Unsung Victories of American Airmen
by Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr., Colonel, United States Army, Retired
I returned to South Vietnam in 1968 joining the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment operating north of Saigon under the operational control of the 1st Infantry Division. I found myself taking part in a hard fought series of battles as we sought to destroy enemy base camps established in the jungles south of War Zone D. The enemy base camps formed fortified staging areas constructed along multiple parallel routes to the south that permitted the enemy to move his combat forces out of Cambodia from one protected battle position to the next in their invasion of South Vietnam. More significantly the base camps acted as fortified assembly areas for staging NVA attacks upon American air bases and logistical support units located north of Saigon.
The battlefield the enemy had selected to contest covered jungle terrain that suited the short-range weaponry that the NVA brought to the conflict in the early years of the struggle, when Hanoi maintained the war of the National Liberation Front (NLF) was an indigenous insurgency. The jungle both restricted visibility to a few yards as American infantrymen and cavalrymen searched for their opponents and it negated the superiority of the long-range weapons and technology the Americans brought to the battle.
The enemy’s base camps consisted of bunkers with overhead cover and extensive trench lines. His troops were armed with Soviet assault rifles and machine guns. Chinese Claymore-type mines that covered the approaches to his fortifications augmented his deadly short-range weapons. Situated beneath dense jungle canopy often two hundred feet in height, the enemy was protected from aerial observation, artillery fire, which detonated prematurely in the tall canopy of the rain forests, and the ground incursions required to take the enemy positions one trench and one bunker at a time. We were winning the battles; for at the end of the day we owned the enemy base camp that had become the target of our attacks, but the grim statistics of the battles yielded no joy.
Aero Rifle Platoon members (ARPs) posing with captured enemy weapons after successfully clearing an enemy bunker complex, a dangerous and often costly operation. The individuals from left to right are Sergeant Butler, Sergeant Roeder, Lieutenant Doubleday, Specialist Starkey, and Sergeant Summers.
With our dead and wounded often as numerous as those of our enemy, we engaged in an exhausting form of battle that sapped the strength of our soldiers in the heat of the tropical rain forests. The fighting also tested the tactical skills of our troops, who learned to approach the enemy bunkers from the blind side
and grenade the occupants, allowing small teams of expert infantry to move through a large bunker complex and inflict heavy casualties on our opponents. Even so victory did not come cheap. The deadly game of seeking out the enemy’s fortified positions proved costly as American troops encountered the well-concealed mines and snipers of the enemy. Once locked in battle the set piece slaughter began as the American infantry and cavalry troopers took out the enemy one bunker at a time.
Bitter, exhausting, and costly engagements characterized the battles for the enemy base camps. My boss, Colonel George S. Patton III, a resolute fighter, commanded the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Colonel Patton took care of his men, and his troopers worshiped him in return. We were vexed by the complexity of the problem of reducing the well-constructed base camps of our tenacious opponents. Assigned as the S-2, intelligence officer, of the regiment, I had been watching reports of the battles being waged to destroy the enemy headquarters and base camps along the Cambodian border. These battles had a different character, which pitted the skills of the American air cavalry and the firepower of Air Force B52 strikes to obliterate the enemy. The jungle canopy offered no protection to the massive bomb strikes that literally blew away the massive hard wood trees that grew to great heights. I realized that the battles on the Cambodian frontier made much better use of the American advantages in technology and firepower than our bloody approach to the problem.
I went to Colonel Patton and asked if he would authorize the request of Air Force B52 strikes to destroy the enemy’s prepared battle positions in our AO. He challenged me saying: “Do you have the intelligence to justify that expenditure of firepower.” I swallowed hard and answered yes. I had confidence in our intelligence analysis section headed up by Captain Ralph Rosenberg, as well as in our intelligence collection capabilities, especially the scouts of the regiment’s Air Cavalry Troop. Patton thought about my proposal and responded that if the intelligence section could produce the data to justify an “Arc Light Strike,” the code name given to B52 strikes, he would support the request.
I took the problem to the commander of the Air Cavalry Troop, Major John C. Bahnsen, who immediately recognized the advantages of fighting from our strengths, rather than allowing the enemy to dictate the terms of battle. He was a great fighter and a smart tactician, who recognized that the search for the enemy base camps called for close coordination between the scouts and those of us in the regimental intelligence section working up the request for B52 strikes. He promptly gave me direct access to his scouts, telling them that they would be working directly for the S-2 in developing B52 targets until they were needed to destroy a communist unit brought to bay in the open terrain that formed the western portion of 11th Cavalry area of operations. He said that our Arc Light targeting effort was too important and the time too precious to waste on intermediary links in the chain of reporting.
I fashioned specific AOs for each of our eight scout teams, referred to as pink teams, composed of one light observation helicopter and one cobra gunship providing cover and communication links to the operations section of the troop. I took the scouts teams out one by one and showed them the limits of their assigned area, as well as the enemy trails identified from previous scout reports — intelligence carefully collated and preserved by Ralph Rosenberg and the men working for him. The scouts intuitively recognized the advantages of the new method of attacking the enemy. They did not need to be told that many American soldiers would no longer leave Viet Nam in body bags if we could locate the base camps from the air and bring down on our enemy massive fire from the sky. In the days and weeks that followed the scouts of the Air Cavalry Troop identified multiple enemy base camps in the jungle. We took the intelligence to the 1st Infantry Division and II Field Force, where we convinced our superiors of the lucrative targets that were providing sanctuaries to enemy troop units preparing to launch attacks upon American instillations at Bien Hoa and Long Binh. The Ark Light Strikes were approved.
Most of our B52 strikes went in during the night or at first light. Colonel Patton directed his operations officer, Lieutentant Colonel Jim Dozier, to follow up B52 strikes with ground troops. I worked with the scouts to prepare the Bomb Damage Assessments (BDA) of the strikes. The Arc Light strikes had produced awesome results, obliterating base camps, blasting away the tall jungle canopy, and bringing down trees that once obscured observation. Huge craters plowed the ground that formerly housed formidable communist combat units and logistical support troops. Cadavers hung out of the trees on the perimeter of the strike zone. Only splinters remained of massive trees, and the muck and dirt thrown skyward during the bomb blasts now covered the ground in a carpeted layer several feet thick that obscured human body parts dismembered in the attack. Regrettably, the earth did not conceal the stench of human guts and brains that now saturated the carpet of newly plowed ground – formerly the site of extensive trenches and bunker complexes.
We were elated but hard pressed to describe the results of the BDA. We could count the cadavers hanging from the trees, but we had no idea of the numbers of enemy soldiers incinerated by the blasts. Nor could we imagine the number of NVA survivors who fled toward the Cambodian border as fast as they could to evade our post-strike reconnaissance operations. We did not learn of the massive losses we had inflicted upon the enemy until weeks later, when captured prisoners revealed during interrogation that they had been members of a unit stationed in one of the enemy base camps targeted for attack by the B52s. Whole companies and battalions had virtually ceased to exist in the succession of massive explosions that had obliterated the communist base camps. By then it was difficult to claim the enemy casualties inflicted in a battle that had taken place weeks, if not months, before. The skeptical journalists denied our claims. We were lying to make our commanders look good they claimed. They were wrong.
As hoped, the use of Arc Light Strikes in the fight of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment against NVA base camps dramatically reduced our casualties. The large number of body bags headed to Long Binh on their way to grieving family members of the 11th Cavalry troopers fell sharply. The aircrews of the B52s flying at 25,000 feet could see nothing of their targets except jungle canopy. They had no way of knowing the impact their long and exhausting missions had on our combat operations, especially in view of the fact that the media, reflecting Hanoi’s propaganda, derided the value of the strikes. But we knew and were grateful.
I am confident that I would not have survived my tour of duty with the 11th Cavalry had it not been for the men of the Air Force, who saved the lives of infantrymen and cavalry troopers by sparing them bitter battles to demolish enemy base camps. Words cannot convey our gratitude to the brave Air Force leaders and crewmen who made possible our victories and saved the lives of countless American fighting men.
 Later in the war, following the decimation of the Viet Cong military formations and the elimination of the Viet Cong infrastructure by the Phoenix Program, the NVA employed conventional tactics using divisional size units fully equipped with Soviet heavy equipment including tanks and artillery. By 1972 the NLF insurgency had failed and all pretext of NLF control of the North’s war effort in South Vietnam was abandoned, despite the fact that the NLF continued to play a role in the Paris Peace Talks as a diplomatic ploy to bring about a settlement based upon communist participation in the government of South Vietnam (GVN).