Vietnamization and Related Activities


In the wake of the 1968 Tet offensive, major decisions were made affecting the course of the war in Vietnam. By the end of that year the Paris peace talks had begun and the United States had halted the bombing of North Vietnam. Upon the advent of the Nixon administration a major shift occurred in U.S. foreign policy, as announced by the President at Guam in July 1969. In an address on 3 November 1969, President Richard M. Nixon declared that the United States would provide economic and military assistance in accordance with U.S. treaty commitments, and stated: "We shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense."

The United States would continue to seek peace in Vietnam through negotiation. If that method did not succeed, the United States would, as an alternative, strengthen the South Vietnamese armed forces so that they could take over the responsibilities of defending their nation. The "alternative," a plan called Vietnamization, was initiated after Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird's trip to Vietnam in March 1969. It provided for redeployment of U.S. troops on a programmed basis, as the South Vietnamese armed forces became more self-sufficient.

The U.S. troop withdrawals would be accomplished in phases. The first phase, the withdrawal of 25,000 men, announced in June 1969, included elements of the U.S. Army's 9th Infantry Division and a U.S. Marine regiment. Over the next eighteen months withdrawal figures grew, so that U.S. strength, which had stood at about 535,000 at the start of 1969 declined to about 335,000 by the end of 1970, with major deployments planned for the near future.

Communications Vietnamization: The Plan

Implementing the Vietnamization program required a plan for a communications system to satisfy the diminishing U.S. requirements and to meet the long-range needs of the Vietnamese government and its armed forces. Plans were developed by the U.S. Mili-


tary Assistance Command in the fall of 1969 for a time-phased turnover to the Republic of Vietnam of a backbone system to meet the needs both of the South Vietnamese and of the remaining U.S. and other Free World Military Assistance Forces. A U.S. Army communications planning group, which was formed from U.S. Army, Vietnam, and 1st Signal Brigade staffs, made recommendations to the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, in the form of a "strawman" plan.

The plan required that portions of the fixed Integrated Communications System and the Corps Area Communications System be turned over to the South Vietnamese. Selected terminal equipment, such as fixed automatic dial telephone exchanges and manual telephone switchboards with their associated cable systems, also would be turned over where required. The considerable residue of U.S. communications equipment would be withdrawn from Vietnam. On a long-range basis the U.S. Communications assets remaining in Vietnam would be capable of consolidation into a single integrated telecommunications system, to be operated by the government of Vietnam. To achieve the Vietnamization of the complex communications system, of course, skilled Vietnamese operators, maintenancemen, and managers were necessary. The training of Vietnamese communicators now became a matter of highest priority.

Training the South Vietnamese Signalmen

Since 1961 South Vietnam had been training its own signalmen at the Signal School of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces at Vung Tau. This school had primarily concerned itself with providing Vietnamese signal personnel to operate and maintain combat communications systems. In line with the Vietnamization program, the school had increased its student capacity until it reached 2,500 by August of 1969. However, the South Vietnamese signal school was not capable of training its signalmen in the so-called hard, or higher, skills required to operate the Integrated Communications System, Southeast Asia, and the automatic dial telephone exchanges. As a result, U.S. Army, Vietnam, was asked to provide the necessary training.

For this task, the 1st Signal Brigade was well suited. The brigade, with its responsibilities for the operation and maintenance of the extensive communications system which would be turned over to the Vietnamese, already possessed soldier-experts. These experts were readily available and would work with the South Vietnamese during the conversion period. Such cooperation, however, was


Photograph: General Foster Observing Vietnamese Signal Training Class


nothing new. The signalmen of the brigade had been working for years with their Vietnamese counterparts through the "Buddy System," a program initiated in July 1966 by General Terry in coordination with the Vietnamese Chief Signal Officer. It had three major objectives: to improve the training of the South Vietnamese signalmen, to support civic action projects which would be beneficial to dependents of Vietnamese Signal Corps personnel, and to foster a closer relationship between the signalmen of both countries. By the end of 1969 twenty-five brigade units were actively participating in the program, then called Buddies Together, later called in Vietnamese Cung Than Thien.

By late 1969 the brigade had also begun formal training for the necessary Vietnamese hard-skill signal personnel at facilities provided by the Vietnamese signal school at Vung Tau. On 1 July


1970, shortly after I had left Vietnam and Major General Hugh F. Foster, Jr., had assumed the duties of Commanding General, 1st Signal Brigade, and Assistant Chief of Staff for Communications­Electronics, U.S. Army, Vietnam, a new signal training annex was put into operation near the Vietnamese signal school at Vung Tau. This contractor-operated facility, at which the hard-skill personnel would be trained, could accommodate 320 signal students.

The program to teach hard skills was in three phases. First, the South Vietnamese were taught to speak and read English at the South Vietnamese Armed Forces Language School. An understanding of English was necessary since the system would be used jointly by the United States and South Vietnam before it was turned over completely to South Vietnam. The language problem has been present throughout our experience in Vietnam and has never been really solved. Upon completion of this phase, the Vietnamese underwent formal training in one of the required skills of microwave radio repair, fixed-plant carrier repair, fixed-station technical control, or dial telephone exchange repair. After this formal training the Vietnamese signalmen were assigned to communications sites to work and learn on the job as apprentices for a little over six months. Once their training was completed, these Vietnamese signalmen augmented, and will eventually replace, U.S. military or contractor personnel at designated communications facilities. In addition to learning hard skills at Vung Tau, Vietnamese soldiers were being trained in the relatively simple soft skills, such as cable­splicing, communications line repair, and radio repair at the U.S. Army Training Facility which the 1st Signal Brigade operated at Long Binh.

Contractor Operation o f Communications

In line with the Vietnamization program and the phased withdrawal of U.S. Troops, the U.S. Army, Vietnam, developed a plan for contractor operation and maintenance of the Integrated Communications System, the dial telephone exchanges, and the two associated Army Signal maintenance and supply facilities in Vietnam. The plan, which had been approved in early 1970 by its enthusiastic advocate, Stanley R. Resor, Secretary of the Army, was known as COMVETS, Contractor Operation and Maintenance, Vietnam, Engineering and Training Services. A similar arrangement, COMTETS, was developed and ultimately approved for Thailand. In line with COMVETS, a contract was awarded toward the end of 1970 to the Federal Electric Corporation, a subsidiary of International Telephone and Telegraph, for the operation and


Photograph: Vietnam Army Signalman Trains On The Job

at the first integrated communications site turned over to Vietnamese forces.

maintenance of the fixed communications facilities. The contract also called for Federal Electric to provide future communications engineering maintenance and supply support in Vietnam.

Signal Troop Redeployments

As U.S. Troops began to phase out of South Vietnam, the U.S. Army Signalmen who had been providing military communications support in the country, also began to redeploy. Some U.S. Army signal units were inactivated in South Vietnam itself, while other units were redeployed to the United States. In some cases, strengths and equipment authorizations were reduced by the reorganization of the units themselves. For example, the headquarters of the 972d Signal Battalion was inactivated in Vietnam during November 1969. The battalion's mission, that of providing contingency communications support throughout the Republic of Vietnam, was divided among the 2d, 12th, and 21st Signal Groups. Its companies, depending on essential needs, were either inactivated or assigned to other battalions. When the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry


Division redeployed to Fort Riley, Kansas, during the spring of 1970, the division's organic 121st Signal Battalion went with the division. As a result of the redeployment of the 1st Infantry Division's 1st Brigade from its base camp at Lai Khe, about forty spaces were deleted from the 1st Signal Brigade's 587th Signal Company, which had provided the base camp support to this combat division.

Recovery of Communications Assets

As the redeployment of U.S. forces progressed, selected communications equipment, not programmed for turnover to the government of South Vietnam and no longer required for our troops, became available for use outside of Vietnam. Combat equipment was either deployed with its unit or was turned back into the U.S. Army supply system for redistribution. Redistribution presented no major problem since mobile combat equipment is generally sturdy and is packaged so that it can be moved or stored without damaging it when handled according to standard procedures.

The recovery of fixed equipment, however, was another matter. This equipment had been shipped to Vietnam in bits and pieces, where it had been assembled and installed in the form of large communications facilities, for the most part in air-conditioned buildings. If the expensive fixed equipment was to be reused, there were problems in identifications, inventory, and packaging.

In early 1969 we organized an element in the 1st Signal Brigade specifically for the purpose of the recovery and redistribution of fixed equipment. This small group of men was charged with the task of dismantling, preserving, and packaging the equipment at locations in both Vietnam and Thailand. For example, during April 1970 two dial exchanges were recovered, one from Camp Enari in South Vietnam and one from Sattahip, south of Bangkok, in Thailand. Communications-electronics equipment from two other sites in Thailand were also recovered.

Reorganization of the 1st Signal Brigade

While U.S. Troops were being phased out of Vietnam, the 1st Signal Brigade underwent a major reorganization on 1 March 1970. Involving some eighty-five units of the brigade, this reorganization was based on a plan which had been approved by the Department of the Army in 1968 and which was in accord with the Army's evolving communications position in South Vietnam. Many of the brigade's organizations that had been structured to operate


mobile facilities were in fact operating numerous other facilities, such as fixed automatic dial telephone exchanges and message centers and relays on mountaintops. In addition, many attachments had been made in order to provide the specific resources required for a given mission. As a result, one battalion often controlled companies from several other battalions. This situation produced command, administrative, and morale problems. The 1970 reorganization of the 1st Signal Brigade was both an improvement and a reduction. Some battalion-size units, such as the 69th Signal Battalion, operated the fixed facilities. These units were reorganized and redesignated signal support agencies, according to the U.S. Army's policy of not designating units which operate fixed installations as battalions. Although not a part of the Vietnamization program, this reorganization resulted in a reduction of the number of men needed in the 1st Signal Brigade. By the end of 1970 the 1st Brigade's strength was approximately 14,000 officers and men, of which about 12,000 were in the Republic of Vietnam and about 2,000 with the brigade's 29th Signal Group in Thailand.

Communications Support in Cambodia, April-June 1970

Even as U.S. Troops were being phased out, a major test of the flexibility of our communications systems in South Vietnam occurred when U.S. And South Vietnam forces sought to wipe out Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia during April-June 1970. A number of major operations were undertaken from Vietnam against these sanctuaries which Hanoi had for years used with impunity to stage and launch attacks into South Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.

As the assault forces moved into Cambodia, the U.S. Army shifted its communications forward. The 1st Cavalry Division and the 4th and 25th Infantry Divisions established division forward command posts. The II Field Force set up a forward command post in the III Corps Tactical Zone near the Cambodian border at Go Dau Ha, thirty-five miles northwest of Saigon. As the combat situation changed, this command post was later moved to the vicinity of Tay Ninh City.

During the initial stages of the operation, communications between the maneuver elements and their base areas were provided by the combat units' organic man-packed and vehicle-mounted voice radios. As the attacking forces moved further into Cambodia, airborne and ground radio relays were used to extend the range of these radios. For example, the U.S. Army's 11th Armored Cavalry


Photograph: Skytroop Communicators In Cambodia In Early 1970



Regiment maintained voice radio communications over long distances through a voice retransmission station located at the isolated radio relay site atop Nui Ba Den near Tay Ninh. Wherever possible, lightweight secure voice equipment was used with these radios to counter the enemy's communications intelligence. In addition, the combat communicators used mobile radios of longer range to provide voice and secure message links from the battle area to the division and field force command posts within Vietnam.

As the scale of the Cambodian operations broadened, the organic combat communications, including the multichannel assets of the attacking units, were moved forward. At the same time, requirements for command and control and for intelligence, logistics, and administrative circuits reaching into the forward areas mushroomed. The mobile assets of the 1st Signal Brigade were quickly deployed to replace the combat signal units as they moved their equipment into Cambodia with the attacking forces. Circuits were speedily activated over the brigade's extended Corps Area Communications System, providing the commanders of the top echelons in Vietnam with ready access to their force commanders in Cambodia. The signal brigade also provided extensive communications support to U.S. advisers who accompanied the attacking South Vietnamese armed forces, including secure message facilities and manual telephone switching service.

Once again U.S. Army communications, whether operated by a signalman with his small back-pack radio or a fixed communicator with his tropospheric scatter equipment, met the test and justified the statement made by General Abrams in February 1969 when he was speaking of communications in Vietnam to an assembly of key personnel in the III Corps Tactical Zone:

What we have here in this country is a communications system that permits us to move our power from one end of the land to the other any time we want to. To move our air power, to change the focus of the B-52's, change our troop dispositions, change the flow of logistics to put it where it is the most needed . . . . The only way you can do all those things-and do them when you want-is with a good, sound communications system.

Summary, 1968-1970

During 1968 and 1970 our signalmen in Southeast Asia completed the U.S. Army's communications system. They wrapped up all the plans and projects, perfected the big networks together with their specialized voice and message switches, and provided quality communications for all users. They made such refinements as se-


Photograph: Armored Personnel Carriers Of The 9th Division In Cambodia

Note vertical antennas for mobile radios.

cure communications, priorities for key commanders, and direct distance dialing-all capable of being extended into primitive areas wherever sudden combat needs might arise. Our signalmen, while installing and operating all these systems, proved themselves to be good combat soldiers whenever the military situation placed them in the midst of firefights.

With the over-all communications-electronics job accomplished, our signal organizations were able to improve on other missions, for example, the Army's cryptographic support, the Army's photographic audio-visual capability, and the specialized maintenance and support facilities required daily by the equipment of the big backbone communications networks. But above all, this was a time of preparation for turning over the great communications systems that had been built up in the Republic of Vietnam to the Vietnamese people to operate and maintain as their own.

As the present study is being written, the South Vietnamese, with U.S. assistance, are preparing for the day when they will take over the operation of all communications-electronics in their homeland; this preparation goes on in the face of continued aggression directed by Hanoi. As the South Vietnamese grow in


strength, U.S. soldiers are being withdrawn. Even as the redeployment occurs, U.S. Army Signal combat communicators are on the job providing communications for the U.S. Army's infantry, armor, artillery, and aviation; for engineers, medics, military police, logisticians, and intelligence personnel; for the U.S. Air Force and Navy; for the Free World Military Assistance Forces of Australia, Korea, New Zealand, and Thailand, and for the government of South Vietnam and its armed forces; for U.S. headquarters; for the advisers to the Vietnamese; and for U.S. civilian agencies in the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. During the years 1962 through 1970, approximately 120,000 U.S. Army Signalmen have served in South Vietnam and other countries of Southeast Asia.


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