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Major Operations of the Vietnam War

  • Operation Chopper - January 12, 1962

    In the first use of the recently-arrived U.S. helicopters, Operation Chopper lifts about 1,000 South Vietnamese paratroopers to an assault on a suspected Viet Cong headquarters about 10 miles west of Saigon.

    Operation Chopper marks America's first combat missions against the Vietcong.

    In their first encounter with U.S. Army helicopters, the Viet Cong were defeated in December of 1961 during "Operation Chopper".

    However, The lessons that they learned in the bitter defeat were not forgotten.

  • Operation Ranch Hand - January 1962

    Operation Ranch Hand was a part of the Vietnam War, lasting from 1962 until 1971. It involved 18 million gallons of defoliate being dropped on South Vietnam. The defoliate of choice was dioxin, better known as Agent Orange.

    In 1961, President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam asked the United States to conduct aerial herbicide spraying in his country. In August of that year, the South Vietnamese Air Force initiated herbicide operations with American help. The request by Diem launched a debate in the White House and the State and Defense Departments. On one side were those who viewed herbicides as an economical and efficient means of stripping the Viet Cong jungle of cover and food.

    Others doubted the effectiveness of such a tactic and worried that such operations would both alienate friendly Vietnamese and expose the United States to charges of barbarism for waging a form of chemical warfare.

    Both sides agreed upon the propaganda risks of the issue. In November 1961, President Kennedy approved the use of herbicides, but only as a limited experiment requiring South Vietnamese participation and the mission-by-mission approval of the United States Embassy, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, and South Vietnam’s government.

    Operation Ranch Hand, the designation for the program, began in January 1962. Gradually, limitations were relaxed; the spraying became more frequent and covered larger areas. The Air Force used C-47s, T-28s, B-26s, and C-123s equipped to spray herbicides for the defoliation missions. By the time Ranch Hand ended nine years later, some 18 million gallons of chemicals had been sprayed on an estimated 20 percent of South Vietnam’s jungles and 36 percent of its mangrove forests.

  • Operation Rolling Thunder - February 24, 1965

    Operation Rolling Thunder was a frequently interrupted bombing campaign that began on 24 February 1965 and lasted until the end of October 1968. During this period U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft engaged in a bombing campaign designed to force Ho Chi Minh to abandon his ambition to take over South Vietnam. The operation began primarily as a diplomatic signal to impress Hanoi with America’s determination, essentially a warning that the violence would escalate until Ho Chi Minh "blinked," and secondly it was intended to bolster the sagging morale of the South Vietnamese.

    The Johnson administration also imposed strict limits on the targets that could be attacked, for China and the Soviet Union were seen as defenders of communism who might intervene if the North Vietnamese faced defeat. Consequently, the administration tried to punish the North without provoking the two nations believed to be its protectors.

    In the view of the Air Force leadership, the campaign had no clear-cut objective nor did its authors have any real estimate of the cost of lives and aircraft. General LeMay and others argued that military targets, rather than the enemy’s resolve, should be attacked and that the blows should be rapid and sharp, with the impact felt immediately on the battlefield as well as by the political leadership in Hanoi.

    When Rolling Thunder failed to weaken the enemy’s will after the first several weeks, the purpose of the campaign began to change. By the end of 1965, the Johnson administration still used air power as an attempt to change North Vietnamese policy, but bombing tended to be directed against the flow of men and supplies from the North, thus damaging the enemy militarily while warning him of the danger of greater destruction if he maintained the present aggressive course.

    To persuade the North Vietnamese to negotiate, President Johnson restricted the bombing of North Vietnam to the southern part of the country on 31 March 1968, in effect, bringing Operation Rolling Thunder to an end. Preliminary discussions began in Paris in May but bogged down over trivial issues. In November, Johnson made another concession, ending the bombing throughout the north, and serious negotiations began in January 1969.

  • Operation Starlight - August 17, 1965

    This is the first large scale offensive operation conducted by the United States Marine Corps. Elements of the 3d Marine Division engaged and defeat a Vietcong Regiment.

    This was a search and destroy mission to exploit sightings of enemy troops in the area and to prevent an attack on the Chu Lai enclave.

    H Company, 2/4th Marines landed at Landing Zone Blue only to find almost the entire 60th Vietcong Battalion ready and waiting to battle them.

    As the battle developed, a unit with amphibous tracks set out to reinforce and was ambushed along with other American Units.

    The fighting was intense for several hours but the superior air, artillery, and naval gun fire support quickly swung the action in favor of the United States Marine Corps.

  • Operation Crimp - January 8, 1966

    Operation Crimp was the largest operation of the war with 8,000 total troops troops deployed. The goal of Operation Crimp was to capture the Vietcong headquarters believed to be located in Saigon. American forces failed to locate a significant Vietcong base.

    Australians were the first ones down tunnels in Vietnam and General Williamson had, up until the Crimp Operation held a great distaste for sending the troops down the tunnels, preferring to use smoke, tear gas or explosives." During Operation Crimp news of what the Australians were doing DOWN tunnels quickly spread to the American Forces who were also finding tunnels.

    Because of the amount of Intelligence that was recovered from the Crimp - Cu Chi Tunnels, Tunnel Teams were established and American Forces throughout Vietnam received

  • Operation Birmingham - April 1966

    In Operation Birmingham, more than 5,000 U.S. troops, backed by huge numbers of helicopters and armored vehicles, swept through the area around north of Saigon.

    Operation Birmingham was a move by the U.S. 1st Infantry Division into War Zone C, which uncovered great quantities of supplies.

    In June and July the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and the Vietnamese 5th Division conducted a series of operations, EL PASO II, on the eastern flank of War Zone C in order to open Route 13 from Saigon to the major rubber plantations to the north, as well as to attack the Viet Cong 9th Division massing near the province capital of An Loc. Viet Cong losses were heavy.

    The 9th Division withdrew after that action into sanctuaries along the Cambodian border in War Zone C. (Map 3) In late October 1966 this same division deployed its three regiments along with another North Vietnamese Army regiment into central Tay Ninh Province for the purpose of attacking the Special Forces camp at Suoi Da with one regiment while ambushing relieving forces with the other regiments.

    At the same time the recently arrived U.S. 196th Light Infantry Brigade was operating in the same area in search of rice and other enemy supplies.

  • Operation Hastings - Late May 1966

    In Late May 1966 a force of 8,500 Marines and 2,500 South Vietnamese troops launched Operation Hastings. The goal of Operation Hastings was to thwart the efforts of the North Vietnamese 324 B Division to take control of Quang Tri Province.

    The operation took place on the northeastern border of The Republic of South Vietnam.

    Seven Marine infantry battalions deployed from Dong Ha, a small village south of the Demilitarized Zone, the boundary between North and South Vietnam. In support were elements of the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. The deployment of the Marine battalions was the largest and deepest penetration into South Vietnam since their arrival the previous year. The brushy hill country and tangled jungles in the mountains bordering the eastern DMZ was unexplored territory for American Infantry forces. The Marines moved north to engage forces of the North Vietnamese Army infiltrating south through this difficult terrain.

    United States Marines were sent with a task organized Marine recon mission to pinpoint the location and activities of the North Vietnamese. Combined U.S. intelligence assets determined that a well equipped, superbly trained North Vietnamese force had massed in large numbers west of Dong Ha and south of the DMZ. The mission was successful.

    Over the next ten days, the Marine Corps encountered its most bloody and bitter combat since the Korean War, fighting a jungle war that matched WWII in difficulty and savagery. Upon its conclusion, six of the seven Marine battalions were re-deployed, and the Operation was a declared a success. Press releases and "official sources" declared victory, reporting that the North Vietnamese Army fled back across the DMZ to sanctuaries in the north. The operation was one of the bloodiest, most difficult and historically significant battles of the war in Vietnam.

  • Operation Prairie - August 1966

  • Operation Attleboro - September 2, 1966

    Operation Attleboro was actually made up of Phase I and Phase II.

    Phase I was the period of time early on beginning about 2 Sep 66 and extended into early Nov 1966.

    Phase II began about 6 Nov 66 until the end on 24 Nov 66.

    Operation Attleboro turned out to be the largest series of air mobile operations to date and involved all or elements of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, 25th Division 1st Infantry Division, a brigade of the 4th Division, as well as numerous Army of the Republic of Vietnam and Regional Forces/Popular Forces and Nungs.

    In the end, the operation became a Corps operation commanded by II Field Forces.

    Tay Ninh West, often called "New Tay Ninh" to distinguish it from the old French constructed airstrip in the Vietnamese town of Tay Ninh called "Old Tay Ninh", was a newly built and yet uncompleted base camp of GP medium and small tents built especially for the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. The 196th Light Infantry Brigade was the first of four Light Infantry Brigades due to be sent to Vietnam. They were formed at Ft. Devens, MA and had arrived in Vietnam at Vung Tau a month before in Aug 1966. The Brigade was untested in battle and Operation Attleboro, named for a town in Massachusetts from which the 196th had come, was the code name picked for their first combat encounter with the jungles of Vietnam.

    The three straight-leg infantry battalions were airlifted in airbmobile fashion to LZ's surrounding Tay Ninh in all directions. No real action was encountered and the units were moved about from LZ to LZ and back to base camp. Most of the air movements in the early Phase I was done by the 145th Combat Aviation Battalion and its assault helicopter companies, the 118th, 68th and 71st.

    The terrain all over War Zone C, and particularly around Tay Ninh and all the non-farm land, was what might be classed as high Savannah. Tall wavy elephant grass interspersed with occasional very tall trees was the norm. Rainfall in this area is not as much as areas farther east and near the sea coast of Vietnam. Many areas around Nui Ba Den and adjacent to Tay Ninh (West) were punctuated with huge 6-10 feet tall termite mounds. These mounds created havoc, when found with tall elephant grass, for helicopters dropping off troops in a combat assault. All aircraft crews were especially watchful for termite mounds.

    Operation Attleboro, Phase II, was punctuated by a massive build-up of more Infantry battalions and aviation assets. Phase II erupted after the 196th Light Infantry Brigade had, for several weeks, experienced no significant contact with the Vietcong or North Vietnamese Army(NVA). However, intelligence had indicated that their elements were somewhere in this area of War Zone C and this sounded the alarm. The decision was made to involve the 1/27th Inf of the 25th Infantry Division, elements of the 1st Infantry Div(at Dau Tieng), 3rd Bde of the 4th Inf. Div(soon to be come part of the 25th Inf. Division, the 173d Abn Bde the 11th ACR several ARVN Bn's and of course the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.

    Operation Attleboro was a very large and complex movement of maneuver battalions in what some have called,"Eagle Flights". However, they did not follow the normal rules of engagement for "Eagle Flights".

    It must have been interesting from the enemy's viewpoint to see all the helicopters flying around and landing and taking off with and without troops on board. The Vietcong and NVA had done a masterful job of hiding and evading observation. In the end over 1,000 enemy were killed while US losses were 155 KIA and 494 wounded.

    Not wanting to give away their positions, there was little ground fire at the helicopters. There was apparently very few anti-aircraft weapons employed by the NVA and Vietcong units and only 30 caliber weapons were used to inflict single shot damage to the aircraft.

  • Operation Deckhouse Five - January 6, 1967

    On January 6, 1967, US Marines and South Vietnamese troops launched Operation Deckhouse Five, an offensive in the Mekong River delta.

    One platoon of 720th MP Battalion MPs from A Company were committed in support of Operation DECKHOUSE V. A clearing operation conducted by U.S. Marine Corps and ARVN elements.

    Their mission was to construct a POW cage at Vung Tau, escort and secure POWs from the area of operations to the POW cage at Vung Tau, process POWs, and escort POWs from the POW cage at Vung Tau to the Army of The Republic of Vietnam III Corps cage at Bien Hoa.

    Although the POW capture rate was below that anticipated, the exercise was an excellent training devise for the members of the Battalion.

    Operation Deckhouse Five claimed a reported 21 Vietcong lives along with 7 Americans.

  • Operation Cedar Falls - January 8, 1967

    After the success of Operation Attleboro, Operation Cedar Falls is launched. The goal of the operation is to rout out Viet Cong base camps in the IronTriangle.

    Americans commanders hoped that the Vietcong forces will standand fight. The operation is designed as a classic Hammer and Anvil operation,and includes a number of US and ARVN divisions.

    The operation is successful in uncovering large caches of arms and other equipment. The Viet Cong donot choose to fight, but 750 Vietcong are killed, as opposed to 72 Americandeaths and 11 ARVN casulties.

    In the course of the operation, 5,987 residents of Ben Suc are forcibly evacuated to refugee camps.

  • Operation Junction City - February 21, 1967

    Operation Junction City, the largest US operation of the war, is launched.Four US divisions, as well as additional brigades, are involved in a massive search and destroy mission along the Cambodian Border.

    American troops over-run much of the area before encountering signinficant resistance.

    There are three major battles, each intiated by the Viet Cong: the first, at Ap BauBang; the second, at Fire Support Base Gold and the third at Ap Gu. In each battle, the Vietcong attack US forces and are repulsed, suffering very heavy losses.

    In all, the Viet Cong lose 2,728 troops in the battles, while theUS loses 282 troops. Nevertheless, the Viet Cong headquarters, one of the targets of the operation, is not captured and, once the US troops withdraw, the area is reoccupied by the Communists.

  • Operation Niagara - January 5, 1968

    By late January 1968, American intelligence sources detected the presence of 20,000 or more North Vietnamese soldiers in the vicinity of Khe Sanh. 1 American tactics were to allow the enemy to surround the 26th Marine Regiment (Reinforced) at Khe Sanh, to mass their forces, to reveal troop formations and logistic routes, to establish storage and assembly areas, and to prepare siege works. The result would be the most spectacular targets of the Vietnam War for American firepower.

    General William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, chose the code name Operation NIAGARA for the coordination of available firepower at Khe Sanh. According to Westmoreland, the name NIAGARA invoked an appropriate image of cascading shells and bombs.3 NIAGARA would be composed of two elements. NIAGARA I was an comprehensive intelligence-gathering effort to pinpoint the available targets, while NIAGARA II was the coordinated shelling and bombing of these targets with all available air and artillery assets.

    The efficacy of the firepower available to the Marines at Khe Sanh was a function of the accuracy of the target selection processes. The intelligence section (S-2) of the 26th Marine Regimental headquarters company was tasked with the responsibility of acquiring targets. S-2 had knowledge of the siege strategy employed by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and Con Thien in 1967. These historical lessons were used to predict the behavior of the enemy at Khe Sanh.

    Various sources were utilized to develop a view of enemy activity around the Khe Sanh plateau. Sources external to the immediate battlefield included intelligence reports from the Military Assistance Command (MACV) in Saigon, III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) headquarters in Da Nang, as well as the headquarters of the 3d Marine Division at Phu Bai.

    Intelligence was generated locally via a variety of means. Hundreds of acoustic and seismic sensors were seeded around the combat base. This comprehensive sensor system cost approximately a billion dollars and was credited with reducing the number of Marine deaths sustained during the fighting by fully fifty per cent. 4 By Marine estimates, forty percent of the raw intelligence obtained at Khe Sanh was provided by the sensor system. 5 Ground and aerial observers provided visual evidence of enemy activity, as did photo reconnaissance. Crater analyses from incoming rocket, mortar, and artillery rounds were conducted to determine the likely source of the attacks. Shell/flash reports yielded additional targets. Infrared imagery and analysis of intercepted enemy communications were also used.

    Marine reconnaissance patrols, Army Special Forces, Central Intelligence Agency personnel, and the MACV Studies and Observation Group (SOG) all provided input to the 26th Marines S-2. The CIA Joint Technical Advisory Detachment and SOG obtained their information from casual encounters from villagers; from regular paid agents, including Rhade and Bru Montagnards, and from locals who desired being hired as agents of the U.S. intelligence community around Khe Sanh.

    Likely or confirmed targets were then attacked by the firepower available to the Marines at Khe Sanh. It was the base Fire Support Coordinating Center (FSCC) that was responsible for coordinating the array of supporting arms.

    After making the trip down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos, the North Vietnamese established various forward logistic bases within a few thousand meters of the combat base. During periods of darkness the Communists dug shallow trenches leading from their supply points toward the U.S. positions. American intelligence noticed this trenching system around February 23, 1968. Once the trenching system had been constructed close to the base, secondary trench lines branched off and paralleled the Marine perimeter. These close-in, secondary trenches were constructed for the purpose of launching ground attacks against the base.

    Initial FSCC fire tactics were to saturate infiltration routes into the area around the combat base with artillery fire and air strikes. These fires slowed down NVA trenching efforts, but were unable to halt them completely. From a logistic standpoint, it was impossible to deliver sufficient munitions to saturate the trenching systems with massed artillery fire. Consequently, the FSCC altered its tactics. The NVA were permitted to construct their trench systems close to the base in order to simplify pin-pointing and killing them with supporting arms.

    The sensor system quickly proved its worth. During the night of February 3-4, the sensor arrays indicated the presence of up to 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers in the vicinity of Marine hill outposts northwest of the combat base. Defensive artillery fires were ordered against these troop concentrations. Sensor monitors reported hearing men screaming in panic and the sounds of troops fleeing their assembly areas. The NVA units were completely destroyed in their assembly areas and the intended attack was effectively broken up. This incident is one of the earliest examples in warfare of a ground attack entirely thwarted on the basis of remote sensor data.

    By crater analysis, it was possible to confirm locations that were suspected based on other intelligence sources; detect the presence and location of enemy batteries; assist in counterbattery fires; and detect the presence of new types of enemy weapons, new calibers, or new munitions. The direction of flight of a projectile can be determined with reasonable accuracy from its crater, ricochet furrow, or, in the case of dud rounds, soil tunnel.

    The particular characteristics of the soil at Khe Sanh often yielded valuable information from crater analysis techniques. A stick placed in the clay soil tunnel made by a dud round would point in the direction of origin, and the angle of the stick indicated the angle of fall. By measuring this angle and using the firing tables of enemy weapons types, counterfire personnel were able to compute the range of the enemy weapon. Inspections of shelled areas were made as soon as possible after the shelling.

    Staff Sergeant Bossiz Harris, the acting gunnery sergeant of Mortar Battery, 1st Battalion, 13th Marines, was known to conduct crater analyses during incoming fire. This allowed the 1st Battalion, 13th Marine Fire Direction Center (FDC) to direct prompt return fire. Rapid and accurate counterbattery fire could force the enemy artillerymen to seek cover from American incoming, thereby curtailing their fire mission, as well as destroying NVA guns and gun crews.

    In order to minimize the reaction time of the Marine and Army artillerymen at Khe Sanh, Colonel Lownds periodically entered the regimental FSCC bunker, indicated a spot on the wall map, and directed the senior artillery officer to hit the marked spot. The coordinates were sent to the FDC, computed, and sent to the appropriate gun crew, who adjusted their tubes. This aiming process usually took less than forty seconds before a round was on its way. During the battle, 1st Battalion, 13th Marine guns fired 158,891 mixed artillery rounds in direct support of the 26th Marines at Khe Sanh.

    Acquiring data on enemy troop locations was one thing; giving that data a correct interpretation was quite another. On the first day of the 1968 Tet Offensive, intelligence analysts on the MACV staff received a set of infrared imagery photos. This information was interpreted as indicating NVA troop movements away from the combat base. Analysts examining sensor readout data concluded these troops were closing in on the base in preparation for a massive attack. In actuality, no enemy ground attacks were launched around Khe Sanh during this period.

    Shortly after the beginning of the Tet Offensive, aerial reconnaissance and communications intelligence indicated the existence of a major target in the Khe Sanh TAOR. Photo analysts spotted a bank of radio antennas at a limestone cave complex in the DMZ northwest of Khe Sanh. Radio signals emanating from this group of caves showed it to be a major enemy headquarters. There was speculation that North Vietnamese Minister of Defense Vo Nguyen Giap himself was personally supervising the battlefield from this location. Repeated B-52 attacks by the U.S. Seventh Air Force were launched against the cave complex. These actions knocked the enemy radio system off the air temporarily and even managed to seal the cave entrance with rocks and other debris. In spite of these attacks, the cave complex headquarters remained in operation for several weeks.

    One Marine spotter on Hill 881 South, Lance Corporal Molimao Niuatoa, was gifted with especially sharp vision. Niuatoa was scanning the landscape with a pair of 20-power naval binoculars when he noted the muzzle flash of a NVA artillery piece firing from a distance of 12,000 to 13,000 meters from his position. The location was noted by the spotter. As this gun position was beyond the range of Marine artillery, it could only be taken out with air strikes. An observation aircraft was directed into the general vicinity. This observer did not know the exact location of the gun and so fired a 2.75-inch smoke rocket in the general vicinity of the target. A Marine A-4 Skyhawk jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on the marking rocket. Niuatoa adjusted by noting the location of the billowing bomb smoke in relation to the artillery piece and called in corrections to the spotter aircraft. More smoke rockets were fired and additional strings of bombs were dropped. These corrections and bracketing continued until a Skyhawk on its fourth pass scored a direct hit on the gun position, yielding a series of secondary explosions.

    After 1965, air power in South Vietnam was deployed to extend and compliment the effectiveness of field artillery. Although the 26th Marines possessed thirty artillery pieces as well as tanks and recoilless rifles, the fact that the base could only be supplied by air placed limits on the Marines' ability to saturate the Khe Sanh area with artillery-delivered munitions. It was airpower that would elevate the flood of firepower to Niagara-sized dimensions.

    Khe Sanh had top-priority claim on all U.S. air assets in Southeast Asia. B-52s, personally directed by General Westmoreland from the Saigon MACV combat operations center, came from Guam, Thailand, and Okinawa. The Marines and U.S. Air Force provided fighter-bomber support from bases within South Vietnam. Naval aviators from Task Force 77 flew sorties from aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. The South Vietnamese Air Force and U.S. Army aviation also provided aerial support. From B-52s, originally designed as high-altitude strategic bombers for the delivery of nuclear weapons, to propeller-driven A-1 Skyraiders, the entire spectrum of American fixed-wing and rotary aircraft were deployed to support the 26th Marine Regiment at Khe Sanh.

    Air representatives worked with their artillery counterparts in the Fire Support Coordination Center. Requests for air support were channeled through the Tactical Air Direction Center of the 1st Marine Air Wing (1st MAW) at Da Nang. If the 1st MAW could not fill a quota, liaison teams from other services were called upon for their support. The priority for air support was so high that at times the sky over Khe Sanh resembled "a giant beehive." 10 Upon arrival, aircraft were normally directed into a holding pattern until a ground controller or ground radar operator was free to direct the strike. Often these patterns extended upward to 35,000 feet with dozens of aircraft gradually corkscrewing their way downward as each flight delivered its ordnance and departed Khe Sanh airspace. A pilot might be directed to a succession of holding points only to end up with his fuel expended and his full load of ordnance still on board. If the pilot ran out of fuel before his turn came to deliver a strike, he was forced to jettison his bombs and return to base.

    The contribution of U.S. Navy aviation reflected events in North Vietnam. Clouds that enveloped North Vietnam airspace forced a reduction in the number of Navy sorties there and the released planes and munitions were re-directed against targets around Khe Sanh. In February, about seventy-seven percent of Navy carrier sorties planned against North Vietnam were altered in this manner. One naval aviator who attacked the NVA trench system described the detonation of his 1,000-pound delayed action bomb as resembling the eruption of volcanoes. After collapsing fifty meters of trench, the NVA abandoned the building of assault positions in this area.

    Close air support was employed against pinpoint targets in proximity of friendly troops. Usually there were fighter-bombers overhead at Khe Sanh around the clock. Tactical air controllers in light airplanes or helicopters maintained communications between strike pilots and troops on the ground. The tactical controller made a marking run by firing a smoke rocket or throwing a colored smoke grenade at the target to be attacked. When the strike pilot saw the smoke, dummy passes were made until the controller was satisfied the jets were lined up on the proper target. Bombing runs were executed and short corrections were made via radio until all ordnance was expended. The tactical air controller would then fly over the target to record the effectiveness of the strike. Battle Damage Assessments were relayed to the departing aircraft for intelligence debriefings upon return to base.

    Ground-controlled radar bombing was employed in periods when the target could not be acquired due to bad weather. Radar controllers operated from a heavily reinforced bunker which contained fragile computer equipment and the TPQ-10 radar used to guide aircraft to their target. This radar emitted a beam which locked onto the aircraft. Using targeting data acquired from the FSCC, the controller programmed the computer with information on enemy position, ballistic characteristics of the ordnance, wind speed and direction, and other relevant data. At a predetermined release point, the controller instructed the pilot when to release his bombs. In specially-equipped aircraft such as the twin-engine Marine A-6 Intruder, the bombs could be released automatically by the ground controller. Marine controllers routinely directed strikes as close as 500 meters from friendly positions. The Air Force liaison officer felt strikes could be conducted to within fifty meters in case of emergency. 12 Marine air flew 7,078 sorties and delivered 17,015 tons of ordnance in defense of Khe Sanh, while the U.S. Air Force tactical aircraft contributed 9,691 sorties and 14,223 tons of munitions.

    The most spectacular display of aerial power at Khe Sanh was provided by the B-52 Stratofortresses. With a payload of 108 500-pound bombs per plane, these Arc Light strikes were conducted against area targets such as troop concentrations, supply areas, and bunker complexes. These targets were programmed into on-board computers and were launched from altitudes above 30,000 feet. Arc Light bombing procedures were based on a grid system, with each block in the NIAGARA area represented by a one by two kilometer box superimposed on a map. Three B-52s, composing one cell, could effectively blanket such a box with high explosives.

    On average, every ninety minutes one three-plane cell of B-52s would arrive on location around Khe Sanh and be directed to a particular target by a controller. Several flights of B-52s could churn up boxes of terrain several thousand meters long. Many enemy casualties were sustained from concussion alone. In some instances, NVA soldiers were found after an Arc Light strike wandering around in a daze with blood streaming from their noses and mouths. To catch these stunned survivors above ground, artillerymen at Khe Sanh often placed massed artillery fire into the Arc Light target area ten to fifteen minutes after the departure of the heavy bombers.

    Arc Light attacks delivered a total of 59,542 tons of munitions from 2,548 sorties during the siege. 14 General Westmoreland was elated at the performance of B-52s, going so far as to maintain that the battle of Khe Sanh was won by the officers and men of the 3d Air Division (B-52). According to Westmoreland, the thing that broke the backs of the NVA at Khe Sanh was "basically the fire of the B-52's."

    This high praise notwithstanding, Arc Light attacks had some limitations. A North Vietnamese soldier captured in April 1968, told his interrogators that his unit received frequent, timely, and accurate warnings of impending B-52 attacks. These alerts came either by radio or telephone and usually provided two hours' notice, sufficient for the NVA to depart the planned strike area. The NVA prisoner was not certain as to the origin of these warnings. Possibilities include Soviet intelligence-gathering trawlers operating in the Pacific and the interception of communications sent to or from the MACV combat operations center at Tan Son Nhut air base near Saigon.

    The Target Intelligence Officer at Khe Sanh, Captain Mizra M. Baig, felt that Arc Lights were an accurate weapon which could be employed around Khe Sanh much the same as other supporting arms. However, since requests for B-52 strikes were submitted fifteen hours prior to the drop, Arc Lights could never be as responsive or flexible as tactical air and artillery. Techniques were developed by the FSCC to combine and compliment the strengths of aerial and artillery support. One such technique was the Mini-Arc Light.

    When intelligence data indicated the presence of NVA units in a certain region, the FSCC computed a 500 by 1,000 meter box in the center of the suspected assembly area or likely route of movement. Two A-6 Intruders, each armed with twenty-eight 500-pound bombs, were placed on station. Army 175mm guns at the nearby artillery bases at Camp Carroll and the Rockpile initiated the Mini-Arc Light by pouring sixty 150-pound rounds into one half of the block. Thirty seconds later the A-6s unloaded their ordnance in the middle of the block. At the same time, the artillery at Khe Sanh poured an additional two hundred artillery and mortar rounds into the target area. Fire coordination was such that bombs and artillery shells hit at the same instant. When properly saturated with munitions, enemy soldiers caught in the zone "simply ceased to exist."

    The Mini-Arc Light could be put into effect in about 45 minutes. To reduce reaction time even further, a Micro-Arc Light was executed. The block size was reduced to 500 by 500 meters. Any aircraft on station could be used for bombing. The Micro could be planned and executed within ten minutes. Twelve to sixteen 500-pound bombs, thirty 175mm artillery rounds, and 100 mixed lighter artillery rounds from Khe Sanh batteries could be unloaded on the target block within ten minutes. On an average night, three to four Minis and six to eight Micros were executed in the vicinity of the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

    Because the Marines at Khe Sanh were surrounded by North Vietnamese, the base could neither be supplied nor evacuated by ground operations. Consequently, an effective method of aerial resupply was vital to the continued existence of the base. The principal source for supplies destined for Khe Sanh was Da Nang, a thirty minute flight. C-130s and C-123s provided the bulk of the supplies. Transport crews used speed offloading techniques to minimize the time they spent on the ground at Khe Sanh. When weather or hostile fire prevented transport aircraft from actually landing at the airstrip, parachute and various cargo extraction systems were employed to permit the unloading of cargo without putting the planes' wheels on the ground.

    The Marine hill outposts, originally supplied from the base at Khe Sanh at the beginning of the siege, were thereafter served by externally-loaded helicopters flying from the Marine base at Dong Ha. Air Force and Marine crews en route to Khe Sanh flew the last few miles through a wall of enemy anti-aircraft fire - maintenance men at Da Nang noted 242 holes in one C-130 before they gave up counting.

    As tactical air supported the Marines on the ground, so too did it accompany transport aircraft on their supply missions into the Khe Sanh TAOR. North Vietnamese antiaircraft guns in calibers up to 37mm were dug into the hills around Khe Sanh and menaced the existence of the aerial highway leading to the base. By March, the danger from enemy fire was so acute that all transports were provided with tactical air escorts. Air planners drew on their maps a line indicating the flight path of a cargo plane from the time it dropped below 3,500 feet above ground until it regained that altitude after disgorging its cargo. The potential danger area from which a 37mm gun could hit a plane was calculated. Fighter bombers were directed against known or potential enemy gun positions using 20mm cannon and fragmentation bombs. These attack runs commenced when the cargo planes reached an elevation of 1,500 feet above the ground.

    In clear weather, two fighters laid down smoke screens for concealment on both sides of the flight path of the incoming transports. During the siege, every 37mm gun emplacement was repeatedly attacked until intelligence showed the gun to be destroyed or abandoned. More than 300 antiaircraft sites were reportedly destroyed. 20 When considered necessary, Air Force F-4 Phantoms equipped with cannon were kept in the area to provide combat air patrols to disincline the North Vietnamese Air Force from intervening in the fighting around Khe Sanh. Carrier-based aircraft bombed airfields in North Vietnam that short range enemy MiGs would have had to use to attack the Marine positions.

    General Westmoreland was certain the North Vietnamese intended to overrun the Marine base at Khe Sanh as they had done at Dien Bien Phu. If so, air power was instrumental in denying victory to the Communist forces. Weather and other considerations prevented accurate measurement of the damage sustained by enemy forces from Operation NIAGARA. Photo reconnaissance and direct visual observation credited NIAGARA forces with causing 4,705 secondary explosions, 1,288 enemy killed, 1,061 structures destroyed, 158 damaged, 891 bunkers destroyed, 99 damaged, 253 trucks destroyed, and 52 damaged. Enemy personnel losses were estimates; they could not be confirmed since an actual body count was not possible. Westmoreland's Systems Analysis Office produced four models from which its analysts concluded that total NVA casualties - killed and wounded seriously enough to require evacuation - numbered between 9,800 and 13,000 men. The generally cited figure of 10,000 casualties represents half the number of NVA believed committed to attacking the Khe Sanh Combat Base at the beginning of the fighting there. 10,000 casualties represents fifty-nine percent of the number of enemy killed in all of I Corps during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

    The one billion dollars worth of aerial munitions expended by the U.S. during the siege totaled almost 100,000 tons. That amount equaled almost 1,300 tons of bombs dropped daily, and represents an expenditure of five tons for every one of the 20,000 NVA soldiers initially estimated to be committed to the fighting at Khe Sanh. 22 This expenditure of aerial munitions dwarfs the amount of munitions delivered by artillery, which totals eight shells per enemy soldier believed to have been on the battlefield.

    General Giap claimed Khe Sanh was never of particular importance to the North Vietnamese. According to Giap, it was the U.S. that made Khe Sanh important because the Americans had placed their prestige at stake there. 23 In the larger scheme of things, the fighting at Khe Sanh was of little lasting significance. Before the bombs and shells of Operation NIAGARA stopped falling on the Khe Sanh battlefield, U. S. President Johnson ordered severe restrictions on aerial and naval attacks against North Vietnam, declared the readiness of the U.S. to begin peace discussions to end the war, and declined to seek reelection to the presidency. In June 1968, the base at Khe Sanh was abandoned by the Americans. Ultimately, the U.S. would learn that it was unable to win at the conference table what it could not win on the battlefield.

  • Operation Pegasus - August 8, 1968

    Operation Pegasus was launched by the 1st Air Cavalry Division to relieve the marines at Khe Sanh.

    On 31 March, the 1st Cavalry Division took control of the 26th Marine Regiment, signaling the start of Pegasus, a fifteen-day air assault operation that ended the battle of Khe Sanh. The 1st Cavalry Division, along with the 1st Marine Regiment ad South Vietnamese 3 Airborne Task Force, began a push form Ca Lu, located east of Khe Sanh, to reopen Route 9 and relieve the pressure on Khe Sanh. The siege, in effect, was over.

    The base plan of Operation Pegasus called for the 1st Marine Regiment, with two battalions to attack west toward Khe Sanh while the 1st Cavalry Division air assaulted onto the high ground on either side of Route 9 and moved constantly west toward the base.

    On D plus 1 and D plus 2, all elements would continue to attack west toward Khe Sanh. Then on the following day the 2d Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division would land three battalions southwest of Khe Sanh and attack northwest. The 26th Marine Regiment, holding Khe Sanh would attack south to secure Hill 471. The linkup was planned for the end of the seventh day.

    Fire support involved a multitude of units, requiring detailed planning and coordination for the two phases of the operation - reconnaissance and attack. The objective of the reconnaissance phase was the destruction of the enemy antiaircraft resources between Ca Lu and Khe Sanh and the selection of the landing zones for use by the advancing airmobile assault forces.

    The 1st squadron, 9th Air Cavalry, assumed this mission and was supported by an abundance and artillery. Additional artillery was moved onto the area during the reconnaissance phase and automatically came under the control of a forward division artillery fire direction center located at Landing Zone Stud and manned by personnel of the 1st Battalion, 30th Artillery.

    The additional artillery included one Marine 4.2 inch mortar battery at Ca Lu and two 105mm batteries (one Marine and one Army) at the Rockpile. On 25 March an 8 inch battery and a 105 battery moved from Quang Tri to Ca Lu and Stud respectively. This move brought the total to 15 firing batteries available to support the 1st Squadron, 9th Air Cavalry, in its reconnaissance. All batteries in the area began answering calls for fire form the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, on D minus 6 and commenced attacking planned targets that night.

    Prior coordination between the 3rd Marine Division: the 108th Artillery Group (included the 175’s of the 2/94th at Carroll and the Rockpile); and the 1st Battalion, 13th Marines (Artillery), insured that all available target information would be in the hands of the forward fire direction center and lateral communication would be established. Throughout this phase, air and artillery fire destroyed enemy automatic weapon, mortars, and troop positions.

  • The attack phase consisted of the preparation of landing zones, suppression for enemy fires, and on-call support of committed ground forces. For the attack phase ten 105mm howitzer batteries, four 155mm howitzer batteries on 8-inch howitzer battery, and on 4.2-inch mortar battery joined the already overwhelming artillery force. Each cavalry brigade had reinforcing fire from a medium battery, and the 1st Marine Regiment could count on support from two 105mm batteries, one 155mm battery, and one 4.2-inch battery.

    The additional heavy battery with the mission of general support of the 1st Air Cavalry Division moved from Camp Evans to LZ Stud. Thirty-one firing batteries supported the relief of Khe Sanh - the largest array of artillery ever to support a single operation in Vietnam to that time.

    Counter battery fire contributed significantly to the success of Operation Pegasus. For some time, North Vietnamese forces has been able to shell Khe Sanh at will with 152mm and 130mm artillery plus rockets and mortars positioned to he southwest and northwest of the base. When the 1st Cavalry Division Artillery came within range of the enemy guns, rapid and massive counter battery fire achieved superiority. From that point enemy artillery ceased to be a serious deterrent to maneuver.

    On 6 April at 1350, six days after Operation Pegasus had begun the initial relief of Khe Sanh took place. A lead company of the South Vietnamese 3rd Airborne Task Force airlifted into Khe Sanh and linked up with the South Vietnamese 37th Rangers.

    Two days later the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, had completed its sweep along Route 9 and the official relief took place. The command post of the 3 Brigade, 1st Cavalry, airlifted to the base at 0800 and became its new landlord. By the evening of 8 April, all elements of the task force were in position on the Khe Sanh plateau.

    The North Vietnamese 304th Division faced entrapment and destruction as a great vise closed about the enemy daily. American and South Vietnamese units soon uncovered grisly evidence of how badly the North Vietnamese had been beaten. They found hundreds of North Vietnamese bodies in shallow graves and hundreds more that lay where they had fallen.

    The allies destroyed of captured 557 individual weapons, 207 crew served weapons and to antiaircraft pieces. In addition they confiscated 17 vehicles ranging from PT76 tanks to motor scooter, tons of ammunition and food, and numerous radios and items of individual equipment. The mountain of abandon enemy stores indicated either that Pegasus had caught the enemy flat footed or that the remnants of the enemy divisions had been unable to cart off their equipment and supplies.

    On the morning of 14 April, Pegasus officially ended. The operation was successful, Rote 9 opened, the enemy routed, and the base itself relieved. The North Vietnamese lost 1,304 killed and 21 captured. The battle of Khe Sanh established that, with sufficient firepower, an encircled position could be successfully held and the enemy devastated.

  • Operation Menu - February 1969

    In 1969, newly elected President Richard M. Nixon, aiming to achieve "peace with honor" in Vietnam, began to put his "Vietnamization" policy into place - removing the number of American military personnel in the country and transferring combat roles to the South Vietnamese.

    But at the same time, Nixon resumed the secret bombing of North Vietnam and launched B-52 bombing raids over Cambodia, intending to wipe out NLF and North Vietnamese base camps along the border.

    The intensive secret bombing, codenamed Operation Menu, lasted for four years and was intentionally concealed from the American public; meanwhile, Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia by United States troops, arguing that it was necessary to protect the security of American units.

    This invasion into an allegedly neutral country was cause for much protest in the States, especially on college campuses such as Kent State University, where students rioted and held walk-outs. Ultimately, the secret bombing of neutral Cambodia was deliberately conducted without the consent of Congress, violating the articles outlined in the United States Constitution, and would have been grounds for impeachment had Nixon not resigned under the cloud of the Watergate scandal in August of 1974.

    Although President Nixon was cognizant that American troops withdrawing under his failed Vietnamization policy needed to be protected from the attacks of the North Vietnamese, his decision to continue the futile secret bombing of Cambodia not only escalated the war but also increased the political tension and social division in the United States.

    The Operation was comprised of 6 affectionately named operations named as follows:

    • Operation Breakfast: First operation of Operation Menu.

    • Operation Lunch: Second operation of Operation Menu.

    • Operation Snack: Third operation of Operation Menu.

    • Operation Dinner: Fourth operation of Operation Menu.

    • Operation Dessert: Fifth operation of Operation Menu.

    • Operation Supper: Sixth operation of Operation Menu.

    Over the four year period, U.S. forces dropped more than a half million tons of bombs on Cambodia.

  • Operation Ivory Coast - November 21, 1970 On November 21, 1970 US Army Colonel Bull Simons led a joint Air Force and Army team of 40 in a raid on the Son Tay prison camp (located 23 miles west of Hanoi). The goal of the operation was to free 70 to 100 American prisoners of war thought to be held at the camp. The mission was a tactical success with zero Americans killed, but the prisoners had been moved to another camp in July. As a result of the ease that US forces had penetrated deep into North Vietnam, the Viet Cong moved all US POWs to a handful of more easily defended central prison complexes (such as the Hanoi Hilton). Many POWs who returned from the war years later, stated that being in close contact with more Americans actually lifted their morale.

  • Operation Lam Son 719 - February 8, 1971

    During Operation Lam Son 719, American forces supported Vietnamese forces in their attack across the Laotian border. Designed to cut enemy infiltration routes and to destroy North Vietnamese staging areas in Laos, Operation Lam Son 719 began on February 8 as the 101st and other American aviation units airlifted South Viet namese troops into Laos.

    For many years, the enemy had controlled the area of Laos adjacent to South Vietnam and had built up extensive defenses. When the operation ended on 9 April 1971, less than one Allied aircraft for every thousand sorties was lost, despite the increased enemy use of anit-aircraft weapons, artillery, and armor.

    In the aftermath of Operation Lam Son 719, combat operations were conducted in areas of Cambodia adjacent to the South Vietnamese border.

    Like Lam Son, air transport and cover were provided by U.S. forces, while SVN Army forces conducted the ground operations.

  • Operation Linebacker - April 6, 1972

    The aerial interdiction campaign against North Vietnam which began on 6 April 1972 with attacks in the southern part of the country expanded rapidly. On 16 April, B-52s, escorted by fighter and aircraft specializing in electronic countermeasures and suppression of surface-to-air missiles, bombed the fuel storage tanks at Haiphong, setting fires that, reflected from cloud and smoke, were visible from 110 miles away. Shortly afterward, carrier aircraft joined Air Force fighter-bombers in battering a tank farm and a warehouse complex on the outskirts of Hanoi.

    When these attacks failed to slow the offensive, naval aircraft began mining the harbors on 8 May, and two days later the administration extended the aerial interdiction campaign, formerly known as Freedom Train but now designated Linebacker, throughout all of North Vietnam.

    In terms of tactics employed and results obtained, Linebacker was a vast improvement over Rolling Thunder. During Linebacker, American aircraft attacked targets like airfields, power plants, and radio stations which disrupted the flow of supplies and reinforcements to the units fighting in the South. Laser-guided bombs proved effective, especially against bridges, severing the bridge at Thanh Hoa, which had survived Rolling Thunder, and the highway and railroad bridges over the Red River at Hanoi. However, the enemy made use of alternate methods of crossing the streams, usually traveling at night on ferries or movable pontoon bridges.

    Electronic jamming as in Rolling Thunder confused the radars controlling the surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft guns. North Vietnamese MiGs gave battle throughout Linebacker but they failed to gain control of the sky, in part because American radar detected enemy interceptors rising from runways, enabling controllers to direct Air Force F-4s and Navy fighters against them.

    Nixon’s use of air power to disrupt supply lines and kill the enemy on the battlefield stopped the offensive and helped drive the enemy back a short distance without a reintroduction of the ground forces he had withdrawn from the South. In fact, the last combat troops of the U.S. Army departed in August 1972 while the South Vietnamese were counterattacking. Only 43,000 American airmen and support personnel remained.

    Yet the very success of the American aerial campaign caused misgivings in Saigon, where the South Vietnamese armed forces dependence on the Americans troubled President Thieu. When Thieu's commanders failed during a recent offensive, the advisers took over, bringing to bear a volume of firepower that the South Vietnamese forces themselves could not generate. Thieu realized the Americans' unilateral departure would leave South Vietnam at the mercy of the North Vietnamese forces still in his country. He balked at accepting what had come to be called a cease-fire in place, and the North Vietnamese also seemed uninterested in a settlement.

    President Nixon sought to remove first one and then the other obstacle to peace. He obtained Thieu’s reluctant assent to an in-place arrangement by offering "absolute assurance" that he intended to take "swift and severe retaliatory action" if North Vietnam should violate the terms of the agreement. He sought to remove the other roadblock, the stubborn attitude of the government in Hanoi, by ordering a resumption of the bombing of the heartland of North Vietnam.

  • Operation Frequent Wind - April, 1975 Operation Frequent Wind was the emergency evacuation of Americans from Saigon, South Vietnam in April 1975 during the last days of the Vietnam War.

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