Throughout the Vietnam War, one focal point persisted where the Viet Cong guerrillas and Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) were not a major factor, but where the trained professionals of the North Vietnamese and US armies repeatedly fought head-to-head. A Shau Valor is a thorough study of nine years of American combat operations encompassing the crucial frontier valley and a fifteen-mile radius around it―the most deadly killing ground of the entire war.
Beginning in 1963, Special Forces A-teams established camps along the valley floor, followed by a number of top-secret Project Delta reconnaissance missions through 1967. Then, US Army and Marine Corps maneuver battalions engaged in a series of sometimes-controversial thrusts into the A Shau, designed to disrupt NVA infiltrations and to kill enemy soldiers, part of what came to be known as Westmoreland’s “war of attrition.”
The various campaigns included Operation Pirous (1967); Operations Delaware and Somerset Plain (1968); and Operations Dewey Canyon, Massachusetts Striker, and Apache Snow (1969)―which included the infamous battle for Hamburger Hill―culminating with Operation Texas Star and the vicious fight for and humiliating evacuation of Fire Support Base Ripcord in the summer of 1970, the last major US battle of the war.
By 1971, the fighting had once again shifted to the realm of small Special Forces reconnaissance teams assigned to the ultra-secret Studies and Observations Group (SOG). Other works have focused on individual battles or units, but A Shau Valor is the first to study the campaign―for all its courage and sacrifice―chronologically and within the context of other historical, political, and cultural events.
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About the Author
Tom R. Yarborough, USAF (ret.), served in the air force for thirty years in a variety of flying and staff assignments. A command pilot, during his two Vietnam tours as a forward air controller, he earned thirty combat decorations, including the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, Air Medal, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. He currently lives in Springfield, Virginia, where he maintains ties to the academic community as an adjunct history professor at Northern Virginia Community College.
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A Shau Valor
American Combat Operations in the Valley of Death, 1963â"1971
By Thomas R. Yarborough
Casemate PublishingCopyright © 2016 Thomas R. Yarborough
All rights reserved.
INTO THE VALLEY OF DEATH
Act in the valley so that you need not fear those who stand on the hill.
— Danish Proverb
Beginning in 1963, ARVN units and American military advisors essentially ignored Machiavelli's celebrated admonition to always control the high ground. Instead, they focused more or less exclusively on several small settlements along a remote valley floor. A nearly deserted Katu village, namesake for the entire area, was positioned at the southeastern end of a valley measuring roughly 40 kilometers in length and only several kilometers across at its widest point. On each side of the valley, steep, jungle-covered mountains rose thousands of feet and offered a spectacular view of the basin below. From the heights VC and NVA lookouts kept a watchful surveillance over all activities. A small river, the Rao Lao, ran past the village, and a single lane dirt road paralleled the stream, providing the only travel route through the tall elephant grass. The Katu inhabitants called the place A Sap. To the Vietnamese and Americans, it was known as A Shau.
All participants in the war — NVA, Viet Cong, ARVN, and American military advisors — recognized that the valley was indeed strategically positioned. The Laotian border, running along the peaks of the A Shau's west wall, was only several kilometers away, the narrow ravine representing the only passage through the largely impassable mountain region. The valley also served as the junction of three routes: Route 548 running the length of the A Shau; Route 547 running east toward Hue; and Route 922, snaking its way west from the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the north end of the valley. Whoever controlled the valley, so the thinking went, controlled the region and the entry from Laos into Thua Thien Province and Hue; whoever owned the A Shau Valley could set the terms of battle. A major clash was inevitable.
Due to 1,000 years of Chinese rule, Vietnamese traditions had been strongly influenced by Chinese culture in terms of politics, government, and Confucian social and moral beliefs. As an example of that cultural sway, according to the Chinese calendar — revered in both North and South Vietnam — the year 1963 did not herald a particularly propitious time: it was the Year of the Rabbit, celebrated by some Vietnamese as the Year of the Cat. In Chinese lore the Rabbit did poorly in conflict, as it was often overly sensitive in times of confrontation. Likewise, those born under the Rabbit sign had a tendency to dwell on negative events in the past, at times to an obsessive extent. Given over to cultural bias, an assortment of fortune-tellers, Buddhist priests, and shamans employed the Chinese zodiac calendar to interpret events and personalities in 1963. In Saigon they made much of the fact that South Vietnam's president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was born in the Year of the Rat, and that President John F. Kennedy had been born in the Year of the Snake. More auspiciously, soothsayers in Hanoi crowed that Ho Chi Minh was born under the sign of the Dragon.
While the year 1963 witnessed the first American ventures into the A Shau, initially by U.S. Army advisors to ARVN units, followed by Special Forces A-teams from Okinawa, the timing of those movements proved to be particularly inauspicious for several reasons. Besides being the Year of the Rabbit, political squabbles in both Washington and Saigon cast a cloud over policy direction and commitment to the war. For one thing, the assessments of the commander of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), General Paul D. Harkins, proved to be overly optimistic to the point of fault, which became the basis for his ongoing problems with reporters who found his assessments sharply different from the accounts provided by American advisors in the field. As a result, MACV unofficially assigned all media the roll of opposition, a label that stuck throughout the war. In spite of that bone of contention, General Harkins and his faction staunchly maintained that ARVN pushback against the Viet Cong was going so well that MACV could plan for phasing out U.S. forces beginning with the withdrawal of 1,000 advisers by year's end. Other official reporting channels saw it differently. They, along with the press, did not concur that the war was progressing well and did not see the South Vietnamese showing evidence of being reliable. For example, CIA Director John McCone felt certain the U.S. had received very inaccurate information from the South Vietnamese who tended to report what they believed Americans wanted to hear. He wrote, "The Province and district chiefs felt obliged to 'create statistics' which would meet the approbation of the Central Government."
At about the same time, American attention was brutally yanked away from various military concerns to a political and religious crisis that bubbled to the surface across South Vietnam. Buddhist monks upset at the Diem regime's crackdown on religious freedom staged protests in Hue that led to deadly retaliation by the local military commander. When thousands marched in protest against a government order banning parades and the display of Buddhist flags, army troops fired into the unruly crowds; nine protesters were killed and scores wounded. A month later Buddhist monks in Saigon shocked the world when one of their number, Thich Quang Duc, doused himself in gasoline while sitting in the lotus position on a main thoroughfare and struck a match. The reek of funeral pyre smoke and burning flesh hung over the location like a dark shroud. Then, over the summer of 1963, six more monks and one Buddhist nun also immolated themselves in protest. The events shocked and appalled leaders in Washington and made Diem's regime, top heavy with Catholics and French-trained bureaucrats, more suspect than ever. After seeing reporter Malcolm Browne's photograph of the first monk's fiery death, President John F. Kennedy remarked, "No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one."
In spite of the political and religious turmoil that diverted attention away from the insurgency, the American military nevertheless initiated limited moves into the A Shau Valley. One of the first U.S. advisors with "boots on the ground" was a young Army captain assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 1st ARVN Division posted along the Laotian border near the village of Ta Bat, situated in the middle portion of the A Shau. Arriving on January 17, 1963, the young officer, a native of the Bronx and an ROTC graduate from the City College of New York, settled into the sensitive job of advising his "counterpart," Captain Vo Cong Hieu, without intruding on the prerogatives of the Vietnamese commander. When the American advisor inquired about their mission, he was told it was to protect the newly constructed airfield — little more than a primitive dirt runway carved out of the valley floor. In response to the question, "what's the airfield for?" Hieu replied that the airfield was there to resupply the outpost. On that January day in 1963, the experience proved to be the advisor's first — but not his last — exposure to Vietnamese circular thinking.
The American advisor's life settled into an endless series of patrols and movements down the valley. On a regular basis, small, unseen pockets of VC initiated ambushes against the ARVN column or harassed it with sniper fire and booby traps. Aggravation and casualties mounted. Aside from those adrenalin-pumping episodes, the daily grind also ate away at morale. Living conditions in the jungle were miserable; an odious smell hovered around each soldier, an overpowering stench of mud, sweat, body odor, and decaying vegetation. The patrols also trudged through blinding clouds of gnats, flies, or mosquitoes, and every encounter with a puddle or stream meant leeches. The advisor reported, "Worse were the leeches. I never understood how they managed to get through our clothing ... biting the flesh and bloating themselves on our blood. We stopped as often as ten times a day to get rid of them."
The 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Regiment was ambushed almost daily, usually in the morning soon after the point squad moved out. The American advisor's own words capture best the strain and frustration of those early engagements in the A Shau:
I found it maddening to be ambushed, to lose men day after day to this phantom enemy who hit and ran and hit again, with seeming impunity, never taking a stand, never giving us anything to shoot at. I often wondered if we were achieving anything. How did we fight foes who blended in with local peasants who were sympathetic or too frightened to betray them? How did we measure progress? There was no front, no ground gained or lost, just endless, bloody slogging along a trail leading nowhere.
The American advisor who wrote those prophetic words was Colin L. Powell, future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State.
In late March Captain Powell moved with his battalion to the southeast corner of the A Shau to establish a new camp at Be Luong. The ARVN troops normally used axes or dynamite to clear trees for landing zones (LZ), a time-consuming and exhausting effort in the debilitating heat and humidity of the jungle. The resourceful Powell, however, found a better way. He had several power tools airlifted in, which dazzled the Vietnamese who had never seen a chain saw before.
After six months of "humping through the A Shau boonies," Captain Powell and his battalion received orders to leave Be Luong and move to a Special Forces camp at Nam Dong, 15 miles to the east. On July 23 the point squad, with Powell near the front, was slogging along a creek bed when the big American soldier stepped in a concealed Viet Cong punji trap. The dung-tipped spike pierced the sole of his boot and penetrated clear through his foot to the top of the instep. In a matter of minutes his foot was hugely swollen and turned purple as the poison from the buffalo dung spread. Powell managed to limp into Nam Dong where the Special Forces medic took one look at the wound and called for an evacuation helicopter — Colin Powell's tour in the Valley of Death was over. Ironically, Powell probably spent more actual time on the ground in the A Shau than any other American soldier.
In the spring of 1963, with most of MACV's focus on widespread Viet Cong attacks in IV Corps, known to all as "the Delta," U.S. Army Special Forces detachments began building several new camps in the A Shau Valley. The effort became part of a border surveillance program administered by the Central Intelligence Agency and operated by Special Forces detachments from the 1st Special Forces Group Airborne (SFGA) in Okinawa. The program's primary objectives were to "recruit and train border surveillance personnel, establish intelligence nets, gain the border zone population's loyalty to the South Vietnamese government, and conduct guerrilla warfare — long range patrol activities in the border zone to deny the areas to the Viet Cong."
To set the program in motion, in March, Special Forces Detachment A-433 constructed the first camp at Ta Bat. In addition to border surveillance, the new camp became part of the country-wide Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) program. Focusing on local defense and civic action, the Special Forces teams conducted the training for CIDG activities whereby villagers were instructed and armed for self-defense, while localized strike force companies served as a quick reaction unit to respond to larger Viet Cong attacks. The vast majority of the CIDG camps were initially manned by inhabitants of ethnic minorities, especially Montagnards, who disliked both the North and South Vietnamese. Once in place, the 12 Green Berets of A-433 conducted a number of patrols to determine CIDG training potential in the Ta Bat area. Between operations, the newly trained strike force began receiving advanced training with automatic weapons, mortars and immediate action drills, and during the month of August another strike force company was requested for operations to the west where air reconnaissance had spotted many villages. According to the 1st SFGA monthly operational summaries, throughout this early start-up period there were no reported engagements with the VC.
On November 3, 1963, another detachment, A-434, took over at Ta Bat and established a new forward operating base (FOB) at A Shau. Enemy response was immediate. VC initiated actions included 6 attacks, 1 probe, and 17 ambushes, and unfortunately, with only partially trained troops pitted against tough and experienced Viet Cong fighters, the "good guys" came out on the short end with 1 SF team member wounded, 3 CIDG killed in action (KIA), and 10 others wounded in action (WIA). From that point on the tempo and frequency of engagements increased, resulting in a predictable rash of desertions among the CIDG personnel. The sporadic firefights in the A Shau also portended the deadly combat that was to occur there during the next nine years.
While the skirmishes at the remote A Shau FOB did not warrant more than a single line in the daily MACV situation reports, the escalating political turmoil in Saigon made the entire world gasp and hold its collective breath. The drama played out before the critical eyes of the international press corps and worried officials at the American Embassy. On November 1, 1963, the top South Vietnamese generals, with the apparent implicit approval of the CIA, staged a coup d'état against President Ngo Dinh Diem. The CIA station in Saigon reported that Diem and his brother Ngu were shoved into an armored personnel carrier with their hands tied behind their backs. When the personnel carrier arrived at the Joint General Staff headquarters, Diem and Ngu were dead. Both had been shot and Ngu had been stabbed several times. Inconceivably, the South Vietnamese reported that the brothers had committed suicide. Back in Washington President Kennedy was deeply shaken by Diem's death, but his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, commented dryly that "it seemed uncommon for individuals to shoot and knife themselves with their hands tied behind their backs." Three weeks later the unthinkable happened. John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States, was assassinated in Dallas.
JFK's principal foreign affairs advisors on Vietnam urged Lyndon Banes Johnson to reaffirm the continuity of policy and direction as the new president. Therefore, LBJ's first important decision on Vietnam as president, only five days after taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One, was to approve National Security Action Memorandum 273 which stated:
It remains the central objective of the United States in South Vietnam to assist the people and government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported communist conspiracy. The test of all U.S. decisions and actions in this area should be the effectiveness of their contribution to this purpose.
Following the assassination of Diem, the government of South Vietnam spiraled into a series of coups and power struggles among various military and religious factions. It came as no surprise to anyone that the NLF jumped at the opportunity to exploit the unstable political environment to achieve both political and military gains. The depth of the problem was not completely apparent in late 1963, but in Washington, Saigon, and the A Shau, everyone was relieved to see the end of the Year of the Rabbit.
With the beginning of the Year of the Dragon, several exasperating holdover elements from the Diem regime complicated life for American advisors around the A Shau, especially for the Special Forces A-teams. Diem had established a kind of "palace guard" named the Luc Luong Dac Biet, or LLDB, a term which translates into Airborne Special Forces. Instead of being the elite unit its name implied, the LLDB initially consisted of members who had obtained their positions through family influence or the payment of bribes. In a highly questionable move, LLDB units took command of many of the border surveillance camps, including those in the A Shau, creating very strained relations for the American advisors. First and foremost, the early LLDB commanders were inexperienced, irresponsible, and reluctant to perform their jobs, although once free from President Diem's influence, many became excellent warriors. Additionally, the upper echelons of Vietnamese society frowned on service with savage Montagnards in remote areas, and the I Corps outposts, in close proximity to North Vietnam and the dreaded A Shau Valley, were the most feared assignments. Consequently, Special Forces advisors were initially hard pressed to get LLDB units to even associate with CIDG strike forces. Furthermore, VC activity usually occurred at night; the LLDB generally refused to patrol at all during darkness. At any rate, aggressive patrolling often did not work because the A Shau was full of pro-Viet Cong sympathizers who tipped off NVA or VC units about LLDB patrols or ambushes.
Another problem plaguing the border surveillance camps involved an insufficient local recruiting base for their CIDG units. Camps manned by Montagnards imported from other regions of the country suffered from low morale and desertions, and partially for that reason the camp at Ta Bat shut down in March 1964, with all CIDG and LLDB forces consolidated at Camp A Shau. Inadvertently, however, one of Diem's schemes became an asset. In an effort to rid Saigon of some of its less desirable elements, Diem had emptied the city jails containing thugs, violent criminals, juvenile delinquents, and army deserters, turning them all over to the Special Forces for service at border camps. Oddly enough, the A-teams won the grudging respect of the transplanted hoodlums and turned many of them into valuable fighters.
Excerpted from A Shau Valor by Thomas R. Yarborough. Copyright © 2016 Thomas R. Yarborough. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
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Table of Contents
1. Into the Valley of Death
2. The Rise and Fall of Camp A Shau
3. Project Delta Invades the A Shau
4. SOG: West of the A Shau
5. Annus Horribilis: 1968
6. Operation Dewey Canyon
7. Eleven Times Up Hamburger Hill
8. Ripcord: Valor in Defeat
9. A Shau Fini: The Ninth Year
10. A Bard for the Grunts