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‘How did we get such good men?’

The American infantry in Vietnam


I spent over a decade documenting the experiences of my infantry battalion in the Vietnam War. Known as “the Professionals,” the men of the 5th/46th Infantry Battalion of the 198th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal (23rd) Infantry Division, fought from 1968 to 1971 in three of the four types of terrains encountered in the war: the mountains, the piedmont and the coastal plains of South Vietnam (excluding the Mekong Delta, which was occupied by one division during the war because of the huge logistical burden to sustain it there). What I learned is that our experiences are a microcosm of the U.S. infantry’s broader role in the Vietnam War.

While every soldier in Vietnam was important, as a general rule, approximately 10 troops supported every infantry soldier (Army or Marine) in the field. At the peak of the war in 1969, approximately 540,000 personnel were in country, but only 40,000 to 60,000 were in the field seeking to do battle with the enemy. In Vietnam, more than 70 percent of all casualties were suffered by the infantry maneuver battalions. In fact, casualty rates among the infantry divisions were two and a half times higher than those suffered in World War II.

Vietnam, for the infantry, was unlike any other war. Infantrymen saw heavy combat in the “battles of the big battalions” from 1965 to 1969. Then, for many battalions, it became a small-unit leader’s war in which, by 1970, squad-sized and platoon-sized patrols were the norm. And the diversity of the terrain into which the infantry could be rapidly inserted by helicopter presented a new kind of challenge.

The Annamite Range ran the length of South Vietnam from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) bordering North Vietnam to within 80 kilometers of Saigon. The mountains have high peaks – some more than 8,000 feet – that straddle the country’s borders with Laos and Cambodia. The terrain is as thick as it is high. Double- and triple-canopy jungle made movement difficult and dangerous. The unforgiving mountains were home to tigers, clouded leopards, various types of venomous snakes and the well-camouflaged lairs of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

East of the Annamite Range lay the piedmont, characterized by low-lying hills and small valleys, which are interspersed with tall elephant grass and thick stands of wooded areas. These in turn are interspersed with open fields dotted by small rice paddies. The piedmont was the transition point for the enemy. The heavy vegetation offered a fast avenue of approach from the mountains that allowed the NVA and main-force Viet Cong units to quickly assemble troop strength and munitions to attack populated areas, American units or the South Vietnamese Army. Most often, these attacks were to interrupt pacification efforts of the Vietnamese people.

East of the piedmont lay the coastal lowlands, which make up much of the area containing the Vietnamese population centers and the major rice paddies. The fertile paddies on the coast are nourished by silt from mountain runoff, a product of the eastern watershed of the Annamite Range. The lowlands offer broad plains of paddies interrupted by numerous hedgerows of thick vegetation. This type of terrain bred the threat of the typical guerrilla, a farmer by day and fighter by night, a member of an irregular Viet Cong unit who rarely strayed far from his or her ancestral home. Their firepower was not of major concern, but they made up for it with their familiarity with the terrain. And the knowledge of that land brought with it the scourge of mines and booby traps, from small “toe-popper” mines to mortar and artillery rounds, and many undetonated 500-pound bombs dropped from the air. They were all used to deadly effect.

Together, these environments were a mixture of contrast and contradiction that would try the infantryman’s soul. While more than 100 inches of rain fell annually, watering the fertile rice fields, desert-like cacti existed near the swamps and rice paddies. Temperatures on the coast or in the valleys of the piedmont sometimes soared to more than 100 degrees, yet the hilltops in the piedmont or the mountains could be shrouded in clouds and rain, whipped by high winds that drove temperatures to bone-chilling lows. The cold, driving monsoon rain could abruptly cause temperatures to plummet and then rapidly rise after dawn.

The rapid temperature changes, hedgerows, elephant grass that could cut through skin like razor blades, mountain peaks and thick jungle strained infantrymen day in and day out. Their lean, muscular bodies were racked with pain, skin rotting from fungus and water immersion along with ever-present fatigue. Yet they trudged on, carrying 60 pounds or more of food, small creature comforts and enough ammunition to hold their own against the enemy. In the infantry, what you don’t carry you do without.

Infantry operations varied based on the enemy situation, the terrain and the availability of soldiers to meet a particular threat. Operations often overlapped, and infantry units were directed to fight outside their own areas of responsibility.

In the Americal Division, Operation Wheeler and Operation Wallowa were combined to destroy forces in the Hiep Duc and Que Son valleys, which overlapped with Operation Burlington Trail to secure Provincial Route 533 from Tam Ky to Tien Phuoc. Operation Pocahontas Forest was also aimed at neutralizing enemy forces in the Hiep Duc Valley.

These operations in which we participated were sometimes conducted simultaneously and were only in Quang Tin province, yet our primary area of responsibility was in Quang Ngai province. Artillery and infantry battalions were nimbly cross-matched with armored cavalry as soldiers traded one piece of terrain for another to defeat the enemy wherever it could be found.

It was in the mountains that the infantry most often encountered the enemy at its strongest. The 5th/46th made numerous air assaults into the mountains, finding elaborate NVA base camps complete with underground ovens, classrooms, stockades for prisoners and elaborate sleeping quarters. During its more than three years in combat, the battalion discovered three enemy hospitals in the mountains, including operating rooms, post-triage bed wards and numerous medical supplies. The enemy’s medical staff always pulled out just before our arrival, taking their walking wounded with them and carrying as many medical supplies as possible. Those enemy patients who could not walk crawled, just to get beyond the hospital complex to hide and hope for survival to fight another day. What was left for us to find were dying patients, many with arms and legs rotting away. Around the camps were freshly dug graves of patients who had succumbed to their wounds, the sure sign that the enemy suffered enormous casualties from U.S. firepower.

It was at one enemy hospital, discovered during Operation Burlington Trail, that our battalion’s soldiers were most exposed to man’s inhumanity to man. Two women were found barely alive and emaciated, weighing no more than 50 pounds each. At first, our soldiers believed them to be enemy nurses, perhaps stricken by malaria. But when our interpreter arrived, they told their story of being captured in their hamlet in the valley below, taken to the hospital, and used for blood transfusions to wounded soldiers just off the operating table. In barely audible voices, the women cried for vengeance and did not want to be separated from the medics who carried them off the mountain so they could be evacuated to a division hospital. “They felt secure around us,” one medic remembered. “They did not want to leave our side.”

The enemy found most of the infantry’s base camps (landing zones, or “LZs”) perched on high points in the rolling hills of the piedmont. Thus, these were marked for attack by the enemy because they controlled key terrain. The LZs were subjected to enemy mortar fire and ground attack, most often by carefully trained sappers whose stealth, deadliness and laser-like precision became legendary. Our battalion’s base camp, LZ Gator, took on more than 10 sapper attacks. Most had limited success, but one attack killed our battalion commander. Each time, the enemy forces who perished in the attack were taken to a nearby hamlet, which was always populated with communist agents.

There they would be buried by their comrades. The message the infantry sent was clear: we will not be intimidated.

These base camps, while always dangerous places to be due to enemy attack, became the infantryman’s only home of any permanence. The luxury of showers (from renovated oil drums), hot food from a mess hall and some time to unwind with music and beer – or something harder – was a fair trade for the requirement to man a bunker line at night but not have to hump a heavy rucksack during the day.

The coastal lowlands offered their own unique difficulties, principally from mines and booby traps. When our own battalion arrived in Vietnam, we were assigned the coastal area in Quang Ngai to neutralize the enemy. Inside of two months, eight men were killed and 123 wounded from mines, more than 60 of which were multiple amputations.

From the simple punji stakes encountered early in the war, the enemy grew with sophistication as more and more munitions were used against them. Specially trained insurgents dragged off undetonated artillery rounds, mortar rounds or bombs from airstrikes and rigged them for command detonation or to be detonated by trip wires or pressure plates. It is perhaps in this environment that the infantryman in Vietnam faced his greatest challenges. Day after day, each step taken to patrol and secure an area brought with it the very real possibility of death or horrible dismemberment. Trails were rarely used, but it made little difference in the deadly cat-and-mouse game with the enemy. Even undisturbed tread marks from armored personnel carriers were no safe path to follow – the enemy placed mines underneath the tread marks by digging in from the side.

The sacrifice of the infantry on the coastal plains of South Vietnam may never be fully appreciated. In one instance where one of our platoons walked into a mined area, the platoon’s medic detonated a buried 105mm artillery round. The blast sheared off his legs below the knees and cauterized his wounds, reducing the bleeding. The medic promptly placed his leg stumps atop his rucksack to stem what bleeding there was and gave directions to the rest of the platoon on how to use his medical supplies to treat the many others who were wounded. How did we get such good men?

The infantry adapted wherever it was sent. Beginning in 1969, our battalion established “hunter-killer” teams: fully self-sufficient squads of soldiers, each having two M-60 machine guns, a sniper rifle, lots of ammunition and enough food to be able to defend itself, if attacked by a superior enemy force, until reinforcements could arrive.

The teams changed positions every two days but did not move far due to their heavy loads. When spotting small enemy groups they called in artillery fire, helicopter gunships or, if close enough, used their own weapons. These squads allowed several platoons to cover a much larger area to keep unrelenting pressure on the enemy.

One team was discovered by a large force of NVA regulars and quickly scampered into a large stand of 6-foot-high elephant grass where, as luck would have it, there was a depression in the ground that allowed the team to get below ground level. For more than 36 hours, the team remained silent as more than 100 enemy soldiers probed their position with heavy fire. The enemy was reluctant to enter into the high grass without knowing exactly where the team had hidden. The team chose silence over annihilation. On the third day they slipped away.

“Eagle flights” were also used to great effect. Three Huey helicopters could carry an infantry platoon that would swiftly and efficiently search out suspected enemy positions; this use of air mobility made it possible to search as many as 10 locations in a single day.

First developed by the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta, “mechanical ambushes” (MAs)were adopted for use in mountainous terrain away from occupied civilian hamlets. These involved stringing a series of Claymore mines together off the side of a footpath believed to be used by the enemy. A wooden clothespin with thumbtacks on the two pincers was placed with a C-ration plastic spoon between the thumbtacks. The enemy tripped the wire and the spoon was pulled, allowing the thumbtacks to complete the circuit; three to six Claymores exploded in unison. With this tactic a platoon could set up two live ambushes, with each team setting up an MA as well, thereby covering more terrain than the soldiers could cover themselves. Many nights, a live ambush team would hear their MA detonate in the distance and in the morning discover dead enemy forces or abandoned equipment with blood trails leading off into the bush. Eagle flights, hunter-killer teams and MAs were some of the force multipliers developed by the infantry in Vietnam long before the Army coined the term.

Although such small-unit tactics were increasingly and successfully employed by many infantry units, battalion-sized operations were still being conducted deep in the mountains against entrenched NVA units closer to Laos and Cambodia, along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. Through it all, the infantry did everything it was asked to do and more.

The average infantryman in Vietnam faced a greater statistical likelihood of injury or death, more continuous close combat (due to the availability of troop transport via helicopter) and a greater variety of terrain than the average soldier would encounter in the big war. Further, this analysis would not be complete without a footnote giving weight to the added stress felt by infantrymen in Vietnam, knowing that their government had asked them to begin standing down with no armistice or clear-cut victory after so much blood was spilled.

Toward the end, as America gradually withdrew from Vietnam, the infantry spent more time working with the South Vietnamese army and regional or local force militias to conduct joint operations and advance “accelerated pacification” programs. There was not much confidence in these forces taking the lead, despite some good units. In the end, the infantryman in Vietnam led the way, but returned home without glory.
     
David W. Taylor served as an infantry platoon leader with Charlie Company, 5th/46th Infantry Battalion, in 1969. He was wounded twice. He retired as a colonel in the Special Forces, U.S. Army Reserve, and is the author of “Our War: The History and Sacrifices of an Infantry Battalion in the Vietnam War 1968-1971.”

 

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