC and NVA main force battalions Westmoreland expected to be there.

Fortunately, Gen Nguyen Thi Thanh, the COSVN commander and Giap’s rival, wanted to engage the Americans in battle. Unlike Giap, he felt that engaging the Americans would increase the likelihood of a general uprising in South Vietnam, and increase the morale of his men. If the Americans wanted a fight, he would oblige them.

It was the VC that would save Westmoreland and Seaman from embarrassment, cover up one of the biggest intelligence failures of the war, and prevent Operation Junction City, the largest Allied operation so far, from being a complete waste of resources.

Operation Cedar Falls Epilogue

The senior Viet Cong commander inside the Iron Triangle received word of Operations Cedar Falls as soon as the South Vietnamese did. When the incredulous John Paul Vann and the USAID were receiving the briefing from the II Corps staff on 7 January, the VC commander had made the decision not to fight. In less than 24 hours, five of his nine battalions had already escaped north toward Cambodia (they were out before the 1st ID hammer landed) or southeast through the Cu Chi tunnels toward Saigon. Two battalions attempted to escape west and were effectively destroyed by 2nd Brigade, the 25th Infantry Division. The other two battalions went into the extensive tunnel systems and either waited for the 11th ACR to pass overhead, or they fought it out in the numerous small unit actions over the next two weeks. Most casualties from the operation were the result of the booby traps and small ambushes, many inside the tunnels.

After the civilians of Ben Suc and the hamlets were evacuated, the Americans went after the tunnel system with a vengeance. American volunteers, called “tunnel rats”, delved downward and engaged the VC with pistols, knives, and flashlights. To their astonishment, they caught a glimpse of how deep and extensive the tunnels actually were, and the futility of trying to clear them. Tunnel Rats were not new in the war, but where before they were just volunteers with giant brass gonads, Cedar Falls was the first time they were specially trained and organized. When they deemed it impossible to go further, engineers above would flood the tunnels with acetylene gas, light it, then bull dozers would collapse the tunnels and seal them off. For good measure, B-52 strikes would be called on the more extensive and deeper systems to collapse them, which it was found out later was the only real way of damaging them permanently, and then only when the bombs fell directly above.

Operation Cedar Falls was a body blow to the VC. Publicly the Communists declared it failure, just as Saigon declared it a victory. But by the American’s own metrics it was not nearly what Seaman was hoping for: the body count was relatively low, just 753 or just under two battalions. 507 VC defected under the Chieu Hoi program, though many disappeared later. Thousands of tons of rice were seized but few weapons and ammunition. The big haul was intelligence, though Westmoreland couldn’t say that on the air. Over 500,000 documents and the majority of the COSVN headquarters support staff were captured (the “primaries” and the important members of the staff moved to the Fishhook in Cambodia in December. Cedar Falls interrupted the movement of the remainder). The new found intelligence painted a far different picture than what the Americans or South Vietnamese had thought to be true.

It took the first half of 1967 to translate and analyze the document and interrogation haul from Cedar Falls. And Westmoreland and Saigon couldn’t believe what they saw. The insurgency was so deeply entrenched that VC shadow governments operated alongside the South Vietnamese at every level. Many South Vietnamese Army units had truces with the VC in their districts. The documents painted a picture of an insurgency that was clearly winning, and whose district and provincial leadership were unafraid of having their names and activities recorded. The haul provided targeting fodder for thousands of Phoenix Program operations and quickly resulted in the expansion of CORDS. In the end the document dump probably sank Westmoreland. Although Westmoreland brilliantly saved Vietnam from being overrun in 65, and then miraculously built up the US conventional offensive presence nearly from scratch then fought Giap and Than to a standstill in 66, President Johnson and Secretary McNamara no longer believed what Westmoreland was feeding them. Even money says it led directly to the decision to replace him in late 1967.

The intelligence windfall was not lost on Giap. He was furious at Than and would hold it against him until his rival’s “accidental” death later in the year. Operation Cedar Falls proved that the VC in South Vietnam were not ready for main force operations against the Americans, though it would take another American operation to confirm it. Giap and Than wouldn’t have long to wait.
On 26 January 1967, just 18 days after LTC Haig and his battalion landed around Ben Suc, the last Americans and South Vietnamese pulled out of the Iron Triangle to prepare for the next corps level search and destroy operation. Despite the severe damage to the tunnel system and a dozen square miles of jungle defoliated, the first VC moved back in just ten days later; the first civilians, two weeks later.

The Iron Triangle would continue as a VC safe haven for another three years.

Operation Cedar Falls Begins

On 7 January 1967, ten battalions of 25th Infantry Division and 196th Infantry Brigade truck borne infantry established blocking positions along the Saigon River, and the next day six battalions of the 1st Infantry Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade air assaulted into landing zones north and east; all to establish a large cordon around the Iron Triangle and prevent the escape of the nine Viet Cong main force battalions suspected of operating from there.

The Iron Triangle was just one of the Viet Cong’s 80 plus relatively inaccessible safe havens inside South Vietnam in January 1967. It was 40 square miles of thick double canopy jungle, and few open areas inside. For over twenty years it was the center of Vietnamese resistance around Saigon: first against the Japanese, then the French, and now the Americans. Like Iwo Jima in the previous generation, the entire area was honeycombed with decades’ worth of tunnels, 30,000 miles worth, some extending four and five levels underground. The Triangle contained hospitals, communications centers, rest and recreation areas, logistics depots, way stations for communist units coming from Cambodia, a processing and training center for new VC recruits, and until recently the Central Office for South Vietnam, the VC main headquarters. The entire 6500 strong civilian population was organized to support the VC infrastructure. The South Vietnamese Army assaulted the area twice, once in 1963 and again in 1964, but after heavy fighting all they could do was blow up some tunnel entrances, and return to Saigon. In early 1966, the 173rd Airborne, 1st ID, and the Royal Australian Regiment tried again in Operation Crimp, and though they did more damage than the ARVN assaults, they did little more than dent the extensive fortifications and tunnel system.

In the spring of 1966, an American officer who was an ARVN advisor had dinner with Gen Westmoreland at his request. During the after dinner cigar, Westmoreland asked him what needed to be done about the Iron Triangle, as the advisor had been on the last two operations into the area. The young captain replied without hesitating, “Burn it down”. In August, Westmoreland attempted just that. The Air Force dropped defoliants on the area which dried the vegetation. And then two weeks later, they napalmed it. 15 of the 40 square miles of the Iron Triangle went up in flames, but it burned so large and so hot that it created a weather phenomenon known as a “cloudburst”, which eventually put the fires out. In any case, it didn’t matter – the jungle just grew back within a month when the monsoon hit later that year. The Americans hadn’t been back since.

LTG Seaman assured Westmoreland and DePuy that this time would be different. Once the Iron Triangle was occupied, and the VC defeated, the entire population would be relocated by the South Vietnamese, and two brigades of engineers would level the entire area and collapse the tunnels. Operation Cedar Falls would have five times the manpower as Operation Crimp. Also, the 2nd Brigade 1st Infantry Division and the entire 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment would serve as the hammer. The VC would not escape this overwhelming force, and they would not reoccupy the barren wasteland that would remain.

On the morning of 8 January 1967, the first M113 armored personnel carriers and M48 tanks of the 11th ACR crossed the Tinh River in the east and crashed through the jungle driving the VC forward like hunting dogs. Coming in low out of the rising sun, the 500 men of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment led by LTC Alexander Haig descended upon the village of Ben Suc, the administrative epicenter of the Iron Triangle, and the home of most of the population.

The surprise was complete, or so it seemed.

LTC Haig’s battalion quickly surrounded the village of Ben Suc, and less than dozen of the villagers fought back. Those who resisted were quickly overwhelmed. Loudspeakers broadcast for the villagers to assemble outside of the school and about 1000 showed up. A second wave of helicopters brought in a field kitchen and medical personnel, as well as an ARVN battalion to screen them and conduct an extensive search to the village. The Americans spread out into the surrounding jungle, or secured the entrances to the numerous tunnels they found.

The Americans were under strict orders that “Vietnamese deal with Vietnamese”. The American troops were supposed to fight the VC, and the ARVN deal with the population. Unfortunately, LTG Seaman’s desire for secrecy meant that the South Vietnamese, and even the advisors and USAID personnel weren’t told of Operation Cedar Falls until the day before it started. The VC were surprised, but the South Vietnamese were even more surprised. They were completely unprepared to secure such a large village, and screen the entire population. And then they had to transport the villagers, their possessions and livestock to a resettlement camp at the province capital at Phu Cuong down the Saigon River.

The ARVN troops found dozens of tunnel entrances and hundreds of hiding villagers. And they weren’t easy on them. Accompanying Haig’s battalion was a reporter, Jonathan Schell from the New Yorker, who chronicled everything he saw. And he saw a lot. One incident stood out. Schell walked into a hut and witnessed an ARVN soldier beating a suspected VC for information, in front of an American advisor. The bored looking advisor calmly explained to Schell that it was part of their culture, that they had “methods and practices” that Americans weren’t accustomed to, and he wasn’t here to impose American values on the South Vietnamese. (aka the wrong answer in “The COIN Culture Conundrum” i.e Pick one: A. Step in, stop the abuse, upset the supposedly “friendly natives”, and get yelled at later by the smug ones who think all cultures are equal and by stopping human rights abuses, whether it be abusing women, screwing little boys, or in this case beating prisoners, you are “interfering with their culture” or “imposing American Values”. Or B, Letting it happen thereby being more “Culturally sensitive” and then getting crushed for violating someone’s human rights. The right answer is always A, but you would be floored how many well-meaning people overlook gross violations of human rights in the name “cultural equivalence”.) Schell was rightfully appalled. His observations on the evacuation of the village, especially the beating, would be published in the New Yorker in July, and it would set the Summer of Love on fire.

By noon, the system was breaking down. 3500 villagers were gathered at the school. 106 were detained and helicoptered out for further interrogation, but the rest waited, and waited. They couldn’t return to their homes, and the South Vietnamese couldn’t get transportation coordinated to move them. Chaos began. And order was only maintained by force. The bad day turned into a worse night as the entire population, which would grow to 6000, were forced to stay by the school.

Shocked at the scene in the morning, Haig stepped in and took charge. He informed DePuy that he needed assistance, or a humanitarian disaster was going to ensue, if it hadn’t already. The furious DePuy organized an ad hoc truck convoy to transport the villagers. It would take them two days to transport everyone in convoys which the VC left unmolested for the most part. The original plan was to use a South Vietnamese Navy flotilla but DePuy had them transport the villagers possessions and livestock (which went as well as it sounded), because most of the villagers were gone by the time the boats were assembled.

The camp at Phu Cuong was not prepared either. As reports from the convoys came in, DePuy went down to see for himself and was shocked at what he found: it lacked adequate food, shelter, sanitation, medical facilities, even water. The enraged DePuy called the USAID director in Saigon, the equally livid John Paul Vann, a former advisor, ranger, LTC, and probably the most culturally competent American in Vietnam, and told him he was taking over the resettlement as well as the evacuation. (In Vann’s defense he only found out about Cedar Falls with the South Vietnamese, but with 6000 dejected, cold, hungry, and thirsty refugees in a field with nothing but the clothes they wore when the loudspeakers told them to go to the school, that hardly mattered)

The conventional American Army just got its first lesson in counterinsurgency in Vietnam: If not you, then who? Understaffed and underfunded civilian agencies? 12 man Special Forces teams? Random poorly trained, inexperienced indigenous troops crawling with infiltrators that you aren’t partnered with? The enemy?

Ben Suc sent shock waves through Saigon, Washington, and America

Operation Cedar Falls, Prelude

After Operation Attleboro, two nearly identical questions were being asked in both Hanoi and Saigon: should the military forces engage main force units, or should they conduct guerilla warfare (for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong), or Counterinsurgency (for the US and South Vietnam)? This sparked vicious debates in both capitals.

In Hanoi, Giap, the NVA Commander, wanted to revert back to guerilla warfare after the horrible losses in 1966 suffered by the NVA and VC. Giap wanted to avoid the Americans, attack the South Vietnamese regime indirectly through the population (Classic Mao). Gen Nguyen Chi Than, the Central Office for South Vietnam or COSVN commander, wanted to continue engaging American units directly. Although Attleboro nearly destroyed the elite 9th VC Division, it did not. And furthermore its remnants could easily be reinforced from Cambodia. Thanh remarked that the 9th VC took the best that the Americans could deliver (an entire corps assault) and they still survived. The “soft” Americans by contrast were exhausted, and their casualties directly inflamed the burgeoning antiwar movement in the US. Also, the American casualties went a long way in proving the superiority of the Communist soldier vs the American/ARVN soldier to the population, and eventually gaining their support for an uprising in the South. Furthermore, the American main force units in conventional operations were practically VC recruiting tools with their disregard of the population. Thanh argued that Giap’s course would force the Americans to treat the people better, and avert a general uprising (He was right). Thanh won the argument.

In Saigon, the 1st ID Commander, MG DePuy, also wanted to continue engage main force units. He knew the 9th VC Div was not destroyed. But he could finish the job in the relatively underpopulated Tay Ninh province, an area that the NVA and VC must traverse to get to Saigon and the South from the Fishhook in Cambodia. His staff was already planning this follow up operation named Junction City, after Ft Riley’s ville. However, LTG Seaman, the II Corps commander, wanted first to clear the Iron Triangle, a VC stronghold south of Tay Ninh and just north of Saigon in a heavily fortified, nearly impenetrable forested area bordered by the Saigon river in the south and the Tinh River in the west. It was from there that devastating attacks were launched on targets in the city. Seaman wanted to isolate the Iron Triangle, destroy the VC infrastructure, capture the COSVN headquarters which intelligence placed there, and then focus on the population. However, since there weren’t troops available to hold the 160 square km area, his plan was to relocate the population to more easily defendable areas in conjunction with the CORDS “New Life Villages”. The area could then be turned into a free fire zone, defoliated, and rendered unusable by the VC.

They took the dispute to Gen Westmoreland, the MACV Commander. DePuy was one of Westmoreland’s golden children, so he thought Junction City was guaranteed. But surprisingly, Westmoreland deferred to Seaman. So Seaman postponed DePuy’s operation, and ordered his alternative to clear the Iron Triangle, an operation named after the hometown of a recent 1st ID Medal of Honor winner,

Cedar Falls.