An Incomparable Opportunity to Win the Vietnam War in 1970

Dr. Daniel P. Schrage
COL(USAR) Ret, SES Level 3 (Civil Service) Ret Professor Emeritus (Georgia Tech) Ret

  1. Introduction

Two questions that came out of the Vietnam War and are still being asked today are “Why was winning the Vietnam War not Successful?” and, “Could it have been Successful?” An attempt to answer these questions is addressed in the first book of a Trilogy, entitled “As Usual, Guardian was Perfect in All Respects” with Cover illustrated in Figure 1. This Blog provides more details.

Figure 1. Book 1 Cover

Three pictures in vertical order on the left side of the Book 1 Cover reflect my time as the Team Captain of the Army (West Point) Basketball Team in 1966-67, followed by receiving my USMA diploma from MG Donald Bennet, Superintendent of USMA. The bottom left corner is a picture of an Honest John Missile Battery which I served as the Commander in Germany in 1968-69 during the 1968 Warsaw Pac Invasion of Czechoslovakia (Czech Crisis 1968) and Return of Forces to Germany One (REFORGER 1) Exercise in 1969.

Three pictures in vertical order on the right side of the Book 1 Cover reflect my time in the Mekong Delta, South Vietnam and Cambodia as UH-1 lift ship and gunship platoon leaders and as an air mission commander (AMC) with the 162nd Assault Helicopter Company (AHC), January- July 1970 out of Can Tho Army Air Field (AAF), South Vietnam. Shown in the second picture is a typical combat assault mission in the Mekong Delta. This is followed by a 164th Combat Aviation Group (CAG) award ceremony where I received a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for heroism in combat.
The three pictures in vertical order in the middle of Figure 1 reflect my time as the Asst S-3/S-3 for the 13th Combat Aviation Battalion (CAB), July 1970-January 1971, at Soc Trang Army Air Field (AAF), South Vietnam and then at Can Tho AAF in December-January 1971.. The top picture is the 13th CAB S-3 Staff with MAJ Melton in the center and CPT Schrage to his left. The picture in the middle is a plaque given to CPT Daniel P. Schrage with the citation on the cover and quote on the back which states, “From the Men of the S-3 Shop to the Guardian 3, As usual, the Guardian was Perfect in All Respects”. This was a quote from the 164th CAG G-3 Shop often relayed to the Guardian 3 Shop following a successful combat operation in the Mekong Delta and Cambodia. The quote has become the title for Book 1 of the Trilogy. The bottom picture in the middle of Figure 1 is of very important persons (VIPs), or dignitaries, who attended the transfer of the Soc Trang Army Air Field (AAF) to the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) and their USAF Advisors on 4 November 1970. They included from right to left Dr. Robert C. Seamans, Secretary of the Air Force, GEN Creighton Abrams, U.S. Army Vietnam MACV Commander, GEN Lucius Clay, 7th Air Force Commander, and GEN Minh, Commander of the 21st Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). GEN Creighton Abrams commanded military operations in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1972, which saw United States troop strength in South Vietnam reduced from a peak of 543,000 to 49,000. Other pictures of the Transfer Ceremony are shown in Figure 2. 

Figure 2. Soc Trang AAF/13th CAB Transfer Ceremony, November 4, 1970

The stand-down of the 121st AHC and the 336th AHC and the transfer of their helicopters to the VNAF took place in October 1970, Figure 3. This transfer basically dissolved the outstanding Vietnamization partnership of the 13th CAB with the 21st ARVN Division.

Figure 3. Stand-Down of oldest AHCs at Soc Trang AAF

This was the first transfer of an Army Air Field (AAF) to the VNAF under the Vietnamization Program. Vietnamization was a policy of the President Richard Nixon administration by President Nixon and Secretary of Defense Melton Laird to end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War through a program to “expand, equip, and train South Vietnamese forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops”. Brought on by the Viet Cong’s 1968 Tet Offensive, the policy referred to U.S. combat troops specifically in the ground combat role, but did not reject combat by the U.S. Air Force, as well as the support to the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF), consistent with the policies of the U.S. foreign military assistance organizations. 

President Nixon said Vietnamization had two components. The first was “strengthening the armed force of the South Vietnamese in numbers, equipment, leadership and combat skills”, while the second was “the extension of the pacification program [i.e. military aid to civilians] in South Vietnam.” To achieve the first goal, U.S. helicopters would fly in support; however, helicopter operations were too much part of ground operations to involve U.S. personnel. This was a big mistake in the Mekong Delta, as discussed under Air Mobility1 where the teamwork between the ARVN Divisions and 164th CAG was a key to success. Boots on the Ground do not have to be US troops if the ground force is properly trained and disciplined, such as the 21st ARVN and 9th ARVN Divisions in the Mekong Delta. This was not necessarily true in the only Military Regions.Thus, ARVN candidates were enrolled in U.S. helicopter schools to take over the operations. As observed by Lieutenant General Dave Palmer, JCS Advisor, to qualify an ARVN candidate for U.S. helicopter school, he first needed to learn English; this, in 3 addition to the months-long training and practice in the field, made adding new capabilities to the ARVN take at least two years. LTG Palmer did not disagree that the first component, given time and resources, was achievable. However: “Pacification, the second component, presented the real challenge…it was benevolent government action in areas where the government should always have been benevolently active…doing both was necessary if Vietnamization were to work.” The ARVN soldiers trained to be helicopter pilots in the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) were not well accepted by the ARVN divisions. When I served as an Air Mission Commander (AMC) with the 162nd AHC in combat operations in the Mekong Delta I would at times have a VNAF Squadron, along with the 162nd AHC and other AHCs assigned to me, for combat operations against PAVN/NVA/VC combat elements moving across the Mekong Delta from Cambodia and the Seven Mountains region to the U Minh Forest. In one combat operation which lasted two days I flew as AMC for 12 hours one day and 13 hours the next day. When it began to get dark Late in the first day, I was informed by the VNAF Squadron Commander that “VNAF go home now”, as they didn’t fly at night. On another occasion in September 1970, when I was serving as S-3 13th CAB at Soc Trang AAF, I oversaw combat training for the fresh VNAF pilots from the USA. They were to spend a month combat flying as co-pilot with 121st AHC and 336th AHC lift ship pilots, who I had to convince that new VNAF pilots were safe to fly with. The first group of approximately 20 new VNAF pilots arrived on a Friday with their training to begin on the following Monday. However, when Monday morning arrived only one of the twenty VNAF pilots showed up. I later found out they had returned to their homes or girlfriends. We got them back to Soc Trang AAF by Wednesday and the training proceeded. There was also another problem between the ARVN and VNAF. When the 13th CAB S-3 Operations would communicate with the 121st ARVN operations center on units we were sending to them to support an operation, the 121st ARVN operations center would reply, “ No VNAF”; send 121st AHC Soc Trang Tigers or C Troop, 13th Cav Dark Horse. 

It also appeared to the 13th CAB S-3 Staff that the USAF Advisors who came with the Transfer were more interested in human comforts, such as air conditioning and television reception, than they were in building rapport between the VNAF and the 21st ARVN Division. Also, there were more VNAF pilots than the necessary mechanics required to keep up the necessary helicopters for operation. The crew chiefs on Army helicopters were also mechanics, while in the USAF and VNAF were not. When I returned from South Vietnam and attended the U.S. Army Field Artillery Officers Advanced Course, I wrote an essay on “Chopper Vietnamization – Will It Work?” My conclusion was that it would not. It turned out to be the winning essay out of over 150 papers submitted by the other Advanced Course students. It will be seen in this Blog that the ability to win the Vietnam War was a race against time and greatly dependent on Vietnamization being successful and the controlled pace of reductions in troops and Army Aviation Support, especially the 164th Combat Aviation Group (CAG). I will show how several events occurred during 1970 to provide “An Incomparable Opportunity to Win the Vietnam War in 1970”. While General Creighton Abrams, MACV Commander, recognized this Incomparable Opportunity, he never acted quickly on it. At the same time, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird accelerated ground force reductions, including helicopter pilots in 1970, often without President Nixon’s approval, and speeded up the transfer of Army Aviation assets to the VNAF who were not prepared to support the ARVN. This broke up the 164th Combat Aviation Group (CAG)’s outstanding support for the three ARVN Divisions in the Mekong Delta, Figure 4, and seriously hindered their support in implementing this incomparable opportunity during 1970.

Figure 4. Three key ARVN Divisions supported by the 164th Combat Aviation Group

This also made the Mekong Delta, the breadbasket and population center of South Vietnam, much more vulnerable to attack from the planned takeover of the Mekong Delta by the Peoples Army Vietnam (PAVN), North Vietnam Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) in 1970 as described:

  • Following the Vietnam War, information on the importance of the Mekong Delta to the enemy was in a quote obtained from the NVA/PAVN Central Office for South Vietnam’s Resolution No. 9 disseminated in 1969. It emphasized the strategic importance of the Mekong Delta, shown in Figure 5 below
  • The NVA/PAVN leadership conceived Mekong Delta as the principal battlefield where the outcome of the war in South Vietnam would be decided.
  • Therefore, the PAVN/VC infiltrated the 1st Division Headquarters and its three regiments, the 88th, 101D, and 95A, into the IV Corps Mekong Delta. However, some of their elements were defeated, some moved to U Minh Forest or initially remained hidden in Cambodia during the GEN Lon Nol takeover of Cambodia in March 1970.
Figure 5.NVA/PAVN 1969 Planned Strategy for 1970-71

With this as a Background the rest of this Blog will address the two questions identified from Book 1: “As Usual, Guardian was Perfect in All Respects”. They are “Why was winning the Vietnam War not Successful?” and, “Could it have been Successful? Some key References used to address these questions, in addition to my personal experiences in South Vietnam and Cambodia, are addressed in Book 1, are illustrated in Figure 6.

Figure 6. Four References feeding Book 1 to Answer Key Questions

The integration of information from these References, combined with my personal relevant combat military experiences in South Vietnam and Cambodia provide a unique look at the Vietnam War in the 1970-1971 timeframe when an “An Incomparable Opportunity to Win the Vietnam War” was a possibility. The key references are as follows:

  1. Tolson, John J. LTG, “Vietnam Studies: Air Mobility, 1961-1971”, DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY WASHINGTON, D. C., 1989.
  2. Foreign Relations, 1969-1976, Volume VII. “Vietnam July 1970-January 1972”, Special National Intelligence Estimate 1SNIF 57-70 was released in SEPTEMBER 2010.
  3. Sorley, Lewis., “WESTMORELAND- The General Who Lost Vietnam,”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston New York, 2011.
  4. Sorley, Lewis., “A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam”, A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc., 1999.
  5. Schrage, D.P., “As Usual, Guardian was Perfect in All Respects.” Available: Published 2022, by Publish Authority 300 Colonial Center Parkway, Suite 100 Roswell, GA 30076 US

II. Why was winning the Vietnam War not Successful?

A. Six Reasons for US Not Being Successful in Winning the Vietnam War in 1970

1. Infiltration Routes for PAVN/NVA Forces into South Vietnam were too Numerous, Both by land and sea, and Couldn’t be Controlled by South Vietnam and US Forces

The enemy infiltration routes into South Vietnam by land and sea, Figure 7, were so numerous that major PAVN/NVA/VC attacks, such as the 1968 Tet Offensive, Figure 8, could be called for and executed throughout the country in a short time. Land supply, troops and ammunition routes included the Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk trails in Cambodia and Laos. Sihanoukville (Changed by GEN Lon Nol to Kampong Saom) was the primary port of entry for supplies, troops, weapons, etc. into the Mekong Delta and Saigon and Bien Hoa areas, e.g. IV CATZ and III CATZ.

Figure 7. Infiltration Routes into South Vietnam. Figure 8. Tet 68 Attacks throughout country5

2. GEN Westmoreland’s Enemy Attrition Strategy from 1965-1968 was Flawed3,4

The approach by General Westmoreland was to build up more and more the commitment of U.S. Forces, asking annually for more and more U.S. troops, often at 200,000 levels, in the years 1965-68. He also pushed for extensive combat search and destroy operations with big units, mainly with U.S. Forces. He often did not effectively incorporate the ARVN divisions or the use of Ruffs/Puffs, as the objective was not to hold territory or secure populations. A victory was assessed by Killed in Action (KIA) and a higher enemy body count. KIA is a casualty classification generally used by militaries to describe the deaths of their own or enemy forces. The U.S. Department of Defense, for example, says that those declared KIA need not have fired their weapons, but have been killed due to hostile attack. This often resulted in inflated KIAs during the Vietnam War. While Sorley’s Book, WESTMORELAND-the General Who Lost Vietnam3, claims that Gen Westmoreland’s Strategy lost the Vietnam War, I don’t believe this is completely accurate. There were senior military officers and senior members in President Johnson’s Administration who could have and should have changed earlier this Strategy. For instance, Chief of Staff GEN Harold Johnson had sponsored a study called “A Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of Vietnam,” known as PROVN for short, that thoroughly repudiated Westmoreland’s concept, strategy, and tactics for fighting the war. “People, Vietnamese and American, individually and collectively-constitute both the strategic determinants of today’s conflict and ‘the object…which lies beyond’ this war,” the study maintained. Thus, the imperative was clear: “The United States… must redirect the Republic of Vietnam-Free World military effort to achieve greater security.” Therefore, read the study’s summary, “the critical actions are those that occur at the village, the district and provincial levels. This is where the war must be fought; this is where the war and the object which lies beyond it must be won.” The study also made it clear that body count, the centerpiece of Westmoreland’s attrition warfare, was not the appropriate measure of merit for this conflict. What counted was security for the people, and search-and-destroy operations were contributing little to that. Also, President Johnson didn’t change to the PROVN Strategy.4

3. Underutilization of US Air Mobility Vietnamization in Cambodia Incursion1,5

Brigadier General George W. Putnam, Jr., who took command of the 1st Aviation Brigade on 6 January 1970 from Major General Allen M. Burdett, Jr., remarked, The real story of the Aviation Brigade is in the 164th Group in the Delta. Elsewhere it was, ‘give so many helicopters here; and so many there.’ The CG, 1st Aviation Brigade, exercised very little control over the assets of the Brigade in the I, II, and III Corps. But the 164th Group was not precisely controlled. Its commander could move assets: organize task forces, etc. They had a combat organization that permitted a diversity of aviation assets to support three ARVN Divisions, the 7th, 9th and 21st” and the Regional and Popular Forces, called “Ruff/Puffs.”

In December 1969, Colonel William J. Maddox, Jr., was assigned as Commanding Officer of the 164th Aviation Group after commanding the 3d Brigade of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division. It was a good choice since Colonel Maddox had extensive experience in the Delta. First, he was Commanding Officer of the 13th CAB from July 1965 to August 1966. Second, he was Senior Advisor to the 21st Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta from September 1966 to June 1967.1 This is an example of both aviation and ground command experience. Thus, rapport and respect for each other was exceptional.

a. Vietnam Studies: THE AIRMOBIITY 1961-1971 Study1
In 1999 under Vietnam Studies: THE AIRMOBIlITY 1961-1971 Study, Figure 9, was conducted by LTG John J. Tolson. The purpose of this study was to trace the evolution of air mobility in the U.S. Army. The integration of aircraft into the organic structure of the ground forces is as radical a change as the move from the horse to the truck, and the process is only beginning.

Figure 9. THE AIRMOBILITY 1961-1971 Study1

The United States Army had met an unusually complex challenge in Southeast Asia. In conjunction with the other services, the Army fought in support of a national policy of assisting an emerging nation to develop governmental processes of its own choosing, free of outside coercion. In addition to the usual problems of waging armed conflict, the assignment in Southeast Asia required superimposing the immensely sophisticated tasks of a modern army upon an underdeveloped environment and adapting them to demands covering a wide spectrum. These involved helping to fulfill the basic needs of an agrarian population, dealing with the frustrations of antiguerrilla operations, and conducting conventional campaigns against well-trained and determined regular units. The author of this monograph1, Lieutenant General John J. Tolson, was involved with the airmobile concept since June 1939, when he participated in the first tactical air movement of ground forces by the U.S. Army. Participating in all the combat jumps of the 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment during World War II, he became an Army aviator in 1957, and later served as Director of Army Aviation and Commandant of the U.S. Army Aviation School. From April 1967 to July 1968 he served as Commanding General, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), Vietnam. General Tolson, in 1999, was Deputy Commanding General, Continental Army Command.1

a) LTG “Jumping Jim” Gavin, CG 82d ABN DIV, WWII, later Chief of Research and Development, US Army

b. Operations and Capabilities of Army Aviation Demonstrated in Vietnam5
1) Innovation – “Innovation is essential to survival and is usually decisive in battle” a) LTG “Jumping Jim” Gavin, CG 82d ABN DIV, WWII, later Chief of Research and Development, US Army

2) Air Assault – “Helicopter Air Assault was the most innovative tactical development in the Vietnam War”

b) General William C. Westmorland, COMUSMACV, 1964-1968
3) Cargo Lift – “If you can’t Sling load it on a Hook (Chinook), You’re better off without it”

a) Logistics Commanders and Heavy Artillery Units

4)  Survivability– Rapid ability to recover downed aircraft reduced the loss rate of helicopters significantly.

a)  In mid1966, the enemy downed one helicopter out of each 450 combat sorties.

b)  The Recovery rate reduced the actual loss to one helicopter in 15,999 sorties

i. Or 2,279 combat flight hours for each UH-1 Lost

ii. Or 3,848 combat Flight hours for each AH-1G Lost

c)  The Huey and Cobra have more combat flight time than any other aircraft in the history of warfare

5)  Medical Evacuation – “Dustoff” Helicopters were first deployed to Vietnam in March, 1962

a)  Helicopter evacuations cut deaths from wounds from one in ten in prior wars to one in 100 in Vietnam

b)  Military and Civilian evacuees totaled over 850,000 injured between 1962- 1973

6)  Armed Helos – CH-21 Armed Helicopters began operations in Summer 1962

a)  1st UH-1 Company was activated on Okinawa 25 July 1962

b)  UH-1B&C Gunships introduced in 1966-68

c)  AH-1G Cobras introduced in 1969

7)  Aerial Rocket Artillery – Lethal Fire support within 50 meters of engaged troops

8)  GEN Howze concluded from a 1966 visit to Vietnam that the US would have been subject to defeat just as the French – without the Helicopter5.

c. Gunships and Attack Helicopters Saved the Mekong Delta from the NVA/VC in Tet 685

MAJ Carl McNair, CO 121st AHC, 13th CAB, Soc Trang, Figure 10, saved the Bac Lieu, Soc Trang and Vinh Long AAFs from being overrun by NVA/VC. He went on to become the first Director of Army Aviation and was primarily responsible for Army Aviation becoming its own Combat Arms Branch. He was also a distinguished graduate from Georgia Tech and a close friend of mine. When Charlie Crawford, the Father of the Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter, passed away, his family wanted a Black Hawk or UH-1 Huey, to fly over his gravesite during the burial ceremony in Sandy Springs, GA. While MG(Ret) McNair and I couldn’t get a Black Hawk we got a Huey to fly over and his family are still appreciative today. MG(Ret) McNair was primarily responsible for getting this Huey Flyover and I was on the ground directing the Huey. When theHuey flew over the gravesite as the casket was about to be put in the ground, the entire party witnessing the burial, but especially his family, gave a round of applause. Something I will never forget. MG(deceased) Car McNair was the most outstanding general officer I ever worked with.

Figure 10. MG McNair(deceased)- A True Vietnam War Hero

d. Following Tet 68 Operations. A Summary of the 307th CAB Operations and the Major Customer Responses to each item of the Armed Helicopter Questionnaire was requested and obtained by COL Bob McDaniel, Commander of the 164th CAG, Figure 10 in the middle.

1) What type of missions have your gunships performed since 31 Dec 67?

a. Combat-in-cities and airmobile operations)
b. Direct fire support (Landing Zone {LZ} preparation)
c. Visual reconnaissance
d. Armed reconnaissance
e. Escort missions
f. Screening force for ARVN troops
g. Advanced guard for assaulting ARVN troops
h. Conduct of Items a through f at night a. Close air support (Combat-in-cities and airmobile operations)
b. Direct fire support (LZ preparation)
c. Visual reconnaissance
d. Armed reconnaissance
e. Escort missions
f. Screening force for ARVN troops
g. Advanced guard for assaulting ARVN troops
h. Conduct of Items a through f at night

2) Could these missions have been accomplished by other means? If not, why?
It is highly doubtful that anything other than armed helicopters could have performed these missions.

3) During the Tet Offensive, did your gunships play an essential role? 

The gunships of this battalion were most probably the deciding factor in the defeat of the Viet Cong in Can Tho city and Can Tho airfield.

4) During the Tet Offensive, did Air Force aircraft share in the defense of your airfield, and to what extent?
Can Tho Airfield: The first Air Force strike was at the first light of the morning following the night of the first attack on 31 January 1968. As mentioned, armed helicopters were airborne within 3 minutes of the attack. On 31 January and for the next five days, daylight strikes were employed to within 3,000 meters of the airfield. Air Force “Spooky”(AC-47) aircraft were generally available, but a standoff altitude of 3,000 feet does not allow for effective observation of the engaged target. The cloud layer on 31 January 1968 precluded the use of “Spooky.”

5) What increase in capabilities over current gunships are desirable in future gunships? Why?

a. A larger caliber point fire weapon, preferably 20 or 30mm cannon on a 360-degree flexible mount with a greater selectivity of warheads, is needed. Weapons of this type would allow a standoff capability to engage large-caliber anti-aircraft weapons such as 50 cal. or 12.7mm before entering an area to destroy personnel and positions.

b. The ability to carry a larger ordnance load is desirable. This capability would allow for a greater selectivity with all weapons while in flight and longer station time.

c. More airspeed in straight and level flight is desirable. The AH-1G has adequate speed in a diving attack and for visual reconnaissance low-level. However, to disengage from a low-level target attack or a target of opportunity engaged low-level, more dash speed is necessary to ensure less vulnerability.

6) Please give all factual written statistical data available, based on the experiences of your unit, which would support the following contentions:
a. The UH-1 gunship is providing vital support not available from the Air Force or any other means.

The UH-1 gunship provides all the support mentioned in question number one. It would be impossible to escort an air column of slicks with any fixed-wing attack aircraft we presently have. Weather restricts fixed-wing aircraft that does not affect helicopters. The maneuverability of a helicopter air column dictates that it be escorted with something of comparable ability. The UH-1 gunships can spot and deliver exact firepower upon the enemy with immediate response. The capability to recon by fire and see the results can only be done by gunships.

b. The AH-1G can provide better support than the UH-1 gunships.
The AH-1G (Cobra) has been highly successful in combat operations here in IV Corps. This aircraft has been able to assume all the missions presently assigned to older UH-1B/C model gunships. The speed and the increased ordnance load coupled with the versatility and accuracy of the armament systems have made the aircraft exceed our gunships’ capabilities and give us the ability to provide broader tactical capabilities.

7) If gunships had not been available in your area of operation during the Tet Offensive, what would the probable results have been? Why?
The consensus is that the armed helicopters in IV Corps were the most singular factor in turning back the Viet Cong offensive. The VC would most probably have occupied all three of the major airfields for a while. The length of the offensive would have been much longer. The gunships were the only direct fire support for the airfields during some phases of the initial offensive. The tenure of the Viet Cong in cities was always shortened by the arrival of gunships with their ability to ferret out the VC in their hiding places in the cities and catch the VC in the open as he attempted to retreat.5