The Rise and Fall of an American Army

The Rise and Fall of an American Army

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by Shelby L. Stanton

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“THE MEN WHO SACRIFICED FOR THEIR COUNTRY ARE RIGHTFULLY HERALDED . . . This is an honest book–one well worth reading. . . . Stanton has laid his claim to the historian’s ranks by providing his reader with well-documented, interpretive assessments.”

The Vietnam War remains deep in the


“THE MEN WHO SACRIFICED FOR THEIR COUNTRY ARE RIGHTFULLY HERALDED . . . This is an honest book–one well worth reading. . . . Stanton has laid his claim to the historian’s ranks by providing his reader with well-documented, interpretive assessments.”

The Vietnam War remains deep in the nation’s consciousness. It is vital that we know exactly what happened there–and who made it happen. This book provides a complete account of American Army ground combat forces–who they were, how they got to the battlefield, and what they did there. Year by year, battlefield by battlefield, the narrative follows the war in extraordinary, gripping detail. Over the course of the decade, the changes in fighting and in the combat troops themselves are described and documented. The Rise and Fall of an American Army represents the first total battlefield history of Army ground forces in the Vietnam War, containing much previously unreleased archival material. It re-creates the feel of battle with dramatic precision.

“Stanton’s writing . . . gives the reader a terrifying graphic description of combat in the many mini-environments of Vietnam.”
The New York Times

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
More praise for The Rise and Fall of an American Army

“Stanton captures vividly . . . the ferocity of the fighting. At times, his descriptions make you think he’s writing about the bloody front in World War I . . . . [This book] provides fresh confirmation that . . . in battle after battle, American troops fought with incredible courage.”
The American Spectator

“Stanton has written by far the best book yet published about U.S. soldiers and marines in combat in Vietnam. . . . His word pictures of the violent encounters of that war are clear, evocative and authentic.”
ARMY magazine

“A lasting tribute to the men who fought and died in Vietnam. Those who served there–and those who would understand those who served there–owe [Stanton] an enormous debut of gratitude.”
from the foreword

“This is one of those books every infantryman should own.”
Infantry magazine

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Read an Excerpt


Advisors and Special Forces

1. Advisors at War

To many Vietnamese, their narrow S-shaped strip of land stretching along the seaward rim of Southeast Asia resembled a dragon facing the equator. The head and mane formed the southern region, with front legs thrust out into the Gulf of Siam, and the slender body curved around the Gulf of Tonkin to coil its massive tail against China in the north. Since the Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954, this dragon had been chopped in half, divided at a line of demarcation along the 17th parallel. This was the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Vietnam. Vietnamese geomagicians were quick to point out that, in the position described, the Vietnamese dragon was a portent of national reunification.

Vietnam’s southern half was officially the Republic of Viet- nam, a thin 1,500-mile crescent-shaped country more commonly known as South Vietnam. Its long outer coasts are washed by the Pacific Ocean, and its interior mosaic of moun- tains, jungles, plains, and swamps are hedged in by the spine of the Chaine Annamitique, a western mountain range, which fades south into a vast alluvial plain created by the delta of the Mekong River.

Palm-lined white sand beaches fringe coves and bays where coral reefs can be clearly seen through the glassy sea. A vibrant green mantle of rice paddies extends inland. These stretch almost endlessly across the flat delta, crisscrossed by ribbons of canals. At the time of the war, many areas of South Vietnam remained a wild and exotic wilderness. Mountain slopes dropped deep into luxurious growths of tropical flora, bracken, tuft-twisted bamboos, and majestic jungle trees. Silver rivers and waterfalls laced the deep rain forests. These were steeped in a wonderful variety of folklore and legend. Large rubber and coconut plantations stretched across rolling plains, and tigers stalked pine-forested plateaus.

Tropical monsoons allowed only two seasons; hot and dry and hot and rainy, and the alternation of the monsoons and dry seasons determined the pattern of life. The majority of the eighteen million inhabitants lived in the open lowland plains and rice-bearing deltas. Their hamlets and villages were generally self-governing. An old proverb states that the Emperor’s law stops at the village gate. The people had existed through the centuries by cultivating rice on lands irrigated by primal pumps and sluices. The rugged uplands region was left to the ethnically alien and primitive mountain tribes.

South Vietnam was at war with a North Vietnamese- sponsored Viet Cong insurgency that was aimed at toppling the Saigon regime. The death of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and the collapse of his regime in the military-led coup of November 1963 ushered in a series of coalition governments replete with successive plots and counterplots. These political upheavals crippled central authority, while the division of military leaders between opposing cliques caused fatal turmoil in the armed forces. In the meantime, the Viet Cong were scoring major victories on the battlefront. The South Vietnamese Army’s morale was wrecked, and its combat effectiveness was practically nil. In the majority of rural areas where governmental authority had collapsed altogether, the Viet Cong enjoyed firm control.

As 1965 was being ushered in, a newly formed and well-equipped VC division overran Binh Gia near Saigon and then stood its ground to challenge and destroy counterattacking South Vietnamese units during a four-day period.1 In previous encounters the VC had withdrawn shortly after attacking, and such a bold success was deeply troubling to South Vietnam’s principal ally, the United States.

America’s field advisory element of its Military Assistance

1. The 9th VC Division attacked and captured Binh Gia on December 27, 1964. Despite intense American helicopter gunship attacks, the Viet Cong demolished the 33d ARVN Ranger Battalion, which managed to reach the edge of the village, and the 4th VNMC Battalion sent in to assist. Command, Vietnam (MACV), contained over 4,700 officers and sergeants during 1964, and their professionalism and dedication was the glue holding the South Vietnamese Army together as the year closed. They could be seen accompanying ARVN soldiers on routine patrols and in combat assaults, their tall lanky figures crowned with maroon berets or faded green, sweat-soaked baseball caps; while strapping shoulder holsters and World War II carbines. Wearing utility shirts adorned with brightly colored Vietnamese and American rank insignia crowding their gold-lettered U.S. ARMY tapes and white name tags, they represented an era that was rapidly slipping into oblivion on the eve of the “big war.” These were the pioneers of a rising United States involvement in Vietnam, the pathfinders in a war destined to consume an entire American Army.

The military advisor’s job was incredibly difficult and hazardous. The very nature of his work exposed him to constant political pressures and extremely dangerous situations. His responsibilities often extended beyond pure instruction to include combat planning, linking up needed communications, assuring the availability of medical assistance, and arranging for logistical support. He was given no command authority yet often had to provide direct leadership on the battlefield. In the midst of combat he was depended on to provide cool-headed advice and a steadying presence, as well as to ensure critical liaison with decisive American airpower. In many cases it fell upon his shoulders personally to rally units on the brink of panic.

One of these advisors was Capt. Donald R. Robinson, who was attached to the 51st ARVN Regiment’s 1st Battalion, part of an undeclared war that was looming larger and more dangerous every month. A company of the battalion, dwarfed by oversized American helmets and clutching cumbersome American M1 rifles, nonchalantly patrolled a road near the small hamlet of Ba Gia west of Quang Ngai on May 26, 1965. Captain Robinson’s Son Tinh district was one of those backwater areas that had not seen battle, and he had been told the Viet Cong in the region were a bunch of ragtag guerrillas incapable of sophisticated military action. He had been gravely misinformed.

The Viet Cong of the 1st Regiment, Region V Liberation Army had carefully prepared their attack positions. They had established a series of strategically placed ambush zones designed to annihilate this battalion as well as expected relief columns. When the lead company walked into the killing zone, the peaceful drone of tropical insects was shattered by a deafening fusillade of combined rifle and machine-gun fire which cut through the frail company ranks like a scythe.

Even at this point the trouble seemed to be little more than a hit-and-run ambush, which by 1965 could be expected anywhere in the Vietnamese countryside. The battalion commander immediately dispatched a second company to the scene of combat, but midway there it was bushwhacked from another direction. Leaving a small reserve behind, the rest of the five hundred-man battalion now went to the relief of its two engaged companies. The VC closed in from all sides, and the battalion disintegrated under a hailstorm of grenades and automatic weapons fire. In less than twenty minutes it had been wiped out. Only sixty-five soldiers and three advisors managed to escape.

It wasn’t until four days later that a three-battalion ARVN relief force finally sauntered out of Quang Ngai, escorted by a mechanized troop of armored personnel carriers. The battalions advanced in three widely separated drives, intending to converge on the original ambush site. The Viet Cong were well prepared for any countermoves and had covered each approach route.

The 39th ARVN Ranger Battalion moved into its selected objective area without incident on May 30, but at two o’clock in the afternoon it was subjected to a furious barrage of recoilless rifle and machine-gun fire. The 2d Battalion of the 51st ARVN Regiment was ordered to reinforce the rangers, but before it could move it was also attacked. When the 3d South Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC) Battalion came under simultaneous attack all three battalions were effectively locked in isolated battles for survival.

Throughout the rest of the day each separate battalion perimeter was hit by numerous ground assaults. Viet Cong 75mm pack artillery howitzers sent shells crashing into the broken debris of foliage and toppled trees. Fallen soldiers from the 51st ARVN Regiment’s second battalion were strewn all over the roadway. The tracked carriers hammered the tree line with heavy machine-gun fire as they coughed out clouds of engine exhaust and clanked into reverse. The infantrymen stumbled backwards, some exchanging desultory rifle fire but others tossing away weapons in dazed discouragement. Using the armored personnel carriers as cover, the decimated battalion managed to break away and retreat toward the town.

The other battalions were unable to pull back. Their circular defensive positions, hastily set up in fallen timber and clumps of vegetation, were caving in as the Viet Cong pressed their relentless attacks. With the onset of darkness, mortars began pounding the provincial capital of Quang Ngai and its airfield. The 39th ARVN Ranger Battalion had suffered particularly high losses. Swarms of Viet Cong, some clutching German burp guns, charged forward through the shattered thickets and into the shrunken ranger lines. They stormed past the dead and wounded defenders of the center company and overran the battalion headquarters.

Since that afternoon fighter aircraft had been roaring down to hurl bombs in the burning jungle below. Next came strafing runs over the forested battlefield. These aerial attacks continued throughout the night. Finally, just before daylight and after enduring 446 aircraft sorties, the VC broke off further combat. Airpower alone was credited with saving the South Vietnamese force from complete annihilation. This battle convinced Captain Robinson of the military proficiency of the Viet Cong and of the swiftly changing nature of the Vietnam War.

Viet Cong formations were attacking targets throughout the country, and the deteriorating South Vietnamese armed forces were being beaten in a series of sharp reverses. The United States decided to remedy the alarming situation by introducing large American combat formations in early 1965. This decision would stave off the total defeat of the Republic of Vietnam for ten years.

2. Special Forces at War

The United States Army first sent its Special Forces commando-advisors to Vietnam in 1957 as the vanguard of American front-line military assistance efforts. For nearly a decade they had been waging a localized guerrilla war through the battle-scarred tropical forests and delta marshlands of South Vietnam. There they had forged a legendary reputation as one of the finest, yet most unorthodox, formations of the United States military. The new year of 1965 brought the realization that their antiguerrilla tactics were hopelessly outclassed by the increased tempo of conflict. The former, limited “Special Forces war” was ending, and they were now caught up in the full hurricane of conventional warfare.

The Army Special Forces was popularly known simply as the “Green Berets,” in tribute to its trademark—the green beret awarded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy’s enthusiasm had been the guiding force behind its creation as the elite nucleus of his counterinsurgency strategy. However, the Special Forces was not the ranger strike force that its heritage implied.2 Instead it was a flexible grouping of highly trained sergeants and officers, designed to carry out a novel military doctrine being labeled “unconventional warfare.” This complex program of guerrilla wars and countersubversion quickly translated into a very ancient military policy; the art of training, advising, and supporting foreign regular and irregular armed forces. The Army’s Special Forces proved to be just the right combination for implementation of these training missions on a global basis, and so it came early to the tropical rice-and-jungle countryside of South Vietnam.

In the shadowy years of 1961 through 1964, before massive American military intervention in Vietnam, the Army Special Forces had evolved into a unique and invaluable extension of American combat power. Traditional Special Forces orientation was the training of resistance forces in enemy territory. In Vietnam, the Special Forces mission was to teach government-sponsored forces in “friendly” territory.

Instead of practicing guerrilla warfare, it found itself defending conventional fortified camps against Viet Cong

2. In its zeal to give the new Special Forces a solid heritage of special unit lineages upon its creation in 1952, the Department of the Army bestowed upon it the honors and lineage of the joint U.S.-Canadian mountain commando 1st Special Service Force (“Devil’s Brigade”) and the ranger battalions of World War II. insurgents. Slowly its influence permeated the remotest areas of South Vietnam, and the Special Forces became a mainstay of American presence. It was able to affect the battlefield in an all-encompassing manner unknown to conventional strategy.

The fundamental Special Forces responsibility throughout the Vietnam War was actually the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) program, which had been started on November 1, 1961, under the operational control of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.3 Begun as an experimental effort with the Rhade tribe of Darlac Province, the aim of the program was continued to gain the loyalty and cooperation of the isolated ethnic minority groups of South Vietnam, over which the Saigon regime had little or no control, and to create paramilitary (i.e., nonregular army) forces from their ranks. Hardworking teams of stalwart Special Forces members living under the most primitive conditions, disdainfully suspected as having “gone native” by senior military authorities, transformed hamlet militia and tribal bowmen into their beloved CIDG “strikers.” By sharing common bonds of danger and hardship, a rare and lasting personal relationship was cemented between the gruff, burly Special Forces Americans and the small, wiry tribesmen.

The trend toward establishing Special Forces camps closer to Vietnam’s rugged frontiers had been initiated by a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency border surveillance program cranked up in June of 1962 and dumped in the laps of the Special Forces a year later. The Montagnard tribal “trailwatchers” and “mountain scouts” inherited with this new mission were assimilated into a kaleidoscopic array of Special Forces-led native contingents. The four CIDG border surveillance camps of November 1963 had mushroomed to eighteen by mid-1964.

3. The CIDG (pronounced sid-gee) was the South Vietnamese country-wide Civilian Irregular Defense Group, civilian irregulars recruited from the local areas around the camps on a paramilitary basis by Special Forces. They were capable of conducting local security and limited reconnaissance operations, and were organized into 150-man light infantry companies. Their performance varied greatly depending on the amount of training and equipment they had received. While the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam boasted of 19,900 CIDG under arms at the beginning of 1965 (and 28,200 by year’s end), these forces lacked the fire support, motivation, and inherent leadership to qualify them as conventional units.

By the fall of 1964 the Vietnam War had heated up to the point where the Army decided to transfer the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) from the pines of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Nha Trang, Vietnam. The personnel of the group wore a solid black cloth “flash,” or recognition patch, on their coveted green berets. The colors of the South Vietnamese flag were now sewn diagonally across the black background of the flash. The 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) became synonymous with Special Forces duty in Vietnam.4 There all training was put to the actual test of war. Already by the beginning of 1965, three out of every four Special Forces soldiers assigned to the group had a previous tour of com- bat in Vietnam behind them. They had received the best antiguerrilla experience possible—by fighting the Viet Cong guerrillas themselves.

In its formative years the CIDG program had been defensive in nature, the small camps being susceptible to overruns by swift Viet Cong attack. In 1965, in tune with the Army’s buildup and offensive posture, the Special Forces role and the CIDG effort assumed an increasingly aggressive stance. “Eagle Flight” reserves designed to reinforce camp defenses were soon expanded to larger mobile reaction forces called “Mike Forces.” Special missions, such as the long-range reconnaissance patrolling under Project LEAPING LENA, were formalized as part of the expanding hand of trump cards Special Forces could play. LEAPING LENA became Project DELTA, and a headquarters, Detachment B-52, was organized in June to control it. Project DELTA operations would range throughout South Vietnam during the course of the war locating NVA/VC units and installations, gathering information, directing air strikes, conducting special raids, reinforcing camps, and performing a host of top secret assignments.

In theory the U.S. Army Special Forces was supposed to ad-

4. The 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was a Regular Army unit which was activated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on September 21, 1961. By that time Special Forces personnel were heavily engaged in action in South Vietnam. In September 1962 there was enough need for a group-sized Special Forces presence that the U.S. Army Special Forces, Vietnam (Provisional), was established. The 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) arrived in Vietnam on October 1, 1964, and took over the missions and assets of the old provisional group, which was discontinued. vise a South Vietnamese clone called the LLDB (Lac Luong Dac Biet), which would actually run the CIDG program. In reality the ineptitude of the South Vietnamese Special Forces permitted the Americans no choice but to continue full leadership themselves. Although it improved during the war and there were numerous individual exceptions, the LLDB in general suffered from a number of deficiencies, among them lack of training and capability. However, the American Green Beret soldiers most resented the unwillingness of LLDB personnel to lead CIDG soldiers in battle, and the racial animosity and distrust the Vietnamese expressed toward the Montagnards and other tribal minorities. These factors prevented the planned successful turnover of the CIDG pro- gram to the Saigon regime. The envisioned ability of the U.S. Army Special Forces to “work itself out of a job” never really materialized. When, in 1970, the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was finally forced to turn over its camps and formally return to the United States, it left much unfinished and unresolved.

The Special Forces also worked a serious drain on the Army’s leadership resources, which the Army could not afford after the big Vietnam buildup. The retention of thousands of excellent sergeants in such an elite organization, especially after the Army’s expansion (which had created a grave shortage of non-commissioned officers), deprived the Army’s regular units of valuable combat leadership at a most critical time. The hardship was so acute that the lack of available line sergeants, with their potential discipline and experience, ended up being a major factor in the Army’s decline.

3. Special Forces Under Siege

By the summer of 1965, the blazing perimeters of Special Forces garrisons glowed throughout the length of South Vietnam like brushfires under the darkening storm of total war. On the overcast night of May 10 a heavy barrage of mortar and recoilless rifle fire crashed into the compound of Special Forces Control Detachment B-34 at Song Be. Behind this wall of exploding dirt and steel four battalions of Viet Cong regulars surged through the town and overwhelmed the scattered positions of the 36th ARVN Ranger Battalion.

The Special Forces defenders put up a resolute defense of the American compound, sandwiched between the ARVN ranger barracks and the province chief’s home, but one sapper squad was able to fight its way across the barbed wire and storm the mess hall. The mess hall had been converted into a medical aid station and was now filled with aidmen frantically working on the wounded. Suddenly the Viet Cong squad burst inside where the fighting continued with grenades and pocket knives.

The low cloud cover had negated initial air support, but helicopters had flown through the swirling mists and were now overhead. However, they were initially unable to direct their rockets and aerial machine guns due to the smoke and confusion of the raging battle below. Around the compound hand-to-hand combat was deciding the outcome, and as dawn filtered through the cloud-banked sky the Special Forces was able to evict the Viet Cong who had broken through. A sudden spasm of action erupted around the mess hall as the VC squad survivors were killed making a break for open ground.

The Viet Cong force retired inside the center of Song Be where it entrenched itself in the town market and temple area. A hasty charge conducted by the reconsolidated 36th ARVN Ranger Battalion failed to dislodge the defenders. A reinforced two-battalion South Vietnamese reaction force cautiously approached the town the next day. En route a ranger battalion detected and avoided an elaborate ambush trap two miles in length. While the main infantry force was not ambushed, it did have to fight a running engagement with another VC force. After further combat, punctuated by repeated air strikes, the Viet Cong finally withdrew from Song Be.

On June 9, 1965, another successful Viet Cong attack was made, this time on the Dong Xoai Special Forces camp in the same province. The camp was defended by Operations Detachment A-342, backed up by local Vietnamese and tribal contingents with several artillery howitzers and six armored cars, and a U.S. Navy Seabee construction team. Just before midnight an intensive mortar barrage blanketed the post, followed by a ground assault a half hour later.

The mixed Special Forces and Vietnamese troops, native soldiers, and American sailors manned their gun pits and foxholes, firing furiously as detonations rocked the blazing skyline. Already groups of Viet Cong sappers were cutting through the mesh of barbed wire entanglements wrapped around the compound. Machine-gun fire riddled the Viet Cong assault pioneers, but others leaped forward to take the places of the fallen. Black-garbed bodies draped the broken wire, and crew-served weapons on both sides barked across the perime- ter. Then bangalore torpedoes were shoved into the protective barrier and exploded.

The VC stormed through the smashed wire at 2:30 that morning. A hail of gunfire and exploding grenades blasted the air as the tumult spilled into the camp itself. Half of the armored cars were damaged and inoperable, but the Viet Cong scrambled into the other three. They spun crazily through the camp, raking it with machine-gun and cannon fire. Later on aircraft were used to destroy them. The surviving defenders fought backwards into a small cluster of positions. By daybreak this final defensive perimeter within the camp was closely surrounded.

At 9:40 that morning helicopters set soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 7th ARVN Regiment, into a landing zone north of Dong Xoai. These infantrymen were quickly overrun in a savage fifteen-minute skirmish. The remainder of the battalion then began airlifting into the Thuan Loi rubber plantation farther north. There the helicopter crews had to abort the landings after putting only eighty men on the ground, due to the terrific volume of mortar and automatic weapons fire directed against them. Within just twenty minutes all contact with the landed force was lost.

The 52d ARVN Ranger Battalion was landed on the road south of the compound following an intensive aerial bombardment late that afternoon. As they approached the camp the rangers came under heavy fire. A series of air strikes were called in on the camp’s ruins, and then the rangers charged forward to take it, after a final sharp skirmish. On the morning of June 11, the 7th ARVN Airborne Battalion was helicoptered in near the recaptured compound and moved, against scattered resistance, to the ill-fated landing zones of the previous day. By this time the Viet Cong, subjected to continuous aircraft bombing and strafing, had started to withdraw. The district town of Dong Xoai was once again in South Vietnamese government hands.

Both battles had been extremely significant as they not only underlined the deepening crises in South Vietnam, but also highlighted the upgraded Viet Cong tactics of using large forces to overrun and hold district and province towns and setting up well-prepared ambushes to destroy relieving units. In such an atmosphere the Special Forces, tactically limited as training advisors, had to expand and conventionalize its combat resources in order to survive.

The Battle of Plei Me, fought in the fall of 1965, marked the first transition of the Vietnam battlefield from guerrilla clashes to a war between national armies. Instead of Viet Cong, the 32d, 33d, and 66th NVA Regiments would be used to assault this Special Forces campsite thirty miles south of Pleiku. In response the newly arrived American 1st Cavalry Division would be pitted against North Vietnamese regulars in the Ia Drang Valley, fully engaging the American military in another major war.

The Special Forces camp at Plei Me was garrisoned by the twelve-man Operations Detachment A-217, fourteen LLDB troops, and 415 Jarai, Rhade, and Bahnar tribal CIDG soldiers. On October 19, 1965, the camp had a large combat patrol of eighty-five CIDG strikers led by two Americans sweeping the area to the northwest. Local warning security was provided by five eight-man ambush teams and two regularly posted twenty-man outposts.

After nightfall had cloaked the surrounding tree line in darkness and introduced a new cycle of jungle noises, a muffled clatter of rifle fire suddenly erupted and then died away. An advancing NVA infantry column had brushed past one of the ambush positions. Later another distant crash of gunfire exploded the tropical night, this time accompanied by a barrage of mortar shells and recoilless rifle rounds sending up geysers of dirt throughout the compound. The NVA overran the southern outpost in barely twenty minutes. Shortly after midnight the North Vietnamese charged the camp itself.

The North Vietnamese shock troops ran forward, shouting and firing rapid bursts from their assault rifles. The bunkered machine guns rattled out concentrated bursts of grazing fire aimed at the first wave of sappers busily piercing the perimeter’s barriers. Pith helmets and kit bags rolled across the open prewire zone as the bullets picked up running figures and flung them to the ground in writhing agony. Bodies were piling up like driftwood around the bent posts and bails of twisted barbed wire. Swiftly the NVA rammed explosive-filled pipe sections through the obstacles, and a series of detonations shook the fringes of the camp.

The NVA came pouring through the smoking gaps pitching grenades and blazing away with their submachine guns. Red tracer lines of machine-gun fire murderously converged to hammer against these packed clusters of onrushing attackers. Scores of men were skimmed from their ranks, collapsing and staggering as they fell behind to topple onto the battered earth. Flares and rockets flashed brilliant mixes of shifting colors and crossed shadows as they lighted the blackened landscape. At 3:45 a.m. the afterburners of jet engines could be seen darting through the darkened, overcast skies. Exploding yellow-white globular balls of jellied gasoline spewed over the jungled outskirts of the camp.

The northwest corner bunker was under direct assault. Its defenders desperately fought off each charge from behind shrapnel-riddled sandbags and blood-washed logpiles. A red dawn smeared with smoke and haze flooded the battlefield with the half-light of morning. At six o’clock a recoilless rifle round burst through the bunker aperture. Splintered wood and limbs were thrown into the air, and a final NVA lunge for the key position was made. The exhausted Special Forces, their jungle fatigues ripped and their webbing stripped of grenades, ordered tired and bloodstained tribesmen into the breach. The bunker managed to hold.

At daybreak a flight of unmarked medical evacuation helicopters arrived, escorted by several gunships. They descended into the smoldering camp to drop off a surgeon and pick up some of the wounded. Suddenly one of the hovering helicopters was hit and spiraled into the jungle below. The weary Special Forces team scratched together a rescue party, and sent it out in a vain attempt to reach the downed aircraft. After a harrowing encounter with an NVA machine-gun nest, during which one of the Special Forces sergeants was mortally wounded, the shaken survivors fell back into camp. By contrast the larger combat sweep patrol was notified to rejoin the camp and walked back through the gates without incident.

Maj. Charlie A. Beckwith’s Special Forces unit known as Project DELTA, reinforced by two companies of the special 91st ARVN Airborne Ranger Battalion, received word to reinforce on the afternoon of October 20. They closed into Pleiku airfield at five o’clock that evening, just thirty minutes after a 1,200-man ARVN mechanized relief force headed south on Highway 14.5 The mechanized group would run into a major ambush halfway to Plei Me, would suffer considerable personnel and vehicular losses, and would not reach the camp until October 25. Lack of helicopter lift forced Major Beckwith to spend the night planning. On the morning of October 21, Project DELTA was airlifted by a series of three flights into the thick tropical forest four and a half miles outside Plei Me.

Major Beckwith wisely decided to move his men due east a few miles before turning south toward the camp. The force slowly cut its way through the dense, vine-tangled jungle. The torturous trek was extremely difficult, and soon broken arms and heat exhaustion were reducing the strength of Beckwith’s command. In mid-afternoon they ran into a three-man NVA recoilless rifle crew. As a result they turned deeper into the jungle. By five o’clock they were only thirty-five minutes from Plei Me, but the rangers couldn’t decide what to do. Major Beckwith personally went forward with his machete and started cutting trail to continue the advance. As night fell they formed a perimeter and prepared to enter camp the next morning.

At 1:40 a.m. on October 22, an Air Force A-1E Skyraider was shot down over the camp. The pilot was seen parachuting out but was never found. A second plane was lost, but its pilot was eventually rescued. Early that morning Project DELTA pushed through a brief firefight to move into the camp, where Major Beckwith took over command. At one o’clock in the afternoon a three-company force from the camp passed their wire and got into a skirmish line to clear a nearby hill. A bypassed heavy machine gun suddenly ripped into them, throwing the force into confusion, killing Special Forces Captain Thomas Pusser and twelve indigenous soldiers, and wounding scores more. The rest of the composite clearing force retreated.

5. The relief force consisted of the 3d ARVN Armored Cavalry Squadron with M41 tanks and M8 armored cars, the 1st Battalion of the 42d ARVN Regiment, and the 21st and 22d ARVN Ranger Battalions.

The 91st ARVN Airborne Ranger Battalion’s shortcomings continued to plague their performance the next day. During an assault on two other machine-gun positions, one NVA soldier suddenly charged the force. Before he was killed, the rangers fled back in disorder. On October 24, a recovery party managed to pull in the bodies from this botched attack. On the morning of October 25, a commando squad, led by two Special Forces flamethrower sergeants, charged light machine guns surrounding the camp. Although the flamethrowers malfunctioned, the commandos destroyed one of the bunkers. That evening the armored-infantry task force from Pleiku arrived in the camp.

Although clearing operations would continue for several days, the battle was over. The morning after the ARVN mechanized force showed up, a helicopter touched down at the camp carrying several United States Army combat officers. Col. Elvy B. Roberts, commander of the 1st Brigade (Airborne), 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), stepped onto the sun-scorched clay of the Plei Me Special Forces camp at nine o’clock on the morning of October 26, 1965, for a full briefing. He had moved an entire American infantry brigade to Camp Holloway outside Pleiku, and the rest of the division was now located at An Khe. The conflict in Vietnam was no longer a Special Forces affair. The 1st Cavalry Division’s full-fledged efforts to punish the North Vietnamese attackers at Plei Me would transform it into a “big unit war,” and the future conduct of military operations in Vietnam would leave the Special Forces in the background.

Meet the Author

Shelby L. Stanton is a noted military historian. During the conflict in Vietnam, he was commissioned as an infantry officer of the U.S. Army and completed the Airborne, Ranger, and Special Forces Officer courses. His six years on active military duty included service throughout Southeast Asia, where he earned the Vietnam service and campaign medals. He was also decorated for advisory duty in direct support of Cambodian operations. After being wounded in Laos, he was medically retired with the rank of captain.

Stanton received a B.A., M.Ed., and J.D. from Louisiana State University. He is also the author of Rangers at War; Vietnam Order of Battle; and Order of Battle, U.S. Army, World War II.

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