By: LtCol Dennis L. Dauphin, Ret
Webmaster, The Mighty Ninth

Background: Col Dauphin served in Vietnam from Nov, 1966 to Oct, 1967.  His first assignment was Forward Observer, assigned to Company "A", 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, going on every combat mission as their artillery counterpart.  He then served as the Fire Direction Officer for "A" Battery of the 2/9th Field Artillery, supervising the calculations of the firing data sent to the battery howitzers.  He completed his tour as the Executive Officer of "A" Battery, responsible for all personnel and firing decisions, reporting to the Battery Commander. His combat experiences are based on assignments in the Central Highlands, primarily the Kontum Province areas of Ia Drang, Pleiku, An Khe, Qui Nhon, Duc Pho and later Tam Ky, close to the DMZ.

 What the post-Vietnam generation should know about the Vietnam war:


  1. President Lyndon Johnson ordered his Vietnam Commanding General, Gen William Westmoreland, to conduct a "limited war" inside South Vietnam.  Gen Westmoreland was not allowed to attack or follow the enemy into Cambodia or Laos, which became a "safe haven" for the enemy for the duration of the war.  The reason: the President's fear that Russia and/or China would have sent their troops into the war.  The basis for this fear was the Korean War, whereby Gen MacArthur has miscalculated that China would not enter the war to support North Korea.  China did, indeed, enter the Korean War and reversed the gains of the Allies until a truce was signed.
    Key Point: Gen Westmoreland should have refused this restriction and offered his resignation if the President did not allow him to conduct the war employing using every established principle of military strategy and combat.  It would have saved his ultimate humiliation of being relieved of command after almost 58,000 US troops died in Vietnam.
    NOTE.  There are many unverified and apocryphal accounts of the CIA (nicknamed "Air America") and selected military units invading Cambodia and attacking targets there.  These were unauthorized and did not disrupt the vital enemy supply pipeline known as the "Ho Chi Minh" trail.  See #4.
  1. Westmoreland's chief staff officer said privately that the war in Vietnam had reached an impasse.  Gen. Weyand was the unnamed source in an explosive Times story on Aug. 7, 1967, that suggested victory in Vietnam might have been "beyond reach." Murray Fromson, who also reported on the general's doubt, wrote that Gen. Weyand released him from the confidentiality agreement after the 2005 death of Gen. William C. Westmoreland.  Gen Weyand was quoted telling Fromson "Westy just doesn't get it", referring to the futility of the limited war strategy.
    Key Point: The top commanders assigned in Vietnam lacked the integrity to tell the truth as to why the war was dragging on.
  1. The US Command badly underestimated the enemy.  French Indochina (Vietnam) was in a constant state of warfare for many years before US troops arrived.  The communist forces in Vietnam defeated the French army in 1954 and they abandoned the country.  The communist forces were experts in guerilla warfare and night-fighting; the French forces were not.  Our officers were being trained on the conventional methods of war, studying the strategy and tactics from the victories in WWII, but never trained in guerrilla warfare.  Our ground troops were never trained in night-fighting; stateside training was all conducted in daylight hours with very few night exercises. Our (replacement) troops arrived in-country in stateside khaki uniforms and dress shoes; they were not even told what to bring to Vietnam.  It was assumed that the US had far superior and unlimited air power, artillery pieces, naval vessels, and armor (tanks) to defeat the NVA and Viet Cong quickly.  No commander expected the enemy to be experts in jungle warfare.  It was their home; they knew how to fight in triple-canopy jungle.
  1. The Ho Chi Minh trail was never destroyed.  The enemy in Vietnam was re-supplied daily with arms, ammunition and food on a daily basis on this trail, which led from Laos to Cambodia paralleling the border of South Vietnam.  US troops captured thousands of weapons and arms made in China and Russia from the Viet Cong and the NVA.  We knew that China and Russia were providing the war materiel used against US troops.  Their supply line allowed them unlimited resources to sustain them against the might of the United States.
    Key Point: The war in Vietnam would not have lasted long if the US military command was allowed to take the necessary actions to destroy the Ho Chi  Minh trail.
  1. Command time was limited to six (6) months.  Due to the highly-sought-after designation that an officer had "combat command" in his personnel file upon returning to the States, the Army limited its Infantry commanders to six months in command.  This resulted in many good commanders being replaced by inexperienced officers who had to learn "on the job".  Consequently, the NCOs and enlisted had to adjust to new commanders, thus losing continuity and the confidence of having a new leader with the necessary skills.
  1. Vietnam was viewed by many higher-ups as a "wartime opportunity": get command time, go home and get promoted.  It was not seen as fighting an enemy who was an expert adversary in jungle warfare and survival tactics.  Victory in VN was assumed.
  1. The progress of our war efforts in VN was measured in "body counts".  Commanders at all echelons were required to assess their after-actions with the number of enemy KIA or wounded to higher headquarters.  Commanders were reminded daily to report a "body count".  Many commanders made estimates or gave false numbers to keep the higher-ups off their backs.  It has been said that the total reported "body counts" exceeded the population of Vietnam.

Individual Replacements vs. Unit replacements
The 25th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade was the first combat-ready Army unit to be deployed to Vietnam in January, 1966. After the initial entry of this unit and other combat units into Vietnam, the men in those units were allowed to return home after one year.  New soldiers arrived from the US as replacements, with no knowledge of the units they would be assigned to, did not know the officers or the NCOs, or what their individual assignments would be.  The history of warfare is that the men were trained as units, not individuals. This method of individual rotations was extremely detrimental to unit cohesiveness and never used again.

 "Hit & Run" warfare
The Viet Cong were well-trained guerillas who effectively use hit and run warfare tactics.  One of the most common was to launch 5 to 10 mortar rounds from a location where they had cover and concealment yet could see American troops.  This was usually done at dusk to provide cover.  All they would need was the mortar rounds and the mortar tube.  They didn't even bother with a base plate; it was way too heavy and stability of the tube was not a major concern.  They used knotted string to estimate the elevation needed to reach their target.  After firing, they would run into the protection of the jungle, rarely, if ever, being caught.  This was so common that almost every man who ever served in the field could tell you the sound of an incoming mortar.  Those who slept outside the protection of sandbagged bunkers (for the cool air) became casualties.  

Compromised communications
Throughout my combat exposure in Vietnam, the Vietnam Provincial leaders were told when and where we would strike and insert combat troops.  Time and again, a well-prepared combat operation yielded no results despite the intel reports on enemy troop movements and occupation.  We also cleared our night-harassing artillery fires with the local officials.  However, since the actual locations were still randomly assigned, this tactic proved very effective against the enemy.  

Military communications - Equipment
The various branches of the Armed Forces were allowed to purchase order their "own" radio systems which operated on different frequencies; this did not allow the use of the same frequencies by other services.  For example, the radios in the AF fighter jets could not communicate directly to the troops on the ground.  A  Forward Air Controller (FAC) was needed not only for spotting targets, but to act as a "go-between" with the aircraft and the fighting troops.  This came home to roost when a unit engaged in combat against a much larger force was in desperate need of air support.  This resulting in the loss of life-saving time to establish communication as well as the loss of life from "miscommunication" and "friendly fire".

Today's "IEDs" were known by a much older name – "booby-traps".  The VC & NVA were bomb experts.  Most of their traps were designed to injure and maim a soldier and take him out of the field.  Many holes were dug on routes that US troops would use that contained vertical bamboo sticks with sharpened points and smeared with dung.  These were known as "punji stakes".  The trap injuries were not always life-threatening, but caused an Infantry company to stop their operation, care for the wounded soldier, get a Medevac chopper out, and send him to the rear.  The enemy would always examine the trash sump left behind our units, often find explosive materials that could be attached to empty C-ration cans or trip-wires.  Again, not always life-threatening, but taking soldiers out of the field and seriously hurting the morale of the troops.  Key point again is that the US forces were not "moving forward" as warfare principles dictate, but allowing the enemy access within our assigned operating areas.  

The power of media bias:
The photo taken of Kim Phuc in the village of
Trang Bang by AP photographer Nick Ut shows her at nine years of age running naked on a road after being severely burned on her back by a napalm bomb from a South Vietnamese plane.  June 8, 1972, South Vietnamese planes dropped a napalm bomb on Trang Bang, which had been attacked and occupied by North Vietnamese forces.  A South Vietnamese Air Force pilot mistook the group fleeing the village for enemy soldiers and diverted to attack.  The media implied that US forces dropped the napalm bomb.   The truth wasn't known until later.  Many people still believe today that US forces dropped this bomb and do not know it was done by the South Vietnamese.  The photo won a Pulitzer Prize and forever shamed the US forces in Vietnam.

·   Major General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan of the South Vietnamese Army and the National Chief of Police in Saigon, fires a gun into the head of a suspected murderer. The man was a local Viet Cong officer who had been operating a gang of murderers bent on killing all the local police officers in that area of Saigon. He was responsible for arranging the drive-by shootings or hit-and-runs of dozens of policemen—and if they themselves could not be attacked, he targeted and murdered their families instead. So when he was finally caught and brought before Loan, the Chief of Police calmly unholstered his revolver and shot Lém in the temple, killing him instantly. The photographer had no idea what he was about to capture on film.  The photo won a Pulitzer Prize and greatly damaged American pro-war sentiment due to its naked violence.  But, the unpublished truth was that it had nothing at all to do with US forces in Vietnam.

·   This is NOT to say that war atrocities didn't occur in Vietnam.  It happened on both sides.  This is the reality of any war.  The difference is the "spin" or bias that totally takes the action out of context.  During WWII, the Allies firebombed the city of Dresden into non-existence near the end of the war.  It was not a military target, but rather showed the anger unleashed on Germany for initiating the war and killing millions.

US Firepower
Many commanders felt that the modern superiority of US weapons would bring a quick end to the Vietnam war.  The truth was the enemy was well prepared for this.  Consequently, the NVA and the Viet Cong moved mostly at night, knowing we were not trained as night fighters.  It was extremely rare that any large enemy force was seen moving in daylight; they knew this was suicidal.  The effect of all the US bombs and artillery was offset by enemy tunnels and shallow spider holes.  It was only the US Infantry engaging the enemy in individual firefights with air and artillery support that kept the enemy at bay, but not defeated.  Navy ships stationed offshore were given missions only to allow them credit for serving in a combat zone.  Their weapons had no effect on the land fighting.  However, the US Navy river patrols (River Rats) served heroically in intercepting the enemy trying to move men, weapons and supplies in the Mekong Delta.  We were constantly amazed at the amount of artillery fired prior to combat troops being inserted into a suspected enemy location had little effect.  The answer was usually that the enemy knew we were coming or used underground holes and tunnels to negate the bombing.

Vietnam demographics
To truly understand the war in Vietnam, one must look at the demographics.  Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam at the time, was basically like any other Asian city.  Located in the southernmost sector, it had thriving businesses, office buildings and hotels.  However, the majority of SVN was farmland, above Saigon and running to the DMZ (visit a map in Google).  It covered literally hundreds of farmland villages; mostly families who worked their rice paddies daily.  Their villages had Chiefs, much like our native Indian tribes.  What the public has never been told is that the Viet Cong used these villages to hide among innocent civilian rice farmers and their families.  The VC stored large caches of rice and weapons in spider holes in the villages.  They would enter a village, execute the village Chief, his wife and children to completely terrorize the village into submission.  They would leave and return again as they pleased. Over and over again, our Infantry forces would enter a village and the villagers would have blank stares, saying nothing.  They were completely in fear of both US forces and the Viet Cong.  Older boys and healthy men were abducted into service and taken from the villages by the VC.  Contrasted to WWII, the Germans occupied homes and farmhouses in occupied territories until driven out by the Allies.  The Allies then moved forward and recaptured more territory from the Germans. In Vietnam, our forces continued a routine of going from village to village, thus allowing the Viet Cong to return at will.  It was not practical for our troops to stay in a farm village, but it allowed the Viet Cong to operate at will.  

Using women and children
Much like the middle east terrorism today, mothers, grandmothers and children were given grenades to throw at US forces at their campsites.  Our soldiers would frequently take the candy from the C-ration packages and throw it to the kids on the side of the road or at the edge of a campsite.  They never knew when their reward would be a grenade thrown at them.  

L-shaped ambushes
Another important demographic to understand is the lack of usable roads in SVN.  There were  two major highways in the Kontum Province, Highway 1 and Highway 19. Consequently, these highways were heavily traveled by both the farmers and the US forces.  Again, using expert guerilla tactics, the Viet Cong would set up "L-shaped" ambushes.  A large tree would be felled across the highway, while they hid in the jungle growth on the side of the road.  Once a convoy was forced to stop, the VC opened fire parallel to their convoy.  It was a deadly ambush to our troops and it prevented the farmers from reaching their markets to buy, sell and trade.  

Extensive use of tunnels
The ability of the enemy to "disappear" and reappear, in addition to not suffering the effects of heavy bombings by USAF, was answered by the amazing discovery of phenomenal underground complexes.  These complexes consisted of miles of connected tunnels.  They contained not only food and weapons, but also enough space for underground hospitals.  This explained how the enemy offset the superior firepower of the US forces.  It also proved just how many years that armed conflict persisted in VN before US intervention.  We didn't realize what we were getting into.  The enemy was well prepared for any military force.  

The unrest at home over a never-ending war was unfairly turned into violence at the very men who served and endured the vicious jungle combat.  Men returning from VN had to be diverted from the Oakland Army Air Terminal to McChord AFB in Washington State for their protection.  Protesters had taken positions outside the chain-link fence at Oakland and were firing .22 rifles at the men.  This led to the modern-day greeting of "Welcome Home, Brother" exchanged between Vietnam Veterans because they had no welcoming ceremony upon returning home.  

Damage of "Limited War" constraints
With the 'limited war' constraints and the vast disparity of the coherent and capable leadership as well as military and industrial capabilities between the north and the south, it was not a war that could be won under our self-imposed constraints. Consequently, the far more industrialized north, under far better leadership, only had to insure the conflict arena stayed in the south, keep the supply routes functioning and then wait for the foreign support to yield. Had the battlefield been extended into the north, the incursions into the south would have been quickly truncated. But the only extension of the war into the north was via air power and had little
effect in the overall results since we largely left infrastructure untouched. 

I am always left with a question about why the South could never develop the capability to field a government or a military that was capable of sustaining itself or of extending power elsewhere.   It's pretty much still that way. Perhaps it's agrarian versus industrialized societies. Perhaps a study of the political regimes of South Vietnam may shed some light.