In Uncle Ho’s Hideout series, David Galster shares some of his tips and techniques in scenario research and design for CS: Vietnam.
There were many US attempts to use ground forces for reconnaissance to disrupt the trail. This issue discusses these efforts and their effectiveness.
In the early period of Yankee Team, General Westmoreland realized difficulties in aerial reconnaissance as monsoon weather promised to obscure visibility, and altitude restrictions reduced photo resolution. Ground surveillance was the only way, he believed, to detect Communist positions, supply areas, and infiltration movements with precision.
With the Laotian neutrality treaty in effect, MACV had to rely on local Laotians or Vietnamese for scouting, and supply them with logistic support. “Leaping Lena” became the program. The Phase I scenario would parachute radio-equipped teams into landing areas by unmarked VNAF-piloted aircraft. The teams were expected to remain in enemy territory up to thirty days, observing in daytime, moving at night, and reporting observations by radio. They could request aerial resupply if necessary, and depart on foot or by helicopter. After studying their intelligence, MACV would launch Phase II cross-border operations to disrupt NVA lines of communication.
The first team was airdropped 24 June 1964, and three more the next day, finally the fifth on 2 July. One team got lost and never communicated, the second was captured when it landed in an enemy-held village, and three remained in radio contact until July 9 when all communications ceased. Only six of the forty paratroopers succeeded in returning on foot to South Vietnam, bringing back low-level intelligence of little value. The first mission was a total failure.
Evidently, the teams got no assistance from the local populace, who feared reprisals. But MACV staff thought the teams did not make bold penetrations due to lack of leadership and discipline. The airdrops by unmarked aircraft, flown by VNAF pilots were considered unsatisfactory.
Washington officials thought these initial problems could be overcome, and approved a second operation beginning 1 August. US jumpmasters would accompany each VNAF aircraft. But, personnel problems continued and the operation was cancelled.
Months went by with discussions and disagreements over how to conduct ground surveillance. Political ramifications of violating Laotian neutrality was the main issue.
A new program, “Shining Brass,” was conceived in March 1965. It called for US and South Vietnamese Special Forces, with USAF support, to make trail incursions. The aim would be to collect hard intelligence on infiltration, designate targets for air strikes, and harass the enemy. Westmoreland considered the capability of the tribal roadwatch teams in Laos, already engaged in intelligence collecting and targeting, too limited. He observed that the teams were assigned to just a few key areas, furnished very little data on fixed enemy targets, and did not reconnoiter Lao territory contiguous to South Vietnam.
When Steel Tiger operations continued into October 1965, MACV’s long-planned Shining Brass concept was approved. Shining Brass teams accompanied by US advisers would enter Laos by land from Dak To and Dak Prou. Initial team penetrations into Laos would not exceed 20 km. Helicopters were to be used solely for ferrying in additional needed personnel, and for resupply and evacuation. Only USAF BANGO F-4 Phantoms on strip alert should be called for airstrikes. The JCS requested a forty-eight hour advance notice of launch, plus progress, and final reports.
Three training missions came first. Each team, composed of three to six US Army and eleven South Vietnamese Special Forces were airlifted into designated locations by two VNAF CH-34 helicopters from Kham Duc, just inside South Vietnam. Reconnoitering their areas, the teams found ample evidence of Viet Cong presence: food, supply caches, bivouac areas, buildings, personnel, and trails. When one team called for a strike, USAF aircraft quickly hit targets selected by the team and marked by an airborne USAF FAC. The results were deemed “excellent” with buildings and storage caches destroyed. The coordination between ground and airborne FACs and between an airborne FAC and the strike aircraft also proved highly satisfactory.
The first “live” operation of Shining Brass was 18 October. Eleven South Vietnamese and several US Army advisers to a landing zone 4 km from the designated target area. An Air Force FAC forward air controller and two USAF strike aircraft orbited nearby. Scouting on foot, the team found an extensive encampment and supply storage base. During a brief skirmish with Communist troops, the South Vietnamese scout leader was killed. Nonetheless, the Shining Brass unit stayed in the target area three more days. During this time, the team made several requests for air strikes, but weather canceled all air operations in the vicinity until November.
The NVA appeared to have firm control of the area, and support of local Montagnards. So, MACV ordered a large-scale Steel Tiger attack on team-designated target areas. Thirty-eight USAF F-4Cs and F-105s from Thailand attacked with a FAC supporting. Half of the bombs of sixteen aircraft were fuzed for delayed explosions upwards to thirty-six hours. Strike pilots observed numerous fireballs and explosions, and the FAC pilot reported many of the enemy were killed.
Trees and jungle foliage, however, obscured most of the results. Bomb damage assessment eventually confirmed some destruction in about ten percent of the target area including six underground bunkers. Photos revealed eight nearby bunkers remained undamaged. Ambassador Sullivan, who had not been enthusiastic about Shining Brass, now informed Washington that initial operations were “a good beginning.” As tactics were perfected, he said the incursions promised to make the Laotian panhandle “rather uncomfortable for the Viets.” A second mission was similarly successful. MACV’s Shining Brass teams launched many more ground reconnaissance probes into the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Eventually, Laotian Military Regions III and IV developed “roadwatch” teams in areas near the Bolevens Plateau, and the Saravan area. These coordinated well with SPOOKY gunship truck-busting operations. Ultimately, they observed enemy depots and parking areas, and gained intelligence through tapping NVA telephone lines. The teams ambushed and destroyed enemy trucks, ammunition, and gasoline drums. They also planted anti-tank mines along the trail, and photographed destroyed trucks.
Saravan was a major city and crossroads within the trail network. Until 1970 however, the NVA was bypassed it, and did not challenge the Royal Laotian Battalion (BV 41,) and its three attached armored-car platoons garrisoned there. But in late 1970, two NVA battalions attacked, and captured the city. It became a Truong Son headquarters for Base Area 612.
In fall 1971, Laos retook it during Operation “Sayasila.” Later that year, at the beginning of the dry season, the NVA recaptured it. The 10th Rifle Battalion, of the 39th Regiment, 968th Division occupied it.
Again in the fall of 1972, Laotian Military Region IV retook Saravan in Operation Black Lion using GMs 41 and 42. It began with the NVA 968th Division dry season campaign, which involved a two-pronged thrust. The 39th Regiment struck south from its position at Khong Sedone on the Se Done (Xekong) River, while the 9th Regiment advanced west along Route 23.
The NVA objective was to menace Pakse. However, with CIA advice and assistance, the Royal Laotian Army launched a highly effective spoiling operation, Black Lion IV, in October 1972. Two irregular “Groups Mobile” (GM’s 41 and 42) were inserted by helicopter into the Saravan area over a three-day period.
The operation caught the NVA by surprise. Only the 10th NVA Rifle Battalion defended Saravan. GM 42 air-landed west of the Saravan airstrip, unfortunately near the NVA 39th Regiment training area. After considerable difficulty, half of the GM landed, and secured the airstrip. By the time the strip was secure, several helicopters were hit, and were unable to continue. Fortunately, Air America continued the lift until the entire GM 42 was in the landing zone. With the loss of the helicopters, the airlift of GM 41 was delayed a couple of days.
Despite setbacks, Black Lion IV effectively aborted the NVA 968th Division dry season plans. The 9th and 39th Regiments were forced to wheel around from their forward positions, and move 75 km back to recapture Saravan.
Various Rejected Plans to “Isolate the Battlefield”
As early as March 1965, the US Military had many discussions on how to best block the Ho Chi Minh trail. The Army’s solution was to “isolate the battlefield” by inserting a corps of three to five U.S. divisions across South Vietnam and the Laotian panhandle to the Mekong River. John McNaughton, Assistant Secretary of Defense, predicted the rejection of such advice by higher authorities unless convinced that victory could not be won any other way.
Vietnamese General Cao Van Vien was promoted to Chief of the Joint General Staff (JGS) in October 1965. With this appointment, Vien was considered by American observers to be one of the most powerful people in the government. Vien was a strategic thinker and reformer as JGS Chief.
In 1965, he proposed invading Laos and establishing a defensive line across the southern portion of that country in order to cut off the Viet Cong’s flow of supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail. Vien met with President Johnson in February 1966 to discuss the plan, but Johnson refused to authorize US military support for the campaign and it never went forward.
General Westmoreland considered Khe Sanh important, but reasons changed through the course of the war. Intelligence was the primary reason for holding Khe Sanh in 1964. In fact, recon forces there were first to confirm that Main Force NVA units were operating inside South Vietnam.
By 1966, Westmoreland thought of Khe Sanh as part of a larger strategy. “I still hoped some day to get approval for a major drive into Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” he said, “in which case I would need Khe Sanh as the base for the operation.”
In a meeting with Lt. Gen. Lewis Walt, commander of III Marine Amphibious Force (MAF), Westmoreland said that he placed great strategic importance on Khe Sanh. He believed it was absolutely essential to hold the base, which explains why he ordered Marines there. In September 1966, MACV began detailed planning for an invasion into Laos, and in October an airfield was built.
In April 1967, two strategic options were pitched to President Johnson: one by Westmoreland, to enter Laos; and one by adviser Walt Rostow, to invade North Vietnam just above the DMZ. Although both were rejected, Westmoreland never gave up hope, and from August to October he upgraded the airfield at Khe Sanh so that it could serve as the advance base for a Laotian invasion. As soon as the airfield reopened, he began to stockpile supplies for the invasion. But, the US had no political will to “isolate the battlefield,” and block the Ho Chi Minh trail with a fortified line in Laos.
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.
MACV Commander General Creighton Abrams felt pressured by Nixon through an NSA aide, Colonel Alexander Haig. Haig later wrote the military “lacked enthusiasm,” and that “prodded remorselessly by Nixon and Kissinger,” the Pentagon finally began the planning. Other potential benefits were discussed. Admiral John S. McCain (CINCPAC) advised Admiral Thomas Moorer, JCS Chairman, that an offensive against the Ho Chi Minh Trail might compel Souvanna Phouma, “to abandon the guise of neutrality and enter the war openly.”
On the South Vietnamese side, operation command, control, and coordination would prove to problematic. President Nguyen Van Thieu assigned General Hoang Xuan Lam to lead the operation. But, in the highly politicized South Vietnamese command structure, Lt. General Le Nguyen Khang, Marine Corps commander and protege of Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, outranked General Lam, Similarly, Lt. General Du Quoc Dong, Airborne Commander, outranked Lam also. After the operation began, both men remained in Saigon, and delegated their authority to junior officers rather than take orders from Lam.
MACV began planning for an attack against NVA Base Areas 604 and 611 in early January 1971. The task was assigned to Lt. General James W. Sutherland, XXIV Corps commander. He was given only nine days to submit a plan for approval.
Individual units did not learn about their planned participation until mid-January. The ARVN Airborne Division received no detailed plans until 2 February, less than a week before the campaign planned to begin on 8 February. This was of crucial importance, since many of the units, particularly the Airborne and the Marines, had worked as separate battalions, and were not experienced in maneuvering in adjoining areas. Lack of adequate time for planning and preparation, as well as absence of any questions about operational reality and ARVN capability would prove disastrous.
MACV kicked off their part of the operation, called “Dewey Canyon II” on 30 January. The armor and engineer elements of 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division headed west on Route 9 while the infantry were heli-lifted into Khe Sanh. By 5 February, Route 9 was secured to the Laotian border. Simultaneously, the 101st Airborne Division began a feint into the A Shau Valley in order to draw NVA attention away from Khe Sanh.
At the combat base, poor weather, obstacles, land mines, and unexploded ordnance delayed airstrip rehabilitation a week behind schedule. The first aircraft arrived on 15 February.
After a massive preliminary artillery bombardment and B-52 Stratofortress missions, the ARVN attack began on 8 February, when a 4000-man ARVN armor/infantry task force consisting of the 3rd Armored Brigade and the 1st and 8th Airborne Battalions, advanced west unopposed along Route 9.
This operation was named “Lam Son 719.” This was for the village of Lam Son, birthplace of legendary Vietnamese patriot Le Loi, who defeated an invading Chinese army in 1427. The numerical designation came from the year, 1971, and the main axis of the attack, Route 9.
To cover the northern flank, ARVN Airborne and Ranger elements were deployed to the north of the main advance. The South Vietnamese 39th Ranger Battalion was heli-lifted into a Landing Zone (LZ) “Ranger North,” while the 21st Ranger Battalion moved into Ranger South. These outposts acted as “tripwires” for any communist advances.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Airborne Battalion occupied Fire Support Base (FSB) 30, while the 3rd Airborne Brigade Headquarters and the 3rd Airborne Battalion went into FSB 31 Troops of the 1st Infantry Division simultaneously combat assaulted into LZs Blue, Don, White, and Brown and FSBs Hotel, Delta, and Delta 1, covering the southern flank of the main advance.
The ARVN central column advanced down the valley of the Se Pone River, a relatively flat area of brush, interspersed with patches of jungle, and dominated by heights to its north, and the river and more mountains to the south. Almost immediately, supporting helicopters took fire from the heights, where NVA gunners fired down on the aircraft from pre-registered machine gun and mortar positions.
Worse still, Route 9 was in poor condition. Only tracked vehicles and jeeps could traverse it. This put the burden of reinforcement and resupply onto the helicopters. And, this logistical support role was made increasingly more dangerous by low cloud cover and incessant anti-aircraft fire.
The armored task force secured Route 9 all the way to Ban Dong (known to the Americans as A Luoi), 20 kilometers inside Laos, and approximately halfway to Tchepone. By 11 February, A Luoi had become the central fire base and command center. The plan then called for a quick ground thrust to secure the main objective, but South Vietnamese forces stalled at A Loui. They waited on orders to proceed from General Lam. Two days later, Generals Abrams and Sutherland flew to Lam’s forward command post at Dong Ha in order to speed up the timetable.
The NVA countered by isolating the northern firebases from air resupply by anti-aircraft guns. (AA) The outposts were then pounded by round-the-clock mortar, artillery, and rocket fire. Although ARVN firebases had artillery, their 105 Howitzers were quickly outraged by Soviet-supplied 122mm and 130mm pieces. They simply stood off at distance, and pounded the positions at will. The defensive edge that might be provided by tactical B-52 bomber strikes was nullified by close-in tactics of the communist forces. Massed ground attacks, supported by artillery and armor would then finish the job.
On February 18, NVA forces attacked Ranger North with the 102nd Regiment, (308th Division) supported by PT-76 and T-54 tanks. Although ARVN units held though the night, their 39th Battalion was reduced from 500 to 323 men, and the commander ordered a retreat to the south. Only 109 survivors reached Ranger South.
Similarly, the NVA shifted attacks to Ranger South where ARVN troops held for two days before General Lam ordered them to fight their way to FSB 30.
On 23 February, the NVA attacked FSB Hotel 2, south of Route 9. It was evacuated the following day.
FSB 31 was next to come under heavy attack. NVA AA fire made resupply of the base impossible. Airborne Division commander General Dong ordered the 17th Armored Squadron to advance north from A Loui to reinforce the base. The force never arrived, due to conflicting orders from Generals Lam and Dong.
On 25 February the NVA deluged the base with artillery fire, and then launched a armored/infantry assault. Smoke, dust and haze hindered observation by forward air control (FAC) aircraft, which was flying above 4000 feet to avoid AA fire. When a U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom jet was shot down in the area, the FAC left the area of the battle to direct a rescue effort for the downed aircraft crew, sealing the fate of the base. NVA troops and tanks then overran the position, capturing the ARVN brigade commander in the process.
FSB 31 lasted only a week longer. In the five days between 25 February,and 1 March, three major engagements took place. With the help of air strikes, ARVN destroyed 17 PT-76 and six T-54 tanks at a loss of three of its five M41 tanks and 25 armored personnel carriers. (APC) On 3 March, the South Vietnamese column encountered a NVA battalion without supporting armor and, with the assistance of B-52 strikes, killed 400.
During each of the above mentioned attacks, Communist forces suffered horrendous casualties from aircraft and helicopter attacks, artillery bombardment, and small arms fire. However, they continued attacking with professional competence and determination. The North Vietnamese managed move 35000 troops into the battle area. This included three infantry divisions, (2nd, 304th, 308th), the 64th Regiment of the 320th Division, and two independent infantry regiments (27th and 28th), eight regiments of artillery, three engineer regiments, three tank battalions, six AA battalions, and eight sapper battalions.
To save face, President Thieu and General Lam launched an airborne assault on Tchepone itself. Elements of the 1st Division were heli-lifted into firebases Lolo and Sophia and LZ Liz, all south of Route 9. Eleven helicopters were shot down, and another 44 damaged as they carried one battalion into FSB Lolo. Three days later, 276 UH-1 helicopters protected by Cobra gunships and fighter aircraft, lifted the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 2nd Regiment from Khe Sanh to Tchepone – the largest helicopter assault of the Vietnam War. Only one helicopter was downed by AA fire as the troops combat assaulted into LZ Hope, four kilometers northeast of Tchepone. For two days these battalions searched Tchepone and the immediate vicinity, but found little but the bodies of NVA soldiers killed by air strikes.
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.
The US, South Vietnam, and Laos made many attempts to use ground forces for reconnaissance
to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail. The major Lam Son 719 operation came late in the war, and was not very successful. The trail was not blocked, and North Vietnamese supplies and troops continued to flow. The US did not have the political will to block the trail with troops and fortifications. The air war, aided by ground reconnaisance, was insufficient.
“Operation Lam Son 719,” Wikipedia