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Posted on Apr 3, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

The First Team in the ‘Nam

By Wild Bill Wilder

A New Concept in Combat

After Korea, the army put itself to seriously modifying its structure and considered new units, fast and mobile. At the same time, the helicopter, which made its first appearance at the end of World War II, was coming into its own. Combining the need for the rapid deployment and vertical envelopment by large military forces found its mechanical counterpart in the chopper. It could be the steel horse for the new cavalry.

Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, during the Kennedy and later the Johnson administration, caught the vision of what might be done after reading of the experiment. He quickly cut the red tape and gave the go-ahead for the formation of the 11th Air Assault Division at Fort Rucker, Alabama. As it developed, the new unit became known as the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).


“The Horses”

While soldiers were being imbued with this new concept, the hardware was keeping pace. Hundreds of the new model helicopter, the UH-1 Iroquois, were being produced by Bell Aviation. It would be given a simpler nickname with time – "The Huey." As they came off the assembly line, new army pilots flew them away. Theirs was definitely “on the job” training. It soon became a rush job.

A larger companion chopper called the CH-47 Chinook was also in production. It would become the principal Army air cargo transporter, airlifting its essential artillery and heavier equipment into battle. One Chinook could carry 44 fully equipped troops or 10,000 pounds of cargo.

The whole principle of airmobile warfare depended heavily on the success of these two aircraft. The Huey performed beyond all expectation. It served as a gunship (or hog), troop transport (slick), or a flying ambulance (med-evac or dustoff). The Cav had a saying about the twin rotored monster. “If you can’t carry it with a Chinook, you don’t need it!”

Lamentably, the Chinook did not do as well as the Huey. It had serious initial mechanical problems that caused the death of a number of army men. Throughout the war, the Army maintenance personnel and the manufacturing employees worked hard to improve its service record. Good or bad, the division was forced to rely upon it throughout the Vietnam conflict. They made do with what they had.

The Cavalry to the Rescue!

By early 1965, the situation in Vietnam had become quite precarious. Either the US would have to pull out completely, or it would have to be fully committed to support the rather shaky government of South Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson, fearing a “domino” effect (if one Southeast Asia country fell to Communism, others would soon follow), decided that a stand would be made there.

As whole divisions prepared to ship out to the Far East, pressure was put upon the 1st Cavalry Division to be prepared to move in less than a month. General Kinnard, its commander, performed a prodigious feat in getting his force ready. On July 28, 1965, the division began shipping out, headed to Vietnam.

Outloading from Mobile, Alabama, the division found itself packed into six passenger vessels, eleven cargo ships, and four aircraft carriers. On the move were over 15,000 sky troopers, 3,100 vehicles, nearly 500 helicopters and 19,000 tons of equipment. It was quite an armada. On September 11th the first vessels arrived and a week later, the 1st Cavalry units were engaged in combat.

General Kinnard envisioned his division as being based in Thailand. It would operate up and down Laos and Cambodia breaking up the supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The political ramifications of such a move, however sound militarily, were too much for the American leaders and it was not allowed.

In his first visit with General Westmoreland in August 1965, just prior to his division departing for Vietnam, Kinnard was forced to take a firm stand against the commander. Westmoreland indicated his desire to break up the division in smaller groups and spread it all over South Vietnam.

Kinnard, unintimidated by his commander, and being convinced of the proper use of airmobile forces, objected, saying that the Army Chief of Staff had spelled out his mission. He was to keep the critical East-West Highway 19 from Pleiku to Qui Nhon under allied control. It was a given that if the enemy succeeded in dividing the country, it would fall.

To control that highway was to control the Vietnamese Highlands. And the saying was in Vietnam, “he who controls the Highlands, controls the country.” Kinnard ended his argument by stating that the strength of the airmobile concept lay in its concentrated manpower and firepower. He ended with the statement, “If you penny pocket them all over the country, you’ve lost it.” Westmoreland allowed him to keep his division intact. Kinnard had successfully argued his case.

A New Weapon for a New War

The purpose of the coming of the 1stCav to Vietnam was to fight and win over a new enemy. This was a very different kind of war. In Vietnam, there were no front lines. The enemy could be anywhere, everywhere, and often was. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese soldiers were guerrilla fighters. They knew how to hit and run. They were in their element. It was their country. Their people had been fighting invading foreigners for hundreds of years.

The terrain was totally inhospitable to any sort of massive troop movement. In the southern tip of Vietnam were marshland, waterways and swamp. Ground vehicular movement in most areas there was prohibited.

The central region of the country was dense jungle-like terrain with few roads. To the north of it were the highlands, heavily forested with little more than footpaths nearly invisible from above. Finally in the northern section of the country, there were mountains and more trees, always trees. Roads were rare, in bad repair and often controlled in sections by the enemy.

But the enemy was in his element. He knew how to use the ground to his advantage. The Communist forces were familiar with the land. They could maneuver through it with ease, hide in it when necessary and spring from it in vicious slicing attacks when it was opportune. Then as quickly as they appeared, so they could disappear. Chasing them on foot was useless. Pursuing them with tanks and personnel carriers was difficult, dangerous, and usually got little positive result.

Yet strangely, this was just the kind of situation that suited the role of the new airmobile forces. The helicopter was not bound by any barriers on the ground. It moved swiftly above all of these difficulties, sweeping in low to search out the hidden enemy. Now the needle in the haystack could be found.

Once found, the sharpness of its point was blunted by the carefully coordinated attacks of the AirCav. Now the VC and NVA could be found with a minimum of effort. And when found, a large force could be inserted to pin him in place and destroy him in detail.
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