The Vietcong’s Fortified Countryside

During the First Indochina War, the Communist Vietminh fortified rural areas under its control.  Across Tonkin and Annam, Vietminh fortifications slowed French mechanized units and blunted the killing power of French weaponry.  Since the Vietminh’s rural fortifications proved their worth against the French, the top leaders of North Vietnam, including Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap, decided to use the same fortifications against American ground units operating in the South Vietnamese countryside.

In the 1960s, the Vietcong constructed an interconnected system of embattlements across the South Vietnamese countryside. This fortified landscape, like the one built during the First Indochina War, contributed significantly to the achievement of General Giap’s tactical and strategic objectives. Specifically, it hindered the cross-country movement of U.S. ground forces, fostered high U.S. casualty rates, protected the Vietcong’s civilian sympathizers, hid Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops from aerial and ground observation, and minimized Communist troop casualties.  Ultimately, the fortified countryside advanced Giap’s Protracted War strategy by prolonging the conflict, sapping U.S. home front support, and spurring a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

Immediately following the Communist seizure of a hamlet or village in rural South Vietnam, the Vietcong organized the inhabitants into labour gangs.  These gangs were assigned a variety of tasks, the most important being the construction of breastworks.  In the 1960s, the Rand Corporation estimated that in Vietcong areas in the delta province of An Xuyen, “All able-bodied villagers spent 10-20 days per month doing forced labour, digging trenches, mining roads, digging canals and traps, and constructing combat villages.”[1]

We do not know how much the Vietcong relied on volunteer labour or dragooned labour to build its fortifications.  However, there is little doubt that a large number of peasants freely volunteered to assist the Vietcong.  We also know that peasants would have found it very difficult to refuse the labour demands placed on them by armed Vietcong squads.  If the peasants freely volunteered their labour, their efforts on behalf of the Vietcong gave them a stake in “The Resistance,” strengthening the emotional and relational ties between the peasantry and the military arm of the Vietcong.

On the other hand, if the Vietcong coerced the peasantry into building fortifications, the breastworks themselves guaranteed that the villagers shifted their loyalties to the Vietcong. Why? Because American and South Vietnamese troops often assumed that the residents of fortified villages were either solidly Vietcong or Vietcong sympathizers and treated them accordingly. As a result, the construction of rural fortifications pushed neutral peasants into the Vietcong camp.

The first task in fortifying a village or hamlet involved digging tunnels from the village to a nearby stand of trees or to the bank of a river – anyplace that enabled Vietcong fighters to make a safe, unobserved entry to the village and an unseen, hurried withdrawal in the event of an Allied assault. A resident of rural South Vietnam in the 1960s, and later author of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, Le Ly Hayslip recalled, “The able-bodied men who were excused from duty with the guerrilla militia were organized into labor squads to dig tunnels that would allow the Viet Cong to pass into and out of the village without being seen.”[2]

The Vietcong then directed the peasants to excavate bunkers, trenches, and foxholes around the perimeter of their hamlets and villages. These defensive works usually extended along the edges of hedgerows or beneath rows of fruit trees, making them all but invisible to patrolling Allied troops. The noted war correspondent and historian S.L.A. Marshall accompanied the soldiers of the First Cavalry Division on a foot patrol in Binh Dinh Province in mid-1966.  He wrote about an encounter with a Vietcong combat village. “S. Sgt. Willie P. Haskett led his small group forward, along the left side of the village, not knowing all the while that he was moving parallel to a perfectly camouflaged, well-bunkered and manned trench, not 10 meters away, that ran the length of the settlement. He learned it when fire first came against him from out [of] the trench. The overgrowth was so thick that he still could not see the fortification.”[3]

In addition to the fortifications located along the perimeter of Vietcong villages, the Vietcong frequently requisitioned civilian huts as fighting positions.  It required very little effort to turn a hut into a bunker. Villagers merely dug a trench inside their home, carried the excavated dirt outside, piled it into mounds close to the exterior walls, and compacted it. Villagers frequently placed the dirt on the side of the hut facing the outer perimeter of the hamlet or the likely route of approach of an advancing Allied patrol. These mounds of earth not only provided the inhabitants a further measure of protection against exploding bombs and shells, they gave the guerrillas inside the hut additional cover from small arms fire.

When U.S. troops entered the fortified village of Ben Suc in January 1967, they discovered bunkers inside the thatch huts, as well as hillocks of compacted earth running the length of the exterior walls.  In 1968, in the Mekong Delta, National Geographic Magazine reporter Peter T. White saw protections in the interior of peasant huts constructed of dried mud a foot thick. When asked by White about these defenses, U.S. Army Captain Wayne Green said, “Shelters like this are a way of life here….”[4]

Beyond the village, the Vietcong reshaped the landscape to suit their economic, political, and military goals. The guerrillas made a deliberate effort to sever the geographical links between their own rural territory and that of the Government of South Vietnam [GVN]. Insurgents and their peasant supporters cut trenches across roadways, dropped trees atop footpaths, tore up sections of railroad, blocked canals with debris, and mined trails and highways. Neil Sheehan recalled a helicopter ride over the Mekong Delta in the early 1960s with U.S. advisor John Paul Vann and General Paul Harkins, the head of the U.S.’s Military Assistance Advisory Group. “As they flew across the countryside and passed over a Viet Cong-controlled area, Vann…would call Harkin’s attention to the marks of recognition – the ditched roads, the dirt barriers blocking the canals, the ruins of an outpost.”[5]

The Vietcong’s territorial decoupling from the GVN’s geographical system not only made it more difficult for Allied units to enter Vietcong territory, it also shrank the GVN’s market access, causing a reduction in government supervised trade and the taxes derived from that trade. As the GVN’s market area shrank, the GVN treasury acquired fewer piasters to fund its civilian bureaucracy and military, thus weakening the South Vietnamese body politic.

Across rural South Vietnam, the guerrillas built defensive works in concentric rings, forming a defense in-depth that slowed approaching Allied forces and gave the personnel at Vietcong logistics depots, hospitals, and base camps time to either safely retreat or to prepare for the defence of the area. Guerrilla Tran Thi Gung said the Vietcong called the battlements encircling villages and base camps “Anti-American belts.”[6]

In the Mekong Delta, the high-water table forced the Vietcong to rely exclusively on the land’s surface features for cover and concealment. Unfortunately for the Americans and ARVN, there existed no shortage of potential fortification sites in the delta. For example, when the French built roads into the delta in the late 19th- and early 20th-century, they raised the roadbeds above the surrounding marshlands to facilitate the drainage of the road surface and to prevent the road’s inundation during the Mekong River’s periodic floods. The elevated roadways presented the Vietcong with ready-made embankments for ambushing Allied convoys and foot patrols.

Before the Mekong Delta could be settled in the 19th century, French engineers drained the delta’s swamplands by digging thousands of miles of canals and small drainage ditches. The French laid down the excavated mud in elongated piles on either side of the canals and ditches. Over time, trees and thick undergrowth took hold atop the mounds of dredged earth. In the 1960s, the Vietcong constructed parapets atop these slurry piles.  Hidden by trees and brush, American troops had a hard time seeing the Vietcong dug into these positions.

Atop the old mounds of dredged delta silt, or along their edges, the guerrillas possessed excellent fields of fire over the paddies to their front. General Bruce Palmer wrote of these man-made terrain features. “Those canals, with their steep banks and heavy fringe of vegetation, are normally the only significant terrain features in an otherwise open and monotonously flat countryside. The canal lines formed natural defensive positions, affording protection and concealment to the defender while permitting perfect observation and murderous fields of fire out over the shimmering rice paddies.”[7]

Paddy dikes served the Vietcong too. Along the coastal plain, paddy dikes dated back centuries, to the period of initial Vietnamese settlement. Since farmers walked back and forth atop the dikes to get to their fields, decades of incessant foot traffic compacted the clay and soil used in their construction, making them impervious. During the dry season, when farmers drained the paddies and harvested the rice, the paddy dikes dried out under the hot sun, becoming as hard as concrete. For the Vietcong, paddy dikes acted as readymade breastworks. The Vietcong lay behind the dikes to gain protection from American or ARVN small arms fire.  David Hackworth, who fought in the delta in the late 1960s, remembered, “…rice paddies themselves offered little concealment. But the paddy walls provided the VC good cover from direct fire weapons.”[8]

Hedgerows, like paddy dikes, divided and subdivided the landscape. Vietnamese farmers grew hedgerows to keep stock animals away from their crops. Frederick Downs described the hedgerows of Quang Ngai Province. “Those damn bushes grew everywhere and anywhere. The dinks used them as fences. They were thick and bushy with a little red flower growing from every major leaf, it seemed like. The only way through one of these bushes was where the farmers had made a path over many years.”[9]

But the hedgerows became more than a mere nuisance, they offered the Vietcong yet one more place to hide or spring an ambush on Allied troops.[10] Downs recounted a nerve-wracking experience while on patrol in Quang Ngai. His unit had been ordered to protect two armoured personnel carriers ensnared in the mud of a rice paddy. He wrote, “Being stuck out in the middle of that rice paddy with the hedgerows all around us would be a sure ticket to a killing. The dinks could slip up to within thirty or forty meters to fire an RPG right into one or both of the tracks.”[11]

The Vietnamese jungle aided the Vietcong too.  Insurgents climbed jungle trees, tied themselves with a piece of rope to a large branch, and waited for the arrival of Allied troops. High up in the branches, the Vietcong possessed excellent fields of fire, while the tree’s leaves concealed their locations. In November 1965, at LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley, American troops expressed surprise when they learned that the Vietcong were shooting down on them from the trees.  Infantryman Dennis Deal recalled, “I saw Platoon Sergeant [Leroy] Williams shoot into a tree: a weapon fell but the body didn’t. It was roped into the treetop.”[12] Two years later, Vietcong sharpshooters utilized trees to deadly effect against the soldiers of Lt. Col. Terry Allen’s battalion at the Battle of Ong Thanh.

Vietcong fighters even hid under haystacks, waiting there until the Americans came into rifle range. S.L.A. Marshall wrote of an incident in Binh Dinh Province, “The killing fire that downed Second Platoon had come from under the haystacks. They were mere camouflage, topping off three concrete bunkers, fixed with fire slots…Not one thing in the field had indicated the existence of a military position anywhere nearby…The appearance of innocence had deceived the platoon completely.”[13] Occasionally, haystacks covered the entrances to tunnel complexes.[14]

What is apparent from the accounts of Downs, Hackworth, Marshall, and others is that in Vietcong territory nearly every feature of the South Vietnamese landscape had a potential military purpose. David Halberstam, although writing of the Mekong Delta, could have been discussing all of South Vietnam when he penned, “The whole countryside is a natural hiding place….”[15]

Besides offering the guerrillas a natural hiding place, weapons and ammunition could be hidden almost anywhere in the South Vietnamese countryside – as long as the materials had been sealed in waterproof containers.  The Vietcong hid rifles and pistols under the thatch of roofs, buried hand grenades in bins of rice, and placed belts of machine-gun ammunition in the walls of huts.  Insurgents packed ammunition in water-tight containers and then lowered the ammo to the bottom of a village well. Beneath several feet of water, the ammunition remained out of sight until the time came to retrieve it.

Guerrillas buried war materials in rice paddies, under the mud and grime of pigpens, at the bottom of irrigation ditches, and beneath the sand and gravel of streambeds. More often than not, the Vietcong simply stashed their ammo or AK-47 rifles in one of the many tunnels burrowed under their villages. In the early stages of the war, it was rare for the ARVN and Americans to find Vietcong arms caches. The environment presented too many hiding places. When they did uncover a cache, Allied forces discovered to their chagrin that the cache contained just a few items.  The Americans learned from Vietcong POWs that, “Logistics facilities are numerous and well-dispersed.”[16] Had the guerrillas been less popular among rural residents and had their insurgency not been a People’s War, they would not have been able to establish such a dispersed cache system.

For the Americans and South Vietnamese, attacking a Vietcong village across the fortified countryside was the tactical equivalent of storming a Japanese-held island in the Pacific during World War II. Granted, the Vietcong lacked the firepower of the Japanese Imperial Army, but in both cases, the enemy had clear warning of an impending attack and had constructed a defence in-depth to slow down, and kill, the invading forces.

On islands of the Pacific, Japanese defenders merely had to look out across open expanses of beach and water to observe the American Marines preparing for an amphibious assault. In South Vietnam’s paddy country, the Vietcong simply gazed across rice fields to see approaching Allied foot patrols. In each case, the attacking force had to cross exposed terrain to close with and destroy the enemy. And the Vietcong, like the Japanese, were well dug-in and concealed by camouflage. The difficulty in clearing fortified Vietcong villages, and the high likelihood of suffering casualties in the effort, goes far in explaining why the Americans and their South Vietnamese counterparts came to rely on airpower and artillery to do the job for them.

Endnotes

[1] L.P. Holliday and R.M. Gurfield, “Viet Cong Logistics,” (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, June 1968), 56.

[2] Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace, 1990, Reprint, (New York: Plume, 2003), 39.

[3] S.L.A. Marshall, Bird: A Christmastide Battle, 1968, Reprint, (Nashville, Tennessee: The Battery Press, 1983), 139.

[4] Peter T. White, “The Mekong: River of Terror and Hope,” National Geographic Magazine, December 1968, 134, No. 6, 737-787, 784.

[5] Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, (New York: Random House, 1988), 110.

[6] Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, (New York: Viking, 2003), 16; David W.P. Elliot and W.A. Stewart, “Pacification and the Viet Cong System in Dinh Tuong: 1966-1967,” (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, January 1969), xi.

[7] Dave R. Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective, (Novato, California: Presidio Press, Inc., 1978), 33-34.

[8] David H. Hackworth and Eilhys England, Steel My Soldiers Hearts: The Hopeless to Hardcore Transformation of U.S. Army, 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, Vietnam, (New York: Rugged Land, LLC, 2002), 16.

[9] Frederick Downs, The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 93.

[10] Ibid., 57.

[11] Ibid., 62.

[12] 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), 85.

[13] S.L.A. Marshall, The Fields of Bamboo: Dong Tre, Trung Luong and Hoa Hoi, Three Battles Just Beyond the South China Sea, (New York: The Dial Press, 1971), 80.

[14] Peter T. White, National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 131, No.2, February, 1967, “Behind the Headlines in Viet Nam,” pp. 149-189, 176.

[15] David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era, Revised Edition, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008), 57-59.

[16] Holliday and Gurfield, “Viet Cong Logistics,” x.

 

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