Vietnam War was very different from any modern
war fought by the US Army
and the reasons why it is often referred to as “the captain’s war”
provides a valuable insight
on some of the distinctive features of this war. Most conflicts are
classified as conventional wars. In large-scale conventional conflicts like
World War II, the enemy was out front and the friendly forces were stacked
up behind the companies with battalions, brigades, divisions, corps, armies,
and so on. The Vietnam War was an unconventional war with no front lines and
the enemy tactics were very different from those used in the Korean War and
World War II. The enemy was often
invisible in Vietnam, used
guerrilla tactics and attacked us when they had a significant advantage.
Describing the Vietnam conflict as “the captain’s war” highlights that this
was a very different type of conflict; it was an unconventional
that required radical changes to our tactics and doctrine to combat a very
different type of enemy. Airmobility operations formed a major component of
these new tactics, and it was the 1st Cavalry Division that
combat tested and refined these new tactics starting in the autumn of 1965.
Many of the traditional tactics, such as controlling key terrain, lost much
of its importance because airmobility provided us with a capability to hop,
skip and jump over a large geographical area at short notice and swiftly.
The basic reason why the Vietnam War was commonly referred to as “the captain’s war” is that the infantry captain was normally the highest-ranking officer on the ground. All of his superiors operated from firebases and in the event of a firefight, they normally controlled the operation from a command and control helicopter. In other words, it was only on rare occasions that an officer above the grade of captain controlled a firefight from a ground location. In one instance, our battalion commander, LTC John Stannard, took control of Company C for several hours during the Battle of Tam Quan on 7 December 1967 after the company commander was killed. He was also on the ground during the night of 19 December to command several of his subordinate units that had surrounded a large enemy force in the vicinity of the Bong Son River. Normally, however, the standard procedure was that infantry companies operated independently within their assigned area of operations and when they made contact with a large enemy force, the battalion or brigade commander would immediately deploy additional units to assist in combating these forces, otherwise known in the First Team as “piling on”.
Company B always had a mission 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and for the duration of its involvement in the Vietnam War. The normal practice was that we conducted search and destroy missions for approximately 10 days, and then we would secure a firebase for 4-5 days. Securing a big firebase like LZ English was relaxing and provided an opportunity for writing letters, taking a shower, changing uniforms, maintaining our equipment and we usually received two hot meals a day. One can still recall the small pleasures of firebase duty like the whiff of freshly brewed coffee in the morning and the food was a welcomed change from C-Rations. However, securing a firebase was not a total break. In addition to securing the firebase perimeter, we also conducted night ambushes and local patrolling during the daytime to prevent enemy attacks on the base. There was no fixed schedule for these rotations, much depended on enemy activity and the current mission of our Battalion.
A series of firebases were established throughout the 1st Cavalry Division’s area of operations. Many of these firebases consisted of an artillery battery of six 105mm guns that were secured by an infantry company. The 1st Cavalry’s artillery batteries were also units that could be moved by air to another location within a few hours to support infantry operations. As a general rule, Bravo Company operated within the range of an artillery battery and during a firefight, we received immediate artillery support from one or more of these firebases. An important outcome of our periodic firebase security missions was that we established a good rapport with these artillery troopers and they performed as a member of our team when we needed artillery support.
Thanks to Fred Fish for
the above photos
Our Battalion Commander assigned each company an Area of Operations (AO) and this was an extensive geographical area, often several kilometres long and the same wide. For a variety of reasons to include preventing friendly casualties, a company commander controlled all activities in their assigned AO. This included troop deployments, artillery missions, close air support, etc. A night defensive position was selected based on key terrain that offered good fields of fire. Just like the wagon trains of the Wild West, we always established a circular defense with three platoons, while the weapons platoon was responsible for supporting mortar fires and act as a reserve, if needed. After selecting the company night defensive position, the first order of business was delineating the platoon sectors of responsibility and coordinating the locations for machine guns to ensure overlapping fires. Thereafter, there would be a steady stream of helicopters delivering packs, mortars, supplies, mail, replacements and troopers returning from R&R. The 1st Sergeant and supply coordinator were very busy with this supply activity and in constant radio contact with inbound helicopters and the company rear detachment. Foxholes were dug, everyone was briefed on guard shifts, and operation plans for the next day would be prepared. Just before sunset, the Artillery Forward Observer (FO) would plan artillery fires on likely avenues of enemy approach. After the company commander approved of this fire plan, the FO would start adjusting artillery on these registered points. The artillery battery recorded this data in their fire plan and if the enemy attacked, artillery fires could be rapidly adjusted from these fixed points. The weapons platoon followed a similar sequence for planning and registering mortar fires. When it was dark, night ambush teams would move out to their designated locations and these ambushes required a great deal planning and coordination. A well-planned night defensive position was difficult for the enemy to approach and attack, and this explains why we felt more secure out in the bush than when securing a firebase.
The normal mission
assigned to Bravo Company was to locate enemy forces and to attack them by
fire and maneuver, commonly referred to as “search and destroy operations”
during our period in Vietnam. We knew that our elusive enemy was out there
waiting for that golden opportunity to pounce on us and as mentioned
earlier, they habitually selected the time and place for these encounters.
In addition, they usually engaged us from prepared fighting positions,
foxholes or connecting trenches, and they attempted to “ hug” us in order to
prevent us from using our devastating firepower - - artillery, naval
gunfire, Cobra gunships armed with miniguns or grenade launchers, Chinook
Guns-A-Go-Go armed with Gatling guns or 50-caliber machine guns, USAF C-130
Spooky aircraft armed with 25mm Gatling gun and Bofors 40mm cannon, tactical
air support and B-52 Bombers.
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