Fighting the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army During the Vietnam War – Part 1

Fighting the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army During the Vietnam War – Part 1

Above Photo: Hit and Run – The North Vietnamese Army attacks.

By Arnold Krause.

SSG Arnold Krause C 2/12th Infantry was interviewed by Peter Alan Lloyd as part of his research for BACK.

In Vietnam, the NVA and VC organizations fought a very different war to the one we (the U.S. army) were attempting.

Guerilla warfare was the best tool the North Vietnam forces employed against our mega-sized campaigns in the early years, and, later, the numerous search and destroy and reconnaissance in force missions we came to employ daily in conjunction with night operations.

A Reconnaissance In Force (‘RIF’) Mission gets airborne (Dennis Buckley, 212warriors.com)

A Reconnaissance In Force (‘RIF’) Mission gets airborne (Dennis Buckley, 212warriors.com)

The night ambushes were designed to catch the enemy’s movement by surprise, knowing they had to avoid aerial detection during daylight hours. It was also our attempt to strike some fear into them, but the success ratio of night ambushes rarely matched the efforts to conduct them. The NVA knew full well that they could not battle us strength to strength without air and artillery support, so they chose to play cat and mouse and just wait us out, which is exactly what they did for more than a decade. Eventually public opinion and politics overtook any military strategies we used and without public support, our efforts eroded and we gave up.

North Vietnamese Fighters in action during the Tet Offensive

North Vietnamese Fighters in action during the Tet Offensive

Clearly, the largest military campaign by North Vietnam was the TET offensive launched on January 30, 1968. Not until most of the U.S. ground forces had departed the county by mid 1971, did the North begin to expand their military effort against the South Vietnamese Army unencumbered by outside intervention. Only upon our official departure from RVN in 1973, under the banner of the Paris Peace Accords, when the last of U.S. troops were gone, did the North began to invade the South and ultimately defeat the South Vietnamese Army and overthrow the government on April 30th, 1975.

This was 4 years and 1 week after the 2/12th was withdrawn from Vietnam.

Most of the skirmishes between opposing forces during the war varied in size from individuals using sniper fire, to squad and platoon size battles against equally sized U.S. forces. Only on rare occasions, when the North felt that they had a tactical advantage which included a combination of manpower, firepower, and good escape routes, did they choose to engage us full on.

US soldiers patrolling through a rice paddy, as life goes on around them (212warriors.com)

US soldiers patrolling through a rice paddy, as life goes on around them (212warriors.com)

Most of these pitched battles occurred at night and mostly against U.S. forces that were in some type of fire support bases or defensive positions using makeshift firing positions, shallow foxholes, two or three rows of concertina wire along with claymore mines for protection.

One could conclude with 99% certainty that the outcome of these battles always favored the U.S.

There were occasions when U.S. forces on patrol were ambushed (squad and platoon sized units) in which the enemy inflicted great damage, but when it came to company and larger forces in direct battle, the north was always defeated or withdrew from the engagement regardless of the situation. We always had the support of artillery and air power to help defend our positions, whereas the enemy was always fighting only with what they could carry (portable .51 Cal machine guns and 82MM mortars and 122mm rockets) except in the North (I Corp) where they had some artillery and at times attempted to use tanks.

Captured Viet Cong Soldier (Corbis)

Captured Viet Cong Soldier (Corbis)

However, the North Vietnamese soldiers fighting for their beliefs were a dedicated, tenacious, battle hardened, fearless group not afraid of dying for their cause, which was the reunification of the North and South Vietnams.

They firmly believed that our arrival to this country was to assume the power position of the French, who were cast out of the country in 1954 after being defeated by Ho Chi Minh at the battle of Diem Bien Phu. The North Vietnamese believed the U.S. was attempting to colonize the country or so the story is told, to justify the North’s invasion of the South. When the South announced its “independence”, the North was not EVER going to accept that as reality and embarked on a long war to repatriate the two countries.

The war became a game of the hunter and the hunted. The daily operations directed by our S2 intelligence operations sent us far and wide through all types of terrain. The southern end of Vietnam was vastly different geographically to the hilly and mountainous areas of I & II Corps. See attached photo of how Vietnam was divided up operationally.

Military regions of South Veitnam during the Vietnam War

Military regions of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War

Being stationed in III Corp for my tour, in the area to the north west of Saigon, stretching to the Cambodian border I experienced the hilly terrain of the Razorback Mountains north of Dau Tieng and the jungle that stretched along the base of the range. To the east and west of Dau Tieng were the vast Ben Cui and Michelin Rubber plantations, then later in my tour the Hobo and Boi Loi Woods and a healthy dose of rice paddies, hamlets, villages and hedgerows with occasional pockets of heavily wooded forests like the Straight Edge Woods south of Tay Ninh.

A Viet Cong soldier emerges from a spider hole

A Viet Cong soldier emerges from a spider hole (Corbis)

What did not change as we marched our way through all this land was the continual discovery of tunnels, spider holes, trenches, bunkers, above and below ground, both old and new – and booby-traps.

Viet Cong mines discovered at a base camp (Craig Schoonderwoerd, 212warriors.com)

Viet Cong mines discovered at a base camp (Craig Schoonderwoerd, 212warriors.com)

The enemy was doing the same things we were doing to protect themselves. While we created defensive positions in the open areas of forests, jungles and rice paddies to create fields of fire, they chose to use the cover of vegetation, hedgerows and any other heavy cover they could conceal themselves from detection and generate the most damage to us if we managed to stumble into their fortifications. It created a formidable shield for us to penetrate, let alone the idea of whether it was worth the effort to root them out of their positions using brute force.

There seemed to be hardly a day that did not pass that someone tripped a booby trap or stepped into a punji pit.

A punji trap – sharpened bamboo stakes in a camouflaged hole.

A punji trap – sharpened bamboo stakes in a camouflaged hole. They could pierce a solder’s boot.

The VC would use any type of ordnance they could find to set up a trap. They were all nasty, deadly at times, and very effective in maiming our troops. On December 6, 1968 while on patrol out in the Hobo Woods, the 1st Platoon from my company triggered a booby-trapped artillery round that killed 5 G.I.s and wounded another dozen or so.

It was a devastating blast.

Viet Cong Bunker uncovered (212warriors.com)

Viet Cong Bunker uncovered (212warriors.com)

MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) put great emphasis on the enemy’s infrastructure. You can clearly see this by reading the statistics after every engagement. The report would read how many bunkers or feet of trenches were discovered and how much was destroyed by artillery, gunship or aerial bombardment. Not that any of this mattered to us, because the enemy just rebuilt wherever and whenever he needed to.

Intelligence gathering by our SOG’s (Special Operations Groups), sometimes CIA operations run along and inside the borders of Cambodia and our own LRRP’s (long rang reconnaissance patrols), RECON (reconnaissance platoons), CRIP’s (Combined reconnaissance and intelligence platoons) both housed within the maneuvering battalions and aerial reconnaissance were all out looking for enemy activity, direction and purpose.

Captured from a Viet Cong base camp – flags, typewriter, sewing machine and weapons (212warriors.com)

Captured from a Viet Cong base camp – flags, typewriter, sewing machine and weapons (212warriors.com)

Using this information, occasionally we would find a fresh base camp of bunkers, trenches and makeshift quarters. If we surprised the enemy, we might find fresh food stores of rice, weapons caches and occasionally medical supplies.

 

Camouflaged Viet Cong bunker entrance (212warriors.com)

Camouflaged Viet Cong bunker entrance (212warriors.com)

If the enemy had a choice, once they were discovered, it was to leave the food but to take the weapons.

We found their fortifications in the densest areas of cover. They could effectively handle a platoon (25-40 men) to a company sized force (80-160 men). The VC and NVA were constantly on the move from one point to another, and they crisscrossed the land as much as we did.

NVA pass through a base camp in a forest

NVA pass through a base camp in a forest

These base camps, both small and large could either be above ground, or, if below, connected via spider holes, and camouflaged trap doors which led down through a maze of tunnels connecting other bunkers or sometimes leading to hollowed out rooms used mostly for concealment.

Comparing the construction of fortifications in the field between the NVA/VC and US/ARVN forces was dramatic.

Headquarters, 4th Infantry Division (darrellpeck.com)

Headquarters, 4th Infantry Division (darrellpeck.com)

Not taking into consideration our large brigade and division base camps where materials and manpower seemed endless, out in the field, our options were smaller.

A U.S. Firebase ( Vaughn Banting, 212warriors.com)

A U.S. Fire Support Base (‘FSB’) ( Vaughn Banting, 212warriors.com)

Take, for example, our FSB’s (fire support bases) that we created. Some of these were intended to be used for one operation or just a brief period of time, a month or less. The firing positions could be foxholes with polypropylene sandbags placed in front of the positions and no overhead cover. For the more permanent locations, where we stayed for months at a time, we dug our bunkers, then surrounded them with sandbags and for a roof, we used PSP (perforated steel plate) sheets which were about two feet wide and 8-10 feet long, normally used to create temporary runways for planes.

These sheets were then covered with two or three layers of sandbags to protect the bunker from mortar attacks. Some of the firing positions may have chain link fence strung out in front to guard the position from RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), a very dangerous and effective weapon used against personnel.

Logs and earth: Viet Cong bunker entrance, with US M-16 rifle in the foreground (212warriors.com)

Logs and earth: Viet Cong bunker entrance, with US M-16 rifle in the foreground (212warriors.com)

The NVA/VC was “stuck” for the most part with creating their fortifications with the materials they had around them. They did not have the luxury of having a Chinook Ch-47 bring out sandbags, PSP and concertina wire for the troops. No, they had to rely on concealment mainly.

Their bunkers were dug in the dirt, under trees or bamboo stands and any protection they had was fashioned from sticks, tree limbs and bamboo for their roofs, with dirt piled on top. This would hardly stop a bullet, let along mortar or artillery fire.

Viet Cong cooking area (212warriors.com)

Viet Cong cooking area (212warriors.com)

If I was the enemy, I would find little comfort in trying to hide behind these makeshifts bunkers fighting against heavy weapons fire. You have to keep in mind, that their fortifications were only temporary intended for a day, maybe a week or two, and then they were on the move. Whereas for us, our structures were built for months, and, in a few cases, for more than a year, such as FSB Pershing (October ’68 – February ‘70).

Arnold served his time with the 25th Division in III Corp area between March 1968 to March 1969, mostly operating northwest of Saigon and around Duc Hoc, Hoc Mon, Cu Chi, Trang Bang, Tay Ninh, Dau Tieng, the Hobo Woods, Iron Triangle, War Zones C and D and all the area to Cambodia’s border from the Angel’s Wing to the Fish Hook.

In Part 2 –Battles and Encounters with the Enemy

Our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.

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See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. 

For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:

© Peter Alan Lloyd

BACK Parts 1 and 2:

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Front cover of BACK Part 1.

Front cover of BACK Part 1.

Front cover of BACK Part 2.

Front cover of BACK Part 2.

 

 

 

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