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 Subject: Vietnam Primer (Part 3)

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PostSubject: Subject: Vietnam Primer (Part 3)   Mon Nov 08, 2010 3:04 pm

There is no warning and no follow-through; it is a one-weapon affair.
During Operation Attleboro, a single command-detonated Claymore set in a
tree killed or wounded 26 men strung out over 40 meters of trail. It was
fired from 5 meters forward of the front man. The column was rushing from
battle urgency and the scout element did not take enough time to look over
the ground thoroughly. The first scout alone had been permitted to pass
uptrail beyond the weapon. Obviously the formation--point and the front of
the main body--had become closed too tightly. On the wide trail the
advance was moving in a fashion that served only to put more people at the
mercy of the weapon. Had they been following exactly in single file, each
body would have given more protection to the men that followed.

Periodic "cloverleafing" or some variation of that movement by the
column in movement is supposed to be SOP for field operations in Vietnam.
The object is to beat out a limited area around the base of the command
during a security halt or rest halt or before the troops set up the night
defense. Four patrols may be sent out anywhere from 100 to 500 meters for
this all-around sweep.

Among the cloverleaf variations possible, one has clearly obvious
advantages. The preferred option, "A," affords a double check timewise
both forward and rearward of the column's route of advance and makes
maximum use of the deployment. At all stages of the sweep it also exposes
a smaller element to the danger of surprise and ambush. The "buttonhook,"
used extensively by the Australians for ambushing an enemy force that is
following one of their columns, is in essence the covering of one quadrant
of the four-circle cloverleaf. It is executed usually over a much smaller

When a company- or platoon-size patrol conducts sweeps of the vicinity
before setting up for night defense, the priorities are:
(1) The arc covering its line of advance into the ground.
(2) The intervening ground between the perimeter and the LZ, and
(3) The sector judged least defensible. Particularly if darkness is
imminent, organization of the position (meaning the assignment of
sectors and placing of men and weapons, but not necessarily
digging in) precedes the dispatch of watering parties and the
placement of LP's.

Division and brigade commanders afield stoutly contend that the
cloverleaf kind of precaution is always taken by patrols, or by a company
moving cross country in search of the enemy. The same story is told at
battalion. Analysis of more than 100 company operations at the fighting
level reveals that the story very rarely stands up. The average junior
leader simply gives lip service to the principle. Just as trails are used
despite all taboos, most of the time little scouting takes place outward
from the U.S. column traversing them, despite all admonition. Contributing
to the almost habitual carelessness of junior leaders is a besetting
vagueness on the part of many superiors in stating the mission and making
it specific as to its several essentials. The unit should not be told to
"check out" a certain area, or to "run a patrol through the jungle patch
ahead and return," as if it were the simple problem of putting a policeman
on a beat. Each patrol should have a stated purpose. It risks hazard to
gain something; it must therefore be told what it is after. Prisoners?
Ambushing of the enemy? Destruction of a bridge? Caches? Location of a
suspected base camp? Observe signs of enemy movement but not engage? Seek
a trail entrance? The list of possibilities is long. But if the average
leader is given only a general instruction he will comply in the easiest
way, and nine times out of ten that means taking the trail, probably the
same trail going and coming. If he is told at the start, "Be at LZ Lazy
Zebra by 1800 for extraction," and he discovers that too little time has
been allowed to do anything well, the door is open for him to go forth and
do all things badly. Command must safeguard its upcoming patrol against
the danger of becoming trapped from having beaten over the same old route.



One large unresolved question is what formation is best for the rifle
company in movement under the conditions of the Vietnam war where the enemy
is highly elusive, seeks contact only when he expects to stage a surprise,
is adept at breaking contact and slipping away, and operates in a
countryside that well serves these tactics.

The VC and NVA are not everywhere, though they are apt to be met
anywhere, and hence all movement should be regulated accordingly. No
deployment is militarily sound which assumes that the enemy is not close
by. If that axiom were not true, there would be no rush to form the
defensive perimeter when the unit is dropped on the landing zone. Yet it
is too often disregarded in jungle movement by leaders who refuse to
believe that the enemy can strike without warning from out of nowhere

There is a great variety to the countryside. The less-dense jungle
has more the nature of a tropical forest in the matted thorn bush, clumped
bamboo, bamboo thicket, creepers, and lianas do not greatly impede
movement. There are vast stretches of still more open country, almost
treeless, flats covered only with elephant grass standing higher than any
living thing, barren volcanic hills, paddy lands uninterrupted save by
their own banks, and dikes that stretch on for miles.

Some areas are densely populated. Others are wholly abandoned, even
by the enemy. In January, 1967 a Special Forces patrol, which had been on
its own for 32 days, marched 230 kilometers in 22 days without seeing one
human being, domesticated animal, or habitation.

Vietnam is not "mostly untamed jungle." Large and decisively
important parts of it are cultivated flat land denuded of forest and bush
except along the stream banks. Almost as much of it is fertile, relatively
flat, not heavily forested or overgrown, but still undeveloped and almost
deserted. In the central plateau there are broad lava flows where no grass
grows. Some of the volcanic hills are boulder and slab-strewn and almost
barren of vegetation.

Any of these landscapes is likely to become battleground, and several
of them in combination may be crossed by a rifle company in a single day's

The question of what formation best serves military movement over such
a greatly diversified land may be answered only by thinking of what is
being sought: (1) security, (2) control, and (3) concentration of fire
power without undue loss of time and personnel. These are not in any way
separate aims; each reacts upon the others. Security and control are
desired so that fire concentration can be achieved when nothing else counts

So the precept must follow: the more complicated a formation and the
more numerous its parts, the greater the danger that control will be lost
in a moment of emergency, especially when the unit is moving over
countryside the nature of which prohibits visual contact between the
various elements.

Yet "the wedge," which has numerous variations, is the formation that
the average U.S. rifle company commander prefers to use during advance into
enemy country. It is extremely difficult to control during marches over
cut-up ground and possesses no inherent advantage in bringing fire power to
bear quickly against the threatened quarter. In fact, it has several
built-in handicaps.

The forward platoon in center and the two platoons right and left each
use a point, with scouts out. So there are never less than seven elements
to control. That is several too many, should the body have to re-form
suddenly to meet an assault from an unexpected direction. Thus formed, the
company extends over a wider area than if the columns were more compact,
though the advantage is decidedly marginal. Nothing else is to be said in
favor of the wedge, for its design neither strengthens security on the move
nor favors rapid and practical deployment for combat. If the formation
should be hit from either flank, greater confusion will ensue than with a
simpler pattern. Should the enemy be set up and ready to fight on a
concealed broad front directly to the fore, all three columns are likely to
become engaged before the commander has a chance to weigh whether full-
scale involvement is desirable.

On the other hand, suppose that the company is making its approach
march in 2-column formation. The width between columns should be
approximately equal to their length when the terrain permits. If either
column is hit from the flank and faces toward the fire, the other is
automatically in place to serve as a reserve and protect against a turning
maneuver. Further, if the advance guard (scouts and point) draws fire in
volume signifying enemy determination to stand, the force is in position
either to be committed whole at once or to fight on a narrower front with
half of its strength while keeping a 50 percent reserve.

When the enemy fire and the condition of the advance element permit,
the scouts and point should displace to rearward as the company shifts to
line of skirmishers, lest the whole organization be drawn willy-nilly into
a full-scale commitment. In the Vietnam fighting, according to the data
basis, the latter initial disarrangement occurs approximately half the time
in attacks on a fortified position. The scouts or the men in the point
become engaged and take losses; the lead platoon becomes scattered and
disorganized in the effort to extricate them; the fire line thereafter
gradually becomes reknit on ground too far forward, greatly to its
disadvantage and harshly limiting the supporting air and artillery fires.

Much is heard in Vietnam about VC and NVA employment of the inverted L
ambush. This tactic gets its effects from an intensifying concentration of
fire. The enemy normally fights out of timber or other natural cover, and
the flanking side usually runs parallel to a trail. The twin-column
company formation is far more properly disposed to cope with the L than is
the wedge or any eccentric formation, particularly if it is moving with a
few flankers out, a practice it should adopt wherever natural conditions
permit. In fact, almost anywhere that the enemy can use the L ambush
practically, our people can use flankers to serve as a buffer.

The righthand column, in the correct position, needs only face right
to engage. The lefthand column moves into line against the enemy force
blocking the line of movement. The company CP is located according to the
intensity of fire and availability of cover.

So confronted, the enemy loses any initial advantage in fire or
maneuver, and his problem of collecting forces to alter the terms of the
contest is probably more complex, since he had planned to execute a set
piece. The data basis is too limited to warrant generalizing about VC-NVA
tactical arrangements for exploiting the L ambush. But in the few examples
when the fight went to a finish, the enemy reserves were placed to support
the vertical bar of the L. This is the logical way to employ them if an
ultimate envelopment is the object.

Whether to accept line-against-line engagement on these terms, however
equal, is the prime question for the U.S. force commander from the start of
action. He may not have any option initially because his position may have
been weakened by early losses before he was able to get the feel of his
problem. At any stage it is preferable that, maintaining loose contact in
the interim, he backs away with the main body as promptly as he can. At
the same time he should call for maximum striking power against the enemy
positions. The L ambush, by reason of its configuration, is an ideal
target for field artillery and tactical air operating in combination. The
vertical bar is the prime target for the artillery--gun-target line
permitting--because it can be worked over with maximum economy and minimum
shifting of the guns. The horizontal bar is the proper mark for TAC Air
because the boundaries of the run may be more readily marked manually when
a withdrawal is perpendicular to the line of advance than when the strike
parallels the line of advance and withdrawal.

There is one postscript dealing with the enemy use of the L ambush.
The examples of record indicate that the enemy reserve will maneuver in an
attempt to block our line of withdrawal. The effort normally takes the
form of setting the ambush along the first stream or trail crossing on the
immediate rear. Withdrawal over the same route used in the advance is
therefore to be avoided. The movement should be an oblique from the open
flank where the enemy has not engaged.


To begin, at least one generalization is permissible. The enemy
-- VC or NVA -- has a full bag of tricks, a fair number of which we now
understand. Practically without exception they are not intricate. Most
of them depend for effectiveness on creating one of two illusions: either
(1), our side has caught the enemy off guard; or (2), he is ready, waiting,
and weak, and we have only to make the most of the opportunity.

One other generalization might well follow. The U.S. unit commander,
if he is to keep his guard up against ruses and ambushes, must be receptive
to the counsel of his subordinates and draw on the total of information
concerning the immediate presence of the enemy that has been collected by
his people. Nothing more greatly distinguishes U.S. generalship in
Vietnam than the ready communion between our higher commanders and their
subordinates at all levels in the interest of making operations more
efficient. If a general sets the example, why should any junior leader
hold back? For his own purposes, the best and the most reliable
intelligence that a small unit commander can go on is that which his own
men gather through movement and observation in the field.

On the bright side, the record shows unmistakably, with numerous cases
in point out of the 1966-7 period of fighting operations, that the average
U.S. soldier today in Vietnam has a sharper scouting sense and is more
alert to signs of the enemy than the man of Korea or World War II. The
environment has whetted that keenness and quickened his appreciation of any
indication that people other than his own are somewhere close by, either in
a wilderness or in an apparently deserted string of hamlets. He feels it
almost instinctively when the unit is on a cold trail. The heat of ashes
that look long dead to the eye, a few grains of moist rice still clinging
to the bowl, the freshness of footprints where wind and weather have not
had time to blur the pattern in the dust, fresh blood on a castoff bandage,
the sound of brush crackling in a way not suggesting other than movement by
man -- he gets these things. Walking through elephant grass, he will note
where over a fresh-made track the growth has been beaten down and bruised,
and with moisture still fresh on the broken grass he will guess that a body
of the enemy has moved through within the hour. These things are in the
record. Also in it are words like these: "We entered the village. It was
empty. But the smell of their bodies was strong, as if they had just got
out. They have a different smell than we do."

How the quickening process works, how the senses sharpen when soldiers
are alert to all phenomena about them, and how a commander may profit by
collecting all that his men know and feel about the developing situation,
is well illustrated by quoting directly from a post-combat interview of a
patrol out of 25th Division in early 1967:

Lieutenant: "I noticed that between 1700 and 1800 all traffic stopped
within the village. That was early and therefore unusual. The workers
disappeared. Women came along, rounded up the water buffalo, and quit the
area. People in the houses near the perimeter ate a quick evening meal and
go out. Everything went silent. I knew then something would happen."

Sergeant: "I saw people leaving the house to my right front about 25
meters. Then directly to my front, 150 meters off, the family left at the
same time. We took fire from the house when the enemy came on."

It is the task of the unit commander not only to stimulate a scouting
faculty in all hands but to welcome and weigh all field intelligence that
comes of so doing. Even the hunch of one man far down the line is never to
be brushed off; he may have a superior instinct for sensing a situation.

In one of the more tragic incidents during 1966 operations near the
Cambodian border, a company commander was warned by a Specialist 4
artillery observer before it happened. the company had spent the night in
defensive perimeter. An NVA soldier had walked into one of its trail
ambushes during the night, and the men working the LP's reported their
certainty that they had heard human movement all during the night in the
grass beyond them. When the company broke camp soon after first light, the
Specialist 4, viewing the ground over which it would advance that morning,
said: "Captain, don't go that way, you are walking into an ambush." This
advice was disregarded. The ambush was there. The losses were grievous.
Developments proved doubly that the Specialist 4 was a responsible soldier
whose judgments deserved respect. In the ensuing fight, the captain was
wounded and could no longer function. The Specialist 4 took charge of the
operation and with help brought the survivors through.

Whenever the enemy makes his presence obvious and conspicuous, whether
during movement or in a stationary and seemingly unguarded posture, it is
time to be wary and to ask the question: "Is this the beginning of some
design of his own, intended to suck us in by making us believe that we are
about to snare him?" This question should be asked before any operation,
whether it involves a division moving against the enemy or a small patrol
or rifle company beating out the bush in search of his presence. The
people we are fighting are not innocents and are rarely careless. They
bait their traps the greater part of the time by making themselves so seem.

In Operation Nathan Hale, June 1966, the opening onfall of the NVA
forces engaging was against three CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group
-- a paramilitary organization) companies at and around the Special Forces
camp at Dong Tre. In this, they were partially successful. The one
company outposting the nearby hills was overrun and took heavy losses. The
NVA was waiting outside the camp to strike the expected relief column; but
the CIDG Force, located inside the Dong Tre camp, was saved from disaster
when its ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) commander wisely resisted
the temptation to send it to relieve the beleaguered company. During the
day that followed air observers over the general area reported seeing enemy
groups in large numbers threading the valleys leading away from Dong Tre,
all moving in one direction. That was the picture the enemy intended
should be seen; he had already chosen his battle ground. As the U.S.
reaction expanded and the general fight developed, our forces deployed into
well-prepared and extremely hot LZ's where our softening-up fires had had
mainly the effect of drawing attention to where the landings would take
place. That in the end Operation Nathan Hale could be rightly claimed as
an American victory does not alter the fact that much of it need not have
been won in the hardest possible way. North Vietnam made much of it, and
in documents published to troops boasted that more than one thousand
Americans had been killed, an approximately 10 to 1 exaggeration. With a
more perfect collation of available intelligence from the start and in the
first days as the units deployed, it might have been a more resounding U.S.

Here, one clear distinction is in order. The NVA and VC are neither
everywhere nor phantomlike. Though they try to appear so, they are of
human flesh and must respond to their own nature, irrespective of the
disciplines given them within military organization. On the trail, or
during any movement in which they have no reason to suspect the near
presence of a U.S. or allied force, they are incessant chatterers and
otherwise noisy. Repeatedly they get sandbagged for carelessness. As to
their being everywhere, it would be easier to dispose of them if that were
true. Some of our line commanders at the lower levels get the idea after
fighting for a while in Vietnam that, whenever our columns move, the enemy
knows and invariably shadows them. Nothing in the data basis confirms it,
and indeed, with our vastly superior mobility due to helicopter deployment
over great distance, it would be humanly impossible for him to shadow every
assault by the rifle company or every prowl by the patrol. What the record
does say unmistakably is that a fair portion of the time he manages to get
on our heels. The moral plainly is that, in all movement afield, the
column should proceed as if detection may have occurred early, and should
take the necessary precautions to avert surprise.

It is a different problem when there is clear reason to believe that
the enemy knows of the presence of U.S. forces. Take one example of
numerous such incidents. This one is from Operation Crazy Horse. A
company column had been proceeding via a broad valley along the river
banks. At some low-lying hills it was held up for five minutes by direct
fire from two or three rifles at range of 100 meters or thereabouts. The
exchange was broken off without casualties on either side when the enemy
faded back. There was reason to suspect that the fire had come from an
enemy outpost, so placed not only to sound the alarm but to keep the attack
moving along the line of the enemy withdrawal. The suspicion was well
founded because not far beyond the initial encounter lay a well-prepared,
fortified position, with machineguns sited on ridges and the garrison
standing to, ready to defend them.

A few VC or NVA soldiers, acting as couriers, carriers, or such,
having a chance meeting with a U.S. column in movement, might get off a
quick shot or two before scuttling into the bush. But any such casual
group has a getaway on its mind primarily. This kind of haphazard fire is
quite different from steady delivery of small arms fire from one position,
though the latter is in small volume and persists for only a few minutes.
The latter, seemingly aimed to check or delay movement, may more likely
have the prime object of inviting it on. It should alert the unit
commander to the probable imminence of a prolonged fire fight, and he
should review his preparations accordingly.

So we speak here of the obvious or overt move, or attention-getting
activity in any form. Even a minor weapons exchange always alerts a unit.
But beyond that, the commander should take heed of any unusual
manifestation of sight or sound when his troops are seeking contact with
the enemy. One illustration comes out of Operation Paul Revere IV, and
while there is none other exactly like it, simple logic gives it overall

The rifle company had been moving over fairly open country not far
from the Cambodian border since first light. In late afternoon, it several
times encountered NVA soldiers moving singly and the scouts or point traded
fires with them, with varying results. Then as the company approached a
village, it heard the tumult of voices, shouts and cries, from children,
men, and women, as of many people making haste to get away before the
Americans arrived. But is it a natural thing for people fleeing for cover,
in the face of an armed advance, to call attention to their departure?
Without firing, the company deployed and surrounded the village, to find it
empty. It then moved on, following in the same direction that the
"refugees" had taken. Dark was at hand. Not far beyond the village the
company came to fairly clear ground slightly elevated that looked suitable
for night defense. Watering parties moved out to a nearby creek to
replenish supply. Before they could return, and while the perimeter was
still not more than half formed, the position was attacked by an NVA force
in company-plus strength. It had been deployed on ground over which the
watering parties moved. The most heartening part of the story is that the
U.S. company, on its first time in battle, sprang to its task, got its
defensive circle tied together quickly, and in a four-hour fight under
wholly adverse conditions greatly distinguished itself. In view of the
scenario, any conclusion that the enemy just happened to be set at the
right point is a little too much to allow for coincidence.

Mystification, like over optimistic anticipation, rates high in the
techniques of deception. We use ruses in our own cover planning; that the
enemy does the same, and that his designs are more primitive, relying less
on elaborate charades and more on the foibles of man's nature, should
occasion little surprise. Traps beset us only because of a reluctance on
the part of junior leaders to give the other side credit for that small
measure of cleverness. To outthink the enemy, it is necessary only to
reflect somewhat more deeply.

During the Tou Morong battle (Operation Hawthorne II) in June 1966, a
reconnaissance platoon had a rather unproductive morning. It came at last
to an enemy camp that was deserted. Several meters beyond it the main
trail branched off where two trails came together, both of them winding
uphill. At the intersection was a sign reading in Vietnamese: "Friend Go
This Way." There were two pointing fingers, one aimed at each uphill
trail. It was a time for caution and for reporting the find to higher
command. But the commander split his force and the divided platoon moved
upward via both trails. En route, both columns exchanged fires with a few
NVA soldiers who held their ground on both trails. There were light losses
on both sides. The two columns began to converge again as they approached
a draw commanded by a ridge fold from both sides. There they ran into
killing fire and were pinned in a fight that lasted through that afternoon,
all night, and until next morning. Before it ended, the great part of two
U.S. rifle companies and all the supporting fires that could be brought to
bear had been called in to help extricate the eight surviving able-bodied
men and the wounded of what had been a 42-man platoon.

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