For the next 10 issues, Word is presenting excerpts from Wilfred Burchett’s seminal account of the American War. A close friend of Ho Chi Minh, Burchett was the only westerner to be embedded with the Viet Cong frontlines in the early 1960s. This work was written in 1964
Of Arms and Men
The Liberation Front’s armed forces have obviously not been behind other branches in rapid expansion. How many effectives the Front has is a sore spot, but I am sure there are more than the highest US estimates I have seen published. Dang Thanh Chau, who is vice president of the Liberation Youth Federation, told me that 500,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 25 were enrolled in the Federation. Of these, 100,000 had “left their villages to enlist in the armed forces and other Front organisations”.
This did not include those in local self-defense units, and Chau said that at least half of Federation members who remain in the villages are expected to enlist in them. Chau, a quiet, earnest young man with thick-lensed spectacles, listed the main immediate tasks of his organisation as:
— Get the maximum number of youth in the liberated zones enlisted in the Front’s regular armed forces and guerillas.
— Use all forms of struggle to prevent youth in the Saigon-controlled areas from being constipated.
— Appeal to the youth in the Saigon-controlled zones to come to the liberated zones and enlist in their armed forces.
— Push ahead with dismantling ‘strategic hamlets’ in the Saigon-controlled areas.
— Consolidate and develop the ‘resistance’ or ‘combat’ villages in the liberated zones.
As to how fast the Front forces are expanding, a regiment I visited provides a good example. It was formed in October 1961 with only 300 men and 120 rifles, the latter either homemade or old French models, contributed by former combatants of the armed religious sects. Their first engagement took place within a month of the regiment being formed, an ambush in which they captured three machine guns and 25 rifles, killed a district commander and captured his deputy.
Every month for a year, they carried out at least one operation, including (in June 1962) an audacious attack against the Trung Hoa parachutist training centre near Saigon which yielded a rich haul of arms. Then in November 1962 they took four months off for a political and technical training course, summing up all their experiences, negative as well as positive.
It was typical of the nature of the Front forces and of the war that the regiment could decide to take four months off from the war for political and technical education. It meant that by the end of 1962 they were ‘calling the tune’ in the area where they operated; it was they and not Saigon who decided when and where there would be engagements.
“After the course,” continued the commander, a straight, soldierly figure, “we had a clearer idea of our mission. We saw it better against the background of the whole struggle; our men had a firmer political stand and their morale was heightened further. Our first operation afterwards was March 24, 1963, when we attacked the key Sam Xoo stronghold. We wiped out the garrison and the enemy was forced to withdraw from three more posts.”
The regiment carried out 14 operations during the next 12 months. On the last one I was taken along with a battalion on a two-day operation. It resulted in three posts being wiped out, and the “strategic hamlets” they controlled were dismantled. By the end of 1963, the regiment was up to full strength in men and arms. Nearly 600 pieces of its present armament are captured US arms, including 37mm machine guns, highly appreciated against helicopters and planes, 57mm recoilless cannon which are so efficient against tanks and blockhouses. The rest of their arms were made in the local arsenals.
Between the end of 1961 and 1963, this regiment had trebled its effectives and had captured five modern arms for every old one it started out with. I believe this is a fair average of what has been going on in all Front units. It illustrates the magnitude of the problem of the US High Command in Saigon. The original idea of General Maxwell Taylor and the highest military pundits in the Pentagon was that in guerilla warfare a ten or eleven to one superiority is essential as a starting point in anti-guerilla operations.
At the end of 1961, when the USA moved into South Vietnam in a big way, setting up a US command in Saigon under General Paul D. Harking, they calculated that Diemist numerical superiority was around ten to one. It seems this was not far out. General Harkins’ plan was to increase this to a 20 to one superiority by the end of 1962. According to British experience in Malaya, the pundits believed, the remaining resistance could then be cleaned up within six months. The more favourable ratio was to be achieved by a speedy expansion of the Saigon forces; the wiping out of a substantial part of the guerillas. In fact the expansion targets were never reached; the desertion rate on the contrary was stepped up; the guerilla forces expanded instead of diminishing. The result of that first year of US command was to reduce a ten to one superiority to one of about six or seven to one.
War of Movement
On the evening of Mar. 16, I marched with a battalion at the regiment referred to earlier — together with the regimental commander — to a point about four miles northwest of Tay Ninh. We marched in single columns, the troops adorned with bits of greenery, until sundown when there was no further danger of planes. They were all smiles and confidence; some of them marched in pairs with bazookas slung between two pairs of shoulders; others with base plates and barrels of mortars divided between them, and a surprisingly high proportion of automatic arms. Uniforms were nondescript, according to the colour of the cloth that had been made available to the tailoring unit. But the Front’s military leaders do not think it is essential that their troops should be clad exactly the same; the main thing is that their aims and ideas about the enemy should be uniform.
At around 10pm, I was left swinging in a hammock in a safe position, with an interpreter and a couple of guards; troops and command post moved on, with lamps out and no cigarettes. The target was a post guarding a “strategic hamlet” at Cai Xuyen, three miles from Tay Ninh city. For my own safety, I was not permitted to get any closer to the scene of action.
Zero hour was 11.30pm and a few minutes later, I heard some bursts of rifle and automatic fire that ended surprisingly quickly. Around midnight, however, there was a terrific series of explosions and flashes all around, and we took to the slit trenches. Artillery and mortar shells were bursting everywhere and it seemed the battalion had run into far more serious opposition than expected.
A relatively small force was being used to attack the post while a much larger one was ready to deal with the reinforcements. By the noise, it seemed a full-scale battle was raging. It kept up for about an hour, then died away. But in the small hours of the morning, the commander turned up full of smiles and said: “There was no fight. We started to cut through the barbed wire with shears, but as there was no reaction, we hacked through the wooden poles and toppled over big sections of the fence. When we fired a few rounds at the post and started the assault, the garrison fled into the houses; some of them hid in the wells. It took us nearly two hours to round up 31 of them. They never fired a single shot.”
“But what was all that artillery and mortar fire?” “Ah, that always happens. If other posts know that one is being attacked, they fire their artillery all over the place. They don’t aim at anything in particular but they figure if they keep on firing at least their post won’t be attacked that night.”
Next morning we waited for the counter-attack with reinforcements, but nothing happened. It had been expected that there would be a fair-sized battle during the day and the battalion would withdraw during the night. But apart from a few mesdemoiselles there was nothing.
The commander decided to attack another post the second night, though this was not in the programme. After dusk, we moved off again, this time to the south of Tay Ninh. I was left in a dugout on the banks of the Cam Co Long River. The target this time was Thanh Dong, less than three miles southwest of the city.
“The enemy has some gunboats downstream,” said the commander, “and he is bound to come out this time.” There were almost the same noises as the previous night, starting around midnight. The commander turned up around 8am with a disgusted look on his face. “Nothing,” he said. “The garrison fled without firing a shot. And if they haven’t sent reinforcements by now, it means they’re not coming at all.” He decided on something really audacious — to attack in broad daylight a post at Thanh Trung, only one-and-a-half miles from the city.
“They’ll have to send reinforcements from Tay Ninh this time,” he said, and after downing a few bowls of rice, he strode off again. But, incredible as it seems, at the sight of the Viet Cong moving towards them in broad daylight, the Thanh Trung garrison fled into Tay Ninh City, and again there was no reaction. In the actions, including the night bombardments, the battalion had not a single casualty. Each of the three posts controlled a ‘strategic hamlet’ and, once the garrison had been dealt with or fled, the people turned out to help the troops demolish the barbed wire fences and post fortifications. The 20-odd weapons captured at Cai Xuyen were turned over to a self-defense corps set up on the spot and the battalion detached a few men at each hamlet to help them organise their defenses.
The commander regarded the operations as a “non-success.” “The main thing now is to destroy the enemy forces in this area,” he said. “We don’t have any transport to get at their main forces quickly. It is much better for us to take advantage of their helicopters and trucks to bring their forces to us, where it is convenient to deal with them. But on this occasion it failed — they didn’t come out.”
To celebrate, however, on the way back to a base area the battalion’s hunting unit shot two elephants and two wild boars; as one elephant provides plenty of excellent meat for several days for a whole battalion, everyone was in high spirits. For several days afterwards, I dined off wild boar soup and elephant steaks, which one could easily mistake for good filet mignon.
The ‘wipe out enemy-posts-and-annihilate-reinforcements’ tactic remained the main Liberation Army counter to the superior mobility of the Saigon forces. The New York Times international edition of May 16-17, 1964, for instance, reported on a battle 25 miles north of Saigon in which half of two Ranger companies were wiped out, with at least 54 killed:
“Reliable sources said the ambush was set by four to eight Viet Cong companies numbering at least 300 men. They baited the trap shortly after midnight with simultaneous attacks on five outposts clustered near a provincial highway... The defenders fought in the eerie light of parachute flares dropped by US Air Force C-123’s to illuminate the battlefield.
“Ranger relief companies set off on foot at dawn, marching directly into the Viet Cong trap. The Viet Cong then opened fire from all sides of the road...
“An American source describe the fighting as one of the bloodiest encounters of the year. ‘We make the same mistakes all the time,’ an American adviser commented. There is an average of one major Viet Cong ambush every week. American advisers are concentrating much of their effort on making the South Vietnamese ambush-conscious.”
And this gloomy account is capped as usual by the wishful-thinking estimate of Viet Cong casualties. “Only three rebel bodies were found, but a Vietnamese officer estimated that 100 were killed, mainly by artillery.”
The Ranger companies are regarded as the elite, “most combat-ready” troops among the Saigon forces. They are the pride of US instructors, specially trained in guerilla tactics. In the ‘Special Warfare’ manual captured with the four US prisoners at the Hiep Hoa ‘Special Forces’ training camp, the Rangers are always depicted as on the giving and not the receiving end of ambushes. In fact, the Liberation Army has wiped out a large proportion of them either in their beds or in operations such as the New York Times reported. By the first half of 1964, as the Rangers were in fact the most combative troops, the Front was concentrating its attention on them.
The only counter the US command has yet found to the new tactic is to abandon posts without waiting for a fight. Thus after the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, General Harkins ordered the abandonment of all posts garrisoned by less than 150 men, a total of around 300 posts, mainly in the rich Ca Mau peninsula area of the Mekong Delta, seating a vacuum which was immediately filled by the Front forces.
Wilfred Burchett was an Australian reporter often described at the ‘rebel journalist’ for his stories about the American War ‘from the other side’. After years of being at odds with the Australian government, last year the Melbourne Press Club inducted him into their Hall of Fame. Burchett was also the journalist to break the scoop of the 20th century — the devastation caused by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Special thanks to George Burchett for allowing us to republish this work. Please note that some place names in this piece have been changed to reflect their modern-day spelling