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A Valley Soaked in Rain & Blood

By Mike D. Shepherd
7/30/2015 • Vietnam Magazine

Perhaps no other battleground in Vietnam defined “war of attrition” better than A Shau Valley in the northernmost part of South Vietnam. The mile-wide, 25-mile-long bottomland running north-south along the Laotian border was a conduit for the Ho Chi Minh Trail as it bypassed the Demilitarized Zone. Containing an estimated 20,000 Communist troops by 1967 and a massive store of war supplies, A Shau was a painful thorn in the side of South Vietnam. The enemy used the steep mountainous terrain surrounding the valley to launch battles against every major allied position in the south during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

In his book Hamburger Hill, Samuel Zaffiri wrote that General William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. Forces in South Vietnam, was angry that the press had widely portrayed Tet as a victory for the Communists, even though the Viet Cong had been decimated as a fighting force. But the North Vietnamese Army, secure in its jungle camps along the Cambodian and Laotian borders, remained viable. It was from those NVA base camps that the VC had drawn the weapons and ammunition they used for the Tet attacks.

The NVA had seized the A Shau Valley, just 30 miles south of Khe Sanh combat base, in March 1966 after overrunning an isolated Special Forces camp there. The sparsely populated valley, bisected lengthwise by Route 548, had been fortified by the North Vietnamese with underground bunkers and tunnels and defended by powerful 37mm anti-aircraft cannons, some of them radar controlled. They also had rapid-firing twin-barrel 23mm cannons, 12.7mm heavy machine guns and even tanks. Because of their strength on the ground, the North Vietnamese were essentially left alone excerpt for jet attacks, but given the mountainous terrain—often cloaked by clouds and prone to sudden, violent changes in weather—airstrikes were few.

Map by Baker Vail, www.bakervail.com
Map by Baker Vail, www.bakervail.com

Westmoreland was convinced that the valley had to be hit, and hit hard, and in January 1968 he had ordered the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) to move north from the Central Highlands to support the Marines who were there. General Earle Wheeler, U.S. Army chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supported Westmoreland’s strategy. The division, with 20,000 men, had the most firepower and, with nearly 500 helicopters, five times the airmobility of any division-size unit in Vietnam. Westmoreland believed that if anyone could break the enemy stranglehold on the valley, it was the 1st Air Cav. And he was right. The Cav repulsed three regiments that were trying to reinforce and resupply their comrades in Hue. Then, on January 31, it launched an attack west of Quang Tri City, shattering enemy forces laying siege to the Marine base at Khe Sanh.

At the time, I was a reporter for the Seventh Air Force Combat Radio News Unit in Da Nang and would frequently fly into hot zones to interview ground forces on the importance of Air Force resupply missions and tactical air support. The interviews would go to the media department of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, the organization in charge of U.S. combat forces, and be distributed to the interviewees’ hometown radio stations and outlets such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

I had flown into Khe Sanh to report on the siege. What I remember most is seeing the burned wreckage of Lockheed C-130 Hercules cargo planes strung along the runway—a disturbing sight considering that I was flying on one. When I enlisted in the Air Force in 1966, I was selected to go to the Armed Forces Journalism School in Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, and out of a class of 50 I was the only one with orders for Vietnam.

The Tet Offensive and Khe Sanh had cost the NVA nearly 20,000 men, but they were still pouring into northern South Vietnam. The 1st Air Cav was fully engaged with the NVA at Khe Sanh when its commander, Maj. Gen. John J. Tolson, unveiled plans for Operation Delaware, a massive air assault into the A Shau Valley. Tolson hoped to defeat the NVA there before the coming rainy season hampered air support and socked in his troops.

Beginning the operation on April 19, the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, assaulted into a landing zone near the abandoned South Vietnamese Special Forces camp and an old French airstrip at A Luoi, on the northwest end of the A Shau Valley. Intense flak and machine gun fire over the central valley, however, forced Tolson at the last minute to pick a new landing zone astride a large North Vietnamese road connecting the northern valley with Laos.

The 1st Battalion entered the northwest end of the valley. Although the first lift-ships managed to land safely beside the road, subsequent ones encountered heavy fire. The NVA’s anti-aircraft guns and 37mm weapons could blow a helicopter or jet from the sky at 25,000 feet. In a matter of hours, enemy gunners shot down 10 helicopters and severely damaged 23 others, according to Zaffiri in Hamburger Hill.

Most of the 1st Battalion’s troops managed to get on the ground, but were soon pinned down by NVA fire and burdened by a large number of dead and wounded. Surrounding them were the burnt-out hulks of helicopters with rotors twisted in grotesque shapes. Meanwhile the 7th Cavalry’s 5th Battalion began arriving and came under fire from NVA artillery just across the border in Laos.

After a few hours, the 1st Battalion consolidated its position and was able to carve out a firebase in the valley floor. In bad weather, engineers with chainsaws worked frantically cutting down trees, and infantrymen with machetes hacked away at the bamboo and elephant grass, clearing fields of fire. Then Boeing CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters arrived, hauling 105mm howitzers in slings, large pallets of ammo and artillerymen, who quickly laid in their guns and minutes later began firing back at the NVA gunners in the mountains.

The next morning, the 1st Battalion attacked to the southeast toward the A Luoi airstrip, and the 5th Battalion moved down the highway toward Laos. The 1st Battalion ran into stiff resistance. Snipers perched high in treetops, hidden in caves or lodged behind huge rocks dropped the Americans one at a time. A steady stream of choppers moved in and out of the valley to deal with the wounded and dead. Many of the medevacs loaded with wounded were shot out of the sky or so riddled with bullets that they were forced to crash-land.

The bad weather got worse on April 21. To keep the troops on the ground supplied, helicopter pilots flew missions in the fog, landing and taking off using only their instruments. The next day a violent thunderstorm shook the valley. Heavy rain turned the valley floor into a quagmire, and operations slowed to a crawl.

Still the Air Cav made progress. At the original landing zone in the northern valley, the 3rd Brigade continued to bring in supplies, and the artillerymen kept their guns hot, lobbing shells up at the enemy gun positions on the mountains. At the same time, the 1st Battalion slogged steadily through the ankle-deep mud toward A Luoi.

As Operation Delaware continued, helicopters could not keep pace with the 3rd Brigade’s demands in the valley. Tolson knew he would have to bring in bigger loads of ammunition and equipment, and that meant he needed to reopen the A Luoi airstrip so that the Air Force could set up drop zones for their C-130s.

It stopped raining around April 23. On the 24th, Tolson launched the main attack to capture and set up a base at the airstrip. The 1st Battalion reached A Luoi, and Tolson called in the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, 3rd Brigade. The 1st Brigade of the 1st Air Cav landed on April 25 and secured the runway. Engineering detachments arrived and worked throughout the night and into the next day to get the old French airstrip ready to accept Air Force cargo planes for the first time in two years.

The weather got worse on the morning of the 26th, when Army Chinooks brought an Air Force airlift control team into A Luoi to set up drop zones adjacent to the runway until the airfield could be prepared for the landings. Twelve Air Force C-130 missions were to begin the supply drops. Three C-130As and five C-130Es would load at Cam Ranh, and four C-130Bs would come out of Bien Hoa near Saigon. By noon, each of the 12 C-130s had dropped, while some had made second drops and some were on the ground in Da Nang to refuel and reload for second missions.

With a low ceiling of dense clouds, flying was difficult for helicopters, but it was downright treacherous for the lumbering C-130 cargo planes. The planes were to approach from the northwest, fly down the center of the valley to the drop zone and then depart with a climbing right-hand turn, according to an account by Sam McGowan in Trash Haulers: The Story of the C-130. Within 5 miles to the south of the airstrip are 6,800-foot peaks. The terrain to the north rises some 5,800 feet, and immediately northwest of the runway it rises to 4,000 feet. They couldn’t drop suddenly through the overcast like choppers could. They had to come in under it and then coast for miles just above the ground before they landed, while enemy gunners fired down on them the entire way.

By early afternoon, the Air Force C-130s were scheduled to begin landing and delivering the hundreds of tons of material that U.S. troops would need as they continued the A Shau Valley operation. This was a big Air Force story, and I was ordered to be on the first cargo plane to land at the A Luoi airstrip so I could interview the 1st Cav troopers about the importance of the Air Force resupply missions and tactical air support. I left Da Nang around noon bound for the C-130, but on the way to the terminal I realized that I had forgotten the hometown interview consent forms, which the soldiers had to sign giving me permission to use their names in radio broadcasts. I went back to the office to get them and missed the flight. Sergeant Joe Olexa, my boss, told me to get the next C-130, due to depart in a few hours.

We received word in Da Nang two hours later that the first plane scheduled to land in the A Shau Valley—the one I missed—had been shot down. All six crew members and two Air Force combat photographers, who were also sent to document the mission, perished.

Around 3 p.m., I was on another C-130 bound for the A Shau. As the plane descended steeply into the valley, periodically visible through an occasional hole in the overcast, I couldn’t help but think about the doomed flight I had missed by mere minutes and was greatly relieved when we landed safely. That gave me a burst of energy, and I immediately went in search of a 1st Air Cav trooper to interview. I came across one sitting on a bunker holding a small mirror while shaving with water from his helmet. I startled him as I approached, causing him to nick his chin.

“Damn,” he said.

“Sorry, man.”

I introduced myself and asked, “Would you be interested in taping an interview for the radio stations back in your hometown?”

“Sure.”

As soon as I put the microphone to his mouth, he began to talk freely about the C-130 that had been shot down. He said that the 1st Air Cav had mounted an assault against the Ap Bia Mountain positions that had downed the plane, and after several hours of close combat they had captured the anti-aircraft guns. “Otherwise,” he said, “the plane you came in on today might have been shot down too.” I never mentioned to him that, but for some forgotten paperwork, I would have been on the downed C-130.

Next, I sought out an officer who might provide an overall perspective on Operation Delaware. The 1st Cav—with assistance from the 101st Airborne Division, the 196th Light Infantry Brigade and Army of the Republic of Vietnam troops—had succeeded in retaking the valley.

I spoke with someone more than willing to talk about the operation, Captain Rod Grannemann of New Haven, Missouri, commander of D Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, another 1st Air Cav unit involved in Operation Delaware.

“We’ve been quite successful in digging up caches, finding probably the biggest arms and weapons cache in the Vietnam War,” he said, referring to speculation that the NVA had been stockpiling weapons in the A Shau Valley for a planned invasion of the south. “It consisted of something like over 1,500 rifles, 20 or 30 kinds of ammunition, several 37mm anti-aircraft guns.” The 1st Cav troops also found food, clothing, medicine, petroleum storage areas and a small fleet of Soviet-made trucks. Grannemann added that “about half of the rifles were Soviet-made.”

The die-hard NVA fighters still in A Shau were well-

entrenched, and dislodging them took a closely coordinated effort between tactical air, infantry and artillery.

“The teamwork here in A Shau Valley is probably the best I’ve seen in my tour of Vietnam,” Grannemann said. “The support from the tactical air, the close support we’ve been getting from our own organic artillery, plus the resupply missions dropped by the C-130s have really kept us alive out here. Most of the artillery ammunition has been coming in by air drop.”

He explained the plan that was used to root out the enemy fighters with minimum of casualties and take the weapons they were guarding.

“Initially, of course, we rely on our artillery,” Grannemann said, “because it’s really responsive—30 seconds to a minute we can have artillery fire out there. But of course the light artillery, the 105 to 155 that we’re operating with here in the valley, cannot begin to penetrate this bunker entrenchment work that the enemy has dug in around this place.” To finish the job, fighter planes with 500-, 750- and 2,000-pound bombs were needed, he said, adding, “These guys have been just outstanding in their support. They’ve dropped it right where we wanted it…and as a result casualties were reduced to a very, very minimum.”

If the 1st Cav ran into a large enemy force, it would pull back, call in more airstrikes and then go back in and try to take the territory, Grannemann said. For example, the big arms and weapons cache had been guarded by a security force, so “we got airstrike after airstrike in there from F-100s, F-4Cs,” he said. “These guys really put the eggs right where we wanted them, and when we went back in there about four days later we met no resistance whatsoever.”

Grannemann looked at a row of makeshift white wooden crosses representing the fallen cavalrymen of his company, and he expressed admiration for the esprit de corps of those who had carried out Operation Delaware, contradicting what the pundits were saying about the low morale of American fighters, particularly after the Tet Offensive, which they characterized as a moral victory for Communist forces.

“I’m an old artilleryman, and I transferred to the infantry about seven months ago,” Grannemann continued. “Since I’ve been a company commander, my respect for ‘Joe Snuffy,’ the PFC with the rifle, the guy that really takes the brunt of the war and takes the most casualties, has just grown something tremendously. This man goes out there and plods along day after day, after day, after day, he’s laying his life on the line 24 hours a day.”

He continued: “I’ve got kids in my company from every walk of life back in the States. I’ve got a kid who can’t read or write, I’ve got some rich kids, I’ve got some hippies, you know, the free love and free society type from California, but when it comes to teamwork these guys have one thing in mind and that’s to accomplish the mission of the company and get out of this thing alive.”

As night fell, along with more rain, I curled up on the ground to sleep outside a bunker that was filled to capacity. It was the first time I had been cold in Vietnam. In the middle of the night someone placed a rain poncho over me, and I was able to sleep off and on. The next morning, the air drops resumed when the rain stopped for a while, and I flew out of the valley on a chopper to Da Nang.

The weather improved over the next few days, allowing 100 air drops to be made. Then on May 9, torrential rain with thunder and lightning returned, forcing Tolson to temporarily halt operations in the valley. His troopers hunkered down under any cover they could find, and the A Luoi airstrip slowly began to wash away in the hard rain. Engineers worked frantically to keep the strip open, but it was an impossible job. On May 11,

after another day of heavy rain, Tolson ended Operation Delaware and ordered a withdrawal.

Although Westmoreland considered the operation a success, some might question the wisdom of launching an offensive that required substantial air support at the onset of the rainy season when landing cargo planes through an overcast sky onto a dirt airstrip would be difficult. Perhaps the powers that be felt that the 1st Air Cav, with its ability to conduct lightning assaults, could get the job done before the rains came—and its troopers did, for the most part. They captured tons of enemy war materiel and killed 739 NVA soldiers. But they also suffered 130 of the 142 U.S. and South Vietnamese deaths in the operation, as well as 530 wounded. Helicopter losses totaled two dozen Hueys, two Chinooks and a Sikorsky CH-54 Skycrane.

It could be said that Operation Delaware set the enemy back enough in the A Shau Valley that American and South Vietnamese forces were able to defeat them there nearly one year later in the bloody, meat-grinder battle on Ap Bia, which became known as Hamburger Hill. After that costly victory, Maj. Gen. John Wright, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, the unit primarily involved in taking it, contended that there was nothing to be gained by occupying the hill and tying down a battalion in a defensive role. He ordered U.S. forces to withdraw, and the NVA became entrenched on Ap Bia once again as the frustrating war of attrition continued in A Shau Valley.

Again, to listen to Mike Shepherd’s radio interviews with 1st Cav troopers, click here.

Mike D. Shepherd was a reporter with the Seventh Air Force Combat News Unit in Da Nang. He now writes about his time in Southeast Asia during the war.

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