Chapter I:

The Setting

From the eastern seaboard of the United States the journey to the Republic of Vietnam by merchantman takes thirty-four days nineteen days from the port of San Francisco. The Asian country is bounded on the north by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, on the east by the South China Sea, on the southwest by the Gulf of Thailand, and on the west by Laos and Cambodia.
The tropical climate of the countryside changes with the seasonal monsoons. At Saigon, the capital, the temperature varies little from an 84-degree average, but the summer monsoon, gathering moisture over the Indian Ocean, brings heavy rainfall to the southern city. From May through October fifty-eight inches of rain may be expected. Farther north near the old imperial city of Hue 116 inches of rain may be expected toward the end of the year as the monsoon moves farther northward and inland across Asia. Typhoons, or tropical cyclones which originate in the Pacific, strike this sector between September and November, bringing heavy rainfall and causing a great deal of damage at Hue and in its neighboring Coastal plain.
As the seasons change, the northeast monsoon, which originates in the interior of Asia, sweeps across the expanses of China bringing clear skies and hot dry weather. For a country of Vietnam's size, stretching as it does seven hundred miles along its length and being as narrow as forty miles across the 17th parallel near the Demilitarized Zone, the seasonal differences are dramatic. Summer weather prevails in the modern capital of Saigon from November to mid March, while winter rains, mists, and tropical storms lash the ancient capital at Hue.
The long coastline, or eastern border, begins in the north at the Demilitarized Zone, established as a result of the 1954 Geneva Accords, which created the two Vietnams from the former French Indochina colony, and extends southwestward in a gradual curve. The coastline consists of vast stretches of sand spotted by irrigated rice paddies. The Annamite Mountains rise within thirty miles of the coast in some places and as far back as seventy miles in others. The land along the coast which is not covered by drifting sand


dunes is used for rice farming, although the coastal lands cannot compare with the rich alluvial soil of the delta regions for productivity.
The southernmost third of South Vietnam, the area sometimes known as the delta or the rice basket, was once below sea level and therefore received the rich alluvial deposits of the Mekong River. From prehistoric times the richest soil in Asia has been deposited to form what is now the Ca Mau Peninsula and the Plain of Reeds, or the Mekong and Saigon River Deltas. Some areas in the delta have solidified, while others still remain marshy. The flat muddy coast near the capital is representative of the area's silty clay, which is hundreds of feet deep in places. Alluvial soil constitutes a blessing to the rice grower, but a bane to the builder; when wet it becomes an unmanageable, sticky mass with poor weight-bearing qualities. The region abounds with tributaries and canals of which the French constructed some four thousand kilometers to aid in the transformation of 4.3 million acres of swamp into arable land-a feat surpassing the magnitude of digging for the Suez Canal.
Much as the Mekong rambles to the sea in an apparently aimless wandering, the Annamite Mountains (occasionally called the Annawese Cordillera) are a sometimes rugged, sometimes flattened backbone pressing through much of Indochina and forming the watershed between the Mekong River and the South China Sea. In the north the range extends into North Vietnam, and in the south it becomes the Central Highlands, a plateau area some one hundred miles wide and two hundred miles long, covered, for the most part, with tropical forest. On the east side the range rises steeply from the coastal plains. On the west it gradually descends through a series of plateaus to the level of the Mekong Delta. Because of the steep seaward slopes, the Cordillera forms a partial barrier to inland penetration; and tribes distinct in race and culture from the coastal Vietnamese continue to inhabit the mountains and highlands.
(Map 1)
The cultural history of the Vietnamese may be traced back to the early Neolithic period. The original inhabitants of Vietnam founded their civilization along the banks and in the delta of the Red River on the Tonkin Gulf very much the way Egyptian civilization developed along the Nile. From the Red River and its rice fields the population expanded. Several centuries of trading with seafaring neighbors, resurgent wars, and invasions gave the people a history deeply interwoven with warfare.
The old kingdom of Annam in what is now the south predates the Second Punic War. Chinese government had taken hold in Vietnam after the successful invasions, of the Han dynasty, and

Annam or the "Dominion of the South" was thereafter molded and dominated by the Chinese civilization. Revolts occurred during the period of Chinese colonization which gave the Vietnamese many of their cultural folk heroes and heroines. The country was unified between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries and shortly thereafter repulsed the invasions of Kublai Khan only to fall again to the Chinese in the fifteenth century. With a new dynasty the Vietnamese were again their own masters and proceeded to establish military colonies on the lands of their former masters. By the middle of the sixteenth century the Nguyen family in Hue had firmly established their predominance in the affairs of Annam.
During the sixteenth century contact with the West began. Traders and missionaries arrived to begin a modern era of intrigue. The French made their mark on the people, and with the aid of the church and its lieutenants, the first French-supported emperor gained the Annamese throne early in the nineteenth century. French influence had its ups and downs until the latter half of the nineteenth century when the French made their de facto conquest final, but Japanese conquest in World War II upset French rule and resulted in a Vichy government followed by a quasi independence for the Vietnamese. In 1946 the French attempted to reassert their influence in Vietnam, and the resulting war was eventually resolved in the Geneva Accords of 1954. It was during the 1954 Geneva Convention that Vietnam was provisionally divided into two states.
American involvement in the Vietnamese conflict began in the late 1940s with arms aid to the French. Old alliances and the outbreak of the Korean War placed the United States in a political position supporting French colonial policy. In 1955 President Dwight D. Eisenhower, acting under extended provisions of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) protocol, pledged matériel and advisory assistance to the South Vietnamese. As French Union forces left Vietnam, American military advisory groups assumed the responsibility for training the Vietnamese armed forces. In April 1961 -the Kennedy administration signed a Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations declaring its intention to render military aid to the Republic of Vietnam and "preserve its independence." With this resolve, the American military presence in Vietnam increased to four thousand officers and men by the end of 1962.
The economy of Vietnam has suffered to a considerable extent throughout its many years of strife, but rice continues to be the country's principal export. Before World War II only two countries in the world exported more rice than Vietnam, but continued war-

fare has changed the picture. The exportation of rubber from the huge southern plantations has lost considerable importance since the widespread manufacturing of synthetic rubber, but manioc, sweet potatoes, coconuts, and beans are still exported. The Republic of Vietnam does not have the coal, zinc, tin, chrome, phosphate, or lumber resources of the north. The populace must import most of its heavy equipment and other manufactured goods.
Local markets flourish in South Vietnam. Fish products, pigs, chickens, rice, and small manufactured goods are bought and sold at hamlet and village markets. The village, the second level of governmental hierarchy, still retains the largest proportion of the 17.5 million Vietnamese population. A full 80 percent of the population remains scattered between district capitals and any of the forty-four province capitals with the majority settled in the delta or on the coastal plain between the country's principal railroad line and the main north-south road. Farmers work their crops, and fishermen ply the coastal waterways as do merchants in the small cargo vessels which transport goods between the smaller coastal villages and the major port at Saigon, or the minor ports at Hue or Nha Trang, or the old French naval port at Da Nang.
Few major ports were ever built on the coast, since the economy of the area has never lent itself to full exploitation and shipping has always been exposed to seasonal typhoons and heavy winds during the winter monsoons. Deepwater ports have been entirely unnecessary in Vietnam with the possible exception of Saigon, which sits astride the Saigon River some forty miles inland. The capital, fed by a continuing flow of junks, sampans, river boats, and steamers coming down from upland and out of the Mekong, became the leading port for domestic and foreign trade, since navigation in the delta region had been improved by extended dredging and by canals which cut across swamplands and cultivated fields to join together the many tributaries of the Mekong and Saigon Rivers.
In addition to being South Vietnam's primary seaport, Saigon had also been the country's principal air terminal. As stop-off and refueling points -on the international air lanes, Tan Son Nhut and nearby Bien Hoa outside of Saigon were two of Vietnam's three airfields capable of accepting jet aircraft before 1965. Even as late as mid-1966 there were only six airfields capable of landing jet aircraft, and only three of these employed high-intensity lighting. Radio, navigation, and ground equipment were adequate only for existing civilian traffic. The fact that Air Vietnam, the national airline, owned only thirteen aircraft in 1965, none of which were jet powered, is a clue to the paucity of Vietnam's airfield facilities.
The most direct transportation available between major cities


was by rail. The main line of the Vietnamese railroad system, once called the Saigon-Hue-Hanoi Line, was completed in 1936, or fifty-five years after it was begun. The right of way parallels the coast highway, cuts through mountain spurs, and rises over rivers and streams, which lie shallow most of the year but reach flood conditions during the monsoon. The former Trans-Indochina Railroad, which originally comprised some 2,900 kilometers of narrow onemeter gauge track, was the labor of two generations of French and Vietnamese engineers; but for all practical purposes the line ceased to exist after 1965. It was completely destroyed in many places by sabotage or left to fall into disrepair because track security became virtually impossible.
The Vietnamese road system received more attention than the railroad after World War I. (Map 2) Main roads were constructed five to six meters wide on level runs, but became narrower as they climbed into the mountains. The vast number of bridges which were required imposed limitations on the builders, although the most frequently constructed bridge was only two and a half to three meters wide. Few roads were asphalted, some were macadamized, but most roads were left unsurfaced. National Route 1, the main north-south coastal highway, was originally very well constructed, since it was the principal national road linking Hanoi in the north with Saigon in the far south. Route 13 was similarly constructed to link Saigon with Cambodia and Laos. Route 14, branching off Route 13, was built through the Central Highlands to join Route 1 again at Da Nang. With secondary roads constructed to link smaller political subdivisions together, the road system became quite adequate for the limited volume and weight of traffic it had to sustain.
The political subdivisions of the countryside from hamlet to village to district and then to province had been satisfactory for civil government, but the return to full-scale military operations and the need for military lines of division and areas of responsibility caused a dividing of the political map into larger military zones. (Map 3) Saigon was made into a military district separate and distinct unto itself.- The northernmost five provinces became I Corps Tactical Zone. The Central Highlands from Kontum and Binh Dinh Provinces south through Quang Duc, Lam Dong, and Binh Tuy Provinces became II Corps Tactical Zone. III Corps was cut out of the swamps with a southern border of the Song Vam Co Tay, which runs across the narrow southern waist of the republic. The heavily populated delta provinces made up IV Corps Tactical Zone.
With the steady increase in military activity and Vietnam's mobilization for war, the military implications of the Vietnamese setting became matters of prime concern to those who would be


responsible for carrying out tactical operations, providing logistic support, and performing construction. The least significant factors of Vietnamese geography, culture, climate, and habit assumed new dimensions and importance. The simple matter of water supply illustrates the kind of problem which would soon have to be dealt with.
Most of the inhabitants of Vietnam obtain their water from streams, irrigation canals and ditches, or shallow wells, which are often contaminated. In rural areas these sources are used indiscriminately for laundry, watering animals, cooking, and drinking. In the Mekong and Dong Na Deltas, tides cause waterways to become brackish as far inland as sixty miles. Some wells in these areas are drilled to a depth of 500 feet before a desirable stratum is reached. Although the U S. Agency for International Development (USAID) began to sponsor well-drilling for the Directorate of Water Supply, the Vietnamese had been making do in the larger cities with a number of high-capacity deep wells begun in the 1930s by the French.
As a result of water supply and general sanitary conditions, the incidence of waterborne diseases was particularly high. Military planning would have to consider provisions for countering the problems of insect-transmitted diseases like malaria, dengue, and encephalitis. Cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid were common in the countryside because of a lack of trained medical personnel, adequate medical facilities, and proper sanitation. Amoebic and bacterial dysentery were as prevalent as tapeworm, hookworm, tuberculosis, and venereal diseases.
French Union troops had been affected by epidemics of schistosomiasis and leptospirosis-parasitic infections of the intestines and bladder-between 1950 and 1954, and a full 25 percent of the personnel operating in the delta region were finally debilitated. However, the incidence of these diseases could be reduced by immunization and other preventive medicine programs as well as by sanitary engineering. And the changing seasons had predictable effects not only on the varieties of diseases which would become most threatening at specified times but also on the kinds of military and engineering operations that could most effectively be conducted.
Layers of fine dust generated by heavy supply convoys traveling over unsurfaced roads during the dry months become a thick impassable quagmire as the rainy season begins. Heavy rainfall saturates and erodes all but the most carefully compacted and protected soil. Unpaved runways and storage areas become unusable. Lowland floods prevent cross-country movement by wheeled vehicles, and even tracked vehicles become road bound. Small streams become

raging torrents washing out bridges, flooding over dams, carrying away roads, and clogging culverts with silt and mud. Bivouac areas are flooded, and fields of fire cleared during the dry months suddenly fill with lush foliage concealing ground movement beyond friendly perimeters. The persistent moisture causes shoe leather, tentage, and clothing to rot. Typhoons and squalls endanger shipping at exposed anchorages, snap ship-to-shore fuel lines, and make unloading operations virtually impossible. But the weather has the most significant effect on flight operations.
The dry season turns the countryside into a hot still oven. The dust generated by helicopters, airplanes, trucks, and earth-moving equipment gets into everything. Unless constant maintenance is carried on, dust wears out engines, clogs fuel and lubrication systems, wears out delicate moving parts, and settles into food and open wounds causing an entirely new series of infections and diseases. Heat debilitates combat and construction troops, and work slows down.
Troops whose mission is to operate in the mountains, along the coast, and in camps deep in the delta region must be supplied and supported. Roads must be made both safe from enemy interdiction and passable for heavily laden convoys. The original Vietnamese roads had, however, deteriorated as a result of repeated sabotage, lack of maintenance, and heavy usage. In width, alignment, and surfacing, they could not possibly support the weight and volume of increased military traffic.
How were the U.S. forces and their allies to maintain thousands of miles of roads, hundreds of bridges, and thousands of culverts without stationing engineer units in compounds throughout the length and breadth of Vietnam? How were they to support a complex modern army of half a million men without ports and depots to receive, sort, and store supplies? Where would they house this army and in what kind of structures? South Vietnam's lumber industry was nonexistent and the country's mineral resources were very low. Even the basic construction materials-sand, gravel, and rock-were not readily available.
The very nature of the war required a military presence everywhere, and that simply meant dotting the countryside with fire support bases, maneuver-element base camps, logistic support areas, heliports, and tactical airstrips. The nature of the war imposed a distinct need for jet airfields from which ground support missions could be flown. And each base, airfield, and compound had to be joined to its neighbor in an ever-expanding network of primary and secondary roads.

page created 15 December 2001

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