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 Vietnam Primer (Part 2)

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PostSubject: Vietnam Primer (Part 2)   Mon Nov 08, 2010 3:03 pm

The "lessons learned" from these two experiences are so glaringly
apparent that it is not necessary to spell them out. There remains but to
examine the main reasons why the practice of "pushing on" persists at the
expense of conservation of force. They are, in order of importance and

(1) The greenness of commanders of the smaller tactical units and the
emotional confusion deriving from the momentum with which they
are projected afield via the helicopter lift followed by the dash
to form a defensive circle around the LZ (landing zone). This
sprint-start blocks understanding that the pace thereafter as the
unit deploys must be altered radically. The jolt comes of the
abrupt shift from high gear to low. It is not enough to "slow
down to a fast trot." Prudence requires nothing more or less
than a tight reining-in for a fully observant and fully secured

(2) Pressure from higher commands to "get on with it." There is
rarely any such urgency except when some other unit has become
heavily engaged and is gravely endangered. Even then, making
sure of the degree of urgency to avoid making a bad situation
worse is the primary obligation of higher command. Too often the
unit sent post-haste on a rescue act has emerged having taken far
greater punishment en route than the unit to be rescued. Last,
it should be noted that such pressures from above are exerted
much less frequently in Vietnam than in Korea or in World War II.

(3) The assignment of a predetermined "objective" that while hardly
warranting the name implies that Unit Alpha must either link with
Unit Bravo at Point Niner by 1100 or prove itself remiss. Often
no situational urgency exists, and the obstacles on the march may
be greatly unlike for the two units and not have been tactically
plotted or analyzed. There is nothing wrong with the designation
of the rendezvous point. The error is made in the assignment of
a definite hour. Each unit must be allowed to cope properly with
its own march problems. The first arriving simply take up a
defensive posture until the second closes.

(4) Selecting in advance the location of the night perimeter when too
little thought has been given to the stress and unavoidable delay
which may be imposed upon the unit by natural obstacles or minor
and harassing enemy elements. Forced marches in these conditions
are usually attributable to the designation of what the map or
prior reconnaissance has indicated would be a viable LZ. Even if
it so turns out, it may not be worth the striving, if the
marching force arrives in a state of exhaustion. A unit closing
on its night position, and having to go at its defensive
preparation piecemeal just as darkness descends, is in an acutely
vulnerable position. There are some marked examples from Paul
Revere IV, fought in December, 1966, that deserve careful regard.
The troops were put under a heavy and possibly unnecessary
handicap by an extended march and late arrival at the ground to
be defended. Their lack of time in which to organize properly
gave the enemy an opening advantage. Nonetheless, there was no
panic. The NVA surprise achieved only limited success. The
salient feature of these actions was the counter-surprising
ability of the average U.S. rifleman to react quickly, move
voluntarily and without awaiting an order to the threatened
quarter, and get weapons going while the position was becoming
rounded-out piecemeal under the pressure of direct fire.



The word "jungle" is too loosely used by U.S. Army combat troops in
Vietnam to permit of broad generalizations about what tactical formation
best serves security during movement and conservation of force should
significant contact ensue. The term is misapplied every day. Men fresh
from a fight say something like this, "We engaged them in impossibly dense
jungle." Then a detailed description, or a firsthand visit to the premises,
reveals it was nothing of the kind; it was merely the thickest bush or
heaviest tropical forest that they had yet seen.

So for the purpose at hand some definition is thought necessary, rough
though it may be. If troops deployed in line can proceed at a slow walk,
with one man being able to see three or four others without bunching, and
each having a view around him somewhere between 20 and 30 meters in depth,
this is not jungle, though it may be triple-canopied forest. The
encumbrance to movement out of tangled vegetation and the extreme limiting
of personal horizon due to the obstruction of matted vines, clumped bamboo,
or banyan forest with dense undergrowth such as the "wait-a-minute" thorn
entanglement are evidence of the real thing irrespective of how much
sunlight permeates the forest top. The impediment to movement and the
foreshortening of view are the essential military criteria. When we speak
of jungle we therefore mean the condition of the forest in which forward
movement is limited to 300-500 meters per hour, and to make this limited
progress troops must in part hack their way through.

When any troop body - our own or the enemy's - is thus confronted, it
cannot in any real sense maneuver; and the use of that verb is a self-
contradiction. The troop body can only imperfectly respond to immediate
pressures which bring one man closer to another in the interests of mutual
survival and the organic will to resist. The unit so proceeding and not
yet engaged is best advised to advance single file for lack of any more
reasonable alternative. Its point - the cutting edge - should be not more
than 200 meters to the fore, to conserve energy and insure the most prompt
possible collection in emergency. Serving as both the alarm element and
the trail-breaker, the point needs to be rotated at not more than one-hour
intervals, for work sharing. To broaden the front and advance in platoon
columns doubles the risk and the work without accelerating the rate of
advance. Should both fronts become engaged simultaneously, being equally
compromised, the existence of two fronts compounds the problem of over-all
control and unified response. The column in file, hit at its front, may
more readily withdraw over the route already broken or reform forward and
align on the foremost active element, which rarely may extend over more
than a two-squad front.

The data basis on such encounters makes clear that U.S. infantry in
Vietnam can withstand the shock of combat under these supremely testing
conditions. A number of the sharpest company-size actions in the 1966
campaigning were fought and won in dense jungle, and several of these
encounters have become celebrated. On the other hand, the same data basis
indicates that this is not a productive field for our arms, and for the
following reasons:

(1) The fight on average becomes joined at ranges between 12 and 20
meters, which is too close to afford any real advantage to our
man-carried weapons.

(2) Should the top canopy of the jungle be upwards of 40-50 feet high
our smokes other than WP (white phosphorus) cannot put up a high
enough plume for the effective marking of a position.

(3) Supporting fires, to avoid striking into friendly forces, must
allow too wide an error margin to influence the outcome

(4) Mortars are of no use unless they can be based where overhead
clearance is available. A highly workable technique being
employed by units in Vietnam is to fly the mortars into the
defensive perimeter, LZ permitting, each night and lifting them
out prior to movement.

(5) The advance of reinforcement is often erratic, always ponderous,
and usually exhausting.

(6) Medevac, where not impossible, is almost invariably fraught with
high unacceptable risk.

In the true jungle the enemy has more working for him than in any
other place where we fight him. But the added difficulties imposed by
nature cannot exclude the necessity for engaging him there from time to
time. It is enough here to spell out the special hazards of operating in
an environment that, more than any other, penalizes unsupported engagement
by the U.S. rifle unit and calls for maximum utilization of heavy support
fires at the earliest possible moment. All-important to the unit commander
is timely anticipation of the problem and the exercise of great caution
when operating in dense jungle.

On the more positive side, according to the record, the jungle as to
its natural dangers is not the fearsome environment that the imagination
tends to make it. In all of the fighting operations analyzed, not a single
U.S. soldier was reported as having been fatally bitten by a snake or
mauled by a wild animal. In Operation Paul Revere IV, one man was killed
by a falling tree during a clearing operation, the only such casualty
recorded. Leeches are an affliction to be suffered occasionally; troops
endure them and even jest about them, knowing that the discomfort will be
eased shortly. The same is true of "jungle rot," a passing ailment of the
skin that usually affects the hands and forearm; it comes of abrasions
caused by pushing through thorny jungle growth. A few days under the sun
will dry it up. Most of the fighters who get it do not even bother to take
leave; they bandage the sores while they are afield, then take the time-
and-sun cure on their return to base camp. Losses due to malaria can be
kept minimal by strict adherence to the prescribed discipline. One major
additional safeguard, within control by the unit leader, is that he
refrains from marching and working his men to the point of full exhaustion,
a common sense command practice in all circumstances.



According to the data basis, the U.S. infantry line in Vietnam
requires no stimulation whatever to its employment of organic weapons when
engaged. The fire rate among patrols in heavy, if brief, contact is not
infrequently 100 percent. Within the rifle company, during engagement
prolonged for several hours, the rate will run 80 percent or more and the
only nonfirers will be the rearward administrative element or the more
critical cases among the early wounded. It is not unusual for one man to
engage with three or more weapons during the course of a two-hour fight.

Except during the first five minutes of unexpected engagement, which
almost impels an automatic rate, fire control is generally good. The men
themselves, even in unseasoned units, quickly raise the cry: "Hold your
ammo! Fire semiautomatic!" No U.S. infantry unit, operating in
independence, has been forced to withdraw or extract, or made to suffer a
critical tactical embarrassment, as a result of ammunition shortage.
Gunners on the M-60 go lighter than in other wars; the average carry is
1,000 rounds, with 1,200 being about the outside limit. But in no single
instance have the machineguns ceased fire during a fight because the
position had run out of machinegun ammunition.

When suddenly confronted by small numbers of the enemy, the Americans
firing their M-16's will in the overwhelming majority of cases miss a
target fully in view and not yet turning. Whether the firing is done by a
moving point or by a rifleman sitting steady in an ambush, the results are
about the same - five total misses out of six tries - and the data basis
includes several hundred such incidents. The inaccuracy prevails though
the usual such meeting is at 15 meters or less, and some of the firing is
at less than 10 feet. An outright kill is most unusual. Most of the waste
comes from unaimed fire done hurriedly. The fault much of the time is that
out of excitement the shooter points high, rather than that the M-16 bullet
lacks knockdown power, a criticism of it often heard from combat-
experienced NCO's. The VC winged but only wounded by an M-16 bullet, then
diving into the bush, makes a getaway three times out of four, leaving only
his pack and a blood trail.

As to effectiveness over distance, until recently he data basis
deriving from 6 major and approximately 50 minor operations contained not
one episode of VC or NVA being killed by aimed fire from one or more M-16's
at ranges in excess of 60 meters. Then, out of Operation Cedar Falls in
January, 1967, there developed 6 examples of such killings at ranges
upwards of 200 meters. The difference can be explained by the nature of
the terrain. Most of the kills during this operation were made in the open
rice paddy.

The M-16 has proved itself an ideal weapon for jungle warfare. Its
high rate of fire, lightweight, and easy-to-pack ammunition have made it
popular with its carrier. But it cannot take the abuse or receive the
neglect its older brother, the M-1, could sustain. It must be cleaned and
checked out whenever the opportunity affords. Commanders need assign top
billing to the maintenance of the weapon to prevent inordinate battlefield
stoppages. The new field cleaning kit assists the purpose.

The fragmentation hand grenade, a workhorse in the infantryman's
arsenal of weapons in Korea, is of limited value in jungle fighting. The
record shows that all infantry fights in the jungle are characterized by
close in-fighting at ranges from 12 to 20 meters and that the fragmentation
grenade cannot be accurately delivered because of the dense, thickly
intertwined and knotted jungle undergrowth that blocks its unrestricted
flight. In numerous cases it was reported that the grenade striking a vine
and being deflected would then rebound on its thrower, causing friendly

The soldier enters battle with the average of four hand grenades
strapped to his already overloaded equipment. He has been taught in
training that the grenade is the weapon for close in-fighting. He learns
empirically about the difficulty attendant on using a grenade in the bush.
Many times the record shows that he had to learn his lesson the hard way.
The data basis shows that fewer than 10 percent - 6 percent being the usage
factor of World War II - of the grenades carried into battle are ever used.
The configuration of the grenade itself makes it cumbersome and therefore
dangerous, as it is carried on the outside of the soldier's equipment and
is susceptible to any vine and snag that tugs at the safety pin.

Out of this research then it may be reckoned that the soldier's load
could be lightened by two hand grenades and that all commanders should
closely analyze their unit's techniques for the employment of this weapon.
Procedures must be developed and then practiced by troops on specially
prepared jungle hand grenade courses. The trainer should bear in mind
during this instruction that post-operation analysis of World War II and
Korea showed that the soldier who had training in sports always excelled
with the grenade. The information collected in Vietnam fully supports this
conclusion. The old byword that was once synonymous with the art of
grenade throwing, "Fire in the Hole," should be brought back in use to warn
all that a grenade has been dispatched and cover must be sought.



Not one example has been unearthed of a critical tactical
disarrangement or defeat suffered by a U.S. infantry unit of any size or by
an artillery battery because of radio failure or a break in communications.
Many RT's (radio operators) get shot up and their conspicuous equipment
invariably attracts the enemy fire. Units are avoiding this hazard by
concealing the PRC-25 in standard rucksacks. But no less invariably, the
shift to another frequency or the improvising of a relay saves the day. In
the defense of LZ Bird on December 26, 1966, all radios went out for one
reason or another during the high tide of action. Nonetheless, there
resulted no serious impairment to the action of the small infantry and
artillery fractions generating counterattack within the perimeter, though
heavy interdiction of enemy escape routes might have been brought in a few
minutes earlier had not radios failed. That failure only slightly blurred
the aftermath to one of the more spectacular U.S. victories of the year.

Despite the technological gain in our field communications since the
Korean War, and it has been truly noteworthy, a serious gap exists in the
flow of critical information during the time of combat. The pinch is most
acute at platoon and company level. Some of it is due to the far greater
mobility of operations in Vietnam, compared to anything we have experienced
in the past, and it may also be in part attributed to the peculiar nature
of the war. There are no "little fights" in Vietnam; platoon-size and
company-size engagements compel the direct attention of top command. It is
not unusual for the company commander, at the time of engaging the enemy,
to have his battalion, brigade, and division commanders all directly
overhead, trying to view the action. Each has some reason for being there.
But their presence does put an unprecedented strain on the leader at the
fighting level, and also on his radios, as everyone "comes up" on the
engaged unit's "freq" to give advice. There are frequently too many
individuals trying to use the same frequency to permit of any one message
running to length. So brevity is a rule worked overtime, too often to the
exclusion of fullness of necessary information. A rule that must be
followed is that except for rare and unusual circumstances all commanders
should follow established radio procedures and not "come up" on the radio
of the next subordinate unit.

One further glaring gap is to be noted. When the unit, having had a
hard go in combat, is relieved or reinforced by another which must continue
the fight, very rarely does the commander going out tell the full story,
giving the detail of situation, to the incoming commander. Just as rarely
does the latter insist on having it. This is an understandable human
reaction, since both men are under the pressure of the problem immediately
facing their units in a moment of high tension, the one withdrawing and
worrying about extricating casualties, the other bent on deploying under
fire without loss of time. But the danger of not having a full and free
exchange as the relief begins is that the second unit, left uninformed,
will at unnecessary cost attack on the same line and repeat the mistakes
made by the first unit. The record shows unmistakably that lessons bought
by blood too frequently have to be repurchased.

Another weakness common among junior leaders is the inaccurate
reporting of the estimate of the situation. Estimates are many times
either so greatly exaggerated or so watered-down that they are not
meaningful to the next higher commander who must make critical decisions as
to troop employment and allocation of combat power. The confusion and
noise of the battlefield are two reasons why faulty estimates are made;
overemotionalism and the sense of the drama are others. These factors,
coupled with the judgment of an impulsive commander who feels that he must
say something on the radio--even if it is wrong--are the crux of the
problem. Commanders must report the facts as they see them on the
battlefield. If they don't know the situation, they must say just that!



Strictures against the use of trails by U.S. forces during the
approach may be uttered ad nauseam, with emphasis upon the increased danger
of surprise and ambush. The utterance does not, and will not, alter the
reality that more than half of the time the U.S. rifle platoon or company
is moving it will go by trail the full distance or during some stage of the
journey. In such an area as the Iron Triangle, trails are unavoidable if
one is to move overland at all; the alternative is to move around by sampan
and stream. The bush and forest-covered flats flanking Highway No. 13 have
a network of crisscrossing trails, with as many as five intersections in
one acre of ground. It is humanly impossible to move across such a tract
without getting onto a trail.

"What's wrong with it? That's where we find the VC," is an argument
with a certain elementary logic in its favor. That is, provided that
maximum security measures in moving by trail are punctiliously observed.
What measures are most effective under varying conditions is a moot
subject, awaiting statement and standardization before hardening into a
doctrine. As matters stand, the young infantry commander gropes his way
and makes his decisions empirically, according to the various pressures
bearing upon him.

For the rifle company not in file column but formed more broadly for
movement toward the likelihood of contact, the commander again has no firm
doctrinal guide. The formations adopted vary widely, and the reasoning
that supports some of the patterns is quite obscure. Within one battalion
there will be as many designs as there are companies for traversing exactly
the same piece of terrain. If it is reasonable to believe that there must
be one optimum formation that best safeguards the security of the body in
movement, then letting it be done six different ways is hardly reasonable.

"Main trails" or "speed trails" in the Vietnam bush average not more
than 3 1/2 feet in width except at intersections. When a unit goes by
trail through the heavy bush, it has no alternative to single file.
Practical working distance between the point and the front of the main body
should vary according to the roughness of the terrain and how far one can
see ahead. In Vietnam, as almost anywhere else, the flatter the ground the
straighter the trail; and if the ground is cut up, then trails are
tortuous. The scouts should be at 20 and 10 meters beyond the van of the
point squad, observation permitting. The point squad ought to be relieved
every hour to assure continued vigilance. At each relief it buttonhooks
into the bush until the main body comes up, though this in not the practice
if the column is approaching an intersecting trail or stream bed or coming
to any built-up area. Once in sight of a stream crossing or trail mouth,
the scout element (including the point squad) proceeds to check it out,
after reporting the sighting to the main body. Its surest maneuver is a
hook forward through the bush over both flanks that should close beyond the
intersection in sufficient depth to abort any ambush.

If the main body closes to within sight of the point while it is so
moving no real additional jeopardy will result, provided the column marks
time and maintains interval. During such a halt, any attempt by the main
body to form a partial perimeter will merely cause bunching. Depending on
conditions of terrain, visibility, and like factors, the rear of the point
may be anywhere from 200 to 50 meters ahead of the lead platoon's front
man. At lesser distance than 50 meters its security value dwindles. The
VC will let scouts pass an ambush to get at the point, or will pass up the
point to hit the main body, thereby doubling confusion to the column. The
double hook forward by the point cuts the danger for all concerned.

Nature itself limits the threat of lateral ambush against a column
going by jungle trail as opposed to one going through tall elephant grass
or over a path where banks or bushes on either side offer concealment for
the enemy. The bush is too thick; to put fire on the trail, the field of
fire from Claymore or machinegun would be too short; too few targets would
be within reach of any one weapon. A 5- to 10-meter break between squads--
which does not retard movement--enhances march security.

Where making its circular deployment to check out any suspected ambush
site, the scout element should be supported by the machinegun, which is
best placed with No. 2 man of the point. An alternative to this move is to
have the gunner reconnoiter the bush forward with fire; if the bush is
extra thick, the M-79 may do better. The RT is with the point's last man,
who serves as breakaway, running the word back should there be instrument

When a stay-behind party is dropped from the column to check on
whether it is being trailed, it should peel off from the front of the main
body and enter the bush without halting the latter's advance. Its maneuver
is S-shaped so that it takes up automatically a full ambush posture instead
of being a simple fire block.

The column moves on and through the stay-behind group (2 fire teams,
with a machinegun in the down-trail team). The forward team springs the
trap as the enemy party comes even. The rear team fires only if the enemy
doubles back or is too numerous for the forward weapons.

Other than in attack on road columns, the enemy does not appear to use
front-and-rear ambushes, i.e., the delivery of surprise fire from cover by
a block up front, quickly followed by an attack on rear or midway of the
column. Except along the wood line of a clearing the "impenetrable" jungle
does not lend itself to such tactic in assault against a column moving by
trail. More favorable to the design of the VC and NVA is their use of a
killing fire from out of concealment against the head of the column from a
wide spot in the trail. This may be automatic fire or a command-detonated
mine. Their Chinese made version of the Claymore mine is a potent weapon
when so employed. It may be hidden within a hollow tree or fixed with
camouflage in a clump of foliage. The mine is set to command a long
stretch of trail and is one of the hazards of moving along it.

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Vietnam Primer (Part 2)
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