The II Field Force, Vietnam, tactical command post for Operation CEDAR FALLS opened at 0700 on D-day at Long Binh. Under its direction the twenty battalions allocated to the five brigades of the 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions were ready for Phase II of CEDAR FALLS- the destruction of the enemy forces.
25th Infantry Division
Elements of the 25th Infantry Division's 2d Brigade started its participation in CEDAR FALLS early on 8 January 1967. By 0730 the first contingent of troops had been airlifted to a forward base within five hundred meters of the Saigon River, near its junction with the Thi Tinh, and two kilometers east of Phu Hoa Dong. Enemy resistance was encountered on the second lift and, despite repeated air strikes and artillery barrages, contact continued throughout the afternoon; however, friendly casualties were light. The enemy withdrew under cover of darkness. Two companies of the 2d Brigade now anchored the southeastern flank of the 25th Division. Later Chieu Hoi returnees reported the assault had confronted the battalion headquarters and a company of a battalion of the 165th Regiment, and some sixty Viet Cong had been killed and fifty-five wounded. Documents captured in the area confirmed the presence of this battalion; according to the 2d Brigade's report, "this was the only incident during the entire operation in which the Viet Cong elected to fight." To the northwest of this action, the brigade's other two battalions attacked northeast from Cu Chi through the Filhol Plantation and by nightfall were in position at the edge of the plantation, four to five hundred meters south of the Saigon River.
To the northwest of the 2d Brigade's positions, the 196th Brigade continued its search of the Ho Bo woods, uncovering a small quantity of enemy supplies.
The anvil was in position.
1st Infantry Division
To the east, General Deane's task force remained in blocking positions along the eastern leg of the Iron Triangle. All that remained was to position the hammer forces, the 173d Brigade (Task Force DEANE) and the 3d Brigade of the "Big Red One."
Task Force DEANE officially joined Operation CEDAR FALLS at 0800 on D-day with its headquarters located near Ben Cat. Two of its battalions were lifted by helicopter from Bien Hoa to Phu Loi and then to Position BLUE, a staging area ten kilometers east of the triangle. On D-day the 11th Armored Cavalry (Blackhorse) Regiment, commanded by Colonel William W. Cobb, came under the operational control of the 1st Division and subsequently under Task Force DEANE at 1200. The cavalry had closed its trains and headquarters in a staging area north of Phu Loi at about midnight the previous day. The 3d Squadron of the 11th had moved from its base camp at Long Giao to a forward assembly area just east of the junction of the Saigon and Thi Tinh Rivers, the last element arriving at 2315 on D minus 1.
The 3d Brigade (the "Iron" Brigade), commanded by Colonel Sidney M. ("Mickey") Marks, moved its forces to staging areas at Lai Khe and Dau Tieng without incident. The hammer was raised awaiting the next day, D plus 1.
Meanwhile, to the northwest of the Ho Bo woods the 1st Division's 2d Brigade under the command of Colonel James A. "Alex" Grimsley had launched the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander M. Haig), by air assault into the village of Ben Suc. (Map 7)
Ben Suc Village
Ensuring the dominance of the Viet Cong in the Iron Triangle area was the village of Ben Suc, located in a loop of the Saigon River at the far northwest corner of the triangle. It was an enemy controlled village, a fortified supply and political center, and the hub of an area estimated to contain approximately six thousand persons. The village had been under firm enemy control since at least 1964 when a South Vietnamese battalion was driven out by the enemy. Before that, the government's influence had been tenuous at best. The central organization for the Viet Cong's Long Nguyen secret base was located in and operated from Ben Suc. The people of the village were organized into four rear service companies. One company moved rice and other supplies in sampans on the Saigon
River. A second company unloaded these supplies. The two remaining companies stored the materiel in and around the village or in the nearby jungle. Just as the Iron Triangle was the key to Viet Cong influence in Saigon-Gia Dinh, so was Ben Suc the key to Viet Cong control of the Iron Triangle. This fact was well known to the province chief of Binh Duong, who for some months had been urging a military operation against the village.
Because of its importance to the enemy, Ben Suc had been marked for attention at the outset of Operation Cedar Falls. It was necessary to take this village and deny the enemy its future use; it was to be totally evacuated and destroyed. All inhabitants and their possessions-livestock, food, furnishings-were to be moved as humanely as possible to a government operated relocation camp at Phu Cuong and ultimately resettled in another area. It was estimated that nearly 3,500 persons lived in Ben Suc and another 2,500 in the vicinity, most of whom lived in the three villages of Rach Kien, Bung Cong, and Rach Bap along the northern edge of the triangle. These villages were also to be evacuated.
The perimeter of Ben Suc was expected to be heavily mined and booby trapped. Viet Cong units reported in the area included the 7th Battalion, 165th Viet Cong Regiment, and the 61st Local Force Company.
This attack had to be a swift, decisive strike directly into the enemy stronghold, not the methodical probing technique used in previous operations. A plan for a massive assault by helicopter into the village itself was visualized-over four hundred men and sixty helicopters simultaneously-total surprise! There would be no preparatory fires. The air assault, placing one reinforced infantry battalion inside the village within a minimum time, would quickly seal the village. Further landings would bring in support troops and artillery as well as troops to initiate search and interrogation; the orderly evacuation of the inhabitants would follow, and, finally, the village would be destroyed.
The Initial Assault
The sight of sixty helicopters flying in formation and zooming into Ben Suc at treetop level was one which none who witnessed will ever forget. Here is the way it was described by Staff Sergeant Frank P; Castro, writing in the 28 January 1967 issue of the 1st Division paper, The American Traveler:
In the early morning hours, January 8, people in Ben Suc Village went calmly about their tasks. At exactly 8 a.m., total confusion erupted. The once-clear sky filled with 60 helicopters. The choppers swooped in, allow-
ing division soldiers to unload and begin a seal of the village. Minutes later the sky was filled again as the aircraft vanished as quickly as they had appeared.
Planning of this dramatic air mission was assigned to the 1st Aviation Battalion on 5 January. Major Nick J. Primis was the battalion operations officer. He explained: "We were faced with a multitude of problems. We had to lift an entire infantry battalion in addition to an attached company from Dau Tieng to Ben Suc and we were supposed to put the battalion on the ground at exactly 8 a.m. Further, the element of surprise was in our hands. Nothing-artillery, airstrikes or gunships-was to hit the area until after we had put the troops on the ground. This was the first time that we were going to land in a town."
The aviation battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Algin S. Hawkins and his staff prepared maps, photo mosaics, operations orders, and photo obliques, picked routes in and out of the village, and timed the mission to the second.
Each flight leader had clear, detailed pictures of his landing zone thanks to Major Cecil O. Carlile, the Aerial Surveillance and Target Acquisition Platoon commander, who flew a Mohawk airplane over Ben Suc, photographing the entire area from 6,000 feet.
At 6:00 A.M. in pitch darkness, sixty "slicks" (troop carriers) and ten gun ships began arriving at the Dau Tieng airstrip. Sergeant Alton B. Pinkney was a pathfinder with the 1st Aviation Battalion. His jobs included the marking of landing zones, directing aircraft to and from loading areas, and supervising loading. On January 8th he stood on the airstrip armed with a large flashlight and two batonlike lights; twenty aircraft hovered overhead awaiting his guidance to land. When the ships were finally loaded, Pinkney recalled, "They lifted off beautifully, but once they were airborne I wondered: How in the hell are they going to get those ships lined up?"
By 7:25 the night was orbiting Dau Tieng. The helicopters slipped over, under, and around each other as pilots jockeyed their craft into position less than fifty feet from the chopper in front. They had twenty minutes to form into two "V" formations, with three flights of ten choppers in each.
The nineteen-mile route plotted by Colonel Hawkins ran almost due south from Dau Tieng over the dense Boi Loi jungle and then curved sharply to the east. So well timed was the trip that at one point the aviators passed a control point just fifteen seconds ahead of schedule; a slight change in heading put them back on time. At a road junction near Suoi Cau (the third control point in the route), the ships turned east and dropped to treetop level. They skimmed along at about eighty-five miles an hour, heading toward another control point and Ben Suc.
At the highway release point, the pilots spotted smoke tossed by path-finders, cut left, hopped over the Cachua Forestry Reserve (at the south-eastern tip of the Boi Loi Woods) at over 100 miles an hour and swarmed into Ben Suc.
Flying a gunship, Major George B. Fish, from the 1st Aviation Battalion, zoomed over the trees to mark three key landing zones while the main flight was one minute out.
His crew chief recalled, "We were flying in one area when I heard over the radio 'Rebel 36, go in for the mark.' We went in at low level at about
eighty-five miles an hour. We received fire from a bunker and returned it. . . . It didn't fire anymore. . . . And you look out to see a whole bunch of choppers . . . you see a fantastic mess. . . . beautifully coordinated and planned."
Major Robert E. Oberg, Commanding Officer of D Troop, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, and Captain William B. Owens were orbiting south of the Cachua Reserve leading "choppers" loaded with light infantry fire teams-"Eagle Flights." They followed the troop carriers into Ben Suc and blocked to the south, ultimately accounting for five enemy killed, two prisoners, and thirty sampans destroyed.
Major Donald A. Ice, the commander of A Company, led his flight over the jungle and along the river to a landing zone in the northeast corner of Ben Suc. "As we flew along the river our skids were almost in the water," he recalled. "Then we jumped a beeline, flared up and popped into the landing zone. I had to push Vietnamese out of the zone. They didn't know what was happening."
The choppers touched down simultaneously in landing zones to the west, north, and east of the town while the "Eagle Flight" guarded the south. In less than one and one half minutes an entire infantry battalion, some 420 men, was on the ground.
Some small arms fire was received but was quickly suppressed. The troops occupied blocking positions primarily to prevent movement out of the village. At 0805, preplanned artillery and air strikes were directed into the woods north of the village to discourage the use of those escape routes. At 0830 more troops were landed to the south of the village as a blocking force on that potential escape route. The village was sealed.
Just after the assault ships had departed, helicopters with loudspeakers and South Vietnamese Army announcers aboard circled the village at low altitude and broadcast the following message:
Attention people of Ben Suc. You are surrounded by Republic of South Vietnam and allied forces. Do not run away or you will be shot as VC. Stay in your homes and wait for further instructions.
The inhabitants were then further instructed to go immediately to the old schoolhouse.
Most of the villagers followed the instructions; those who attempted to evade and leave the village were engaged by the blocking forces. Adjacent rivers were patrolled for any escapees. Tactical surprise was almost complete; the enemy was unable to offer any cohesive resistance to the landing.
By 1030, 8 January, Ben Suc was securely in the hands of the friendly forces and the 2d Brigade command post had been established in the Village. During the two and one half hours since the initial landing, a total of forty enemy had been killed in action, with only light friendly casualties.
Company A, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, was one of the first units on the ground and quickly formed up after clearing its landing zone. As the point squad moved forward from the landing zone toward its designated blocking position, tragedy struck. Two command-detonated claymore mines exploded and two men fell. A large booby trap mounted in a tree exploded and its fragments downed two more men. The squad had wandered into an enemy minefield. Staff Sergeant Ernest Williams of San Francisco, California, rushed forward to set up security for the wounded and to get them medical aid. The platoon medical corpsman was injured when he stepped on an antipersonnel mine while trying to aid the wounded. Specialist Four Astor Rogers of Chicago, Illinois, another medic, hurried forward. When enemy sniper fire began coming in on his position, Sergeant Williams brought his men on line and laid down a base of fire in coordination with his platoon leader. "Through enemy fire and a heavy mine field these men functioned with total disregard for their own lives and safety," said
Captain Rudolf Egersdorfer, Company A commander. "They are a credit to the unit."
After the village was sealed and the troops had consolidated their positions, a South Vietnamese battalion was airlanded into Ben Suc to search the village and interrogate the villagers. (It was no coincidence that the South Vietnamese battalion selected was the same one which had been driven out of Ben Suc in 1964.) The search uncovered a number of tunnel and bunker complexes in which the South Vietnamese forces engaged the enemy sporadically for some three days and nights. In the destruction of these facilities, the South Vietnamese forces were assisted by the division chemical section tunnel team, attached to the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry. The team was successful in using a new technique in tunnel destruction. After demolition charges had been strung through out the tunnel system, the entrances were sealed and acetylene was pumped in and ignited throughout the system by the charges; this process rendered the tunnel useless and destroyed anything left inside.
As the methodical search by South Vietnamese forces continued, under some houses were discovered as many as three levels of carefully concealed storage rooms. Great stores of rice of high quality were found. Just outside the village, searchers turned up a large cache of enemy medical supplies, including surgical instruments and 800,000 vials of penicillin. Of the more than 7,500 enemy uniforms found during CEDAR FALLS, many were uncovered at Ben Suc.
The civilians were interrogated and classified into appropriate categories. Interrogation was conducted by the 1st Republic of Vietnam Military Intelligence Detachment and members of the S-2 section of the 2d Brigade, 1st U.S. Infantry Division. All males between the ages of 15 and 45 were segregated for further questioning while other villagers were instructed and assisted in their preparations for evacuation. Since the inhabitants of Ben Suc had not received medical assistance for three years and were in only fair health, South Vietnamese and U.S. medical teams examined them and provided medical and dental care as they awaited interrogation.
Following the interrogations and screening, 106 individuals were detained; of these, 28 were classified as Viet Cong. Most of them were local Viet Cong who had virtually no information and were of little intelligence value. However, a Viet Cong platoon leader of Group 83-the major unit in the area-was captured. His platoon transported rice in the general area around Ben Suc. Among the well dressed individuals picked up at Ben Suc were
some high-ranking political and propaganda cadres from Hanoi. Included in the group was a mathematics professor educated at Peking University who was caught trying to escape through the rice paddies on the south of the village.
Although the responsibility for evacuating the inhabitants of Ben Suc and the villages on the northern edge of the triangle fell to the South Vietnamese, assistance on the U.S. side came under the control of Major Robert L. Schweitzer, commander of the 1st Division Revolutionary Development task force. (Major Schweitzer was familiarly referred to by his radio call sign, "Helper 6.") It was to be expected that uprooting the natives of these villages would evoke resentment, and it did. They had lived under and with the Viet Cong and had supported them for the past three years; nor was it easy for the natives to give up their homes and the land they had been working. The villagers were permitted to take with them anything they could carry, pull, or herd, to include their water buffalo. What they could not take was retrieved by the U.S. and South Vietnamese troops and returned to the natives at the relocation center. A total of 5,987 persons was evacuated (582 men, 1,651 women, and 3,754 children). Also moved to the relocation site were 247 water buffalo, 225 head of cattle, 158 oxcarts, and 60 tons of rice.
When the evacuation commenced there was no usable road into Ben Suc. Even though the engineers set about repairing the road from Rach Bap to Ben Suc over which supplies and evacuees were later moved, initially evacuation was by South Vietnamese Navy boats and U.S. Chinook helicopters. As pathetic and pitiful as was the sight of the natives of Ben Suc with their carts, chickens, hogs, rice, and all else waiting to be transported to the temporary camp at Phu Cuong, there were still moments of humor, even for the evacuees. For example, a handful of soldiers tried unsuccessfully to get a huge-and dangerous-water buffalo loaded onto a boat, only to be embarrassed when the 11-year old buffalo driver appeared and talked his animal on board. There was even one occasion when a search was made throughout the relocation camp for a particular buffalo driver whose assistance was needed back at the loading site at Ben Suc.
At one point in the evacuation, a sow became separated from her twelve pigs as they were being loaded on one of the giant Chinook helicopters. She loudly made her loss known. General DePuy, who happened to stop by the loading site and learned of the mishap, instructed: "I want that sow reunited with her pigs before nightfall." Before long, Helper 6 had the sow on her way to the relocation camp.
Many difficulties were faced during the evacuation of the populace. However., they were relatively few and small in comparison with those problems facing the members of the U.S. Office of Civil Operations who were charged with assisting the South Vietnamese in preparing and operating the relocation center. As General Westmoreland has stated: "Unfortunately, the resettlement phase was not as well planned or executed as the actual evacuation. For the first several days the families suffered unnecessary hardships." Part of the problem resulted from the security measures taken during the planning phase. Thanks to the immediate assistance of a task force from the Big Red One under Major Carl R. Grantham, latrines were dug, wood and water were made available, a buffalo wallow was dug and filled with water, a cattle enclosure was built, dozens of Arctic tents were pitched, and hardships were eased for the displaced families.
On 10 January 1967, the South Vietnamese 1st Airborne Task Force of two battalions arrived at Ben Suc with the mission of relieving the U.S. battalion of its responsibilities in sealing the village. Further, the task force was to assist in securing and screening the populace of Ben Suc and nearby villages. At this time the South Vietnamese battalion already at Ben Suc was attached to the airborne task force. With the continuing, systematic evacuation of Ben Suc under the control of South Vietnamese forces, and with the village seal taken over by the South Vietnamese task force, U.S. 1st Division troops were freed for deployment into other areas of the CEDAR FALLS operation. All that remained for 1st Division troops was the razing of Ben Suc after its inhabitants had been removed.
As the villagers and their belongings moved out, bulldozers, tankdozers, and demolition teams moved in. Since Ben Suc was not yet totally deserted, the initial dozers set about clearing a scrub jungle area in the southwest corner of the village known by the troops as the briar patch. As Colonel Kiernan, commanding officer of the 1st Engineer Battalion, recalled:
. . . . I guess it was about twenty acres of scrub jungle. . . . The place was so infested with tunnels that as my dozers would knock over the stumps of trees, the VC would pop out from behind the dozers. We captured about . . . six or eight VC one morning. They just popped out of the tunnels and we picked them up. . . . After the civilians were taken from the town, we went through and methodically knocked down the homes . . . tunnels were throughout the whole area. . . .
The bulldozers moved through the former Viet Cong stronghold and razed the structures to the ground, crushing ruins, collapsing tunnels, and obliterating bunkers and underground
storage rooms. When the village had been flattened by the engineers, there was yet one more blow to be dealt to Ben Suc by Colonel Kiernan's professionals. A large cavity was scooped out near the center of the area, filled with ten thousand pounds of explosives-many no longer usable in normal operations, covered, tamped, and then set off by a chemical fuze within minutes of the predicted time of detonation. The hope was that the blast might crush any undiscovered tunnels in the village.
One of the major objectives of Operation CEDAR FALLS had been achieved; the village of Ben Suc no longer existed. What about the hammer operation-had it swung and with what effect?
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