RT Breaker Patrol, the Hill Battles of Vietnam
March 1, 2006
US Special Forces arrive in growing numbers, the South starts to crumble, and Khe Sanh gets on the map in 1962
In the previous section, we highlighted how the American leadership came to see the tumult in Vietnam as a counterinsurgency problem and how they began leaning toward use of unconventional forces there.
For our purposes, the first special operations force in the Army was organized in spring 1952 at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. The first unit emerged in June 1952. It was designated the 10th Special Forces Group (SFG). Its first commander was Colonel Aaron Bank (shown here), seen by most as the "Father of the Green Berets," and as "A legend within the Special Forces community."
Three types of special forces team detachments were organized:
- "A" teams consisted of two officers and 10 enlisted men, usually commanded by a captain. This was the operational force.
- "B" teams were largely management teams coordinating multiple A-teams.
- "C" teams were at the top of the hierarchy, working with the top leaders of indigenous guerrilla movements, and providing guidance and direction downward.
The official mission of the SFGs was:
"Infiltrate by land, sea or air, deep into enemy-occupied territory and organize the resistance/guerrilla potential to conduct Special Forces operations, with emphasis on guerrilla warfare."
They also were to conduct deep-penetration raids, intelligence gathering missions and counterinsurgency operations.
The special operations force in the Army grew rapidly and went through all kinds of organizational phases. We'll simply point out that in 1954, elements of the 77th Special Forces Group, an evolutionary outgrowth of the 10th SFG, arrived in Thailand and in 1957, elements of the 14th Special Forces Operations Detachment, which evolved into the 1st Special Forces Group, arrived in Vietnam
US Army Special Forces Captain Vernon Gillespie of Lawton, Oklahoma, discusses strategy with a Montagnard Battalion Commander at Buon Bieng, RVN. Photo courtesy of "American Special Forces, how coolness and character averted a blood-bath when mountain tribesmen rose in revolt," article and photographs by Howard Sochurek, published in the January 1965 edition of National Geographic.
Initially, special forces operations focused on the central highlands, in the area of Ban Me Thout or more specifically Buon Enao, with specific attention to training the local Montagnards to defend themselves against the Viet Cong. Over time, the Montagnards proved to be fierce fighting men and especially helpful in conducting offensive and cross-border operations, as their tribal affiliations crossed boundaries.
Administrative divisions and military regions, RVN, 1967. Presented by Wikimedia.org.
Introduction of the Central Highlands and Pleiku provides a good excuse to show you a map of South Vietnam and its four corps areas. I Corps was the northernmost corps, and IV Corps the southernmost. Black arrows point to the corps labels and the heavy red lines show the corps borders. You can see that Pleiku is in west-central II Corps. We will show you this map in one form or another several more times later. Our focus ultimately will be on I Corps and the northernmost Quang Tri Province.
CIDG Unit Training, from "The Development and Training of the South Vietnamese Army, 1950-1972," by Brigadier General James Lawton Collins, Jr., presented by the Department of the Army.
The assignment of special forces to work with the Montagnards was significant. This effort developed into what became known as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) program. This program's purpose was to build friendly paramilitary forces among minority groups such as the Montagnards, and employ them against the enemy, help improve security for the Montagnard people, and help them improve their quality of life. This quickly became a primary mission of the special forces in Vietnam.
U.S. Army Adviser Trains At Battalion Level, from "The Development and Training of the South Vietnamese Army, 1950-1972," by Brigadier General James Lawton Collins, Jr., presented by the Department of the Army.
That said, understand that the special forces were also training South Vietnamese Army regulars (ARVN), conducting their own reconnaissance, and, quite often, leading operational missions that could employ a mixed bag of forces; some Americans, some CIDG paramilitary units of Montagnards and/or other minority groups, some ARVN, and even some other nationalities, including Chinese nationals. The CIDG program is fascinating and merits your further study. The details of its operation were very secret for a long time, and even today it is hard to find useful photography of those who participated (though there are a few very telling photographs at popasmoke.com; we did a photo search on "NVA" and discovered incredible special ops photography of the enemy; once you see this, your admiration for these guys will skyrocket).
The US-supported RVN government’s efforts were quite effective against the Viet Cong in the late 1950s. At this point, the Viet Cong were operating by the seats of their pants. It became obvious that they needed help from North Vietnam, in terms of manpower, firepower, and perhaps most important, logistics.
In May 1959, North Vietnam responded to the call and created Group 559, tasked to set up a mechanism to move men and materiel from North Vietnam to the South. This event re-focused American attention to the northern corps, I Corps, and specifically Quang Tri, the northernmost RVN province.
This map provides you a close look at I Corps, RVN and the five provinces in that corps. We draw your attention to the northernmost province, Quang Tri, which straddles the DMZ, and which hosts Khe Sanh. Presented by Wikimedia.org.
This is a map of northern I Corps, RVN, and northern Quang Tri province, RVN. The red box highlights the Khe Sanh base. Note that the western half of this area is mountainous, offering many infiltration routes and surveillance and artillery vantage points. Presented by the Khe Sanh Veterans Home Page.
Group 559's first effort was designed to cross through the DMZ. The NVN 301st Battalion was created, and subordinated to Group 559. It began sending small parties across the DMZ past the town of Khe Sanh and deeper into the South. This was largely a covert operation and began in a serious way in 1959.
The Group 559 idea worked. Viet Cong recruiting skyrocketed, and by 1961 the Viet Cong force was said to number 16,000-19,000. The capacity of Diem to deal with this became stuck in the mud.
President Kennedy briefing the press on the Vietnam situation, 1961. Presented by vietnamwar.com.
Therefore, in 1961 President Kennedy, supported by the advice of his senior political and military people, decided to send more ground forces to Laos and South Vietnam. In May 1961 he sent 500 more American advisors, bringing the total known to be there to 1,400. The military wanted more, and by the end of 1962 had 11,300 there. That figure rose to 16,000 advisors by 1963.
JFK had formulated ideas about Vietnam well before becoming president in 1961.
In 1951, while still a congressman, Kennedy said this:
"To check the southern drive of Communism makes sense but not only through reliance on the force of arms. The task is, rather, to build strong native non-Communist sentiment within these areas and rely on that as a spearhead of defense."
In 1956, he committed himself to this idea:
"Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike."
Building a "strong native non-Communist sentiment" perfectly reflects the views of now General Edward Lansdale. Michael McClintock wrote Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990, in which he talks to the Kennedy-Lansdale relationship:
"Even before his inauguration, Kennedy had access to extensive policy planning studies on Vietnam through unofficial channels ... Kennedy also received one or more of Edward Lansdale's 'think' papers on Vietnam and was roundly impressed by his advocacy of a 'nonbureaucratic' approach to counterinsurgency. Kennedy's prompt approval just ten days after taking office of a new 'Counterinsurgency Plan' for Vietnam-a shift away from a prior emphasis on a Korea-style threat to South Vietnam-suggests a more than casual acquaintance with the issues involved."
That said, there are those who believe Kennedy is over-rated in this description. These people argue that Kennedy ignored Eisenhower's advice concerning the primacy of Laos. they add that Kennedy gave Averell Harriman at the State Department free rein to the horror of all three concerned neighbors. And, as a final straw, they say he gave approval to the overthrow of RVN President Diem.
President John F. Kennedy, right, talks with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, left, and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Maxwell Taylor in December 1962. Presented by salon.com
So, the task assigned to US ground forces sent to Vietnam in 1961 was not so much for them to fight against the communist enemy, but rather to help the South Vietnamese military counter what was seen as a growing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong guerrilla force threat, and train natives in irregular counterinsurgency operations.
JFK's buildup was a bit odd given that the Kennedy Administration seemed satisfied that things were going well in Vietnam in 1962. Robert Kennedy, JFK's Attorney General, said in an interview done by John Bartlow Martin in April 1964:
"We were winning the war in 1962 and 1963, up until May or so of 1963. The situation was getting progressively better."
Yet, on the other hand, it was also clear from this same interview that the Kennedy Administration understood Vietnam could be lost and feared that prospect, subscribing fully to the post-WWII Domino Theory:
"(Losing Vietnam would) have profound effects as far as our position throughout the world, and our position in a rather vital part of the world. Also, it would affect what happened in India, of course, which in turn has an effect on the Middle East. Just, it would have, everybody felt, a very adverse effect. It would have an effect on Indonesia, hundred million population. All of these countries would be affected by the fall of Vietnam to the Communists, particularly as we had made such a fuss in the United States both under President Eisenhower and President Kennedy about the preservation of the integrity of Vietnam."
So, the attorney general was not all that confident.
On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon, Vietnam. Presented by Buddhist Information.
With ground force escalation well underway in 1963, the Kennedy administration became convinced that President Diem could not handle the job. This was especially evident as the Buddhist crisis developed in 1963. The Buddhists clamored for greater freedoms and greater democratic reforms, and President Diem refused them, placing the US in an awkward situation. Robert Kennedy noted in this 1964 interview:
"Diem wouldn't make even the slightest concessions. He was difficult to reason with ... The important thing was to try to get somebody who could replace him and somebody who could keep, continue the war and keep the country united ... Nobody liked Diem particularly, but how to get rid of him and get somebody that would continue the war, not split the country in two, and therefore lose not only the war but the country. That was the great problem."
Passers-by stop to watch as flames envelope a young Buddhist monk, Saigon, October 5th, 1963. The man sits impassively in the central market square, he has set himself on fire performing a ritual suicide in protest against governmental anti-Buddhist policies. Presented by vietnampix.com
One has to wonder what our nation's top lawyer meant by "get rid of him."
President Kennedy, in September 1963 interviews with CBS made himself clear on US policy:
"I don't think that unless a greater effort is made by the Government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it—the people of Viet-Nam—against the Communists. We are prepared to continue to assist them, but I don't think that the war can be won unless the people support the effort, and, in my opinion, in the last two months the Government has gotten out of touch with the people. The repressions against the Buddhists, we felt, were very unwise. Now all we can do is to make it very clear that we don't think this is the way to win. It is my hope that this will become increasingly obvious to the Government, that they will take steps to try to bring back popular support for this very essential struggle."
With those words, it is patently clear the Kennedy administration was troubled by events in Vietnam in the early 1960s.
The emergence of this Buddhist crisis in 1963 was very important. The main religion in Vietnam was Buddhism, with 70 percent of the population following that religion. Only 10 percent were Roman Catholics, which included Diem, and many others in the upper crust, a legacy of French colonialism.
We'll mention here that experts have written about the facts that JFK was Catholic, that the Vatican the US consulted frequently about Vietnam, and that Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman, the Catholic Archbishop of New York, was involved.
This Buddhist issue will come up again, with major implications for US forces deployed to the northernmost Quang Tri Province and Khe Sanh.
The generals who betrayed President Ngo Dinh Diem. This photo was taken at the Republic of Vietnam Anniversary, October 26th, 1963, five days before the coup d'etat. Left: General Duong Van Minh, General Le Van Kim, Colonel Nguyen Van Y, General Tran Van Don. (Colonel Nguyen Van Y, Chief of Saigon Police, was later jailed by the three Generals in this picture.) Photo and text presented by Long Live Vietnam.
CIA paved the way for a group of South Vietnamese generals to launch a coup, and, in November 1963 they did that. They then killed Diem. He was replaced by Nguyen Van Thieu, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of South Vietnam. President Kennedy was assassinated that same month. We do not mean to imply any relationship, but simply wish to highlight that two "significant others" in the Vietnam situation were now gone. US Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson became president, and American involvement would become very active during his administration.
It was becoming increasingly clear to Ho Chi Minh that the tide was turning his way. Group 559's efforts were paying off, infiltration rates into the South were increasing, recruiting was up, the South was in disarray, and he American president had been murdered, an obvious traumatic political event in the US.
Map of Ho Chi Minh Trail courtesy of "Going to Tchepone: OPLAN El Paso," by John M. Collins. Presented by US Defense Technical Information Center.
As with any growth industry, Hanoi saw that it needed to increase its logistics capacity. Moving through the DMZ had its limitations, as did moving product by sea. So the North decided to rebuild the Ho Chi Minh Trail used against the Japanese and French. North Vietnamese troops were sent into Laos to reconfigure and upgrade the trail through Laos and into South Vietnam through any one of a number of routes. At this point, the movement was through the DMZ, by sea until the capture of a NVN freighter at Ving Ro Bay in 1965, and through the port of Kampong Sam (Sihanoukville) after 1962 through 1970.
A long line of porters carry supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North to South Vietnam. Photo credit: Trong Thanh, AP. Presented by Air Force Magazine.
There really was no such thing as "the trail;" instead this was a loose network of trails and dirt roads. The core of the Ho Chi Minh Trail proceeded out of North Vietnam through the Mu Gia Pass into eastern Laos, then traveled south to Tchephone, Laos and other points south, with off-shoot feeders into South Vietnam, through gaps, one of which was through the Khe Sanh Gap along Route 9 all the way to the sea coast and to points south, all the way Saigon and the Mekong delta.
This next map zooms in on part of Route 9, a critical part to our story and to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Laotian panhandle at midpoint. courtesy of "Going to Tchepone: OPLAN El Paso," by John M. Collins. Presented by US Defense Technical Information Center.
What these maps do not show is the terrain. We recommend you read John Collins' report to get a nice synopsis of the geography. We'd like you to imagine the following using the maps we do present:
- The Annamese Mountains run along the border between Laos and Vietnam. Few summits surpass 4,000 feet, but the range is marked by very steep (exceeding 45 degrees) grades. They are rugged, and the ridges and grades are plentiful.
- The Khe Sanh gap crosses east-west through the mountains to Tchephone, the only convenient corridor in that area. This "corridor" and the hills around it are multi-storied jungles thick with towering trees, vines, and bamboo, in many places impenetrable.
This all now brings us to Khe Sanh and Route 9 on our way to Hill 665 and the 3rd Marine Recon's Breaker Patrol.
Map showing Khe Sanh, Route 9, Lang Vei and significant hills (numbered with triangles). Presented by US Special Forces, "Lang Vei: Tanks in the wire," by Rob Krott.
Khe Sanh ville was located on Route 9, in Quang Tri province. Route 9 has been referred to by Colonel John Collins, USA (Ret.) this way:
“The only east-west ‘turnpike’ across Laos, Route 9 was once a passing air post road connecting Quang Tri Province on the Tonkin Gulf coast with the town of Savannakhet on the Mekong River, a distance of 200 miles.”
Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) was located about two miles from the ville, 10 miles from Laos and 15 miles from the DMZ. Walter J. Boyne, writing "Airpower at Khe Sanh" published in the August 1998 Air Force Magazine, described KSCB this way:
"The combat base was located in the midst of four valley corridors and was surrounded by tall, forested hills, some rising as high as 4,000 feet. The base itself was on a flat plateau and was about a mile long and one-half mile wide. The laterite soil was good for digging trenches and bunkers."
By 1962, South Vietnam’s western border with Laos loomed increasingly important, largely because of the infiltration routes that were developing and expanding. The Viet Cong were also slipping back and forth between Laos and South Vietnam and were using Laos as a safe haven, as they did against the French. In effect, the NVA was using Route 9 as an extension of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in South Vietnam as they infiltrated troops eastward toward Hue City and Danang near the coastline.
A view of the Khe Sanh Combat Base taken from the top of Hill 950. The river valley and parts of the river can be seen in the middle of the photo. Year unknown. Presented by Khe Sanh Veterans Home Page.
As a result, American special forces were placed on the ground farther north in 1962, at Khe Sanh ville. This confirmed the growing understanding that the Quang Tri Province and Khe Sanh carried strategic importance. The special forces were driven in by truck and set up a security perimeter. The South Vietnamese Army, known as the ARVN, built an airstrip outside Khe Sanh ville in late 1962. US helicopters and O-1B (Piper Cubs) arrived.
This is a Special Forces photo of NVA trucks in Laos. Photo posted by George Curtis, presented by popasmoke.com
The special forces’ missions were many: conduct border surveillance operations along the Vietnam-Laotian border, gather information on North Vietnamese troop movements, prevent movements into South Vietnam along the Route 9 corridor, and serve as an advisory team to the US Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), which itself had been formed by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in February 1962 to run the war.
The Special Forces first built its camp at Khe Sanh in 1962. It was redesignated A-101 in 1965. Khe Sanh was turned over to III Marine Amphibious Force (MAF) and the camp was relocated to Old Lang Vei on or about December 19, 1966. The SOG did not set up its Forward Operating Base (FOB) until late 1966.
This is a photo of NVA in a fight during Tet 1968. Presented by popasmoke.com
MACV was set up to assist the RVN armed forces to maintain internal security against subversion and insurgency and resist external aggression. With headquarters in Saigon, MACV controlled all of the US Armed Forces in Vietnam, though initially the special forces were outside MACV's grasp.
In this 1964 photo, a US military advisor and South Vietnamese troops patrol a point where the trail entered South Vietnam. On the right are crude benches offering a resting place for those carrying supplies. AP photo. Presented by Air Force Magazine.
A secret radio-rely site in Laos called Leghorn. It became a SOG relay site after January 1967, Presented by onetao.com
A unit known as Special Forces Operational Detachment “A” Team (SFOD-A) A1/123 set up its original camp near the ville in July 1962. It was replaced by A1/131, both from the 2st SFGA in Okinawa.
One-Zero Team from the 5th Special Operations Group. This picture shows a SOG Recon Team and is presented to give a glimpse at what these men looked like. It is not associated with the A team discussed in this report. Presented by onetao.com
You will recall that an "A-Team" was an operational unit. We believe the unit had about 12 men assigned. Temporary Duty (TDY) teams came from 1st SOG in Okinawa and were replaced in late 1964 by permanent change of station (PCS) teams from the 5th Special Forces Group (5th SFG) (Airborne) activated at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, in September 1961. The 5th SFG had its own numbering system for its units in early 1965. Its Charlie Company was headquartered at Danang to the southeast on the South China Sea. Its detachments carried the A-100 series of unit designations, to coincide with the fact that they were stationed in I Corps, the northern most corps. A-101 was at Khe Sanh.
TDY teams arrived at Khe Sanh in July 1962 on six month tours. The last TDY team, SFOD-A 323, came on temporary duty in August 1964 from the 1st SFG. Charlie Company 5th SGF operated about ten camps like the one at Khe Sanh and four Mobile Strike Force Detachments, known as the “Mike Forces.”
In the early years, 1961-1962, the special forces pretty well ran their paramilitary programs on their own. But in 1962-1963, the MACV gradually took on more and more control.
Not only were the special forces arriving, but so were fixed and rotary winged aircraft.
HMM-362 UH-34 Seahorse helicopters on the deck at Soc Trang, RVN, in 1962, with tent city accommodations and all. Photo credit: Cpl. Barry F. MacDonnell, USM, attached to Shufly, published in the April 2002 edition of Leatherneck magazine. Presented by Barry MacDonnell.
The Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (HMM-362), Marine Aircraft Group 16 (MAG-16), 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), was ordered to RVN and arrived at an old Japanese fighter strip at Soc Trang, 85 miles south-southwest of Saigon, on April 15, 1962. This was four months after the first American helicopters arrived.
"WW-10", one of H&MS-16s UH-34Ds. Presented by popasmoke.com
This was the first operational Marine Corps unit to deploy to Vietnam. The operation was dubbed "Shufly." HMM-362 was commanded by Lt. Col. Archie J. Clapp. The unit came to be known as "Archie's Angels." They brought 24 UH-34 Seahorse helicopters and received three OE-1 Birddog fixed-wing Cessna observation aircraft and a C-117 Skytrain for logistics.
Shufly was set up as a multi-sqaudron rotation exercise, so other units then rotated in and out. Their missions included airborne assault carrying mostly ARVN and special forces troops into battle, troop extraction, logistics, and rescue. During HMM-362's stay, every helicopter was hit by enemy fire but no Marines were lost.
Aerial view of Marine helicopter flight line at Danang shortly after Shufly's relocation to I Corps in September 1962. Photo credit: Official USMC Photo. Source: "U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964." Presented by popasmoke.com
The USAF deployed the F-102 "Delta Dagger" to Thailand in 1961 and to Tan Son Nhut AB, near Saigon,Vietnam in March 1962. She was better known as the "Deuce." On January 4, 1963, HMM-162 Shufly aircraft started operating from Danang Air Base (AB), farther north, in I Corps. Danang Air Base (AB) was located in the Quang Nam Province along the South China Sea coast in I Corps. It had been a French base.
From summer 1963 through mid-1964, F-102 aircraft would deploy from the Philippines to Tan Son Nhut and Danang bases
In February 1964 USAF F-100 "Super Sabres," nicknamed "The Hun," which had been operating from bases in Thailand against enemy targets in Laos were also deployed to South Vietnam, Danang AB included.
This was the official beginning of the Vietnam War for the US. As a result, conventional military forces entered the fray in ever increasing numbers.
Following the Tonkin Resolution, those USAF F-100Ds deployed to Danang began flying combat air patrols and ground attack missions over North Vietnam.
On September 17, 1964, shortly after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (MAG-16), 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), authorized five Marine HMM-365 officers to proceed from Okinawa, Japan to a classified base in Vietnam for seven days "in connection with Marine matters." They led a team of seven officers and 28 enlisted men to Danang on September 28, 1964. They arrived that same day. Their job was to look things over. Orders then started flowing to others in the squadron. They were told they were going "south," not allowed to utter the word, Vietnam.
Marines from HMM-365 arriving at Danang AB, RVN, October 7, 1964. Presented by HMM-365 on angelfire.com
A Marine VMGR-152 KC-130F landed at Danang on October 7, 1964. The KC-130F brought an advanced party for the full deployment of HMM-365. American and RVN flags were flying.
Some elements of an outfit known as Marine Task Element, Vietnam had already been flying combat missions, including air assault (strike) carrying, for the most part, Vietnamese army and special forces units, logistic flights, administrative flights, reconnaissance, search and rescue, and training of indigenous units. There were 24 Marine helicopters already there, of which 22 were fully operational. This advanced party flew 14 of those 22 on combat missions the next day, October 8.
Danang Air Base circa October 1964. Presented by angelfire.com
Full deployment of the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was essentially completed by April 1965.
5th SFGA HQ, Nha Trang, was next to the air base and also fronted the rice paddies that led to the western mountains. Photo credit: daithiva at webshots.com
Staging out of Nha Trang, its detachments operated and manned 270 different locations and trained and led indigenous and irregular forces and ARVN regulars throughout the country. By 1964, the 5th SFG had over 1,200 American troops and 20,000 CIDG troops at its camps throughout all corps of South Vietnam.
The years 1964-1965 marked many major milestones for US forces. We cannot cover them all here. The war in the south was going well for the enemy, and the US knew it. The Gulf of Tonkin crisis occurred in August 1964, the Congress passed a resolution authorizing President Johnson to do what he thought he had to do.
General Westmoreland took command of MACV to get things organized. The Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign over North Vietnam and Laos began, and the Pentagon decided it was time for the Marines to get in the fight.
In short, officially, the war was on. Unlike envisioned by President Kennedy, we were now moving the war from a South Vietnamese War supported by American advisors to an American war employing the South Vietnamese. As a result, MACV's character changed from that of an advisor to the RVN to a US combatant command.
We'll now stay focused on Khe Sanh. Let's move to the next section.
Khe Sanh gains in strategic importance, the Marines arrive, 1965