The war in Vietnam is as highly complex as any in our country's history. It is a war with no front, no rear. There is often no easily identifiable enemy. The Communists deny that there are any North Vietnamese in the south. Those from the south live among the very persons they threaten. At the same time we engage multi-battalion forces we also fight against individual guerrilla bands numbering but a few men. (Map 1)
We have been facing a Communist aggressor whose avowed objective is to gain control of the government, the land, and the peoples of South Vietnam. We have agreed to support the South Vietnamese against the enemy in order to buy time for the south, time in which the people can prepare to defend themselves and to shape their own destiny.
We are engaged in a conflict in which we are allied with forces whose approach to life is different from ours and whose history goes back centuries before ours. Using sophisticated weapons in the hands of tough, well-trained American soldiers, we, along with our allies, have been fighting a dedicated and disciplined enemy in South Vietnam who employs no air power, little naval effort, and comparatively few mechanized vehicles. Yet he has forced us, the most powerful nation in the world, to fight the longest war in our history.
This monograph concerns two operations conducted in early 1967 which marked a turning point in this conflict from the view-point of the tide of battle and tactical doctrine. The conditions which led to this turning point had been developing over the years from the time of the withdrawal of the French from Indochina in 1954 until Operation ATTLEBORO in late 1966.
At the outset of this twelve-year period the United States endorsed the new Geneva Accords and offered, through President Dwight D. Eisenhower, "to assist the Government of Vietnam in developing and maintaining a strong, viable state, capable of resisting attempted subversion or aggression through military means" in the hope "that such aid, combined with . . . continuing efforts, will contribute effectively toward an independent Vietnam endowed with a strong government." From this commitment stems our involvement in South Vietnam.
Following this commitment by our Commander in Chief in
October 1954, the U.S. involvement in South Vietnam grew: a Military Assistance Advisory Group (later becoming the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) to organize, train, and equip the armed forces of South Vietnam was established; helicopter companies to support the Vietnamese Army were deployed; combat and logistical airlift support was provided to South Vietnamese forces; Special Forces detachments were introduced, followed by the 5th Special Forces Group; U.S. tactical aircraft were deployed to South Vietnam and used in close air support; B-52 bombers were employed; and the deployment to South Vietnam of U.S. Army and Marine ground forces along with supporting air and naval forces was accelerated commencing in mid-1965. By the end of 1966 U.S. military forces in South Vietnam numbered 385,000 men.
Necessitating this increasing commitment of U.S. forces and resources to South Vietnam between 1954 and 1966 was the concomitant growth in the size and quality of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces in the south. The Communist Viet Minh had left many cadres in the south in 1954 which were grouped into a political-paramilitary organization under orders of Hanoi. This organization, known as the Viet Cong, was infused with large numbers of "regroupees" who had gone north between 1954-1955, received intensive political and military training, and returned to the south as cadres and leaders for the Viet Cong units and infrastructure. Pursuing initially a policy of subversion, espionage, and terror, this organization would turn to intensified guerrilla warfare, culminating in the employment of large military units. By 1960 some battalion-size units had been formed, and in later years Viet Cong military activity was conducted more and more by larger forces. By 1964 regular North Vietnamese Army units were starting to be deployed into South Vietnam to begin what Hanoi anticipated would be the final and decisive phase of the war. In that same year the enemy began to convert from weapons of various calibers and origins to a standard family of small arms. By the end of 1966 the total combat strength of the enemy was over 280,000 plus an additional 80,000 political cadre.
Tying together the various elements of the insurgency in South Vietnam was the Lao Dong (Worker's) Party regional committee for South Vietnam-the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN). All the various elements of the Communist organization in the south, military and civil, were and are responsive to directions from this office. Providing the administrative apparatus- the so-called Viet Cong shadow government- was the National Libera-
tion Front. All was controlled by the Lao Dong Central Committee in Hanoi. (Chart 1)
Impacting considerably upon the developments of the period 1954-1966 was the political situation within South Vietnam. Throughout the countryside the acts of terror by the Viet Cong resulted in the assassination and kidnapping of many government officials and supporters. By the spring of 1963 President Ngo Dinh Diem was being accused of provoking an adverse reaction among the people. Especially were the Buddhists unhappy. Demonstrations, immolations, and turmoil followed. Finally, on 1 November 1963, Diem was overthrown and assassinated. There followed a
period of political instability which featured many coups and countercoups with military and political factions vying for political power with each other and within their own organizations. The effectiveness of the government deteriorated; governmental institutions founded under Diem began to disappear. The impact of this instability was felt at every echelon of political authority in the south. The Viet Cong's position throughout the country grew stronger as that of the government declined. It was not until mid 1965 that any sort of stability was injected into the Saigon political scene, this occurring when General Nguyen Van Thieu was proclaimed chief of state and Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky was installed as premier. The Thieu-Ky government remained in power, and these two leaders were inaugurated in 1967 for a four year term as president and vice-president, respectively.
From the termination of the French involvement in Indochina in 1954 until Operation ATTLEBORO in 1966, the tactics and employment of troops by the two sides underwent considerable changes.
Until about 1960 the Viet Cong employed small units on missions of terror: assassinations, kidnappings, destruction. In 1960 the first battalion-size attacks were conducted by the Viet Cong; by 1961 the attacks had increased in frequency and had expanded to multibattalion. To counter the growing insurgency the South Vietnam government set about increasing its regular military forces, its paramilitary forces, and its pacification program. The combined U.S.-South Vietnamese effort seemed to be leading to a shifting of the tide of battle by the end of 1962; however, with the growing political turmoil in the spring of 1963 followed in November by the overthrow of Diem, the bottom fell out of the military efforts of the South Vietnamese forces. Many of the government's strategic hamlets were lost, weapons losses increased, and many local paramilitary units simply faded away.
By 1964 Viet Cong battalions were growing into regiments and regiments into divisions. Battles were won by both sides during the year, culminating with the Viet Cong 9th Division's seizure of the Catholic village of Binh Gia east of Saigon on 28 December. During the battle the division ambushed and destroyed a South Vietnamese Ranger battalion and a Marine battalion. This battle was a major event for both sides. The enemy considered it the beginning of the final "mobile" phase of the war, and the South Vietnamese saw it as the beginning of a military challenge they could not meet alone.
The year 1965 saw the first commitment of regular North Vietnamese Army forces in South Vietnam with their apparent intention of cutting the country in half. By late spring of 1965 the South Vietnamese Army was losing about one infantry battalion and one district capital a week to the enemy. It was then that U.S. ground forces were requested and, starting in July, began to arrive in substantial numbers. By August 1965 U.S. forces were being committed to combat, but in less than division strength. By the end of the year the Viet Cong 9th Division was heard from again as its 272d Regiment overran the South Vietnamese 7th Regiment in the Michelin Plantation.
1966 was a year of accelerated buildup and development and the beginning of major offensive operations by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. There was a number of allied operations during the year, but the ones of concern to us were those conducted near Saigon and in the major enemy areas near the capital such as in the Iron Triangle and in War Zones C and D. In April 1966, Operation ABILENE took place east of Saigon as a spoiling operation against an enemy move on the capital. (Map 2) In the same month
Operation BIRMINGHAM, a move by the U.S. 1st Infantry Division into War Zone C, uncovered great quantities of supplies. In June and July the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and the Vietnamese 5th Division conducted a series of operations, EL PASO II, on the eastern flank of War Zone C in order to open Route 13 from Saigon to the major rubber plantations to the north, as well as to attack the Viet Cong 9th Division massing near the province capital of An Loc. Viet Cong losses were heavy. The 9th Division withdrew after that action into sanctuaries along the Cambodian border in War Zone C. (Map 3) In late October 1966 this same division deployed its three regiments along with another North Vietnamese Army regiment into central Tay Ninh Province for the purpose of attacking the Special Forces camp at Suoi Da with one regiment while ambushing relieving forces with the other regiments. At the same time the recently arrived U.S. 196th Light Infantry Brigade was operating in the same area in search of rice and other enemy supplies.
The stage was now set for Operation ATTLEBORO.
ATTLEBORO was to be a search and destroy operation conducted by the 196th Light Infantry Brigade in an area generally described as a rectangle twenty kilometers wide by sixty kilometers long located east and north of Tay Ninh city. (Map 4) The operation was initiated by the 196th on 14 September 1966 with the airmobile assault of a single battalion followed by a search and destroy opera-
tion of but a few days in which only two significant contacts with the enemy were made. After the initial assault battalion was committed elsewhere, another battalion of the 196th continued the mission from 18 to 24 September; it made no significant contact. It, too, was diverted to another area but returned to ATTLEBORO on 6 October and conducted search and destroy operations for ten more days. During this time the battalion destroyed tunnel complexes, trenches, and fighting positions and captured two tons of rice, many documents, and some enemy arms. It was not until mid-October, as the result of a decision taken at the Military Assistance Command commanders' conference, that ATTLEBORO was expanded to a multibattalion operation with the 196th committing two battalions to its search and destroy activities. Through the end of October action was light and sporadic with no major contact. In fact, the action was so light that between 4 October and 1 November only two immediate air strikes were called in to support the operation.
Meanwhile, the Viet Cong 9th Division was starting to stir again. After its beating in EL PASO II in June and July 1966, the 9th
had withdrawn to its sanctuaries deep in War Zone C next to the Cambodian border and had retrained, re-equipped, and absorbed replacements. The plan of the 9th was to use these bases to launch a winter offensive against objectives in Tay Ninh Province. Among its objectives was to be the Special Forces camp at Suoi Da, located twelve kilometers northeast of Tay Ninh city in the shadow of Nui Ba Den, the Black Virgin Mountain, which rose, as if by mistake, some three thousand feet above the surrounding plain. The division also hoped to lure some allied forces into the area in response to an attack by one of its regiments so that these forces might be ambushed by the remaining regiments of the 9th. By late October the regiments assigned to the 9th Viet Cong Division- the 271st, 272d, 273d, and the 101st North Vietnamese Regiment- had commenced deploying in War Zone C. On 28 October elements of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division made contact with a battalion of the 273d just east of the ATTLEBORO operational area. The commanding officer of one of the companies of the 101st North Vietnamese Army Regiment, captured on 8 November, revealed that his regiment had left its base area on the Cambodian border about 1 November to move south along the eastern boundary of the ATTLEBORO area toward resupply camps.
Sweeping operations by American units near Dau Tieng on 31 October uncovered a major enemy supply base. On 1 November ATTLEBORO became a brigade-size operation with the 196th Brigade assuming operational control of a battalion from the 25th Division. Two days later an airmobile assault by this battalion made contact with elements of the 9th Viet Cong Division; on the same day, 3 November, elements of the U.S. 5th Special Forces Group's mobile strike force, which had been inserted into landing zones near Suoi Da, were also engaged by forces of the 9th Division. Operation ATTLEBORO was about to erupt.
By 5 November it was apparent that a very large enemy force was involved; operational control was initially passed to Major General William E. DePuy, Commanding General, U.S. 1st Infantry Division, and subsequently to the commanding general of II Field Force. Before the operation ended on 24 November, the 1st Division, elements of the U.S. 4th and 25th Infantry Divisions, the 173d Airborne Brigade, and several South Vietnamese Army battalions were committed to it, over 22,000 U.S. and allied troops in all. It was the largest U.S. operation of the war to that time.
It was not only the number of U.S. and allied troops eventually involved which made ATTLEBORO a large operation. There was also during November a total of over 1,600 close air support sorties flown, expending nearly 12,000 tons of ordnance (225 were B-52
sorties carrying 4,000 tons). Cargo aircraft flew 3,300 sorties in transporting 8,900 tons of cargo and 11,500 passengers during the period 18 October-26 November. The enemy left 1,106 dead on the battlefield and had 44 captured. (Friendly losses were 155 killed and 494 wounded.) Later military intelligence reports confirmed the high casualties sustained by the enemy, listing 2,130 killed- including over 1,000 by air strikes, almost 900 wounded, and over 200 missing or captured. Headquarters of the Central Office of South Vietnam was reported struck by B-52 bombers on more than one occasion with the destruction of great quantities of supplies, equipment, and documents. Four Viet Cong battalion commanders and 5 company commanders were reported killed in the operation.
Not only would its casualities pose a serious problem to the Viet Cong 9th Division, so too would the pillaging of its depot area by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. Over 2,000 tons of rice were captured, as were many tons of salt, 19,000 grenades, 500 claymore mines, and many individual and crew-served weapons. Uncovered and destroyed were regimental and battalion headquarters sites, a mine factory, and a vast tunnel complex containing immense quantities of supplies ranging from bolts of cloth to weighing scales. As General DePuy commented, "It is the largest haul we've made."
Hurting from the whipping it had taken, the 9th Division once again disappeared into its sanctuaries to lick its wounds, regroup, and reorganize. It would not be seen on the field of combat again until the spring of 1967.
Operation ATTLEBORO introduced the large-scale, multiorganization operation to the war, albeit as an accident, in response to the Viet Cong 9th Division's Tay Ninh campaign. But ATTLEBORO proved that, within a matter of hours, well-trained and profes-sionally led organizations with proper logistic support could deploy large numbers of battalions to an active operational area and commit those battalions to immediate combat against a highly disciplined enemy. It proved that large-scale operations, perhaps involving the majority of the forces available in corps zone, have a place in modern counterinsurgency warfare and can effectively destroy large enemy forces and equipment and neutralize major base areas. However, the next time such large forces were used in a single operation, it would not be by accident, as CEDAR FALLS and JUNCTION CITY were soon to verify.
Return to the Table of Contents