3 to 24 November 1966
December 2015, by Glenn Williams, CMH
Operation ATTLEBORO began as a limited operation to acclimate the newly-arrived 196th Light Infantry Brigade to combat conditions in Vietnam. After encountering heavier resistance than expected, it quickly changed from a minor search and destroy mission to a major battle. By the time it ended, a total of about 22,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers had participated in the first large-scale multi-unit operation of the American involvement in the Vietnam War.
After receiving orders from the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), headquarters of the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), better known as the Viet Cong, to attack, Senior Colonel Hoang Cam, commander of the 9th PLAF Division, planned to initiate his offensive on 3 November with two Viet Cong main force and one attached People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), or North Vietnamese, regiments, reinforced by one Viet Cong local force battalion. While one PLAF Regiment struck the 196th Light Infantry Brigade's newly established base at Tay Ninh City in an attempt to lure out and annihilate its reaction force, two battalions of another, joined by a Viet Cong local force battalion, would cross the Saigon River to attack the territorial force outposts at Suoi Cao, thirty kilometers to the southeast. The remaining PLAF battalion and a regiment attached from the 7th PAVN Division would conduct the main attack on the Suoi Da Special Forces camp, fifteen kilometers northeast of Tay Ninh City.
Brig. Gen. Edward H. de Saussure's 196th Brigade had been conducting a series of battalion-sized probes code named Operation ATTLEBORO since mid-September When 25th Division units uncovered a large cache of rice in the Saigon River Valley about thirty kilometers southeast of Tay Ninh, Maj. Gen. Frederick C. Weyand, the acting II Field Force commander, ordered de Saussure to move his battalions east in search of more stockpiles to exploit that success. After discovering other large supply caches, de Saussure received permission from Brig. Gen. George G. O'Connor, acting commander of the 25th Division in Weyand's absence, to elevate ATTLEBORO to a brigade operation by committing a second battalion to help evacuate captured rice on 30 October.
The U.S. plan changed on 1 November when a captured document revealed the locations and plans to defend other supply bases in War Zone C. O'Connor directed de Saussure to spend only one more day on the rice, destroy what he could not evacuate, and move north to seize all the depots near the town of Dau Tieng to seize all the depots before the enemy reacted. On the morning of 3 November, De Saussure sent two of his brigade's battalions advancing by four separate axes north from the cache site toward the Suoi Ba Hao River to drive enemy forces before them. Simultaneously, two companies from a battalion attached from the 25th Division air assaulted into two widely separated blocking positions on the east and west to destroy enemy units that attempted to escape from the advancing columns. The brigade's third battalion and the attached battalion's the third company remained in reserve at and Tay Ninh and Dau Tieng, respectively.
Nothing went as the 196th Brigade commander planned. The attacking and blocking units became separated and lost in dense jungle or thick elephant grass. At about 1200, the enemy ambushed and inflicted heavy casualties on a patrol from the western blocking position. Reinforcement by two reserve companies and the two westernmost columns failed to drive off the enemy before dark. Maj. Guy S. Meloy, assumed command of the five American companies that defended the vulnerable position. General de Saussure ordered the remaining four companies from the attacking columns to join the blocking position several kilometers to the east and form a perimeter for the night under the command of Lt. Col. Hugh H. Lynch. In the morning, the units in both locations untangled and reorganized themselves from the previous night's confusion and continued their missions.
Colonel Cam cancelled the planned attack on the Suoi Da Special Forces camp, altered those against Tay Ninh and Suoi Cao to diversions, and made destruction of the U.S. units at Dau Teng the 9th Division's main effort. The battle intensified throughout the area the next day. Although the diversions initially confused the Americans, South Vietnamese defenders halted the Suoi Cao attack, and the assault on Tay Ninh never materialized. With most of his combat units in the heavy woods near the Ba Hao northwest of Dau Teng, Cam sent an additional battalion to reinforce one that occupied a prepared fortified stronghold, complete with concrete bunkers and interconnecting tunnels, less than five hundred meters northwest of the western American laager.
The next day, General de Saussure's instructed Meloy to send two companies from his perimeter east to resume their advance north while he led the other three to link up with the eastern blocking company advancing west from its laager with Lynch. The North Vietnamese pinned down Meloy's leading company when it walked into their concealed fire lanes. American artillery support had little effect, and attacks on the left and right flanks failed to dislodge the enemy, and all three companies became pinned down and took heavy casualties. Meloy requested reinforcements as the North Vietnamese sent massive counter assaults against the Americans. Meanwhile, the company moving from the eastern laager ambushed a North Vietnamese platoon as it took position to attack Meloy's beleaguered command, but de Saussure unexplainably ordered them to return to Lynch's position.
9th PLAF Division, Tay Ninh Campaign, 3-4 November 1966
Four hours later, and after three human wave assaults nearly overran Meloy's position, the lead company of a reinforcing battalion landed just to its west. It immediately encountered stiff enemy opposition and suffered heavy casualties, losing both the battalion and company commanders killed, as it failed to break through. Meloy's units made two unsuccessful attempts to fight through the enemy cordon to help the would-be reinforcements make their way to the perimeter. With the situation not improving, General Weyand ordered Maj. Gen. William E. DePuy, who commanded the 1st Division, to take over the battle. DePuy moved his 3d Brigade and supporting units to Soui Da, and ordered de Saussure to have his units break contact and assemble in a clearing south of Meloy's position to allow commanders to reorganize their units back into their battalions, and placed Meloy in charge of all eleven companies.
Meanwhile, the 5th Special Forces Group inserted its Mobile Strike (MIKE) Force to blunt the expected attack on the Suoi Da camp on 3 November. The three companies of ethnic Chinese "Nungs" and their Green Beret advisers ran into trouble. The enemy attacked and overran the strikers immediately after they landed north and east of the camp. Suffering heavy losses, they withdrew to the east bank of the Saigon River.
Back in the main battle, Meloy renewed his efforts to rescue the cut off company and conduct a fighting withdrawal of the other three that had encountered the enemy bunkers. Helicopters inserted the rest of the reinforcing battalion into his perimeter while three companies from Lynch's laager moved to link up with him. On the way, the eastern blocking force company broke through to the trapped company just after it had repelled another determined enemy assault. After circumventing the North Vietnamese bunker-line, the two units entered Meloy's growing perimeter. Two hours later, under the cover of supporting artillery, the Americans disengaged by leapfrogging rearward to a pickup-zone for extraction. When other 196th units later entered the area to recover the dead, they found no North Vietnamese presence.
One could best describe the three-day engagement as having ended in standoff. However, Colonel Cam ordered all of his regiments to withdraw back to War Zone C, and the 9th Division's after action report indicated its principal battalion in the fight had suffered heavy casualties, took six days to reassemble north of the Ba Hoa River, and had been rendered combat ineffective for the next phase of the battle.
U.S. Army mechanized infantry soldiers in action during Operation Attleboro.
Operation ATTLEBORO continued when General DePuy sent the 2d and 3d Brigades of 1st Division in pursuit of the retreating 9th Division. He quickly inserted units close to suspected bases in a large-scale search and destroy mission. When forces made contact, they brought the enemy to battle with overwhelming organic and supporting artillery and aerial firepower before the foe escaped across the border to Cambodian sanctuaries. Early on 6 November, one battalion air assaulted in to the area recently vacated by the 196th Brigade's units while two others landed near that of the MIKE Force battle, and fought a series of encounters that continued into the night. Convinced that they had struck the heart of the 9th Division, General Weyand elevated ATTLEBORO to a Field Force operation and instructed General O'Connor to deploy one 25th Division battalion to the battle area, and returned the three battalions from attachment to 1st Division. On 7 November, as O'Connor's reconstituted 2d Brigade made a sweep north along Route 4. Meanwhile, DePuy sent two more 1st Division battalions northeast of Suoi Da. None of DePuy's five battalions made significant enemy contact in that area, so he ordered one battalion to prepare for extraction for commitment elsewhere. As they waited for the helicopters, an enemy company attacked the northern part of their position, but the Americans drove them back with heavy losses. The North Vietnamese renewed the attack from the northwest, but the Americans again repulsed their assault. Despite his losses, the enemy regimental commander sent a second battalion against the western and southwestern positions. The Communist units, committed piecemeal, never penetrated the perimeter, and subsequently disengaged. Col. Edwin H. Marks' 3d Brigade attempted to cut off their retreat, but the enemy managed to escape. The next day, American soldiers found many dead enemy strewn around their perimeter, and discovered more hidden in a tunnel complex when they found and searched a huge supply base, which may have explained the intensity of the enemy attack.
Operation Attleboro, 6-25 November 1966
Col. Sidney Berry's 1st Brigade moved in to Dau Tieng to secure the 1st Division's forward base while both Lt. Col. Sam S. Walker's 2d and Marks' 3d Brigades conducted cordon and search operations that found more hastily abandoned camps and stores. Although they encountered little significant enemy resistance, the operations accomplished three objectives. They gathered intelligence and rooted out the Viet Cong underground, helped the South Vietnamese government show concern for and win over the local populations, and searched for enemy weapons, equipment and supplies in populated areas. As 1st Division units continued the search for the 9th Division, the 25th Division's 2d Brigade joined ATTLEBORO when it entered War Zone C to search for an enemy regiment. When the 196th Brigade reverted to 25th Division's control, O'Connor ordered it to open the ground supply route from Tay Ninh to Bau Co.
Colonel Cam attempted regain the initiative. Although he had instructed one regiment to protect ammunition and other supplies, it was in full retreat. By the afternoon of 8 November, panic-stricken enemy rear service troops joined the flight so that when the other 9th Division maneuver regiments called for resupply no one remained to deliver it to them. In its effort to strike back, the 9th Division only managed to fire mortars at allied installations and overran a territorial outpost.
As the 1st Division searched west of the Saigon River, O'Connor directed Col. Thomas M. Tarpley of the 2d Brigade, 25th Division, to thrust rapidly north along Route 4 toward the Cambodian border near Katum to provoke an enemy reaction, and possibly locate COSVN and a suspected supply base near the border northwest of Tay Ninh City. The brigade advanced with two mechanized infantry battalions leading on 14 November, and initially found little evidence of enemy presence for five days until one company encountered and overran entrenched Viet Cong. Another mechanized infantry company encountered enemy infantry and anti-aircraft units that halted its advance for several hours, but withdrew during the night. Except for enemy mortars fired at his brigade command post, Tarpley's battalions encountered no other contact. Meanwhile, one of Colonel Marks' battalions encountered a major enemy unit near Bau Co, and the rest of the brigade piled on with air and artillery support. On entering the large enemy base camp the next day the soldiers found it littered with bodies, shattered emplacements, and abandoned training facilities, supply stores, and major hospital.
By the time ATTLEBORO ended on 24 November, eighteen U.S. and three South Vietnamese infantry battalions and twenty-four artillery batteries had participated. The operation forced the 9th Division to abandon its planned attack on Suoi Da to defend its own base areas and supply depots. American commanders believed they had inflicted heavier casualties than the official count of 1,016 dead indicated, given the enemy's practice of removing or hiding his dead after a battle. Although DePuy recommended that the II Field Force continue its pursuit and complete the destruction of the retreating division, Weyend was reluctant to conduct a massive maneuver without sufficient intelligence. He returned units to the operational areas surrounding Saigon to support pacification efforts by routing out guerillas. General Seaman agreed when he resumed the Field Force command at the end of November.
U.S. Army infantrymen conduct an air assault as part of Operation Attleboro.
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