Vietnam 1965: Westmoreland’s Geography of War

Modern wars and military bases are synonymous.  Bases hold the equipment, weapons, ammunition, aircraft, communications technology, vehicles, fuel, food, and clothing necessary to wage highly-mobile, technologically-sophisticated warfare.  They are also the places where troops are housed, as well as organized, armed, and equipped for combat.  And when battles erupt, soldiers sally forth from their bases to confront the enemy.  Then, if all goes well, they return to the safety of their bases to rest and refit.  Military bases are geographical weapons of war – as important to combat as fighter bombers, helicopters, and armored personnel carriers.

In the spring of 1965, General William C. Westmoreland recognized that he had to have a series of big bases along the South Vietnamese coast in order to fight a ground war in South Vietnam.

Westmoreland saw the U.S. troop build-up in South Vietnam progressing in phases. In Phase I, U.S. forces would secure several coastal positions. During Phase II, the Americans would slowly work out from their coastal bases, extending U.S. and South Vietnamese territorial control, while simultaneously enhancing the security of the enclaves. In Phase III, U.S. forces, relying upon a secure logistical system on the coast, would establish large bases in the interior of the country. Phase IV would involve U.S. units moving out from their interior bases to engage in search and destroy operations in South Vietnam’s westernmost hinterland.

Westmoreland considered the phased establishment of bases as a guarantee against a second Dien Bien Phu.[1]  Unlike the French, the Americans would not have any isolated, vulnerable bases in the wilds of Indochina. All U.S. interior bases would have access to the men and supplies at a nearby coastal position, ensuring against a repeat of the 1954 French disaster. The American basing system across South Vietnam would be mutually-supporting, meaning the personnel on each base would be able to call upon the personnel at another base in case of a large-scale Communist assault.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the French built Indochina’s geographical system on an east-west axis. The French designed their port and road system to carry Indochina’s raw materials from the interior regions of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam to the Vietnamese coast or to the major river ports at Can Tho, My Tho, Saigon, and Hanoi. Saigon became the market center for the Mekong Delta, while Hanoi served that role for the Red River Delta. Colonial Route 4 (known as the Rice Road) joined Saigon to the Mekong Delta and Ca Mau Peninsula; Colonial Route (RC) 1 linked Cochinchina with Annam and Tonkin; RC 14 tied Saigon to the Central Highlands towns of Ban Me Thuot, Pleiku, and Kontum; RC 19 connected the port of Qui Nhon to Pleiku; and RC 9 coupled Laos to the harbor at Tourane (Danang).

By the spring of 1965, the Vietcong interdicted every major highway in South Vietnam. In March alone, the Vietcong carried out forty-two acts of sabotage against the country’s highways. Vietcong roadblocks, booby traps, mines, and trench works further impeded overland traffic. By April, there existed no thru rail service between Van Gia (near Nha Trang) and Danang. From Danang to Hue, rail service occurred infrequently. The guerrillas succeeded in cutting off the coastal enclaves of Nha Trang, Qui Nhon, Tam Ky, and Quang Ngai from their rural markets. Sea and air resupply sustained the pro-GVN residents in those isolated communities.[2]

Westmoreland decided that the U.S., if it was going to successfully wage a major ground war, should establish a new geographical system in South Vietnam, one designed and built for war. Westmoreland’s geography of war would be constructed atop France’s old system; with its eastern anchor the huge coastal bases stretching from the DMZ south to the edge of the Mekong Delta. The bases would include port facilities, ammunition dumps, warehouses, POL storage sites, barracks complexes, and airfields. The airfields would be capable of handling U.S. cargo planes, including the Air Force’s C-123 Provider and C-130 Hercules.  Once disembarked along the coast, U.S. troops and supplies would be funneled through the coastal enclaves into the interior to confront the Vietcong and North Vietnamese.

Westmoreland considered airfields crucial to the success of his emerging strategy.  Airfields across the interior of South Vietnam would place U.S. troops in the very midst of Vietcong territory. Plus, airfields would preclude the necessity of U.S. troops using South Vietnam’s vulnerable roadways.

Westmoreland also visualized U.S. coastal bases providing the American expeditionary force with the ability to open a series of fronts against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese across the length and breadth of South Vietnam.  According to Westmoreland, a multi-front war, fought simultaneously over large swaths of territory, would keep continuous military pressure on Communist forces, denying them sanctuary and the ability to rest and refit.  Such a war would also increase the chances of finding, fixing, and ultimately destroying enemy units.

In order to determine where to establish his big coastal bases, Westmoreland directed U.S. military engineers to study South Vietnam’s coastline, its existing port facilities, and its road network. Since Danang and Phu Bai had already been designated as coastal bases, U.S. engineers focused their attention on the coastline south of Danang. They examined sites at Chu Lai, Quang Ngai City, Qui Nhon, Nha Trang, Cam Ranh Bay, and Vung Tau. The surveyors, in consultation with Westmoreland’s headquarters in Saigon, quickly ruled out Quang Ngai City. The shallow, silty coastal waters east of the city would not float deep-draft oceanic shipping. And marshy lowlands, along with the high water table, would hamper the construction of an airstrip, storage depots, warehouses, and ammunition dumps. In addition, a sizable number of peasants would have to be moved away from the base site to ensure the security of U.S. personnel stationed there. Any mass relocation risked further alienating the peasantry of Quang Ngai Province, long known for maintaining strong sympathies for the Vietcong.

In lieu of Quang Ngai, Military Assistance Command – Vietnam (MACV) chose a completely different base site twenty miles up the coast. Chu Lai possessed the physical attributes absent at Quang Ngai; it sat in the midst of coastal sand dunes with good drainage; a mere smattering of farmers and fisherman required relocation; and a deep ocean channel skirted the eastern edge of the site. The base could also be effectively defended. An attacking Communist unit would have to cross an open stretch of sand to reach the airstrip, subjecting itself to deadly American fire. Westmoreland particularly liked Chu Lai because it, and the troops destined to be stationed there, would challenge the Vietcong hold on Quang Ngai Province. Quang Ngai had been a Communist stronghold since the August Revolution of 1945. By early 1965, the Vietcong so thoroughly dominated the province that GVN officials refused to travel outside the provincial capital during the day. Nighttime travel into rural areas was simply out of the question. Any GVN or U.S. personnel who went beyond the city limits after dark was certain to be killed or captured. Quang Ngai Province was the heartland of Vietcong resistance along the coastal plain. Westmoreland understood that if the Americans could break the Vietcong’s grip there, they would be in a position to rollback the Communists to the north and south.[3]  Put simply, and brutally, Chu Lai would be the military instrument by which the U.S. subjugated the recalcitrant citizens of Quang Ngai.

On May 7, 1965, 6,000 Marines and 3,000 Navy Seabees landed at Chu Lai. The Marines moved quickly to establish a defensive perimeter at the site. Only days after the initial landing, Marine patrols marched into the hilly country west of the base in an attempt to push the Vietcong far enough away from Chu Lai to ensure the safety of the construction crews laboring on the base’s new airstrip. While the Marines trudged through the pine-barrens outside Chu Lai, the Seabees went to work on the runway. In less than a month, an operational airstrip began sending Marine fighter-bombers aloft against Vietcong targets in the surrounding countryside.

Further south, members of the 173d Airborne Brigade settled into positions at Bien Hoa and Vung Tau. Although Bien Hoa was not a coastal position, the U.S. deemed it vitally important to the prosecution of the ground war.  On April 20, McNamara explained to President Johnson that the U.S. should deploy U.S. combat troops to Bien Hoa because of the large amount of equipment, and high number of non-combat personnel, located there.[4] Worried that a disaster would befall the airmen stationed at Bien Hoa unless he agreed to the request, the president immediately authorized the movement of the 173rd Airborne Brigade to Bien Hoa. McNamara had another important reason for sending the paratroopers to Bien Hoa. The base was only one of three jet airfields in South Vietnam at the time, the other two being Danang and Tan Son Nhut. Securing Bien Hoa ensured the continued high-tempo prosecution of the air war in the South – an air war that would help keep the Vietcong away from the U.S. ground troops then streaming into South Vietnam.[5]  As for Vung Tau, MACV wanted it as a port and army base in an area teeming with guerrillas – especially rural Phuoc Tuy Province.

By mid-May 1965, the U.S. had taken hold of coastal enclaves and major bases at Phu Bai, Danang, Chu Lai, Vung Tau, and Bien Hoa. In subsequent weeks, additional U.S. combat troops occupied base sites at Qui Nhon and Cam Ranh Bay.  The half-dozen American beachheads along the South Vietnamese coast meant that Westmoreland was ready to begin Phase II of his campaign plan – the extension of Allied territorial control into the interior of South Vietnam.


Endnotes

[1] Michael Beschloss, Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965, (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 349.

[2] New York Times, “U.S. Is Improving Ports in Vietnam,” Emerson Chapin, April 25, 1965; New York Times, “Reds Cut Vital Railway,” May 25, 1965.

[3] Mark Atwood Lawrence and Fredrik Logevall, eds., The First Vietnam War: Colonial Conflict and Cold War Crisis, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007), 94.

[4] Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 283.

[5][New York Times, “1,200 G.I.’s Flown to South Vietnam,” Jack Langguth, May 5,1965.

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