To Thwart the Enemy’s Designs: An Khe and the 1st Cavalry Division

1stCavInTransitToSVNIn May 1965, the Vietcong began their much anticipated Monsoon Offensive against South Vietnam.  In ordering the offensive, Ho Chi Minh and his comrades on the Politburo in Hanoi hoped the southern guerrillas would destroy the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and overthrow the Saigon regime before the large-scale introduction of U.S. troops into the South.  In the first month of the operation, it looked to observers on the ground in South Vietnam that the Communists might well achieve their objectives.  In a series of battles in late May and early June, the Vietcong defeated sizable ARVN units in the provinces of Phuoc Long, Quang Ngai, and Phuoc Vinh.  The loss of so much South Vietnamese combat power in such a short period of time convinced MACV Commander General William C. Westmoreland that only the intervention of American combat troops directly into the conflict would save South Vietnam from total collapse.

Recognizing that the South teetered on the edge of defeat, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave Westmoreland in late June authority to send American troops into combat against the Vietcong.  A month later, Johnson approved the deployment of 175,000 ground troops to South Vietnam.  Within days of Johnson’s July 28th decision to escalate the U.S. role in the ground war, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara ordered the 1st Cavalry Division (Air Mobile) to South Vietnam.  At the time, the 1st Cav, known throughout the U.S. Army as “The First Team,” was considered the most technologically-sophisticated ground combat unit in the world.

General William C. Westmoreland originally wanted to establish a base for the 1st Air Cavalry Division in the plateau country near Pleiku in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Westmoreland believed the 1st Cav’s presence at Pleiku would keep the highlands from falling to the Communists.  The general felt that the loss of the highlands would compromise the defense of the heavily populated coastal plain and hasten the defeat of the South. 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.” [Westmoreland, Soldier Reports, 128]

However, Westmoreland’s superior in Honolulu ruled against the immediate deployment of the 1st Cavalry Division to the highlands. CINCPAC Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp feared that the division would get cut-off from ground resupply from the coast. Route 19 from the port of Qui Nhon to Pleiku was susceptible to Viet Cong ambush, especially within the tight passes at An Khe and Mang Yang. If the Vietcong succeeded in shutting down Route 19, the Air Cavalry Division would be entirely dependent on air resupply and Sharp did not believe the division could be maintained in the highlands for a long period through aerial resupply alone. The division went through between 600 and 800 tons of supplies and ammunition per day. The number of cargo craft needed to meet those daily tonnage requirements would seriously impinge on the in-country airlift capability of the Air Force. [Pentagon Papers, Vol. III, 413] Sharp thought Westmoreland wanted to go too far into the interior too soon; so the CINCPAC head urged Westmoreland to base the 1st Cav closer to Qui Nhon. In the vicinity of Qui Nhon, the division would be near its supply base, it would be easier for it to secure its road link to the all important port facilities at Qui Nhon, and reinforcements from the sea could quickly reach the division if the Communists attempted to pull-off another Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam’s hinterlands.

Westmoreland and Sharp eventually reached a compromise on where to put the 1st Cavalry Division. 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. [Palmer, Summons Trumpet, 93] Westmoreland explained another reason for choosing An Khe. He stated, “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.” [Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, 608]

Like Phu Bai, Danang, and Chu Lai, the base at An Khe sat squarely in the middle of Viet Cong territory. The base, later named Camp Radcliff, was in southern Binh Dinh Province, not far from Route 19. When the 1st Cavalry Division’s advance party arrived at the base site in August 1965, the Communists controlled almost all of Binh Dinh Province. And to make that point clear to the Americans, Viet Cong snipers took pot shots at the GI’s laying out the base. A 1st Cavalry officer assigned to An Khe in 1965 told helicopter pilot Robert Mason, “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.” [Mason, Chickenhawk, 64]  Westmoreland envisioned An Khe as an “oil spot,” meaning the U.S. troops there would gradually extend Allied control from the base’s perimeter to all of Binh Dinh Province.

Besides acting as an “oil spot,” the An Khe site served other purposes. For instance, before the deployment of major U.S. units to South Vietnam, the Communists had cut the country in two. Viet Cong guerrillas controlled the rural regions in central South Vietnam from the Cambodian border west of Pleiku to the South China Sea in Binh Dinh and Phu Yen provinces. By mid-1965, most of Binh Dinh had fallen to the Communists except Qui Nhon and a smattering of coastal villages. In Phu Yen Province, only Tuy Hoa remained in government hands. Westmoreland wrote on June 13, 1965. “The VC control Phu Yen Province except for Tuy Hoa itself….” [Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, 607] The DoD’s John McNaughton admitted that the Communists had bifurcated South Vietnam, severing the northern provinces from Saigon. He stated in March 1965, “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….” [Pentagon Papers, Vol. III, 695] Westmoreland ordered the 1st Cavalry Division to An Khe, not to prevent the halving of South Vietnam, but to keep the bifurcation from becoming permanent.

An added advantage of the An Khe site was that it did not require the South Vietnamese to forfeit valuable agricultural land for its construction; nor did the placement of the base necessitate the removal of a large population. As a matter of fact, the Montagnards occupied the nearby village of An Khe. They were not only considered more loyal to the Americans than the average South Vietnamese, but also less likely to oppose the presence of the base. Another consideration that surely crossed Westmoreland’s mind was that the Montagnards had almost no political influence in Saigon, so even if they did oppose the base, their opposition would not reverberate in the capital city. Thus, An Khe would not disrupt rural life in the area; it would not antagonize the peasantry; and most importantly it would allow the Americans to get on with their highly mechanized, big unit war.  In the end, the deployment of the 1st Cav Division to An Khe, in conjunction with U.S. troop deployments elsewhere, saved South Vietnam in 1965.

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