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February 2002/March 2002
  OPERATION    
MASHER  
  THE BOUNDARIES OF FORCE
   

BY JOHN PRADOS. PHOTOGRAPHS BY
GILBERT L. METERS AND LYLE V. BOGGESS.

The provinces of Binh Dinh and Quang Ngai on the Central Vietnamese coast had been hotbeds of resistance since the French Indochina War. When the National Liberation Front took up arms against the Saigon government at the beginning of the 1960s, this area once more took fire. When Hanoi opened a supply path to the south, one of the first large base areas to which it led was here. In 1965, some North Vietnamese regular army units sent to the south were directed toward this important base area. Combining with Liberation Front main force units already there, the North Vietnamese command formed the Sao Vang Division, which later was renamed the Third Division.

The Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), conscious of the longstanding situation in Binh Dinh-Quang Ngai, its intelligence aware in general of the infiltration of two North Vietnamese regiments into the area, determined to do what it could to break up the enemy base area and troop concentration. In this, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, MACV's commander, had some key problems.

One was inter-allied relationships. Against a division-sized North Vietnamese-Viet Cong force, planners calculated the need for a 20,000-man attack. The area of the operation was occupied by South Vietnamese, U.S. Marine, and Republic of Korea units, but MACV had command authority only over the Americans. In addition, the attack sector contained the boundary between the provinces Binh Dinh and Quang Ngai, which also happened to be the command boundary between the South Vietnamese I and II Corps and the U.S. III Marine Amphibious Force and the I Field Force. Military control arrangements are such that units are not supposed to exit their assigned sectors and command boundaries. With the enemy base area sitting astride the different command areas, this operation would be quite complicated.

To iron out the problems, a conference was held on January 13, 1966, at the Danang headquarters of the South Vietnamese I Corps by its leader, Gen. Nguyen Chanh Thai. Also present were the U.S. Marine and Field Force commanders, Gens. Lewis W. Walt and Stanley R. Larsen; South Vietnamese II Corps commander, Gen. Vinh Loc; South Korean Gen. Chae Myung Shin; several division officers and deputies of all three nationalities, as well as many staff officers.

The consensus was that the enemy main force units were concentrated in Quang Ngai with bases behind them in the boundary area, inland among the slopes of the An Lao River Valley, and on the coast in the vicinity of Tam Quang. The proposed solution called for U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese to sweep through Quang Ngai from the north and the coast toward the II Corps/provincial boundary with Binh Dinh. Meanwhile, U.S. Army, South Vietnamese, and South Korean troops would sweep north toward the same boundary. Much was made of the tactic of the hammer and anvil, in which one force created a solid barrier against which another could shatter the adversary. This big push in early 1966 was a hammer and anvil at the operational level. Participants also tried to reduce the importance of the corps boundary, specifying that forces should be free to pursue the enemy into other command areas.

Despite these provisions, the offensive was designed separately by independent commands for their own forces, with their own code names, arrangements, logistics, and alliance relationships. Gen. Larsen's I Field Force, a U.S. Army command, operated under the name Operation Masher, with Gen. Harry W.O. Kinnard's 1st Cavalry Division the primary maneuver force. Well-known in Vietnam after its intervention in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in the fall of 1965, the 1st Cavalry was resting and refitting after that fierce combat. Masher became its re-engagement in the war.

South Vietnamese II Corps called this operation Thang Phong II. It provided two regiments of the 22nd Infantry Division, plus an airborne brigade from Saigon's general reserve. The South Koreans, with an operation called Flying Tiger, intended to clear the area around Phu Cat, in southern Binh Dinh, with their Tiger (Capitol) Division.

On the Quang Ngai side of the fence, Gen. Walt's III Marine Amphibious Force planned an amphibious invasion in the old style--with two battalion landing teams across the beach, another in reserve afloat, and elements of a fourth battalion to round out the force--in an operation they labeled Double Eagle. South Vietnam's I Corps called the effort Lien Ket 22 and provided a regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division plus the two-battalion Task Force Bravo of the Vietnamese Marine Corps.

Timed to kick off immediately after the Tet lunar new year, the attacks were preceded in both areas by reconnaissance activity. For the Marines, this meant the creation of a scouting center at Bao To in the foothills of the Vietnamese cordillera, to the west of the main battle area. A provisional unit comprising Marines from the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion from Danang and Phu Bai and the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company from Chu Lai radiated out from Bao To. Within days, they were given an artillery detachment to engage the enemy concentrations they sighted.

While the Force Recon Marines maintained security for Ba To by patrolling out to an 11,000- meter radius, the 3rd Battalion conducted more than forty offensive scout patrols, most in four- or five-men groups. They called for support on about half the missions. The artillery battery at Ba To alone fired more than 1,900 rounds of 105mm howitzer shells. Capt. James L. Compton's provision unit counted more than a thousand enemy sightings during the offensive.

On January 21, a week before the scheduled amphibious landing, an especially strong scout force--a full platoon of 3rd Recon under 1st Lt. Richard F. Parker, Jr.--got into a hot firefight at the extreme western edge of the battle area, at a place called Hill 829, roughly four kilometers west of Ba To. The Marines extricated themselves with difficulty, their entire withdrawal made under fire. An artillery observer and one recon man went missing.

For the Army, reconnaissance meant Special Forces Team B-57, better known as Project Delta. Under Maj. Charles Beckwith, who had also played an important part in the preliminaries to the Ia Drang battles of 1965, Project Delta was supposed to reconnoiter the An Lao Valley, thought to be the heart of the North Vietnamese base area. This scout mission was conducted until the evening before the main operation. Then, using only Americans because his indigenous troopers were in refresher training, Beckwith inserted three six-man teams. The mission quickly disintegrated.

One team aborted; a second encountered several North Vietnamese patrols in succession and had to flee, only half its men surviving. The last team was ambushed soon after it had been spotted by a woodcutter in the hills. Four of the scouts were killed, the other two wounded. The survivors held on long enough for extraction by Beckwith, himself wounded aboard his command helicopter. The Cav had its hands so full when battle actually came that Delta could not be saved.

The Delta disaster had yet to occur when, on the morning of January 25, Col. Harold D. (Hal) Moore's 1st Cav., 3rd Brigade, began loading out for a move from the division base camp at An Khe to Phu Cat, where the Koreans were completing Operation Flying Tiger to clear the area around the town. With South Vietnamese troops securing the roads, the Cav troops (many sent by truck) set up a new base camp to handle supplies for Operation Masher. Two battalions of Moore's brigade participated in this preliminary maneuver.

Photo by Lyle V. Boggess
Officers of the 1st Cav hold a last minute briefing prior to a sweep action at Bong Son, Jan. 25, 1966.

Much of the initial action occurred some forty miles to the north, where the coastal plain between Tam Quan and Bong Son became Masher's first objective. A strong South Vietnamese airborne brigade protected Tam Quan and radiated out from the provincial capital. The Cav, which wanted to establish a division forward headquarters near Bong Son, scheduled insertion of Lt. Col. Robert McDade's 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, at Landing Zone Dog in the Bong Son Plain.

This air assault looked hairy to the Cav's chopper crews. The division's reconnaissance unit--the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, known as the "Headhunters''--had been flying since World War II. It walked away after one of the Bong Son flights. The LZ Dog insertion of McDade's 2nd Battalion was carried out by the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion with a hundred choppers.

Meanwhile, the portents looked bad when a C-123 crashed at An Khe during the initial move of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, from there to Bong Son on January 25. Forty-two Cav troops died in the accident. In the actual air assault mounted on January 28, twenty helicopters were damaged and five ships were shot down. Once on the ground, Col. McDade's troops attacked toward the north to link up with the South Vietnamese paratroops. Rain, low clouds, and wind prevented the Cav from moving artillery guns to a planned fire-support base, complicating the problems of grunts even more. Lt. Col. Raymond L. Kampe opened up LZ Papa, north and west of Dog, where a Chinook helicopter was promptly downed. A rifle company sent to hold the site came under fire. Kampe fed the remainder of his troops into that fight, but at both LZs the enemy faded from sight.

Less than forty kilometers away, across the Quang Ngai provincial boundary, the Marine and South Vietnamese forces combined for Operation Double Eagle and executed their amphibious landing simultaneous with the Cav's jumpoff. Artillery, Vietnamese troops, and a two-company force of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, under Lt. Col. William F. Donohue, surged to the tops of some hills near Duc Pho that overlooked the planned invasion beach.

After dawn, Red Beach saw the arrival of two battalion landing forces, the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, and the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines. A third landing force battalion remained afloat in reserve. The South Vietnamese committed a task force of two Marine battalions plus the 4th Regiment of the 22nd Infantry Division. The operation involved two-thirds of all the helicopters available to II Marine Amphibious Force, a measure of its importance to Vietnam commanders.

There was a marked contrast, however, between what happened in the Masher area, at least initially, and what took place in Double Eagle. Not that the Marines lacked forces--over 6,000 people were involved--or, for that matter, good leadership--Lt. Col. Paul X. Kelly, who took over 2/4 during the offensive, went on to become Commandant of the Marine Corps. However, results proved sparse because the North Vietnamese and Liberation Front forces simply were not there. Contrary to the intelligence, which had expected heavier opposition in the Marine zone, in twenty days of operations the Double Eagle forces claimed only 312 enemy killed and 19 captured.

In the Army sector, on the other hand, it seemed at first as if Col. Moore's brigade had kicked over an anthill. Bob McDade had leapfrogged his 2/7 Cavalry troops from LZ Dog into smaller landing zones among the villages of Tan Thanh and Phung Du. Those turned out to be heavily defended. Alpha Company of 2/7, the unit that had lost a full platoon in the C-123 crash at An Khe, was in the thick of it now. Capt. Joe E. Sugdinis could not maneuver his men and remained pinned down when Col. McDade reached the scene in the afternoon. Bravo and Charlie Companies also were caught in this firefight, which was the 7th Battalion of the Vietnamese Peoples' Army 22nd Regiment. "We're in a hornet's nest!" radioed Capt. John A. Fesire, the Charlie Company CO.

More heavy rain fell that night. In the morning, brigade commander Hal Moore flew in with reinforcements: two companies of the 2/12 Cavalry. The helicopters that carried them stayed at the new base at Phu Cat, which Americans nicknamed the "Rifle Range," defended by the South Korean Tiger Division. The South Koreans unsettled Robert Mason, one of the chopper pilots, who thought their dawn unarmed combat exercises akin to people beating each other up for fun. But the North Vietnamese upset Mason much worse--they were shooting at him when he and his compatriots of the 299th and 228th Assault Helicopter Battalions lifted Col. Moore into the hot LZs at Phung Du. Mason's own ship was downed. In the first two days of Masher there were no fewer than 45 damaged choppers in the two units. The 228th had ten of its pilots killed as well. By contrast, the Cav had few chopper losses during the 1965 Ia Drang battles.

This initial engagement peaked on January 29 and 30, after which the North Vietnamese faded away. By February 2, the Cav felt they had completed taking over the plain around Bong Son. Col. Moore's brigade claimed 603 killed in the 7th and 9th Battalions of the enemy 22nd Regiment, against 77 dead Americans. The other battalions of Moore's brigade moved in to sweep adjacent areas but the enemy was gone.

Barely had the smoke cleared over the Bong Song Plain when the Cav began receiving SOS signals from Charlie Beckwith's Project Delta commandos in the An Lao Valley. Gen. Kinnard immediately arranged for a new phase of Masher, launching two brigades into An Lao while getting the South Vietnamese to block the valley mouths. Task Force Bravo of the Vietnamese Marine Corps, which had been working with Double Eagle, crossed from Quang Ngai Province to seal off the north end of the valley, while the 406th Regiment of the South Vietnamese 22nd Division held the An Lao's southern exit. The Cav expected heavy fighting because intelligence placed the North Vietnamese Army's 3rd Division headquarters in the An Lao. Instead, except for the early ambushes of Project Delta, there was little contact.

Photo by Lyle V. Boggess
PFC Ira Rolston uses the bugle captured during the Battle of the Ia Drang to signal Co. B, 1st Plt., to move toward a valley objective, Feb. 1966.

Even before the 1st Cavalry Division got into the An Lao Valley with air assaults on February 7, there occurred the most notable event of this phase of operation--scrutiny from on high.

President Johnson had noticed reports on Operation Masher as they flowed into the White House and was uncomfortable with the name. LBJ got his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, to intervene with instructions that the effort in Binh Dinh be given a new name, Operation White Wing. When the troops went in, they ejected Vietnamese civilians. Some like Maj. Frank Harvey, second in command of the 2/7 Cavalry, recall the villages as veritable fortresses that could have kept them at bay for a long time. Some civilians disagreed, but 3,500 refugees were nevertheless helicoptered out. Reporters caught up with the troops in the field shortly afterwards.

John Laurence, a television journalist for CBS, was in the Bong Son Plain for an unfortunate incident in which South Vietnamese armored personnel carriers apparently fired on Americans and inflicted heavy casualties. Evacuated to Saigon, Laurence returned just as the Cav catapulted into the Kim Son Valley for the third phase of White Wing. Col. McDade's 2/7 Cavalry had spearheaded the Kim Son jump on February 7, establishing LZ Bird and driving off a company of the 93rd Battalion, 2nd Viet Cong Regiment.

By February 12, when Laurence returned, Alpha Company of 1/12 had discovered an enemy base camp, but there had been little other contact. The CBS journalist listened as Col. William Lynch, commanding the Cav's 2nd Brigade, described Kim Son as an important North Vietnamese stronghold, while Harry Kinnard, not usually given to hyperbole, added that the complex hung "like a thundercloud" on the flank of the 1st Cavalry's base at An Khe. In reality, that town lay forty kilometers away and American soldiers knew that movement in South Vietnam was never that easy. The upshot, the briefers explained, was that the United States proposed to resettle most of the peasants in the Kim Son Valley.

The pacification effort gathered steam as the Cav's chief civil affairs officer, Lt. Col. Robert Craig, and the South Vietnamese district chief, Capt. Le Nam Hai, went around the villages telling farmers and families to clear out. Laurence found the villagers complaining these were their homes, that they had nowhere else to go and would lose the harvest if they went. Col. Craig tried to assuage the pain by offering chocolates to Vietnamese children.

Authorities promised at least to move the peasants aboard helicopters, but Craig returned later to announce that all the choppers were with the Cav in the field and none were available. A week later, Laurence encountered the displaced villagers at a refugee camp near Hoai An on the coastal plain. Now they told him they were crammed, thirty to a room, in a rotted-out old complex left over from the French war. There were no toilets, not enough food, the milk was in year-old containers procured on the black market in Saigon, and the only blankets were those given out by the Vietnamese Red Cross. There was no wood for fires.

Walking out of the Kim Son Valley, the villagers had suffered casualties. Now they wondered what they had done to deserve this. Needless to say, this pacification won no hearts or minds, and the press reports it generated were not positive, either.

The villagers told Laurence that they were not Viet Cong and that the VC, far from controlling their villages, sometimes came to demand rice but otherwise left them alone. The general thrust of those comments were borne out of the Kim Son campaign, which yielded only about a dozen contacts after LZ Bird. The largest came on the morning of February 15 as Capt. Myron F. Diduryk's Bravo Company of 2/7 ran into elements of the VC 93rd Battalion. In the ensuing battle, Cav troopers wounded and captured the Liberation Front battalion commander, Dong Doan.

Gen. Kinnard determined to carry on by replacing his troops with fresh units. Moore's men returned to An Khe, except for 2/12 Cavalry, which stayed behind to rejoin its parent unit, the 1st Brigade under Col. Elvy B. Roberts. Using intelligence that the Liberation Army's 2nd Regiment was concentrated in the hills south and east of the Kim Son, Kinnard changed the focus of the offensive.

In this phase, the high point occurred on February 17 when the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, of Col. Lynch's 2nd Brigade, under future Army Chief of Staff Lt. Col. Edward C. "Shy" Meyers, caught the heavy weapons battalion of the enemy 2nd Regiment. There were 127 claimed killed that day. Over the next four days, a series of engagements plus two B-52 Arc Light strikes rent the areas. Lynch emerged from the battles convinced he had inflicted heavy losses on the 2nd Regiment's headquarters, as well as on its 93rd and 95th battalions. He claimed 313 killed by body count, plus as many as 400 more.

Meanwhile, Col. Roberts' 1st Brigade attacked to the east, onto Go Chai Mountain. In days of patrolling they found little either there or around LZ Bird. On February 22, there was contact with an estimated company-sized People's Army unit, probably from the North Vietnamese 12th Regiment, but the adversary again faded away.

Only 160 enemy were claimed killed as a result of the 1st Brigade's efforts. On February 27, Gen. Kinnard decided to abandon the Kim Son Valley and returned the 1st Brigade to An Khe.

In a final phase of White Wing, however, Kinnard took two battalions from the 1st Brigade and attached them to Col. Lynch for a hop back into the coastal plain. Through the first week of March, the 2nd Brigade fought alongside the South Vietnamese 22nd Division in the Cay Giep Mountains east of Bong Son. Peasants identified the enemy as the 6th Battalion of the North Vietnamese 12th Regiment.

The South Vietnamese set up blocking positions around the massif, and the Cav assaulted behind an hour-long bombardment from artillery, aircraft, and warships offshore. The jungle here was so dense that helicopters could not land. Eventually, the Air Force returned with heavy bombs to open up enough of a hole in the canopy that engineers could descend on rope ladders to clear some sketchy landing zones.

Three battalions (2/5, 1/8, 2/8) landed immediately, and the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, joined them a few days later. But the North Vietnamese and Liberation Front forces could not be found. The word from local civilians was that the adversary had left the area around the end of February, about two days before the attacks began. The largest engagement came when South Vietnamese troops killed about fifty enemy trying to escape from the sweeping forces. On March 6, Masher/White Wing was declared at an end.

Gen. Kinnard and the Cav staged a triumphal return to An Khe, with a final procession of a hundred helicopters bringing home the last lift from 2nd Brigade. Overall results from more than forty days of operations looked impressive: an estimated 1,300 North Vietnamese killed, 600 captured, 500 defectors ("chieu hoi"), 52 crew-served weapons destroyed or taken. The South
Vietnamese claimed 620 enemy dead, and the South Koreans an additional 192.

The numbers looked good on paper, but there were several disturbing aspects. For one thing, only 200 individual weapons were captured. That figure should have been higher if so many enemy had been captured or had defected. For another, the progress of operations had run distinctly counter to expectations. That is, the allies had expected the major adversary effort to occur in the Quang Ngai area covered by Double Eagle. Their claims were only 312 enemy killed and 19 captured, with 18 weapons.

Even in the Masher area, the An Lao Valley had been a bust where a tough enemy was expected, and the Kim Son Valley also produced few results until the North Vietnamese were found in the hills to the southeast. The ability of People's Army and Liberation Front troops to evade battle and pull away, even against the heliborne infantry of the Cav, also was upsetting. Within a week of the termination of White Wing, intelligence reports mentioned the adversary returning to this sector. It was no wonder that Binh Dinh Province remained problematic throughout the war.

Part of the problem had to do with provincial boundaries and command zones. The location of Binh Dinh and Quang Ngai, two adjacent provinces in two different military command zones, facilitated the escape of the North Vietnamese. But many of the adversary's maneuvers occurred within a single area, for instance, in Binh Dinh from one hill mass to another around the Kim Son Valley. The reality reflected the difficulty of achieving permanent results against a tough adversary.

Apart from the other results, these operations across boundaries proved to be expensive. The Cav suffered 224 combat deaths, plus 834 wounded. That was almost as many as during the big Ia Drang battles of 1965 (342 dead, 860 wounded, 9 missing). Add in the 42 dead infantrymen and three aircrew at An Khe in the first day's airlift, and the losses are even closer.

Proportionally, North Vietnamese losses versus American were fewer in Masher/White Wing, even though Gen. Kinnard declared that his division had performed much more efficiently than at the Ia Drang. In Double Eagle, the U.S. Marines lost 24 killed and 156 wounded. South Korean dead numbered 11, with wounded not recorded. Losses among South Vietnamese Army and Marine forces are not recorded either. Americans came back to Bong Son and Kim Son. That they had to do so is another measure of the character of the Vietnam War.

The photographs in this article were taken by U.S. Army photographers Gilbert L. Meyers and Lyle V. Boggess and today are part of the Vietnam War collection of the National Archives of the United States in College Park, Maryland.

 

   


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