To Thwart the Enemy’s Designs: The 1st Cav Division and the Base at An Khe

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In May 1965, the Vietcong began their much-anticipated Monsoon Offensive across South Vietnam.  In launching the offensive, North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, Le Duan, and Vo Nguyen Giap hoped the southern guerrillas, and the North Vietnamese regulars imbedded with the Vietcong, would destroy the South Vietnamese Army and overthrow the Saigon regime before the arrival of a large number of U.S. combat troops in South Vietnam.

In the first month of the offensive, Western military analysts wondered whether the Communists might actually achieve their objectives.  In a series of battles in late May and early June, the Vietcong defeated sizeable South Vietnamese 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 General William C. Westmoreland, the head of Military Assistance Command – Vietnam, that only the intervention of American combat troops would save South Vietnam from total collapse.

Recognizing that South Vietnam was close to defeat, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave Westmoreland in late June authority to send American troops into combat against the Vietcong.  A month later, the president 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.  The 1st Cav’s mission, like that of the other divisions sent to South Vietnam in 1965 was simple – turn back the Monsoon Offensive and save the country.

Westmoreland originally wanted to establish a base for the 1st Cav in the Central Highlands near Pleiku.  He deemed the highlands essential to the defense of the coastal plain and the lowlands around Saigon.  In Communist hands, the highlands could serve as a springboard for rapid strikes against the capital city and the Allied enclaves situated along the central coast.  In his autobiographical account of the war, A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland explained why he favoured the Pleiku site, “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.”[1]

But Westmoreland’s superior in Honolulu ruled against the immediate deployment of the 1st Cav to the highlands.  Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp feared that if the division went to Pleiku, it would get cut-off from ground resupply from the coast. Route 19 was the only road linking Pleiku to the port of Qui Nhon, and it was vulnerable to Viet Cong ambush, especially within the tight passes at An Khe and Mang Yang.

Sharp understood that if the Vietcong succeeded in shutting down Route 19, the 1st Cav would be entirely dependent on air resupply.  And the Admiral didn’t believe the division could be maintained in the highlands for very long if it had to be resupplied solely by air. The reason he came to this conclusion had to do with the division’s voracious appetite for gasoline, ammunition, and food.  The soldiers of the 1st Cav went through between 600 and 800 tons of supplies a day.  The number of cargo planes needed to meet those daily tonnage requirements would eat up almost all of the Air Force’s air lift capacity then in South Vietnam.  There would be few, if any, cargo aircraft left for other operations or for a military emergency.

Sharp thought Westmoreland wanted to go too far into the interior too soon.  So, rather than agree to the Pleiku site, the admiral urged Westmoreland to base the 1st Cav closer to Qui Nhon.  On the outskirts of that seaside town, the division would be close to its supply base; and the 1st Cav’s Skytroopers would be in a better position to secure the short road connection to the port.  In addition, reinforcements could quickly reach the division from the sea if the Communists attempted a Dien Bien Phu-style siege against the 1st Cav’s base camp.[2]

After a series of discussions, Westmoreland and Sharp reached a compromise on where to put the division. They decided to base it at the former French outpost at An Khe.  Author Dave R. Palmer summarized some of the reasons 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.[3]

Westmoreland offered another explanation for the choice of An Khe.  “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.”[4] In other words, Westmoreland intended on using An Khe as a jumping-off point for future operations in the Central Highlands.

Like the American bases at 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.  In September 1965, the Communists controlled almost all of Binh Dinh Province. 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.  A 1st Cav officer summed up the role of the base, and the troops stationed there, in the American counterinsurgency effort.  “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.”[5]

In addition to its role as an “oil spot,” the An Khe site served other purposes. For example, before the deployment of major U.S. ground units to South Vietnam, the Communists had cut the country in two. Vietcong guerrillas dominated 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, all 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.[6] Deputy Secretary of Defense John McNaughton admitted that the Communists had bifurcated South Vietnam, severing the northern provinces from Saigon.[7] Thus, Westmoreland ordered the 1st Cav to An Khe not to prevent the halving of South Vietnam but to keep the bifurcation of the country 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, Montagnards occupied the nearby village of An Khe. These mountain tribesmen and women were not only considered more loyal to the Americans than the average South Vietnamese, they were also less likely to oppose the presence of the base. Another consideration that probably 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 influence the South Vietnamese political leadership.

Finally, Westmoreland believed that the base at An Khe would not seriously disrupt rural life in strategically-important Binh Dinh Province, nor would it antagonize the South Vietnamese peasantry living there – a group the Americans sorely wanted on their side in the struggle.  But most importantly, the general saw the completed base at An Khe, and its huge parking lot for the 1st Cav’s 400-plus helicopters, as vital to his planned strategy, with its emphasis on mobility, machines, and lots of firepower.

Endnotes

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

[2] The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume III, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 413.

[3] Dave R. Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective, (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1978), 93.

[4] The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume IV, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 608.

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

[6] The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume IV, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 607.

[7] The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume III, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 695.

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