Commitment of American Ground Combat Forces
Continued enemy buildup and the likelihood of South Vietnamese defeat, in the spring of 1965, led to a decision by President Lyndon B. Johnson to commit American ground combat troops. A need quickly arose for a major communications buildup; and, because of contingency planning, a quick response was possible.
To facilitate the buildup, a liaison team from headquarters of U.S. Army, Vietnam, met with Department of the Army representatives in Washington and with members of the 2d Signal Group. In detailed planning sessions, the conferees forecast the need for signal resources in Vietnam and drew up a timetable for their commitment. For communications purposes the country was split in -two. The newly arriving 41st Signal Battalion took responsibility for the northern sector and the veteran 39th Signal Battalion controlled the southern zone. A countrywide twelve-channel VHF (very high frequency) system was installed which extended tactical tails to key operational areas from the more fixed tropospheric system extending north and south along a main communications axis.
In early June 1965, at the direction of Brigadier General William E. DePuy, Military Assistance Command J-3, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth G. Ring, then serving as the U.S. Army, Vietnam, signal officer, met with the J-3 staff for crucial guidance on upgrading communications support to the advisory mission. During these discussions, the requirements for FM and single sideband radio equipment, FM airborne relays, and additional tactical multi-channel links were reviewed. The Military Assistance Command needed a reliable 24-hour-a-day voice communications net to each of the forty-five province headquarters, to each of the 135 district headquarters, to Special Forces camps, to Vietnamese Army training centers, and to numerous other strategic locations. The expanded communications plan, as finally approved, involved some 4, 000 additional spaces and some $20 million worth
of equipment, most of which went toward improved communications at the local (district and province) level. It was this basic network that the large combat units tied into for their communications support as they began arriving in Vietnam.
The deployment of major combat units to Vietnam spanned the period August 1965-July 1968. The first units to arrive were those that stood highest in priority for resources and, therefore, highest in combat readiness. One such unit was the newly organized 1st Cavalry Division, commanded by Major General Harry W.O. Kinnard. The 13th Signal Battalion supporting the 1st Cavalry Division enjoyed those rare advantages of high priority on personnel fill, reasonable personnel stability, new equipment, and an exceptional esprit de corps stemming from the challenging new mission of airmobility that had prompted the initial organization of the unit. It stood in marked contrast to the last combat organization to enter Vietnam, the 1st Brigade of the 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized). The brigade, hard pressed to get enough men because of the severe drain by combat units already committed in Vietnam, was uprooted from its parent division, kept an inordinately long time in its staging phase at Fort Carson, and placed under the operational control of the 3d Marine Division when it arrived.
Generally speaking, the combat units that deployed to Vietnam fell into three groups. The first group included those units from high on the existing readiness list and included, in addition to the 173d Airborne Brigade, the lst Cavalry Division and the 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions. The second group, arriving during July 1966-July 1967, included the 4th Infantry Division, the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and the 9th Infantry Division. Among this second group, which had not enjoyed the higher priority of the earlier deployed units, the 9th Infantry Division faced, perhaps, the most difficult task of preparation. The final buildup phase, spanning the period June 1967-July 1968, involved the remainder of the 101st Airborne Division, the 3d Brigade of the 82d Airborne Division, the 11th Light Infantry Brigade, the 198th Light Infantry Brigade, and, finally, the 1st Brigade of the 5th Infantry Division.
A review of the histories of these units during their deployment phase depicts every conceivable circumstance regarding training, personnel, and equipment. By and large, however, they followed the same general patterns. The acquisition and management of personnel and equipment was understandably paramount in all their planning. The earlier deployed units fared reasonably well.
The 511th Signal Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division (later redesignated the 13th Signal Battalion), for example, was a group that had been largely stable for two years during air assault training. Lieutenant Colonel Tom Nicholson, the battalion commander, cited his good fortune at having had the opportunity to organize, form, and train the unit from the start-certainly an exception to the general rule for units deploying to Vietnam. The division commander had also given Colonel Nicholson full responsibility to assign or replace all signal officers in the division, including those at brigade and combat arms battalion levels. This exceptional control of important personnel spaces by the signal battalion commander was, in his opinion, a major contributing factor in the cohesiveness of the communications structure within the division when it arrived in Vietnam. Lieutenant Colonel "Swede" Nelson, commanding the 501st Signal Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division, held the same view. He received, from the division chief of staff and the G-1, full responsibility for signal officer assignments within the division, and he selected the most qualified people with previous experience in infantry communications as the communications officers for the brigades and battalions. He also required that officers spend some time in the division signal battalion before assuming their duties with the combat unit.
Personnel stability is also cited in the records of the division signal battalion of the 25th Infantry Division. Lieutenant Colonel Tom Ferguson, then the battalion commander, states that nearly 75 percent of the officers and men who accompanied the battalion to Vietnam had the opportunity to train with the division for nearly eighteen months before their deployment. The 25th, like many other combat units, also received many young soldiers straight from basic combat training with the understanding that the unit would provide the advanced individual training from its own resources. The signal battalion received close to a hundred of these soldiers and proceeded to provide on-the-job training in radio and wire specialties. The battalion commander felt that these soldiers were as well qualified when they arrived in Vietnam as were those from the formal schools. I observed, in a small way, the results of this effort when the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division staged through the university staging area between Saigon and Long Binh on its arrival in Vietnam. The 69th Signal Battalion, which I commanded, was tasked with establishing base communications for the division while they were in the staging area so that the organic division signal battalion could devote its full time to
preparations for its commitment in the initial division base camp at Cu Chi. The efficiency with which the division, including its signal units, moved in and through this staging area was nothing short of remarkable. In my view it was probably the best planned transition into combat by a major combat unit to occur during the entire conflict.
The personnel experience of the 9th Infantry Division, which came in during the second phase of the buildup, was in marked contrast to the earlier units. Forecasts of future requirements in Vietnam called for more infantry divisions than were available on the troop list, and the decision was made to activate the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, on 1 February 1966, under the command of Major General George S. Eckhardt. Initial replacements came from many sources, but most arrived directly from civilian life through the reception stations and remained with the division from its activation through its training cycle and into combat-a process that not too many soldiers had experienced since World War II. In the division signal battalion, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel John. H: Reeder, found himself with a functioning signal battalion in which he was the only officer and in which the total strength was about 150 enlisted men. First sergeants were used as company commanders, and noncommissioned officers filled all the key battalion staff officer positions. With this skeleton crew, however, Colonel Reeder created a complete training program and laid the groundwork for the eventual fill of the battalion. Officer assignments to the battalion were slow, and officers that were assigned had, for the most part, no tactical communications experience. It was necessary to establish both officer and senior noncommissioned officer schools within the battalion to make up for this lack of experience. The same was also true of many of the enlisted men assigned to the battalion. Many of them thought of themselves as fixed plant communicators and were apprehensive about the prospect of working with tactical communications equipment in combat. The battalion commander, however, made the reluctant ones "stick it out," and they proved, in the long run, to be as competent as their more experienced, tactically trained contemporaries.
Major combat .units of smaller size, such as the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, faced similar rapid fills of untrained personnel. The 196th received 2,000 recruits that had to be given basic combat training as well as advanced individual training with the brigade. This was a demanding mission for a separate brigade to assume while readying for combat deployment overseas. The 199th Light
Infantry Brigade was not filled out with untrained men until thirty days before its scheduled deployment. The 199th was fortunate, however, in being at Fort Benning, Georgia; it could draw on the Communications Department of the Infantry School and train communications personnel more easily than some other units.
A later deploying unit, the 11th Infantry Brigade, formed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, during 1966, experienced a similar problem. In its case, the majority of the initial filler personnel were Vietnam veterans who could not return 'to Vietnam with their new unit. The time before deployment was too short to obtain men from the advanced individual training schools, and again this training was conducted in the unit. The brigade communications platoon established a training program for the C-E specialties. All courses were conducted on a one-time, six-week schedule followed .by a brigade command post exercise. According to the brigade signal officer, Major Frederick R. Dart, the results were not so good as those of formal advanced individual training but did provide the brigade with an adequate communications capability.
As with personnel and training, a variety of equipment problems faced tactical signal units as they prepared for deployment. Perhaps the most extensive and common problem was converting from the old radios (AN/GRC-3 through -8 series) to the new AN/VRC-12 series. Since the old and new series were not compatible, the conversion had to be made unit by unit, with the attendant problems of training operators and modifying signal operation instructions. Other equipment conversions also were required at crucial points in the planning. Many units had to accept and become familiar with the new 10-kilowatt generators which were replacing water-cooled generators. These air-cooled generators were unusual in many respects and required considerable cross-training even for operators who were already qualified in that military occupational specialty. The same was true of the new multi-fuel vehicles which were replacing the older 2'/z-ton trucks throughout the divisions. Often these new vehicles were in such short supply that they were shipped directly from the manufacturer to the unit as they came off the assembly line. The support system for the new trucks during this initial period was marginal at best and further complicated the units' problems at a crucial point in their deployment planning. In many instances signal units had to deploy with the older 5-kilowatt water-cooled generator that had been in the inventory so long that it was considered obsolete. One such unit was the 69th Signal Battalion during its first six months in Vietnam. Although the 10-kilowatt
replacement certainly provided much-needed additional power, the battalion found the older PU-286 superior in some respects. It was far quieter; it could be dug in and would run cool on water; once it had been stabilized in a particular location and routine, it could be kept running with less daily attention than the air-cooled replacement. Furthermore, the parts replacement system in Vietnam was more than adequate to meet the needs of the water-cooled generators until they were phased out.
Air conditioning posed another problem during the deployment phase, particularly in the later units which had picked up feedback from combat units already in Vietnam concerning the importance of air conditioning to keeping communications shelters in continuous operation. The 125th Signal Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division partially solved the problem by obtaining enough standard 16-inch electric fans to provide two fans for each major piece of sheltered communications equipment. This air circulation expedient was not ideal but did provide some relief. U.S. units were not really prepared to operate communications equipment shelters in the hot, humid climate prevailing throughout most of Vietnam. but the ingenuity of the American soldier compensated for this shortcoming in a large way.
Another equipment problem some units faced was that of picking up pre-positioned equipment en route to the combat theater. In the case of the 25th Infantry Division Signal Battalion, approximately one-third of the unit's equipment was afloat off Okinawa and another one-third was at Korat, Thailand. It is a tribute to the logistical system that the battalion found the majority of this equipment to be in excellent working order when it arrived in Vietnam.
As the later combat elements began to deploy to Vietnam, equipment problems shifted from replacing one type with another to the more serious problem of having little or no equipment at all with which to train the filler personnel arriving shortly before the unit was scheduled to deploy. This was particularly true of the newly activated units and of those units of less than division size that would possibly function as separate brigades when committed. In many instances the table of organization and equipment signal support was not adequate for this function and additional equipment was not authorized before the units deployed. Perhaps the most serious example of this problem was the deployment of the 1st Brigade of the 5th Infantry Division. The brigade was placed under the operational control of the 3d Marine Division and committed to combat operations very soon
after its arrival in Vietnam. Because of a lack of tactical communications augmentation, initial operations were haphazard to say the least. The brigade signal detachment was fragmented and suffered severe equipment shortages. In addition, the assets of the organic marine division unit were not adequate to support the brigade. After a period of considerable frustration U.S. Army, Vietnam, activated an additional signal company in Vietnam, the 298th, to support the brigade. The company was commanded by Captain Leland Hewitt and was formed from the brigade signal platoon and elements of Company B, 5th Signal Battalion, which had accompanied the brigade to Vietnam. Because, in part, of some personal efforts by Major Edward F. Jansen, the brigade signal officer, personnel and equipment to round out the unit were soon provided. Trying to get a signal unit trained and organized in a combat theater under these conditions was, at best, a touchy business.
In addition to the other problems every unit experienced the agonies of working out a signal operation instruction that was easy to use. The 25th Infantry Division Signal Battalion S-3 developed a pocket-sized format which became widely accepted throughout the division.
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