The Situation in January
As 1967 began, both allied and enemy forces in II CTZ were aligned much as they would be for some time to come. The communists had earlier established two “fronts”, or higher headquarters, in the region. In the western highlands was the B3 Front, covering Kontum, Pleiku, and Darlac Provinces and controlling the 1st and 10th NVA Divisions, with no fewer than six main force regiments. The territory along the coast from southern I Corps to a point south of Cam Ranh Bay was under the NVA’s Military Region 5/B1 Front and its 2d and 3d NVA Divisions, along with numerous VC guerrilla forces. (See map below.)
Opposing this considerable enemy force was MACV’s I Field Force, Vietnam, the primary combat elements of which were the 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile.) The 4th Division, headquartered at Camp Enari, outside Pleiku, was reinforced by a brigade each from the 25th Infantry and the 101st Airborne Divisions as well as the usual artillery and other division support units. The 1st Cav, nominally based at Camp Radcliff, just south of An Khe, utilized its airmobile capability to engage the enemy wherever he could be found.
The Highlands Again
As the army’s history of Vietnam combat operations succinctly put it, “Seeking enemy big units remained General Westmoreland's first priority, and they were nowhere more numerous than in the Central Highlands of II Corps.” But COMUSMACV also intended that U.S. forces merely "screen the border with light forces and send reinforcements to the area only when North Vietnamese regiments undertook to cross the border and mount offensive operations.” The western highlands were thick, mountainous jungle, thinly inhabited, meaning that communist troops could not buy or appropriate food. Defoliation missions attempted to prevent them from growing their own. Consequently, the enemy “would often labor for weeks or even months to pre-position enough supplies for a major battle", thereby giving U.S. reconnaissance assets—including ARDF—“ample time to detect those preparations.”
At the end of 1966 Operation PAUL REVERE IV had “ended without certainty” but the enemy had largely withdrawn to his Cambodian sanctuaries to rest and refit while U.S. units, which, by American standards, had suffered high casualties themselves, settled uneasily into screening and surveillance activities.
In early January, indications pointed to renewed enemy activity along the border. In keeping with Westmoreland's directive to take the offensive, the 4th Division commander, Maj. Gen. William R. Peers, ordered his forces to move west into the former PAUL REVERE area in an operation later named SAM HOUSTON. Heat and humidity made humping through the jungle exhausting, while heavy vegetation limited visibility both on the ground and from the air and lessened the effects of air-dropped munitions. Suitable helicopter landing zones were hard to come by and often well defended.
Action was scant at first but in mid-February picked up quickly. Unlike the battles of the weeks before, the NVA refrained from direct attacks against U.S. fire bases or night defensive positions. Now the enemy stalked American patrols, “making extensive use of snipers in trees and engaging our isolated companies at times and places of his choosing.” Fixed bases were subjected to “intense mortar fire” and mining of the few roads in the area took a heavy toll on vehicular traffic.
“In reality," as the official army history observes, "the enemy controlled the fighting, able to choose when he would stand and fight and when he would flee across the border.” On 22 March, the ambush of a RECONDO patrol and its would-be rescuers led to 27 U.S. KIA and another 48 wounded. Enemy contact was light thereafter; SAM HOUSTON was terminated at midnight, 5 April.
Aside from noting that the 361st flew 75 sorties in direct support of SAM HOUSTON, the TEWS/6994th histories for the period give no specifics concerning ARDF support. It seems safe to assume, however, that several hundred fixes resulted, some of which no doubt provided the primary targeting intelligence upon which the 31 ARC LIGHT strikes (131 B-52 sorties) in support of the operation were based. As always, the enemy suffered heavily from American artillery and air strikes, but the 4th Division and its supporting units had paid with almost a thousand casualties, 169 of them KIA. "In the end," concluded the army historian, "SAM HOUSTON was simply another—and this time, more expensive—exercise in hide-and-seek with the North Vietnamese. It was becoming clear that the enemy really controlled the fighting along the border, making it a costly proposition to send American units there.”
A Special Operations Sidelight
During this period, Det. 1 (Nha Trang) received an unusual commendation for “excellent cooperation and assistance” in 5th Special Forces’ Operation BLACKJACK 25, conducted in central Kontum Province, 15 April-20 May. The “Blackjack” series involved Special Forces-led Mobile Guerilla Forces (MGF), indigenous troops “organized, trained, and equipped” to infiltrate into enemy areas then operate independently there for 30 to 60 days, supplied by air drops. The guerrilla forces would collect intelligence, and generally wreak as much havoc as possible on the enemy.
The "frag order" for BLACKJACK 25 called for MGF 876 to “locate enemy forces, interdict infiltration routes, and destroy enemy forces within capabilities in Dak Akoi area northeast of Kontum City.” But the Det. 1 6994th history described the operation as “a special COMINT development mission” involving “the passing of tip-offs … and very close cooperation between the ARDF aircraft and the Special Forces troops on the ground”—in this case ASA’s 403d Special Operations Detachment (SOD.) The 6994th history claimed that a fix on 19 May resulted in “117 North Vietnamese killed in action and a valuable storage of rice confiscated.” The Special Forces report for the period noted only 19 enemy KIA for the entire 35-day mission, although 96 structures and 100 kg of food were destroyed.
In the picture at right, operators from the 403d SOD (5th Special Forces) man intercept/tip-off positions at Ban Me Thout.
Up and Down the Coast
In northeastern II Corps, large segments of Binh Dinh Province had been under Viet Cong control for years, but Allied operations in 1966 had begun to weaken the communists’ grip. Early in the new year, Operation THAYER II, the second iteration of a 1st Cav operation begun in late October, beefed up by the addition of Korean units and a brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, was winding down after driving enemy units away from the populous coastal areas. ARDF was “utilized extensively in the overall planning and execution” of the THAYER/IRVING operations. A total of 778 COMPASS DART fixes were passed to the supported units—an average of a little more than five per day over several months. Results included one “significant engagement” and at least two ARC LIGHT strikes on a division headquarters. In early February SIGINT (most likely ARDF) pinpointed the 3d NVA Division headquarters. An entire battalion was rushed to the area, but found only a large supply cache. Nonetheless, the THAYER operations had hurt the enemy badly.
At the end of January, the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne, released from Operation PICKETT in Kontum Province, returned to its former base near Phan Rang, at the southernmost reaches of II CTZ. (Not shown on the map above.) After a seven day rest, the brigade launched Operation FARRAGUT, a search and destroy mission aimed at flushing the enemy out of his “Secret Bases” in the region. The paratroopers “relied heavily on ARDF to determine the areas of enemy activity” and “several” B-52 strikes were targeted based on COMPASS DART fixes. But the ground action was characterized “by small unit actions and sporadic contact with small enemy forces,” mostly local VC units. When FARRAGUT ended after 55 days, the score stood at 155 enemy KIA claimed for the loss of only 14 U.S. troops.
On 1 February, 1/101st split off two battalions for Operation GATLING “to conduct a raid type operation” against the suspected headquarters of the communist Military Region 6. Plans called for a B-52 strike against the target area, to be immediately followed by an airmobile assault aiming to “capture key personnel, documents and equipment….” Although not so stated in the after action reports—or for that matter in the 6994th history—the operation was obviously based on SIGINT. (The operation commander complained that “a security classification of Top Secret … unduly restricts the unit and creates administrative problems.” He felt that Secret NOFORN would be adequate.) In the end, the 15 days of GATLING resulted in only light contact and failed to net the hoped for captives but “several large rice caches, base camp areas” were destroyed and communications equipment and documents were evacuated for intelligence exploitation.
Hard on the heels of FARRAGUT the 101st, based on a reported move of the NVA 18B Regiment eastward from the border region, launched Operation SUMMERALL to preempt a rendezvous with other enemy forces in the Nha Trang/Phan Rang area. ARDF “was a great factor in the planning and executing the operation” and “once again proved the most valuable source of useable intelligence” but the operation yielded few results and was terminated on 29 April when the brigade was ordered north to join Task Force OREGON.
The Situation in June
As the U.S. emphasis on offensive action approached the six-month mark, not much had changed in II Corps. The day after SAM HOUSTON ended, Gen. Peers kicked off FRANCIS MARION, essentially a continuation of the central highlands operations that had been going on since late 1966. The enemy evidently sought to avoid contact until around 17 April when the first of a series of fights indicated that the B3 Front was moving larger units into the southwest sections of Pleiku Province, apparently the precursor to a major offensive.
The 6994th Security Squadron reported that on 23 April the headquarters of the 1st NVA Division was located by ARDF. A patrol was immediately inserted into the area but “withdrew upon making contact.” Despite what would appear to have been a major intelligence stimulus, the 4th Division’s After Action Reports (AAR) reflect no unusual activity on or about that date. A week later, another ARDF fix was reported on “a target associated with the 630th Military Front.”* Again, the 4th ID records indicate no specific response, but the next day a company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry, spearheaded by a couple of tanks, took on a battalion-size enemy force in a bunker complex. A sweep of the area the next day found 133 enemy dead. Another battalion came across “a newly constructed base camp that included bunkers with overhead cover and an aid station equipped with an operating table.”
In five major actions during the remaining days of May, the two battalions claimed over 350 enemy KIA. But it was not all one-sided. The NVA continued to dog U.S. patrols and small units, attempting to isolate then overwhelm them. On 18 May, a platoon of Bravo Company, 1/8th Infantry, was cut off and surrounded while pursuing an NVA soldier. When contact was reestablished with the beleaguered platoon, only seven survivors remained, all of which had “either played dead or were unconscious from wounds while the NVA searched the perimeter.” Twenty-one troops had been killed, including a pair of wounded shot by the NVA as the attackers “stopped to search each body and gather the weapons, ammunition, canteens, and other personal effects” including watches and rings. The rest of the company suffered another ten killed in action elsewhere. In the space of 48 hours, Bravo Company would earn two Medals of Honor. Both were awarded posthumously.
While FRANCIS MARION continued in Pleiku, intelligence had meanwhile indicated a growing enemy presence in the “tri-border” area, northwest of Kontum City. On 17 June suspicions were confirmed by mortar and rocket attacks on Kontum and the Special Forces camp at Dak To. One battalion of the 173d Airborne Brigade was already headed for the area, to be shortly joined by a second. Search and destroy operations were initiated immediately. Results were not long in coming. On the 22nd, a company of 2/503d Airborne Infantry bumped into two NVA battalions. In one bloody day Operation GREELEY cost 76 American lives. (See map.) The battle was indicative of things to come in the highlands as both FRANCIS MARION and GREELEY continued into the fall. On the coast along Highway 1 north of Phu Cat the 1st Cav, reinforced by a brigade from the 25th Infantry, kicked off Operation PERSHING, the successor to THAYER II. (See map.) This operation would likewise continue for several months to come. At the other end of II CTZ the low key BYRD operation continued to press local VC units in the area around Phan Thiet. (Not shown on map.)
In addition to the major operations named above, the Det. 1 historian noted that “numerous other ground operations of smaller scope and shorter duration were supported.” But feedback from supported units “was a recurring problem.” Such information as was received came “strictly on an irregular, ad hoc basis.” Fifty years later even fewer details are known, but congratulatory letters from field commanders continued to point out the reliance placed on ARDF as a primary source of actionable intelligence. On 6 May, Detachment 1 of the 6994th and the 361st TEWS were jointly recommended for the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award.
*There was no "630th Military Front." The 1st and 3d NVA Divisions were initially identified as the 630th and 610th, respectively, which may have been the case here.
Article by Joe Martin
28 June 2017
— To be continued —