Shift to the Offensive
The arrival in Vietnam of five more major combat elements in a six-month period beginning in August 1966 enabled the allied forces to shift to the offensive. As this second year of combat for U.S. Army forces began, the 1st Infantry Division under its new commander, Major General William E. DePuy, was winding up Operation EL PASO II. Planning for this operation had started long before 2 June 1966-the day the operation began-and much of it hinged on the resolution of some knotty communications problems. To begin with, the 121st Signal Battalion could not start to handle the extensive deployment planned for EL PASO II because large quantities of its equipment were tied up supporting the large base camp complex at Di An. To take this base camp load off the organic signal battalion (the 121st), the 595th Signal Support Company, attached to the 69th Signal Battalion, was directed to deploy to Di An and assume most of the base camp communications mission, but it remained under the command of the 69th.
The arrival of the company at Di An was a tragic one. On the first evening, before the men had completed the sandbag revetments around their tents, a 155-mm. artillery round from a fire mission directed against the outer perimeter of the camp fell short and burst in the company street between the 595th and Company A of the 121st. Several men of one platoon were wounded severely and one was killed. One man was left unhurt but in a state of shock when a two-inch shell fragment went through his pillow. As the commander of the 69th, I visited the company early the following morning. The general purpose medium tent close to the burst was totally shredded, and the platoon that suffered the casualties was understandably depressed. The burst had been a rude shock for a unit going to its first real communications assignment.
Despite this initial adversity, the 595th went systematically about its business of working with the 121st to take over the base camp communications. Multi-channel links to replace those of the 121st were installed to Saigon and to the neighboring Korean division. Cable systems and wire frames were installed and
maintained to replace the 121st systems. The base camp switchboard and patch panel were installed and operated by the 595th, leaving only the tactical operations center communications to be operated by the 121st. The 121st was thus able to devote all its energy and resources to planning for EL PASO II. In this and other instances where the 69th was providing support to division or brigade base camps, it was standard practice to off-load all shelters and dig them in quickly. These base camps were permanent, and the trucks on which the shelters were mounted were more of a liability than an asset. There were many side benefits of off-loading besides the obvious one of protection. The trucks could be used for general purpose hauling and were easier to maintain. Access to the shelter was easier and safer. The unairconditioned shelters were cooled by mounting a heat shield above the shelter roof.
The assistance of the 595th freed the necessary communications equipment to support EL PASO II, but it didn't solve the pressing problem of packaging and mobility. The battalion adopted the same technique that the 25th Infantry Division had employed successfully. The VHF multi-channel AN/MRC-69 vans were modified. One stack of AN/TRC-24 radio equipment and one stack of AN/TCC-7 carrier equipment (one-half the capability of the AN/MRC-69) were removed from the 2Y2-ton truck shelter and installed in a'/-ton trailer. The modified set, termed the MRC-34Y2, proved highly effective in providing VHF systems from forward areas back to base camp areas. Also, because it was lighter and less bulky than the AN/MRC-69, it could readily be airlifted into any forward area.
EL PASO II deployed all the division and brigade command elements to the field over an immense tactical area of operation and for an extended time. Ten .separate command post locations (forward and rear for each of the three brigades, plus division artillery and the division headquarters) were supported simultaneously. Many of these were inaccessible by road; but the light, helicopter-transportable MRC-34'/2 was airlifted in, and EL PASO II was well supported.
As the scope of the 1st Infantry Division's operations expanded, more and more communications innovations appeared as the tactical signalmen labored to keep pace with General DePuy's aggressive leadership and penchant for establishing tactical command posts and fire bases wherever action was heaviest. Nui Ba Den, the only mountain of any size in the division's tactical area of responsibility, provided relay for many long multi-channel shots to forward command post locations. But one elevated point was not
enough to accommodate the relatively flat and heavily forested terrain throughout the area. Although not normally found on the signal battalion table of organization and equipment, a number of fixed towers began to appear at critical points. The towers were generally two standard issue items-the 45- to 65-foot AB-577 and the AB-216 which could be erected to over two hundred feet. Seldom did anyone ask where these unauthorized towers came from, but for the 1st Infantry Division and other major combat units they were the answer to the communicator's prayer for keeping VHF and FM systems on the air.
On. occasion, the towers did double duty. A 121st Signal Battalion yearbook carried a story of the largest Christmas tree in South Vietnam. To celebrate the battalion's second Christmas, the men of Company A decorated the 120-foot tower at Di An base camp with countless strings of colored lights and placed a huge star on the top. With the Big Red One communicators gathered about the tower, the commanding general of the division commended them for their outstanding work as communicators and, at the conclusion of his remarks, officially lit the "tree."
By using a combination of towers and ground or air-transportable shelter configurations, the 121st Signal Battalion installed, operated, and maintained a backbone multi-channel trunking and switching system. The system interconnected the division main command post at Di An with the brigade main command post at Phuoc Vinh. It also interconnected the brigade command post and the division's forward command post at Lai Khe. It tied in the division support command and the brigade headquarters located at Di An and maintained a j ump capability to tie in division and brigade tactical command posts when deployed, which was rather frequently. To gain worldwide access over this system, the 1st Signal Brigade brought in twenty-four channels of communications to Di An and Phuoc Vinh. They were terminated by the 595th Signal Company and tied the division into the entire 1st Signal Brigade system and the Defense Communication System (DCS). For switching, an MTC-1 was used at division headquarters and SB-86's were used at the division forward and the brigade command posts. Primary users of the system were the chief of staff and other staff members. The system was not very dependable because of the manual switching and because division headquarters was sometimes split three ways, between its division main, forward, and tactical command posts. The division commander, the assistant division commanders, and the brigade commanders seldom used the multi-channel system other than the
dedicated trunks to the tactical operations centers. This multi-channel trunking and switching system worked, but operations were marginal at best. Getting through the manual switchboard was a chore. Switchboard operators were rotated frequently: after a month or two their efficiency and ability to cope declined considerably.
That the division and brigade commanders were frequently airborne, moving by helicopter from area to area, placed the main burden of command communications on the FM radio nets. Each of the commanders had a helicopter equipped with two AN/VRC-12 series radios, and the division commander kept his on the division and brigade nets. He also needed to monitor the various maneuver battalion nets, so a further innovation was required. The command helicopter console was modified to take a third AN/VRC-12 with push-button tuning for preselected channels. Thus the commander's aide could very quickly give him a brigade net on the second radio or a maneuver battalion net on the third radio, or both.
Because of the extensive maneuver area of the lst Division, a highly dependable FM command net was essential. This net, however, required an automatic retransmission station, which was also placed on top of Nui Ba Den. The position was fortified because the enemy held all but the summit where the station was located. But he seemed satisfied to leave the position alone, and even shared a waterhole on the mountain with station personnel.
General DePuy fully recognized the need for good communications to support the division's concept of highly mobile operations and his need to be near the critical action. Whenever intelligence indicated as enemy buildup, the commanding general would call a conference-at any hour-of key staff officers, and he always included the division signal officer. The choice of the command post location was made by the G-3 and the signal officer together, with the commander giving his approval only after he had been assured that it would accommodate the required communications to support the operations. He would then ensure that sufficient helicopter support was available to move the essential communications equipment into the location. With this high priority given by the division commander, the signal battalion was always able to get the communications in when and where the commanding general wanted them.
A peculiar facet of tactical communications in South Vietnam was the slow acceptance and, in many instances, the limited use of radio wire integration (RWI), a system that interconnects an FM
radio subscriber with a telephone subscriber through one or more manual switchboards. Every tactical signal unit was authorized radio wire integration equipment, but there seemed to be an initial reluctance to put it to general use. As the scope of tactical operations expanded, however, and direction of ground operations by division, brigade, and battalion commanders from helicopters became the norm, the need for. a system became paramount in many combat units.
The Big Red One was no exception; when Lieutenant Colonel James M. Rockwell assumed command of the signal battalion in September 1966, he fond no meaningful radio wire integration system. It was fortunate both for Colonel Rockwell and the 1st Infantry Division that he was experienced in tactical integration systems and knew what they could offer an aggressive airmobile commander.
Before he went to Vietnam, Major Rockwell, as the executive officer of the 69th Signal Battalion, was involved in exercise GOLDFIRE with the U.S. Strike Command at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The battalion provided exercise communications for Brigadier General Bob Paulson, the U.S. Strike Command J-6, over an area even larger than the tactical area of responsibility of the Big Red One. A key requirement for the exercise was an extensive radio wire integration network spanning the whole area via a series of some eight 200-foot towers, .all erected by the battalion. Radio wire integration calls throughout the area peaked at close to ten thousand per day at the climax of the exercise. It was, therefore, relatively easy for Colonel Rockwell to spot the need for such a system, knowing the personality and modus operandi of the 1st Division commander, and to start developing it. It was easier said than done, however, as he related:
Naturally, I was not about to announce to the division that we had an RWI system until I was certain it had been installed and was fully operational, so we had several weeks of tests ....Finally I was convinced that we had a good operational system and was prepared to announce it at one of the evening briefings when the following incident occurred: I was aloft with General DePuy . . . and a call came in on the FM command net from the division TOC stating that General DePuy was to call the II Field Force commander by telephone ASAP.
The system was explained to General DePuy and he attempted to put the call through from his helicopter, but there was no response. They then had to fly back to division forward to put the call through. That evening, after some friendly chiding at the staff
RADIO WIRE INTEGRATION STATION. 125th Signal Battalion, 25th Infantry Division.
meeting about the excellence of the system, Colonel Rockwell went immediately to the base camp to determine the problem, which was
. the operator who, when he found that General DePuy himself was placing the call, got panicked and just clammed up and was afraid to respond. Well that was easily fixed and about a week later we were again aloft and again had to make a telephone call. This time he [General DePuy] suggested that RWI system. We initiated the call and it went through beautifully.
This instance sold the division commander on the system, and soon the assistant division commanders, brigade commanders, and staff were introduced to it and became frequent users. It was even made available to maneuver battalion commanders, who became prime users. They soon learned that when isolated in the middle of the jungle they could go through their AN/PRC-25 radios to communicate with their staffs. The G-4 found it especially valuable in communicating with his people, who might even be back in Saigon on the docks, to improve resupply operations.
A never-ending source of further improvisation by the tactical signalmen was antennas for the FM radios. As demands for FM coverage broadened, ingenuity often bordered on the fantastic. The
4th Infantry Division, arriving in the Central Highlands in late 1966, contributed its bit to Vietnam FM folklore. Shortly before arriving in Vietnam, the division received the new AN/VRC-12 series and the AN/PRC-25 radios. After arriving the division received the new KY-8 voice security equipment for use with the VRC-12 series. The AN/PRC-25 was a big improvement over the AN/PRC-10, providing increased range and eliminating calibration problems. The KY-8, on the other hand, although it provided complete voice security, also reduced the transmission range of the radios. Whenever a battalion of the division was deployed a great distance from the command post, an RC-292 antenna was usually erected. This antenna in conjunction with the AN/VRC-12 series and the KY-8 combination provided good, secure communications over all distances the division covered in its operations.
The short antenna (AT-892/PRC-25) was the most commonly used and reliable for units moving in the jungle and dense terrain. Communications within a company presented no problem when it was used. The antenna, however, even though quite short, drew fire, and the radio operator became a target for snipers. To counter this activity, units simply reversed the radios on the backpacks so the antenna pointed down. This procedure didn't seem to affect the range of the radio. The long antenna ((AT-271) provided more than adequate capability for the company to communicate with the battalion when operating within a 105-mm. artillery fire fan from the battalion fire base. When operating beyond this range or when high ground separated the company and battalion fire base, the company used an RC-292 antenna. In the mountains of the 11 Corps area, using this antenna was a simple matter because only the head of the RC-292 was required. A soldier could climb a tree and secure the head to the treetop, and the RC-292 would provide more than adequate radio communications range. Field expedient antennas were also successful. The best was the vertical half rhombic, which was easy to assemble and install on the mountains. On several occasions, companies were able to transmit and receive over distances of twenty-five miles using this antenna.
Perhaps one of the best examples of individual courage coupled with effective use of FM in a combat operation occurred within the 27th Infantry (Wolfhounds) of the 25th Infantry Division during Operation ATTLEBORO in late 1966 in War Zone C. This major operation saw some hectic fighting as the 9th Viet Cong Division, in a rare change of tactics, stood and fought. The commander of the lst Battalion, 27th Infantry, commanded eleven rifle companies deployed around a rough landing zone in the dense jungle near the
Michelin Plantation. The commander, Major Guy S. Meloy, was using an AN/PRC-25 radio with the short antenna. He could talk with his units, but initially he had difficulty relaying information to supporting elements through his radio-equipped (AN/VRC-12) vehicle which he had left near the artillery position at Dau Tieng. Heavy enemy fire had pinned down his command group and most of his initial force. Sergeant First Class Ray Burdette, the battalion operations sergeant, assembled an RC-292 antenna while prone under fire. With the help of another soldier, he muscled it up to the vertical and leaned it against a tree. Using this propped-up antenna, the AN/PRC-25 radio could reach the AN/VRC-12 radio location. With this relay and the temporary help of the forward air controller overhead, external support was obtained as needed.
Major Meloy received his additional units, controlled his oversized force, secured artillery and air support, and arranged medical evacuation and resupply through the radio nets. For two and a half days the two forces slugged it out in the heavy overgrowth. Radio transmission remained good throughout the rest of the fight and assisted in the coordination of the linkup as other American forces moved in. Radio had been the only link between Major Meloy and many of the unit commanders who fought this battle under his control.
The 1st Infantry Division also counts as one of its top heroes a communicator who helped turn the tide of battle for his unit during this same operation. The citation which accompanied the posthumous award of the Medal of Honor to Captain Euripides Rubio, Jr., for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, reads in part as follows:
On 8 November 1966, Captain Rubio was serving as Communications Officer, lst Battalion, 28th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, in Tay Ninh Province, Republic of Vietnam, when a numerically superior enemy force launched a massive attack against the battalion defense position. Intense enemy machine gun fire raked the area while mortar round and rifle grenades exploded within the perimeter. Leaving the relative safety of his post, Captain Rubio received two serious wounds as he braved the withering fire to go to the area of most intense action where he distributed ammunition, reestablished positions and rendered aid to the wounded. Disregarding the painful wounds, he unhesitatingly assumed command when a rifle company commander was medically evacuated. Captain Rubio was wounded a third time as he selflessly exposed himself to the devastating enemy fire to move among his men to encourage them to fight with renewed effort. While aiding the evacuation of wounded personnel, he noted that a smoke grenade which was intended to mark the Viet Cong position for air strikes had fallen dangerously close to the friendly lines. Captain Rubio scooped up the grenade, ran through the deadly hail of fire
to within 20 meters of the enemy position and hurled the already smoking grenade into the midst of the enemy before he fell for the final time. Using the repositioned grenade as a marker, friendly air strikes were directed to destroy the hostile positions ....
Throughout all major combat units and in nearly every major operation the ingenuity and courage of the FM radio operator counted again and again. The FM command net was the life line, often one that had to be sustained despite the staggering obstacles of extended distances, excessive net congestion, and near impenetrable vegetation. Many of the "jury-rig" antenna lash-ups would defy technical logic or explanation, but they enjoyed one common overriding characteristic: they worked, and battles were won.
Like all wars, the Vietnam conflict had its moments of humor. Major General John Norton, commander of the lst Air Cavalry, initiated a small communications experiment to revive the ancient technique of carrier pigeons. He directed his signal officer, Lieutenant Colonel Walter J. Bodman, to carry it out; and two pigeons, Ralph and Suzy, were obtained. The designated pigeoneer was Chief Warrant Officer James S. Steven, Jr., probably the last of a vanishing breed.
During Operations PAUL REVERE IV and THAYER II in the Binh Dinh and Pleiku provinces, an intelligence officer from the 2d Brigade spied Suzy, with a capsule attached to her leg, sitting on a wire. Not knowing of the commanding general's experiment, he summoned a trooper who shot the supposed Viet Cong messenger pigeon. The intelligence officer rushed eagerly to the fallen bird and unfolded the thin paper rolled up in the capsule. It began, "To the Commanding General, 1st Cavalry Division ...." About the same time, Ralph was reported as either AWOL or missing in action, and the short-lived experiment ingloriously ended.
During 1966-early 1967 occurred the only activation of a major combat unit in Vietnam-the Americal Division. This division would operate in the I Corps zone and relieve the III Marine Amphibious Force and other marines in the Chu Lai area. The 1st Signal Brigade provided troops and equipment to form the provisional signal battalion to support this new division. Men and signal rigs of all types were pulled from four separate battalions and two separate companies; they went by road to Tan Son Nhut, Bien Hoa, Pleiku, and Nha Trang air bases for air movement to Chu Lai, where the battalion formed. The battalion was committed immediately, with no opportunity to pull these diverse personnel together as a cohesive unit. The situation was
compounded by the delayed departure of Marine Corps ground units in and around Chu Lai, a delay which resulted in shared communications facilities and joint operations of switchboards and communications centers during the transition. The organizational and training problems encountered by this signal battalion during its formative period were probably without equal during the war. That the battalion was able to provide good communications support to the newly formed Americal Division is a tribute to Lieutenant Colonel Edward A. Ford, the first commander, and to the diverse signal personnel who rapidly learned to work together as a unit. The signal battalion and the communications platoons of the infantry brigades found themselves over equipped and overmanned-a far cry from early experiences of units who were often required to deploy to Vietnam with acute shortages of equipment and personnel.
In the early spring of 1967, the first combat parachute drop since the Korean War took place, and it was not without its communications problems. Operation JUNCTION CITY was a major encirclement operation of War Zone C, and one of nine infantry battalions placed in blocking positions was dropped by parachute. A security cover plan had been devised to conceal the identity of the drop zone until the last possible moment. Planning was based on another location with somewhat similar characteristics. The signal officer involved did not learn of the true location until two days before the jump.
Visual communication devices played an important part in the assembly of the paratroopers after the jump. Initially smoke was thrown to give direction to those soldiers who had become disoriented during descent. During assembly both smoke and small gas-filled colored balloons were used to aid jumpers in quickly finding the assembly area of their units.
A heavy drop of equipment and supplies began at 0925 and continued into the afternoon. Various types of supplies were identified by differently colored cargo chutes attached to the containers. The brigade communications equipment was included in the heavy drop.
Initial communication at the drop zone was by AN/PRC-25. By using the RC-292 antenna, FM communications were established to the 1st Infantry Division forward at Minh Thanh. Three heavy drop loads of communications equipment arrived on the drop zone intact. Each load could establish austere communications for a tactical brigade command post. The
condition of the ground in the drop zone, however, precluded the use of this equipment. As soon as the vehicles were de-rigged and driven away, they became hopelessly mired. They remained in the drop zone until late in the afternoon, when armored personnel carriers from Company D, 16th Armor, became available to pull them out. Early in the afternoon on D-day, CH-47 helicopter sorties delivered VHF radio equipment, high frequency radio teletypewriter, secure teletypewriter, and FM radio shelters. Shortly after the arrival of this equipment, VHF communications were established to the 1st Infantry Division forward and provided telephone circuits from the brigade forward command post to task headquarters and telephone circuits to Bien Hoa. Wire was laid to all units in the objective area before nightfall. This was the first time it had been possible to establish wire communications to all subordinate units, and it was possible because all units were deployed within three kilometers of the brigade command post.
The best synopsis of what these years of communications innovation and experience meant to the major combat elements is perhaps given in the remarks of Major General Frederick C. Weyand as he reflected on the accomplishments of the 25th Infantry Division:
During the past year of combat in Vietnam, the 25th Infantry Division has constantly sought to improve its effectiveness in the fundamental capability to move, shoot, and communicate. Our operational planning gives specific attention to the command locations that will provide the most effective control. We. are on guard to insure that communications, the means by which command control is achieved, is not shunted aside or neglected at the expense of a portion of the tactical plan. My communicator [signal officer] is included in the planning cycle but that, of course, is not the whole story. The communicator duringan operation must possess the capability to modify the plan to meet the unforeseen. He must continually keep abreast of the .tactical situation to install or reroute VHF systems, follow up to reduce message backlogs, monitor circuits to insure topnotch quality, and all the other numerous tasks connected with "getting the message through."
The modern communications systems employed in support of our operations extend, as never before, the voice of the commander on the battlefield. Appreciation of this vast network is perhaps never greater than when a beleaguered tactical commander is able to call for and have artillery fire and air-strikes on target within a few minutes. The responsive Signal Corps systems that save valuable seconds have doubtlessly saved lives also.
To be without reliable communications at critical moments could easily afford the enemy the momentary advantage he seeks. I congratulate
all of the communications personnel in Vietnam for their unceasing efforts to provide our tactical commanders an unfailing means of exercising command and control..
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