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Armored Might

By Jon Guttman
October 2018 • Vietnam Magazine

New tanks and armored vehicles tracked down enemy forces

While widely viewed as a guerrilla war, the conflict in Vietnam was really a combination of guerrillas and light infantry trading shots in the bush, supersonic aircraft clashing over the North, and occasions for conventional warfare. Much of Indochina’s mountainous and heavily forested terrain did not lend itself well to armored warfare, but it did have enough roads and open country for tanks, self-propelled guns and armored personnel carriers to come into play. Tanks seldom engaged other tanks, but their guns could crack enemy bunkers or use beehive rounds (steel darts) to devastate enemy infantry.

A latecomer in using armor, the North Vietnamese Army initially fared poorly. Its PT-76 amphibious light tanks were no match for the opposition, while its T-54s fell to better-trained South Vietnamese using M41s, M48s or M72 light anti-tank weapons. The NVA’s painful lessons from failed offensives in 1968 and 1972 bore fruit in the final 1975 offensive: Saigon fell, not to a horde of guerrillas, but to an armored column crashing through the gates of the Presidential Palace.

  • U.S. forces effectively used armor for mutual support, not only with infantry but also with the different forms of mechanized ordnance themselves. During this operation by members of 1st Battalion, 10th Cavalry Regiment, an M48 Patton tank, left, joins an M106 mortar carrier with an M30 4.2-inch mortar on a rotating turntable in the rear bed, and an M113 armored cavalry assault vehicle, as all three advance into Viet Cong-held territory. (Kenneth Hornfield Collection)
  • Among the numerous variations of the M113 armored personnel carrier was the M132, known to its crews as the “Zippo” (after the cigarette lighter). The crew consisted of a driver and an operator for a rotating M10-8 flamethrower and M10 fuel and pressure unit, capable of shooting flames from four 50-gallon tanks to a range of 200 yards for 32 seconds before needing to refuel. Handfuls of them were usually assigned to headquarters units for use as needed, like these M132s of 1st Battalion, 4th Cavalry Regiment, attached to the 1st Infantry Division. ( Dick Swanson/The Life Images Collection/Getty Images)
  • The M113 entered Army service in 1961, featuring light aluminum armor that could protect its crew against small arms fire and shrapnel. In April 1962 the South Vietnamese, right, began receiving M113s, which the shocked Viet Cong dubbed “Green Dragons.” However, the VC quickly learned the M113’s vulnerabilities to mines, rocket propelled grenades and recoilless rifles. Even so, the versatile M113 was used throughout the war. About 85,000 were built and served in more than 50 armies. (History/Granger, NYC)
  • Rushed to Vietnam in January 1969, the 16-ton M551 Sheridan armored recon-naissance/airborne assault vehicle was designed so that it could be parachuted from aircraft and swim rivers. Its M81 gun/launcher fired conventional ammunition or an MGM-51 Shillelagh guided anti-tank missile. Although the M81 had problems and the M551 was vulnerable to RPGs and mines, the vehicle soldiered on with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, left. (AP Photo)
  • The M48 Patton was the workhorse tank of the U.S. Army and Marines and the South Vietnamese. Its 90 mm gun could deal with any armored opposition or fire beehive rounds to destroy enemy infantry. Carrying troops into VC country in 1965, the M48A3, left, was with 1st Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment. On the night of March 3, 1969, this unit was involved in one of the few clashes between U.S. and North Vietnamese tanks, when the NVA 202nd Armored Regiment, trying to attack the Ben Het Special Forces camp, lost two PT-76 tanks. (Getty Images)
  • The M48’s chassis was adapted to a variety of more specialized vehicles, all of which saw use in Vietnam. It could carry bulldozer blades and mine exploders. The M67 shot flames from its barrel. The M88 was an armored recovery vehicle capable of towing disabled M48s. And when an armored column encountered a river it could not ford, the M48A2 AVLB (armored vehicle-launched bridge) was called into action. Carrying a mechanically extended scissors-type bridge totaling 63 feet on its hull, the AVLB could span bodies of water up to 60 feet. (U.S. Army)
  • The M48 was one of the few vehicles in Vietnam whose armor afforded its crew members reasonable protection from their principal enemy: land mines. Therefore American M48s with front-mounted mine rollers, like the one at right in 1966, made daily runs along the oft-mined, two-lane Highway 19 between An Khe and Pleiku. This was much faster than using handheld minesweepers, preventing traffic pileups and reducing the opportunities for enemy ambushes. (History/Granger, NYC)
  • Developed by the Soviet Union as an amphibious scout tank, the PT-76 first saw NVA use against Laotian government troops at Ban Houei Sane on Jan. 23, 1968, after which it supported the Feb. 7 attack on the Lang Vei Special Forces camp. Highly mobile, the thinly armored PT-76 was no match for the M48 in combat and was vulnerable to air attack. The PT-76 at left, knocked out on the Plaine des Jarres in Laos, is being examined by a Thai forward air guide. (Michael Ingham Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University)
  • The Soviet T-54’s well-angled armor and 100 mm gun made it one of the most advanced tanks of its day. The NVA first unleashed its T-54s in February 1971, and they spearheaded its 1972 invasion of the South. A lack of experience with armor initially caused heavy losses—like this captured T-54 in April 1972—but the NVA learned its lesson, and tanks spearheaded its final offensive, when T-54 crewmen were the first to enter the Presidential Palace on April 30, 1975. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

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