Today marks the beginning of a new month, and you know what that means: a new episode of the History of Southeast Asia Podcast is online for your listening pleasure! This time we cover events in Vietnam during 1966. Besides the battles from the Second Indochina War (also known as the Vietnam War), we will look at a Buddhist revolt that has largely been forgotten in the years since then.
Episode 83: The Second Indochina War, Part 11
or, The Lotus Unleashed
Greetings, dear listeners! If this is your first time here, welcome to our ongoing narrative about the eleven countries between India, China and Australia! Back in the middle of 2016, we started the podcast in the stone age, and now we are in the mid-twentieth century, 1966 in the case of this episode. And if you have been here before, welcome back! You know that for the past few months we have been covering the second major war of the twentieth century, in the former French colony of Indochina, what we now call Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. If you are American, you know this struggle better as the Vietnam War.
I guess we need a bit of a refresher here, on events up to this point. The First Indochina War, covered in Episodes 64 through 68, ended with the French pulling out after they suffered a disastrous defeat in the battle of Dien Bien Phu. However, two governments were set up for independent Vietnam, a communist government north of the 17th Parallel, and a non-communist republic south of that line. From the start, the United States was the principal foreign power backing the government in the south, while the Soviet Union and China predictably gave aid to the government in the north. Elections were supposed to be held in 1956 to create a new government for all of Vietnam, but they did not take place, and that made a second war inevitable; the Second Indochina War began with a network of communist guerrillas, the Viet Cong, being organized in South Vietnam. The United States responded to this by sending military aid to South Vietnam. That did not stop the communists from making gains in the countryside, and when American troops went over with the military equipment as “advisors” in the early 1960s, that did not halt the communist advance, either. Then in 1964, North Vietnamese troops started sneaking into South Vietnam, and the US president, Lyndon Johnson, used an attack on an American destroyer, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, as an excuse to get US forces involved in Vietnam all the way. Thus, the first American combat troops arrived in early 1965, but even they weren’t enough to turn back the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong clients, so more American soldiers were called in before the year was done, and still more in 1966.
If you haven’t listened to the previous episodes on the war already, and want to know more about the events I just mentioned, go to Episodes 71, 72, 73, 80, 81 and 82 for the war in Vietnam. I also covered the phase of the war that took place in Laos at the same time, in Episodes 74, 75, 78 and 79. There! Are we now ready to resume the narrative? If not, go listen to those other episodes and then come back here, I’ll wait.
For those of you still here, I’ll assume you’re caught up to the end of 1965 in Vietnam, and ready to move on. Let’s roll, boys!
Operation Masher, or Operation White Wing
December 25, 1965 was the beginning of a pause in Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign over North Vietnam. This was done to encourage North Vietnam to join the United States in peace talks to end the war. Because of the pause, 1966 started off relatively quiet for the Americans. However, the North Vietnamese denounced the bombing halt as a "trick" and continued to support Viet Cong terrorist activities in the South, so the bombing resumed on January 31, 1966; the pause had lasted for 37 days.
So what ideas did the American generals come up with for 1966? Their first idea was the largest search and destroy mission attempted so far in the war. The American commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, called it Operation Masher at first, but President Johnson thought that name sounded too violent, especially since there was growing opposition to his escalation of the Vietnam War effort, so at his insistence, the name was changed to Operation White Wing. The operation took place in Binh Dinh, a province on South Vietnam’s central coast that was seen as a communist stronghold. Besides 6,000 American soldiers from the 1st Cavalry and 4,000 US Marines, nine South Vietnamese battalions and two South Korean battalions took part in the campaign. It is almost forgotten today, but I mentioned previously that five allies of the United States – South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines – sent troops to fight in Vietnam alongside the Americans.
Eight thousand enemy soldiers were believed to be in Binh Dinh Province, from the 18th and 98th North Vietnamese Regiments and the 1st and 2nd Vietcong Regiments; the operation’s goal was to sweep those communists out of the Bong Son plain, an area covering 450 square miles. Operation Masher/White Wing began on January 24, 1966, with the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry establishing a temporary command and forward supply base on the south edge of the area of operations. Incidentally, for this mission the 3rd Brigade was led by Colonel Harold Moore; we met him in the battles covered in the previous episode. At first there was only sporadic contact between the Allies and the communists. One of the C-123 transport planes used at this time crashed into the mountains near An Khe, killing all 4 crewmen and 42 passengers on board. Meanwhile helicopters landed Air Cav troops at several landing zones (LZs) west of Highway 1, on a flat part of the coast that was mostly rice paddies separated by scattered forests and villages.
The first big clash came on January 28, when 500 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong staged an ambush on Landing Zone 4, just as Huey helicopters were bringing in two companies of infantry. The communists attacked from bunkers and trenches they had built on two sides of the landing zone, and they did such a good job of concealing these fortifications that American aircraft did not spot them until it was too late. In addition, light rain and high winds prevented US planes and helicopters from flying over the site, to give aid to the besieged Americans. Two helicopters, one of them a big CH-47 Chinook, were shot down on that day. The weather improved on the next day, allowing American forces to come to the rescue with more helicopters and three US battalions. The G.I.’s on the scene noticed that the entire area was honeycombed with bunkers, trenches and spider holes. Some of the trenches were so deep and so well constructed with timber supports that they were impervious to bombs, napalm and artillery. A veteran of World War II said the Vietcong’s fortifications, quote, “…reminded him of those on Tarawa in the North Gilbert Islands.” Unquote. The battle went on until February 4. When it was done, the Americans claimed they had killed 566 enemy soldiers at Landing Zone 4, and in the surrounding area, which included a town named An Thai, while losing 123; this included the 46 lost in the C-123 crash.
While all this was going on, the second phase of the operation began with the insertion of three Project DELTA U.S. Special Forces teams, consisting of 17 personnel, into the An Lao Valley on January 28, for reconnaissance. They ran into immediate trouble, with seven of them killed and three wounded in a firefight, before the teams were rescued a day later. It was believed that the North Vietnamese 3rd Division had its headquarters in the An Lao Valley, so a second attempt to enter it was made on February 6. This time US Marines blocked the northern entrance of the valley, and the South Vietnamese blocked the southern entrance, while three battalions of the 1st Cavalry were landed in the valley. However, the communists had withdrawn by now, and what the 1st Cavalry found were mainly defensive works and stockpiles of rice. There were 8,000 peasants living in the valley, though, and when the Americans offered to relocate them to an area that wasn’t under communist control, 4,500 of them left. As with the “Strategic Hamlet” program in Episode 73, it is questionable how many of the peasants were really willing to leave.
Southwest of the Bong Son plain were seven small river valleys, together called the Kim Son valley, and the Americans went in here next, on February 11. This turned out to be the longest phase of the operation, lasting for the rest of February. It began with the deployment of three Air Cav battalions at the valley exits, where they could ambush escaping enemy soldiers. On the next day they began sweeping up the valleys, the plan being to catch enemy soldiers retreating in that direction. Nothing happened until February 17, when three companies of the 1st Cavalry located a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft artillery battalion. In the resulting firefight, the Americans called in B-52 air strikes, which destroyed the Communist artillery pieces and left 227 bodies on the ground after the battle. Then on the next day, two Air Cav platoons ran into a heavily defended area, and they called in B-52 bombers as well. By February 22, the Kim Son valley had been secured at a cost of 23 Americans killed in action and, at least 313 enemies killed. However, the Communists were not done yet; on February 28, about 20 Viet Cong ambushed an American patrol, killing 8 and seizing their weapons.
The final phase of Operation Masher/White Wing took place in the Cay Giap Mountains, five miles east of Bong Son during the first six days of March 1966. Allied intelligence indicated that a North Vietnamese battalion was hiding here, so an ARVN division surrounded the mountains, while small boats patrolled the adjacent coast, to keep the communists from escaping by sea. Three battalions of the 1st Cavalry went in after an artillery bombardment of the area; they found 52 enemy bodies, but it turned out most of the enemy had slipped out before the assault. Throughout the whole campaign, 288 Americans, nearly 100 South Vietnamese and ten South Koreans were killed, against 2,150 enemies confirmed dead. In addition, 600 enemies were captured and 500 defected. Therefore Operation Masher/White Wing was called a successful air assault operation, but the communists were never defeated, nor were they forced to surrender. Only a week after the Allies left Binh Dinh province, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong returned, so more search and destroy operations would be needed in 1966 and 1967.
While Operation Masher/White Wing was going on, Operation Double Eagle was taking place in Quang Ngai, the province adjacent to Binh Dinh. Here six battalions and two companies of US Marines, accompanied by the South Vietnamese 2nd Division, were up against the North Vietnamese 18th and 95th Regiments, and the Viet Cong 2nd Regiment. The operation began with an amphibious assault on January 28, which was hampered by bad weather, like the first phase of Operation Masher/White Wing. Only a few B-52 strikes were carried out, and the helicopters had to wait until February 1 before they could do their part. After the Marines went in, they found few enemies, so the operation ended on February 17. It turned out that most of the enemy units had pulled out several days before the operation began. The score for Operation Double Eagle was 24 Marines dead versus 312 communists killed and 19 captured. The Marines also captured 18 individual weapons and 868 rounds of ammunition.
Meanwhile in the United States, President Johnson had his first meeting with South Vietnamese leaders, in a conference that lasted from February 5 through the 8th. We saw in Episode 81 that two generals, Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu, had seized power in 1965; Thieu became South Vietnam’s president, a mostly ceremonial job, and Ky became prime minister, meaning he held most of the power. Anyway, they came to meet Johnson in Hawaii, which is almost halfway between Southeast Asia and the Eastern United States. I will let Wikipedia describe what happened at the conference. Quote:
“In order to shore up liberal American support for the war, which Johnson felt to be wavering, the main theme of the conference was that the war was to promote the social and economic development of South Vietnam. The war was presented as virtually an extension of Johnson’s Great Society program to end poverty in the United States. Little of any substance was discussed and instead the conference was almost an infomercial for the Vietnam war. The conference had no agenda or even much preparation, and for the most part consisted of speeches designed to win over American public opinion. The key note speech was delivered by Ky in English, was written by his American advisers, where he called for a ‘social revolution’ in South Vietnam that would ensure everyone in South Vietnam ‘respect and dignity, and a chance for himself and his children to live an atmosphere where all is not disappointment, despair and dejection.’ Afterwards, Johnson, who was unaware that the speech had been written by American officials, told Ky: ‘Boy, you speak just like an American.’ Johnson in his speech called for a relentless drive to eradicate the Viet Cong, saying in his Texas twang that he wanted ‘coonskins on the wall.’”
The conference ended with Johnson announcing the Declaration of Honolulu, which promised continued American support for South Vietnam during the war, and an economic and social program designed to promote peace and justice in South Vietnam, much like Johnson’s Great Society at home.
The Buddhist Uprising
In South Vietnam, the main event in the spring of 1966 was a Buddhist revolt against the government of Ky and Thieu. This is an obscure event to Americans; I didn’t even know about it until I started doing the research for this episode. Because I am in the United States, most of my sources for the Vietnam War tell it from the American point of view, and since the revolt had little, if any, effect on the Americans, those sources don’t mention it. An exception to that rule is a book called The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964-1966. It was written in 2002 by Robert J. Topmiller, right here in my home town of Lexington, Kentucky, so I used the book’s title as a secondary title for this episode.
Before I begin, I need to give you a bit of a geography lesson, so you’ll understand what happened here. During South Vietnam’s existence, its 44 provinces were organized into four military districts. Each district was defended by a corps of ARVN, the South Vietnamese army. The Americans called these districts Corps Tactical Zones, or CTZs. The five provinces nearest the Demilitarized Zone were part of Zone 1, also called CTZ-I. This included the cities of Hue and Da Nang. Zone 2 was the Central Highlands, and the adjacent coast, around Cam Ranh Bay. Zone 3 contained the provinces around Saigon, and Zone 4 was the Mekong delta. I have posted a map of South Vietnam, showing the four zones, on the Blubrry.com page hosting this episode and on the podcast’s Facebook page.
In Episode 80, when we met Nguyen Khanh, he was the general commanding the First Corps, the part of ARVN in Zone 1. You will remember he seized power in Saigon, and ran South Vietnam for most of 1964 and early 1965. The general who succeeded him as the First Corps commander was Nguyen Chanh Thi. However, South Vietnam’s Buddhists were now organized politically, to defend themselves against persecution like what they experienced when Ngo Dinh Diem was president – we covered that in Episode 73 – and Zone 1 had become a Buddhist stronghold. The Buddhists wanted a truly representative government, and were opposed to expansion of the war, and to the rule of the current leader in Saigon, Nguyen Cao Ky. Because Nguyen Chanh Thi was also a Buddhist, Ky saw him as a potential threat. Here is what Stanley Karnow, Time-Life’s Southeast Asian correspondent, said about Ky and Thi, in his book, Vietnam: A History. Quote: "Both flamboyant characters who wore gaudy uniforms and sported sinister moustaches, the two young officers had been friends, and their rivalry seemed to typify the personal struggles for power that chronically afflicted South Vietnam. But their dispute mirrored more than individual ambition." End quote.
In February 1966 Time Magazine ran an article about Thi claiming that Thi was more dynamic than Ky and could seize power at any time. It looks like Ky was encouraged to act by this, so on March 10, 1966, with US approval, he fired Thi, put him under house arrest, and announced Thi was going to the United States for treatment of a sinus condition, when in reality he was exiling Thi. In response, Thi said, quote, "The only sinus condition I have is from the stink of corruption." Unquote.
Ky thought the dismissal would be a routine affair, but over the next few days Buddhists came out into the streets to protest, first in Hue and then in other cities; the protesters soon came to be known as the Struggle Movement. The police did little to stop the protests, probably because they sympathized with the protesters. In Saigon the protests turned into outright battles between students and loyalist police and troops, where the police used clubs and tear gas and the students fought back with bicycle chains, sticks, rocks, homemade spears, glass bottles and at least one hand grenade. When he realized the protesters were not going to go away quietly, Ky tried to defuse the situation by allowing Thi to return to Da Nang. Instead, soldiers loyal to Thi seized control of Hue and Da Nang. The result was that Vietnam now had one civil war going on inside another civil war. This prompted an unnamed American official to exclaim, quote, “What are we doing here? We’re fighting to save these people, and they’re fighting each other!” Unquote.
On April 3, Ky declared he would “liberate” Da Nang, because it was now in communist hands. I trust you will agree that was an absurd statement, because the Americans still had their bases in Da Nang, and the Buddhists weren’t cooperating with the communists. In fact, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong stayed out of the rebellion completely. Later the chief of the North Vietnamese Communist Party, Le Duan, would admit this was an opportunity they had missed. The US ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, provided American planes and pilots to transport 4,000 South Vietnamese Marines to Da Nang. Ky personally led this force, only to find that the road going from the US base to the city was blocked by rebel troops with machine guns. They did not fight because Major General Wood B. Kyle, the commanding officer of the 3rd Marine Division, intervened with a regiment of US Marines, moving them in between the two forces. Following an afternoon of posturing, Ky flew back to Saigon and his men followed a few days later. Instead of crushing the rebellion, Ky had “lost face,” which is considered bad by all East Asian cultures. In Da Nang, the Buddhists were angry that the Americans had chosen Ky’s side instead of them; they burned American jeeps, and held signs demanding peace and an American withdrawal from Vietnam.
A week later, a humiliated Ky announced that he would resign after elections to establish a completely civilian government for South Vietnam, which would take place sometime in the next five months. This was just what the Struggle Movement wanted to hear, and demonstrations were called off. In the zone called CTZ-I, the new general commanding the First Corps, Ton That Dinh, went so far as to claim the whole area was back under Saigon’s control. But in early May Ky went back on his promise, this time declaring that he expected to remain in office for at least another year. Then he ordered his best general, Cao Van Vien, to lead 2,000 troops in an expedition to take back Da Nang. Ky sent them off without telling Ambassador Lodge, General Westmoreland, and even his partner, President Thieu.
Landing in Da Nang at dawn on May 15, the pro-Saigon force advanced to the center of the city and captured the local ARVN headquarters. Twenty rebel soldiers were killed and General Dinh, who feared that the new arrivals had come to kill him, fled to Hue on an American helicopter. For chickening out, Dinh was dismissed from his position and briefly jailed. Now Ky put Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan in charge of getting rid of the remaining rebels; two years later, Loan would become infamous, when an NBC camera crew got pictures of him shooting a Viet Cong prisoner in the head. Fighting in Da Nang went on for the rest of May, with loyalist troops storming Buddhist pagodas, while South Vietnamese warplanes strafed rebel troops occupying the central market. Over a three-week period, at least ten Buddhist monks and nuns around the country burned themselves to death, in protest of US policies. Veteran listeners to the podcast will remember that some monks had burned themselves in 1963, to show their opposition to the Saigon government at that time. As for Thi, the general that all the trouble had started over, he met with Westmoreland and agreed to leave Vietnam for the good of the country; he spent the rest of his life in the United States.
The rebellion had been put down in Da Nang, but Hue was still in revolt. Here the rebels overran and burned the US Consulate in Hue. Accordingly, the Americans helped Ky send troops to Hue in early June. By now the rebel soldiers, seeing that the cause was lost, were negotiating their surrender to Ky’s forces, so the resistance in Hue mainly came from civilians. By June 19, Vietnam’s nineteenth-century capital was back under government control. President Johnson was relieved, and Ambassador Lodge praised the Ky government for suppressing the Struggle Movement, calling it, quote, "a solid political victory." Unquote. In the whole struggle, about 150 Vietnamese were killed on each side, and another 700 were wounded, while the Americans suffered 23 wounded. The Buddhists were no longer a political force, and for the rest of the time it existed, South Vietnam would be politically stable; everyone in the country would either be for the Saigon Government, or for the communists.
Other Events in 1966
The main war may have been interrupted in Corps Tactical Zone 1 while the Buddhists were in revolt, but the main war continued in the rest of Vietnam. For example, on April 13, 1966, the Viet Cong staged a raid on Tan Son Nhut, Saigon’s airport, which caused 140 casualties and destroyed 12 US helicopters and nine other aircraft. Then, in late June and early July, US Marines in Quang Tri, the northernmost province of South Vietnam, captured two North Vietnamese soldiers, and learned from them that the North Vietnamese were now sneaking across the 17th Parallel, ignoring its other name, the Demilitarized Zone. To stop this, Operation Hastings was launched on July 15, bringing 8,000 US Marines and 3,000 South Vietnamese to Quang Tri. Opposing them were between 8,000 and 10,000 North Vietnamese. When the two sides met, the result was one of the bloodiest, most difficult fights the Marines had experienced, since World War II and the Korean War, thanks in part to the tropical heat and the brutal terrain. This was also the first time that American aircraft bombed enemy troops in the Demilitarized Zone. General Lew Walt, one of the American commanders, had this to say about his North Vietnamese opponents. Quote: "We found them well-equipped, well-trained and aggressive to the point of fanaticism. They attacked in massed formations and died by the hundreds. Their leaders had misjudged the fighting ability of U.S. Marines and ARVN soldiers together; our superiority in artillery and total command of the air. They had vastly underestimated . . . our mobility." Unquote. After nineteen days of fighting, the operation was called off on August 3, because it was believed that the North Vietnamese had all been driven across the Demilitarized Zone into North Vietnam. Casualties had been heavy for both sides; the Marines had lost 126 killed and 448 wounded, and ARVN had 21 killed and 40 wounded. For the communists, there were more than 700 confirmed dead and 17 captured. The Marines and South Vietnamese also made a major haul of enemy equipment, capturing more than 200 weapons, 80,000 documents, and 300,000 rounds of ammunition. Naturally this was declared a joint victory for the Americans and South Vietnamese.
The next big battle was Operation Attleboro, which was named after Attleboro, Massachusetts, the home town of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. This was another search-and-destroy mission, and it began on September 14, 1966, with the 196th Brigade patrolling Tay Ninh, the province its base camp was located in, about 50 miles northwest of Saigon. For the rest of September and October they did not meet enemy soldiers, but they discovered hundreds of tons of rice that the Viet Cong had stored in several caches.
The stage was set for a battle here because of an argument that took place the previous July, in Hanoi. North Vietnam’s defense minister, Vo Nguyen Giap, criticized General Nguyen Chi Thanh, the Viet Cong commander of the Central Office of South Vietnam, for waging conventional battles against the Americans during the past year, instead of choosing less costly hit and run guerrilla tactics. We saw in the previous episode what happened when the North Vietnamese had a one-on-one fight with the Americans, at Ia Drang, and it taught Giap that fighting the Americans in this way was suicide. Thanh, however, was an ideological zealot known for motivating his soldiers with class hatred, and he won the argument by convincing the Politburo that they could only win the war if they killed so many Americans, that the growing antiwar movement in the United States would force Washington to abandon Vietnam. To do this, Thanh gave orders to the 9th Division, the most reliable and experienced unit in the Viet Cong army, to launch a November offensive in Tay Ninh Province, and destroy "a vital element" of the enemy forces near Saigon. Senior Colonel Hoang Cam, the 9th Division commander, targeted the US 196th Light Infantry Brigade, an army unit that had just arrived in Vietnam, as the "vital element" to be destroyed. His plan was to have the 271st Regiment, a unit of 1,500 men, attack the American brigade’s base camp while two battalions of the 272nd Regiment and the local force unit targeted the South Vietnamese home guard unit at Soui Cao, 19 miles southeast of Tay Ninh. At the same time, the 3rd Battalion of the 272nd Regiment and the 101st North Vietnamese Regiment would attack indigenous forces and a U.S. Special Forces unit at Suoi Da, a camp between the Michelin rubber plantation and the Cambodian border.
The 196th Light Infantry Brigade got its first indication that large enemy units were in the area on November 2, when it bumped into the 101st North Vietnamese Regiment, before the latter reached the Suoi Da camp. The next day, the brigade encountered an unknown sized Viet Cong force, and because it took two days, November 3 and 4, to drive the force away, they gradually realized this was one of the main enemy units. In fact, it was the 9th VC Division. November 4 also saw Soui Cao and the city of Tay Ninh come under attack by mortars, recoilless rifles and automatic weapons, from the 271st and 272nd Regiments; these were driven off as well.
The 196th Regiment was led by Brigadier General Edward Sausurre, a general who was a superb staff officer and an authority on missiles, but he had no experience commanding infantry. On November 4 Sausurre’s superiors heard about the fighting, and flew in to see for themselves what was happening. They didn’t like what they saw. To start with, Sausurre wasn’t in the base camp, but was at Tay Ninh, inspecting damage from the mortar attack. Worse, he had plans to launch a counterattack, but the plan was overly complicated, and he and the staff disagreed on where all their units were. Sensing a disaster in the making, the First Division commander, Major General William Depuy, personally took over the operation. The counterattack was launched on November 6, and lasted until November 25; six battalions were brought in as reinforcements, and organized into the 2nd Brigade Task Force. Between this force and the 196th Brigade the Americans had 22,000 troops on the scene, and together they swept through the area between Tay Ninh City and the Cambodian border. In the process they not only drove away the enemy, but also found an enormous weapons cache, at a hidden base camp in the jungle. When it was all done, the Americans suffered 155 killed, 494 wounded, and 5 missing, while the communists left 1,106 dead on the battlefield and had 44 captured. For the Americans this was a tremendous triumph. Two follow-up operations, Cedar Falls and Junction City, were conducted in Tay Ninh Province in 1967, and they ensured the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese would not recover in this area until early 1968.
Meanwhile to the north, the Americans received reports that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had re-established themselves in the Kim Son Valley, one of the areas that had cleared out by Operation Masher/White Wing. The response to that was Operation Thayer, two days of B-52 air strikes near the valley, followed by the airlifting of five battalions to the highlands surrounding the valley. The battalions spent the second half of September 1966 going through the valley, hampered by heavy monsoon rains; they only caught a few enemy troops.
The Americans believed the North Vietnamese fled from the Kim Son Valley to the mountains of Binh Dinh Province, near the coastal town of Qui Nhon. To “find, fix and finish” these intruders, Operation Irving was launched on October 2. For this five battalions of the 1st US Cavalry Division were used, along with five South Korean and two South Vietnamese battalions, a total of 6,000 men. Over a 22-day period, each national group searched one of the mountains in the area. The biggest battle came on the first day, when the Americans found that the North Vietnamese had fortified a village, Hoa Hoi. However, this was the only place where the Allied forces could find and bring to battle a large number of enemy troops. They also faced a challenge from the large number of peasants, who were allowed to evacuate so they would not be caught in the crossfire. The final score at the end of the operation was 681 communists killed and 1,409 captured, while 52 Allied troops were killed, so Operation Irving was declared another success.
When Operation Irving was finished, the 1st US Cavalry Division returned to the Kim Son Valley and two adjacent areas, the Suoi Ca Valley and the nearest part of the coast, for another search and destroy mission, called Operation Thayer II. This time the operation lasted nearly four months, from October 25, 1966 to February 12, 1967. The Americans were able to claim victory again, killing a reported 1,757 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, while suffering 242 American dead, and 947 wounded. However, the main casualties from Operations Thayer, Irving and Thayer II were the local civilians. About one third of the 875,000 living in Binh Dinh Province lost their homes and were turned into refugees.
On October 25, 1966, President Johnson went to the Philippines and conducted a conference in Manila, with representatives from America’s Vietnam Allies: Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea and South Vietnam. Together they pledge to withdraw from Vietnam within six months if North Vietnam will withdraw completely from the South. However, North Vietnam did not accept this peace proposal, no surprise since it had so far rejected all proposals to end the war. The next day, Johnson visited US troops at Cam Ranh Bay. This was the first of two visits he made to Vietnam during his presidency.
Finally, just before the end of the year, on December 27, 1966, American planes mounted a large-scale air assault against suspected Viet Cong positions in the Mekong Delta, using napalm and hundreds of tons of bombs.
I gave you a set of figures in the last episode, when we got to the end of 1965, so here are the year-end numbers for 1966. US troop levels are up to 389,000, more than twice the number from a year before. The total number of American casualties are 5,008 combat deaths and 30,093 wounded. More than half of the American causalities were caused by snipers and small-arms fire during Viet Cong ambushes, along with handmade booby traps and mines planted everywhere in the countryside by the Viet Cong. Among the American Allies, there are now 45,000 South Korean soldiers and 7,000 Australians in Vietnam. An estimated 89,000 soldiers from North Vietnam infiltrated the South in 1966, using the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
All right, here is a good stopping point. I hope you enjoyed listening to this episode as much as I enjoyed recording and uploading it. Join me next time as we continue the narrative into 1967. I will keep covering what is happening in Vietnam, but it also has been a while since I talked about opposition to the war in the United States, and it is increasing, so I plan to cover that, too. And then, maybe two episodes after this one, I will do a question-and-answer episode, answering the questions you sent me – thanks again for doing that!
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