Colin F. Jones

THE CONFLICT IN VIETNAM: Part 3

VIETNAM

Vietnam was formed in 1945-50 by the union of the areas mostly populated by Annamese. These were Tonkin (North Vietnam), Annam, (Central Vietnam and the special administration district of the Moi Plateaus), and Cochin China. (South Vietnam).

Vietnam is largely covered with forested mountains and plateaus, supporting a large population on its plains and fertile river deltas. In the north is the delta of the Red river and in the South the delta of the Mekong River. North and South Vietnam are linked by the narrow central Vietnam, which lies between the mountainous Annamese Cordillera and the South China Sea. The climate is tropical-monsoon.

Agriculture is the principle occupation of the population with rice being by far the leading crop. Rubber, tea and coffee plantations reside mostly in the South.

The Annamese consist of more than 80 % of the population and are a Mongoloid people, who mostly practice a blend of Confucianism and Buddhism. In the South there are many Roman Catholics. The highland groups consist of Moi, Muong, The Man, and the Miao. Cambodians live in the Mekong Delta near the Cambodian border and many Chinese live in the urban Centres chiefly in South Vietnam.

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, (North Vietnam), includes all of Tonkin and a portion of Annam. The Capital is Hanoi. North Vietnam is bordered by China to the north, the gulf of Tonkin to the east South Vietnam and Laos to the West. After the 1954 partition, North Vietnam was in possession of most of the countries mineral resources, particularly its coalmines and industry.

With Chinese and Russian aid North Vietnam rapidly reconstructed its war-torn economy and launched a program of agricultural and industrial expansion and with it a schedule of collectivisation a five year plan (1961-66) was introduced for the expansion of power production, transport facilities and metallurgical industries. This was initiated by a large loan from communist China upon which North Vietnam is economically dependent.

In the early 1960’s North Vietnam was repeatedly charged with aggression by its neighbouring states, Laos and South Vietnam, and were accused of aiding with arms, equipment and reinforcements the Guerrilla forces threatening these states.

The Republic of Vietnam, (South Vietnam), is a little less populated than North Vietnam, having (in 1956), 14,052,209 people as opposed to North Vietnams 16,000,000.

South Vietnam includes Cochin China and the major part of Annam. The capital of South Vietnam is Saigon.

To the north lies North Vietnam, to the south and east the South China Sea and to the west Laos and Cambodia.

Though predominantly agricultural, South Vietnam does have some industry that produces beer, cigarettes, sugar, textiles rubber products and food processing. After the 1954 partition South Vietnam withdrew from the French union thus obtaining complete sovereignty. In a referendum held in 1955 the people voted for deposition of Bao Dai as chief of state and for the establishment of a republic with Ngo Dinh Diem the nationalist premier.

The republic was recognised by the USA, Great Britain, France and other western powers. Under the terms of the Geneva agreement general elections were to be held in 1956 for the reunification of Vietnam, but the plan was thwarted by South Vietnam on the ground that it had not signed the Geneva accord.

In the years that followed President Ngo’s authoritarian policies-specifically, rigid press censorship, alleged interference with elections, and restrictions of opposition parties drew increasing criticism. Ngo suppressed the Cao Dai, a religious sect, with his own private army, the Binh Xuyen and the Hoa Hao, both of which also opposed him.

Despite rural development and land reform programs buttressed by large-scale aid from the USA and other countries, by late 1961, the Viet Cong supported by North Vietnam had won control of virtually half of the country with little local opposition.

The USA increase in military and economic aid to combat the growing communist threat also put pressure on president Ngo for democratic reforms. Ngo was re-elected in 1961 but many voters abstained as a mark of protest against his government. Later in 1961 Ngo placed South Vietnam in a state of emergency and only a few months later an attempt was made on his life by members of his air force.

VIET CONG

The Viet Cong began to attack farm villages in the Mekong Delta region. They were of cause under communist control, but many were not communist party members. Some fought against the South Vietnamese government due to its repressive measures and its failure to provide the people with the necessities of life.

The most experienced of the Viet Cong had fought against the Japanese, the French and currently the South Vietnam Government. By 1960 the Viet Cong were outnumbered ten to one but were still able to make successful attacks on installations and armed units.

The National Liberation Front, (NFL) was organised in Hanoi in 1960, a political group whose main aim was to support the Viet Cong.

The NLF set up local councils in South Vietnam controlled by members of the Viet Cong. They built factories and manufactured weapons, supplied ammunition money and medical supplies to the Viet Cong. Much of the Viet Cong supplies came from North Vietnam over systems of roads and trails known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.

In 1963 the Buddhists claimed that Diem, a Roman Catholic, was treating them unjustly due to their religious beliefs, and some burned themselves to death in the streets in protest. Forces under Nhu raided and destroyed Buddhist Pagodas (Temples) causing a greater spread of dissatisfaction with the Diem government.

The USA criticised the Diem government and suspended some types of economic aid. Diem was eventually ousted and he and his brother Nhu were killed. Soon after a military Junta (committee), headed by Air force commander Nguyen Cao Ky came to power in 1965.

The South Vietnamese Government were a corrupt and savage regime and the NLF had been formally established to fight against it in 1960. The rich and affluent Catholics exploited the at the expense of the majority who were Buddhists. They used torture and murder to make their point.

Some 900,000 Catholics had fled into the south to escape communist persecution in the north when the country was partitioned. However the majority of families, and villages were organised along Confucian lines.

Many of the Catholic minority had attained high positions under the French. The clandestine organization known as the Can Lao soon emerged, comprising members of Diems own family, senior Catholic churchmen, and government officials of high rank. In fact this organization had a link in every government department and agency. Large portions of land were granted to Catholic refugees, particularly in the highlands, which soon upset the Montagnards, whom were the native hill people living in those areas. The Green Berets had been operating as Special Forces in South Vietnam since 1957. They had been sent as ‘military advisors’ to the ARVN. They also set about training and equipping the primitive tribes of Montagnards living along the Cambodian/Laos borders.

Initially the Special force units were issued with the M3.45 sub machine gun, (the Montagnards mostly equipped with the US M1) but later used the Colt Commando CAR-15 a shortened version of the Armorlite. Another weapon the Stoner System was used by the SEALS and even the cumbersome Thompson M1A1 sub machine gun was used. The enemy units were known to have used the 7.62 K-50 SMG which was manufactured in North Vietnam.

US INTERVENTION

One hour and 39 minutes after Kennedy was assassinated this man, Johnson, who had once been personally awarded the silver star for gallantry by Douglas McArther and described by Senator Hubert H Humphry as ‘a genius in the art of legislative process’, who in July 1955 suffered a heart attack, had given up smoking and was living on a careful diet, became the 36th President of the United States. He was a Southerner and member of the Disciples of Christ. He was sworn in at 2:39pm aboard the Presidential Air Force Jet at Love Field in Dallas.

Few thinking persons believed the story of President Kennedy’s death; indeed many felt that Lee Harvey Oswald, the man blamed for it was a “stool pigeon”.

The Cuban crisis had indicated Kennedy’s no nonsense attitude, and although he had taken some steps towards preparation of conventional warfare in Vietnam, there were more indicators towards not getting deeply involved.

It was thought by many that Kennedy intended to refrain from committing massive troops to Vietnam, in fact refrain from any involvement at all. Some quietly thought that this resulted in his death, the assassination carried out, if not by American officials, certainly by people hired by them. We may never know.

The first US attack upon North Vietnam occurred due to an incident in the Bay of Tonkin on July 30 1964. Two US destroyers were patrolling nearby when South Vietnam naval vessels attacked some islands in the gulf north of parallel 17. North Vietnamese regulars in retaliation attacked the destroyers and two PT boats were destroyed. The US then bombed the PT bases.

Congress granted powers, applied for by President Johnson, for US forces to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against them to prevent further acts of aggression. The vote was an overwhelming ‘yes’. President Johnson used this resolution as his main legal basis for US support for South Vietnam in the war.

In 1967 voters approved in South Vietnam a new constitution and elected Lieutenant general Nguyen Van Thieu President. Ky became vice President.

In South Vietnam the development of Viet Cong Guerrilla units and Regular forces, erection of supply bases and the establishment of intelligence units to infiltrate the police forces and military administration, signified the advent of future conflict. Military activities concentrated on disrupting rural administration by the careful selection of officials to be murdered, seizure of vast quantities of arms and attacks designed to sway the people into believing that government forces lacked the ability to protect them. (Which they did)

Despite US advice to adopt social and economic reforms the South Vietnamese government had isolated itself from the people. The situation was aggravated by troubles with the Buddhists and of course by the successes of the Viet Cong operating in the rural areas.

Even when supplies and arms began crossing the borders the US was reluctant to intervene and not until Kennedy came to power were any attempts made to provide US forces with a counter insurgency capability.

By 1963, regular North Vietnamese forces numbered some 30,000 and they were supported by at least 30,000 non-regular forces. Even though, by the end of 1963, it was known that an ARNV Division was deployed in South Vietnam operating units of regimental size, the US still pursued a policy of leaving the full burden of defence to the South Vietnamese army with a little assistance from advisory teams and special, non-combatant units.

It became apparent that the Government had lost control of a large portion of the country, this becoming particularly evident when Diem died late in 1963.

During this period of political instability following Diem’s death, while military indecision and struggles for personal power was rampant, the Viet Cong were able to expand and control even more of the country, taking advantage of the disillusionment of the South Vietnamese people.

Internal and external pressures in the US against the increasing of US military commitment, was causing indecision, and the advisory units serving in Vietnam were not permitted to involve themselves in actual combat.

To secure more area, the Pathet Lao linked up with North Vietnamese forces controlling the eastern strip of Laos. Meanwhile the US continued the policy of only supplying aid, via special units and advisors, though these units were being substantially increased.

The South Vietnamese suffered greatly from low moral and daily the rate of desertion multiplied. The Viet Cong appeared to be set for a complete take-over of the South.

At this point President Johnson made a decision to begin bombing military targets in the north and to deploy military forces in the field of action.

The communist belief that economic and psychological strains of the conflict would inevitably effect the United States, and the deliberate communist propaganda and cold war pressure would force a military withdrawal urged US determination to ignore internal and international pressure, effectively bringing the Viet Cong to the conference table, to the Chagrin of Peking.

But it had been demonstrated in the Korean conflict that the Communist view of conferences was that negotiations were a complementary element to the armed struggle. Time spent talking, meant time to develop, deploy, construct and make ready an improved force.

For each hour of talk, tactical and strategic advantage lay with the communists, since it could not, and would never be their intention to withdraw from the conflict.

In 1965 regular American air strikes began against military targets and communication lines in North Vietnam, causing severe economic dislocation. By 1966 the bombing concentrated on the metropolitan areas of Hanoi and Haiphong and the communists organised evacuation programs and introduced food rationing.

Bombing was also extended into Laos where the NRVN had established communications routes. The Soviet Union along with eight other communist countries agreed to create a co-ordinated program of civilian and military aid for North Vietnam.

By June 1967, 463,000 American troops were in occupation in South Vietnam.

During the early 1960’s there were quite a few paramilitary formations, such as the Civil Guard and Self Defence Corps, soon operating under the different names Regional and Popular forces, or RF’S and PF’s. (Puff-puffs), but they were not much of a threat to the VC.

In the remote mountainous areas of Vietnam lived the Montagnard tribal people, and in 1961 they were organised into a Civilian Irregular Defence Group (CIDG) by the American Special Forces. This program expanded rapidly during the years 1961-65, mainly due to the death in 1963 of Diem who had always apposed the recruitment of Montagnards.

Most of the recruits were young men avoiding conscription into the South Vietnamese Regular Army. Few had any education, and were trained where they were recruited, the luckier ones going through the special training centre set up by the Special Forces at Phu Quoc Island.

They were led by American officers, lacked junior and senior NCO’s, and were not very effective against the VC. The Viet Cong overran many of the ‘fighting camps’ that were set up, because the CIDG troops changed sides during attacks.

After the betrayal of the Hiep Hoa Special Forces camp in 1963, ethnic Chinese Soldiers (Nung Mercenaries) were recruited, to oversee much of camp security. Many of them were recruited to serve with the Mike forces, which were set up in 1965. (M-or mobile forces) They were a mixture of Cambodians, Nung, Vietnamese and others; Volunteers getting higher pay for higher commitment. They were equipped with their own Recoilless rifles and mortars and a variety of small arms.

The CIDG were quite successful under Special Forces leadership until General Abrams terminated them in 1969. He had long displayed his distaste for what he termed, an undisciplined private army given to wearing native dress, Montagnard jewellery and none regulation haircuts.

By 1970 all of the fighting camps had been handed over to the South Vietnamese and redesignated ARNV Rangers, but due to the Montagnards deserting in mass the whole concept collapsed.

In February 1971 the 5th Special Forces were officially discarded, neither the US Ambassador nor General Abrams accepting invitations to attend the ceremony.

On 8th March 1965 the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9MEB) waded ashore at Da Nang, to be greeted, not by savage forces, but by young Vietnamese women offering them garlands. There followed, to 1 Corps Tactical Zone (1CTZ) in the northern provinces a steady flow of Marines, that by August 9MEB had been expanded to become III Marine Amphibious Force, comprising four Marine regiments the (3rd, 4th, 7th and 9th), each made up of three Battalions. Two Battalions of the 1st Marines were added by December.

The Airborne Brigade, (the US Rapid Response Force for the western pacific) departed Okinawa to the giant Bien Hoa base north of Saigon. They were initially intended to be a temporary addition to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam’s (MACV) order of battle: the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division should have relieved the 173rd but when the latter arrived in July they both found permanent application.

The 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) deployed to An Khe (IICTZ) in September and in October the whole 1st Infantry Division (the ‘Big Red One’) was deployed to III CTZ. Two months later elements of the 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (‘Tropic Lightning’) began to deploy. On 26th May, 800 Australians left for Vietnam and New Zealand announced that it would send a Battalion.

The task was a limited one (as they saw it), which was to create area’s of US Military occupation on the coast, partly to protect airbases, but also to ensure that ‘pockets’ of organised units would remain in the event that the ARNV caved in. (`which was quite likely) For this reason, when the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9MEB) arrived at Da Nang in March 1965, the Marines simply dug in and set up a cordon around the airfield, to occupy about 8 square miles of territory, with little preparation regarding combat with an enemy.

The Marines however were trained for more active operations and soon became bored though as communist infiltration increased (according to reports) they extended their Tactical Area’s Of Responsibility’ (TAOR’s) ensuring better defensive positions and defence in depth.

General Westmorland was keen to ensure that his troops were taking a more aggressive action, and the concept of ‘search and destroy’ was being adapted.

So by April Westmorland was able to announce a less rigid ‘concept of operations’, giving rise to aggressive patrolling which would of cause soon lead to contact with the VC forces.

The threat of attack on the occupied areas of Phu Bai, Chu Lai and Da Nang prompted Westmorland to seek permission (obtained on 26th June) to use his forces as he himself wanted.

The TAOR’s now covered some 600 square miles thus it was inevitable that the Americans would soon meet both the VC and the North Vietnamese Regular (NVR) on the battlefield. After an attack upon Da Nang by a VC demolition squad, August saw the Americans girded for operation ‘Starlite’, the first major search and destroy operation.

Westmorland’s idea was seemingly to take on the large communist concentrations with his US forces with their weight of firepower and leave the Viet Cong to the ARVN.

In the US defence establishment there were many who did not agree with this ‘search and destroy’ method of action. They believed in the concept of Counter Insurgency (COIN) as an answer to this type of Guerrilla warfare.

COIN involved a close co-ordination of political, military and social policies in order to isolate the enemy from the general population. (Indeed as the British had done in South East Asia) Once the allegiance of the population was won, then the enemy could be defeated.

The US Marines had a theory, not unlike the British one, known as the Combined Action Program (CAP), which involved for example a unit of specially trained Marines deployed in the role of protectors of a village, allowing civic and medical aid to be provided. This would also result in depriving the VC of his main assets, the villages themselves, while also winning their support.

Westmorland opposed this type of strategy, and indeed got his way.

“Operation Starlite” was a success claiming 615 VC lives as opposed to 45 Americans for this was a numbers war; success and failure based on body count. The devastating weight of firepower was obviously the key to the victory, which involved, Artillery, heavy mortars, ground attack aircraft and naval gunfire.

The 173rd Airborne were operating around Saigon as part of an attempt to stem the VC Summer offensive. The communists wanted to push through the central highlands to cut the south in two, and thus mount great pressure on Saigon. The provincial capital of Song Be had been occupied by the VC, 80 miles north of Saigon, though only for a short time, but with such actions and the build up of the monsoon it was evident that the Viet Cong were readying for major assaults.

On 29th May a series of attacks in the Central Highlands were conducted, only the air power of the US saving the ARNV from defeat, in fact saving the whole of the Quang Ngai province from being completely overrun. Two Viet Cong regiments in middle June occupied a Special Forces camp at Dong Xoai, and decimated the ARNV relief forces.

Dong Xoai was only 70 miles from Saigon and Westmorland felt he needed to send in US forces. A battalion of the 173rd Airborne moved from the Bien Hoa airbase to retake Dong Xoai. The ARNV had suffered major losses and were poorly led.

On 19th October 1965 two regiments of NVA attacked the Special Forces camp at Plei Me, which was in the very heart of the central highlands, which was part of the operation to sever north from south. Elements of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) with Helicopter gunships and great fire power were sent in over the enemy blocking forces forcing the NVR to retreat westwards towards Cambodia. The 1st Cavalry were ordered to follow, switching their role to an offensive one. But the NVA regrouped in the La Drang valley some 15 miles west of Plei Me, and launched an attack against the 1st Air Cav as they landed at LZ ‘X-Ray’ on 14th November. The engagement was at close quarters, the Air Cav being heavily outnumbered. B-52 bombers, artillery and gunship strikes supported the Air Cav effort. The following day another Battalion joined the one under attack and after many days of intense combat the NVA ran for the safety of the Cambodian border. The Air Cav returned to their base at An Khe after killing 1200 enemy soldiers for a loss of 300 of their own.

The battle for the La Drang Valley was the first full scale battle with the North Vietnamese Regular Army. It had rewarded with two things; American soldiers could meet and defeat the best of the enemy’s troops, and that the combined use of heavy support and Helicopters could turn the tide of battle.

The introduction of the Helicopter was to the infantryman the greatest piece of equipment he could possible desire. He could now deploy rapidly in chosen areas, depart rapidly, pick up his wounded, and call in the gunships for fire support from the air.