Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets #12: American Confidence Shaken

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets is yet another series, where David Galster shares some of his tips and techniques in scenario research and design for CS: Vietnam.

Comrades,

Sometimes national moods and events are not influenced so much by truth, but rather by perceptions. At least this seems to be the case in the American reaction to the 1968 Tet Offensive.

This article discusses these reactions and some underlying reasons.

Tet Offensive Outcomes for US and South Vietnam

For the US, there were three significant Tet Offensive outcomes, the bombing halt, Paris negotiations, and Johnson not running for re-election. The remainder of the article discusses these.

While the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong suffered very high losses, and could not generate the “general uprising” they sought, they gained some objectives by the  American political reaction. The American people saw that the war would not soon be won, and continuing it would be costly. Indeed, 1968 became the deadliest year of the war for US forces with 16592 soldiers killed. (Tet Offensive losses were only part of this at 4000 killed and wounded.)

The Tet Offensive shocked the very “soul” and “psyche” of the American people. How did this happen? Well, let’s review the news media coverage to find out.

US News Media Influence

The coverage of the US Embassy attacks was somewhat inaccurate and did not provide the correct context for what actually happened. As pointed out in the previous article, CGCN#9 Spearhead into Saigon, the Associated Press issued a bulletin without getting all the facts about the attack. While the sapper attack was repulsed within a few hours and all  VC killed, the AP reported that they had “seized the embassy.”

Further, this report contrasted General Westmoreland’s positive press statements, with the news media having “little faith” in his message. This irresponsible reporting gave the wrong impression, and unnecessarily alarmed American news consumers. Why did this happen?

During the fall of 1967, American military spokesmen had given a very favorable outlook on the progress of the war. General Westmoreland was optimistic that their strategy was working and that the NVA and VC were weakening. Prospects for ending the war in couple of years were publicised.

But, things were not all rosy with American public opinion. Already on  21 October 1967, a massive anti-war demonstration in Washington included a 50000-man march on the Pentagon. And, with the Tet Offensive, and television scenes of death and destruction, there was alarm. The events were not consistent with what American leaders had been telling them. The news media was also heavily influenced by early anti-war activists, and demonstrations, even prior to Tet. Cholon District market covered in smoke and debris after Tet Offensive

Cholon District market covered in smoke and debris after Tet Offensive

Disastrous scenes from the Cholon district did not conform to any previous war optimism. Two CBS correspondents covered Cholon and the US Embassy attacks: George Syvertsen and John Lawrence. And, in that period, six journalists were killed in Saigon and at Khe Sanh.

Walter Cronkite went to Hue, and covered the house to house fighting in the ancient capital. He was the CBS anchor who had the trust of most Americans at the time. Indeed, I was a teenager at the time, and thought highly of Cronkite, like a trusted “uncle,” or “father figure.” Cronkite voiced alarm at what he saw, and it made a huge impact.

On a 27 February broadcast, Cronkite stated: “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds” and added that, “we are mired in a stalemate that could only be ended by negotiation, not victory.”

President Johnson, watching live TV in the White House, reportedly turned to aides and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” He wanted to explain to the nation – accurately – that the Tet Offensive had been successfully repelled, and was in fact a huge military failure for the communists. But, it was too late. As Cronkite noted in his editorial, public optimism of US government and military officials about the progress of the Vietnam War was not in concert with the scenes people were seeing on TV.

CBS Evening News Hue

US Military Decisionmaking

The events caused much reconsideration and analysis of US objectives in Vietnam. The new Defense Secretary, Clark Clifford struggled to make sense of the situation. General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had been sent to Saigon to assess the state of affairs.

To defeat the new enemy threat, MACV recommended 206756 additional troops, over the 525000 Program-Five ceiling. Or, the proposed ceiling was 731756. Secretary Clifford requested a broad review of objectives, and means to accomplish them. In response, several papers from various organizations were submitted for future plans.

A key paper considered was submitted by Phil Goulding, Assistant Secretary of Defense. He gave the following options:

  1. Increased mobilization and deployment. This includes sending General Westmoreland 50000 to 200000 more troops, and additional moves required: Calling reserves, extending enlistments, and extra expenditures.
  2. Increased mobilization/deployment plus expanded bombing of North Vietnam.
  3. Increased mobilization/deployment plus a bombing pause.
  4. Denial of Westmoreland requests, and continue war as is.
  5. Denial of Westmoreland requests, and a change in policy, with greater concentration on defending populated areas and less search-and-destroy missions in unpopulated areas. This includes an announced program to begin troop withdrawal at a fixed date.

There was much discussion around these options, as the various factions, hawks, doves, and middle roaders “weighed in.” If the Communists took advantage of the bombing halt, the hawks and many of the military would react strongly. The doves, of course, would enthusiastically endorse the pause, and would immediately begin pleading and praying that it be continued long enough to explore all possible options.

The fourth option, denial of the Westmoreland request, and continue the war “as is,” would please no one, and was least acceptable. Goulding offered a ranking from a strictly public reaction standpoint. His top-ranked pick was the fifth: Denial of requests and a change in policy in the South.

The next step was a “Draft Memorandum.” A small “working group” of Pentagon action officers  digested options, factors, considerations, and prepared the draft:

  1. Approve a NSAM, stating that our political objective is a peace which will leave the people of South Viet Nam free to fashion their own political institutions.
  2. Approve the immediate dispatch of an additional 10500 military personnel to South Vietnam.
  3. Approve an accelerated and expanded program of increased fire power and mobility for ARVN.
  4. Send Presidential Advisor General Taylor to Saigon to explain the NSAM to MACV and the GVN, and to request General Westmoreland to develop a strategy and force requirements to implement the military objectives.
  5. Dispatch one or two high-level civilians to Saigon with General Taylor to warn the GVN that it must broaden their base of political support, end its internal bickering, purge corrupt officers and officials, and move to develop efficient administration and effective forces. They should also begin a discussion of negotiations while informing the GVN of the increased support to be provided for ARVN.
  6. Deliver a Presidential address to the American public, explaining our new strategy in light of the enemy’s new tactics.

The concept was to basically turn the war over to south Vietnam, but providing security in main cities. The bombing-halt issue was not addressed. In the previous year, President Johnson had offered a bombing halt, as long as North Vietnam negotiated in good faith. This was known as the “San Antonio Formula.” (Speech made by the President in San Antonio.)

Even supporters of Administration policy, such as Senator Richard Russell, Democrat of Georgia, who was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, were openly critical of American combat strategy. Mr. Russell suggested that the United States has lost the battlefield initiative, and that it was not only through the enemy’s bold tactics.

Senator Fulbright Democrat of Arkansas, and Foreign Relations Committee chairman, warned against an escalation that could lead to “all-out war,” and insisted during a televised hearing with Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, that Congress be consulted before crucial new decisions are made.

But, Senator Russell took a different tack, contending that air and sea power should be used to the fullest extent before ground-force levels are increased. “If we are not willing to take this calculated risk,” Russell told a Veterans of Foreign Wars dinner, “we should not still be increasing the half-million men in Vietnam who are exposed to danger daily from weapons that might been kept from the hands of our enemies.”

Adding fuel to this controversy was the unexpected triumph in the New Hampshire Presidential Primary on 12 March of the Democratic “peace” candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy. This was widely heralded as a repudiation by the voters of the present Administration and its Vietnam policies. And, it encouraged another critic of these policies, Senator Robert Kennedy, to announce on 16 March, his intention to seek the Democratic Presidential nomination.

President Johnson’s Address to Nation

The President decided to take the following course:

  1. Major stress on importance of GVN and ARVN increased effectiveness, with our equipment and other support as first priority in our own actions.
  2. 13500 support forces to be called up at once, in order to round the 10500 combat units sent in February.
  3. Replenishment of strategic reserve by calling up 48500 additional reserves, stating that these would be designated as strategic reserve.
  4. Related tax increases, and budget cuts already largely needed for non-Vietnam reasons.

In addition, he decided to end bombing north of the 20th parallel.

The speech was long and it contained many considerations previously discussed. Most noteworthy was about bombing and negotiations. In his speech: “Tonight, I renew the offer I made last August – to stop the bombardment of North Vietnam. We ask that talks begin promptly, that they be serious talks on the substance of peace. We assume that during those talks Hanoi will not take advantage of our restraint. We are prepared to move immediately toward peace through negotiations.”

The President acknowledged the large losses sustained by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, and that they failed to start uprisings.

Finally he stated that: “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my Party for another term as your President. But, let men everywhere know, however, that a strong, a confident, and a vigilant America stands ready tonight to seek an honorable peace – and stands ready tonight to defend an honored cause – whatever the price, whatever the burden, whatever the sacrifices that duty may require.”

Thus, the entire nature of the Vietnam War changed, as a result of the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Caricature by Vint Lawrence

Caricature by Vint Lawrence

References

“The Pentagon Papers, Volume IV,” Gravel Edition

Words Matter – Quotations that shape, reflect, and explain America” Ian C Friedman

” U.S . Marines in Vietnam – The Defining Year 1968,” Jack Shulimson

“Tet Offensive 1968 – Turning Point in Vietnam,” James R. Arnold, Osprey Military PublishingCampaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

General Vo Nguyen Giap

 

 

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets #11: Communist Casualties

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets is yet another series, where David Galster shares some of his tips and techniques in scenario research and design for CS: Vietnam.

Comrades,

This short article covers the results of the 1968 Tet Offensive from the North Vietnamese perspective.

Military Losses

The Tet Offensive resulted in very high losses for the NVA/VC. The estimated overall losses were 40000 to 50000 killed. Large numbers of irreplaceable local Viet Cong cadres were lost. This is out of a force in South Vietnam of about 323000. So NVA/VC losses were about 14%.

American losses were about 4000 killed and wounded. ARVN lost between 4000 and 8000 soldiers. These forces defended all of their cities and major bases and recaptured important cities and bases, like Khe Sanh and Hue. The Communist attacks only briefly penetrated the American Embassy grounds, and the Tan Son Nhut Airbase.

The aftermath of Tet was bleak for the Communists. According to one of Giap’s aides, their casualties during the drive had been ”devastating.” American bombing of the South Vietnamese countryside further crippled their forces as their peasant supporters fled to urban refugee camps. They were also ravaged by the CIA Phoenix program, which destroyed many rural sanctuaries.

By conventional measures, this was defeat for the Communists. And, the high losses weakened their ability to pursue future offensives.

Impact on Future Offensives

In the months following the Tet Offensive, the NVA had to go mainly back to a defensive guerrilla war mode. One of the outcomes of the US bombing halt was that more airstrikes were available for Commando Hunt bombing operations on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The increased number of sorties caused much higher NVA truck losses. From January to April of 1969, 6000 trucks were damaged or destroyed. Out of 45119 tons of supplies brought into Laos from North Vietnam, only 8537 tons reached South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese admitted that by the end of 1968, their “offensive posture began to weaken,” and their forces in the South suffered from attrition.

Although another Tet offensive was conducted in 1969, the attacks were only on Long Binh near Saigon, and some attacks around Da Nang. These were quickly repulsed, and were complete failures. This could be partly due to the high losses from the previous year.

VC losses in Tet 1968 were replaced with North Vietnamese. This appealed to some of the military leaders, thinking that the forces would have greater loyalty. However, with fewer VC, the local support was not as good. The VC knew the terrain and people of the south better than imported North Vietnamese troops.

Failure to Create Uprising

One of the intentions of the 1968 Tet Offensive was to create a general uprising and revolt. But, this did not happen. It was particularly noticeable in Saigon in the Cholon district. This was despite the fact that the Americans and South Vietnamese did not expect attacks in the cities.

The massacre incident in Hue, regardless of the controversy, did not help engender positive feelings of the local residents to the NVA.

Advantages Gained

Despite lack of military success, the North Vietnamese gained three things from the 1968 Tet Offensive: 1) Bombing halt, 2) Paris Negotiations began, and 3) American anti-war feelings drastically increased.

The bombing halt, ordered by President Johnson in March 1968 was a significant relief to the North Vietnamese. General Giap even said: “What we still don’t understand is why you Americans stopped the bombing of Hanoi. You had us on the ropes. If you had pressed us a little harder, just for another day or two, we were ready to surrender!”

The North Vietnamese had hoped for negotiations, and one of the objectives of the Tet Offensive were to get these started. Indeed Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh said that the Politburo has set two main goals for negotiations: “The first goal is to stop America from bombing, and the second goal is to force the United States to withdraw its troops from the South.” At least the goal of having negotiations was met, as well as the bombing halt.

The spy Pham Xuan An was the one who convinced the North Vietnamese that American sentiment had changed as a result of Tet. After the battles in Saigon, Tu Cang and An drove around the city, counting the dead bodies of Vietcong. Tu Cang was shocked and depressed by what he saw. “After the first stage of the general offensive, I sent back a report from the city to senior leaders, saying that the situation was rather unfavorable.”

However during their tour, as Tu Cang and Pham Xuan An traveled around Saigon and discussed the events with journalists, they reached a different conclusion. “I changed my opinion,” Tu Cang said. “A US colonel told us that the offensive had dealt a heavy blow to their army, and American officials told us that the antiwar movement was on the rise in the United States and American prestige had gone downhill.”

Strategy Review

Recall in the 1967 planning stage, the disagreement between General Giap and Secretary Le Duan. This can be compared to the I Ching Hexagram 49. Ko – Revolution (Molting) Although both of these men were raised in a Confucian tradition, and probably very aware of the I Ching, in no way would these Communists publicly acknowledge it. The hexagram deals with political revolution.

The poem of “Nine in the third place” is as follows:

Starting brings misfortune.

Perseverance brings danger.

When talk of revolution has gone the rounds three times,

One may commit himself,

and men will believe him.

The interpretation identifies two mistakes to be avoided: One lies in haste and ruthlessness, which bring disaster. The other lies in excessive hesitation and conservatism, which is also dangerous.

General Giap was mainly concerned with haste, Le Duan with hesitation. But, with the Tet offensive, they both were right. For the heavy casualties which the  NVA suffered were something Giap wanted to avoid. But, the political success, in getting the Americans to the negotiating table, and halting the bombing would not have been likely if the NVA fought conservatively. Le Duan’s position and intiative made this possible.I Ching Hexagram 49. Ko - Revolution

I Ching Hexagram 49. Ko – Revolution

References

“Tet Offensive 1968 – Turning Point in Vietnam,” James R. Arnold, Osprey Military Publishing

“The Journalist-Viet Cong Spy Who Changed the Course of the Vietnam War,” Thomas A. Bass

“General Vo Nguyen Giap and the Mysterious Process of The 1968 Tet Offensive Plan,” Merle L. Pribbenow II

“I Ching,” Richard Wilhelm

“Tet 1969,” Wikipedia

“The Ho Chi Minh Trail and Operation Commando Hunt,” Dong Nguyen Ha

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

General Vo Nguyen Giap

 

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets #10: The Hue Upheaval

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets is yet another series, where David Galster shares some of his tips and techniques in scenario research and design for CS: Vietnam.

Comrades,

What do Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Ngo Dinh Diem all have in common?They attended the Quoc Hoc High School in Hue. (At various times, of course.) The school (Lycee) was located on the south bank of the Perfume River in the “modern” city sector. But, don’t worry comrades, this article covers Tet Offensive military operations around Hue.

The Imperial City

Hue was the the ancient imperial capital of Vietnam. Its great symbolism dated back to 1802 under the Nguyen dynasty. With a population of 140000, it was the third largest city in the Republic of Vietnam.

Construction of he walled city on the north bank of the Perfume River (Song Hu’o’ng) began in 1804 under Emperor Gia Long. Thousands of workers were conscripted to build the walls and surrounding moat, measuring 10 km per side. The original earthwork was later reinforced, and faced with brick and stone, resulting in 2 meters thick ramparts.

The Citadel, or Imperial City, is the walled-in portion within the larger walled city.  The walls of the fortress form a square with sides 2500 meters long. The outer stone wall is one meter thick, five meters high and is separated from the inner wall by dirt fill. The architecture was modelled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, because of strong Chinese influence during the early Nguyen Dynasty.

he Ngo Mon Gate to the Imperial City

The Ngo Mon Gate to the Imperial City

Intellectual and Religious Aloofness

The beautiful and serene city of Hue was the cultural center of Vietnam. It attracted a large community of intellectual and religious elites, who embraced Confucian traditional values. Buddhist  influence was strong as well, as Hue had many pagodas, with numerous ascetic monks observing rituals and practicing meditation.

The academic and religious atmosphere fostered an aloofness to the rest of the country, and particularly the war. Naturally, the elites mistrusted the Americans, but also the Hanoi Communists as well. The Ngo Dinh Diem regime had shown Catholic favoritism, and so the Buddhists resented the central Saigon government.

A “militant” Buddhist uprising began when Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death on a Saigon street as an act of defiance in 1963. The prominent activist leader was Thich Tri Quang, who agitated his followers, and initiated the 1966 “Struggle Movement.”

Despite Hue’s aloofness and reputation for dissidence, the Viet Cong had failed to take advantage of the situation. Neither the South Vietnamese Army nor Viet Cong troops showed any aggression in the surrounding area or in Hue itself. A sort of unspoken truce was in effect. Hue had been like an oasis, affording both sides a respite from the war.

The NVA Attack

The tranquillity would soon end. The NVA’s Tri-Thien-Hue Front, commanded by Maj. Gen. Tran Van Quang had redeployed the 4th and 6th Regiments from Base Area 114, 20 km west of Hue. They knew US and ARVN forces were concentrated in the north, expecting attacks along Route 9. Hue was a weak link. As a North Vietnamese author wrote: “The enemy knew nothing of our strategy; by the time our forces approached the city of Hue, the enemy still had not taken any specific defensive measures.”

The NVA operation, commanded by Secretary Le Tu Minh, (Provincial Party Committee,) would deploy 6th Regiment’s 800 and 802 Battalions to attack the old city of Hue. The objectives were to capture the entire Citadel including the Mang Ca compound, Tay Loc Airfield, and the Imperial City. Meanwhile, the 4th Regiment’s 804 Battalion attacked the “modern” city on the south bank of the Perfume River. The 804 Battalion objectives were capture of the Provincial Building, prison, and occupy university and government buildings, including the MACV HQ.

On 30 January, NVA shock troops and sappers entered the old city, disguised as peasants. Their uniforms and weapons were hidden in baggage, and under their street clothes. They mingled with the Tet holiday crowds. These were from the Hue City Sapper Battalion. They went to predesignated positions, and awaited the attack signal.

At 0233, 31 January, a flare lit up the sky. At the Citadel Western Gate, a four-man sapper team, disguised as ARVN, killed the guards and opened the gate. The 800 and 802 NVA Battalions poured through the gate, and drove north. The Hue upheaval had begun.

The NVA command also provided the 9th Regiment to shield the outside of Hue and block US/ARVN reinforcements. This unit also would help reinforce units inside Hue as needed.

The only ARVN defenses inside the Hue Citadel were the 1st Division 200-man HQ located in the Mang Ca compound, (NE corner,) and the Black Panther Company, defending the Tay Loc Airfield. The Black Panthers were General Ngo Quang Truong’s personal guards. Truong commanded 1st Division.

Fighting for the airfield went back and forth: first the ARVN had the upper hand and then the NVA. The 802 Battalion struck 1st Division headquarters at Mang Ca, penetrating into the compound. The HQ ad-hoc defensive force managed to repulse assaults. General Truong called the Black Panther Company to reinforce HQ defenses.

On the south bank of the Perfume River, the 4th NVA Regiment’s 804 Battalion took many objectives,  and set up HQ in the Provincial building. Like the ARVN 1st Division HQ at Mang Ca, US Advisors and staff at the MACV compound successfully repulsed the initial attack. While not mounting any further assaults, the NVA kept a siege on the compound with mortars, rockets, and machine guns.

 

On 1 February, the embattled General Truong called in reinforcements. 3rd ARVN Regiment, 7th ARVN Cavalry Squadron, 1st ARVN Airborne Task Force began move on Hue. Responding to the call at PK 17, (ARVN base at 17 km marker on Route 1,) 3rd Troop and the 7th Battalion of the Airborne task force moved from PK 17 southward armored convoy along Route 1.

However, blocking forces stopped the ARVN relief force 400 meters short of the Citadel wall. Unable to force their way through the enemy positions, the paratroopers asked for assistance. The 2nd ARVN Airborne Battalion reinforced the convoy, and the force finally penetrated the lines, and entered the Citadel in early morning of 2 February.

The 3d ARVN Regiment had an even more difficult time. On the 31st, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, advanced east from encampments southwest of the city along the northern bank of the Perfume River. NVA defensive fires forced them to fall back. Unable to enter the Citadel, the two battalions established their night positions outside the southwest wall of the old City.

NVA surrounded the 1st and 4th Battalions, operating to the southeast, as they attempted to reinforce Hue. Captain Phan Ngoc Luong’s 1st Battalion retreated with his unit to the coastal Ba Long outpost. The battalion then embarked upon motorized junks and reached the Citadel the following day. 4th Battalion was unable to break its encirclement for several days.

South of the city, Lt. Col. Phan Huu Chi, commander of ARVN’s 7th Armored Cavalry Squadron attempted to break the enemy stranglehold. He led an armored column toward Hue, but like the other South Vietnamese units, found it impossible to break through. When an NVA B-40 rocket made a direct hit upon Chi’s tank, killing him instantly, the South Vietnamese armor pulled back.

The Battle for Hue

Marines Clear Modern Hue City

General Foster “Frosty” LaHue, the Task Force X-Ray commander, had little intelligence on the situation. The task force had been formed previously at the Phu Bai Combat Base, 12 km southeast of Hue on Route 1.

Initially, LaHue sent Company A of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment northwest to reinforce the MACV compound. They were accompanied by four tanks of the 3rd Tank Battalion. Ultimately, the entire 1/1 USMC Battalion would be reinforced by the 1/5 and 2/5 USMC Battalions.

However, the 5th Marine Regiment was still tied up in combat around Phu Loc, southeast of Phu Bai. The 1/5 Battalion would remain fighting in this region until 10 February. But, the 2/5 Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Ernest Cheatham was ordered to Hue on 3 February.

On 3 February, command staffs of the 1st USMC Regiment and 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines arrived in Hue in a “Rough Rider” armed convoy. The weather was rainy and foggy. Although the trucks came under sniper and mortar fire, they safely reached the MACV Compound.

Colonel Hughes set up the 1/1 USMC Battalion HQ and organized the forces. The 2/5 USMC Battalion set up along the Perfume River just east of the University and north of MACV. They began to advance west, with the river on their right flank. The 1/1 USMC Battalion began at MACV, and pushed west with 2/5 USMC on their right flank. These two battalions would push toward the Provincial Building and clear government buildings along the river and  Le Lo’i Street.

CSVN Map of Hue

CSVN Map of Hue

The advance was slow. The thick walled buildings seemed to be impervious to bullets and LAAWs. (Light Anti-Armor Weapons) Sometimes several assaults were needed to take a building. They would attack, and then have to fall back, dragging the wounded to safety. And then the troops regrouped and assaulted again.

Company A of 1/1 USMC guarded the supply line between the An Cuu bridge on the Phu Cam canal and the MACV compound. That route connected them to Route 1 and the Phu Bai Combat Base, where supplies originated.

On 4 February, Lt. Col. Cheatham’s 2/5 Marines blasted through the walls with 3.5 inch rockets. This was followed by fire team rushes. They used 106mm recoilless rifles to cover these movements. Sometimes the 106s were used to knock holes in the walls, and stun NVA defenders. Once the infantrymen could spot the defenders, 81mm mortars could then fire on the positions.

The NVA 804 battalion defenders were very tenacious. They covered all avenues of approach with fire, using all the weapons in their arsenal, from B-40 anti-tank rockets, (RPG) to machine guns.

Lt. Col. Cheatham directs a target for Ontos, equipped with 106mm recoilless rifle

Lt. Col. Cheatham directs a target for Ontos, equipped with 106mm recoilless rifle

The Marines began to use tear gas (CS) to disrupt the defenders. As Marines entered buildings, donning gas masks, “the NVA wanted no part of us, and they exited the building as quickly as they could.”

The M50A1 “Ontos” proved useful. These were lightly armored, tracked anti-tank vehicles armed with six coaxially-mounted 106mm recoilless rifles. Marine tank battalions had four platoon of these, each with five vehicles.

The two Marine battalions fought side by side, and advanced west, building by building, block by block for several days. Finally on 6 February, Marines captured the Provincial building, HQ for the NVA 4th Regiment. After that, the NVA resistance was only isolated pockets that needed to be cleared. By 10 February, the entire waterfront along the “modern” city was cleared.

Unfortunately, NVA sappers had blown the main bridge connecting the Citadel and “modern” city on the south bank near the MACV compound. Also on the western part of town, Marine engineers had previously blown the railroad bridge to prevent NVA from bringing in reinforcements from the west. Now, Hue was  two cities.

1st Air Cavalry Deployment

With General Westmoreland’s approval, the III MAF commander arranged for 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) to join the Hue battle. On 1 February, Maj. Gen. John Tolson deployed 3rd Brigade to a sector west of Hue. They coordinated with TF X-Ray. On 2 February, 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry landed about 16 km northwest of Hue, and then pushed towards the city.

Early on 3 February, the battalion advanced southeastward along a route paralleling Route 1. NVA troops had set up defenses in Que Chu, a thickly wooded village. Under cover of rocket fire from helicopter gunships of 1st Cavalry’s Aerial Rocket Artillery (ARA) Squadron, the cavalrymen attacked After several hours, 2nd Battalion cracked the defenses, and established a night perimeter in Que Chu.

Under cover of darkness the NVA moved up reinforcements in regimental strength. After a heavy mortar barrage at daybreak, The NVA launched a counterattack. Surrounded and outnumbered, 2nd Battalion repulsed several assaults, with the help of ARA helicopters. Forced into a shrinking perimeter, 2nd Battalion sustained casualties of 11 dead and 51 wounded in two days fighting.

Lt. Col. Richard Sweet was concerned about the enemy overrunning their position. 2nd Battalion made a night march to elude the enemy, and set up defenses in a better location, a hill mass at Nha Nhan.

While the 2nd Battalion remained on Nha Nhan, 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry advanced toward Que Chu on the 5 February. On 7 February, Lt. Col. Vaught’s forces ran into a strong NVA force that had reoccupied Que Chu. Unable to push the NVA out, Vaught called in ARA helicopters and artillery.

The next morning, the troopers renewed the attack, but were forced back in the face of machine gun fire, RPGs, and mortars. They dug in for the night. Attempting to assist, 2nd Battalion deployed off its hill, and bumped into a NVA battalion at Bon Tri, 3 km south of Que Chu. For the next several days, 1st Cavalry units faced stalemate. They were unable to drive away NVA forces surrounding the Hue citadel.

Stalemate in the Old City

The ARVN efforts to clear the Citadel faltered. 1st Battalion, 3nd ARVN Regiment cleaned out much of the northwest corner, while the 1st ARVN Airborne Task Force pushed from the Tay Loc Airfield towards the western wall. To the east , 4th Battalion, 2nd ARVN Regiment advanced south from Mang Ca compound toward the imperial palace grounds. The battalion made excellent progress until resistance stiffened about half-way toward the objective. By 4 February, the 1st ARVN Division reported that it killed nearly 700 NVA troops.

On 5 February, General Truong moved the airborne task force to the northeast sector, relieving the 4th Battalion, 2nd ARVN. Assuming responsibility for the airfield, 4th battalion pushed all the way to the southwest wall. South of the Citadel, on the Perfume River north bank, the remaining three battalions of 3rd ARVN Regiment, futilely butted against the southeastern wall, in an effort to roll up NVA defenses from that direction.

 On the night of 6-7 February, the NVA counterattacked. Using grappling hooks, fresh NVA troops scaled the southwestern wall and forced 2nd Battalion, 4th ARVN to fall back with heavy losses to the Tay Loc airfield. The cloud cover lifted briefly enough for the South Vietnamese Air Force dropped bombs on the southwest wall.

With NVA reinforcements pouring into the old city, General Truong redeployed the three battalions of the 3d ARVN Regiment from south of the Citadel to move into the city. These forces embarked on South Vietnamese motorized junks, which landed the troops at a wharf north of Hue. The 3rd ARVN units then entered the Citadel through the northern gate, and took positions at the Mang Ca compound.

Despite ARVN reinforcements in the old city, General Truong’s forces made almost no further progress. The dug-in NVA refused to be budged. The NVA controlled 60 percent of the Citadel.

On 11 February, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines began moving from Phu Bai to Hue by a “rough rider” convoy. The commander, Major Robert Thompson and his advance group spent the night at some damaged Hue University buildings. Ultimately, the battalion would go by LCU landing craft from the dock by MACV to the northeast corner of the old city by way of the Perfume River.

Once inside the old city at Mang Ca, the 1/5 USMC battalion began to advance southeast along the Citadel wall. With two tanks in the lead, Company C advanced 300 meters before heavy enemy fire stopped them. The fire came from an archway tower along the Citadel’s eastern wall leading to the Dong Ba Bridge. The NVA had dug in at the base of the wall, and tunnelled underneath the structure.

On 14 February, 1st Battalion resumed the attack. Offshore, Navy cruisers and destroyers opened fire with 5-inch and 8-inch guns. Marine 8-inch and 155mm howitzers firing from Phu Bai and Gia Le added to the bombardment. Marine F-4B Phantoms and F-8 Crusader jets flew support missions. Despite this the Dong Ba tower still stood.

The NVA 6th Regiment remnants under Lt. Col. Nguyen Trong Dan employed “better city-fighting tactics, improved the already formidable defenses, dug trenches, built roadblocks, and conducted counterattacks” to regain redoubts vital to the defensive scheme. Major Thompson later noted that the old city consisted of “row after row of single-story, thick-walled masonry houses jammed close together and occasionally separated by alleyways or narrow streets.”

But, Thompson depended largely on his unit’s own firepower, especially mortars, machine guns, and and the tanks and Ontos that reinforced the battalion. At first, the M48 tank 90mm guns were ineffective against the concrete and stone houses. The shells occasionally even ricocheted back on the Marines. Tank crews began to use concrete-piercing fused shells which got good penetration. The walls were breached with two to four rounds.

In addition to the 1/5 USMC battalion, the 1st and 5th VNMC Battalions departed from the LCU ramp across the Perfume River to the northern landing site. General Truong assigned them the southwest sector of the Citadel, west of the Imperial Palace.

Taking the Citadel

In the Citadel, General Truong prepared for the final thrust against the entrenched and determined NVA forces. The Vietnamese Marine Task Force was assigned to clear the southwestern wall. The 3rd ARVN Regiment attacked south toward the Imperial Palace.

Despite slow house to house progress, ARVN forces closed in on the Imperial Palace, and the 1/5 USMC battalion closed in to the southeast, taking all of its objectives. Finally, on 25 February, the 4th Vietnamese Marine battalion made a surprise attack into the Imperial Palace and eliminated the last pocket of resistance there.

Major Thompson had hoped to participate in the taking of the Imperial Palace, but as he later ruefully observed : “For political reasons, I was not allowed to do it. To save face, the Vietnamese were to retake the “Forbidden City.”

Aftermath

After the recapture of Hue, South Vietnamese authorities exhumed 3000 bodies thrown into hastily dug graves. These were claimed to be victims of Communist roundups. Although the North Vietnamese admitted tracking down and punishing “hoodlum ringleaders,” they claimed most of the reported civilian deaths were the result of happenstance, exaggerations by the South Vietnamese, or caused by the allies. This is controversial, and the Saigon government allowed no journalists to view the grave sites or bodies. The ARVN 10th Political Warfare Battalion made the official investigation. This was a propaganda and psychological warfare unit. They concluded that a massacre had occurred. Comrades, you’ll have to draw your own conclusions about this.

The battle cost both sides dearly. Marines of Task Force X-Ray sustained casualties of 142 dead and 1100 wounded. US advisors with the 1st ARVN Division in Hue reported 333 ARVN killed, 1773 wounded, and 30 missing. 1st Cavalry Division listed casualties of 68 killed and 453 wounded, while  1st Brigade, 101st Airborne showed 6 dead and 56 wounded. Overall, US and ARVN casualties totalled more than 600 dead, and nearly 3800 wounded and missing.

Estimates of NVA and VC dead ranged from 2500 to 5000. Captured Communist documents admitted to 1042 killed, and an indeterminate number of wounded.

Damage estimates claim 80 percent of the structures in Hue sustained damage or were destroyed. Out of a population of about 140000, more than 116000 people became homeless, and 5800 were either dead or missing. Hue was a devastated city. However, US forces restrained artillery and bombing in the Imperial Palace itself, in order to preserve sacred and historical buildings.

The political impact of Hue was significant. According to North Vietnamese General Secretary Le Kha Phieu: “Hue is not as big as Saigon, but it is an ancient capital, so hitting the ancient capital and capturing the ancient capital will have a great echo …” In addition, Walter Cronkite visited Hue during the battle. Much of what he had to say influenced the course of American war politics.

References

“Imperial City, Hue,” Wikipedia

“Political Monks: The Militant Buddhist Movement during the Vietnam War,”  Mark Moyar

“U.S. Marines in Vietnam the Defining Year 1968,” Jack Shulimson

“The Battle of Mau Than in Hue,” Wikipedia – translated from Vietnamese

“The 1968 Hue Massacre,”  D. Gareth Porter

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

General Vo Nguyen Giap

 

 

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets #9: Spearhead into Saigon

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets is yet another series, where David Galster shares some of his tips and techniques in scenario research and design for CS: Vietnam.

Comrades,

North Vietnamese planners knew the Americans did not suspect attacks in cities in 1968. Why? Because the spy, Pham Xuan An, codename X6 informed them that American troops were stationed around Saigon, but not in the city itself. And, Pham Xuan An understood the American mindset from  his contacts as a Time Magazine reporter. American leaders did not suspect direct Saigon attacks. This article describes the main attacks by NVA/VC forces in Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

North Vietnamese Attack Plan

The very complex plan required nationwide coordination that was new to Hanoi. In 1967, several organization changes were made to ensure good command and control. For instance, COSVN dissolved the communist Military Region 7, and the Saigon-Gia Dinh Military Region, and created six sub regions instead. They assigned experienced military commanders and staff to each one.

Sub regions near Saigon were reinforced with sapper and commando units trained and equipped for urban warfare. Four new “Spearhead Battalions”  were staffed with specialized communications personnel. Their mission was to relieve sapper and commando units within 48 hours, and exploit any local successes these specialized units achieved.

Sub Region 6 covered the precincts of Saigon. COSVN assigned 11 sapper and commando teams to three distinct concentrations on the east, south and north sides of the city. These units planned for  simultaneous attacks from many different directions.

Sapper and conventional forces were intended to provide both a “spearhead” and in-depth deployment of forces. The objective was to complicate the defense of Saigon, and ensure effective command and control as they approached their targets.

To reinforce the “Spearhead Battalions,” several PAVN conventional units, such as the 88th and 568th Infantry Regiments, along with several artillery, signal, sapper, and chemical defense units were sent by COSVN to assist with the attack. These regular PAVN units were assigned to block American and ARVN divisions located north, northwest, and east of Saigon, so they could not interfere with forces attacking inside the city. In addition, the 5th, 7th, and 9th PAVN divisions were deployed as reinforcements.

The spy, Pham Xuan An, and his boss Major Nguyen Van Tau, alias Tu Cang had surveyed Saigon two years earlier, and selected 20 targets in Saigon, including the Presidential Palace, the US Embassy, the Phu Tho racetrack, and the Chinese Cholon district, ARVN Joint General Staff, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the Republic of Vietnam Navy Headquarters, and the National Radio Station.

“Our attacks on the US Embassy and Presidential Palace were feints,” Tu Cang said in a 2004 interview. The attacks on government buildings, and timing at the Tet new year celebration were hoped to foment a “general uprising.” This would be initiated and exploited by the “Spearhead Battalions,” using their communication capabilities. And, they wanted to capture and exploit the National Radio Station to broadcast propaganda.

Attack on Saigon

Saigon Defenses

The South Vietnamese were sensitive of American military presence in Saigon. Recognizing this, and showing confidence in ARVN capability, the US MACV command granted South Vietnam responsibility for the city’s defense. Only the 716th Military Police battalion, (716th MP) guarded American installations there. The exception was Tan Son Nhut Airbase, where the USAF 377th Security Police Squadron (377th SPS) handled base defense.

The ARVN Saigon defense consisted of the 5th Ranger Group and seven regional, service and police battalions. There were also two elite airborne battalions on hand when Tet erupted. The RVNAF 2nd Service Battalion also shared responsibility for the defense of Tan Son Nhut. The 30th and 33rd Ranger Battalions fought in the Cholon area.

Although American defenses were initially limited to military and security police, they were reinforced. Infantry and mechanized units from outside of Saigon quickly moved in and fought. The 3rd Battalion 7th Regiment fought at Cholon, supported by the mechanized 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry and the 17th Cavalry. Unfortunately, these units lacked urban warfare training.

Black Smoke over Saigon

Black Smoke over Saigon

Tan Son Nhut

The key military installation was attacked in the early morning of 31 January. The VC 9th Division, a 2665-man force commanded by Colonel Nam Truyen had more than half its previous combat losses replaced with NVA soldiers. The D-16 battalion attacked the Vinatexco textile mill and set up a field command post. 269th Battalion attacked the 051 Gate. The 267th Battalion was to follow, and exploit the opening. 1st Battalion, 271st Regiment planned to assault the flightline and base facilities.Using bangalore torpedoes and satchel charges VC breeched concertina wire near Gate 051.

A five-man security team fired M-60 machine gun rounds into the attackers, but the gate and bunker were overrun by 0345. The  377th SPS sent skirmish teams east of the gate. 4 UH-1C Huey gunships from the 120th Assault Helicopter Company dropped flares and began firing rockets and machine guns at the attackers.

However, VC forces reached the flightline, and placed satchel charges under RVNAF C-47s, damaging 14 of them. The attackers were forced to retreat by a quick reaction team. VC could not get across the Whiskey 8 taxiway as US forces there were being reinforced.

ARVN forces joined with three M41 light tanks, and formed a defensive “horseshoe.” Two of these tanks were knocked out by RPGs, but the ARVN force broke up a VC flanking maneuver.

By dawn, the VC attackers began to withdraw at Gate 051. The ARVN 8th Airborne Battalion, awaiting transport to Khe Sanh, were committed to the battle, and began a counterattack. Security advisor Lt. Col. Jack Garred requested assistance. This was answered by an armored cavalry troop from Cu Chi Base Camp. They moved to block the VC withdrawal route.

By 1219, the last VC inside the base perimeter surrendered. But, the counterattack continued, and combat occurred at the Vinatexco mill. The mill and village around it were cleared by 1630.

The Americans lost 22 killed and 82 wounded. ARVN losses were 29 killed and 15 wounded. The NVA/VC losses were 669 killed and 26 captured.377th SPS Troops at Tan Son Nhut

377th SPS Troops at Tan Son Nhut

Cholon and Phu Tho Racetrack

Viet Cong attacked and captured Cholon, the western section of Saigon, including the strategically important Phu Tho Racetrack. (It was an alternate helicopter landing zone.) The 6th Binh Tan Battalion spearheaded the attack, occupying the racetrack as a command post. Their goal was to capture the Chi Hoa prison 1.5 km northeast of the racetrack.

The US 716th MP sent a squad by truck to an intersection near the racetrack. They recovered two MPs that had just been killed. The squad withdrew to a fighting position in a building. They realized that more help was needed.

716th MP commander Lt. Col. Gordon Rowe sent further reinforcements, but they were unable to push the VC off the racetrack. Ultimately, the II Corps Field Force commander, Lt. Gen. Frederick Weyland sent the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment to the scene. Lt. Col. John Gibler was the battalion commander. Task Force Gibler was formed with the 3/7 Infantry, Troop D, 17th Cavalry, the 5/60 Infantry battalion (mechanized,) and the ARVN 33rd and 38th Ranger battalions.

The racetrack was at the intersection of several streets, and if the VC could hold the track, they would have a good chance of holding Cholon. By the dawn of 31 January, the VC occupied much of the Cholon District. The urban area had many two-story wooden-frame buildings. The American forces could not effectively use airmobile assault. And, the number of trucks and APCs entering had to be limited.

Task Force Gibler reached the intersection at 1100, with support from helicopter gunships. The lead M113 APC was hit by a RPG. A firefight began with VC firing their AK-47s and RPGs, while the Americans and ARVN returned fire with 106mm recoilless rifles, (RCLR,) and M-16 rifles.

By 1300, Task Force Gibler  was within a block of the racetrack. The VC were fighting from the stadium. Using maximum available firepower, including M-60 machine guns, 106mm RCLR, and     M-79 grenade launchers, Gibler’s forces blasted the stadium. Finally, in late afternoon, GIs charged the last VC holdouts, who chose to melt away into Cholon.

With the racetrack in Task Force Gibler’s hands, the next task was to clear the Cholon neighborhood.

It would be days of house to house fighting. The infantry used C4 plastic explosives to blast holes in interior walls. This allowed advance from building to building without exposing themselves in the open. At close range, Americans and ARVN shot any VC they saw. The whole area smelled of cordite and death. Sometines the Americans held their fire as frightened civilians fled. Other civilians were killed in the crossfire.

On 4 February, civilians were ordered to leave Cholon to allow American and ARVN artillery fire against VC holdouts. The 3/7 Battalion returned to their base at  Binh Chanh. ARVN forces were to finish the clearing. But, the South Vietnamese could not deliver the “coup de grace.”

On 10 February, 3/7 Battalion was called back to Cholon. The VC had retaken the Phu Tho racetrack.

Fortunately, they were driven out by helicopter door gunners. But, the 3/7 battalion had to fight the clearing operation again, cautiously securing buildings, blasting VC, and warily advancing. They fought for four more days to clear Cholon.

Cholon was a mangled mess of destruction. Everywhere were ruined businesses, destroyed homes, smashed cars, broken windows, and dead bodies. Hundreds of civilians perished. The VC tried to blend in with the population of Cholon, but most civilians fled as quickly as they could. They wanted no part of their supposed “liberation” from the Saigon regime. Twelve US soldiers were killed, and 170 VC were killed or captured.

Reinforcements Arriving at Phu Tho Racetrack 10 February 1968

Reinforcements Arriving at Phu Tho Racetrack 10 February 1968

US Embassy

This section is presented last, even though it had less combat and casualties. The political fallout from the US Embassy attack was significant, however. The attacks on the Embassy and the Presidential Palace were similar in size and tactics, one attacking VC sapper platoon each, employing commando-style tactics. However, the outcomes were very different.

The Palace was well defended with the Presidential Guard, National and Military Police, and two tanks. It was too much for the attackers, and they were quickly repulsed. They retreated into a nearby building, holding out for two days in a last-ditch stand. The entire VC platoon was wiped out.

While the US Embassy attack was not successful, the political outcome was quite different. At 0247, sappers of the C-10 Battalion approached the night gate. Two MPs backed into the compound, within its 2.4 meter wall, and shut the steel gate.

Meanwhile, in the street, the attackers used a satchel charge to blow a hole in the wall. Two VC officers led the way through the breach. But, the explosion noise alerted other MPs who turned around and shot the officers. The attackers now had no leadership. However, the two MPs were killed in return fire.

The last message of the wounded MP was “They’re coming in! They’re coming in! Help me! Help me!” A two-man jeep patrol rushed toward the Embassy, only to be cut down by VC gunfire from outside the wall.

There were only two MPs left, one on the rooftop, and the other inside, armed with a pistol, shotgun, and sub-machine gun. The rooftop MPs gun jammed, and the VC could roam around the compound. But, the loss of leadership cost the VC the opportunity to exploit their initial success. They did not enter the building, and instead took shelter at some large flower tubs.

Outside the walls, American reinforcements began to arrive. Although it was still dark, the VC were cornered. Around 0500, a helicopter arrived with airborne soldiers, but VC fire drove it away. Just after daylight, however, MPs forced the gate and killed the few remaining attackers.

Press Reaction

The Embassy was close to the quarters where Western journalists stayed. Within fifteen minutes of the attack, an Associated Press reported typed out his first bulletin. However, the newsmen could not see over the walls, and didn’t really know what was happening inside the compound. Instead, they relied on an excited MP who blurted out: “They’re in the Embassy!”

An AP Bulletin went out: “The Vietcong seized part of the US Embassy in Saigon early Wednesday . . . . Communist commandoes penetrated the supposedly attack-proof building in the climax of a combined artillery assault that limited warfare to Saigon itself.” This arrived in the US before first edition deadlines, and US newspaper headlines carried the shocking message that the enemy had captured an American symbol.

At 0920, General Westmoreland arrived at the Embassy. He was neatly dressed in his uniform, and held an impromptu press conference. Dead VC bodies were still laying everywhere. Westmoreland stood proudly, and claimed that everything was all right.

So the newspapers presented two conflicting conclusions: One, that the VC had taken over the Embassy, and two, that Westmoreland said everything was okay. An AP reporter later explained that “we had little faith in what General Westmoreland stated.” This reaction by the press would become very pyschologically damaging to the American war effort.

After the Tet Offensive, Time Magazine correspondent and North Vietnamese spy, Pham Xuan An, helped promote the notion that the Tet Offensive was a political victory for the Communists. With his eye on the Time wire, and the news pouring in from around the world, An saw the larger picture. Americans were shocked and dismayed that nothing in Vietnam, not even the U.S. Embassy, was safe from attack.

Attack on the US Embassy

References

“The Journalist-Viet Cong Spy Who Changed the Course of the Vietnam War,”  Thomas A. Bass

” North Vietnam’s 1967 Planning for the 1968 TET Offensive,” Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC

“Tet Offensive 1968,” James R. Arnold, Osprey Military

” Tet Offensive attack on Tan Son Nhut Air Base,” Wikipedia

“Tet Offensive: 7th Infantry Regiment in Saigon,” John C. McManus, 2004 issue Vietnam Magazine

“Tet Offensive Battle of Cholon and Phu Tho Racetrack,” Wikipedia

 

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

General Vo Nguyen Giap

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets #8: Siege of Khe Sanh

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

Comrade Giap’s Clever Nuggets is yet another series, where David Galster shares some of his tips and techniques in scenario research and design for CS: Vietnam.

Comrades,

Can you recall the important battle, in a different war, that is often compared to Khe Sanh?

If you guessed Dien Bien Phu, your intuition is correct. This article describes the siege, its outcome, and gives an analysis of why it is compared to Dien Bien Phu, and what the differences were.

Intelligence Tips

Fortunately for MACV, there were some warning signs prior to the Khe Sanh attacks on 20 January 1968. During the last three months of 1967, the CIA and MACV G2s noted increased traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Aerial reconnaissance also noted stockpiling of supplies at Mu Gia pass. Heavy truck traffic was observed on route 912, a main road from North Vietnam into Laos. On 20 December 1967, Westmoreland cabled Washington that he expected the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese “to undertake an intensified countrywide effort, perhaps a maximum effort, over a relatively short period of time.”

Truck sightings were the evidence of increased Ho Chi Minh trail activity. In the first nine months of 1967, the monthly average was 480 sightings. This surged to 1116 in October, 3823 in November, and 6315 in December. This is in contrast to 256 truck sightings/month in late 1966.

The NVA/VC stepped up attacks on Loc Ninh in the III CTZ area. This was believed to be a prelude to larger dry season attacks, and possibly an attempt to establish another “front” in areas adjacent to Cambodia. The timing coincided with tough statements made by Le Duan in Moscow about future negotiations.

The CIA Saigon Station issued a report 10 January 1968 titled: “The Enemy Threat to Khe Sanh.”

The report noted military construction activity northwest of Khe Sanh as “21 foxholes, two fortified hilltops, and heavy trail activity.” Enemy patrols were reported on trails from Route 9. Later updates of this report reported regiment sized units from the 325C and 304 Divisions maneuvering into position northwest of Khe Sanh. Anti-aircraft guns 37mm and 57mm were seen on hills to the northwest. Aerial photos revealed new road construction near Ban Dong in Laos along Route 9 and eastward. New storage depots appeared 17 km east of the Laotian border along Route 9.

An NVA “rallier”  (rallier = NVA/VC soldiers taking advantage of the “Chieu Hoi” or “Open Arms”  program,) defected to Captain Kenneth Pipes’ Company B Marines on January 20 1968. Lieutenant La Thanh Tonc (Commander, 14th Antiaircraft Company,) provided a wealth of intelligence. He said Khe Sanh was the most important North Vietnamese objective in a larger offensive. They wanted to seize Quang Tri Province, and force the Americans from every base from Laos to Con Thien.

The 325C Division planned to attack Khe Sanh. 5th Battalion 95C Regiment was assigned to take Hill 1015, the highest peak in the area. It overlooked the airfield and its approaches. 6th Battalion planned to attack Hill 861, and 4th Battalion would attack the western end of the airstrip. The 101D Regiment was to attack the east end of the airstrip. The 29th Regiment was in reserve. (It actually moved instead to attack Hue.)

The cooperative Lieutenant was not specific about artillery, but said heavy guns and rockets would support the attacks.

Khe Sanh Map

Khe Sanh Defenses

Khe Sanh was in the far north of South Vietnam, in Quang Tri Province, only 10 km from Laos.

Located in I CTZ, US forces there were under III MAF command. (Marine Amphibious Force III)

Colonel David Lownds commanded the 26th Marine Regiment, that defended Khe Sanh. Defensive forces were about 6000 Marines, under Operation “Scotland.”

Defensive positions spanned from west-north-west to north. Company I defended Hill 881, Company K was on Hill 861, and 2nd platoon, Company A sat on the high crest, Hill 950, guarding a radio relay site. The airstrip was defended by 1st Battalion and L Company, and batteries B and C of the 1st Battalion, 13th Marine Artillery.  2nd Battalion defended Hill 558, with E Company at Hill 861A. On 27 January, Captain Hoang Pho and his ARVN 37th Ranger Battalion arrived. They defended the east end of the airstrip. On 22nd January, when the base was under heavy attack, 3rd Marine Division deployed  Lt. Col. John Mitchell’s 1st Battalion, 9th Marines to Khe Sanh. They camped 1.5 km west of the main base on a small hill.

Firebase Camp Carroll provided significant artillery support. It was located 25 km northeast of Khe Sanh. The twelve 175-mm guns of 2nd Battalion, 94th Artillery had a 32 km range, and could reach enemy positions surrounding Khe Sanh.

In every position, Khe Sanh defenders “dug in” for the coming battle. Following a visit, General Cushman directed that “all fighting holes have overhead cover capable of withstanding direct hits from 82mm mortars.” Ammunition storage was reorganized for better protection.

Air support was significant. Operation “Niagara” and a supply airlift  provided crucial defensive support during the siege. These will be covered later in greater detail.

Dien Bien Phu Comparisons

By late January, US military planners committed to the Khe Sanh defense, despite many references to “possibly another Dien Bien Phu.” General Westmoreland wanted to keep, and defend the base. It was a valuable monitoring position for enemy infiltration along the “Ho Chi Minh” trail. Westmoreland envisioned a future invasion of Laos to physically to cut the trails. Khe Sanh would be the support base for this campaign.

Further, Admiral Sharp, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, pointed out that: “withdrawal from any portion of Vietnam would make immediate and sensational news, not only through the Western news media, but also through the Communist capitals as a major propaganda item.”

Another rallier, Vo Manh Hung, claimed that NVA troops would cut Route 9, bring in anti-aircraft guns, and overrun the base, “as Dien Bien Phu was.” US intelligence officers placed little faith in his story, but it highlighted the question: Was Khe Sanh merely a diversion, or were the NVA committed to capturing it?

No matter the answer to this question, American intent was clear. President Johnson asked  Westmoreland about the situation. This assessment was circulated for comment, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously endorsed Westmoreland’s conclusion that Khe Sanh could and should be held. President Johnson was convinced, and ordered the military to defend the base “at all costs.”

NVA Attacks

Serious action began the evening of 20 January. The NVA had been encroaching a few days earlier.

But, a Marine reconnaissance team was surrounded on Hill 689. They called for artillery support, which enclosed the position in a “protective box.” It was effective, and 25 NVA casualties resulted.

However, that was  only a sideshow. Flares appeared over Hill 861, and then 300 NVA troops attacked. Striking from only 100 meters from the crest, NVA blasted holes in the barbed wire with bangladore torpedoes, and assaulted Company K’s bunkers and trenches. Company K, commanded by Captain Norman Jasper, fought back aggressively. But, the Vietnamese penetrated 1st Platoon’s defenses, and overran the landing zone. Jasper was wounded, and Lt. Saulsbury took over.

Some of 3rd Battalion’s 81mm mortars on Hill 881 fired to support Hill 861. The mortars fired 680 rounds that night.

Although the attackers penetrated the perimeter’s southwest side, Sergeant Stahl single-handedly counterattacked, distracting the enemy troops, while other Marines recovered casualties. The small group fought hard, and by 0530, the NVA assault was spent. Hill 861 remained in Marine hands.

Immediately after the failed attempt to take Hill 861, NVA artillery  struck the main Khe Sanh combat base. At 0530, artillery, mortar, and rocket fire smothered the airstrip, surrounding bunkers, and trenches. Rounds hit the Marine artillery area, scoring a direct hit on the generator which powered the  digital fire control computer. But, the Marine batteries continued firing, using manual computations.

Within minutes of the opening salvo, the base ammunition depot, “ASP Number 1,” was hit. It held more than 1500 tons of ammunition. The explosion threw fragments and unexploded rounds through the air, and landed on fighting positions.

The explosion of ASP 1 immediately created a supply shortage. Incoming rounds smashed into the airstrip, ripping apart steel plates, and damaging helicopters. Combined with ammunition explosions, the shelling destroyed a Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, all weather instruments, most of the airstrip’s night lighting, many field telephone lines, bunkers, engineer equipment, generators, the post exchange, and the mess hall.

Nightfall brought no respite for the defenders. At 1950, L Company reported 35 NVA crawling toward its wire near the western end of the airstrip. The Marines opened fire with grenade launchers and light anti-armor weapons (LAAW5). When the action ended an hour later, the North Vietnamese were dragging away casualties, while 14 dead remained on the wire.

During the main base attack,  elements of the 66th Regiment, 304th NVA attacked the village of Khe Sanh. These were defended by the 915th Regional Force Company, including a four-man US Army advisory group. While eventually forced to give up most of the hamlet, defenders established a final perimeter in the headquarters compound. Two relief attempts failed, but the American advisors were evacuated to the main base.

On 22 January, Khe Sanh was the scene of frantic activity. 20 Air Force C-123 sorties delivered another 130 tons of ammunition, as resupply became critical. On 23 January, enemy anti-aircraft fire became a significant threat, with NVA gunners downing a helicopter and a jet fighter in a 20-minute period.

Communist shelling continued, further damaging bunkers, trenches, and the airstrip. The Marines fought back, expending massive quantities of artillery and mortar ammunition in attempts to silence enemy guns. This was very difficult, as NVA gun positions were concealed in dense jungle, visible only when actually firing.

NVA long-range artillery was a real problem for Khe Sanh defenders. The command thought this artillery all fired from Co Roc Mountain. It was southwest of the combat base, across the Laotian border, and outside range of Marine artillery. In addition, aerial bombing was not completely effective, as  these 130-mm guns were in caves, completely camouflaged, and fitted out with rails. The North Vietnamese gunners could roll the guns to the mouth of the cave, fire, and then roll back into the cave for protection. B-52 “Arclight” strikes would quiet these guns for a few hours, but they would resume.

However, there were some positions that the higher command overlooked. Marines on Hill 881 spotted several of these 130-mm guns to the west of their position. Particularly, Corporal

Molimao Nivatoa, a native Samoan blessed with unusually good eyesight, identified these guns using powerful binoculars. Captain Dabney of “I” Company wanted B-52 strikes against these, but his requests were unanswered. However, four guns were hit by Navy and USAF fighter-bombers, guided by a Marine forward air controller, callsign “Southern Oscar,” who was flying a O-1E “Birddog.”

Aerial Photo Khe Sanh

Tactical Airlift and Operation “Niagara”

From the time the decision was made to hold Khe Sanh, its tenability was almost solely dependent upon airpower. The primary defense of Khe Sanh was sustained tactical strikes and B-52 bombing. Without these, the base would have likely fallen.

The Marine and ARVN force at Khe Sanh depended on airlift for its supplies. With the enemy occupying the high ground around it, and ground supply routes severed, Khe Sanh would have become isolated if not for air resupply. Although III MAF had organic airlift capability, it was beyond their capacity to deliver 235 tons/day required. Thus, the 834th Air Division kept the base resupplied, and evacuated the wounded. The 834th AD delivered over 12400 tons of supplies to Khe Sanh. Of this, 8120 tons were airdropped, and 4310 air landed under very hazardous conditions. C-130 and C-123 transport planes were used for this effort.

Operation Niagara Phase I was an massive intelligence collection effort started in January when NVA activity near Khe Sanh became evident. It included CIA roadwatch teams, recon by secret MACV/SOG teams, and aerial photography.

In addition, hundreds of acoustic and seismic sensors were dropped around the combat base. These had been used in Operation Igloo on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The system quickly proved its worth. The night of February 3-4, sensors detected up to 2000 NVA soldiers northwest of the combat base. Artillery fired on that position. The sensors actually “heard” men screaming, and transmitted sounds of troops fleeing their assembly areas. This force was completely annihilated by artillery. It is perhaps the earliest example of a ground attack entirely thwarted after detection by remote sensor data.

Analysis of incoming rocket, mortar and artillery craters determined the likely source of NVA gun positions. Shell/flash reports, infrared imagery, and analysis of intercepted enemy communications were also used to identify targets. This information was used for air missions as well.

The launch for Operation Niagara II was 21 January. Aircraft in the operating area checked in and out with the ABCCC for target/FAC assignment. A C-130 Hercules aircraft served as the ABCCC. (Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center) The exception was Marine aircraft under FAC control in the immediate Khe Sanh area.  (FAC = Forward Air Controller)

The ABCCC coordinated air strikes through the Marine sub-DASC at Khe Sanh, or the airborne DASC if on station. (DASC = Marine Direct Air Support Center)

The 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron (20th TASS) was stationed Danang. These were the forward air controllers, FAC, for Niagara, and flew O-1 Birddogs and O-2 Skymasters. These were single engine planes made by Cessna.

The 7th Air Force Commander and his staff directed SLAM-type operations several days prior to the Tet Holidays.  (SLAM = Seek, Locate, Annihilate, and Monitor) The first day’s operation used 595 tactical strike sorties (7AF, USMC, and USN,) and 49 B-52 sorties.

From 22 through 29 January, over 3000 tactical strike, and 200 B-52 sorties were flown. Bomb damage assessment (BDA) for these strikes was reported as follows: 346 secondary explosions and fires, sixteen trucks destroyed and seveni damaged, 18 gun positions destroyed and three damaged, 29 bunkers 3 destroyed and ten damaged, 181 structures destroyed and 65 damaged, and 241 killed.

Through 31 March, over 24400 tactical strike and 2500 B-52 sorties were flown. This was the greatest sustained concentration of airpower in Vietnam to date. Assets from Operation Rolling Thunder were diverted to Niagara.

The B-52 bombers were mostly from the 4133rd Bomb Wing at Andersen Air Force base in Guam. Typically, they flew from Guam, dropped bombs at Khe Sanh, and continued to U-Tapao airbase in Thailand. The next day, they refuelled, rearmed, flew to Khe Sanh, dropped bombs, and returned to Guam.

Khe Sanh Picture

Outcome and Analysis

Despite strong NVA attacks, outnumbering the 6000 man defenses, Khe Sanh combat base did not fall. The NVA had an estimated force of 20000 troops in the area. This is better than a 3:1 advantage.

Yet, despite continuous shelling, infantry attacks, and anti-aircraft fire, the Marines held on to the combat base.

The villages of Khe Sanh and Special Forces Camp Lang Vei were lost. Many refugees left the area, and created some problems for military planners.

Operation Pegasus was a relief mission launched on 1 April. The 1st Air Cavalry Division moved in to relieve the 26th Marine Regiment at Khe Sanh. They reopened Route 9 between Ca Lu and Khe Sanh. However, in June 1968, MACV decided to abandon Khe Sanh. It was evacuated and dismantled under Operation Charlie.

The NVA/VC confirmed casualties during the main battle through 31 March were 1602 dead, 7 prisoners, and 2 ralliers. However, American intelligence estimates placed this death toll between 10000 to 15000. It is believed that tactical airstrikes and B-52 bombing caused the majority of these. The NVA attack force was severely damaged, and could not continue offensive operations in the coming months.

American and ARVN casualties were 205 killed at Khe Sanh, with 1668 wounded. About half the wounded required evacuation.

The amount of ordinance used was incredible. American aircraft  dropped 103500 tons of bombs, and  artillerymen fired 102660 rounds of various calibers. The NVA fired 10908 rounds of artillery, rockets, and mortars. The difference in artillery firepower alone is striking.

Dien Bien Phu comparisons include intelligence, airpower, and resupply by air. The Americans had very good intelligence prior to the siege. The French intel at Dien Bien Phu was limited.

American airpower was vastly greater than French efforts at Dien Bien Phu. And, despite heavy anti-aircraft gun interference, American resupply was more than sufficient. The French resupply was very poor, and ultimately the DBP defenses lacked ammunition at critical times.

Returning to the question of whether Khe Sanh was a diversion,  some insight was gained through interrogation of Nam Dong. He was a high-ranking Viet Cong cadre, arrested while on his way to a meeting of the Central Office of South Vietnam. (COSVN) Nam Dong told interrogators: (paraphrased)  “The strategy was  different from plans during the war with the French, due to these considerations: (1) France’s military might was relatively weak, while America’s present strength is incomparable; (2) In the War against the French, the victory of Dien Bien Phu was directly instrumental in bringing about the Geneva agreements. No such victories could be expected against the Americans.”

It seems that the NVA did not really expect to capture Khe Sanh. They probably attacked it to check any American drives into Laos, as General Giap suggested. The attacks tied up much US airpower. But, airpower could not be used to any large degree in cities like Hue or Saigon, anyway.

References

“US Marines in Vietnam The Defining Year 1968,” Jack Shulimson, Charles R . Smith, and David A . Dawson

“Khe Sanh Operation Niagara,” CHECO Warren A. Trest

“Operation Niagara: Siege of Khe Sanh,” Peter Brush, Vietnam Magazine

“A Description and Analysis of the Sieges of Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu,” Roger L. Purcell

“The Viet Cong TET Offensive 1968,” Pham Van Son, Le Van Duong, and Nguyen Ngoc Hanh

Campaign Series Vietnam | Comrade Giap's Clever Nuggets

General Vo Nguyen Giap