Big Ernie’s Scuttlebutt #4: Vietnam War 1971

Campaign Series Vietnam | Big Ernie's Scuttlebutt

As you were, Grunts,

In the “quiet” year of 1971, would you believe that the largest airborne operation of the war involved an ARVN invasion into Laos? This article describes some of the major events of 1971, both military and political. It was a strange time, with many surprises and contradictions.

Vietnamization Program

The program to expand, equip, and train the South Vietnamese Army was known as the “Vietnamization Program.” The goal was to make South Vietnam militarily self sufficient against North Vietnam so that the US forces could withdraw.

As of January, 1971,  Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird said that the “Vietnamization” was ahead of schedule, and that the combat mission of the US troops would end in summer 1971. Indeed, the reduction of US troops was significant. The total US troops in Vietnam went from 334600 on 31 December 1970 to 156800 on 31 December 1971.

There were two key political developments. The US Congress adopted the revised Cooper-Church Amendment in January, which prohibited the introduction of US ground troops or advisers into Cambodia, and declared that US aid to Cambodia should not be considered a commitment to the defense of Cambodia. This was the Congressional response to Nixon’s Cambodian Incursion the previous year.

The other development was the Mansfield Amendment, authored by Senator Mike Mansfield, and adopted by Congress in June. The amendment urged withdrawing American troops from South Vietnam at “the earliest practical date.” This was the first time in US history that Congress had called for the end of a war.

The Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger announced in July that the US was prepared to provide $7.5 billion in aid to Vietnam, of which $2.5 billion could go to North Vietnam, and to withdraw all American forces within nine months.

The last major ground operation for American forces was Operation “Jefferson Glenn.” Three battalions of the 101st Airborne patrolled the area west of Hue, called the “rocket belt,” to prevent communist rocket attacks. Americans were gradually replaced by ARVN soldiers. The operation claimed to have inflicted 2026 casualties on the NVA/VC.

In October, President Nixon announced that “American troops are now in a defensive position. The offensive activities of search and destroy are now being undertaken by the South Vietnamese.”

Lam Son 719

The largest 1971 operation was Lam Son 719. It was a joint US-ARVN thrust into Laos to destroy supply depots on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The Americans provided a blocking force and air support, while only ARVN troops entered Laos. This battle is described in detail in the CS Legion article UHH#11 Truong Son Ground Combat.

 In summary, the ARVN armor and infantry task force consisted of the 1st and 3rd Armored Brigades, 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions, plus the Airborne Division and 1st Ranger Group. Advancing west along Route 9, this effort failed when faced by NVA counterattacks of the 304th, 308th, 320th and 2nd Divisions. ARVN helicopter assaults faltered due to unexpected numbers of anti-aircraft guns. (NVA 367th Air Defense Division) Poor condition of Route 9 slowed advance, and hampered resupply. ARVN artillery range was inferior to the NVA’s 122mm and 130mm guns.

However, Operation Lam Son 719 had the largest airborne assault of the Vietnam War utilizing 120 Huey helicopters to transport two battalions to capture Tchepone. This transportation center was captured without major resistance, because the NVA abandoned it.

After its capture, many stocks of supplies were destroyed. But, President Thieu of South Vietnam ordered the withdrawal of ARVN troops from Laos. He ignored the recommendation of MACV Commander General Creighton Abrams that ARVN reinforce and hold its position. The withdrawal became a disaster with heavy ARVN casualties.

Map of Lam Son

War Protests in US

Vietnam veterans threw away over 700 medals on the west steps of the United States Capitol building in Washington to protest the Vietnam War. The next day, antiwar organizers claimed that 500000 marched, making this the largest demonstration since November 1969. Police arrested more than 1200 protesters during the 1971 May Day rallies.

Lt. Calley Trial

The courts-martial of Lt. William Calley was a significant event. It was the result of the My Lai massacre in 1968.

This was a high profile massacre in the news media. It involved the killing of Vietnamese villagers by American soldiers at My Lai. In March 1968, soldiers from ‘Charlie’ Company, deployed in the coastal province of Quang Ngai, were sent into areas believed to house Viet Cong soldiers and sympathisers. This company was in 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division.

Operating under stress,with questionable intelligence, and unclear orders, US soldiers entered the small hamlet of My Lai, and began firing indiscriminately on people and buildings. When they left at dusk, hundreds of Vietnamese peasants lay dead, the vast majority were women, children, and aged.

The incident was concealed for several months, until revealed by concerned American soldiers, and later, journalist Seymour Hersh. The My Lai massacre, as it became known, caused horror and outrage in the United States and around the world. It raised questions about the methods being used in Vietnam and whether American soldiers were doing more harm than good.

Calley was the only soldier convicted for his role in the massacre. In March 1971, he was convicted of murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labor at Fort Leavenworth. President Nixon ordered Calley, to be transferred from Leavenworth to house arrest. The life sentence was reduced to 20 years, but Calley served only three and one-half years before being paroled.

Paris Peace Negotiations

The peace talks in Paris between North Vietnam, South Vietnam, the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong,) and the United States enter the fourth year. Little or no progress had been made. Henry Kissinger introduced a new US proposal to withdraw from South Vietnam, with a cease fire in place, and an exchange of prisoners. The cease fire in place was a key concession, because it would allow North Vietnamese soldiers to remain in South Vietnam at least temporarily.

North Vietnam negotiators Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy responded to Kissinger’s 31 May proposal with a nine-point “bargaining proposal.” This was the first time that the North Vietnamese had indicated a willingness to negotiate, rather than presenting unilateral demands. But later, the North Vietnamese Politburo instructed its negotiators not to make any further concessions.

President Nixon ordered the initiation of Operation Proud Deep Alpha, an intensive five-day bombing campaign against military targets in North Vietnam just north of the border above the 17th parallel. This was likely meant to provide leverage in the peace negotiations.

Paris Peace Conference

References

“1971 in the Vietnam War”, Wikipedia

UHH#11 Truong Son Ground Combat“, CS Legion.com, David Galster

Campaign Series Vietnam | Big Ernie's Scuttlebutt

Maj Gen Ernest Cheatham, USMC

[hr]

Big Ernie’s Scuttlebutt is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of the events in Vietnam from 1969 onward. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.

Big Ernie’s Scuttlebutt #3: 1970 – Cambodia and Kent State

Campaign Series Vietnam | Big Ernie's Scuttlebutt

As you were, Grunts,

Did you ever suspect there was a connection between Cambodia and Kent State University?

This article discusses the Cambodian Incursion in 1970, and the US political turmoil over the Kent State University shooting.

Cambodian Political Inclination Under Prince Sihanouk

Under Prince Sihanouk, Cambodia aligned with Communist Bloc nations. He believed  that Communism was the eventual “wave of the future” for all Southeast Asia.

However, for centuries, Cambodians held intense mistrust toward Vietnamese. Against the Viet Minh invasion in 1954, Cambodians hated them more as Vietnamese than as Communists.

Cambodia emerged from the First Indochina War with good reason to fear North Vietnam. But, traditional hatred and suspicion of the Vietnamese extended as much to anti-communist South Vietnam as it did to the North.

During the early 1960s, Prince Sihanouk played a game of “diplomatic ping-pong” with Communist China and the United States. It was policy of manipulation, favoring first one side, then the other, which helped keep opponents off guard.

Sihanouk initially accepted aid from the US. The Communist Chinese were also eager to befriend Cambodia, and invited him to a state visit to China, hosted by Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai.

Prince Sihanouk gradually became unhappy with US aid, and with what he considered American attempts to dictate to him. In 1963, Cambodia terminated all US assistance.

Convinced that South Vietnam could not win, even with powerful American aid, the Prince felt that permitting North Vietnamese supplies and munitions to funnel through Cambodia, he was protecting his country from possible Chinese fury when the Communists took over all of Vietnam.

1965 Meeting in Peking: Mao Zedong, Peng Zhen, Norodom Sihanouk, and Liu Shaoqi

1965 Meeting in Peking: Mao Zedong, Peng Zhen, Norodom Sihanouk, and Liu Shaoqi

North Vietnamese in Cambodia

The NVA maintained sanctuaries along the Cambodian border with South Vietnam. They built base areas (BA) from the tri-border area of Cambodia-Laos-South-Vietnam southward to where the border meets the Gulf of Siam. These BAs were particularly placed opposite the CTZ III and IV, with close proximity to Saigon. Of 14 BAs located on the Cambodian border, 8 were contiguous to III CTZ alone.

Prior to 1966, North Vietnam sent arms, ammunition, and supplies to coastal depots in CTZ III and IV by sea. But, a US Naval blockade, Operation “Market Time,” closed these direct sea routes.

And then, Sihanoukville, a Cambodian seaport on the Gulf of Siam, began receiving arms shipments from North Vietnam. These were delivered over land to sanctuaries, and BAs straddling the border. This had tacit approval of the Cambodian government.

Cambodia also provided secure infiltration routes from North Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Cambodian territory provided a safe extension of infiltration trails to CTZ III and IV.

The Communist base areas contained NVA/VC installations, fortifications, and logistics storage. These were used for regrouping, resting personnel, and training. Political, military, or logistical headquarters were located in BAs, where they planned offensive operations.

Some of the most important BAs were 353, 707, and 354. BA 353 was located  along the northern border of Tay Ninh Province, and was a staging area for attacks along Highway 7. This BA also served as the location of COSVN HQ, and became a primary target area for Allied sweep operations. Several NVA 7th Division elements later operated from here.

BA 707 was in the Dog’s Head area on the northwestern Tay Ninh Province border. It was an operating area for the VC 272d Regiment, 9th Division.  BA 354, to the south, was also used by the VC 9th Division.

COSVN Base Areas along Cambodia-South Vietnam Border

COSVN Base Areas along Cambodia-South Vietnam Border

Cambodia’s Rift with Vietnamese Communists

NVA/VC presence in Cambodia fomented resentment. Their need for food, and resources to support them distorted the price system, and led to graft, corruption, and bureaucratic malfunctions. This increased resentment toward Prince Sihanouk.

Government officials blamed Sihanouk for Communist collaboration and poor economic policies. The military leaders found fault with Sihanouk for being inconsistent.  While the Prince condemned Communists in speeches, he forced the military to release all Viet Cong prisoners.

The “Salvation Government” of Lon Nol

Lon Nol and Sirik Matak agreed that the only way to return Cambodia to order was to limit the Chief of State’s power. When Sihanouk asked Lon Nol to form a cabinet, he replied that he would form a government only as Premier, and not merely a secretary to Sihanouk.

Nol also indicated he would not agree to form a government until Sihanouk met further conditions: principally, that Nol would have the right to choose his own ministers, and that they would report to him, not to Sihanouk. The Chief of State, however, could keep control over foreign policy. Sihanouk accepted. and the cabinet took office on 12 August 1969.

The new Premier Lon Nol and his appointed deputy, Sirik Matak issued decrees to solidify their position. All government communications and letters were to be addressed to the Premier’s office rather than to the Chief of State. Taxes were no longer paid into the Chief of State’s treasury, but into the Government’s accounts instead.

During an absence from Phnom Penh in early 1970, Lon Nol left Sirik Matak in charge. Friction between Matak and Sihanouk became intense. Sihanouk felt that Matak was unfairly limiting the Chief of State’s influence over domestic politics, and that he was intruding on his foreign policy prerogatives. Matak accused Sihanouk of reneging on his mandate to allow the Salvation Government to solve domestic problems.

After three unsuccessful coup attempts to cause the Salvation Government collapse, Sihanouk departed for Europe, USSR, and China on 6 January 1970. Sihanouk’s absence left the government and the country totally in the hands of Lon Nol and Sirik Matak.

Anti-Communist Measures Begin

Lon Nol and Matak began taking measures against the NVA/VC. They closed the Hak Ly Trucking Company. This cut off the supply route from the Gulf of Siam port of Kompong Sam (Sihanoukville) to Communist base areas along the South Vietnam border.

They also took military action to drive Communists back across the border into South Vietnam. In December 1969, Sirik Matak issued orders to Cambodian Army units ( Royal Khmer Armed Force, or FARK,) to attack NVA/VC troops in Cambodia, especially in Prey Veng Province.

Using the bombing of Dak Dam by US aircraft as a pretext, Matak requested the NVA/VC to move out of Cambodia. He ordered destruction of their installations in Svay Rieng Province, and directed that food supplies to the Communists be discontinued. In February 1970 FARK units moved into the BA 702 Tri-border area.

Public Demonstrations Begin

The Cambodian people’s hostile feelings intensified over failures to remove the Communist forces had finally reached a peak. Demonstrations flared up in early March, particularly in Svay Rieng Province, but also in the capital Phnom Penh. Finally, protesters ransacked the North Vietnamese Embassy.

Vietnamese Communist Reaction

The North Vietnamese resisted orders to withdraw. COSVN directed its forces to maintain vigilance, avoid provocations, remain calm, and try to win over the Cambodian people and local officials.

In late March, particularly after the Lon Nol coup, COSVN decided they would have to fight the Cambodians. A NVA/VC force of approximately 2000 troops attacked and occupied a Cambodian military post near the northwestern Tay Ninh Province border on 29 March.

Joint Cambodian – South Vietnamese Operations

Cambodian and South Vietnamese border officials planned their first joint operation. American advisors participated, but were unaware that the operation would not be limited to· boundaries of South Vietnam. The planning agreed upon, two FARK battalions served as a blocking force as three ARVN Ranger battalions pushed at least two miles into Cambodian territory.

Despite the Cambodian-South Vietnamese moves against them, NVA/VC forces in Cambodia were not in serious danger. They enjoyed almost unrestricted movement in southern Kandal and Prey Veng Military sub-divisions, and overran several Cambodian defense posts.

 Lon Nol Appeals for Help

The survival of the Salvation Government depended on foreign assistance and leadership to organize military resistance. Chaotic economic problems emphasized this need. Lon Nol to appealed for arms from any country that would provide them. And, he wrote a letter to President Nixon on 15 April for help.

US Response

After careful appraisal of Cambodia’s aid request, on 22 April the White House approved the supply of several thousand rifles to Cambodia. Meanwhile, Washington and Saigon agreed that ARVN would mount limited attacks on suspected NVA/VC sanctuaries in Cambodia.

While ARVN troops moved toward the Cambodian border, US forces maneuvered into blocking  positions for ARVN troops. The buildup of Allied forces along the Dog’s Head, Parrot’s Beak, and Fishhook areas of the border increased rapidly, but still no American ground forces entered Cambodia.

But, by the end of April, communist forces overran the entire eastern portion of Cambodia, and disrupted or threatened several provincial capitals, and posed a threat to Phnom Penh. Stronger measures were needed immediately to resolve the situation.

On 29 April, the White House announced that it was providing advisors, tactical air support, and supplies to ARVN forces in Cambodian operations. Then, on 30 April, President Nixon announced on television the incursion of US troops into Cambodia for the first time. As he spoke, American combat troops moved across the border into the Fishhook area of Cambodia. ARVN forces were attacking in several other areas, including the Parrot’s Beak.

US Intelligence

A considerable amount of SIGINT was available to MACV. In fact, they had a pretty good idea on the location of COSVN most of the time. The Army units involved were radio research groups, battalions, and companies. These units had radio recievers and transmitters, cryptologists, and language translators. The main group reporting to MACV was the 509th Radio Research Group in Saigon.

In particular, the 175th Radio Research Company was a nerve center for SIGINT support. In the early days of this operation were crucial. COSVN location and communications required particular emphasis. An OPSCOMM conversation on 1 May between the 175th RRC and NRV discussed 12 high interest targets.

Operation Rock Crusher

Attacks on the Parrot’s Beak area involved 12 ARVN battalions of approximately 8700 troops. These were two armored cavalry squadrons from III Corps, and two from the 25th Division and 5th Infantry Divisions, an infantry regiment from the 25th Infantry Division, and three Ranger battalions with an attached ARVN Armored Cavalry Regiment. They crossed into the Parrot’s Beak region of Svay Rieng Province. The operation commander was Lieutenant General Do Cao Tri.

On 1 May an even larger operation was underway as B-52s dropped 774 tons of bombs along the southern edge of Fishhook. This was followed by massed artillery fire air strikes by tactical fighter-bombers. The US 1st Air Cavalry Division, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the 1st ARVN Armoured Cavalry Regiment, and the 3rd ARVN Airborne Brigade entered Kampong Cham Province of Cambodia.

The operation failed to capture COSVN, one of its primary objectives. The NVA evaded US and ARVN forces, and mostly withdrew into Laos. However large NVA supply caches were found and destroyed.

The PAVN  response was to avoid contact with allied forces and, if possible, to fall back westward and regroup. They were well aware of the planned attack, and many COSVN and B-3 Front military units were already far to the northwest conducting operations against the Cambodians when the offensive began.

This actually started the largest expansion of the Ho Chi Minh trail in the entire conflict. As a response to the loss of their Cambodian supply route, NVA forces seized the Laotian towns of Attopeu and Saravane during 1970.

The aftermath of the incursion for the US and ARVN was to destroy large supply depots.  Units entered what came to be known as “The City”, southwest of Snoul. The NVA complex contained over 400 thatched huts, storage sheds, and bunkers, each of which was packed with food, weapons, and ammunition. There were truck repair facilities, hospitals, a lumber yard, 18 mess halls, a pig farm, and even a swimming pool.

Other 1st Cavalry Division elements discovered a larger base,  nicknamed “Rock Island East” after the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois. The area contained more than 6.5 million rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition, 500000 rifle rounds, thousands of rockets, and large quantities of communications equipment.

Unfortunately for the MACV war effort, political blowback in the United States was swift and intense.

Kent State Shooting

Protests against the Vietnam War had been ongoing since the 1968 Tet Offensive, but the Cambodian Incursion gave new impetus to the protest movement.

President Nixon had campaigned on ending the Vietnam War. But, with the Cambodian involvement, it seemed to many that he had broken his promise. This also gave many left-wing radical activist groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society, (SDS) and the Weathermen a pretense to agitate.

At Kent State University (Kent, Ohio,) these protests began on 1 May, the day after Nixon’s address. That day, hundreds of students gathered on the Commons, an open space at the center of campus that had been the site of large demonstrations.  Several speakers spoke out against the war in general, and President Nixon specifically. Some of these were from outside radical groups, and not Kent State students.

That night, violent clashes occurred between activists and police. Bottles were thrown at cars and protesters stopped traffic and lit bonfires in the streets.

Reinforcements were called in from neighboring communities, and Kent Mayor Leroy Satrom declared an emergency, and ordered all bars closed. Satrom also contacted Ohio Governor James Rhodes, seeking assistance.

The Ohio National Guard arrived at the Kent State campus on the night of May 2nd, however, protesters had already set fire to the school’s ROTC building, and scores were watching and cheering as it burned. Some protesters also reportedly clashed with firefighters attempting to put out the blaze, and Guardsmen were asked to intervene. Clashes between the Guard and the protesters continued well into the night, and dozens of arrests were made.

The next day, Sunday on 3 May, the campus was relatively quiet, despite 1000 Guardsmen at the school. However, a major protest was scheduled for 4 May.

At noon 4 May on the Commons, protesters gathered. University officials attempted to diffuse the situation by prohibiting the event. Still, crowds began to gather at about 1100 that morning, and an estimated 3000 protesters and spectators were there by the scheduled start time.

Stationed at the smoking ruins of the ROTC building were roughly 100 Guardsmen carrying M-1 Garand rifles. Although the protests were initially peaceful, General Robert Canterbury ordered the protesters to disperse, with the announcement being made by a Kent State police officer riding in a military jeep across the Commons and using a bullhorn. Protesters refused to disperse, and began shouting and throwing rocks at the Guardsmen.

General Canterbury ordered his men to lock and load their weapons, and to fire tear gas into the crowd. The Guardsmen then marched across the Commons, forcing protesters to move up a nearby hill called Blanket Hill, and then down the other side of the hill toward a football practice field.

As the football field was enclosed with fencing, the Guardsmen were caught amongst the angry mob, and were the targets of shouting and thrown rocks yet again. The Guardsmen soon retreated back up Blanket Hill.

As the Guardsmen moved to the top of Blanke Hill, shots were fired, not from the Guards, but from a  38 revolver carried by photographer, Terry Norman. He had apparently fired into the air and ground.

An angry mob surrounded Norman, and he sought protection from the Guardsmen.

Kent State Campus

A command was given, “prepare to fire.” But there was a pause. And then, more than a minute later, frightened and undisciplined Guardsmen began firing. 29 out of 77 guardsmen fired 67 times for 13 seconds. This killed four students, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder, and wounded nine others.

Following the shooting, the university was immediately closed, and the campus remained shut down for six weeks. Numerous investigatory commissions and court trials followed, during which members of the Ohio National Guard testified that they felt the need to discharge their weapons because they feared for their lives.

In a civil suit filed by injured Kent State students, a settlement was reached in 1979 in which the Ohio National Guard agreed to pay a total of $675,000.

The impact of this incident on the American psyche was devastating. It ended any hope for public support of the Vietnam War, and greatly weakened President Nixon’s credibility.

Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over Jeffrey Miller minutes after his shooting

Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over Jeffrey Miller minutes after his shooting

References

“Focus on Cambodia, Parts 1 and 2”, NSA Cryptologic History Series, January 1974

“Cambodian Campaign”, Wikipedia

“Kent State Shooting”, History Channel

“Kent State shootings”, Wikipedia

“Kent State: The Rest of the Story”, Roger Canfield

Campaign Series Vietnam | Big Ernie's Scuttlebutt

Maj Gen Ernest Cheatham, USMC

[hr]

Big Ernie’s Scuttlebutt is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of the events in Vietnam from 1969 onward. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.

Big Ernie’s Scuttlebutt #2: TET ’69 and Cambodian Bombing

Campaign Series Vietnam | Big Ernie's Scuttlebutt

As you were, Grunts,

1969 Tet Offensive

The 1969 Tet Offensive was not nearly as big as for 1968. Most attacks centered on military targets near Saigon and Da Nang and were quickly beaten off. NVA strength was diminished from casualties of the previous year’s campaign. Although these attacks were repulsed, they inflicted casualties, and demonstrated that NVA/VC forces were still able to mount attacks at will.

These attacks might have been planned by North Vietnam to test the will of the new US President Richard Nixon. Nixon retaliated by secretly bombing Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia the following month. In April, US forces in Vietnam reached a peak at 543000.

Long Binh and Bien Hoa

Near Saigon, the VC made attacks on Long Binh and Bien Hoa. On 22 February, elements of the VC 274th Regiment, 5th Division assembled at three hills along Highway 15, approximately three kilometers south of Long Binh.

The ARVN 720th Military Police Battalion kept watch along potential approaches to Long Binh. One of the MP ambush squads held a position within a kilometer of the VC positions.

At 0200, 23 February, the 274th VC Regiment attacked with an estimated 78 rounds of rocket and mortar fire. The rounds landed on post, with some igniting petroleum tanks. The VC made several attempts to advance on the base, but were halted.

ARVN responded with full-scale sweeping operations to secure the perimeter. M113 armored personnel carriers and M551 Sheridan armored reconnaissance vehicles supported infantry forces, while AH-1 Cobra gunships and OH-6 helicopters provided air support. These units made occasional contact, often with NVA/VC who fought stubbornly from trenches and spider holes.

Da Nang

Since early February 1969, Marine noted increased NVA activity around Da Nang. A Communist base was found near the Nam O bridge northwest of the Red Beach Base Area. Marines left the base untouched, and returned at night,  setting up a series of ambushes that killed 18 and captured 2. On 8 February patrols from 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines found 7 122mm rockets 14km southwest of Da Nang and another 13 140mm rockets 2km further south.

On 18 February Company F, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines called in artillery fire on a group of NVA/VC 5km south of Marble Mountain. This caused 21 secondary explosions believed to be from detonating rockets.

Also in mid-February Company D, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines engaged an entrenched PAVN platoon 22km southwest of Da Nang killing 30 and the ARVN 2nd Battalion, 51st Regiment operating 4km west of the Marines killed 49 NVA moving north of Go Noi Island.

These, and other incidents were hints of attacks to come. Finally, on 23 February, the NVA fired 25 122mm rockets at Da Nang’s deep water port. It hit an ARVN ammunition dump and a fuel tank farm at Da Nang Air Base, and caused minor damage to A-6A and 6 helicopters. Later, rockets hit the An Hoa Combat Base destroying 15000 artillery rounds, and igniting 40000 gallons of aviation fuel. Fifty rockets were fired at Naval Support Activity Da Nang. More than half went into the sea, and the remainder caused minor damage.

The 3/7 Marines attacked NVA forces, forcing them into three pockets along the Song Tuy Loan river.

Two of the pockets were destroyed by the next morning, resulting in the capture of the commander of the 141st Regiment. The last pocket along the An Tan ridgeline proved more difficult, and Company L, 3/7 Marines suffered numerous casualties. They were forced to withdraw.

On 26 February, Napalm and Snake-Eye air strikes hit NVA positions, and Company L, reinforced by Company M assaulted, making slow progress against determined resistance. The attack continued into 27 February when the Marines overran the NVA position resulting in more than 200 killed.

PAVN/VC retreating to the south from Da Nang were intercepted by elements of the 1st Marine Regiment and ARVN 1st Battalion, 51st Regiment 11km south of Da Nang losing 139 dead in 3 days. NVA/VC attacks on Da Nang were a failure, resulting in more than 500 dead.

Other 1969 Ground Combat

Operation Apache Snow was a  sweep the A Shau Valley in May and June. This was an important corridor for the NVA to move supplies into South Vietnam. It also was a staging area for attacks.

The 1st Infantry and 101st Airborne Divisions attacked fortifications defended by the NVA 29th Regiment. After ten days of combat, US forces flushed out the defenders and captured Hill 937. This position came to be known as “Hamburger Hill.”

The Battle of Binh Ba, also known as Operation Hammer, was a hard-fought, but one-sided, battle. The action occurred on 6–8 June 1969 when Australian Army troops from the 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR) fought a combined communist force of NVA/VC at Binh Ba, 5 kilometers north of Nui Dat, in Phuoc Tuy Province.

The battle was unusual in Australian combat experience, as it involved fierce close-quarter house-to-house urban fighting. The majority of enemy killed was by heavy artillery and air-strikes. In response to communist attempts to capture Binh Ba, the Australians assaulted the village with infantry, armour and helicopter gunships, routing the Viet Cong and largely destroying the village itself.

VC heavy losses forced the Communists to temporarily leave the province. Although the Australians  encountered some NVA/VC Main Force units in later war years, this battle marked the end of such large-scale clashes. It was one of the major Australian victories of the war.

Operation Menu – Cambodian Secret Bombing

As early as 1966, US Special Forces and South Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) troops began classified ground missions into Cambodia known as Operation “Daniel Boone.”

Less than a month after President Nixon’s inauguration in January 1969, General Creighton Abrams, MACV commander, reported that the NVA headquarters,  (COSVN HQ) was located in the jungles of Cambodia. Abrams stated that an attack on this HQ and base camps  would cripple future NVA/VC  hostile actions in South Vietnam.

After weeks of debate in Washington, a plan was approved for forty eight sorties against COSVN HQ. Other strikes were to be made against targets within South Vietnam that were nowhere near the true objective. The actual target of the operation, code-named “Breakfast,” was to be concealed, and treated as if it were simply routine bombing on enemy targets in South Vietnam.

Published information would indicate the bombing was within South Vietnam, and if questioned about Cambodian air strikes by the press, a spokesman would state that sorties adjacent to the Cambodian border happened, but he had no further information, and that he would look into it.

Just before takeoff, pilots and navigators of the Strategic Air Command’s B-52 bombers were told by that they would be bombing Cambodia, not South Vietnam. During the night raid, B-52s dropped their payloads into forty-eight separate areas in Cambodia.

Daniel Boone teams were dispatched immediately following the bombing, in order to capture supposedly dazed enemy troops. However, they found themselves under heavy fire. This was , justification for further Cambodian attacks.

Over the next fourteen months, the Nixon administration secretly authorized 3875 sorties, collectively known as Operation Menu, on fourteen suspected Communist  bases inside Cambodia.

Ironically, only one week after Operation Breakfast began, the New York Times reported that Abrams had requested air strikes against areas in Cambodia. On 9 May 1969, Pentagon correspondent William Beecher stated that US air raids against ammo dumps and base camps in Cambodia had definitely taken place. While the report sparked little appreciable public interest, and no federal inquiries at the time, the same account, four years later, generated limited calls for Nixon’s impeachment.

Communist Base Areas

Communist Base Areas

References

“1969 in the Vietnam War”, Wikipedia

“Tet 1969”, Wikipedia

“Operation Menu”, Wikipedia

Secret Bombing of Cambodia

“Operation Apache Snow”, Wikipedia

“Battle of Binh Ba”, Wikipedia

“Cambodia: U.S. bombing, civil war, & Khmer Rouge”, World Peace Foundation

Campaign Series Vietnam | Big Ernie's Scuttlebutt

Maj Gen Ernest Cheatham, USMC

[hr]

Big Ernie’s Scuttlebutt is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of the events in Vietnam from 1969 onward. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.

Big Ernie’s Scuttlebutt #1: Vietnam War 1969 – 73 Overview

Campaign Series Vietnam | Big Ernie's Scuttlebutt

As you were, Grunts,

The Vietnam War was very different after the 1968 TET Offensive. The US had a new President, and the American people’s views shifted dramatically. This next series of articles covers the years from 1969 to 1973. This period ended with the Paris Agreement. But first, an overview of this period is in order.

Subsequent TET Offensives 69 – 72

NVA was still recovering from their losses from the 1968 TET, but in 1969, they wanted to test the new US President Nixon. There were some attacks, but on a much smaller scale. These were all quickly beaten back. Long Binh, Bien Hoa, and Da Nang were attacked. The offensive was not as impressive as the previous year, but did show ability of the Communists to mount attacks at will.

The years of 1970 and 1971 lacked significant TET offensives, and during this period the NVA was rebuilding its forces and defending attacks in Laos and Cambodia.

There was a massive “Easter Offensive” in 1972. (It did not begin at the New Year, but 30 March.) By this offensive, North Vietnamese accomplished two important goals: they had gained valuable territory within South Vietnam from which to launch future offensives and they had obtained a better bargaining position at the peace negotiations being conducted in Paris.

Also known as “Nguyen Hue,” several “Fronts” were attacked. These included the DMZ area firebases down to Quang Tri, the A Shau Valley toward Hue,  and An Loc and areas south toward Saigon.

The NVA employed 14 Divisions, but did not seek a decisive victory. Rather their goals were limited to crippling ARVN forces, and to convince the US of hopelessness for continued South Vietnamese support.

Cambodian Secret Bombing

In 1969, the US began bombing NVA camps in Cambodia. As a background, in 1965, neutral Cambodia anticipated Communist victory. Prince Sihanouk made a deal with China and North Vietnam, permitting use his country for NVA staging bases.

But by 1969, Sihanouk had doubts about his bargain. The NVA brought in 300000+ troops, took over several northern provinces, and drove  out most of the Cambodians.

As a result, Sihanouk became discontented, and  changed his outlook about the North Vietnamese. He virtually welcomed  US bombing.

US President Nixon secretly ordered “Operation Menu:” carpet bombing of NVA camps. Between March 1969 and May 1970, B-52 bombers flew 3875 missions against targets in Cambodia. This was known only to a limited number of Americans in the field, and in Washington, DC. Nixon and Kissinger thought this could be hidden from Congress and the press.

But, the US Congress got word of this, and there was a big political controversy in Washington. In December 1972, a former Combat Skyspot officer, Hal Knight wrote to Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), about the secret bombings. Proxmire, a noted Pentagon critic, forwarded the letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But, air operations in Cambodia continued after the cease-fire in Vietnam in January 1973. In summer  1973, the Senate challenge to Cambodian air strikes reached the boiling point. Nixon, weakened by the Watergate scandal, agreed to end the bombing unless Congress approved.

SE Asia Map

1970 Kent State Shooting

Four Kent State University students were killed, and nine injured on 4 May 1970. Members of the Ohio National Guard panicked, and fired on a massive crowd protesting the Vietnam War. The tragedy was a watershed moment for a nation divided by the conflict in Southeast Asia.

In its immediate aftermath, a student-led strike forced the temporary closure of colleges and universities across America. Some political observers believed the events tilted public opinion against the war, and may have contributed to the downfall of President Richard Nixon.

Protests across the country in the latter half of the 1960s were part of organized opposition against US military activities in Southeast Asia, as well as the military draft.

In fact, President Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 due in large part to his promise to end the war. And, until April 1970, it appeared this campaign promise was being kept, as military operations were seemingly winding down. But, authorization to invade Cambodia, rekindled the anti-war fervor.

Cambodian Incursion

The Cambodian Campaign (also known as the Cambodian “Incursion” or Invasion) was a series of US and ARVN operations in eastern Cambodia during 1970. The invasions were a Nixon plan with the objective to defeat approximately 40,000 NVA troops along the eastern border.

Cambodian neutrality and military weakness made its territory an NVA sanctuary, where Communist forces could establish operating bases. With the US shifting toward  “Vietnamization” and withdrawal, it sought to support the South Vietnamese government by eliminating the cross-border threat.

A Cambodian regime change gave an opportunity for the incursion, when Prince Sihanouk was deposed and replaced by pro-US General Lon Nol.

A series of South Vietnamese and Lon Nol operations captured a few towns, but the Viet Cong narrowly escaped the cordon. The operation was partly a response to a North Vietnamese offensive on 29 March against the Cambodian Army, that captured large parts of eastern Cambodia.

Operation “Fishhook” involved US forces. 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment attacked north across the Cambodian Border in support of ARVN 3rd Airborne Brigade. This operation failed to eliminate many communist troops or to capture their elusive headquarters, known as the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN,) as they had left a month prior. The amount of captured material prompted claims of success.

Lam Son 719

In early 1971, MACV had intelligence of an NVA logistical build-up in near Tchepone, and wanted to disrupt a potential offensive. There was reluctance to let the South Vietnamese (ARVN) go it alone against the NVA. But, US and South Vietnamese high commands also hoped a victory in Laos would bolster ARVN’s morale and confidence, showing that could defend their nation given continuing withdrawal of US troops.

The ARVN armor/infantry task force consisted of the 1st and 3rd Armored Brigades, 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions, plus the Airborne Division and 1st Ranger Group.  Advancing west along Route 9, this effort faced NVA counterattacks of the 304th, 308th, 320th and 2nd Divisions. ARVN helicopter assaults faltered due to unexpected numbers of anti-aircraft guns. (NVA 367th Air Defense Division) Poor condition of Route 9 slowed advance, and hampered resupply. ARVN artillery range was inferior to the NVA’s 122mm and 130mm guns.

Ultimately, an ARVN airborne assault reached Tchepone, which had been abandoned. Their goal in Laos seemingly achieved, President Thieu and General Lam ordered a withdrawal of ARVN forces beginning 9 March. It continued through the rest of the month, destroying Base Area 604 and any supplies discovered in their path. The plan of operation Lam Son 719 was never to hold Tchepone, but to put troops there and destroy as much supplies and trail infrastructure as possible.

North Vietnam Bombing

Under codename “Operation Linebacker,” the 7th Seventh Air Force and US Navy Task Force 77, conducted a bombing campaign against North Vietnam from May to October 1972.

Its purpose was to halt or slow the transportation of supplies and materials for the Easter Offensive. Linebacker was the first continuous bombing effort conducted against North Vietnam since Rolling Thunder in November 1968.

In addition to interdicting North Vietnam’s road and rail system, Linebacker systematically attacked its air defenses. The North Vietnamese Air Force, with approximately 200 interceptors, contested these attacks throughout the campaign. Navy pilots, employing a mutually supporting “loose deuce” tactical formation and many with TOPGUN training, enjoyed a kill ratio of 6:1 in their favor in May and June, such that after that, the North Vietnamese rarely engaged them.

The stalled offensive in the South and the devastation in North Vietnam had helped to convince Hanoi to return to the bargaining table by early August.

Pairs Accords 1973

The resumed meetings produced new concessions from Hanoi, which promised to end deadlocks plaguing negotiations since 1968. Gone were Hanoi’s demands for the ouster of South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, and replacement by coalition government. The US agreed to a cease fire in place, which conceded that North Vietnamese soldiers could remain in South Vietnam. The diplomatic impasse was broken and Nixon ordered a halt to all bombing above the 20th parallel on 23 October and on 26 October Kissinger announced that “peace is at hand.”

The main negotiators of the agreement were United States National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese politburo member Le Duc Tho. They were awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, although Le Duc Tho refused to accept it.

The provisions for the agreement included: Withdrawal of US and allied forces within sixty days, return of prisoners, US clearing of mines in North Vietnamese ports, cease-fire in place in South Vietnam, establishment of a “National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord,” and neutralist side to implement democratic liberties and organize free elections.

Further provisions included: “Joint Military Commissions” and an “International Commission of Control and Supervision” composed of Canada, Hungary, Indonesia, and Poland to implement the cease-fire.

Foreign troops would withdraw from Laos and Cambodia. Introduction of war materials in South Vietnam were banned unless on a replacement basis. Further introduction of military personnel into South Vietnam was banned. Finally, the US agreed to financial contributions to “healing the wounds of war” throughout Indochina.

 Scuttlebutt

‘Scuttlebutt’ is rumor or gossip.  In the days of sail, the communal water butt was favorite.  One may imagine sailors swapping yarns around the water butt. (Later drinking fountain.)

The origin of the word “scuttlebutt” comes from a combination of “scuttle,” to make a hole in the ship’s hull, and thereby causing her to sink; and “butt,” a cask or hogshead used in the days of wooden ships to hold drinking water. The cask from which the ship’s crew took their drinking water, like a water fountain, was the “scuttlebutt.” Crews congregated at the “scuttlebutt,” where rumors about the ship or voyage began. Thus, then and now, rumors are “scuttlebutt.”

Note that the Marines are part of the US Navy, have close relations with them, and share an overlapping culture and jargon.

Scuttlebug Caricature

Big Ernie

Ernest Clifford Cheatham Jr. (July 27, 1929 – June 14, 2014) was a United States Marine Corps officer, veteran of the Korean War and the Vietnam War, recipient of the Navy Cross, and American football defensive tackle, who played for the Baltimore Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Cheatham was from Long Beach, California. He played college football at Loyola Marymount University. After college, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected him for the 1951 NFL Draft. But before going in the NFL, “Big Ernie” served in the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War. After the war, in 1954, he played a total of 6 games in his NFL career, 4 for the Steelers, and 2 for the Baltimore Colts.

He decided on a career as a Marine officer. In the Vietnam War, Lt. Col. Cheatham was commander of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. In February 1968, Cheatham was at Phu Bai Combat Base when ordered into Hue to take command of companies already engaged. Before leaving, he reviewed Marine urban fighting doctrine, which advised staying off streets, and advancing by blasting through walls and buildings. He successfully led recapture of the Provincial Building in southern Hue.

As a Major General in 1982, Cheatham assumed command of the 1st Marine Division.

References

“1969 in the Vietnam War,” Wikipedia

“Cambodia: U.S. bombing, Civil War, & Khmer Rouge,” World Peace Foundation

Kent State Shooting

“Cambodian Campaign,” Wikipedia

“Easter Offensive,” Wikipedia

UHH#11 Truong Son Ground Combat,” David Galster on CS Legion

“Operation Linebacker,” Wikipedia

“Paris Peace Accords,” Wikipedia

Campaign Series Vietnam | Big Ernie's Scuttlebutt

Maj Gen Ernest Cheatham, USMC

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Big Ernie’s Scuttlebutt is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of the events in Vietnam from 1969 onward. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.