Home Away From Home: Vietnam, Big Bases, and the American Way of War

During and after the Vietnam War, journalists, historians, and military personnel criticized General William Westmoreland for approving the construction of big U.S. military bases across South Vietnam. The critics, who included the decorated and controversial Lieutenant Colonel David Hackworth, argued that the bases were unnecessarily large, provided too many amenities to soldiers, exposed American troops to enemy fire, reduced the combat effectiveness of U.S. units by providing soldiers an all-too luxurious life in the rear, and increased the overall financial cost of the war without any discernible benefits. Hackworth described the 9th Infantry Division base at Dong Tam, and the soldiers stationed there, as “four hundred acres of sitting ducks.”[1] But Westmoreland’s detractors, such as Hackworth, failed to recognize the political and military reasons Westmoreland chose to construct large bases in South Vietnam.

U.S. divisional bases in South Vietnam did resemble small American cities. Jerry Headley, a trooper with the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, recalled the odd juxtaposition of an American base in the midst of the South Vietnamese countryside. He remarked, “It was weird, really; you’d be out in the bush for two or three weeks or longer and come in for a stand down. You could have a cookout, go to the PX, see movies at night. It was almost like being back in the world. I personally could never get used to that, and to me it was one of the problems.”[2] Another G.I., John Gilligan, recalled his impression of the huge U.S. base at Cam Ranh Bay, “The first time I had a look at Cam Ranh Bay I was shocked. It made Pearl Harbor look like a used car lot. It was vast. They were unloading stuff everywhere and had put in an airfield next to it. Clearly, we had built this thing for a long stay.”[3]

In a rural landscape brimming with small, square rice paddies, simple thatched-roofed huts, and winding, narrow, dirt footpaths, the U.S. bases looked out of place, examples of 20th century American urban planning within a much older, impoverished Vietnamese geography.

U.S. Army and Navy engineers laid out the bases in standard American fashion – streets adhered to a grid, running in straight lines to the north and south and east and west. Sidewalks skirted the roadways. Just like American suburban neighborhoods, buildings stood within square blocks, bordered by streets. G.I.s lived in small ply-board and canvas “hooches” or in modern two-story rectangular barracks. What the military called “logistical” and “divisional” bases contained many of the same amenities available back in the United States.

The base at Long Binh, located sixteen miles northeast of Saigon, was one of the largest in South Vietnam. As U.S. troop levels grew in 1965 and the years thereafter, so did Long Binh – the headquarters of the Army’s II Field Force. Eventually, Long Binh encompassed twenty-five square miles and housed 50,000 soldiers.[4] The base cost $100 million dollars to build. The support troops stationed there had access to an array of consumables, services, and recreational facilities. Inside Long Binh’s vast perimeter, there existed separate nightclubs for enlisted personnel and officers. The clubs sold American and Vietnamese beers, hosted Vietnamese rock bands, and played American Rock-n-Roll on jukeboxes imported from the United States. Soldiers wanting to wind down after work visited one of the base’s massage parlors, known as “steam and cream” shops. Health conscious G.I.s lifted weights in a gym or played a game of tennis on one of the base’s courts. G.I. hooches had many of the same appliances available in a standard U.S. suburban household. The better hooches had an air conditioner, radio, and television. G.I.s hired Vietnamese “hooch maids” to clean their quarters for a few dollars a week. Some of the hooch maids did double duty as boom-boom girls. The post movie theater showed recent releases from Hollywood. Men watched John Wayne in “The Green Berets” while serving in the Green Berets. Referring to the conveniences available on a divisional base, Dan Vandenberg of the 25th Infantry Division said, “My God, base camps were incredible. They were the size of a big town. There were officers’ clubs, PXs, enlisted men’s clubs, and even dances. There was a sauna…It boggles my mind how much money it must have cost to set up each base camp. And then there were swimming pools.”[5]

Not all of the troops deployed to South Vietnam had the same degree of access to the big bases. Grunts, the infantrymen who humped the Vietnamese bush day-after-day for weeks on end, might only visit a divisional base a few times during their twelve-month tour. “In the rear,” front-line troops spent a few days trying to relax before being sent back out into what they called “Indian Country” – the territory held by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army. But administrative troopers, the soldiers the grunts derisively referred to as “paper pushers,” “desk jockeys,” or REMFs, “Rear Echelon Motherfuckers,” spent their entire 12-month (Army) and 13-month (Marine) tours on the large bases.

Since most G.I.s in South Vietnam served in administration, logistics, or combat support, the majority of Americans deployed to that war-torn land actually spent their tours in-country on a big U.S. base. The experiences of the REMFs differed markedly from that of the infantry. Rear echelon soldiers still faced the possibility of death or maiming, since the Vietcong and North Vietnamese had entree’ to nearly every corner of South Vietnam; but the odds of death or wounding for a REMF were far lower than for the infantrymen patrolling the rubber plantations of Binh Duong Province or the embittered hamlets of Quang Ngai. Not surprisingly, the relative safety and creature comforts available to REMFs in the rear angered the infantrymen doing the hard fighting. Combat troops resented the military’s division of labor and its geographical manifestations. David Hackworth, who prided himself on the fighting skills of the troops under his command, made no secret of his contempt for the REMFs. He wrote of Dong Tam and its administrative personnel, “From the air, the place [Dong Tam] looked like a huge, dirty, nineteenth-century Nevada mining town squatting in its own tailings – prefab wooden buildings with tin roofs, dusty roads and miles of green sandbags, the bunkered 3rd Surgical Hospital, a PX and an outdoor movie theater, one short runway of prefabricated steel planking and a huge helicopter pad. Home away from home to rear echelons of ten infantry battalions along with aviation, signal, engineer, artillery, and military police outfits and every other kind of logistical ash and trash.”[6]

Big bases had some negative effects on troop morale because they engendered animosity between front line and rear echelon troops. Soldiers in South Vietnam did not equally share the burdens of war. However, there’s never been a war in history in which the responsibilities of combat were evenly distributed throughout the military services. War has always been, and will forever remain, inherently unfair. The inequality inherent in troop assignments in Vietnam encouraged combat troops to seek positions in the rear, which had detrimental consequences for fighting efficiency.

A commonly held perception of the war in South Vietnam is that most American troops spent their time slogging through rice paddies searching for the elusive Vietcong or flying in helicopters from one battle site to another. Combat operations actually consumed the fewest man-hours. Far more time and energy went into administration and logistics than actual ground combat. Hundreds of thousands of G.I.s experienced a monotonous daily routine on a U.S. base. For instance, at Long Binh, administrative personnel showed up at an air-conditioned office early in the morning and remained there until late in the afternoon. After work, they returned to their barracks or hooch to shower and change clothes. In the evening, they walked over to a post cafeteria for dinner. Following dinner, they might stop at a post club for a nightcap. They turned into bed at 10:00 p.m. or maybe 11:00 p.m., awoke the next morning, and did the same thing all over again. This uneventful administrator’s war rarely made it into the papers or the nightly news, but it was a crucial component of America’s war effort.

Although the support personnel and their mundane life in the rear earned the disdain of the infantry, they supplied the grunts with ammunition, equipment, weapons, and rations. American troops brought to bear such a terrifying amount of firepower against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese because of the desk jockeys and the long logistical tail that extended from South Vietnam to the U.S.’s West Coast ports, and from there to the U.S.’s industrial heartland.

II

American bases and the personnel stationed on them made Westmoreland’s search and destroy strategy possible. That strategy entailed sweeps of rural South Vietnam by heli-borne, mechanized, and truck-bound battalions, brigades, and divisions. Without the men and women in administration, logistics and combat support, Westmoreland would have been unable to fight a war of technology, mobility, and firepower. By the same token, had Westmoreland elected to use U.S. troops in a pacification strategy, with small contingents of men stationed in South Vietnam’s hamlets, the entire U.S. support system would have been different in size, layout, and location.[7]

To carry out Westmoreland’s strategy, U.S. units needed to be posted on large bases, rather than spread out across South Vietnam on small bases. To take on Communist battalions or regiments required sizable U.S. forces. It would have been more time-consuming, more monetarily expensive, more difficult to coordinate tactically, and generally less efficient to repeatedly gather together dispersed U.S. forces on isolated outposts to conduct big-unit sweeps. It made tactical sense to have the big U.S. units based in one location for rapid deployment.

In addition to conducting sweeps of the countryside, Westmoreland envisioned U.S. units serving as mobile reaction forces for the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), as well as South Vietnamese Popular Forces and Regional Forces. The idea behind the mobile reaction concept was that if South Vietnamese units came into contact with the enemy’s main force battalions or regiments and faced possible destruction, the Americans would respond by sending in their own forces to destroy the Communists and save the South Vietnamese. For the mobile reaction concept to work, Westmoreland required big bases as staging areas. Dispersed, small units would not have been able to react as quickly to Communist main force attacks against Allied units.

Searching the countryside demanded mobility and mobility meant machines, including trucks, jeeps, armoured personnel carriers (APCs), tanks, cargo aircraft, and helicopters. All of that equipment had to be parked somewhere. America’s gadgetry took up a lot of space. The wheeled and tracked vehicles of a typical U.S. division were secured in huge marshalling yards. The Air Force’s lumbering cargo planes sat inside massive hangars or atop long stretches of concrete tarmac. To accommodate the 1,700 helicopters in South Vietnam by mid-1966, Army and Navy engineers cleared and levelled immense areas for the construction of heli-ports. The 1st Air Cavalry Division alone had 450 helicopters, including the CH-47 Chinook and the UH-1 Huey.[8] The 1st Cav set down those choppers in an area at An Khe’s Camp Radcliff nicknamed the Golf Course, which encompassed 3.7 square miles – to be exact. The runways, tarmac, hangars, bomb blast walls, barracks, and assorted facilities at the Danang airbase enclosed nearly four-square miles. That area was necessary for all of the aircraft coming and going from Danang. By 1968, Danang airbase attained the distinction of being one of the busiest airports in the world, with an estimated 55,000 arrivals and departures per month. Everything from C-130s to F-100 fighter-bombers flew in and out of Danang.

Destroying the enemy meant the expenditure of unbelievable quantities of ammunition. For example, in the November 1965, Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, U.S. artillery units fired 4,000 rounds in the area surrounding LZ X-Ray in less than twenty-four hours.[9] All of that ammunition supported one battalion, fighting one battle, during one day of the war. Such a tremendous expenditure of ammo was not considered extraordinary. It was the norm. The appetite of U.S. units for ammunition and supplies was so great that in the summer of 1965, as the U.S. troop build-up kicked into high gear, American cargo vessels waited an average of two months to unload their freight at South Vietnam’s ports.[10] By 1967, “Ships full of hand grenades, corn on the cob, napalm, wristwatches, artillery shells, pigs, plastic explosive, lawnmower engines, rifle ammunition, tank parts, and C-Rations were unloading one million tons a month….”[11] All of that stuff went into gigantic storage areas. Reporter Neil Sheehan commented on the U.S. military’s logistical needs, “The construction program Westmoreland set in motion with maximum speed all over South Vietnam entailed 10.4 million square feet of warehousing, 5.4 million square feet of ammunition storage, enough tank-farm capacity to hold 3.1 million barrels of POL, 39 million cubic meters of dredging, about 2,550 miles of new hardtop road, and 434,000 acres of land clearing.”[12]

The political and military circumstances prevailing in South Vietnam in 1965 greatly influenced Westmoreland’s decision to build big bases. In mid-1965, Westmoreland concluded that Hanoi and the National Liberation Front (NLF) had resolved to pursue a duel conventional/guerrilla war strategy in the South. Rather than merely continue with a protracted guerrilla war that involved platoon and company-sized units in hit and run attacks, the Communists at that time chose to initiate conventional-type operations with battalions and regiments with the goal of destroying the ARVN and toppling the Saigon regime. In the summer of 1965, a JCS study group noted this shift in Communist strategy, “…the VC/NVA can mount simultaneous attacks in each GVN corps area not to exceed one reinforced regimental (4 battalions) attack and one single battalion attack at any given time.”[13]

Westmoreland believed U.S. forces had to confront these sizable main forces to prevent the collapse of South Vietnam. He understood that large Communist units presented not only a threat to the ARVN but also to the U.S. troops streaming into South Vietnam. To protect the U.S. troops disembarking from ships and aircraft, and prevent their defeat by Vietcong/PAVN regiments or battalions, he had to have big bases, where U.S. combat strength could be concentrated. By early 1967, the Communists could field division-sized units. In January 1967, COMUSMACV admitted, “The enemy can attack at any time selected targets in I, II, and III CTZ in up to division strength and IV CTZ [the delta] in up to regimental strength, supported by local force and guerrillas.”[14] Big bases enhanced U.S. troop security, while small bases, with small contingents of soldiers, invited both the destruction of the posts and the troops stationed there. Westmoreland was acutely aware of Johnson’s obsessive worry about an American battlefield defeat in South Vietnam similar to the one suffered by the French at Dien Bien Phu. In consequence, Westmoreland desired big bases and the U.S. combat divisions inside their perimeters to reduce the danger of an American Dien Bien Phu.[15]

The perceived permanence of some U.S. bases contributed to U.S. political objectives. The facilities at Danang, Chu Lai, Qui Nhon, Cam Ranh Bay, Long Binh, and Newport gave the physical impression to friend and foe alike that the U.S. had come to Vietnam to stay. The White House and Pentagon wanted to convey that message to both the North Vietnamese and the Saigon regime, to the former as a warning that the U.S. would not be easily pushed out of South Vietnam and to the latter as an indication of the U.S.’s commitment to its survival. A show of U.S. determination to stick it out in South Vietnam by building a sophisticated base system could, it was hoped, induce the North Vietnamese to reduce its role in the war in the South. Whereas, large bases and the commitment they represented would bolster the seemingly always-flagging morale of the ARVN and assuage South Vietnamese fears about America’s staying power. Transitory bivouac sites with their tents, dirt trails, and gravel parking lots did not have the same psychological impact as wooden barracks buildings, concrete runways, and paved asphalt roads.

Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had another reason for promoting big bases.  These career military men believed it would be far more difficult for the U.S. to withdraw from South Vietnam once it had erected permanent facilities. JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler, who had regular contact with the president, knew that LBJ harbored grave doubts about escalating the war in South Vietnam. Temporary bases along South Vietnam’s coast would have fed into LBJ’s hesitancy to fully commit U.S. forces to the struggle. With temporary camps, the president would have been able to easily reverse himself, ordering U.S. units out of the country. The military wanted to preclude that possibility; its big bases would make the hasty abandonment of South Vietnam impossible. First, big bases would symbolize a greater U.S. financial investment in South Vietnam.  Thus, the Johnson administration would find it politically more difficult to forfeit such a large monetary outlay. Second, big bases symbolized a greater commitment of U.S. prestige to the war. Abandoning such permanent bases would be viewed as a significant defeat for the U.S.  Third, the image of deserted, former U.S. bases in South Vietnam would provide visual proof to the world of U.S. failure. Fourth, the incredible amount of material stored on the bases, including trucks, helicopters, and ammunition, would take a long time to extradite from South Vietnam if and when the president decided to withdraw U.S. forces. In a very real, physical sense, the bases, and the material stored on them, ensured against a hasty U.S. withdrawal.

III

The Vietnamese, including those living in the former French colonies of Cochinchina and Annam, whom later became South Vietnamese, long harbored anti-foreign attitudes. Their xenophobia and nationalism stemmed in part from their experiences under French colonial rule. It also resulted from the parochial, insular world of the rural peasantry. Isolated from outside influences by Vietnam’s fragmented geography, and suffering from the suspicions and judgments borne of illiteracy and ignorance, South Vietnam’s country folk all-to-frequently perceived foreigners as the hated “other.” Even Vietnamese urbanites, who had far greater exposure to outsiders, viewed foreigners with a dose of contempt. In 1950, British travel writer Norman Lewis experienced this Vietnamese hostility firsthand while visiting Saigon. He recalled, “They [the Vietnamese] are too civilized to spit at the sight of a white man, as the Indians of Central America do sometimes, but they are utterly indifferent. It is as if a general agreement has been reached among them that this is the best way of dealing with an intolerable presence. Even the rickshaw coolie…takes the money in grim silence and immediately looks away. It is most uncomfortable to feel oneself an object of this universal detestation, a mere foreign-devil in fact.”[16]

The end of French colonialism in Vietnam did not foster a change in Vietnamese attitudes towards foreigners. Xenophobia and nationalism continued to be potent forces in Vietnamese culture. In 1965, during deliberations over whether to commit American combat troops to the South, U.S. officials in Saigon and Washington openly wondered whether the well-known Vietnamese dislike of foreigners would manifest itself in an increase in Vietcong military recruitment as soon as the Americans entered the countryside in large numbers. The State Department’s U. Alexis Johnson questioned whether a sizable U.S. ground commitment to South Vietnam would achieve American objectives. He believed the South Vietnamese masses would respond negatively to a U.S. build-up, which would culminate in an increase in Vietcong strength.[17] George Ball, also with the State Department, was even more emphatic in his opposition to a substantial U.S. presence in South Vietnam. He believed the South Vietnamese multitudes would perceive the U.S. as an invading army and rise up to resist it. On July 1, 1965, Ball wrote, “Once we deploy substantial numbers of troops in combat it will become a war between the U.S. and a large part of the population of South Vietnam….”[18]

William Bundy shared Ball’s fears of a popular backlash against U.S. troops. He wanted the Johnson administration to cap U.S. force levels in South Vietnam at between 70,000 and 100,000 troops. Bundy believed a force above 100,000 would produce diminishing returns, especially because a major U.S. bootprint in the South would incite peasant hatred of the U.S. and spur Vietcong recruitment. Bundy thought that there had to be a tipping point in troop numbers. Once the U.S. went beyond that tipping point, increasing peasant resentment, in tandem with a jump in Vietcong recruitment, would negate the advantages of higher U.S. troop levels. Bundy worried that the Americans would be tagged as colonists, in the same vein as the French. He observed, “…we [cannot] judge the extent to which the people in the countryside, who have been exposed constantly to VC propaganda, [will conclude] the fight is against the American successors to the French…and hence flock to the VC banner.”[19]

Bundy was not alone in believing a massive American expeditionary force in South Vietnam would lead the South Vietnamese to view the Americans in the same way they viewed the hated French. Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton shared Bundy’s concern, as did U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Maxwell D. Taylor. In 1961, before he had become familiar with South Vietnam and its people, Taylor argued that the South Vietnamese would not think of an American ground force in their country as an occupying army. He wrote, “While the Communists [in South Vietnam] had a tide running in their favor, we agreed that they were not without vulnerabilities. They were no longer fighting the French and could not carry the banner of national independence against colonial rule.”[20] But in 1965, Taylor, after four years of exposure to Vietnamese culture, first as an advisor on Vietnam in the Kennedy administration and then as the ambassador to South Vietnam in the Johnson administration, came to a very different conclusion on the subject. On March 18, 1965 he wrote, “The introduction of a U.S. division…will increase our vulnerability to Communist propaganda and Third Country criticism as we appear to assume the old French role of alien colonizer and conqueror.”[21] Hoping to put the brakes on the administration’s rush to commit still more U.S. ground forces to South Vietnam, Taylor wrote this alarmist memo immediately after the deployment of the Marines to Danang.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which provided the president with some of the best intelligence on circumstances prevailing in South Vietnam, agreed with Taylor, Ball, U. Alexis Johnson and William Bundy. Its analysts concluded that a substantial U.S. troop presence would foster an upswing in anti-Americanism amongst the South Vietnamese. With this in mind, the CIA proposed that the United States avoid fighting amongst the population in the coastal plain and Mekong Delta. In a June 10, 1965, memorandum, an unnamed analyst penned the following, “If [U.S. troops are] used to clear and hold large areas, particularly heavily populated areas, the US forces would tend to acquire both the responsibility for the war and the stigma of an army of occupation with colonialist ambitions.”[22] Westmoreland agreed with the CIA’s analysis.  When he developed his concept of operations in the late summer of 1965, he tasked U.S. units with clearing Vietcong areas.  The job of holding recently cleared areas, and daily interacting with the local inhabitants, went to the ARVN.

Although Westmoreland developed a ground war strategy that took into consideration the xenophobic and nationalistic character of the Vietnamese peasantry, he still refused to accept the possibility that the mass of South Vietnamese would object to a large U.S. troop presence. He did not believe the common folk of South Vietnam would look upon the United States as another colonial power. The peasantry, according to Westmoreland, had the ability to recognize that the Americans were different from the French: that America was in South Vietnam to uphold Vietnamese independence by protecting the fledging country from outside aggression by its northern neighbor. On June 24, 1965, while LBJ considered another big troop increase for South Vietnam, COMUSMACV penned a memo to JCS Chief Earle Wheeler.  The purpose of the memo was to urge the sending of reinforcements. Westmoreland wrote, “Although the hazard exists, there is absolutely no logical reason to conclude that we will be cast in the role of the French. It’s up to the US leadership in SVN to ensure that we do not fall into such a role, by means of indoctrination, discipline, morale, positioning the masses of US combat forces away from population centers and administrative controls, all of which we now stress. I am confident that this one is manageable.”[23]

Westmoreland did not elaborate on why he believed the South Vietnamese peasantry would not equate the Americans with the hated French. Yet, the general did believe large numbers of U.S. troops in the South would upset the South Vietnamese, possibly turning them against the Americans, but not because they were like the French but because they were merely a disruptive presence. Westmoreland agreed with Ambassador Taylor – U.S. troops should be kept away from the South Vietnamese, especially the urban population, in order to avoid antagonizing them. Taylor had once stated that an, “Increased number of [U.S.] ground forces in SVN [South Vietnam] will increase points of friction with local population….”[24] Operating in the populated coastal plain and Mekong Delta would maximize the points of contact with the Vietnamese peasantry and hence maximize the possible points of friction. Westmoreland had a solution to this potential problem, a means of limiting the points of friction. He would deploy U.S. troops to big bases in remote areas away from the both the urban population and the bulk of the peasantry. He also envisioned U.S. bases as self-contained cities, where U.S. troops would have no reason to go beyond the perimeter wire to interact with the South Vietnamese. Bases would separate the two peoples and make the U.S. presence palpable to the South Vietnamese xenophobes and nationalists.[25]

Keeping U.S. troops away from the South Vietnamese meant providing G.I.’s with several in-country R & R destinations. China Beach, near Danang was one such in-country R & R location. A Marine described it as follows, “The facility [at China Beach] included a snack bar where you could buy beer and soda, hamburgers and hot dogs, and listen to the juke box, an outdoor theater for movies, a small barracks for Marines spending the night, and a long stretch of wide, clean beach.”[26] Westmoreland forbad U.S. troops from taking in-country R & R in Saigon, because he did not want G.I.s upsetting Saigon’s educated, highly-politicized residents – who had shown their political acumen in 1963 during the Buddhist demonstrations, when they succeeded, with the help of the Kennedy administration, in bringing down the Ngo Dinh Diem regime. A key reason for situating U.S. troops at Phu Bai – it kept G.I.s outside of Hue – a university town with a nationalistic, radicalized Buddhist population.

Westmoreland’s base system succeeded in separating G.I.s from the South Vietnamese. Tom A. Johnson remembered a conversation he had with another trooper on the subject of the South Vietnamese. A fellow soldier told Johnson, “…I guess you people [in the 1st Cavalry Division] aren’t used to being around Vietnamese too much.” Johnson grimly replied, “Not live ones,” [at that point] I…suddenly realize that he is correct. Due to the nature of our jobs, we are rarely in a position to mingle with the populace except when we get haircuts just outside the perimeter….”[27] Tom O’Hara spent his tour of duty at Phu Cat airbase. He remembered, “There just wasn’t much opportunity to dramatize [to the Vietnamese] what we were doing because we were in a three-square-mile piece of the United States of America. America had come over, slapped down asphalt, put down runways, built buildings, and put a fence around it. The officers all had TVs in their air-conditioned trailers and we had one in the barracks…The entire year there I never established a relationship with a Vietnamese.”[28]

IV

A little known, but key reason, Westmoreland had to have large bases in South Vietnam, especially the gigantic coastal bases at Danang, Chu Lai, Cam Ranh Bay, and Vung Tau, was because in 1965 millions of South Vietnamese either actively supported the Vietcong, sympathized with them, or lived in Communist territory. The countryside of South Vietnam was overwhelmingly Communist by mid-1965. In a briefing on July 21, 1965, McNamara showed the president a map of South Vietnam that depicted in red all of the areas controlled by the Reds. Upon seeing so much of South Vietnam under Vietcong control, the president said, “Looks dangerous to put US forces in those red areas.” McNamara responded, “You’re right. We’re placing our people with their backs to the sea – for protection.” In other words, the first coastal bases were established not just to serve as stepping-stones into the interior, but also as stepping-stones back east, in case the people in Johnson’s “red areas” shoved the Americans into the South China Sea.[29]

A few months later, in November 1965, McNamara wrote a memo to LBJ. In it, he explained that Vietcong territorial control had expanded since July. The Secretary of Defense stated, “…the Ky “government of generals” is surviving, but not acquiring wide support or generating actions; pacification is thoroughly stalled, with no guarantee that security anywhere is permanent and no indications that able and willing leadership will emerge in the absence of that permanent security. Prime Minister Ky estimates that his government controls only 25% of the population today….”[30] If Ky’s estimate was correct, then approximately 10.5 million of South Vietnam’s 14 million people resided in Vietcong territory; and that territory lay almost exclusively outside South Vietnam’s towns and cities. Ky’s assessment corresponded to claims made by the Communists.  By fall 1965, the NLF declared that it had liberated 10 million South Vietnamese, as well as 80% of the South’s land area.  For all intents and purposes, South Vietnam was very close to being a Communist country by the end of 1965.[31] Westmoreland, well aware of the extent of Communist influence across rural South Vietnam understood that he could not put U.S. troops into the midst of that Communist territory, and potentially hostile population, without the protection afforded by big bases and their large troop concentrations.

V

A host of environmental, geographical, political, and military factors influenced where Westmoreland chose to construct his logistical, divisional, brigade, and regimental bases. Factors determining the choice of base sites included the proximity of land routes, airfields, seaports and population centers, as well as the location of Vietcong base areas and Communist trail networks. A base’s defensibility was key. Mundane considerations included the accessibility of the base to fresh water, whether its land area possessed good drainage, and whether quarries and sand pits for the construction of roads and airstrips lay nearby.

In spring 1965, Westmoreland ordered the Marines to hold the airbase at Phu Bai. He justified the original U.S. deployment to Phu Bai as necessary for the protection of Danang’s northern flank. But there were other military reasons to occupy Phu Bai. The base gave the Americans the ability to project power into South Vietnam’s two northernmost provinces. The provinces of Quang Tri and Thua Thien had been Communist strongholds since the 1940s. The very presence of the base and its American troops challenged Communist domination of those provinces. Westmoreland wanted Phu Bai and the U.S.’s other big bases to serve as “oil spots,” meaning U.S. control over the surrounding countryside would gradually spread outward from the U.S. base as American troops conducted sweeps further and further afield. In addition, Phu Bai sat astride Route 1, the only north-south highway that ran all the way from the DMZ to Saigon.  Phu Bai enabled the Americans to monitor north-south traffic on that strategically-important highway. And because the Marines lacked the Army’s air mobility, and depended more heavily on trucks and armoured personnel carriers to move troops, they needed Route 1 to reach the war’s shifting front lines. The base and its troops could also block conventional Communist units moving south from the DMZ or east along Route 547 against the city of Hue. Furthermore, in the event of a civil insurrection in the politically-charged streets of Hue, (not an unlikely possibility since an insurrection erupted there during the Diem years) the Marines at Phu Bai would be in a position to rapidly move into the city to restore GVN authority.

In March 1965, the Marines went ashore at Danang to defend its airfield and port facilities. Danang was more than a base for air operations within South Vietnam or against North Vietnam. The expansive base complex sat on the eastern edge of Quang Nam, a province dominated by the Vietcong.[32] Residents living in hamlets south and west of the base so thoroughly identified with the Vietcong, they hung images of Ho Chi Minh in their homes and flew the blue, gold, and red NLF flag from flag poles in front of their thatch huts. Danang, like Phu Bai to the north and Chu Lai to the south, would be an oil spot, with the Marines gradually working out from the base to pacify Quang Nam.

In early May 1965, Navy Seabees began the construction of Chu Lai, which straddled the border between the provinces of Quang Tin and Quang Ngai. When the Seabees first came ashore to lay down the base’s airstrip, Marine units protected the Navy construction personnel from the Vietcong, who roamed the sand dunes just beyond the wire.  Chu Lai’s initial purpose was to relieve the aircraft congestion at Danang.  Later, it served as a base for the Marines and Army infantry patrolling the Vietcong hamlets to the south and west of the base.[33]

When Johnson ordered the 1st Cavalry Division to South Vietnam in late July 1965, Westmoreland intended on stationing it in the Central Highlands near Pleiku. The general wanted it there in order to blunt a planned Communist offensive during the upcoming rainy season. Westmoreland thought a Pleiku-based 1st Cav would interrupt the pending offensive and keep the highlands in Allied hands. In his autobiographical account of the war, A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland wrote, “I believed that if the enemy’s designs in the Central Highlands were to be thwarted, I had to put an American Army division there, establishing in the process coastal logistical bases at Qui Nhon and Nha Trang to support military operations in the central region.”[34]

However, Westmoreland’s superior in Honolulu, CINCPAC Admiral Sharp ruled against the immediate deployment of the 1st Cav to the highlands. Sharp, who was joined in opposition to Westmoreland by Air Force Chief of Staff John P. McConnell, worried the division might get cut-off from its sources of ground resupply on the coast. Route 19, running from the port of Qui Nhon to Pleiku, was susceptible to Vietcong ambush, especially at An Khe Pass and Mang Yang Pass. If the Vietcong shut down Route 19, the 1st Cav at Pleiku would be entirely dependent on an airbridge; neither the admiral nor the Air Force general believed the division could be maintained in the highlands for a long period by aerial resupply alone. In combat, the 1st Cav burned through between 600 and 800 tons of material per day. The number of cargo craft needed to meet those daily tonnage requirements would seriously impinge on the in-country airlift capacity of the Air Force. There would few aircraft left for other exigencies; or worse, if the highlands became socked in by bad weather, which was always a possibility, the 1st Cav would go without aerial resupply altogether, making it vulnerable to a major Vietcong or North Vietnamese Army ground assault.[35] Sharp and McConnell thought Westmoreland wanted to go too far too soon into the interior of South Vietnam. CINCPAC urged Westmoreland to locate the division closer to the port of Qui Nhon. Down on the coastal plain, reinforcements from the sea could reach the division if Giap attempted to pull off another Dien Bien Phu.

Westmoreland, Sharp, McConnell, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff eventually reached a compromise on where to put the 1st Cav. They decided to base it at the former French outpost at An Khe. General Bruce Palmer Jr. explained the reason for this choice. “When the division arrived in September, it went straight into a base hacked out of [the] jungle at An Khe, midway between Pleiku and Qui Nhon astride strategic Highway 19. There it was close enough to the coast to be supplied and far enough forward to reach areas of expected combat – and stood smack in the path of the projected North Vietnamese avenue to the ocean.”[36] Westmoreland explained one of his primary motives for agreeing to the An Khe site, “The security of Route 19 is important not only in the event of the deployment of major US forces on the high plateau, but is equally essential for the support of the population in that area and for the delivery of POL for current combat operation[s]…Highway 19 must be kept open. There is no feasible way into the high plateau from North or South.”[37]

Like Phu Bai, Danang, and Chu Lai, the base at An Khe sat in the middle of Vietcong territory. The base, later named Camp Radcliffe, was in southern Binh Dinh Province, a little over a mile north of Route 19. When the 1st Cav’s advance party arrived at An Khe in August 1965, the Communists controlled almost all of Binh Dinh Province. In order to drive home that point to the Americans, Vietcong snipers frequently took pot shots at the G.I.s clearing the base site. An officer with the 1st Cav commented on the presence of the Vietcong around the base.  He stated, “This whole area…is considered VC territory…The Cav will be the first unit to locate right in the middle of VC-land, and the idea is to be right there in the middle of ‘em, to clean ‘em out of here, pronto.”[38]

In A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland claimed that American military actions, and by implication his leadership, prevented the Vietcong from cutting South Vietnam in two in 1965. The general’s assertion was off the mark in one important respect. By mid-1965, the Vietcong had already split South Vietnam. The guerrillas dominated the rural regions of central South Vietnam from the Cambodian border west of Pleiku to the South China Sea in Binh Dinh and Phu Yen provinces. In Phu Yen Province, only Tuy Hoa remained in government hands. On June 13, 1965, Westmoreland admitted, “The VC control Phu Yen Province except for Tuy Hoa itself….”[39] As early as March 1965, in Binh Dinh, the GVN only held Qui Nhon and the hamlets on its immediate environs. The rest of the province was under Vietcong control. A Defense Department official noted at that earlier date that the Vietcong had already succeeded in severing the northern provinces of South Vietnam from the southern provinces. That official wrote, “Defeatism is gaining among the rural population, somewhat in the cities, and even among the soldiers…the [Mekong] Delta stays bad; the country has been severed in the north. GVN control is shrinking to enclaves….”[40] So when Westmoreland ordered the 1st Cav to An Khe, he did so not to prevent the halving of South Vietnam, but to keep the Vietcong’s bifurcation of the country from becoming permanent.

Westmoreland liked An Khe because it did not require the South Vietnamese to forfeit valuable agricultural land for its construction, nor did it necessitate the removal of a large rural population. The base at An Khe assuaged South Vietnam’s xenophobes because it was far from Qui Nhon, off the main highway to Pleiku, and situated on land unsuitable for rice cultivation.  As an added bonus, Montagnards occupied the nearby village of An Khe.  The Montys tended to be more loyal to the Americans than the average South Vietnamese and less likely to feel aggrieved by the presence of thousands of G.I.s so close to their homes. And if some Montys did oppose the base, it didn’t matter because they had so little sway in Saigon. An Khe didn’t disrupt the rural economy in the area, it didn’t antagonize the peasantry; and most importantly its rapid construction allowed Westmoreland to get his war of manuever up and running on short notice.

In June 1965, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara gave Westmoreland the go ahead to build a logistical base at Cam Ranh Bay. Westmoreland planned on transforming the bay and its surrounding area into the largest U.S. logistical facility in South Vietnam. Cam Ranh Bay was an ideal site for a gigantic supply depot. On the east side of the bay, a sandy peninsula extended 19 miles from north to south.[41] A deep channel skirted the west side of the peninsula, turned east, passed the nose of the peninsula, and then disappeared into the depths of the South China Sea. That channel and the docks built out from the peninsula’s western edge could handle deep-draft vessels laden with bombs, artillery shells, and armoured personnel carriers. Eventually, engineers constructed POL storage, an airfield, hospital, housing complex, and ammunition dumps on the peninsula. The peninsula was immune to a large-scale Vietcong attack. Water surrounded it on three sides. To reach the peninsula and its military targets, an attacking force had to cross the calm, blue waters of the bay or try to pass down the narrow neck of the peninsula from the north. In either case, American troops would have spied the Vietcong before they reached their destination, called in reinforcements, and stopped the attack. MACV considered Cam Ranh Bay the most secure American position in all of South Vietnam, safer than Saigon or Danang. When Johnson visited South Vietnam in October 1966 and again in December 1967, Air Force One did not fly into Saigon. Instead, it touched down at Cam Ranh Bay.[42]

In 1965, the Vietcong maintained a strong presence in the provinces near Saigon.  That presence, and the vulnerability of Saigon to attack by Communist main forces, convinced Westmoreland to ring the capital city with American bases at Cu Chi, Lai Khe, Bien Hoa, and Long Binh. These four bases guarded the north-western, northern, and north-eastern approaches to the city.

Cu Chi’s sprawl reared up out of the jungle twenty miles to the northwest of downtown Saigon. Its troops blocked Communist units moving toward Saigon along Route 1 from their base areas in Cambodia’s Parrot’s Beak. Furthermore, the mere presence of Cu Chi and its contingent of troops a few miles south of the Vietcong base areas in the Fil Hol rubber plantation, Ho Bo Woods, and Boi Loi Woods made those decades-old Communist strongholds less secure. With Cu Chi at their doorstep, the guerrillas could not be sure of the safety of their men and supplies in those base camps. Cu Chi also overlooked the southern half of the lush Saigon River Valley, a major Vietcong route from Cambodia to the capital.

Across the Saigon River fifteen miles to the northeast of Cu Chi, the 1st Infantry Division built its divisional base at Lai Khe.  Army engineers laid out Lai Khe on top a slight rise. A gentle slope fell away toward the Saigon River Valley to the south. The base’s elevated position gave U.S. troops a clear view of the valley lowlands and its trails. Route 13, known as “Thunder Road,” ran along the northern edge of the base. Route 13 connected the Cambodian border town of An Loc with Saigon. Lai Khe’s contingent of U.S. troops kept the Vietcong and North Vietnamese from using Route 13 to move against Saigon.[43]

Bien Hoa and Long Binh secured Route 1 and the north-eastern approaches to Saigon. Located on the edge of the capital, the two bases were still far enough from the city to keep contacts between American soldiers and the Saigonese to a minimum. Westmoreland could not afford to upset Saigon’s urban elite, knowing that without their support, the U.S. would be hard-pressed to find enough allies in South Vietnam to continue the war.

On the advice of the CIA, Westmoreland initially rejected the stationing of U.S. forces in the Mekong Delta. But in 1966, the general changed his mind, approving the deployment of a U.S. division to Dong Tam, five miles west of My Tho. The Dong Tam site had once been a low-lying marsh on the north side of the My Tho River – one of the Mekong’s many branches as it flows through the delta. American engineers created the base site by dredging sand from the My Tho River and dumping it in the old marshland. Eventually, the dredged slurry rose high enough above the water table for Army engineers to construct troop quarters, a heli-port, fixed-wing airstrip, hospital, and ammo dump. Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of the military engineers, Dong Tam continued to have problems with drainage.  During the rainy season, Dong Tam reverted to what it had always been – a muddy bog.

For all of its physical limitations, Dong Tam served several important military purposes. It controlled a key highway, Route 4, known as the Rice Road, which linked Saigon to the upper and middle Mekong Delta; it protected the southwestern approaches to the capital city; and it lay due south of the Vietcong’s base area in the Plain of Reeds. As a result, U.S. forces could, at a moment’s notice, fly out of Dong Tam and into the Plain of Reeds to pre-empt a Vietcong thrust toward Saigon or My Tho. Because Dong Tam stood next to the My Tho River, it could be resupplied by ocean going vessels. And since the base was built atop a marsh, a negligible number of peasants were inconvenienced by its construction. Dong Tam’s location five miles west of My Tho also limited American troop interactions with My Tho’s citizens. Finally, Navy and Army personnel based at Dong Tam could keep an eye on watercraft passing up and down the My Tho River, a major east-west thoroughfare known to carry Vietcong troops and supplies from Cambodia into the Mekong Delta.[44]

Westmoreland vetoed the basing of U.S. soldiers in the lower Mekong Delta. Although the Vietcong maintained a strong presence in the Ca Mau Peninsula and operated base camps in the U Minh Forest, Westmoreland did not believe the Vietcong in those areas posed a direct threat to the survivability of the Saigon regime.  The region was too remote, the guerrillas there too isolated, the distances too great, and the terrain too difficult for the guerrillas to seriously challenge the GVN’s hold on the delta’s urban centers at Rach Gia, Can Tho, or My Tho.  Westmoreland also understood that American forces would find it hard to operate in the lower delta, with its high water table, its narrow canals, its nearly non-existent road network, its dearth of dry landing zones, and its scarcity of airstrips.  Simply put, a highly-mechanized, firepower-dependent force would not be able to fight effectively in the environment of the lower delta. Compounding its unsuitability to the U.S. military, the lower delta lacked the port facilities to support a U.S. division. The lower delta’s isolation and its strategic insignificance, along with the difficulty of projecting U.S. power into the region, convinced Westmoreland to make that territory the responsibility of the ARVN.

For decades, Westmoreland has been criticized by military men and academics for his decision to build large bases across South Vietnam. Yet, the general possessed sound military, political, demographic, and geographic reasons for doing so. His concept of operations, with its reliance on firepower and mobility, depended on the construction of massive facilities to station large numbers of men, great quantities of equipment, and huge amounts of ammunition. And the general needed big bases, with their wealth of amenities, located away from population centers, to avoid antagonizing the South Vietnamese people, especially the urban citizenry. Small bases, such as those that might have supported a pacification strategy, would have fostered a sense among the South Vietnamese that the Americans had come to Vietnam to occupy their country. Such a perception, if widely held by the South Vietnamese, would have likely strengthened the insurgency. With most of the countryside under Communist control in mid-1965, and with the Vietcong and North Vietnamese deploying battalion and regimental sized units, it would have been militarily reckless for Westmoreland to station U.S. troops across South Vietnam without the protection afforded by big bases. Finally, big bases were Westmoreland’s response to the very real threat posed by the Vietcong’s millions of rural supporters to the safety of the vastly outnumbered U.S. expeditionary force.


Endnotes

[1] David H. Hackworth, Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts: The Hopeless to Hardcore Transformation of 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, United States Army, Vietnam, (New York: Rugged Land, Ltd., 2002), Photo Caption.

[2] Eric M. Bergerud, Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning: The World of a Combat Division in Vietnam. 1993. Reprint, (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 278.

[3] Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, (NewYork: Viking, 2003), 310.

[4] Carroll H. Dunn, Vietnam Studies, Base Development in South Vietnam, 1965-1970, (Washington DC: Department of the Army, 1972), 145; James R. Ebert, A Life in a Year: The American Infantryman in Vietnam, 1965-1972, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 111.

[5] Bergerud, Red Thunder, 35; James R. Ebert, A Life in a Year, 111.

[6] Hackworth, Steel My Soldiers, 3-4.

[7] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume IV, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 298.

[8] Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, Ia Drang: The Battle That Changed The War in Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1992), 26-27.

[9] J.D. Coleman, Pleiku: The Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 229.

[10] Dave R. Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective, (Novato, California: Presidio Press, Inc., 1978), 88.

[11] Robert Pisor, The End of the Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh, 1982, Reprint, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002), 54.

[12] Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, (New York: Random House, 1988), 622.

[13] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, 295.

[14] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, IV.C.6 (b), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume II, (Nimble Books, LLC, 2011) 26.

[15] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume III, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 480, 699; The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, 418.

[16] Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, 1951, Reprint, (London: Eland Publishing Ltd., 2003), 30.

[17] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume III, 483.

[18] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, 615.

[19] Ibid., 611.

[20] Maxwell D. Taylor, Swords and Plowshares: A Memoir, 1972, Reprint, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1990), 241.

[21] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume III, 446, 699.

[22] National Intelligence Council, Estimative Products on Vietnam, 1948-1975, “Memorandum, Reactions to a Further US Buildup in South Vietnam, 10 June 1965,” (Pittsburgh, PA: GPO, 2005), 256.

[23] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964 – 1968, Volume III, Vietnam, June – December, 1965, “Document 17, Telegram From the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Westmoreland) to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler), June 24, 1965,” (Washington: GPO, 1996), 42.

[24] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume III, 418.

[25] Ibid., 446.

[26] W.D. Ehrhart, Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), 122.

[27] Tom A. Johnson, To The Limit: An Air Cav Huey Pilot in Vietnam, 2006. Reprint, (New York: NAL Caliber, 2007), 308.

[28] Appy, Patriots, 326-327.

[29] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964 – 1968, Volume III, Vietnam, June – December 1965, “Document 71, Notes of Meeting, July 21, 1965,” 192.

[30] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, 622.

[31] A.J. Langguth, Our Vietnam, The War, 1954-1975, (New York: Touchstone, 2000), 414.

[32] Ibid., 429.

[33] Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet, 87.

[34] William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976), 128.

[35] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume III, 413; John Schlight, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, The War in South Vietnam, The Years of the Offensive, 1965-1968, (Washington, DC(?): Air Force History and Museums Program, 1999), 61-62.

[36] Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet, 93.

[37] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, 608.

[38] Robert Mason, Chickenhawk, 1983, Reprint, (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 64.

[39] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, 607.

[40] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, Volume III, 695.

[41] Dunn, Base Development, 56.

[42] “Pittsburgh Press,” July 29, 1969.

[43] Dunn, Base Development, 73.

[44] Robert R. Ploger, Vietnam Studies, U.S. Army Engineers, 1965-1970, (Washington DC: Department of the Army, 1989), 145; Dunn, Base Development, 53; Thomas J. Cutler, Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, 1988, Reprint, (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 235.

 

 

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