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JAMES R. ARNOLD
TET OFFENSIVE 1968. TURNING POINT IN VIETNAM

US infantryman. Illustration by Richard Geiger

The rotation policy had a major impact on how America fought the war. Rapid manpower turnover hindered the development of esprit de corps. There was a constant influx of green troops replacing combat experienced men. Since the likelihood of encountering the enemy was somewhat random, a newly arrived soldier had about the same chance of engaging in hard combat as did an experienced soldier. A North Vietnamese officer commenting on why America lost said: 'One weak point was your rotation of soldiers. You were strangers here anyway, and as soon as someone began to learn the country you sent him home.' Thus, from the soldiers' standpoint, the major morale factor was the rotation policy. He knew the war would not be won during his tour of duty, so he reasonably asked 'why try?'. His patriotic and self-sacrificial tendencies competed with instincts for self-preservation. For him: 'The end of the war was marked by the individual's rotation date and not by the war's eventual outcome - whether victory or defeat.'

Vertical envelopment, landing troops via helicopter behind enemy lines, was a new military concept, first applied during the Vietnam War. In 1965 and 1966, when the Communists first confronted this new weapon, they were taken by surprise and slaughtered in droves. But the helicopter was a mixed blessing. A North Vietnamese general who commanded in the first battles against the US 1st Cavalry Division commented: 'With your helicopters you could strike deep into our rear without warning. It was very effective.' However, 'We were amazed at how dependent you were on helicopters.' The helicopter gave the illusion of control. Troops could land anywhere the terrain permitted, deep within enemy-dominated territory. But once they departed the land reverted to the enemy.

In important part of the American arsenal was the helicopter gunship. A crew chief fires his M-60 at a Viet Cong position.

The gunner's view: in this case friendly soldiers of the 1st ARVN Division sweeping through a hamlet. When targets could be seen, the helicopter gave the Allies what in wars past had been called the 'high ground'.

As in most wars, there was not a 'typical' soldier on either side. Because of the difficult jungle terrain, field expedients ruled the day. An American foot soldier going on patrol might earn a rucksack stuffed with basic equipment weighing some 50 pounds. In addition, he hefted three days' rations, 500 M-16 rifle rounds, four one-pound fragmentation grenades, two smoke grenades, one or two Claymore mines, 200 rounds for his unit's M-60 machine-gun, three or four canteens of water and his individual weapon. Here, 1st Infantry Division soldiers take a break from a tracking patrol.

Flying from bases in Guam, the B-52 bomber - originally designed for strategic nuclear attack - served as a conventional ground support bomber in South Vietnam. It carried a colossal bomb load, up to 84.750-pound bombs, that could be dropped as close as one kilometre from friendly troops. The B-52 flew so high that it could not be heard on the ground: thus in theory they struck without warning. However, Soviet vessels stationed near the B-52 bases, spies' reports from the heavily infiltrated South Vietnamese command, and careless American security measures frequently gave the intended target advance warning. None the less, B-52 carpet bombing attacks could he devastating and greatly contributed to the defence of Khe Sanh.

Jet strike aircraft provided close support in daylight conditions of good visibility. Because of their speed, the 'fast-movers' were hard targets for enemy anti-aircraft gunners to hit. Although the Americans used a variety of jet aircraft, the Air Force's F-100 Super Sabre was the most common jet used in South Vietnam. It carried up to 6,000 pounds of ordnance.

The NVA/VC had to confront a battlefield fact of life: they invariably faced vastly superior American firepower. They constantly sought ways to compensate by using every possible strategy conceivable by a very inventive people. These ranged from pre-battle morale/political indoctrination to post-battle evasion and retreat tactics.

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