All right, Episode 82 of the podcast is available a day ahead of schedule! Today we continue the ongoing narrative about the Second Indochina War in Vietnam, covering events for the rest of 1965, and culminating with the battle of Ia Drang.
This episode is dedicated to Neil G., Jacob T., and Marilyn E.: all of them made donations to the podcast. What’s more, this is Jacob’s second donation: at the end of the episode I will tell you what he gets for that. To all three of you, thank you for your support. This is going to be a busy year for the podcast, and you helped the year get started right. Now let’s go to the episode you helped make possible!
Episode 82: The Second Indochina War, Part 10
Greetings, dear listeners! And welcome back to our ongoing series on the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War if you are in the United States, or the American War if you are in Vietnam. Sometimes I call this the unofficial Vietnam War podcast, because there is at least one other podcast claiming to be the official one. Anyway, this is the sixth episode in the podcast covering the Vietnamese phase of the conflict; there are also four episodes about the war in Laos. I am assuming that most of you are veteran listeners, but if this your first visit to this podcast, here are the episodes you need to listen to, in order to be up to date on what the podcast is covering now:
Episodes 71, 72, 73, 80, and 81, for the war in Vietnam.
And Episodes 74, 75, 78, and 79, for the war in Laos.
Last time, we finally saw the United States send ground troops to Vietnam, after various individuals had warned for years that ground troops would be needed to stop the spread of communism. The Americans did not suddenly declare war and immediately send as many troops, ships and planes as possible, the way they did against Japan in World War II. Instead the American buildup had been a gradual process, stretching back to the days right after North and South Vietnam became independent nations. First the Americans sent money and military equipment, to help South Vietnam defend itself from communist North Vietnam and from the communist guerrilla force rising up within its borders – the Viet Cong. When that didn’t change the course of the new war that broke out in the second half of the 1950s, the United states sent over military advisors, to train the army of South Vietnam, also called ARVN, for Army of the Republic of Vietnam. That didn’t work either, because the South Vietnamese resisted their enemies only half-heartedly; we saw that after the officers overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, they were more interested in fighting each other than the communists. Eventually some of the American advisors, namely helicopter pilots, got involved in the firefights between ARVN and the Viet Cong. However, this also did not turn the tide of the conflict, so in 1965 the rest of the US armed forces intervened, taking over the anti-communist side of the war. But even the first few American units weren’t enough to replace the troops that South Vietnam was losing, so in the middle of 1965 the American general in charge, William Westmoreland, requested a lot more troops – and got them. On the other side, North Vietnam began sending its own troops into South Vietnam, beginning the transformation of the conflict from a guerrilla war to a conventional war, a process that would not be completed until after the Tet Offensive of 1968 – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves now.
Throughout the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, the average American – the “man on the street,” so to speak – was only vaguely aware of the war in Southeast Asia. If he thought about it at all, he probably saw it as a second front or a continuation of the war fought in Korea in the early 1950s; chances are, he knew nothing about Vietnam and Laos. Most of the time he thought about other things, from the space race with the Soviet Union to the popular new programs on TV. Then after Lyndon Johnson became president, most Americans realized they were involved in a hot war, not a “Cold War” like what had been the case for the past decade. In previous episodes I gave the count on the number of Americans involved in Vietnam at the end of every year. Here are those numbers again:
For 1961 = 685.
For 1962 = 11,300.
For 1963 = 16,300.
For 1964 = 23,300.
Now for the end of 1965 – are you ready for this? – = 184,300. The human commitment was matched by a financial commitment; the war was costing Washington more and more dollars every year. For example, on August 4, 1965, just a week after President Johnson granted Westmoreland’s request for more troops, he asked Congress for an additional $1.7 billion for the war effort.
And there will be still more troops coming. Westmoreland soon realized that because this was a war without frontiers; the Viet Cong could be driven away from one spot, but they would return after their opponents had moved elsewhere. In this situation, progress was not measured in territory gained, but in the number of casualties inflicted. Therefore Westmoreland’s strategy was to make this a war of attrition, by killing more Viet Cong and North Vietnamese than could be replaced. By doing this, and by bringing in more Americans, the war would eventually reach what Westmoreland called the “crossover point,” enemy forces would break, and just like in World War II, the Americans would charge to victory. For the Americans, the main question was where this crossover point was.
Of course all those troops are going to need logistical support, so overnight an entire infrastructure was built up in South Vietnam to accomodate them. Stanley Karnow, Time-Life’s Southeast Asia correspondent, described the buildup in the book he wrote after the war, “Vietnam, A History,” so I will use his words here. Quote:
<Insert Stanley Karnow quote>
Saigon also got a modern, capitalist economy, as it was flooded with every luxury or necessity the troops could ask for, including guns and ammo, oil, spare parts, sports clothes, cameras, radios, tape recorders, soap, shampoo, deodorant, razors, and, of course, condoms. A lot of American-made items were stolen from PXs and warehouses, to be sold on the black market, and wherever the troops were based, trades in prostitution and narcotics sprang up. Every form of weapon in the American arsenal, except nuclear warheads, was brought over for field testing, and every branch of the military got involved in Vietnam, because as American officers explained at the time, quote: “”It’s the only war we’ve got.” Unquote.
Podcast footnote: In the 1960s all modern cities had problems with air and water pollution. Before long, all the American activity mentioned here gave Saigon a serious pollution problem, too. Some Americans stationed in Saigon joked that the quickest way to end the war would be to invite Ho Chi Minh to visit Saigon. After one look – and after smelling the South Vietnamese capital – the North Vietnamese leader would leave, saying, “I don’t want any part of it.” End footnote.
Never before had so much military and industrial power been brought to bear against such an insignificant opponent; North Vietnam in the mid-1960s was a third-rate military power, at best. We saw during the First Indochina War that Ho Chi Minh described his conflict against the French as a struggle between "grasshoppers and elephants"; now, as Stanley Karnow put it, he was a microbe facing a leviathan. But microbes carry diseases, which even the greatest monsters can catch. To continue this analogy, eventually the American leviathan would catch the microbe’s disease.
Of course, at this stage most Americans figured there were few problems in Vietnam that couldn’t be solved with a sufficient application of brute force. One of those who disagreed with this approach was the US ambassador to South Vietnam, former General Maxwell Taylor. Taylor resigned in July 1965, but he stayed in the Johnson administration for the rest of Johnson’s presidency, becoming a Special Consultant to the President, Chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and President of the Institute for Defense Analyses. To replace Taylor as ambassador, Johnson brought back his predecessor, Henry Cabot Lodge. This time Lodge held the ambassador’s post until 1967.
At first, the Viet Cong concentrated their attacks in Quang Nam, the province containing Da Nang, because that was where the first American troops had landed. On July 1, 1965, an 85-man Viet Cong group reinforced by a 13-man North Vietnamese sapper unit launched a ground and mortar attack against Da Nang air base, using one 57mm recoilless rifle, four 82mm mortars, grenades and assorted demolition equipment. They destroyed three aircraft and damaged three more. Then they withdrew when the Marines guarding the air base fired back. Although no enemy was confirmed killed by the Marines, blood trails leading away from the airfield were found the following morning.
In response to the raid, the Marines increased the area they patrolled outside the base to include Cam Ne, a collection of six villages. The Viet Cong controlled these villages with around 100 fighters, and the villages were full of traps: trenches, tunnels, bunkers, fighting holes, mines, tripwires designed to set off grenades or mortar shells, sharpened Punji sticks poised to stab an unsuspecting person going by, and so on. Naturally there was heavy fighting when the Marines first came here, and they encountered a trap every few yards within the villages; at least seven Marines were killed as a result. On August 1 the Marines sent in four Marine A-4D Skyhawks to attack the villages with bombs, rockets and cannon fire. Then on August 3 the Marines came back to Cam Ne, and this time they burned down the villages, destroyed whatever the peasants owned, especially stockpiles of rice, and removed the peasants, to be relocated to an area the South Vietnamese government controlled.
The Cam Ne incident got worldwide attention because a CBS reporter, Morley Safer, and a South Vietnamese cameraman, Ha Thuc Can, went with the Marines, and reported on everything they saw. The film footage they took was shown across the United States on the CBS Evening News when the network got the story, while newspapers ran pictures of a Marine setting a hut on fire with a cigarette lighter. The story played down the Viet Cong activities that brought the Marines to the villages in the first place. Senior commanders in Vietnam declared the story was distorted and incomplete, and CBS got a lot of complaints from patriotic viewers for broadcasting the story. One of the complaints came from President Johnson himself, who woke up CBS president Frank Stanton with an angry phone call. I won’t quote Johnson’s words here; they’re not suitable for a family-friendly podcast. If you’re looking for examples of media bias involving Vietnam, here’s one of the first.
On August 5, the Viet Cong struck again, destroying two million gallons of fuel in storage tanks near Da Nang. Two more Marines were killed near Cam Ne on August 9, and that brought the Marines back to secure Cam Ne once and for all. They came in force to search again for Viet Cong hideouts on August 18, but this time, the villagers were given full warning of the Marines’ arrival. The entire village was cleared with no difficulty; no casualties were taken by the Marines, no enemies were found in Cam Ne, and shelters were built for homeless Vietnamese civilians.
Meanwhile, in another part of Quang Nam Province, came the first battle where regimental sized units on both sides clashed. A Viet Cong defector informed the local South Vietnamese general that the 1st VC Regiment was planning to attack Chu Lai, an American air base, from Van Tuong, a village twelve miles away. The Americans acted first by launching a pre-emptive strike, called Operation Starlite. Five Marine battalions took part in an amphibious assault of the beach next to Van Tuong, backed up by tanks, helicopters and ships. The Viet Cong were taken completely by surprise, in part because ARVN was not informed of the Marines landing on the beach before it took place, thereby eliminating the possibility that a South Vietnamese informer would pass this information on to the enemy. There was only organized resistance on the first day of the battle, August 18, but fighting continued until August 24, when the last Viet Cong fled the area. By the time it was over, 45 Americans and 614 Viet Cong had been killed, making Operation Starlite the first major victory in the war for the Americans. The Viet Cong learned that the tactics they had used successfully against ARVN did not work so well against US Marines, and it would be many months before they would stand to fight against the Marines in another battle.
Two months after Operation Starlite, came the first battle between American and North Vietnamese forces. In October 1963, the US Army Special Forces had established a camp at Plei Me in the Central Highlands, 25 miles south of Pleiku and less than 20 miles from the Cambodian border. It was one of several camps near Pleiku that were used to work with the local Montagnards, or hill tribesmen, and to gather intelligence on North Vietnamese infiltration of the area. Two years later, in October 1965, it was defended by 12 Americans, 14 South Vietnamese, and around 400 Montagnards; the wives and children of the Montagnards lived with them in the camp. Two North Vietnamese regiments, with an estimated 4,200 men between them, moved to take Pleiku; on the night of October 19, 1965, they attacked a Montagnard patrol from Plei Me, then they overran an outpost near the camp, killing all 25 defenders after their ammunition ran out, and then they attacked the camp itself. The American commander at Plei Me, Lt. Colonel Harold Moore, called in airstrikes, and the next day, helicopters arrived to drop supplies into the camp and bring reinforcements, 12 Americans and 250 South Vietnamese. An armored relief column containing 1,400 men came to the rescue from Pleiku; the North Vietnamese ambushed it twice, but were driven off each time. The column reached Plei Me on October 25, and the North Vietnamese ended their siege of the camp; by this time, bombs and napalm from the airstrikes had destroyed all vegetation surrounding the camp, meaning the attackers no longer had any place to hide. Westmoreland visited the camp after the siege, sent in elements of the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, and authorized them to pursue and destroy the North Vietnamese units as they withdrew.
When it was all over, three Americans, 14 Montagnards and 16 South Vietnamese had been killed at Plei Me, and a slightly larger number in the pursuit, while the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong lost an estimated 850 during the siege and pursuit, meaning Plei Me was a victory for the anti-communist forces. As it turned out, though, Plei Me was a prelude for a larger battle in the same part of the Central Highlands, the battle of Ia Drang.
The pursuing Americans caught up with the North Vietnamese seven miles from the Cambodian border, in the Ia Drang valley. Here the 1st Cavalry detected a concentration of enemy troops near Chu Pong Mountain, and it directed the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, a unit of 450 men, to do a reconnaissance of the area. For what it’s worth, this was the same 7th Cavalry that George Armstrong Custer had led in the old West, at the disastrous battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.
<Cavalry sound effect>
Since the old West days the 7th Cavalry has replaced their horses with helicopters, but you know that any battle they go into is going to be a bloody one. Anyway, the commander of the 7th Cavalry battalion was Lt. Colonel Moore again, and he picked three spots near Chu Pong mountain, to use as landing zones, calling them Landing Zones X-Ray, Albany and Columbus. Because the helicopters, 16 Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Hueys,” could only carry 6 to 8 soldiers per trip, and it took them half an hour to make a round trip between Plei Me and Ia Drang, it would take several hours to bring all the troops in. On November 14, an hour and a half after the troops started landing, the North Vietnamese 33rd Regiment attacked Landing Zone X-Ray. This firefight continued all day and into the night. Although they were completely surrounded, Moore and the 7th Cavalry did not have to make a last stand like Custer did; artillery units and B-52s bombers struck at the North Vietnamese, taking out much of the 33rd Regiment. On the second morning, the North Vietnamese 66th Regiment joined the battle, and then around noon, two more American units, the 2nd Battalion from the 7th Cavalry and the 2nd Battalion from the 5th Cavalry, arrived as reinforcements. By the third day, November 16, the Americans had gained the upper hand, driving off the enemy. The final score was 96 Americans killed and 121 wounded; for the North Vietnamese, 834 were confirmed dead, and it is believed they suffered another 1,000 casualties, which they managed to remove from the battle.
As soon as the Americans realized they had won, the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry was ordered to move cross-country to Landing Zone Albany, and the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Cavalry was ordered to go to Landing Zone Columbus; there the two units would be picked up by helicopters and moved to new locations. The battalion from the 5th Cavalry made it to Colombus without any trouble, but on November 17, while the battalion from the 7th Cavalry was moving through the jungle in a long column, the 8th battalion of the North Vietnamese 66th Regiment sprang a massive ambush. Of the 400 men in the American unit, 155 were killed, 124 were wounded, and only 84 were able to return to immediate duty after the battle. Again air support and reinforcements were called in, and the battle around Albany went on until November 18, before the surviving Americans could be rescued. A minimum of 403 North Vietnamese were killed at Albany. It was the most successful ambush against U.S. forces during the entire war.
When they heard the news, senior American officials in Saigon declared the Battle of Ia Drang a great victory, because according to their figures, the North Vietnamese had lost twelve soldiers for each American killed. However, it is more accurate to say that the Americans won the first clash of the battle, at Landing Zone X-Ray, while the North Vietnamese won the second clash, at Landing Zone Albany. Both sides learned from Ia Drang that they should concentrate on their strengths; the Americans should stick to using their superior air power, while the North Vietnamese learned that if they get as close to the Americans as possible, the Americans will be less likely to use artillery or air power, out of fear that they will inflict “friendly fire” casualties on their own side.
When President Johnson heard about the battle, he ordered Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who was on a trip to Europe, to make a stop in Vietnam before coming home, to find out what really happened. McNamara did so, meeting with Ambassador Lodge in Saigon, and then he went to An Khe, the 1st Cavalry Division’s base camp, where he met with the officers involved in the battle, including Moore. Afterwards, on November 30, McNamara wrote a top-secret memo to LBJ which stated that the enemy had not only met but exceeded the American escalation. Quote: “We have come to a decision point and it seems we have only two choices: Either we arrange whatever diplomatic cover we can find and get out of Vietnam, or we give General William C. Westmoreland the 200,000 additional U.S. troops he is asking for, in which case by early 1967 we will have 500,000 Americans on the ground and they will be dying at the rate of 1,000 a month.” End quote. McNamara went on to predict that after the additional troops arrived, all they would have is a military stalemate at a much higher level of violence.
On December 15, 1965, LBJ called his council of “wise old men” to the White House: McNamara, Clark Clifford, Abe Fortas, Averell Harriman, George Ball and Dean Acheson. They were meeting to decide what to do next about Vietnam. As the president walked into the room, he was holding McNamara’s memo in his hand; he shook it at the defense secretary, and said, quote, “You mean to tell me no matter what I do I can’t win in Vietnam?” Unquote. McNamara nodded yes. The wise men talked for two days, but they paid more attention to the 12:1 casualty ratio than to McNamara’s “Option 1” — getting out of Vietnam. Ultimately they voted unanimously to further escalate the war.
After Ia Drang came several other conventional engagements against the Americans in Binh Dinh Province, the part of the coast just south of Da Nang. These clashes convinced Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese military commander, that in any one-on-one conventional fight between Americans and North Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese would get the worst of it. Therefore he told the rest of the Politburo in Hanoi that they needed to go back to waging a protracted guerrilla war. He told them that a conventional war against the Americans now, and for 1966 and 1967, would be suicide; superior fighting spirit was not enough to make up for the amazing firepower and mobility that was the American advantage. By using small units for ambushes, harassment, and hit and run raids on bases and government offices, the communists would eventually wear down American and South Vietnamese forces, and protect the shadow government the Viet Cong had in the villages. In other words, the transformation from a guerrilla war to a conventional war, which I talked about earlier, would be delayed until 1968, at least. Thus, Ia Drang played a major role in shaping the strategy of both sides, for 1966 and 1967.
Podcast footnote: In 1995, thirty years after Ia Drang and twenty years after the end of the war, General Giap, now 84 years old, got to meet his opponent, former Defense Secretary McNamara. At the meeting he gave several reasons why the Americans did not defeat the North Vietnamese, of which the most important one was, quote, “the US missed many opportunities to end the war in Vietnam, while Vietnam always took advantage of them all.” Unquote. I wouldn’t be surprised if Giap was thinking of Ia Drang and its aftermath when he said that. End footnote.
After the war, the battle of Ia Drang became the setting for the novel We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young, written by Harold Moore, now a retired general, and Joseph Galloway, a newspaper correspondent who was also present at the battle. In 2002 this book was made into the movie We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson as Moore.
Our narrative is now up to the end of 1965. Boy, that was a busy year for Vietnam; it has taken two episodes for this podcast to cover events in 1965! I said earlier that in 1965, the number of American troops in Vietnam reached 184,300. Now here are some other statistics to think about. It is appropriate to talk about numbers here because the advisors to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson saw the war as a numbers game. When it came to data collecting, chart-making, and calculations, the Vietnam War was more heavily studied while it was taking place, than any previous war the United States was involved in.
Anyway, by year’s end, 2,344 Americans had been killed in Vietnam. An estimated 90,000 South Vietnamese soldiers had deserted, while an estimated 35,000 soldiers from North Vietnam infiltrated the South via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Up to 50 percent of the countryside in South Vietnam was under some degree of Viet Cong control, meaning the Viet Cong lost some ground; they held around 75 percent of the countryside before the American troops arrived. Finally, at the end of the year, Time Magazine chose General William Westmoreland as their “Man of the Year” for 1965.
Okay, that does it for today! Join me for the next episode, when we look at the course of the Second Indochina War in 1966, and maybe 1967. We now know what strategies both sides will follow. The Americans will use more of what they are using already, meaning more troops for South Vietnam, and more air strikes for North Vietnam. Meanwhile, the communists are going back to the guerrilla tactics that have served them well in the past. As for the South Vietnamese, President Johnson will suggest they hold a US-style presidential election; let’s see how that works out. And speaking of the US, how will Americans back home feel about the war? Will they give it their united support, the way they did during World War II? Tune in for that in February 2020 or later; be there or be square!
For the past few episodes I have said I want to record a question-and-answer episode in the near future. Well, since 2020 began, I have gotten questions from four of you, and because one listener asked more than one, I think I now have enough for the episode. It will probably come out some time in March; I’m looking for a good spot to interrupt the Vietnam narrative for that special episode, maybe when we get done with the Tet offensive. Thank you for coming through with the questions; I guess you all had to wait until the holidays were behind you before thinking up some! If you want to send more questions, contact me on the podcast Facebook page, or email them to Berosus@gmail.com. That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, at gmail.com.
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I introduced the Podcast Hall of Fame page in the previous episode. For those who missed that episode, there is now a webpage where I post the first names or initials of the donors, to make them famous for as long as this podcast endures. I put a link to the Hall of Fame page on the Blubrry.com page hosting this episode, and on the podcast’s Facebook page. Those who donate in more than one year will get special recognition, in the form of an icon representing the head of a Southeast Asian animal, the water buffalo, next to their names. When I created the page, one donor, Wallace D., qualified for the water buffalo icon; now Jacob T. is the second to qualify, because he made another donation two years ago. Who will be next?
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