Wednesday, May 9, 2012

On the Trail With the NVA

As the Vietnam War intensified, a major US objective was to stop the infiltration of men and materiel by the People’s Army of Vietnam, otherwise known as the formidable North Vietnam Army (NVA) into the Republic of Vietnam or, more familiarly, South Vietnam (SVN). General Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition against the black pajama-clad guerrilla forces fighting in the jungles and mountains of SVN known to GIs as the Viet Cong, or VC, was not working. Although US forces brought immense firepower to bear causing heavy casualties, it was to no avail.  Decimated VC battalions refitted and reappeared along with increasing numbers of North Vietnamese regulars.

NVA units and supplies were continuously coming down what was dubbed the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ (HCM trail), a complex, semi-concealed network of roads, trails, waterways, and mountain paths originating in North Vietnam, looping through the border areas of neutral Laos and Cambodia, and crossing into SVN at various points. These were well-trained, well-equipped, uniformed units that entered the fray alongside the VC. For the North Vietnamese troops, coming down the trail was a long, arduous journey, all the more so given steady US bombing the length of the route. Still they came, and, since the NVA and VC traveled light, only modest amounts of materiel had to make it through the gauntlet to supply them in the battle zone. 

Ho Chi Minh Trail infiltration routes

Vietnam GI (VGI), Jeff Sharlet’s underground antiwar paper for GIs, regularly ran interviews with enlisted men—combat veterans back from the Nam as they called in-country or, in military parlance, simply ‘grunts’— but occasionally a maverick officer turned up in its pages. In the September ’68 issue, an Army captain sat for an interview. He had five and a half years in and was headed for a career, but had grown disgusted with senior officers he worked with in Vietnam, had lost faith in the US mission, and resigned his commission. The captain had served at brigade headquarters of the 173rd Airborne and had stories to tell, including an account of a typical NVA unit gleaned from interrogations of prisoners captured by the 173rd.

For the next three months, the 174th underwent unit training with special emphasis on squad, platoon, and company tactics. The training was very thorough and included mock-ups of American planes and tanks. They ‘war-gamed’ with some of the regiment’s units taking the role of US troops and using the same tactics as American commanders. The 174th gradually learned how their adversaries operated and developed counter-tactics.

Finally ready for combat, the unit began infiltrating down the HCM trail in early ’67, crossing into Laos where it engaged the Royal Laotian Army in what a captured NVA lieutenant characterized as a kind of shakedown battle exercise. As the Laotians were no match, the encounter served to sharpen the 174th’s combat tactics and techniques. Enroute along the trail, the 174th came under American bombing raids. However, they had been trained to expect such attacks, minimum damage was sustained, and they continued their trek south.

By May of ’67, the 174th had made it into SVN, arriving at the Central Highlands in the area of Dak To. They were soon in heavy combat with South Vietnamese forces formally referred to as the ARVN, as well as elements of the US 173rd Airborne. The NVA decimated an elite ARVN unit, inflicting heavy casualties and overrunning their position. Not long after they made contact with two companies of the 173rd and chewed up Alpha Company thanks to their earlier training in US combat tactics.

The NVA commander knew that upon first contact with the enemy, American infantry units pulled back about 200 yards, formed a temporary defensive line, and called in superior firepower on their adversary’s presumed position.  After heavy shelling and air strikes, the US unit would then attack. Predictably, the US commander was about to fall back, at which point the 174th deployed the new counter-tactic it had practiced. As the maverick captain told VGI, Instead of holding their position and withstanding the inevitable shells and bombs, the NVA
began assaulting as soon as contact was made....They immediately made physical contact with us and stay[ed] as close as possible, even between our that we couldn't use [our] artillery or air strikes.

NVA Assault Troops
The counter-tactic worked so well for the 174th Regiment that word went out to all NVA commands in SVN to use it. As the war ground on, US commanders changed and adapted their tactics accordingly, but of course it was too late for the men of Company A of the 173rd Airborne.

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