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Battle Finally Won and the War Was Lost

On the 1st of April 1968 the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) launched Operation Pegasus. Many newly interested authors focus on the battle for the old French fort.  What they don’t realize that just as the operation was beginning the war was being officially lost.

As the senior advisor in Khe Sanh before the beginning of the “agony of Khe Sanh” on 21 January 1968 I was seconded to the 1st Cavalry Division to assist in the planning for Operation Pegasus.   (For a complete discussion of the siege of Khe Sanh see: www. Expendablewarriors.com or my recent postings here.)

It was strange to fly over what had once been the area along route 9 and see rice paddies where there had never been paddies before.   In actuality what I was seeing was bomb craters that were filled with rain water.  (I flew into Khe Sanh with Major General John Tolson (commander of the 1st Cavalry Division) several times,

QuangTri Map

Route 9–the Road to Khe Sanh

Lz Stud was at the turn of the Route from North South to East-West

During the planning process units from the 1st Cav, the 101st Airborne Division and the 3rd Marines were conducting operations along the DMZ as a diversion to the relief operation.  The engineers were busy building a short runway and underground bunkers for the command and control of Operation Pegasus near Calu.  The new facility was to be named LZ Stud.

Map Edition

LZ Stud–right before Route 9 turned west

It was located under the range fan of USMC artillery units north and east of here

For Operation Pegasus the 1st Cav had an extensive set of capabilities

  • The 1st Cavalry Division with its 400+ helicopters
  • A Marine BDE with augmenting engineers and artillery
  • An Army of Vietnam (ARVN) airborne brigade
  • 26th Marine Regiment +–the whole force defending the Combat Base (5000 strong)
  • Massive air support

This was the equivalent of a small Corps.

The attack began the morning of the April 1st with the Marine Brigade attacking along route 9.  Its mission was to open Route 9 from LZ Stud to the combat base.  This required the repair of numerous road by passes that had been destroyed by the NVA and neglect over more than a year.  The air assault was delayed until 1 PM due to fog in the Khe Sanh area.  The initial air assault was into areas where the vegetation had been flattened by use a bomb called a Daisy Cutter (a 20,000 pound bomb that was dropped from a C130 aircraft and detonated when the long pipe that was its detonator struck the ground—thus creating standoff and blowing things down without creating a crater).  The Infantry and engineers followed to secure the area and move the blow down so that howitzers, crews and ammunition could be lifted in.  As a result a firebase was created.

With fire support for support of the infantry and to support the next hop forward closer to Khe Sanh the next unit could be inserted and the leap frog towards the combat base and the enemy could continue.

It was on this day 1 April 1968 when the war was lost.  Major Paul Schwartz and I had to brief General Tolson on the proposed concept for the Division’s next mission—clearing the NVA out of the A Shau Valley (about 40-50 kilometers south of Khe Sanh.  There were 4 people present at the briefing—General Tolson, his Chief of Staff, Major Schwartz and myself.  We proposed attacking through Khe Sanh to the Vietnam-Laos border.  Going into Laos, cleaning up the Ho Chi Minh Trail and then turning south to enter the A Shau Valley for the west—not the traditional route which was from the east.  There were 90 days of supplies at Khe Sanh to draw upon and thus not have to back haul.  Most importantly such an approach would have caught the NVA by surprise and had war winning effects.

After about 4 minutes of briefing General Tolson said” “Obviously you didn’t hear the President last night!  What you are proposing is politically impossible.”  Lyndon Johnson had just announced a partial bombing halt in an effort to enter negotiations with North Vietnam.

3 years later the US was to support ARVN in Lam Son 719A which was an attack into Laos where the ARVN got clobbered.  The NVA had used the 3 years to recover.  A year or so later President Nixon was to start the B-52 bombing missions over Hanoi and Haiphong.  These would result in a peace agreement.

President Johnson’s bombing halt decision was when the US decided to not try and win the war on the battlefield—just as the NVA were on the throes of collapse.  There war was winnable after the eventual Khe Sanh and Tet victories, but the political climate in the US had so turned against the war there was no political will to try and win on the battlefield.

In coming articles we will talk about the bigger lessons learned from Khe Sanh and other conflicts.  It is my hope that someday some wanna be strategists will read these articles and learn something from them.

Command and Control in the Khe Sanh Area of Operations (AO)

area map

Khe Sanh Area of Operations

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) it will be useful for the reader to understand the very confused and dysfunctional command and control relationships that existed in the Khe Sanh AOO.  There were at least 5 different higher headquarters.

The advisory team of 5 soldiers responded to the Province advisory team in Quang Tri.  The District Chief Captain Tinh-A-Nhi responded to the Province Commander who was a full Colonel in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). He was located in Quang Tri.

The Special Forces (Special Forces Detachment A-101) at Lang Vei along the border with Laos reported to a C Team headquartered in Hue Phu Bai, which in return reported to the Special Forces Group in Danang.

In the village headquarters was the headquarters of a Combined Action Company (CAC-O) and one Combined Action Platoon (CAP O-1) of 10 Marines and about 25 Montagnards.  The CAC reported to Colonel David Lounds the KSCB Commander but also had a battalion headquarters in Danang.

Located as an appendage on the western edge of the KSCB there was a special forces Forward Operating Base (FOB-3).  The men of FOB-3 with their Montagnard soldiers conducted reconnaissance and raids in North Vietnam and Laos.  They reported to a Battalion commander in Hue Phu Bai and Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group (MACVSOG or SOG) in Saigon.

Finally there was a two man intelligence team located in the village headquarters that reported to a headquarters in Danang.

Colonel David Lounds as the senior American officer in the Khe Sanh AO exercised very loose operational control over the units in the area.  All the units would go to the Marines at the combat base for support, but when that support was not forthcoming they would go to their parent units.  This was especially true for the Special Forces and Advisory team.

The Marines at KSCB reported to the 3rd Marine Division headquartered in Dong Ha many miles to the east.

The relations between the Army units—special forces and advisory team—and the Marines were so bad that they had developed their own code terms and frequencies to coordinate with each other so the Marines could not listen in.

Additionally each of the units mentioned had very different missions and therefore different objectives.  So the lack of unity of command resulted in a loss of unity of effort, which is what the whol concept of unity of command is all about.  Unity of effort is supposed to flow from unity of command.  All of the units would be working towards a common goal.  The Marines goal was to kill NVA.  The Advisory Team and District Government’s goal was to provide political leadership for the people of the area and to provide them security from small enemy forces.  A-101’s mission was border surveillance and to block the major avenue of approach into the area—route 9.  The SOG team at FOB-3 only staged in Khe Sanh for out of area operations in Laos and North Vietnam.  Thus no unity of effort.

This spaghetti bowl of relationships was the situation that existed when the battle of Khe Sanh began on 21 January 1968.

 

Niger Ambush—what do we know?

The details of the ambush of a Special Forces patrol that was ambushed in Nigeria 3 weeks ago are slowly emerging. The media is implying a cover-up in the tone of the reporting.

A cover-up is of course possible, but more likely there are operational secrets about such operations and the extent of operations in the region that Africa Command (AFRICOM) does not want to disclose in its fight against ISIS offshoots in Africa. (Readers should note that this type of re-emergence of ISIS was anticipated in my previous article about the destruction of ISIS)

What do we know?

  • There are over 1000 troops from AFRICOM operating in Africa as part of an effort that began during the Obama administration to attack terrorist elements of many different stripes in Africa. These include ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.
  • After years of missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 3rd Special Forces Group, the unit to which the men were assigned, announced that it was returning its focus to Africa in 2015.
  • About a dozen members of an Army Special Forces unit joined roughly 30 Nigerien soldiers on October 3 launched what was initially expected to be a routine reconnaissance mission.
  • The American team leaders told their superiors in seeking approval for the mission that there was a “low risk” of hostile activity in the region close to the border between Niger and Mali.
  • The patrol was a mounted patrol, which meant that it was travelling well defined routes. (This of course would make setting an ambush much easier.)
  • They were attacked by about 50 militants while returning to base, and four Americans and four Nigeriens were killed. Two Americans were wounded, as were six Nigeriens.
  • The troops waited almost an hour before they called for help, possibly thinking that they could handle the band that attacked them.
  • There was a drone overhead within minutes of the call for assistance and French Mirage fighters 60 minutes after that, though the French could not engage because the two sides were so close to each other.

Speculation includes that they might have stopped in an ISIS friendly village for supplies and were delayed while the ambush was established. There is also speculation that they were seeking an ISIS leader.

The fact that it took an hour for them to call for help may have also been caused by communications problems. This is a problem if they did not anticipate such problems.  It is also unlikely that they did not report initial contact, unless their communications were being jammed.  Planning for such patrols should always include contingencies to deal with exactly what happened.  Had they become too complacent because of a lack of contact on previous such patrols?   One would not expect this, but until the final report is rendered we can only speculate.

A final, related comment. It is always a sad day when we lose an American Service Man in combat against ISIS.  It is even a worse day when the wife of one of the fallen chooses, along with her congress-lady, to make a political issue out of the death of a brave soldier.  I am hard pressed to understand when the President called the wife to express his condolences as to why the congress-lady was present.  I have made calls like the President did and consoled the families of fallen soldiers.  It is one of the toughest tasks that I had to do in my 30 years of active duty.  Trying to console and help the families of fallen soldiers is in the same category of not leaving a comrade on the battlefield—we take care of our own!  I can only guess at my reaction if someone had treated my efforts like they treated the President’s, but it would not have been pretty!

We will follow up on this story as it continues to unfold.

Correcting the record

Letter to the editor

Reference Military History article “Hallowed Ground Khe Sanh Vietnam” (http://www.historynet.com/september-2017-table-contents.htm)

As a veteran of the battle of Khe Sanh I need to correct the record and the impression created by Mark D. Van Els in his article about the Battle of Khe Sanh.

The first thing is his understanding of the geography.  Khe Sanh was 30 plus kilometers south of the border with North Vietnam and the DMZ.  It sat astride route 9 that ran from Laos all the way to the coast.  It therefore blocked one of the critical avenues of approach into Quang Tri and Thieu Tinh (Hue) provinces. The map below highlights the strategic position.

area map

 

Given the location of the combat base it was used for surveillance and other operations into Laos and North Vietnam as the author points out.

As both a youngster growing up in Kansas and later as a cadet I studied intently the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the fate of the French.  It was popular to try and compare Khe Sanh and the ill-fated French garrison.  I must admit that many of us tried to draw lessons from Dien Bien Phu to try and predict the next activity of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The comparisons were of limited utility given the much different nature of the battlefield.

Mark Van Els failed to understand a critical point when it came to the timing of the battle.  General Westmoreland and the American chain of command down to and including Colonel David Lounds (the Marine commander of the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB)) knew more than 3 months before the battle that the NVA were coming.  As pointed out General Westmoreland wanted a set piece fire power intensive battle and those of us at Khe Sanh were the bait.  The reinforcement of KSCB started right before the first shelling and then immediately after it.  This is all well documented in my book Expendable Warriors: the Battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War.

The article leads the reader to believe that Khe Sanh was wholly a Marine battle.  As an Army District Advisor working with CPT Tinh-a-Nhi the District Chief we brought Army advisors, Bru montagnard and Vietnamese soldiers to the battle.  The initial battle around Khe Sanh village resulted in rendering an NVA regiment combat ineffective.  These brave soldiers were joined in the fight by Army Special Forces at Lang Vei and Special Forces soldiers at the Combat base itself.  These Vietnamese, Bru and Army soldiers contributed significantly to the overall battle.

As to the comment about the attack on Khe Sanh being a feint to draw forces to Khe Sanh, there is the school of thought that says it was a feint.  However, I contend that General Giap was attacking the American center of gravity—public opinion.  The battles of Tet and Hue were over in several weeks with the NVA and Viet Cong having been defeated everywhere, but Khe Sanh continued as noted for 77 days.  The cover of Time Magazine highlighted the “Agony of Khe Sanh”.  The agony played in the media on Main Street for over 77 days.  General Giap had won.

I believe that we won the battle of Khe Sanh on the battlefield and lost the war on the streets of the United States.  This is the critical lesson from Khe Sanh—the link between the battlefields and public opinion.

Thank you for correcting the record.