PART THREE

THE LATTER YEARS: 1968-1971

 

CHAPTER VII

The Vietnamese Army Absorbs the CIDG Program

The major task of the Special Forces during the last two and a half years of the 5th Group's stay in South Vietnam was to complete the turnover of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program to the Vietnamese. The concept of Vietnamization, which became the focal point for all U.S. strategy in the period 1968-1969, was not new to the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). The Vietnamese Special Forces, however, had been slow to develop soldiers of high professional skill, partly because the introduction of large U.S. regular military forces had made the war in Vietnam a more conventional conflict. Nevertheless, command emphasis from the 5th Special Forces Group continued to be placed strongly on the importance of delegating responsibility to the Vietnamese. The goal of conventional forces was the conventional one of winning the war. For Special Forces, however, the goal was to help the South Vietnamese win what was really their war, and that goal was never forgotten. A victory or defeat was a victory or defeat for the people of Vietnam, represented by the indigenous Civilian Irregular Defense Group troops.

The U.S. Special Forces troops were in combat right up until the day they left. New camps continued to be built and old ones were fortified and strengthened in preparation for the Vietnamese take-over.

Plans for the transfer of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program to the Republic of Vietnam were considered as early as 1964 The increased tempo of the war after the 1968 Tet offensive did not permit the regular armed forces of Vietnam to take over border surveillance until 1970. By 1969 it was apparent, however, to the Vietnamese Joint General Staff and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, that the Vietnam Army had reached a level of competence that would enable it to take over the additional missions of border surveillance and interdiction.

Although Special Forces GIDG camps were regularly converted to Regional Forces status or closed down when an area became

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pacified, the phase-down directed in the early part of 1970 envisioned the discontinuance of the entire CIDG program. A combined Joint General Staff-Military Assistance Command planning committee was convened on 20 March 1970 for the purpose of terminating the CIDG program in a smooth and orderly manner. The committee recommended that all remaining CIDG camps be converted to the Vietnam Army between the months of August and December 1970. This conversion consisted of absorbing the CIDG men into the Vietnam Army where they would become government soldiers instead of civilian irregulars. (Table 8) A border control system using Vietnam Ranger battalions was decided upon as the appropriate successor to the Civilian Irregular Defense Group. Vietnam Special Forces were to assist the Rangers in a recruiting drive aimed at converting the outgoing civilian irregulars into Rangers. Toward that end, the Vietnam Special Forces participated, along with the U.S. Special Forces, in a motivation and indoctrination program that explained the benefits of conversion to the CIDG troops. Figures on the number of civilian irregulars who volunteered varied from camp to camp, but the majority chose to convert to Rangers. (See Appendix C.)

During 1970 combat continued, but at a somewhat reduced tempo. The incursion into Cambodia in the spring of 1970, in which the CIDG participated, had significantly weakened the enemy in Vietnam. Pressure on the camps, especially in the III Corps Tactical Zone, decreased noticeably after the Cambodian operation.

TABLE 8—CONVERSION OF U.S. SPECIAL FORCES CIDG CAMPS TO VIETNAM ARMY RANGER CAMPS, 27 AUGUST 1970- 15 JANUARY 1971

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Summary by Corps of Combat Activity During 1970

The North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong continued to be active in I Corps during the year. Company C, 5th Special Forces Group, was charged with Special Forces operations in I Corps. The camp at Tien Phuoc achieved one of the highest kill ratios of any camp in the zone in 1970. For a period of two to three months, the camp averaged 50 to 60 of the enemy killed each month and itself suffered few casualties. The camp at Mai Loc received an early morning sapper attack in which most of the camp structures were destroyed before the CIDG troops succeeded in driving the Viet Cong out. Shortly after the attack on Mai Loc, the camp at Thuong Duc was taken under siege by the enemy, who used mortar and rocket barrages. The siege lasted sixty days, but the camp held out. Again, in October, Thuong Duc came under attack, but the camp defenders seized the initiative and in a three day period killed 74 of the enemy by small arms alone. Over a seven-day period, three heavy battles resulted in a final total of 150 of the enemy killed.

Siege is the key word to describe the combat activity in the II Corps Tactical Zone in 1970. The Special Forces activity in II Corps was controlled by Company B. Bu Prang, which had undergone a 45-day siege at the end of 1969, was rebuilt completely underground. (See Appendix D.) Dak Seang was taken under siege at 0645 on 1 April, and when it became clear that the enemy was making a determined attempt to destroy the camp reinforcements were sent in. Mobile strike forces and Vietnamese Ranger battalions came to the aid of the camp and helped to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy forces—the 28th North Vietnamese Army Regiment, the 40th North Vietnamese Artillery, and elements of the 60th North Vietnamese Army Regiment. Twelve days after the beginning of the attack on Dak Seang, the enemy turned his siege tactics on Camp Dak Pek, attacking with mortars before dawn, and following with a sapper attack. While the camp was almost completely destroyed, enemy losses were extremely high. A lull set in after the thrusts into Cambodia, and handling refugees became the major task in II Corps camps. Refugee villages were established near Bu Prang and Duc Lap.

The Cambodian operation in which Company A, 5th Special Forces Group, participated was the high point in combat operations in III Corps in 1970. Civilian Irregular Defense Group companies from the camps at Duc Hue and Tra Cu assaulted a Viet Cong training area in Cambodia and discovered caches that provided over one-third of all the crew-served weapons captured dur-

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ing the May offensive. The Civilian Irregular Defense Group troops not only captured equipment, but also killed eighty of the enemy. Earlier in 1970 the III Corps CIDG Mobile Strike Force distinguished itself by capturing an enemy cache of record size. The action took place in War Zone D near Rang Rang, an area which traditionally had been an enemy stronghold. The strike force picked up 450 SKS carbines, 1,034 82-mm. mortar rounds, 130 122-mm. rockets, and almost 200 tons of rifle and mortar ammunition. The camps at Katum, Tong Le Chon, and Bu Dop were all subjected to heavy mortar attacks, with Katum, the heaviest hit, receiving for one period close to 300 rounds a day. After the Cambodian operations, as in II Corps, things quieted down.

Combat operations in IV Corps continued to be centered around the special techniques the 5th Group had developed for using the waterways in the Mekong Delta to wage war. The Delta Company Strike Force made heavy use of sampans and airboats in its operations. The Seven Mountains region was again the scene of heavy fighting when strike force troops, along with strike forces from Camps Ba Xoai and Vinh Gia, moved in to clear the area. Ba Xoai and the B detachment at Chi Lang both repulsed enemy attacks on those camps. As a whole, IV Corps operations indicated that in the delta especially the Vietnamese were fully capable of running the war on their own.

Civic action under the Special Forces Civilian Irregular Defense Group program was one of the most important efforts of the war. Whether of immediate or long-range value, the missions demonstrate the commitment the U.S. Special Forces had to the people of Vietnam.

A summary of the civic action missions of the 5th Special Forces Group in the period 1964-1970 shows that the group set up 49,902 economic aid projects, 34,334 educational projects, 35,468 welfare projects, and 10,959 medical projects; furnished 14,934 transportation facilities; supported 479,568 refugees; dug 6,436 wells and repaired 1,949 kilometers of road; established 129 churches, 272 markets, 110 hospitals, and 398 dispensaries; and built 1,003 classrooms and 670 bridges.

The Stand-Down

In military usage, the order to stand down is employed to discontinue a condition of battle readiness or some varying degree of alertness to the possibility of combat. The stand-down period normally is very short and is characterized by rapid relief of the unit from the combat environment, frequently under the protec-

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tion of supporting, adjacent, or relieving units. When the order to stand down was received by the 5th Special Forces Group, few if any of the usual characteristics of the operation applied or were in evidence. Seldom does a unit being relieved or replaced have to plan, train, and provide for its replacement forces. This was precisely what faced the U.S. Special Forces as they prepared to leave Vietnam after ten years of fighting.

By 1 June 1970, the number of Civilian Irregular Defense Group camps in Vietnam had been reduced to thirty-eight, either by conversion to Regional Forces status or by closure. The Vietnamese Joint General Staff and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, staff then decided to convert the remaining camps to Vietnamese Army Ranger camps, with a target date of 31 December 1970. (See Appendix A.) Progressive, concurrent conversion cycles were initiated, with the major criteria being the state of security around each camp and seasonal weather. Camps in relatively secure areas that could be supplied easily during the rainy season were converted first. Camps in less secure areas were scheduled for later conversion so that more time and resources could be applied to increasing the combat readiness of these camps. One camp, Mai Loc, was closed entirely, so that the final number of CIDG camps converted to Vietnam Army Rangers was thirty-seven.

There were many significant circumstances attending the conversion process. The 5th Special Forces Group was working toward a date for redeployment to the continental United States of no later than 31 March 1971. It was also supporting the thirty-seven camps in widely separated and remote locations in all four corps tactical zones of South Vietnam. As the transfer of CIDG camps and assets to the Vietnam Army Ranger Command proceeded, the 5th Special Forces Group was being reduced in size while the group administrative, operational, and logistical phase-down problems increased. U.S. Army advisers to the Vietnam Army Ranger elements at converted camps were not available; three Special Forces soldiers were therefore required to remain at each location after conversion until the U.S. Army advisers arrived. The status of CIDG paramilitary members had to be changed to that of regular Vietnamese Army soldiers. Inventories of supplies and transfers of real estate had to be accomplished under both U.S. and Vietnam laws, statutes, and regulations. And, finally, the complex operations of inactivation and redeployment of 5th Special Forces Group units and individuals had to be undertaken simultaneously with the conversion schedule.

The major considerations in the stand-down are related in

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detail in the final after action report of the group, and include administration, operations and intelligence, logistics, and real estate. Administratively, two basic problems that confronted the group were the transfer of CIDG men from the paramilitary status in which they were a responsibility of the 5th Special Forces Group to regular Vietnam Army soldier status, and the maintenance of control over personnel actions affecting the U.S. Army Special Forces soldier during the stand-down and redeployment phases.

The specific plan for absorbing members of the CIDG program in the thirty-seven camps transferred to the Vietnam Army Ranger border defense battalions was developed, directed, and carried out by the Vietnamese Joint General Staff. The 5th Group interests in the transfer were in payroll procedures, severance pay, bonuses, and other fiscal arrangements made with the paramilitary civilians. The stand-down of CIDG men was accomplished with relative ease and efficiency.

The U.S. Army Special Forces was chiefly concerned with maintaining unit strengths at prescribed levels and providing adequate troop services during the redeployment process. Generally, U.S. Special Forces men who had spent less than ten months in Vietnam—some 1,200, or 60 percent of the group strength—were reassigned to other U.S. Army, Vietnam, units. The remainder returned to the continental United States. Legal matters, including pending court-martial cases, were solved or, as a last resort, referred to Headquarters, U.S. Army, Vietnam. The civilian labor force was abolished but substantial efforts were made to find positions for the affected employees. Records and files were closed out in accordance with standing regulations and the projected timetable. An effective use was made of the information office to keep all group troops continuously informed of the progress of redeployment.

Conversion of the U.S. Special Forces CIDG program to the Vietnamese Army Ranger program was actually an expansion of a long-term transfer program begun in 1964. The principal objective of both efforts was to help the Vietnamese armed forces to conduct the war with less and less assistance from the United States. During the stand-down period every effort was made to raise the combat readiness of the thirty-seven remaining CIDG camps to the highest efficiency. Concurrently, a concerted effort was made to assimilate the Montagnard and other minority ethnic groups from remote areas into the Vietnam Army. The Vietnamese Special Forces and the 5th Special Forces Group staffs developed

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jointly a program designed to continue operational missions in CIDG camps; process CIDG members administratively and medically; prepare U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, advisers for camp missions; transfer logistical support; reorganize CIDG units into Ranger battalions; and assimilate CIDG leaders into the Vietnam Army ranks.

The conversion process proceeded successfully, partly because the Vietnamese Special Forces camp commanders stayed in place and automatically became Ranger battalion commanders. Their familiarity with the troops, the camp area, and the tactical area of operations was invaluable. The Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, advisers did not arrive for duty until some seventeen camps had been converted. The fact that many of the advisers were former Special Forces men familiar with the camps minimized the problem.

As a result of the close co-ordination between U.S. and Vietnamese Special Forces, the Vietnam Army Ranger Command was strengthened by the addition of thirty-seven light infantry battalions. Of the possible 17,057 troop spaces scheduled for conversion, 14,534 CIDG troops actually became members of the Ranger command. A significant benefit that accrued to the minority ethnic groups involved was better treatment by the government of Vietnam. For their allegiance, as expressed by their willingness to join the Vietnam Army units, the government provided legal birth and marriage certificates as well as medical benefits and disability pay for injuries received in military action. This was the first time that the minority groups, and particularly the Montagnards, were given full status as citizens of the Republic of Vietnam.

At the beginning of the stand-down period, the troops needed for logistic support totaled almost 30,000, of which 2,000 were U.S. Special Forces and the remainder CIDG members, stationed at some fifty-four locations throughout the country.

Because of the variety of functions and the many regulations involved, a carefully developed plan of interlocking supply and maintenance actions began. (See Appendix G.) There was enough time allowed for an efficient close-out of supplies, equipment, and materiel As could be expected, many minor problems arose which were either local, relatively inconsequential, easily solved, or all three.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from the close-out of the logistic program. In the future it would be wise to incorporate data processing into group logistic activities and the automated system should be adaptable down to forward supply point

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(company) level wherever possible. Documentation for logistic activities must also become automated and streamlined. In any stand-down operation, security of supplies must be increased geometrically. Pilferage and lost or misplaced items are the inevitable consequences of the turnover of a supply system, and safeguard measures must be employed promptly and enforced rigidly. Collection areas are particularly vulnerable and constant and scrupulous attention to security procedures is mandatory. Obviously any overstockage of items reduces efficiency.

The real estate problems of the 5th Special Forces during stand-down were many and varied. First, the group had extensive holdings throughout Vietnam because of its mission; some of the camps dated back to 1962. At the time of acquisition, most of the regulations dealing with the administrative aspects of returning real estate had not been written; therefore, many of the documents deemed necessary to accomplish the return had never been collected. Second, the U.S. Army fiscal and logistic regulations governing U.S. Special Forces operations were ambiguous when dealing with real estate. Third, many Special Forces headquarters sites were in highly desirable locations, creating a competition between U.S. and Vietnam Army units for occupancy. Fourth, project planning during the phase-down operated under several restraints. Numerous changes in turnover dates occurred. Also, stipulations as to maximum conditions caused engineer missions to continue up to the actual date of turnover. The only complex turnover parcel concerned the group headquarters location at Nha Trang. Despite numerous false starts, this bulky parcel was turned over within the scheduled time limit.

The problems encountered in the engineer and real estate transfer were the results of circumstances so peculiar to this unit and locale that they are perhaps applicable to no other, certainly not in the foreseeable future.

The participation of the 5th Special Forces Group in the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program, like the program itself, ended on 31 December 1970. The program was in many ways a chronicle of the larger war. Developed in response to the needs of the Vietnamese Army, the government, and the Free World Military Assistance Forces, the program and the 5th Special Forces Group displayed an organizational flexibility and competence in the field that is rare in the annals of modern warfare. The U.S. Army Special Forces came home from Vietnam confident that the men they had advised, trained, and led would be able to carry on the struggle bravely and well.