Booby Traps and the Attrition of U.S. Forces in South Vietnam

During the Vietnam War, booby traps, or what are now referred to as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), exacted a terrible toll on the American infantrymen patrolling the South Vietnamese countryside.  Communist General Vo Nguyen Giap and his southern field commanders regarded booby traps as an integral part of their strategy to defeat the technologically-superior, highly-mobile, firepower-laden American military.  The fearsome weapons helped Giap accomplish his strategic goals – especially the attrition of U.S. forces.

In a sampling of 3,185 U.S. servicemen wounded between November 8, 1965, and February 8, 1966, the Pentagon learned that booby traps inflicted more wounds on U.S. ground troops operating in South Vietnam than on G.I.’s who fought in either the Korean Conflict or World War II. Surveyors discovered that in World War II, booby traps wounded 3.1% of the total number wounded in action. In Korea, that percentage rose to 3.9%.  During the early stages of the ground war in South Vietnam, enemy booby traps accounted for 20.6% of all U.S. wounded. What’s more, military analysts found that in South Vietnam, mines and booby traps caused the most serious wounds.[1]  A doctor serving at the U.S. Navy hospital in Danang confirmed that last point. Capt. William C. Adams’ medical unit treated the Marines injured in the hamlets, jungles, and hills west and southwest of Danang. He informed National Geographic Magazine reporter Peter White, “Our main problem is booby traps and land mines…With luck, the choppers get them here twenty minutes after they’re hit. [If they get here early enough] We can do a lot for them.”[2]

From the very beginning of the American ground war in South Vietnam, the Marines operating in I Corps suffered the highest number of casualties from booby traps. In the summer of 1965, a Marine unit operating west of Danang lost about a tenth of its men to the devices.  What frustrated many Marines was that they suffered these casualties without actually engaging the Vietcong.  According to the New York Times “… [this Marine unit] has not had one real battle with a sizeable Vietcong guerrilla unit, has hardly even seen a live guerrilla and has seldom seen enemy bodies.”[3]

In a week-long operation in September 1965, a company of 170 troops from the 1st Battalion 1st Marines lost 40 men to booby traps and mines.[4] First Battalion went on to lose 475 men (both KIA and WIA) in the six-month period from September 1965 to March 1966. That number equalled over 40% of the battalion’s original strength. A significant number of 1/1’s casualties fell victim to booby traps.[5] But First Battalion’s losses were not the exception, they were the rule.

Sometimes, a single booby trap could decimate an entire American unit.  In late December 1965, Marine First Lieutenant Philip Caputo’s platoon, patrolling the paddies and foothills of Quang Tin Province, suffered nine casualties from a single homemade Claymore mine. An unseen guerrilla, hiding in a nearby hamlet, detonated the crude bomb at the moment Caputo’s men came within range of the mine’s blast radius. According to Caputo, if the booby trap had been properly placed in the ground, its shrapnel would have sliced into the upper torsos of his men, killing them rather than wounding them.[6]

Even after almost two years in Vietnam, and after having had plenty of time to become familiar with the hazards present in the South Vietnamese countryside, the Marines in I Corps still suffered high losses from booby traps. Robert C. Wilson, with the First Marine Division, recalled a booby trap that devastated his unit in mid-1967.  “The VC set off 10 mines, which were spread out on the trail under us. When they all went off at once, every man in the patrol was hit…The corpsman who was behind me was killed instantly. [The] squad leader right in front of me will lose both his legs from the knees down. One man lost an eye…The man behind him had his leg broken in three places…Those slant-eyed VC farts knew what they were doing. They almost got us all.”[7]

The New York Times reported in early 1967, “Injuries to many of the Americans wounded in recent months resulted not from small-arms battles but from mines and booby traps. The problem has been particularly serious in the I Corps area of central South Vietnam, where some United States Marine Corps companies have consistently suffered as many as 20 casualties a day.” A Marine company at full strength possessed 200 men. As the article indicated, some Marine units were losing 10% of their strength in a single day to booby traps. A number of those wounded returned to duty within hours or days, but others did not – they were either killed or so severely wounded that they required evacuation from the theatre of war.[8]

During the first six months of 1967, booby traps killed 539 G.I.’s and wounded an additional 5,532 across South Vietnam; those dead and wounded equalled 17 percent of all U.S. casualties during that time period.[9]

By the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. Marines had lost a total of 13,073 men to hostile action.  Of that number, 3,056 Marines (or 23% of the total) had died from what the Department of Defense referred to as “Other Explosion,” meaning grenade or IED.  A total of 47,322 American service personnel died during the Vietnam War from hostile action; 7,432 of those dead (or 15% of the total) were listed as killed by “Other Explosion.”  These statistics indicate that booby traps killed more U.S. troops in South Vietnam as a percentage of the total number of war dead than in any other major U.S. conflict in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[10] As a consequence, the dreadful weapons accomplished General Giap’s goal of attriting U.S. forces.

Endnotes

[1] New York Times, “Casualties Show How Vietnam Differs from Earlier Wars,” Neil Sheehan, October 7, 1966.

[2] National Geographic Magazine, Peter T. White, “Behind the Headlines in Viet Nam,” 149-188, Volume 131, No. 2, February, 1967, Illustrations by Winfield Parks, 178.

[3] New York Times, “Village Burnings Disturb Marines,” Charles Mohr, August 9, 1965.

[4] Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War, (New York: Owl Books, 1996), 224.

[5] Ibid., 217.

[6] Ibid., 281.

[7] Bernard Edelman, ed., Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985), 67.

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