Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part II: Junction City

The second major U.S. search and destroy operation of 1967 took place in War Zone C, a 144-square-mile patch of jungle and swamp in Tay Ninh Province. On maps, War Zone C resembled an upturned pyramid, with its tip pointed directly at Saigon and its wide base flush up against the border between South Vietnam and Cambodia. Route 22 traced the war zone’s western border and Route 4 skirted its eastern edge. The town of Katum sat along Route 4 in War Zone C’s northeast corner. To the west, Tay Ninh City straddled Route 22.

General Westmoreland’s goals for Operation Junction City were similar to those for Cedar Falls. He wanted U.S. and South Vietnamese troops to find and destroy enemy main forces (including the 10,000-man strong Vietcong 9th Division); obliterate Communist base camps and supply depots; destroy the Vietcong’s Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN), which directed all Communist military activity south of the DMZ; and prevent the use of War Zone C as a transhipment site for men and foodstuffs moving from the Mekong Delta to the Central Highlands.[1]

In the first phase of the operation, U.S. troops planned on sealing the Cambodian border to prevent the Vietcong and North Vietnamese believed to be in War Zone C from escaping unscathed to their Cambodian sanctuaries. During the campaign’s second phase, U.S. forces would drive from the south-eastern corner of the war zone toward the border and the U.S. troops waiting there. Caught between the hammer (the troops pushing up from the southeast) and the anvil (the troops on the border), the Vietcong 9th Division would be smashed to pieces.

On the morning of February 22, 1967, Junction City commenced with a massive artillery barrage directed against likely Communist positions.  Much of the artillery fell along the edges of the helicopter landing zones previously earmarked for the operation, where it was believed the Vietcong might be waiting in ambush.  The artillery was quickly followed by airstrikes from American fighter-bombers.  Before the smoke and dust from the aerial bombardment had settled to the ground, two hundred and fifty helicopters swooped into a string of landing zones immediately south of the Cambodian border.  Within hours after that first, awe-inspiring helicopter assault, the Americans had their blocking force in position.

While American helicopters ferried troops and supplies into the newly-established border posts, U.S. Air Force cargo planes dropped 700 paratroopers over Katum. The sight of hundreds of paratroopers descending from the skies under billowing parachutes likely impressed the guerrillas hiding under the trees; but the drop was completely unnecessary.  It was a publicity stunt. The Army could have inserted the paratroopers by helicopter or driven them by truck to Katum. However, the media-savvy Westmoreland wanted the drop to enhance the Army’s waning public image, hoping it would rekindle the American people’s collective memory of the Army’s glory days in World War II.[2]

Despite its theatrical beginnings, Junction City got off to a slow start. In its first two days, U.S. and South Vietnamese units (which eventually numbered 30,000 men) encountered only occasional sniper fire. The Vietcong main forces supposedly operating in War Zone C remained out of sight. Military analysts believed the original preparatory fires alerted the Vietcong to the impending troop landings, giving them plenty of time to evacuate the area before the arrival of Allied infantry.

Almost a week passed before U.S. troops found a sizeable Vietcong formation; and it wasn’t the Americans who initiated the action. As had been the case so many times in the past, the Vietcong discovered the Americans first. On February 28th, a reinforced Vietcong battalion pounced on an infantry company twenty miles northeast of Tay Ninh in a barely-accessible area near the Cambodian border. The Communists mauled the Americans in a six-hour battle in heavy underbrush. Afterwards, Westmoreland’s headquarters refused to provide the U.S. media with casualty figures for the short, sharp engagement, which meant only one thing – the American company had suffered catastrophic losses. Nonetheless, MACV claimed the Vietcong lost nearly 150 killed in action, mostly as a result of airstrikes. Confirmed enemy dead (meaning their bodies had actually been found) came to less than forty.[3]

In subsequent weeks, Vietcong units initiated every major engagement of Junction City. The Americans, who liked to think of themselves as the predators, became the prey. In several of these battles, the Vietcong nearly wiped out the opposing American forces. For example, on March 21st, the 272d Regiment of the Vietcong 9th Division attacked 550 soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division who were manning a defensive position in dense jungle. During the battle, a Vietcong human wave attack almost overran the American position. Only the last-minute intervention of U.S. armoured vehicles, and the repeated firing by artillery of beehive rounds at point-blank range, broke the Communist assault.

The next day, Westmoreland helicoptered out to the battle site to speak with the exhausted American troops. Standing on the hood of a jeep in his crisp, green, combat fatigues and with his hands on his hips, the general, putting on what he considered his best command pose, told the assembled men, “The victory you had yesterday was one of the most successful single actions of the war.” Later, Westmoreland told reporters, “One of the reasons for Junction City was to make contact with the 272d [Vietcong Regiment] …We wanted to destroy them, and we sucked them in. Their tactics are to suck us in.”[4] The general’s dissembling could not obscure what everyone who had participated in the battle knew to be true – U.S. forces had been “sucked in” by the Vietcong. The guerrillas had determined the date, time, and place of battle; they had possessed the tactical initiative, not the Americans. That the American killed hundreds of Vietcong could not hide that fact.

Another big battle occurred on April 1-2, 1967. Like the earlier clashes, the Vietcong initiated it. Four Vietcong battalions attacked two battalions of the 1st Infantry Division five miles from the Cambodian border. Once again, the Vietcong fought the Americans in thick jungle close to their Cambodian bases. Had it not been for airstrikes and an intense artillery barrage, the Vietcong would have destroyed one of the two U.S. battalions. During the two-day battle, the U.S. flew 170 bombing sorties against the Vietcong. When the fighting concluded, U.S. commanders credited air strikes and artillery with killing four-fifths of the estimated 518 Vietcong dead. A G.I. who survived the battle recalled, “…they just started coming, heavier and heavier and heavier…They overran two of our forward positions. We brought artillery to within 25 meters of our own men, but the VC came right through the artillery. We brought in napalm to within 20 meters of friendly troops and anti-personnel bombs to within 25 meters of them…then we brought in heavy bombs. In my opinion that was the turning point of the battle. We were now in control.”[5] Just like at the Ia Drang Valley back in November 1965, U.S. firepower saved a U.S. battalion from complete destruction.

By the middle of April, Junction City had wound down to a brigade-sized operation. On May 14, it officially ended. MACV claimed to have killed 2,728 Vietcong in the eighty-one-day operation, or an average of thirty-three enemy soldiers per day. That enemy body count cost the Americans 218 KIA, 1,576 WIA, sixty-nine damaged or destroyed M113 armoured personnel carriers and fifty-three damaged or destroyed main battle tanks.

Throughout Junction City, U.S. artillery batteries fired a total of 366,000 artillery rounds and the U.S. Air Force flew 5,002 strike sorties, expending 7,430 tons of bombs, napalm, and rockets.[6] For all of the munitions and man-hours devoted to the campaign, the results were negligible. The daily average of enemy killed in action was less than in Operation Cedar Falls, which was deemed by knowledgeable military men to have been a failure.]

Junction City did not destroy the Vietcong 9th Division, it did not clear War Zone C of Communist troops, COSVN remained intact, and the Communists never stopped sending men and material from the Mekong Delta through War Zone C to the battlefronts to the north. Referring to the operation in a 1983 study, David H. Petraeus (who two decades later would fight a counter-insurgency war in Iraq) concluded, “In the final analysis, neither side won a clear-cut victory.”[7]

Endnotes

[1] New York Times, “25,000 men Start Big Allied Drive on Vietcong Area,” Tom Buckley, February 24, 1967.

[2] New York Times, “25,000 Men Start Big Allied Drive on Vietcong Area,” Tom Buckley, February 24, 1967.

[3] New York Times, “GIs and Enemy in Sharp Fighting,” March 1, 1967; New York Times, “Marines Report 271 Foe Killed,” March 5, 1967.

[4] New York Times, “900 of Foe Killed in a Day: Westmorland Hails G.I.’s,” March 23, 1967.

[5] New York Times, “Firepower of U.S. Takes Heavy Toll in 2 Days’ Combat,” April 3, 1967.

[6] John Schlight, The War in South Vietnam, the Years of the Offensive, 1965-1968, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1999), Appendix 6.

[7] G.C. Lorenz, J.H. Wilbanks, D.H. Petraeus, P.A. Stuart, B.L. Crittenden, and D.P. George, “Operation Junction City, Vietnam 1967, Battle Book,” (Advanced Battle Analysis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1983), 29.

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