BY JOHN PRADOS.
GILBERT L. METERS AND LYLE V.
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.