Chapter X: 

Phong Cao
(November 1966)
The battle of Phong Cao was a classic encirclement operation that illustrates a succession of innovations widely used in Vietnam. Infantry tactical formations and counterguerrilla techniques aided by the ever-present helicopter were immensely successful. The battle began on 6 November 1966 when the 2d Battalion (Airborne), 502d Infantry, reinforced with the local Civilian Irregular Defense Group, airassaulted into four landing zones in the jungle fifteen miles northwest of Tuy Hoa. The Strike Force was one of three battalions assigned to the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Frank L. Dietrich. Colonel Dietrich was no newcomer to combat; he had fought in World War II from Africa to the Rhine with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
The Strike Force was stalking the 5th Battalion, 95th North Vietnamese Regiment. The enemy was conducting training operations while waiting for ammunition being brought in from Binh Dinh and for replacements coming from North Vietnam. Only 214 of the enemy's 320 authorized officers and men were on duty. Their training area included a complex of base camps in a saddle formed by Hills 450 in the north and 350 in the south. The enemy battalion was to engage any small unit patrols that entered the training area, but if a large U.S. force moved in, it planned to slip out and wait for its ammunition and replacements at another site.
Colonel Dietrich, at the time of the Strike Force's air assault, did not have the details of the enemy's mission or situation, but he did know that a long-range patrol had spotted an unoccupied base camp on Hill 450 a month before. During this period in the war, long-range patrols were being used more frequently and were becoming a major source of intelligence. Intelligence indicated that an enemy division headquarters and elements of the 95th Regiment were in the area. Colonel Dietrich reasoned that the enemy was occupying positions on Hill 450. He also suspected that the North Vietnamese Army forces would avoid combat and leave the area if they realized that the Strike Force's objective was the hill. To conceal his battalion's target,

Diagram 3. Schematic deployment of two rifle 
      companies and reconnaissance platoon in checkerboard search pattern. 
      (Drawing is only representative as no attempt is made to arrive at exact 
      configuration in practice.)
Diagram 3. Schematic deployment of two rifle companies and reconnaissance platoon in checkerboard search pattern. (Drawing is only representative as no attempt is made to arrive at exact configuration in practice.)
therefore, he selected a deception objective west of Hill 450. He chose landing zones around the decoy area and instructed his company commanders to move initially in a direction that would lead the North Vietnamese commander to believe that Hill 450 would not be searched.
As the operation began, the helicopter assaults were unopposed, and the companies moved out in modified checkerboard formation. The checkerboard, a method of searching an area by covering alternate squares with small units, was a new technique created by Lieutenant Colonel Henry E. "Hank" Emerson, who had preceded Colonel Dietrich as the commander of 2d Battalion (Airborne), 502d Infantry. (Diagram. 3)

Company B made the first contact with four Viet Cong, killing one. The Recondos, the battalion's reconnaissance platoon reinforced to fifty-man strength, killed a lone Viet Cong in the only other encounter of the day. The 7th and 8th of November brought light contact, and by early afternoon of the 8th, the battalion had turned from the deception objective and was heading east. At 1830, elements of the Recondo Platoon reached Hill 450 and spotted four North Vietnamese in a company-size base camp. In the failing light the enemy had not seen the Recondos. The battalion commander was immediately informed of the Recondos' contact and, during the night of 8-9 November, his idea for surrounding the saddle was passed to the Strike Force commanders. Elements of Company B would attack from the west, while the rest of the company established a blocking position in the south. Company C, commanded by Captain Stephen Silvasy, Jr., would make a forced march into blocking positions in the southeast quadrant. Company A, commanded by Captain "Mike" McFadden, would be lifted by helicopter to the northeast quadrant. The Recondos would close the circle in the north between Companies A and B .
At 1000 the following morning, the Recondo Platoon was moving into position deployed as two sections. The two elements were separated by several hundred meters when Section A, led by platoon sergeant Richard F. Clemons, engaged first a trail-watcher and later an enemy platoon. The Recondos returned fire and were soon reinforced by the 2d Platoon from Company B, led by 1st Lieutenant Alden J. Holborn. Together the two units moved thirty meters up the wooded, vine-matted slope before enemy automatic weapons fire stopped their advance. As the fight was developing, the 3d Platoon of Company B, led by 1st Lieutenant John A. Marshok, Jr., had started to move north to come in behind the enemy. Lieutenant Marshok had been told that the battle was on the western slope of Hill 450, but his platoon was still well south of the hill when he became convinced that the sounds of the firelight were southwest of his position. Marshok reported the situation to his company commander and began to move west and then south to come in behind the enemy. The echo of the firefight in the mountains, the difficulty of reading the map in dense jungle, and the steep, slick slopes combined, however, to bring the platoon in on the southern flank of the Recondo-2d Platoon position.
At noon the Strike Force command post had the following information on the locations of the rifle companies. The main part of Company B was in a blocking position south of Hill 350. Company C was moving toward the southeast quadrant of Hill 350 but was still five hours away. Company A, several kilometers southeast of the battle, was approaching the area where it would be picked up for a helicopter assault to its place in the encirclement. Half of the Recondo

Platoon was in a blocking position north of Hill 450. The other half, Section A, was with the 2d Platoon of Company B in contact with an enemy platoon somewhere on the western slope of the saddle formed by Hills 450 and 350. Their location had been reported as the western slope of 450. The 3d Platoon of Company B had been moving north toward Hill 450. The platoon reported its position as a kilometer south of the hill, but it also stated that it could hear the Recondo firefight south of its location and that it was moving toward the sounds of the firing.
The 2d Battalion (Airborne), 502d Infantry, was normally supported by a command and control helicopter, but Colonel Dietrich had not used it since the day of the assault into Phong Cao. This stratagem was part of his deception plan to minimize the evidence that a U.S. battalion was in the area. Now, however, he called for the helicopter, and at 1225 it reported to his command post. Colonel Dietrich immediately took to the air, and the platoons in the jungle below identified their locations by displaying panels and dispensing colored smoke grenades. In a matter of minutes he understood the confusion of reports he had received from the Recondo section and the two platoons. The firelight was on the western slope of Hill 350. (Diagram 4) The three platoons were together now, and he directed them to pull back to allow an air strike on the enemy position.
By 1440 the platoons had disengaged, and two U.S. Air Force fighters made a pass over the enemy. Their bombs landed in the target area but fragments sprayed the U.S. platoons. Although there were no casualties, the air strike was canceled. In place of the fighters, a helicopter light fire team was deployed. As the gunships completed their strike, a battery of 155-mm. howitzers from the 1st Battalion, 30th Artillery, took up the fire. The artillery firing, which lasted over an hour, was followed by an assault of Company B's platoons. Enemy resistance to the assault was light, and as darkness fell on 9 November, two platoons of Company B were dug in on Hill 350. Company A's air assault had been unopposed, and except for the platoons on Hill 350, the battalion was in a blocking position around the saddle. There was a gap between the Recondos and Company A and another between the two Recondo sections. Clayrnores were positioned to fill the gap in the Recondo line. The battlefield was illuminated by 81-mm. mortars. A U.S. Air Force C-47 was on its way to replace the mortar illumination with flares. The encirclement was complete.
There was no contact during the night, but by 0715 on the morning of the 10th, the enemy had dispatched reconnaissance parties to determine U.S. locations. At 0840 a North Vietnamese reconnaissance patrol probed the northern flank of Company C; at 0905 the Company Cline was probed again; and at 1250 Company A was tested. At 1340 Company B was probed, and at 1345 the Recondos'

Diagram 4. Location of firefight.
Diagram 4. Location of firefight.
position was reconnoitered. As a result of the enemy's reconnaissance, twelve North Vietnamese soldiers were killed. The North Vietnamese commander now knew that he was surrounded.
While the enemy reconnaissance was in progress, the Strike Force started to tighten its circle of forces. Using a loudspeaker in a helicopter, it tried to convince the 5th Battalion of the hopelessness of its situation. Two hours of broadcasting, however, brought no apparent results. By darkness of the 10th the entire Strike Force Battalion was deployed in a circle roughly 600 meters in diameter around Hill 450. A prisoner captured by Company C had reported that the remainder of the 5th North Vietnamese Army Battalion was on the hill.

In contrast to the C-47 illumination on the night of 9-10 November, Colonel Dietrich decided that continuous illumination was not required the night of 10-11 November. There were no gaps now in his circle of forces, and the enemy would be more easily destroyed if he moved out of his prepared positions. The enemy tested the ring five times that night: twice in the Company B area in the south, twice in the Company A positions in the east, and finally at 0340 the Recondos in the west. In each case the effort failed.

On the morning of the 11th, the 5th Battalion was greeted by renewed psychological operations. This broadcast came from a speaker on the ground with Companies B and C, which had started moving north up Hill 450. This time the enemy responded. One North Vietnamese soldier surrendered to Company C and appealed to his comrades to follow him. One more soldier surrendered to Company B. Then Company C captured seven enemy soldiers, and Company B captured two. Company A captured five soldiers, and the battalion staff with Company A captured two more. Companies B and C stopped at the top of Hill 450, and Company A swept the northern slope from east to west. They engaged a North Vietnamese machine gun and killed the crew.
The battle was over. The total number of bodies counted and enemy captured was seventy-five. Blood trails, parts of bodies, and prisoners indicated that many more had died. Of the thirty-six enemy soldiers captured, thirty-two were North Vietnamese Army troops. Fourteen crew-served weapons, including three of the battalion's four mortars; forty-four individual weapons; and substantial amounts of equipment, ammunition, and other supplies were also captured. U.S. casualties during the three-day period were five killed and fifteen wounded.

The battle of Phong Cao dramatically illustrates the use of the helicopter for command and control. It also demonstrates the application of established principles to new situations. The helicopter was described earlier as the most significant innovation of the war. Its value in command and control was confirmed many times in Vietnam. In the battle of Phong Cao, the helicopter permitted Colonel Dietrich to reach the point of contact in time to influence the battle. It also enabled him to locate the disoriented platoons on the ground, which indicated their positions with smoke and panels, and to insure their integration into his scheme of maneuver and fire support plan.

The unique enemy tactics in Vietnam offered the commanders of battalions and other small units opportunities for deception that had not existed in the Korean War or World War II. The tactics of the Strike Force Battalion during the battle of Phong Cao deceived the enemy into thinking that he was opposed by a small U.S. unit. "Even on 9 November when Company A conducted a heliborne assault  a

POW later captured stated that the NVA forces on Phong Cao Mountain thought they had the US forces surrounded until they attempted to break the contact and found it hopeless." Brigadier General Willard Pearson, who was the commanding general of the 1st Brigade, 101st Division, at the time of the battle of Phong Cao, described the concept as semiguerrilla tactics. These tactics emphasized stealth and deception through night operations, long-range patrols, reduction of helicopter traffic and other indications of U.S. operations, and similar techniques designed to foster contact with the enemy. Once contact was made, the units converted to conventional methods, using all available firepower, mobility, and reserves.
One of the most important aspects of semiguerrilla warfare was the ambush. The ambush had been used by the U.S. Army as far back as April 1775, when Colonel Smith's redcoat column was continuously ambushed as it withdrew from Concord, Massachusetts. The mechanical ambush, as it was used in Vietnam, however, was new. This innovation combined the ambush technique with the claymore mine and a trip wire. Later it was refined by the addition of a remote control firing device. In effect, this technique was an antipersonnel minefield with a fire-no fire option. Using the command-detonated mechanical ambush in conjunction with sensors increased its effectiveness. It was particularly appropriate in areas where firing devices that had to be triggered by the enemy were unsuitable because of civilian traffic.
The long-range patrol (LRP) was a particularly significant aspect of U.S. operations in Vietnam. Such patrols were not new to the U.S. Army, but they were used in increasing density and were now operating at division level. Long-range patrols were needed in Vietnam because of the difficult terrain assigned to the divisions and the elusiveness of the enemy. The helicopter and effective communications enabled the patrols to be more densely dispersed.
U.S. divisions formed provisional LRP units in 1965 and 1966, based on the success of the 5th Special Forces Group's Project Delta. The use of long-range patrols at division level prompted the development of a succession of minor innovations to support operations. Two of these developments were the LRP ration, a freeze-dried meal about one-third the weight of a C ration, and the McGuire rig, a device Similar to a parachute harness, which was attached to a line suspended from a helicopter. The system was used to extract small patrols in situations where the helicopter could not land. A drawback of the McGuire rig was that the passenger rode to his destination suspended below the helicopter. This disadvantage was overcome in the jungle penetrator system, which was commonly used for field medical evacuation in Vietnam. The penetrator was lowered through the jungle canopy using a helicopter hoist, and the passenger, seated or standing

on the penetrator, was lifted into the helicopter. For the seriously wounded, a basket litter was substituted for the jungle penetrator. In addition to these innovations, new tactics for depositing and picking up long-range patrols by helicopter were also developed.
The experiences of Company F (a long-range patrol), 51st Infantry, between Bien Hoa and Xuan Loc, fifty kilometers northeast of Saigon, are indicative of the effectiveness of long-range patrols. In Operation UNIONTOWN III-BOXSPRINGS, in February and March 1968, Company F was under the operational control of the 199th Infantry Brigade (Light) (Separate). The plan was for both light reconnaissance teams and heavy combat-reconnaissance teams to monitor trails and suspected river crossing sites in support of brigade operations. Taking prisoners of war was an additional mission of combat reconnaissance teams. When the enemy's position could be fixed, reaction forces were committed to exploit the situation.
During the operation, patrols were sent out to fight the enemy 117 times with no U.S. losses, although there were forty emergency extractions. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army troops were sighted 91 times; contact was made 33 times, and a reaction force was committed on 10 occasions to exploit sightings or help extract the long range patrols. Enemy troops killed in action numbered forty-eight, with twenty-six more probable.. Eighteen prisoners of war or detainees were taken.
The tremendous intelligence advantage gained by the 199th Brigade through the use of long-range patrols is not evident in these figures. This advantage, however, is illustrated by the following comments made by Major General William R. Peers, when he commanded the 4th Infantry Division:
In 1967, before we had any form of surveillance unit such as the people sniffer and the air cav with the scout unit, every major battle that the 4th Infantry Division got itself into was initiated by the action of a Long-Range Patrol; every single one of them. That included the battle of Dak To for the Long-Range Patrols completely uncovered the enemy movement. We knew exactly where he was coming from through our Long-Range Patrol action.
In support of the LRP effort, General William C. Westmoreland authorized the establishment of the MACV Recondo School in September 1966. The term "Recondo" is a combination of reconnaissance and commando and had been used to describe a ranger-type school organized in 1959 by General Westmoreland, when he commanded the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. This identification of Recondo with the men of the long-range patrols, who were generally considered to have the most uncomfortable and dangerous job in Vietnam, led to the use of the name by other units. The Recondo Platoon of the 2d Battalion (Airborne), 502d Infantry, was one such unit. The platoon could act as a long-

PICTURE: Solldiers Training on Troop Ladders Suspend From CH-47. The  Troop Ladder Was Superior to the Rappel Rope Because it Could be used for Recovery as Well as Insertion.
The troop ladder was superior to the rappel rope because it could be used for recovery as well as insertion.
range patrol since some of its members had been Recondo-trained, but the platoon was used as a maneuver unit in normal battalion operations. This innovation, the informal organization of a fourth maneuver element in the infantry battalions in Vietnam, was subsequently recognized in the authorization for a fourth rifle company.

Another technique of the 2d Battalion (Airborne), 502d Infantry, that was new in some respects was the stay-behind patrol. Stay-behind patrols were used during World Wars I and II and also during the Korean War. These forces, however, were generally small in order to facilitate their withdrawal through enemy lines and to aid in concealment. The fluidity of the battlefield in Vietnam and the availability of helicopters to reinforce or extract the stay-behind force led to frequent use of stay-behind patrols of various sizes among U.S. forces.
The following extract from the report of the 2d Battalion (Airborne), 502d Infantry, gives the achievements of the Strike Force's stay-behind patrol at Phong Cao.
Three days after the conclusion of the battle, Company A, after an overt resupply, moved clandestinely back into the area and stayed approximately 4 days. During this period they uncovered one large medical cache and intercepted some enemy forces returning to the area. Some 2 days after Company A overtly moved out of the area, Company B clandestinely moved back into the Phong Cao mountain area as a follow up force and uncovered another large medical and kitchen cache plus finding one wounded NVA soldier who had been hiding since about 12 November.
The use of deception was the key to the victory at Phong Cao mountain. The effective and easily understood deception plan was an excellent example of the adaptation of conventional tactics to an unconventional situation. The checkerboard search innovation, the long-range patrol, and the stay-behind force all contributed significantly to the success of the operations of the 2d Battalion (Airborne), 502d Infantry, at Phong Cao.
The way in which the long-range patrols were used was one of the most significant innovations of the war, and the use of the helicopter for command and control became a normal method of operation for virtually all tactical commanders in Vietnam. These innovations, except for the use of the helicopter, were adaptations of time-tested techniques and, in this sense, were characteristic of a large share of the innovations of the war. Confronted by an enemy who took advantage of any operational pattern that developed, the U.S. soldier in Vietnam soon learned that change was the order of the day and that innovation was the key to success

page created 15 December 2001

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