Operation ATTLEBORO PHASE 2
A flawed battle plan turned a combat training exercise in War Zone C into a bloody battle during the fall of 1966.
By Colonel Charles K. Nulsen, Jr., U.S. Army (ret.)
What began as a small-scale, limited-objective combat training exercise for the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (LIB) on September 14, 1966, unexpectedly developed into a widespread, protracted, multiorganizational battle before it ended on November 24, 1966. The final troop list included elements of the U.S. 1st and 25th divisions, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, several Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) battalions, a Special Forces-trained "Mike Force" and U.S. air support--22,000 Allied troops in all. It was the largest U.S. operation of the war to that date. On November 6, 1966, the corps-level II Field Force Vietnam took control of the operation until the final action on November 25, 1966.
The 196th LIB was activated in August 1965 at Fort Devens, Mass., as a train-and-retain unit tailored to the concept of light infantry's ability to maneuver. The brigade was ordered to Vietnam in early summer of 1966 and arrived there by sea and air in August 1966. This first combat operation of the 196th LIB--code-named "Attleboro" after the Massachusetts town--was initiated on September 14, 1966, from the brigade's semicompleted base camp in a manioc field just west of Tay Ninh.
Since this was to be the 196th LIB's first battle test, the plan was purposely not a bold one. It called for a series of battalion-size, airmobile operations extending north, east and south of Tay Ninh from Trai Bi to Suoi Da to Dau Tieng, including the Michelin rubber plantation just outside of Dau Tieng (Tri Tam). The area of operations assigned to the 196th was on the southern fringes of the Dong Minh Chau, or War Zone C, as it was popularly called. That area and War Zone D, just to the east and in the southern portion of Phuoc Long province, had been used by the Viet Minh as base areas during the French colonial days and continued to be used as supply, training and administrative zones for the Viet Cong (VC) during the years of U.S. military presence in South Vietnam.
The 196th's combat operations during Attleboro fell into two distinct phases. The first, from September 14 to October 31, 1966, was a series of probing maneuvers resulting in only light and sporadic contact with the VC, but huge amounts of rice and other stores were uncovered and captured.
All three battalions of the 196th participated in one way or another. The 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry (2/1), commanded by Lt. Col. Charles "Pete" Weddle, kicked off the operation by conducting an airmobile assault into an area between Tay Ninh and Dau Tieng on September 14, 1966. Before the 2/1 returned to Tay Ninh, the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry (4/31), commanded by Lt. Col. Hugh Lynch conducted an airmobile operation to the north of 2/l's area of operations on September 18. After light contact with the VC, the battalion returned to base camp on September 25.
On October 6 the 4/31 began search-and-destroy operations in the area previously vacated by the 2/1 on September 21. The battalion stayed on the operation until October 14, encountering a small number of VC and being credited with two VC kills. I commanded the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry (3/21), which was given the mission of securing the 196th's Tay Ninh base camp. This phase of Operation Attleboro was controlled from the Tay Ninh base camp by the 196th commander, Brig. Gen. Edward H. DeSaussure.
Phase II of Attleboro, still under command of the commanding general of the 196th, began November 1 and ended November 5, 1966. Because of the large quantities of rice and other food stuffs captured and airlifted to Dau Tieng in the course of the operation, the commander of the 25th Division placed the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry (1/27) "Wolfhounds" under the operational control of the 186th to help secure the captured supplies and the command post area at Dau Tieng and to be available for combat operations to support the 196th's mission.
The 1/27, commanded by Major Guy S. "Sandy" Meloy, who was to distinguish himself later in that action, was given the mission of securing the airstrip at Dau Tieng and conducting "eagle flights" (special helicopter assault force missions) over the areas where enemy supply caches had been uncovered. Meanwhile, beginning on November 1, the 2/1 and the 4/31 were securing food caches and patrolling some three kilometers to the northwest of Dau Tieng. On November 2 the 2/1 and 4/31 continued saturation patrolling while the 1/27 conducted eagle flights about three kilometers to the north of the 2/1 and 4/31.
On November 3 a scheme of maneuver was worked out by the 196th staff to utilize and coordinate actions of all three committed infantry battalions. The plan called for a company (B/1/27 was selected by Meloy) to block in the north along Highway 19, now deteriorated to an overgrown trail, and the other two battalions to advance north on four axes from positions of the uncovered caches some four kilometers south of the blocking position. Meloy violently objected to the battle plan. He felt that, although it may have looked impressive on the map and seemed logical in briefings, the plan did not take into account the realities of infantry movement in dense, overgrown jungle and the extreme difficulty of maintaining control of many small, separated maneuver elements in that environment.
As it transpired, the next three days exposed the flaws of the battle plan. Battalions were split by four to five kilometers; companies were lost; communications between battalion headquarters and brigade staff were nonexistent during critical times; and in the final phase of the battle, one battalion commander was commanding 11 infantry companies while another battalion commander was left to command only his headquarters elements.
The operation kicked off at 0900 hours on November 3, when the 2/1 and 4/31 attacked along four axes, designated as Red, Blue, White and Purple. Because of the extremely difficult terrain in which the units were working, the attacking units were not mutually supporting. At 0922, B Company, 1/27, was airmobiled into a landing zone (LZ) to the east of the established blocking position. Meanwhile, C Company, 1/27, was airlifted into an LZ approximately four kilometers to the west of the B/1/27 blocking position. The plan called for a linkup of these two companies of the 1/27.
At 0950, C/1/27 landed in a cold LZ (no enemy action apparent) and moved 500 meters north through high elephant grass to the edge of a wood line. The company commander, Captain Frederick H. Henderson, sent a point patrol to the northeast into the woods to find the trail on which they were supposed to guide. That trail became known as "Ghost Town Trail." (The individual stories of the fighting and heroism along the trail were described in S.L.A. Marshall's book Ambush: The Battle of Dau Tieng.) After moving through the woods 400 meters to the north, the point squad of C/1/27 came under small-arms and automatic-weapons fire. The remainder of the C/1/27, which was still moving through the elephant grass, also came under fire. That initial encounter was the start of heavy, close-in fighting, which was typical during the rest of Attleboro. C Company, 1/27, and 1/27 did not advance much farther during this phase of Attleboro. A Company, 1/27, remained on security around the Dau Tieng airstrip.
It was later determined that the battalion had hit the Recon Company of the 9th Viet Cong Division. During the hours that followed, the C/1/27 tried to move into a defensive position and evacuate their wounded before continuing the attack. By 1210 the company had sustained six killed in action and six wounded. One of the casualties was Captain Henderson. Lieutenant Billy B. Powers, the 2nd platoon leader, became company commander. Around 1200 Major Meloy, who had been overhead in his command helicopter, came in low on the LZ and jumped from the chopper when it was 5 feet off the ground. He then moved up to the wounded Captain Henderson. After talking to the seriously wounded company commander, Meloy radioed and requested his helicopter support company, the "Hornets," commanded by Major Jim Patterson, to evacuate Henderson.
The VC had the advantage of firing from well-prepared positions along firing lanes that were close to the ground, well-concealed and hard to spot. They had also placed snipers high in the trees, tied to the trunks--either to keep them from leaving their firing position or to prevent them from falling out of the trees if they were hit. Tree snipers were to cause their fair share of U.S. casualties during the next three days. With Major Meloy on the ground taking personal control of the fighting and Captain Henderson critically wounded, the buildup of troops in the area continued. (Captain Henderson died after the helicopter that had been summoned to lift him out was shot down trying to land on the LZ.)
A Company, l/27, commanded by Captain Richard B. Cole, was relieved of its security mission, airlifted from Dau Tieng and ordered to land and attack west of the C/1/27 and roll up the VC right flank. After landing, the A/1/27 linked up with the C/1/27 at 1245. At that point, General DeSaussure called Major Meloy over the command net and asked, "Do you need more troops?" The reply was an emphatic, "Yes, sir!" Whereupon General DeSaussure ordered C Company of the 3/21, commanded by Captain Russell DeVries, to airmobile from the base camp at Tay Ninh to support the 1/27. C Company, 3/21, was first helicoptered to Dau Tieng, then to an LZ in the vicinity of the 1/27--the first lift landing at 1405 and the last lift at 1515--and was ordered to attack east of the C/1/27. The first element of the C/3/21 linked up with the 1/27 at 1448.
Meanwhile, Meloy's B Company, commanded by Captain Robert P. Garrett, had already landed at 0921 on an LZ some four kilometers to the east of the rest of battalion and was heading northwest toward the blocking position established in the operations order. The LZ was cold, but after B Company had moved on a few kilometers they discovered an abandoned fortified VC village.
At 1120, the 2/1, composed of B and C Companies, 2/1, and commanded by the battalion S-3, Major Ed Stevens, was attacking on Red Axis north and northwest toward the blocking position, and encountered a small VC outpost protected by a Claymore mine. After neutralizing this position, at 1600 the 2/1 was ordered to reinforce the 1/27 and was ................continued