Operation Masher/White Wing: A Critical Assessment

On January 23, 1966, the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, along with the Marines based at Chu Lai, began the first division-size search and destroy operation of the Vietnam War. In addition to 6,000 soldiers of the 1st Cavalry and 4,000 Marines, the operation involved four regular ARVN battalions, five ARVN ranger battalions and two battalions from a South Korean division. This large operation had initially been given the code name “Masher,” but President Johnson worried that that name would convey the message that the U.S. military was insensitive to the taking of Asian lives.  Thus, at the request of the White House, General Westmoreland changed the name from “Masher” to “White Wing.”[1]

The operation called for the 1st Cavalry to sweep through three known Vietcong hamlets near Bong Son, Binh Dinh Province, and then push into the picturesque An Lao Valley, northwest of Bong Son. Once the 1st Cavalry occupied the steep-sided An Lao Valley, the Marines and ARVN, sweeping southwest from Duc Pho, Quang Ngai Province, would drive the Vietcong known to be in southwest Quang Ngai into the 1st Cavalry Division. Masher/White Wing was a straightforward hammer and anvil operation, similar to those carried out by U.S. forces in 1965.

The area to be swept by the combined Allied force was huge. In Binh Dinh Province alone, the Allies planned on covering 450 square miles. Westmoreland hoped the Americans, ROKs, and South Vietnamese would trap and destroy four Communist regiments, totaling 8,000 men, believed to be in the area.  The Communist soldiers belonged to the 18th and 98th North Vietnamese regiments and the 1st and 2nd Vietcong regiments.

The first five days of the operation saw only sporadic contact between the Allies and the guerrillas. At the end of day five, the Americans claimed to have killed fifty-nine Communist soldiers since the offensive began. Many of the “Vietcong” dead may have been unarmed Vietcong porters, couriers, or civilians unlucky enough to be caught in the crossfire.

On January 28, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong ambushed troopers of the 1st Cavalry at Landing Zone 4, near the village of An Thai, five miles north of Bong Son. Landing Zone 4 was described as “…a stretch of sand bordered by tall trees and houses in the midst of miles of rice paddies.”[2] About 500 Communist troops sprung the ambush at the moment the 1st Cavalry’s Hueys began inserting two companies of infantry. The Communists fired on the 600-yard long LZ from prepared bunkers and trenches, which had been excavated along two sides of the LZ.  These earthworks had been so well camouflaged that neither U.S. reconnaissance aircraft nor the inbound helicopter crews saw the fortifications until it was too late. The battlements, which were part of the Vietcong’s elaborately-built fortified countryside, indicated that the Communists knew in advance that the Americans would use LZ 4.

Upon landing, the two U.S. infantry companies were instantly pinned down by Vietcong and North Vietnamese machine gun fire. Then, a low cloud ceiling, drizzle, and high winds grounded U.S. fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships, preventing the besieged troopers from receiving the close air support that so often kept the insurgents at bay. Those same weather conditions, combined with deadly Communist anti-aircraft fire, made it impossible to land heli-borne reinforcements to aid the trapped men. By the end of the first day of fighting, the Communists had shot down six choppers, including one of the Army’s big CH-47 Chinooks. As night fell over the battlefield, the two U.S. companies remained cut-off and under heavy enemy gunfire.

An improvement in the weather on January 29 allowed the Americans to land reinforcements. On the third day of the battle, the U.S. had three battalions fighting in and around An Thai. The G.I.’s on the scene noticed that the entire area was honeycombed with bunkers, trenches and spider holes.  The well-entrenched guerrillas took a terrible toll on U.S. forces. Some of the trenches around An Thai were so deep and so well constructed with timber supports that they were impervious to bombs, napalm and artillery. A veteran of the Pacific War said the Vietcong’s fortifications “…reminded him of those on Tarawa in the North Gilbert Islands.”[3]

When the fighting at An Thai finally came to an end, the U.S. claimed to have killed 103 enemy soldiers at LZ 4, and during the entire three-day battle, which ranged across a much wider area, a total of 488 Vietcong and North Vietnamese supposedly died. MACV refused to release U.S. casualty figures, but it did acknowledge that the two U.S. companies initially besieged at LZ 4 sustained “heavy” casualties, meaning they had ceased to function as military units.[4] The LZ 4/An Thai battle had not been an unqualified American victory, its body count came at a steep cost in American dead and wounded.

On the tenth day of Masher/White Wing, U.S forces moved out of the coastal plain and into the hill country northwest of Bong Son, continuing their search for the four Communist regiments alleged to be fleeing in the direction of the An Lao Valley. The grunts, some carrying backpacks that weighed as much as fifty-five pounds, trudged up and down steep hills in ninety-five-degree heat. To no one’s surprise, the slow-moving U.S. troop columns came up empty-handed. As they had done so many times in the past, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese gave the Americans the slip. And yet, the skytroopers of the 1st Cavalry still took casualties while trekking through the steamy countryside. Physical exhaustion, dehydration, heat prostration, and heat stroke knocked scores of G.I.’s out of action.[5] South Vietnam’s landscape and climate, rather than the Vietcong, defeated the elite skytroopers on that day.

For the next three days, 10,000 skytroopers scoured the hills west of the coastal plain. This intensive search, which involved not only thousands of U.S. infantrymen but also nimble H-17 and UH-1 reconnaissance helicopters, failed to find a single Vietcong or North Vietnamese soldier. Desperate to get into action, 1st Cavalry commanders then shifted their focus westward to the An Lao Valley.

The division was supposed to have flown into the An Lao Valley on February 5, but heavy rain and fog delayed the landing of troops there for two days. Finally, on February 7, an American fleet of helicopters topped the high peaks on the eastern edge of the An Lao. On board the troop “slicks,” the grunts stared down upon a mostly vacant land. A good portion of the valley’s civilian population had bugged out with the Vietcong and North Vietnamese. Down on the ground, U.S. troops located evidence of the Communist presence everywhere – especially in the large number of punji pits dug along the valley’s trail network. On the day of the air insertion into the An Lao, the 10,000 troopers of the 1st Cavalry, along with all their accompanying equipment and weaponry, attained a body count of one.[6]

The 1st Cavalry Division combed the An Lao Valley and its environs for over a week before encountering an enemy unit. On February 15, 300 U.S. infantrymen fought a battalion of Vietcong in an area known as the “Crow’s Foot” in Binh Dinh Province. The “Crow’s Foot” referred to a series of gullies that dropped down from the highlands into the coastal plain. Peering at a topographical map, the juncture of these gullies vaguely resembled a “Crow’s Foot.” The battle on the fifteenth marked the first time since the start of Masher/White Wing that the division actually engaged a unit of one of the four regiments that were the original targets of the operation. In other words, it took the 1st Cavalry Division twenty-four days to find one battalion of one of the four regiments. Most troubling of all, the division found the enemy battalion at the “Crow’s Foot” because a captured Vietcong officer revealed its location. Had the Vietcong POW refused to cooperate, the Communists would have remained undetected in their hideout. The Americans had been lucky; such intelligence rarely came their way. During the three-day engagement at the Crow’s Foot, the trapped Vietcong took a beating from U.S. airstrikes and artillery, losing an estimated 219 men.[7]

On February 10, following thirteen days of campaigning, Masher/White Wing’s northern task force of Marines and ARVN claimed a body count of 191 guerrillas.

In the third week of February, Masher/White Wing began to peter out. In the final days of the operation, the 6,000 Marines and 2,000 South Vietnamese searching Quang Ngai Province pulled back to their bases after reporting only minimal contact with the enemy. As for the 1st Cavalry Division, it claimed to have killed 789 Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers during the operation.  Yet, the vast majority of those KIA’s had been inflicted at the Battle of An Thai, a place where the enemy wanted to be found.  Had the Communists not decided to stand and fight at An Thai, the 1st Cavalry’s body count would have been far lower.

In the end, neither the Marines nor the 1st Cavalry destroyed the four Communist main-force regiments that had been the targets of the operation.  Instead, U.S. units killed mostly local, part-time guerrillas.[8] Killing local guerrillas certainly attrited overall Communist military strength, but doing so had unintended, and frequently negative, consequences for the Allies.

While local guerrillas served the Vietcong near their native hamlets and villages, Communist main-force soldiers usually operated away from their home territories, sometimes at great distances.  In Vietnam, distance frequently hindered Communist communications.  As a result, when a main-force soldier died in combat, his family and friends back home might not learn of the death of their loved one for quite some time, if ever.  Thus, both time and distance blunted some of the emotional shock and anger felt by family and friends when they learned of the death of a loved one serving in the main forces.  But such was not the case with local guerrillas killed by Allied forces.  The death of a local guerrilla might be immediately known and felt by a large number of people at the village level.  Vietcong recruiters used the strong, initial emotional response to the death of a village resident  to persuade those from the same village to join the National Liberation Front.  Marine Lt. Colonel David A. Clement summed up the problem faced by the American military in Vietnam, “When you kill a local guerrilla, all you’ve done is kill somebody’s husband or sweetheart or son – and not only that, he is probably related in some way to half the village. As soon as the military operation is done, you’ve got to start undoing the damage you’ve done.”[9]  But in 1966, with the American military machine killing more and more of the local guerrillas, it became harder for the U.S. to undo the damage.


Endnotes

[1] Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 403.

[2] New York Times, “Outcome of Battle in Doubt,” R. W. Apple Jr., January 29, 1966.

[3] New York Times, “U.S. Battles Enemy Units,” R. W. Apple Jr., January 31, 1966; Life Magazine, “On With The War and ‘Operation Masher,’ Photographed by Henri Huet, Vol. 60, No. 6, February 11, 1966, pp. 20-25, 24.

[4] New York Times, “Offensive Is Joint Action: 20,000 Troops in Vietnam Try to Trap Four Enemy Regiments,” Neil Sheehan, February 2, 1966.

[5] New York Times, “Air Mobile Sweep Shifts,” by R. W. Apple Jr., February 3, 1966.

[6] New York Times, “U.S. Troops Take Deserted Valley: Peasants Flee An Lao Area, Dienbienphu Bombed,” R. W. Apple Jr., February 8, 1966.

[7] New York Times, “ Airmobile Troops in 2nd Day of Battle on Vietnam Coast,” R. W. Apple Jr., February 19, 1966.

[8] New York Times, “Enemy Deaths in Vietnam War Put at 500% of Allies for Month,” February 10, 1966.

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

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