Department of the Army: Vietnam Studies.

Airmobility, 1961-1971.
Part 15, The Cavalry Spread Thin

By LTG John J Tolson

Editor's Note: See last two paragraphs for LTG Tolson's comments on 1/50 (M).

On 23 June 1967, about 0900 hours in the morning, Lieutenant General Stanley R. Larsen told me to have a battalion ready to move by 1300 that afternoon. They would be lifted by C-130's from landing zone ENGLISH in the Bong Son Plain to the Dak To-Kontum area in the Central Highlands where they were desperately needed. It was necessary to pull the 2d Battalion, 12th Cavalry directly out of contact with the enemy and get them to landing zone ENGLISH. Using 24 C-130 aircraft loads and two C-123's, the battalion moved to Dak To by that evening along with an artillery battery. They were almost immediately thrown into combat. The next day, two more battalions followed and the third day, the remainder of the direct support artillery. By now I had my 3d Brigade (-) committed to operational control of the 4th Infantry Division. In the next few days these units would participate in one of the hardest fought battles of the Vietnam war. The enemy had shown unexpected strength and determination. During this action the 3d Brigade was commanded by Colonel James O. McKenna, who had just taken over the Brigade from Colonel Burton on 22 June. The 3d Brigade would not return to my control until 25 July.

In order to cover the area left open in the PERSHING area of operations, I spread the remainder of the 1st Cavalry Division north and south of the Bong Son River. With the Division's unique ability to rapidly generate a reserve force from other forces in contact, I had no hesitation in allowing all maneuver elements to be committed.

This is not to say that any commander is happy to lose operational control of any of his forces. The 2d Battalion, 7th Infantry that had been detached from the 1st Cavalry before I took command had been operating in the southeast corner of the II Corps Tactical Zone near Phan Thiet since September 1966 and circumstances dictated that I would not have it back under my wing until after January 1968, when it would join me in the I Corps area. Administratively, it still belonged to the Division and we were responsible for all normal support for this unit except operational control, which was vested directly to General Larsen.

Throughout the Battle of Binh Dinh, one airmobile battalion task force was detached under I Field Force control in Binh Thuan Province to support pacification activities around the city of Phan Thiet. The task force was created and moved on 24 hours notice. Although scheduled for 60 days of operation, it stayed in being for 17 months. The task force contained a very significant part of the division's assets. In addition to the 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry, it included a scout section from the air cavalry squadron, a platoon of engineers, a battery of 105-mm howitzers, a platoon of aerial rocket artillery, lift helicopters, a signal team, and intelligence and civil affairs personnel, plus a forward support element for logistics. This battalion-sized operation, known as Operation BYRD, was especially interesting as a parallel to the Division's activities during this period. BYRD was in effect a microcosm of the Division's operations in Binh Dinh.

Binh Thuan is located about 100 miles northeast of Saigon, 200 miles south of Binh Dinh and bordering the South China Sea. The principal port city, Phan Thiet, was surrounded by a heavily popu lated rice-growing area. Forty percent of the Province consisted of forested mountains, which supplied some of the best timber in Vietnam. These woodlands also provided clandestine bases and rest areas for the Viet Cong. Operation BYRD was an economy of force effort, using a minimum involvement of United States ground combat forces, aiming to upgrade capabilities of the armed forces of South Vietnam in that area.

In order to protect the vital port of Phan Thiet and surrounding areas, the Commanding General of I Field Force, Vietnam gave the 1st Cavalry Division the mission of defeating the enemy forces in the BYRD area, in close coordination with South Vietnam forces. The battalion was to assist in opening National Highway #1 as it ran along the coast through this area. Of the approximately 1,600 personnel in the average daily task force strength, 650 were organic to a battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division, 500 were from other 1st Cavalry assets, and 450 were from I Field Force. Although the composition of the task force varied, the nucleus was the airmobile battalion. The small force Contained all the elements essential to sustain independent operations and could take advantage of available support.

Initially, the task force established a fire base and command post on the Phan Thiet airfield from which infantry rifle companies were air assaulted into landing zones within the range of the direct support of the artillery battery. The first operations relieved pressure on Phan Thiet and the nearby district capitals. The task force began combined operations with the South Vietnamese, taking advantage of U. S. Navy ships and U. S. Air Force fighters for fire support. The area of influence of the task force was broadened by the establishment of fire bases at steadily increasing distances from Phan Thiet.

The operation, as it continued, isolated the enemy in the heavily-forested areas, away from the populated zones. In the close-in areas, the task force concentrated on the Viet Cong infrastructure and took action to build confidence in the population and in the friendly armed forces. Revolutionary development activities extended from the city toward the outlying parts of the province. All of these phases took place simultaneously. Initially, the task force operated with regional and popular forces of the South Vietnamese. Later, it conducted combined operations with two Vietnamese Army battalions of the 23d Army of the Republic of Vietnam Division.

The Task Force ended up with an amazing record. During the 17 months of Operation BYRD, the 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry had only 34 troopers killed in action while 849 enemy were killed and 109 captured, More important than enemy losses, the Task Force had enabled the South Vietnamese government to spread its control from the province and district capitals to virtually all the population in the area. Agriculture production, commerce, education and medical treatment had increased manyfold.

The small but vitally important air assaults of Operation BYRD not only reproduced the Binh Dinh battle in miniature; they also underscored the significant advantages of envelopment over penetration as a tactic. Penetration is costly opening a gap, widening it, and holding the shoulders in order to get into the enemy's rear. The air assault concept permits a cheaper, faster, and more decisive vertical envelopment approach, which has made the conventional battlefield more fluid than ever. The great variety of air assault concepts seems to fall under two major headings each of which is a principle of war surprise and security. In the Battle of Binh Dinh as well as in Operation BYRD, extensive preparations or detailed reconnaissance, while maximizing security, compromised surprise and often created dry holes. Executing air assaults without prior artillery preparation and with limited prior reconnaissance involved considerable risk, but frequently yielded rewarding results. The choice depends on the enemy situation and the ability of the G-2 to present the proper recommendation to the division commander. The air assault must rely on speed, scheme of maneuver, locally available firepower (aerial rocket artillery), and command and control from an aerial platform. Additionally, a reinforcing capability to exploit success or to assault the enemy from another direction must be immediately available to the commander.

This period in the BYRD fighting was characterized by almost daily contacts with squad and platoon-size Viet Cong elements as the task force searched base areas and interdicted lines of communication. Combined United States and South Vietnamese operations were continuous, with both sides gaining mutual respect and experience.

Reconnaissance in Force

In August 1967 the 1st Cavalry Division again moved into Quang Ngai Province in I Corps Tactical Zone with three battalions under the 3d Brigade, commanded by Colonel McKenna. This resulted in the first major reconnaissance in force into the Song Re Valley. The Song Re Valley had been a sacrosanct Viet Cong stronghold for years. The picturesque terrain consisted of numerous hillocks in the valley floor, fertile fields of rice, and well-fed livestock. Previous aerial reconnaissance had drawn heavy antiaircraft fire. Although the valley appeared prosperous, only a few inhabitants had been observed. Intelligence experts suspected that military age personnel were either hiding in the hills as outright Viet Cong soldiers or being used as laborers by the Viet Cong forces in constructing fortified positions.

On 9 August 1967 the 2d Battalion of the 8th Cavalry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John E. Stannard, commenced a battalion air assault into the valley 32 miles southwest of Quang Ngai City. The selected landing zone, named landing zone PAT, was situated on a ridgeline 2,300 meters southwest of an abandoned airstrip at Ta Ma. This landing zone selected because it was the only high ground large enough and clear enough of obstructions to allow six lift ships to land, and because it was in an area which would give an assaulting company the advantage of reconnoitering from high ground down to the valley floor. The assault started at 0936 after a short artillery preparation. After the 1st Platoon had landed, intense antiaircraft fire came from the surrounding hills. Two Huey's were shot down almost immediately. Company A of the 2d Battalion was faced with a pitched battle for the next four hours. The enemy situation, reconstructed later from information gained from prisoners of war, captured documents, and a survey of the battle area, disclosed that the chosen landing zone was right in the midst of well-prepared enemy positions. Looking down on the position were at least 80 North Vietnamese with three 12.7-mm antiaircraft weapons, 82-mm mortars, and 57-mm recoilless rifles. A Viet Cong Montagnard rifle company was on the same hill mass. The ridgeline was rimmed with fox holes and well-concealed bunkers almost flush with the ground. Company A had landed in a nest of hornets.

There were to be hundreds of acts of individual heroism in the next few hours which have been duly recorded elsewhere. How ever, for the purpose of this study, the importance of landing zone PAT stems from the fact that Air Cavalry units were able to react with terrific firepower and extract their men from almost untenable. positions when necessary. The aerial rocket artillery had fired 576 rockets in support of this action and two armed Chinook helicopters had delivered eight tons of ordnance on possible escape routes. Tactical Air had done a magnificent job of supporting the ground forces with a total of 42 sorties. What could have been a disaster turned out to be an effective assault, killing 73 enemy while only losing 11 friendly troops. Two major enemy units had been flushed out of hidden positions and a major antiaircraft position had been destroyed.

The skirmish at landing zone PAT was the major encounter with the Viet Cong during the reconnaissance in force of the Song Re Valley. This reconnaissance was a preview in miniature of major operations of the 1st Cavalry in subsequent years. We had learned to establish a fixed-wing base near the assault area and save our precious helicopter sorties for short-range missions. Song Re Valley was an excellent rehearsal for what was to come.

The Chinook as a "Bomber" and "Flying Tank"

As a commander I could not help but be struck by the never-ending inventiveness of the U. S. soldier. In my experience the average soldier in Vietnam was as good as, and, in many ways, better than, his World War II predecessor. He came up with new solutions for new problems in a new environment almost daily. One example was the use of the Chinook as an "ad hoc bomber."

The Viet Cong had developed tremendous underground fortifications and tunnel systems throughout Binh Dinh Province. Many of these fortifications could withstand almost any explosion. Riot agents were introduced to drive the enemy from his tunnels and force him into the open. During Operation PERSHING the 1st Cavalry dropped a total of 29,600 pounds of these agents from CH-47 aircraft using a simple locally fabricated fusing system on a standard drum. Initially the drums were merely rolled out the back of the open door of the Chinook and the fusing system was armed by a static line which permitted the drum to arm after it was free of the aircraft. Using this method, a large concentration of tear gas could be placed on a suspected area with accuracy.

Napalm was rigged and dropped in a similar manner during this same period. A single CH-47 could drop two and one-half tons of napalm on an enemy installation. Naturally, this method of dropping napalm was only used on specific targets where tactical air could not be effectively used.

Another version of the CH-47 which was unique to the 1st Cavalry Division was the so-called "Go-Go Bird." The "Go-Go Bird," as it was called by the Infantry, was a heavily armed Chinook which the 1st Cavalry Division was asked to test in combat. Three test models were received armed with twin 20-mm Gatling guns, 40-mm grenade launchers, and .50-caliber machine guns, along with other assorted ordnance. Though anything but graceful, it had a tremendous morale effect on the friendly troops which constantly asked for its support.

From the infantryman's viewpoint, when the "Go-Go Bird" came, the enemy disappeared. The pilots who flew these test aircraft performed some incredibly heroic deeds to prove the worth of the machine. However, from the overall viewpoint of the Division, these special machines required an inordinate amount of support and, if we had kept them as part of our formal organization, we would have been required to give up three of our essential lift Chinooks. Army Concept Team in Vietnam monitored the tests of the "Go-Go Birds" and flew many of the missions. After two of the test vehicles were lost through attrition, the final armed Chinook was transferred to the 1st Aviation Brigade. Much debate would continue about the effectiveness and vulnerability of such a large armed helicopter, but the individual trooper who enjoyed its support would never forget it.

Armour in an Airmobile Division?

To deal more effectively on a continuing basis with the enemy fortifications on the coastal plains of Binh Dinh, the Division had requested and received one tank company from the 1st Battalion, 69th Armour, 4th Division, at Pleiku. On the surface one of the most unlikely additions to an airmobile division would appear to be heavy armour. The tank with all its implications of ponderousness seems to be the antithesis of what one looks for in a "lean and mean" light fighting unit. In many circumstances, this would be true. But, I had always wanted to explore the possibility of a combination of the surprise of air cavalry and the shock of armour. Binh Dinh seemed the appropriate place.

The 90-mm gun of the M-48 tank was found to be one of the best weapons in dealing with the enemy fortifications. In 24 to 48 hours, a determined enemy could prepare an elaborate perimeter affording him excellent cover and concealment around an entire village. His fortifications were well organized and usually prepared in a series of hedgerows. The Viet Cong would not usually leave his bunker under any circumstances. The bunker had to be destroyed to kill him. It was here that the tank came into its own.

In the Bong Son Plain, the 1st Cavalry Division usually employed one platoon from A Company of the 1st Battalion, 69th Armour with from six to eight tanks in conjunction with an infantry battalion when they assaulted a fortified village. Because the employment and maneuver of the tanks were so essential in attacking a fortified village, a problem of too much communications sometimes developed. Everybody from the infantry platoon leader and company commander on the ground to the battalion commander and his S-3 in the air were directing and maneuvering the tanks. To sort out this problem, it soon became standard procedure to put the tank commander or his executive officer in a light observation helicopter to control the attached tanks for the infantry battalion commander. This method worked best.

The tank usually carried a basic load of 62 rounds of 90-min shells and 2,000 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition and very often, in the course of a four or five hour battle, a tank would use as much as three basic loads. To prohibit a tank running out of ammunition during a crucial time of an engagement, the 1st Cavalry developed a system whereby a basic load of tank ammunition was pre-slung for helicopter delivery and stored at the closest fire base to the scene of the action. Upon initial contact, an immediate resupply of ammunition was initiated. This same air transport capability was used to maintain the tanks by rapidly moving mechanics and repair parts to disabled vehicles.

The most critical limiting factor in the use of tanks in Vietnam was the trafficability of the soil. In the Bong Son area during the dry season and the latter stages of the rice-growing cycle, the M-48 tank could move across the rice paddies with a certain amount of ease. When the rice paddies were flooded, movement was greatly restricted and had to be carefully planned in conjunction with the engineers. Bulldozers and engineer mine-sweeping teams had to be attached to the moving tank elements to keep open movement options for the armour

In September 1967, the 1st Cavalry Division received another armour capability when the 1st Battalion, 50th Mechanized Infantry was attached. The battalion was completely ground mobile in its organic armoured personnel carriers.

When I received the 1st Battalion, 50th Mechanized Infantry, I decided not to treat this battalion as an orphan child to be held in reserve for some particular contingency, but rather to totally integrate it into the 1st Cavalry Division and to train its troops completely in airmobile tactics. We rounded out the battalion with a fourth rifle company from headquarters and supply units and placed their armoured personnel carriers at a central position near landing zone UPLIFT. The companies would go out on airmobile operations just as other companies of the Division and if a mission appeared that needed a mechanized unit, we extracted the troops to landing zone UPLIFT and deployed them in their primary role. The 1st Battalion, 50th Mechanized Infantry proved to be a very valuable asset and, when we had lost our attached tanks to their parent organization, we often employed the Armoured Personnel Carriers with their .50 caliber guns in tank-like formations. In using the mechanized battalion in this manner, we felt we enjoyed the best of both worlds. We had the additional troops which were completely trained in air assault tactics and we had the mechanized capability when the terrain and situation demanded.


Tolson, John J., Lt. Gen. Airmobility, 1961-1971, Part 15. Department of the Army: Vietnam Studies. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1973.