Blunting the Enemy Drive
As major combat. units deployed. to Vietnam, they encountered a tactical environment that was alien to their training and experience. Traditional large-scale exercises, such as REFORGER in Europe and the Strike Command series throughout the continental United States and in the Caribbean, provided neither the climatic conditions nor a tactical scenario approximating operations in Vietnam. The 25th Infantry Division had trained in jungle operations in a climate that approached that of Vietnam, but the similarities were marginal. The war in Vietnam was a different kind of -war, in a different place, and would tax the stamina and ingenuity of the American soldier to the limit.
Some characteristics of combat tactics and deployment contributed to this difference. During the early combat deployment, piecemeal commitment of units to the theater was the rule, not the exception. Limited port facilities, the absence of a definable battle line, and other factors dictated this approach in all four corps zones of operation. Divisional tables of organization and equipment-and particularly signal tables, were not structured to support brigades operating independently or deployed separately from a parent division.
Once ashore, these early arriving units experienced major problems in deploying to their assigned tactical areas of responsibility. Time spent in staging areas was often extended by waiting for the delivery of combat equipment through port bottlenecks and a limited number of airfields. The movement of advance parties to base camps from the staging areas resulted in tenuous and vulnerable lines of communication that often stretched the unit's organic communications capability beyond its limits. The combination of oppressive heat and stifling humidity sapped the strength of the troops and impaired the operation of sensitive electronic equipment. Even the ground itself mirrored the inhospitable nature of the country. Cultivated lowlands offered little dry ground for base camps, and the higher elevations offered a choice between powder-fine dust during the dry season and clinging red mud during the monsoons.
Major combat units were normally assigned much larger tactical areas of responsibility than those visualized in previous doctrine and training. Furthermore, their assigned areas were nothing more than large patches of ground with no discernible forward edge and, in many instances, no discernible line of communications to the rear. As a result, units tended to operate from a central base camp, extensive fire support bases, and temporary base camps established hastily in whichever direction a Viet Cong threat was developing. Extended distances, coupled with the speed of movement from one location to another, placed demanding tasks on the organic communications capability of the unit and often exceeded it.
Command and control requirements often dictated direct communications links from Military Assistance Command headquarters in Saigon to individual brigade and battalion actions conducted in the remotest regions. This requirement is difficult when battle lines are clearly drawn but often impossible under fluid combat conditions in steaming forests and rice paddies.
Security was also difficult. Friend and foe were often indistinguishable, and the secrecy of major operations was often compromised. Rapid concentration of forces in remote areas was essential but could not be accomplished under radio silence. Planning and executing major operations became a trade off between the need for concentrating quickly and the likelihood of tipping off the enemy about the operation while communicating instructions to the elements involved.
Coordination of external fire support was especially difficult. Close air support and B-52 strikes were needed where friendly and Viet Cong units were intermixed in heavy foliage or jungle cover that made identification and location difficult and limited the range of UHF (ultra high frequency) and FM radios.
Since there were no battle lines, there were no secure areas outside base camp and fire base perimeters. Any high ground occupied as a communications site had to be totally secured, a necessity that drained combat resources sorely needed elsewhere.
The first major combat element to arrive in Vietnam, the 173d Airborne Brigade, quite early faced the problem of communicating over extended distances. The brigade's logistics base was on Okinawa, and voice communications were maintained by using organic single sideband radio equipment over a distance far beyond the planning range of this set. Early in 1965, the unit had also built an FM command and control console for mounting in the UH-ID helicopter. The use of this airborne relay in the early
days of the unit's commitment was, according to division commander Major General Ellis W. Williamson, "nothing short of fantastic." During its early deployment phase, the brigade also had to rely on the old series of FM radio equipment-a partial reason for strong dependence on the helicopter radio relay. In late 1965 this equipment was replaced with the AN/VRC-12 family and the AN/PRC-25 radios. The brigade relied heavily on high frequency radio teletypewriter between brigade and battalion; two AN/VSC1 sets were available to each battalion. The brigade headquarters used the shelter-mounted AN/GRC-46 configuration.
The 173d was followed in rapid order by a brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, a brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, and the 25th Infantry Division. Six major combat operations involving these troops occurred during the first year of combat. Five of the six were in the central threat area. (Map 4)
An early communications problem which faced most of these units was that of frequency availability. Lieutenant Colonel Tom Nicholson, commander of the 13th Signal Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division, and Lieutenant Colonel Tom Ferguson, commander of the 125th Signal Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division, both commented at length on the initial impact that the lack of adequate preplanned frequencies had on division combat operations. The 1st Cavalry Division, for example, attempted to establish and resolve frequency requirements before. its departure from the United States by sending messages and telephoning to the joint headquarters in Saigon which controlled frequency assignments. Their efforts proved fruitless until the signal battalion commander personally visited the frequency control agency and joint signal officer. He resolved the problem sufficiently to begin "legal" operations in Vietnam. In the 25th Infantry Division, Colonel Ferguson felt , that frequency management was nonexistent outside the division. As he saw it, U.S. Army, Vietnam, allocated frequencies to the field force headquarters, which in turn sub-allocated them to its major combat elements. His division, for example, was given some 8-12 discrete frequencies which supposedly were adequate to avoid any mutual interference. These same frequencies, however, were also assigned to aviation units well outside the field forces. Once helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft of these units were airborne and operating on frequencies, they saturated entire areas where the same frequencies had been assigned to ground combat units. Despite frequent pleas for an authoritative frequency management agency at the U.S. Army, Vietnam, or Military Assistance Command level, it never
MAP 4 - MAJOR COMBAT OPERATIONS
materialized during the early days of the conflict. As a result, what generally happened was massive "bootlegging" with the ripple effect of even more mutual interference throughout the combat theater.
At the same time that the first combat units were beginning to arrive in Vietnam, the 1st Signal Brigade was activated under the command of Brigadier General Robert Terry. All signal units not organic to the field forces, divisions, or separate brigades were assigned to this brigade. Whenever a major combat unit received a mission or was assigned a tactical area of responsibility which could not be adequately supported by its organic signal means, it became common practice to augment from the 1st Signal Brigade. Views differed on how these augmentation elements should be controlled. Colonel Nicholson (13th Signal Battalion commander, 1st Cavalry Division) pointed out that these units often did not receive adequate instructions before they arrived in Vietnam and could not sustain operations. He argued strongly for the direct attachment of this augmentation to the organic signal battalion of the division and for complete control over its operations and activities by the division signal battalion commander. He stated, "Too many times it appeared as if these units were abandoned by their headquarters in that it was seldom that a senior staff officer or commander appeared to check the operations or welfare of his unit's men." Colonel Ferguson (commanding the 125th Signal Battalion, 25th Infantry Division) argued for the attachment of such augmentation to his battalion, basing his views on the fact that if this were not done there would be a split responsibility for communications in the base camp. His division commander held him totally responsible for all communications whether they were to the units within the division or to field force or U.S. Army, Vietnam, headquarters. He was dependent on augmentation from the signal brigade which, if it failed, would be considered his responsibility by the division commander. These examples of external communications support applied to nearly every division-size force in Vietnam. It seemed that all divisions needed one more fire base, one more base camp, or one more tactical headquarters to support a seemingly endless expansion of their areas of operations. They simply outgrew their signal battalions and turned for help to any other source available. The 69th Signal Battalion, which I commanded, for example, had detachments of one type or another from Hue in the north to Soc Trang in the delta. Such detachments took some of the load off the organic division signal battalions, mainly in the base camp areas. The organic battalions then could
pump more of their own resources into the immediate support of the divisions' maneuver elements, which were always in the field and always on the move. The augmentations ranged all the way from an entire company supporting the command base camp of the 1st Infantry Division at Di An to small high frequency radio detachments supporting Army and Marine elements in Da Nang and Hue. They were not division tactical communications in the strict sense, but they enabled the organic signal battalions to support more fully the combat elements of the division.
General Terry, 1st Signal Brigade commander, took an opposite view from that of Colonels Nicholson and Ferguson regarding control of these augmentations. It was his opinion that communications from the division upward to field force, U.S. Army, Vietnam, or Military Assistance Command were properly the responsibility of the 1st Signal Brigade, which had been organized specifically to provide this unquestioned control. He could not tolerate an upward communications link failure that was attributable to a 1st Signal Brigade unit at the division base camp and caused by the division signal battalion commander imposing a precedence mission or tasking on the brigade unit. As the commander responsible for these upward communications links, he had to be made aware of and approve the division's additional taskings. I shared General Terry's view. Our battalion had an entire company supporting the 121st Signal Battalion of the 1st Infantry Division in its base camp at Di An. The company worked in close and continuous harmony with the companies of the signal battalion but with the clear understanding that any tasking to that company had to come from me with the approval of the 1st Signal Brigade commander. I insisted that the company commander be fully responsive in offering assistance to the division signal battalion commander consistent with his own mission requirements, and I am convinced that this arrangement worked satisfactorily for all parties concerned.
The initial deployment of the 1st Cavalry Division to the base camp at An Khe pointed out the importance of early involvement by the division signal battalion commander in planning future command post locations. This need was well recognized by the division commander, Major General Harry W. O. Kinnard, who gave total responsibility for command post selection to the division signal officer and the G-3. Some twelve different locations within a ninety-mile radius of An Khe were physically tested for multi-channel and FM radio coverage, and these sites governed subsequent command post displacements. Colonel Nicholson was
MEN OF THE 13TH SIGNAL BATTALION OPERATE AIRBORNE RELAY to give tactical communicators more range.
also adamant about the need for actually testing a site for communications suitability instead of drawing conclusions from a technical analysis of profiles and other paper data:
One of the most discouraging things tome in the past was to hear some officer or noncommissioned officer say-that "according to their analysis of the profile-communications were not possible"-I am a firm disbeliever of many technical charts and well designed profiles of terrain. It was a practice to actually test transmissions by transporting radio equipment to the site in question. The equipment does not have to be the entire radio relay set-in most cases a radio-of similar emission operating on the desired frequency will do the same job. There are too many variables such as effects of tropospheric conditions, reflecting terrain features and freak conditions that make transmitting and receiving possible at places the "profile" says that it cannot be done.
The first full-scale combat commitment of the 13th Signal Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division was in support of divisional elements during Operation SILVER BAYONET (23 October-20 November 1965) and included the battle of the Ia Drang Valley. This operation highlighted the importance of the FM airborne relay in supporting far-ranging and swiftly developing campaigns. The 13th employed a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with twelve
NUI BA DEN, JUNE 1966. Home of Granite Romeo Tango.
powerful FM radios. The aircraft flew in orbit at 10,000 feet over the widely dispersed combat units and retransmitted FM voice messages for most of the key command nets directing the operation.
The 1st Infantry Division faced a similar need soon after its arrival at Di An. The division adopted a more permanent variation of the relay-the mountaintop relay. The 121st Signal Battalion established a relay on Nui Ba Den; or the Black Virgin Mountain, in February 1966. The following extract from a 121st Signal Battalion news article points up the importance of the mountain and the respect it garnered from tactical communicators:
Nui Ba Den-"This is Granite Romeo Tango," has been heard by virtually every FM radio operator in the 1st Infantry Division. Granite Romeo Tango is the radio call sign of the relay site operated by Company C on Nui Ba Den mountain. Nui Ba Den, the highest point in III Corps area, has proven to be of major importance to the Big Red One for relaying VHF and FM communications. The primary mission of the eight men who run the site is to provide VHF relay for the 121st Signal Battalion and FM retransmission for the units of the division. It has also provided relay services for such units as the 25th Infantry Division, the 4th Infantry Division, the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, and Special Forces.
Although very few men in the battalion have actually set foot on Nui Ba Den, they all know of "The Mountain." Most VHF operators at one time or another have put in a shot to Nui Ba Den. When distance or terrain makes it impossible to establish communications, Nui Ba Den provides the needed boost. To many people in the division, Granite Romeo Tango
is some kind of magical FM radio station. When no one else can hear them, out of the sky comes "This is Granite Romeo Tango."
The initial combat experiences of the 1st Cavalry and 1st Infantry Divisions illustrate a communications problem that recurred in most major combat elements throughout the Vietnam conflict-the need to cover by FM voice radio a tactical area of responsibility far exceeding any encountered in previous conflicts. This expanded tactical area of responsibility, coupled with mushrooming base camps, moving fire support bases, and the need to rapidly reposition combat elements by air, burdened division-level communications. The FM command nets were the mobile backbone, and units were constantly seeking innovative ways to keep key elements "on the air." The 1st Cavalry Division solved its problem in part by an airborne relay, expensive to maintain in terms of manpower and materiel but certainly effective considering the obstacles the division faced. The 1st Infantry was fortunate in having a dominant high point such as Nui Ba Den which could be reasonably defended and which provided coverage for the division's entire zone. Later the Big Red One and other divisions erected towers to accomplish a similar purpose. Whatever the technique, the signal battalion commander had to develop something to ensure the command and control communications that the division commander needed. The signal battalion table of organization and equipment, however, was not structured to the demands of Southeast Asia. In the long run, it of ten boiled down to the ingenuity of the signal battalion commander in developing ways and finding means to get his all-important job done. Probably no other single thing contributed more to the success of tactical communications in Vietnam than the ability of the combat communicators to keep vital FM nets working under the near impossible conditions that were routine throughout the war.
As the 25th Infantry Division began building its base camp at Cu Chi, it was tasked to provide communications support to the 173d Airborne Brigade during an air assault landing into Song Be. (The separate brigade-size units were frequently deployed with minimal organic communications support, and they needed augmentation if given any extensive combat missions.) The 125th Signal Battalion responded with the first helicopter lift of a 6,500pound multi-channel radio shelter and power generators to the brigade forward location. Though dropped from a height of five feet because of difficulty in determining ground level in the heavy foliage, the radio worked and provided a vital multi-channel link
MRC-34 ½ CONFIGURATION. 125th Signal Battalion, 25th Infantry Division.
back to brigade main at Bien Hoa Air Base. This system was relayed through Nui Ba Den by men of the 121st Signal Battalion of the 1st Infantry Division-one example of the mutual cooperation that existed among the divisional signal units throughout Vietnam. This was the first of many informal equipment-sharing arrangements between the signal troops of the 25th and the 1st Divisions.
By the end of March 1966, the 125th Signal Battalion was fully committed, supporting elements of the 2d Brigade in the Ho Bo Woods, the Plain of Reeds, and the Michelin Plantation. It became common practice to install multi-channel systems down to battalion level and occasionally to an artillery battery because of the dispersion of the units and the independent nature of the missions they were assigned. This increasingly heavy reliance on multi-channel radio (with no corresponding equipment augmentation to the table of organization and equipment) led to the fabrication of the highly mobile "MRC-34Y2's." This terminal consisted of one twelve-channel system mounted in a'/-ton trailer and was designed to meet the increasing airmobile demands of the division. It was far easier to move by helicopter than the cumbersome MRC-69 shelter, but once it was dropped, it remained in place except for limited repositioning by a crew of strong-backed pushers and pullers. Because of the demand for these successful fabricated airmobile multi-channel terminals, the 125th had little
requirement for its high frequency radio teletypewriter equipment.
Although improvisation was commonplace, during early combat for these first arriving units, much of their communications doctrine was in consonance with long-established procedures. There was little change for the sake of change alone. Colonel Ferguson's remarks on this score, which follow, generally applied to communications operations in all the units coming into Vietnam during this period:
The communications systems installed at Cu Chi to support the division command post followed the division standing operating procedure for combat. VHF systems were installed in such a manner that the various shots could be picked up when required in an almost 360 degree fashion. Thus, when a system came in, any movement or relocation at the distant end did not require anything more than an antenna reorientation at the division command post. No further antenna erection or movement of vehicles was required. All equipment was kept mounted in the vans, ready for further movement if necessary. The HF [high frequency] radio pack was set up at a distance well away from the VHF systems to prevent radio frequency interference. The battalion MTC-3 switchboard was initially installed but this was later phased out after an MTC-1 switchboard was obtained from the 2d Signal Group. Two SB-611 patch panels were installed with all circuits wired straight through wherever possible. Circuit patching was discouraged but, unfortunately, could not be avoided. The battalion systems control tied the entire complex together by intercommunications. All in all, it was a very tightly controlled battalion-type system. The telecommunications center's MSC-29's were located close to the division command post where they could serve both the operations and intelligence sections as well as adjutant general and other interested agencies in the division headquarters.
The MSC-29 communications center terminal was one of the van-mounted items most susceptible to the high heat and humidity characteristic of the lowlands in and around Saigon where the lst and 25th Divisions were operating. Malfunctions resulting from lack of air conditioning for this van are mentioned in numerous reports. The shelter with its teletypewriter equipment, communications security devices, and voice frequency converters was a real heat generator. In addition, the racks of equipment were very tightly packed and allowed little air circulation. The components tended to be more affected by overheating than those in other shelters. It was not unusual to find interior temperatures of 110°-120° during the day, conditions which sapped the energy and lowered the efficiency of even the most hardy and dedicated soldiers. Whenever possible, the operating signal unit dismounted
DIVISION TACTICAL OPERATIONS CENTER SWITCHBOARD. 125th Signal Battalion, 25th Infantry Division.
the equipment and operated from tents, quonset huts, anything that would give some relief from the heat. The division base camps were relatively fixed, however, although the maneuver elements were moving constantly, so loss of mobility was not critical. Perhaps the most effective air conditioning system devised during the war, not only for the MSC-29 but for all van-mounted equipment, was the overhead grenade shelter. The sandbagged shelter, built about six-twelve inches above the roof of the communications van, provided a layer of insulating cooler air. This shelter, combined with the normal ventilating fans in the van, could reduce the interior temperature by as much as fifteen-twenty degrees-if the team chiefs kept the fan filters free of dust by daily cleaning.
One of the demands of communications units during the early days of the troop buildup was responding to the demands of rapid reliable voice circuits for the tactical operations centers. As a rule, the urgency of voice traffic generated in the center was such that the division signal battalion commander isolated it from the normal division switchboard and routed it on "hot lines" through a special switchboard. In the 25th Infantry Division, for example, two SB-22 switchboards were installed initially to handle the sole-user circuits that were needed. These switchboards soon proved inadequate, however, and a stacked SB-86 replaced them and also served the fire support coordination center adjacent to the center. By this means there was an operator to intervene immediately and render assistance if any of the hot lines developed troubles. The tactical operations centers were also a collecting point for an endless array of FM, UHF, and VHF antennas, and signal units were constantly improvising ways to consolidate antennas without reducing their radiating efficiency. The signal battalion of the 25th Infantry Division erected a sixty-foot self-supporting mast near the division center constructed from 175-mm. powder containers. Four
HIGH FREQUENCY RADIO BUNKER at 25th Infantry Division headquarters in Cu Chi. Antenna mast was made from artillery power canisters.
antennas were mounted on it and used simultaneously without interference. In addition to the ongoing major combat operations, there were many smaller but important actions. In these small unit operations, communications played a vital role in reporting information to higher headquarters and in securing required support. The radiotelephone operators in small combat teams not only provided vital communications but also performed their share of valorous acts. One of the most notable was the action of Private First Class Stephen Laier of Fort Wayne, Indiana, on 4 February 1966 near Lai Khe. His 1st Infantry Division citation for valor reads, in part, as follows:
Private First Class Laier was serving as radiotelephone
operator on a platoon ambush patrol . . . . The patrol encountered claymore
mines and intense small arms fire. Private First Class Laier lost both legs due
to a blast from a claymore mine and his radio was knocked off frequency.
Although suffering intense pain, he was able to maintain consciousness and to recalibrate his radio . . . .
Realizing that dust-off (medical) helicopters could not land due to small arms fire, he directed reinforcements to his location by continuous radio contact.
Continuing to fight off unconsciousness, Private First Class Laier continued his heroic actions by directing dust-off pilots to the proper landing zone and called them in one at a time . . . so his wounded comrades could be evacuated.
Having saved the remaining patrol members, Private Laier was evacuated to a field hospital where doctors worked night and day to
save his life. He told doctors that during the combat action he had kept going because he knew that he was the only man still alive in the patrol who was trained to use the radio. Private Laier died fifteen days after the fight. The division commander, Major General Jonathan O. Seaman, reportedly wrote a friend, "This is one of the bravest soldiers I have seen in thirty years as a soldier."
A veteran war correspondent wrote of the incident, "A young infantryman named Stephen Laier has shown in fifteen pain-filled days that in some men the only limit to courage is death. The courage of Laier . . . almost defies comprehension by men who have never been wounded in battle."
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