Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part I: Cedar Falls

On January 8, 1967, Allied military forces began one of the largest search and destroy operations of the Vietnam War. Operation Cedar Falls involved a sweep by American and South Vietnamese troops through the sixty square miles of trees, thick undergrowth, and abandoned rubber plantations in the Iron Triangle and Thanh Dien Forest.

General William C. Westmoreland wanted U.S. troops to achieve a number of objectives during Cedar Falls, including the destruction of the headquarters for the Vietcong’s Military Region 4, which oversaw Communist military activities in and around Saigon. Westmoreland also hoped Cedar Falls would deny the Vietcong the use of the Iron Triangle as a base camp and staging area for attacks throughout III Corps. To accomplish that end, Westmoreland ordered his troops to destroy the Vietcong tunnel complex known to exist beneath the Iron Triangle.

Additionally, Westmoreland directed his subordinate commanders to relocate all the peasants living in the Iron Triangle to resettlement camps. MACV intelligence had determined the residents of the Iron Triangle to be solidly Vietcong and thus irredeemable. Their removal would eliminate a source of Vietcong recruits, porters, and supplies.[1]

The offensive against the Iron Triangle began with a heli-borne assault on the fortified Vietcong village of Ben Suc. At the moment U.S. troops landed outside the village, loudspeakers mounted on helicopters announced in Vietnamese, “Attention people of Ben Suc! You are surrounded by Republic of Vietnam and Allied Forces. Do not run away or you will be shot as VC.”[2] Dozens of men disobeyed the order, darting off into the underbrush adjacent to the Saigon River or into the thickets and jungle further inland. Over the course of the day, U.S. and South Vietnamese units methodically tracked them down and killed them. At the conclusion of the first day of the operation, American officials claimed forty-one Vietcong dead. Some of the dead were likely young males who fled into the surrounding countryside because they feared being drafted into the South Vietnamese Army or tortured by the South Vietnamese police during interrogation.

Soon after the dramatic air assault on Ben Suc, Operation Cedar Falls lost steam. Like so many search and destroy operations since mid-1965, the Allies failed to find the Vietcong. At the end of the fourth day, the massive Allied force, which had grown to twenty-six maneuver battalions, had chalked up only fifty confirmed enemy dead. Forty-one of those dead had been tallied on the first day of the operation. The three subsequent days of the operation produced nine enemy deaths, or three per day. On day five, the 20,000 Allied troops involved in the operation did not find or kill a single Vietcong. A reporter on the scene wrote, “…the largest allied offensive of the war, took on today the plodding, unspectacular characteristics that some American military officers predicted for it from the outset.”[3]

The U.S. did accomplish one thing during Cedar Falls; it blew the countryside to smithereens. A week into the operation, MACV reported that thirty U.S. artillery batteries, with six howitzers each, had been shelling the Iron Triangle and Thanh Dien Forest non-stop for the past seven days. While the artillery batteries blasted away, U.S. aircraft flew 478 fighter-bomber sorties and twelve B-52 arc light raids.

The 1st Infantry Division and its hard-driving commander, William E. DePuy, requested and received the majority of the airstrikes and artillery support. In one seven-day period, aircrews conducted 660 tactical air strikes in support of Depuy’s 1st Infantry Division soldiers.[4] DePuy had no qualms about unleashing so much destruction, believing it was justified because it saved U.S. lives. A fellow officer said of the division commander, “General DePuy likes to use a lot of airpower.”[5] All told, the Air Force conducted 1,113 tactical strike sorties and 102 B-52 sorties during Cedar Falls.[6] Yet, for all the expended munitions, the enemy body count remained low. A high percentage of the bombs, artillery shells, and napalm directed at suspected Vietcong positions fell on uninhabited jungle, empty rice paddies, and South Vietnamese civilian structures.

In the final days of the operation, the body count nudged upward. When Cedar Falls ended at midnight on January 27-28, MACV announced that Allied forces had killed 720 enemy soldiers – or an average of thirty-seven enemy KIA per day for each day of the operation – while losing only 72 American KIA’s.  The accuracy of the figure on enemy dead was suspect because it corresponded exactly to the 10 to 1 kill ratio long trumpeted by Westmoreland as the metric of operational success.  But even with the apparent favorable kill ratio, the low number of enemy dead hardly justified the tremendous amount of ammunition, man-hours, fuel, and equipment devoted to the operation.[7]

An unknown number of civilians died during Cedar Falls. How many will never be known. U.S. airstrikes and artillery barrages certainly killed some civilians. Others died when U.S. and ARVN soldiers burned down their huts. Allied troops set fire to the homes of peasants to force them out into the open so they could be rounded up and sent to GVN refugee camps. However, an indeterminate number of peasants became trapped inside their underground bomb shelters, where they had initially gone to seek safety from airstrikes and artillery shells. Unable to escape through the flames and smoke enveloping them, peasants died from burns or smoke inhalation. American advisor John Paul Vann observed that, “…even two days before the end of the operation people were still coming out of caves who must have been there throughout the operation.”[8] American and South Vietnamese soldiers removed 5,967 peasants from the Iron Triangle, almost all of them old men, women, and small children.  Men of military age had apparently run off with the Vietcong.

The aging and greasy-haired General Jonathan O. Seaman, the overall commander of the operation, declared at its conclusion that Allied units succeeded in depriving the Vietcong of “…a vast logistic complex and base area…We believe that it will take the heat off the immediate area and the capital….”[9] Yet, just a few days later inside the Iron Triangle, the Vietcong sprung an ambush on a platoon of the 1st Infantry Division. Believing the triangle had been cleared of guerrillas, the 1st Division troops had been taken completely by surprise. MACV later reported that the platoon had suffered “heavy” casualties – military speak for having been almost wiped out.  The ambush indicated that the Vietcong had already returned to the Iron Triangle; or more likely, they had never left.[10]

Operation Cedar Falls did result in the removal of the civilian population from the Iron Triangle; but the U.S. did not attain any of Westmoreland’s other goals. The region remained a Communist base area and jumping-off point, the Vietcong’s headquarters for Military Region 4 functioned as before, and the area’s vast tunnel network continued to do what it had always done – it hid the Vietcong from American spotter planes and foot patrols.

[1] New York Times, “Vietcong Village to be Bulldozed: 3,800 People in Hostile Town to be Resettled,” January 11, 1967; New York Times, “More troops Join Allied Offensive,” January 12, 1967; New York Times, “Allies Press Attack, A Tough, Plodding Operation,” January 13, 1967.

[2] New York Times, “Vietcong Village to be Bulldozed: 3,800 people in Hostile Town to be Resettled,” January 11, 1967.

[3] New York Times, “Allies Press Attack, A Tough Plodding Operation,” January 13, 1967.

[4] New York Times, “Airstrike Mark is Set in Vietnam,” January 15, 1967; New York Times, “U.S. Builds Up Force in Delta for Drive in Foe’s Stronghold,” January 14, 1967

[5] New York Times, “Airstrike Mark,” January 15, 1967.

[6] John Schlight, The War in South Vietnam, The Years of Offensive, 1965-1968: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, (?: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1999), Appendix 6.

[7] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, IV.C.6 (b), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume II, (Nimble Books, LLC, 2011) 23.

[8] New York Times, “Some May Have Died in Razed Villages,” January 28, 1967.

[9] New York Times, “U.S. Reports Foe’s Casualties at 1,219 in Sweep,” Tom Buckley, January 24, 1967.

[10] New York Times, “GIs Battered in ‘Iron Triangle’,” February 2, 1967.

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