Mekong Delta Has Become Scene Of Forgotten Part of Viet War
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, who is on his third assignment in South Viet Nam, is now in the field with U.S. troops. This story was written before he recovered from a leg wound inflicted by a pongee stick. Black’s coverage of the war will continue daily in The Enquirer.)
By CHARLES BLACK
Enquirer Military Writer
There are about 1,800 American aviation and support personnel here and at other major aviation and supply centers at Soc Trang and Vihn Long, but there are no U.S. ground troop units in the 14,350 square miles of this IV Corps area.
Here the “old war” of Viet Nam is still played out by advisers, Special Forces teams, aviators and all-Vietnamese fighting units.
When American divisions were committed to Viet Nam, a complicated set of political and military circumstances brought a decision not to commit any of those units here where the vast majority of the population of South Viet Nam lives.
The Vietnamese people live in a thin strip along the coast or in the mountain-surrounded valleys in the sections north of Saigon. But in the Mekong, where the flat brown of rice paddies rims the horizon as far as a helicopter pilot at 3,000 feet can see, the riches and the people of South Viet Nam are really concentrated.
Despite the huge size of the area of this IV Corps, Lt. Gen. Dan Van Quang, the Vietnamese commander, has only three Vietnamese divisions to use in offensive campaigns - the 7th, 9th and 21st of the Army of Viet Nam.
This corps is adequate to secure the big, heavily populated area, but in many ways the IV Corps has been the scene of dramatic successes in the past year.
U.S. Advisers talk about their “9-to-5” war on the one hand and the wonderful coordination of U.S. helicopter support and the Vietnamese units on the other.
The corps is the only truly air-mobile corps in the world, in fact. The Vietnamese commanders are more experienced at using helicopters for fighting mobility than any U.S. commanders except those who took part in the Army’s air-mobility experiment or served with the 1st Air Cavalry in the Central Highlands combat in Viet Nam.
All three of the Vietnamese divisions depend on the helicopters and Caribous of the Army’s 13th Aviation Battalion to move into operations, and all three make full utilization of them, according to Lt. Col. William J. Maddox Jr., commander of the “Delta Battalion.”
In recent days, American units in Viet Nam which have not been exposed to the “air mobility” idea used so successfully by the 1st Cavalry have made some gingerly and tentative moves toward acquainting themselves with such operations.
A vast fleet of U.S. helicopter units will put such units as the 1st Infantry Division into helicopter operations in a big way, for example.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade undertook its first use of full air mobility in its 10 months in Viet Nam and, according to officers it sent to a press briefing in Saigon, had its most successful operation since it came to the country. In the fight, for example, more than 200 Viet Cong bodies were listed by the 173rd.
Despite the success of this operation the quiet word from aviation professionals here is that most units don’t use the full potential of their helicopter support because the commanders just aren’t familiar with the concept.
They say the airborne brigades learn more easily than regular infantry outfits, mainly because the paratroopers aren’t used to having trucks or other vehicles anyway and appreciate getting chopper support.
Another operation, in which a major U.S. outfit took its first major strike via choppers, was depressing to aviation-trained participants and observers. The maneuver units simply ignored most of the chopper availability and the operation proceeded via truck and foot, one man said.
“Until you take their trucks away from them, they aren’t going to use the choppers because they aren’t going to take time to learn how. A lot of education is going to have to be done if all of those helicopters coming over are used effectively,” one officer told me after taking part in the fledgling air-mobile operation by this U.S. unit.
The Vietnamese commanders in the Mekong Delta, however, have been using full air mobility since January 1963, when the first air assault into combat was made in this country. They are forced to rely on helicopters, for one thing.
My personal mobility has been reduced by one leg while an infection which hit me almost on arrival at Tan Son Nhut air terminal is stabbed to death by penicillin needles.
I have had to be a helicopter observer of activities, returning nightly to the frustration of a room in Saigon and a feeling that I should be convicted of malingering despite what Maj. William Hartzog, the flight surgeon of the 1st Army Aviation Brigade and the man in charge of my parole and treatment, has to say.
I suppose this is good, because it isn’t likely I would have flown to Can Tho with Col. John Stockton, deputy commander of the brigade, and met Maddox and learned as much about IV Corps as I know now.
My field trips have been rationed to provide the least amount of exposure to dust or mud. But flying with Stockton, who inspects the underneath side of tree boughs from a UG1B, is getting close to the ground and is the only really enjoyable activity I have had in the past few days.
The low-level inspection I made of the Mekong area from his chopper showed these dominant characteristics: Few roads, with pavement only in city zones; a multitude of canals (2,500 miles of them, I found out later) with fleets of sampans and small boats providing the area’s usual mode of movement; areas which were either miles of flat, muddy rice paddies cut by canals and rivers or the completely impassable wilderness of mangrove swamps.
None of it appeared to be ideal country for trucks, tanks or even walking. All of it except the mangrove swamps is helicopter country. (One huge mangrove area is called the “forest of darkness” and presents a solid green canopy from the air with the twisted roots of the mangrove forming a mesa fence for miles underneath.)
Any American unit moving into operations here will have to be air mobile-oriented, just as the three Vietnamese divisions in the region are solidly so.
Despite the fact that the Vietnamese forces are committed heavily to holding areas which the government has been working hard to turn into permanently pacified strongholds, full use of helicopters and Caribou transport aircraft has enabled the ARVINs to raid at will in short, violent actions which have kept the Viet Cong on the defensive, according to senior American officers in the area.
A typical week’s action saw the American pilots take the 7th Division into a three day flight which killed more than 200 Viet Cong, shift their helicopter lift to the 9th Division, which killed 200 more in a one-day action, then do the same with the 7th Division for another one-day fight which cost the VC almost 300.
“There were three separate operations in five days in widely separated areas, and they accounted for about 800 VC by body count,” Maddox said. “It was as effective as anyone could possibly ask for, and it was made possible because the units use our helicopter support fully.”
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