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 Vietnam Primer (Part 4)

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PostSubject: Vietnam Primer (Part 4)   Mon Nov 08, 2010 3:06 pm

In warfare fought largely platoon against platoon and company against
company, the true situation is not made plain in most cases until the two
sides begin a close exchange of flat trajectory fires. Until then we may
speculate, but we do not know the reality; the hard facts of reality can be
developed only stage by stage as the fire fight progresses. During the
approach, however, the leader takes nothing for granted and continues to
look for a plant. The enemy has many ruses, and if something new and novel
did not appear from day to day he would soon lose all ability to surprise.
That is why all such items in company or higher command experience should
be reported and circulated for the benefit of all concerned. It is only
through cross-checking and the accumulation of more data that the larger
significance of any one action, device, or stratagem may be given full

Two days after Christmas, 1966, two NVA prisoners fell into our hands
in III Corps Zone. They both told this story. A group of American POW's
were being held in an enemy base camp near the Cambodian border. The NVA
prisoners gave the same numbers and pointed to the same spot on the map.
The chance to liberate a group of fellow soldiers was certain to appeal to
Americans at this or any other season of the year. Nothing in the incident
itself was calculated to arouse suspicion. So with utmost secrecy, an
expedition was mounted.

But it happened that on the same day on the far side of the country
two NVA soldiers surrendered to forces of the 1st Air Cavalry Division
operating in Binh Dinh Province. They were followed in by an ARVN soldier
who told of having just escaped from an enemy prison camp. These three men
related a common experience. They had seen three U.S. soldiers of the 1st
Air Cavalry Division in captivity at a spot not far from the Soui Ca
valley. One was a "Negro with tattoos on his left arm," a detail of
description which should have raised an eyebrow, the U.S. Negro soldier not
being given to that practice. On checking the records, the division found
it had no MIA's tallying with the descriptions. But thinking the prisoners
were from some other U.S. outfit, it prepared to launch, again with utmost
secrecy, a rescue expedition.

The other rescue party had gone forth several days earlier and found
nothing. But the try had been made in battalion strength. The air cavalry
division also mounted a battalion operation and put a heavy preparatory
fire on the landing zone. This bag also proved to be empty. There was no
sign any prisoners had been at the spot indicated. The coincidence,
followed up by the double failure, is the best reason for believing that,
had one company or less been sent, it would have deployed into an ambush.
There is no final proof.

Under hot pursuit, the enemy is adept at quickly changing into peasant
garb and hiding his identity by mingling with the civilian crowd. That is
why he carries several sets of clothing in his haversack and why we find
them in his caches. The data basis shows that he will go on the attack
using women and children to screen his advance. When no option but
surrender or death is left him, he will employ the same kind of protection.
During Operation Cedar Falls, in January 1967, women and children would
come first out of a hut or bunker making the noises and gesture of the
helpless in distress. They would be followed by the VC, some with arms
lowered, others with hands empty and raised. Troops are able to cope with
this problem without any cost to life; but it requires extraordinary
alertness coupled with restraint.

Ambushing occurs only when men become careless. With any truce or
cease-fire, there comes the temptation to relax and neglect accustomed
safeguards, and the enemy takes all possible advantage of it. The
Christmas afternoon ambushing of a patrol in 1st Infantry Division sector
is one instance. The patrol advanced on a broad front sweep across a rice
paddy directly toward a tree line. The ambush was set and ready to fire
from just inside the tree line. If the patrol had to cross the paddy, it
took the one worst way to do it, particularly since the dikes and banks
afforded at least partial cover for several columns.

To advance along a trail up a draw under an open sky without first
scouting the shoulders or knobs above it, or putting strafing fires on
them, is the hard road to entrapment. Those knobs are a favored siting for
machinegun emplacements by the NVA and the VC, the draw is the beaten zone,
and the bunker roofs are seldom more than a foot above ground (fig. 18).

That the platoon leading the company column makes the passage safely
without drawing one shot by no means indicates it is unguarded. To the
contrary, the enemy by choice tends to let it pass, so as to involve the
entire company. If fire were to be placed on the point or leading files of
the first platoon, the column would recoil and then deploy for a sweep. To
spring such an ambush, the enemy will risk allowing the lead platoon to get
on his rear since in jungle country, where there is no trail into the
emplaced guns, being on the rear begets no real advantage. The platoon
must either double back over the trail at the risk of being ambushed on the
other side of the draw or it must spend an hour hacking its way through
jungle to get to the target.

The ambushing of a road column, done by maneuver bodies rather than by
fire out of fixed positions, necessarily takes a quite different form. It
is usually a double strike out of cover, not made simultaneously, but so
synchronized and weighted that the stopping-stalling effect is produced
first by the weaker element against the head of the column, the main body
then moving to roll up the force from its tail. The two moves are timed
closely enough together that the column is engaged from both ends before it
can deploy and face toward either danger (fig. 19).

The VC-NVA will spring this kind of trap only out of slightly higher
ground where there is some kind of cover for automatic guns within 50
meters of the road or less. The bunching of any column simply makes the
opportunity more favorable and the risk safer. The VC-NVA prefer a bend-
in-the-road situation for setting such a trap. The reason is obvious: out
of sight, the tail of the column does not sense what is happening to the
head in the critical moments, a handicap that increases the chance that the
column will split apart and try to fight two separate actions. Given
adequate air cover (either Air Force or Army reconnaissance aircraft or
gunships), any column would be immune to such attack. In lieu of these, an
artillery dusting of the flankward ground wherever its characteristics are
favorable to an entrapment, and just prior to the coming up of the column,
would be a great disarranger. Is artillery used that way in Vietnam? Too
rarely, which is not the fault of the gunners. The trouble is that some
commanders think of a road march as just that and nothing more; by so doing
they scorn elementary precautions.

There is still another dimension to this subject, far more sinister in
its import. That the enemy will employ the live bodies of his own men as
decoys to lure our troops forward and set them up before a hastily
contrived ambush or well-concealed but fortified position, the data basis
leaves no room for doubting. It shows, furthermore, that live decoys are
used at such short range and so fully exposed to our fire as to create a
better than even prospect that their lives will be forfeit.

If any such ruse were to be employed regularly by the enemy, the trick
would shortly wear itself out, which is true of any stratagem. It has,
however, been employed often enough that his occasional recourse to it
should be accepted as fact, though American conditioning is such as to make
us skeptical that this degree of fanaticism is possible even in the Viet
Cong. There are eight incidents in the record of this nature.

In two incidents, the physical circumstances were such as to exclude
the possibility that they just happened that way through accident rather
than by deliberate design. Taken together, their lesson is so glaring as
to warrant saying to any unit commander or patrol leader: "If you come upon
a jungle clearing and you see two or three or even one enemy soldier with
back turned, or you are moving fairly in the open, and you see a few NVA or
VC moving at distance with backs turned, never facing about, watch out!
The chances are very good that you are being led into a trap."

The turned back is the surest sign. It is positively enticing. It
reads like the invitation on the small airport truck: "Follow Me!" The
effect is to nourish the hope that the maneuvering formation has caught the
enemy unaware and is on the track of something big. That may be half true,
but the something big is as the enemy planned it.

Incident No. 1. A 1st Infantry Division platoon with 32 men was
patrolling not far from War Zone C. Several hundred meters short of its
turnaround point, it entered upon a jungle clearing, keyhole-shaped, about
150 meters from tree line to tree line. In column, the patrol strung out
along the trail until all but the last four men were in the open. By then
the head of the column was two-thirds of the way across the clearing. At
that juncture, the point saw three VC soldiers, backs turned. They stood
15 meters to the fore, 10 meters short of the tree line. Without turning,
they darted away obliquely toward the trees. The lead files twisted about
to pursue. The M-79 gunner got off a round and thought he hit one or two
of the men just as they disappeared into the tree line. The turning of the
column in pursuit of the men spread it neatly in front of the killing
ambush, arrayed just inside the tree line. Is it conceivable that with the
ambushers watching the approach of the column over several minutes and
getting ready to blast it down, the three pigeons standing with backs
turned not more than 30 meters from them were unwarned?

Incident No. 2 An American company was on a search-and-destroy
mission close to the Cambodian border. Its scouts saw two NVA soldiers
standing 200 meters away on a small hill, their backs turned
(at A). These decoys walked off to the westward without ever turning.
The company followed. Getting too close to the Cambodian border, the
commander called for artillery fires on the bush into which the two decoys
had disappeared (at B) rather than take the chance of pursuing them into
neutral territory. The company then turned back to the pivotal point from
which it had started westward, feeling the chance was lost. It paused
there a moment before marching south. Just then an NCO happened to look
back at the hill where the two NVA's were first sighted. There stood two
more figures in khaki, wearing military helmets (at A). They too had their
backs turned, though the U.S. company had been moving about conspicuously
in the open for almost an hour. The two pigeons stood right where the
others had been, within killing range, not more than 200 meters away. The
company did not fire them -- and that was a mistake. The two NVA's never
did face about. Deploying, the company advanced toward them, moving
broadside against the face of the hill (at C). It got within a stone's
throw of the base before there was any fire. Then it broke like a storm
-- automatic, grenade rocket. On the crest of the low hill was a major NVA
force in concealment, with earth protection. The U.S. line was pinned at
once. In the three-hour engagement that followed, it took a bloody
beating. In the end, what was left of the enemy garrison withdrew to
Cambodia. Accident? Coincidence? Common sense rejects the idea. The
enemy baited a trap, perhaps not too skillfully. But it worked.

The enemy does employ agents and double agents. He does contrive to
plant stories through them which are accepted at face value. He does
resort to such stale devices as planting a fake operations order on the
corpse of an officer. Such hoaxes are occasionally swallowed whole instead
of being taken with a grain of salt, better yet, a shakerful.

These, then are the ruses, decoys, and ambushes that hurt worst, not
the narrow fire blocks rigged at the turning of a jungle trail, which
seldom take more than a small toll. In these small affairs, engagement
usually takes place at not more than 10 to 20 meters' range. At any longer
distance than that, particularly in night operations, fire is not apt to be
successful. The enemy has no special magic in that setting, with that
tactic. We can beat him at his own game; the record so proves. The big
ambushes, in which he contrives to mousetrap anything from a platoon-size
patrol to the greater part of a battalion, are his forte, his big gambit,
his one hold on the future. Foil these, deny him surprise on the defense,
frustrate the designs by which he inflicts shock losses in the first stage
of encounter, and there will be nothing going for him that will offset his
dwindling power to organize and press hard in the attack.

The job can be done. We can manage it by a more careful scrutiny of
the seeming opportunity -- the thing that looks too good to be true. We
can avoid the staged entrapments of the enemy by reacting always, to any
and every indication of his presence, as if he is right there in the
foreground in main strength.

Simply for the sake of emphasis, it is here repeated that in this war
a lone rifle shot means little or nothing. An automatic weapon opening
fire usually means business. When two or more automatic weapons open at
one time at close range, something big is almost certain to begin.



In the battle of Bu Gia Map fought in May 1966, a reinforced battalion
from the 101st Airborne Division engaged for two days against a large enemy
force one day's march from the Cambodian border. By making the wisest
possible use of supporting artillery and air power, the commander destroyed
the greater part of an NVA battalion. It was a resounding victory.

Yet it pivoted altogether on a persistent questing for intelligence by
men in the unit at the time of the operation. To begin, the battalion had
no target of real promise, and after the first few days of searching the
mission seemed futile. On a hunch, the commander made a personal
reconnaissance by Huey to an abandoned airstrip 30 minutes flight distance
from his base.

There he drew fire. He quickly redeployed his battalion into this
area by airmobile assault. Then all companies, save the security force at
the new base, began "checkerboarding," or combing out the general area in
all directions. The commander stressed one thing above all else; "We must
get prisoners." The first night ambushes succeeded in taking one NVA
private alive, but he was emotionally overwrought and his information
proved of no great value. An ambush patrol on the second night struck pay
dirt and captured another NVA soldier. This POW was sick from malaria.
The battalion commander's philosophy was "treat POW's as nicely as
possible," for this "gentle" treatment of prisoners had paid off before.
After the prisoner had received medication, warm blankets, and food, he
sang like a canary, located his unit on the map, and volunteered to lead a
force there. Through no fault of his, when the friendly forces surrounded
his unit's camp, they found it abandoned. The bird had escaped the cage
minutes before. On the fourth day, with the commander still pressing his
men to "take them alive," a patrol wounded and captured an NVA sergeant.
He described the enemy force that lay in ambush directly to the westward
and gave the location of the fortified hill as being one kilometer away --
a position until then unsuspected. The capture had occurred on a new trail
leading to the defended hill. The success of the expedition turned on this
one small event.

In the Tou Morong campaign of June 1966, four battalions made a great
sweep for three days over a far spread of difficult country and converged,
toward closing out the operation, still empty-handed. Nowhere had they
encountered enemy in force. On the afternoon of the third day, with full
withdrawal imminent, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, on
reaching the Tou Morong outpost (the purpose of the sweep was to relieve
the garrison there) talked to a sublieutenant of Popular Forces who had
been long in the area. The American asked him: "Where do you think the
enemy is?" The map was brought out. The Vietnamese put his finger on a
village and said: "Whenever we patrol, we find NVA around there." The
American believed him, or at least felt the information warranted a second
try. So the plan was altered. The battalion of the 101st Airborne
Division stayed in the area and began grinding away. The battle of Tou
Morong -- a highlight of U.S. campaigning in 1966 - developed from this one

Operation Thayer-Irving, mounted in the 1966 autumn, was in its early
stages underproductive. During the first weeks, troops beat out much
country, spent much energy, and took light losses for little gain. A
feeling of futility developed. In the second phase the search turned
toward the coast line of Binh Dinh east of Highway NO. 1. In early morning
a troop commander of cavalry making a reconnaissance by gunship saw three
khaki-clad figures standing in the street of a fishing village. Too late,
they ducked for cover. Capitalizing on this seemingly insignificant scrap
of intelligence, Operation Irving became a shining battle success. And not
only in terms of enemy losses: more prisoners were taken than in any show
of that year. The abrupt change in fortune came of one piece of fresh
intelligence collected by one man.

From the data basis could be lifted numerous other encouraging
examples of the same kind, though on a smaller scale. However, there are
also negative aspects to several of the operations which we have already
considered in a favorable and positive light.

In one campaign, on the evening before the conversation that turned a
futile exercise into a productive battle, fighting developed "off the map,"
along the low ground of the flat and treeless valley south of the mountain
area being worked over by the maneuvering battalions. One U.S. artillery
battery had been deployed there by helicopter to provide covering fire for
a rifle battalion. A rifle company was sent along to guard its base. At
the same time an ARVN battalion was marching up the main road, over flat
ground, toward its objective. Less than 700 meters from the U.S. position,
the ARVN battalion became heavily engaged when it turned aside to bivouac
on the finger of a low-lying ridge. Several U.S. advisers were along. Men
of the two U.S. units deploying into the LZ could not hear the sounds of
the fight over the noise of Hueys and Chinooks landing and leaving. Within
a few minutes, the U.S. rifle company also became engaged with an NVA force
on the wooded nose of the nearest finger of the same low-lying ridge, not
more than 300 meters from the American battery. The artillery weapons were
never turned around and they took no part in the fight. The U.S. advisers
with the ARVN battalion and the command at the artillery base were on the
radio telephone, talking to one another. But only fragmentary information
was exchanged between them. Neither force got an understanding of the
other's immediate problem and situation, though one was not more than a 10-
minute walk from the other and the broad valley was clear of enemy forces.
Had either been more perceptive, more disposed to talk things out fully, an
NVA platoon might have been taken whole or destroyed and the significance
of the attack on the ARVN battalion by at least two NVA companies would
have come clear.

In Operation Thayer, which became largely a dry well, a 12-man patrol
from the cavalry division moved along with an interpreter from the National
Police. While it paused by a stream to wash feet and break out rations, an
aged Vietnamese woman came along the trail next to it. She was asked:
"Have you seen any VC?" She replied: "There are three right now in my
village down this trail." The cavalrymen followed along, engaged and
killed an enemy outguard of several men, took losses themselves in the
exchange of fire, then learned there were outguards posted generally around
the village. They concluded that the place was held by an enemy force in
at least company strength. The time was late afternoon. Because other
problems pressed the brigade, the opening was not taken. The patrol was
withdrawn before there was any real testing of enemy strength, and by next
day the bird had flown. The point is only that what had at first seemed an
unlikely source of information about enemy presence proved to be wholly

The besetting problem in Vietnam is to find the enemy. It is like
hunting for the needle in the haystack only if the unit commander views it
as a task primarily for higher levels and does not have all of his senses
and all of his people directed toward systematizing the search so that it
will pay off. His scout elements are only a first hold on the undertaking;
they probe over a limited area of a large countryside prolific with cover
and natural camouflage. Out of their truly productive contacts resulting
directly from maneuver emerges only a small fraction of the hard
information leading to our most successful finds and strikes. The greater
part of it derives from careful interrogation of people met along the way,
interrogation that neither overlooks nor discounts any possible source.
One new unit, operating in Paul Revere IV, took over a village in late
afternoon. Finding the people gone and the livestock fresh, it concluded
that an NVA force was probably close at hand. So the men killed the pigs
and left the chickens, figuring that if the enemy returned by night, the
fowl might sound the alarm. The gambit failed; the enemy, attacking the
American perimeter next to the village in early evening, avoided the
chickens by moving in from the other side. The men had a good idea
nevertheless; even animals can be used as early warning in Vietnam.

These things are said in Vietnam about intelligence flow by commanders
and men who fight there:

(1) It comes in greater volume than in any other war.

(2) Not more than 10 to 15 percent of it leads to anything worthwhile
-- though each lead must be followed through to hit pay dirt.

(3) Where there is a payoff, in nine cases out of ten, the
information which led to the introduction of tactical forces into
a certain area proves to be wrong in whole or in part, and
something quite else, but still worth the effort, develops from
the deployment.

(4) Development and exploitation therefore depend chiefly on what the
tactical unit learns and does.

(5) Most of the intelligence which leads to worthwhile results in
battle is collected by tactical units after they have deployed.

These are broad propositions. They call to mind the epigram of the
late Justice Holmes: "I always say that no generalization is worth a damn,
including this one." But if it is granted that statements (4) and (5) are
only partially true, they put the unit commander at dead center of our
combat intelligence collecting apparatus. It is a task that he cannot
shrug off; there is only the question of whether he will be thorough or
slipshod in his work. Working closely and continuously with his
interpreters while in the field is one prerequisite of success.

Nothing will be said here about the collecting and use of enemy
documents. The unit commander gets full instruction on this subject from
higher authority within Vietnam, and to add anything would be superfluous.

Our primary concern is with his attitude toward all people who may be
sources of information that will help him to make contact. They are of
many kinds. These things are to be said of them:

(1) Captured NVA soldiers, more so than hardcore Viet Cong, and not
unlike the Japanese in World War II, are constrained to cooperate
and tell most of what they know. When they have the inclination,
they give without being manhandled. There is no example in the
record of an NVA captive who, in responding readily to
interrogation, gave false information that set up a U.S. unit in
front of a trap. The initially sullen enemy soldier is not apt
to change and respond with worthwhile information.

(2) The people of the countryside, be they Vietnamese, Montagnards,
Chinese, or any other, friendly or hostile, often know more about
enemy presence or movement that they will voluntarily tell. They
must be sought out and questioned, or obviously there will be no
answers. The questioning is best done in a friendly and
initially indirect manner. Paying some attention to the children
sometimes wins cooperation. Without an interpreter, the exchange
is made extraordinarily difficult, though there are several
examples in the record of large results achieved through sign
language. The characteristics vary from tribe to tribe, but most
Montagnard villagers have no understanding of numbers, time
according to the clock, distances when computed in terms of miles
or kilometers, and other basic units of measurement as we know

(3) All CIDG companies and their Special Force advisers doing regular
duty and patrolling daily within any region naturally know more
about enemy presence within it and the problem of fixing it than
any field force likely to be committed there suddenly on such a
mission. Acquiring such knowledge is their specialty, their
reason for being. Any tactical commander who bypasses the
opportunity to learn all he can from them when he is in their
vicinity is not doing his best for his people or himself.

(4) The same thing is to be said of ARVN, Nationalist Police, ROK,
and other allied forces, officers and men, who have served in any
area being entered for the first time by a U.S. tactical unit.
Not to profit from their experience by seeking them out and
asking what they know is a mistake. It has happened many times
that they had a good fix on an enemy force but withheld from
moving to contact because their strength was insufficient.
Experience has also shown that, if requested, these veteran
allies will readily provide personnel to act as scouts and guides
for U.S. units deploying in their area of operation.

The record indicates that the Special Force teams in Vietnam have
developed sophisticated search and surveillance systems now uniquely their
own. These could be made of more general application by the field army to
the benefit of all. Any tactical unit commander is well advised to make
contact with Special Force field personnel when opportunity affords to
learn more about such things. Some of these operations are of a classified
nature though the methodology and the working rules are not a highly
sensitive subject. The soldier troubling to make such a visit might learn
some useful new tricks besides sharing good company, usually supplied with
cold beer, for a spell.

In the tall bush, jungle, or tropical forest, the NVA and VC make
effective, though irregular, tactical use of tree roosts, as did the
Japanese in World War II. The upper branches serve for observation; in the
lower limbs are concealed platforms for sniping. The enemy sets these
forward of main positions, placing them to the flank or rear of our lines
when we close. In Operation Attleboro our people learned of this technique
a little late and several men were killed by fire from overhead until a
gunner sensed what was happening, dusted the trees with automatic fire, and
brought several of the snipers down. Tied to the trunk by long ropes, the
bodies dangled in mid-air. In a campaign fought near the Cambodian border,
a brigade commander complained about this enemy practice, as if it were
unfair. His general asked him: "Well, did you think to do it, also?" It's
a good question. According to the record, Americans as individuals
sometimes make tactical use of trees, as when an inspired battalion
commander directed his fighting line from the upper crotch of a banyan
during Operation Geronimo II because he was trying to take prisoners and
the voice on the bullhorn would carry farther that way. But trees are not
used for sniping and superior observation on any organized basis, though
the opportunity is there. Why? Too many commanders simply fail to think
of it.

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